Joanne Thomas: Women's economic parity vital in harassment fight

TODAY the TUC chooses not to focus on the Harvey Weinsteins of this world. They've already taken too much from us.

A march for womens rights in 1975 under the TUC banner. Women still make up the majority of low-paid workers in the UK.
A march for womens rights in 1975 under the TUC banner. Women still make up the majority of low-paid workers in the UK.

Instead this evening, at Dewsbury Town Hall, we will be celebrating the anniversary of some Yorkshire lasses who organised Britain’s first strike led by women.

The 1875 Dewsbury and Batley Women Weavers’ strike was instigated by an all-female strike committee representing 25,000 workers across 50 mills, in response to a co-ordinated wage cut from the factory owners.It was the first time in British history that male and female workers had been represented solely by women. And we should remember it as a symbol of women’s empowerment as relevant today as it was then.

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#MeToo and #TimesUp have dominated the news cycles of late. It is right that this cartel of powerful, entitled, abusive Hollywood men is broken down, and that the voices of the victims are heard. But this is not a Hollywood-only problem, and it is not just sexual harassment that women face.

Members of the Dewsbury strike committee from the 19th century.

Hundreds of thousands of low-paid women across all parts of the economy, from hospitality, to catering, to white collar jobs, face harassment and exploitation that is both sexual and economic. Women, especially migrant women, are more likely to be in low paid, precarious or gig economy work, as well as being underemployed with part time jobs. With fewer working rights, this makes them more at risk from bad managers who will withhold shifts, ‘zero’ them out of their zero hours contract or outright harass them in both small and large ways.

TUC research also shows that these same women, who face economic harassment on a daily basis, face equal levels of sexual harassment in their jobs and workplaces. These issues are linked, and they don’t stop at Hollywood.

This is why International Women’s Day started over 100 years ago. It grew out the protests of early 20th century women who found themselves united as they faced discrimination in factories, and no longer isolated in their suffering at home.

It was through this community and trust in one another that women discovered the true extent of their discrimination: working longer hours than men for less pay, surrendering that pay to husbands at the end of the week, being allocated the most dangerous machinery jobs, and the constant sexual exploitation by foremen and managers.

Members of the Dewsbury strike committee from the 19th century.

Some of this sounds like it happened only yesterday. Much like the silence that was finally broken around Harvey Weinstein last year, early 20th century working women found themselves experiencing the same exploitation as one another, and decided enough was enough.

In New York in 1909, the first National Women’s Day march was declared, commemorating working women who had struck for safer working conditions and better pay. In Britain, women chainmakers in Cradley Heath, in the West Midlands, and who were led by Bradford Suffragette Julia Varley, went on strike in 1910 for 10 weeks to force employers to pay a minimum wage. And in London in 1971, around 5,000 women demonstrated on International Women’s Day, demanding childcare, equal opportunities and easier access to safe abortion.

So why do these working class women’s strikes matter to us today?

It’s because, as Steph McGovern of BBC Breakfast has suggested, the women’s equality movement is at risk of forgetting the vast majority of working women in this country who are exploited economically in their payslips and harassed by their co-workers, and for whom there is no easy solution.

We see this in the valid furore around Carrie Gracie’s BBC salary, which risks excluding the hundreds of agency workers (disproportionately women) who clean the BBC’s offices. It risks forgetting the majority of women working low paid exploitative jobs in hospitality.

According to Unite’s “Not on the Menu” survey of hospitality workers, 89 per cent of respondents said they had experienced one or more incidents of sexual harassment in their working life; 56.3 per cent said they had been targeted by a member of the public and 22.7 per cent said they had been harassed by a manager. When you combine this with so called ‘flexible’ zero hours contracts, which only seem flexible for the employer, and which disproportionately are occupied by women with childcare or other responsibilities, it is no wonder working women are still mad as hell.

It is no wonder to me that women are leading the Picturehouse/Cineworld dispute in asking for maternity and sick pay, and the Living Wage, against CEO Mooky Greidinger who earns £575 an hour. It is no wonder to me that university lecturers’ decision to strike this month is led by women, against mostly male vice chancellors, who have no compunction in telling UCU that the universities have mismanaged the pension scheme but the staff will have to take the hit.

And it is no wonder that the male CEO of Northern Rail cannot understand RMT when it explains how vital it is to have a guard on a train for all the women working irregular shifts and juggling caring responsibilities.

So I’m thankful to the #MeToo. movement, but tonight we as a trade union movement will be remembering why working class women need International Women’s Day as a focal point for their struggle against economic and sexual exploitation. Without economic equality for women, we will never be free from harassment.

Joanne Thomas is chair of the TUC Yorkshire & Humber region, and Divisional Secretary of the Usdaw union. Tonight’s event starts at 6pm at Dewsbury Town Hall.