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From meisenscher@igc.org Wed Feb 9 12:24:58 2000
Date: Tue, 8 Feb 2000 20:23:23 -0600 (CST)
From: Michael Eisenscher <meisenscher@igc.org>
Subject: Organizing Women Workers
Article: 88472
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
X-UIDL: e2602fd4d273f2199b9c607704eab0d7

Organizing Women

By Elizabeth Goodson, ILO Central and Eastern European Team, 8 February 2000

Giving Women a Voice

As increasing numbers of women join the formal workforce, more and more women are joining trade unions or are potential members. Also, women are facing other trends as enterprises are closed or displaced to other countries or regions. Women are approximately 33 percent of the global trade union membership yet they represent a mere one percent of the governing bodies of unions.

Clearly women have not achieved equal status with men within the trade union movement. If trade unions are to be credible to women regarding their commitment to promoting equality as a basic human right, they must be able to show that equality is an integral part of their own policies and structures

Traditional Attitudes

The roles of men and women in society reflect social differences due to tradition, culture, and education which have defined the particular role women play in society. Unions have to make serious efforts to analyze these differences in consultation with their women membership and how to fully integrate women in union structures through promoting their participation at all levels. This requires raising awareness among men and women members and leaders.

Lack of Women's Participation

There are fundamental barriers to women's participation in trade unions which are at the base of difficulties unions face in organizing women:

  • stereotyped ideas about women's abilities, preferences and roles
  • discouragement or hostile reactions from colleagues or family members
  • informal procedures for nomination/appointments relying on male networks
  • entrenched organizational rules and bureaucratic structures which hamper women's involvement and advancement
  • burden of family responsibilities
  • high proportion of women who work part-time
  • women's lack of self confidence or lack of interest in unions which do not seem to meet their priority concerns

Organizing Women

Unions which are seriously committed to meeting the needs of their membership and to addressing issues to attract new membership must devise strategies to attract them to the union and find ways to overcome some of the difficulties mentioned above. But first unions have to recognize the real situation.

Specific regional and national contexts

Every region has specific problems and its own story. To address strategies on how to organize women in unions, this context has to be well understood at the national level. To explain union efforts and development in forging alliances and sharing information, one example is to be found in the Central and Eastern European region, which over the past ten years has been in a process of transition.

During the transformation from *full* employment in the 1980's to a market economy in the 1990's, many jobs were lost in the region *many of those affecting women who were the first to feel discriminated against. Ethnic strife has also rendered many countries vulnerable and trade and commerce have suffered. Women have found themselves suddenly in a society where they did not feel represented or protected as they were before the fall of the Berlin wall. The lessons learned in this transition, including advantages and disadvantages in the democratization process, have to be understood. First trade unions have had to adapt and find strategies to help influence democratic changes, and they have been instrumental in mitigating many areas adverse to workers. However, women also must become more active partners in this process. But to do this, they must be more active in union policy and decision-making.

Analyze the facts

Unions must look at the real facts. Data shows that women are often underpaid by 30-40 percent in relation to men, and unions must strive to investigate the figures of membership in their own ranks. However first they must know how many women are in their own unions (not just estimates) and what and where the potential women members might be.

At the same time, unions must analyse how women are represented within their union structures and ensure that policies and action plans are put into practice which give support to meeting the needs of women and involving them actively at all levels in union activities.

Involving women in organizing strategies

Once women have a voice and are represented within the union, they themselves influence organizing campaigns and strategies. There are many examples coming from countries throughout the world and the participants in this Forum should share these experiences with us. Women flourish best when they receive support through groups. Often organizing is best done with the solidarity help of networks: local, national, regional, international.

Trade Union Networks

Central and Eastern European Trade Union Women's Networks

Attempts have recently been undertaken by the international trade union movement (for example, ICFTU and International Trade Secretariats) to strengthen women's participation in the Central and Eastern European region.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions' has taken action to help unions develop policies, strategies to address organizing women through their programme in Central and Eastern Europe. From 28-30 January, 2000, the ICFTU held a Women's Conference in collaboration with the ILO in Hungary with the participation of trade union confederations working with the ICFTU from 15 countries which will be working together over the next two years to promote gender specific policy within the trade unions of Central and Eastern Europe.

There will be a collection of data, both from within the unions and with the help of a research correspondent in each country, to collect data on women in the union, the labour market and society. There will be information on workers' rights (which include women's rights as a fundamental right), to discuss techniques and to better devise strategies to organize women workers.

Strategies will be devised to mainstream gender equality at all levels, through education and training of both men and women on gender equality issues, and also to develop and strengthen national and international networks.

Parallel to this is another working group under the auspices of ICFTU/ETUCO which has been developing gender equality materials for the Central and Eastern European Region, again in a meeting in Hungary from 31 January - 2 February, 2000. Once this material is complete, it will be used throughout the region in workers' education programmes.

East- East Trade Union Networks

The central objective of these networks and training projects sponsored by the trade union movement in the region, particularly through the ICFTU/ETUCO project (building networks for trade union activists working in workers' education, trade union rights, European Accession, organizing, gender equality) is to transform unions to be more democratic and build capacity within the unions. They can also serve to make unions women friendly.

Essential linkages: Organizing and Union Structure

Many unions are already taking steps to promote participation of women at all levels of the union structure. Some unions appoint women or support election of women at local, regional, national and congress levels. Others have also elected or appointed women to the education and training divisions, organization, negotiation and collective bargaining, occupational health and safety and environment committees, or at the highest level in reserved places on the Executive Board, where they can make an impact on a wide range of issues. But this is a slow process as the first collection of data has shown. Few women are in decision-making positions in trade unions, and union structure and policy on gender equality need to be strengthened.

Organizing women is linked closely with union structure and policy. Thus unless women have a voice, organizing campaigns may not adequately address issues which attract women members.

Social Justice

The union has a mandate to defend social justice. This is vitally important to the women entering the workforce who face numerous obstacles due to discrimination and other factors. But unions have to be the first to put into practice what they preach, thus the very important relationship between women's participation, organizing and union structure and policy.

A woman-friendly union is one that reflects the interests of their members and relates to the larger community. And women who participate actively throughout the union structure, can articulate the issues which promote recruitment, not only of women, but also inevitably of men. So the message is that unions that promote women's participation also are active in defending social justice. And this attracts members*men, women and youth. Thus a woman- friendly union ensures that all members have a future and voice in the union.

For further information,

Gender Equality: A Guide to Collective Bargaining, Shauna Olney, et.al, ILO, 1998 (see text on Bureau for Workers' Activities web site, publications, news)

Women in Trade Unions: Organizing the Unorganized, Margaret Hosmer Martens and Swasti Mitter, ILO, 1994.

Elizabeth Goodson
ILO Central and Eastern European Team
Mozsar utca 14
H - 1066 Budapest
phone: +36 1- 301 49 00 fax: +36 1- 353 36 83