By Maria Exall
The concept of solidarity in the labour movement is still too often seen as a male preserve. It reflects the view in wider society of political authority as commonly male, and the exercising of political power as a male activity. This prevailing view is the norm in the media, in education, in sport and in wider civil society.
Political sexism is backed up by, and from the same misogynist root as, heterosexism, from which also stem homophobia and transphobia.
Yet the unity of the working class is necessary to challenge the bosses. Our movement has to be inclusive to be strong and therefore must represent the diversity of the whole class, showing solidarity with black, LGBTQ, disabled and women workers.
Challenging sexism, then, is most effectively done by women working together within the movement, supported by other activists who understand that union strength is built by valuing the diversity of our movement.
When women trade union activists take a strong stance on industrial issues in male dominated workplaces they can expect sexism from both management and colleagues. Misogyny and the resentment that goes with it exist at a very deep level. Only progressive trade union organisation can root it out.
There has been a sea change in attitudes over the past few decades within the trade unions which to a certain extent mirrors the change in society’s attitudes, but there are many instances of progress that have happened well in advance of general social change.
Positive initiatives within the Labour Party in the 1980s helped to create the current consensus on LGBTQ rights and equality in gender representation. Initiatives such as quotas for women’s representation and all-women shortlists were brought in by activists in the trade unions.
Unions should reflect grassroots changes in the workplace and community through their democratic structures. This should include the way women workers are challenging persistent discrimination, and the growing visibility of LGBTQ workers, although sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of bigotry remain a significant problem.
Despite massive advances in the unions (most major unions have equalities structures and comprehensive formal equality policy), the prevailing conception of solidarity in our current labour movement is still often expressed in an exclusive “male” way. Too often, union strength is expressed as (and reduced to) macho posturing; and working class solidarity is defined as male bonding, excluding working class women’s experiences.
Instead of the militancy of class-conscious confrontation with our bosses, this type of “solidarity” is simply shallow bravado: an outburst in a battle which will only end in tactical withdrawal.
The misplaced idea of union strength as “male” affects LGBT+ trade unionists, whether they are men or women. The unthinking prejudices people have about gay and bisexual men are as inappropriate to the stereotypical images they have of political leadership as the ones applying to women. As for lesbians and bisexual women, we are invisible, and when we are not we are often seen as threatening and strange. And we still have a long way to go to achieve equality for trans* workers within the movement
The sexism of bourgeois society can pervade the labour movement unless it is challenged. Anxieties about changing gender roles, the all-too-common experiences of sexual and domestic violence can bring things to a head, if the patriarchal hierarchy of leadership remains uncriticised.
Too often the defensiveness of the sexists is expressed in ridicule of those of us who would challenge them. We can be accused of being divisive, of concentrating on fringe issues, of being more interested in fluffy things than the distinctly hard class struggle. The division between “fringe issues” (i.e. equality), and “bread and butter” issues is, of course, false. This is as true in a leftwing political organisation as it is in a trade union.
If you are picked on by your boss or a fellow worker for being a woman, or hounded out of your job for being gay — is that an equality issue or a bread and butter issue? If you are sexually harassed, or experience domestic violence from someone who is a political leader in your organisation or a comrade — is that a “fringe issue” or one that goes to the heart of what it is to be a socialist?
The way we will achieve class unity is not through writing off discrimination as a “fringe issue”, but through challenging bigotry.
Maria Exall works for British Telecom in London and is a member of the Communication Workers’ Union and the TUC LGBT Committee