Women and the Union Struggle for Change Essay

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Women and the Union: Struggle for Change

Women's rights have enjoyed an increasingly prominent position in society and the workplace since the suffragettes managed to gain the vote for women. Acknowledging the intelligence and power of women as sufficient to allow them voting rights has led to other allowances as well. Throughout the 20th century, this struggle has not been an easy one, but it has been one that has gained steady ground through the decades. Since the 1970s, women have found themselves increasingly involved in unions, creating committees and combining forces to obtain a stronger position within unions and thus, by association, within the workplace and society in general. This has also become true on a global level, where globalization has created a much wider platform upon which women can make their voices heard.

White (1993, p. 123) notes that, although unions are by nature of concern to women and the way in which their rights are promoted in the workplace, many women's groups have been working inside these unions themselves to fortify their position and improve their status. Two specific manifestations of such organizing have been women's committees and conferences, with the former being critically important for women's activities within unions. Indeed, committees serve as the basis for raising issues, press for change, and making demands that are of concern to women within unions. Some activities involving women's committees within unions include organizing conferences and meetings, offering educational information, lobbying government, writing briefs on women's issues, among a myriad others.

The earliest women's committee was the Ontario Federation of Labour (White, 1993, p. 124), which was first set up as a women's committee in 1961, although it did not last long. Later in the 1960s, the union was absorbed into the all-male Human Rights Committee, consisting of six members. It was during the 1970s that women's committees began to be prominently established within unions. The B.C. Federation, for example, established its first women's committee in 1970. The Quebec Federation followed with its own in 1972, while the Canadian Labour Congress and the Confederation des syndicats nationaux established its women's committee in 1974. The United Nurses of Alberta does not have a women's committee, since its membership consists of 98% women, which makes a targeted women's committee somewhat redundant. White (1993, p. 126) notes that, by the end of 1981, all the public sector unions featured in her study had women's committees included in their agendas, with the B.C. Government Employees Union and the Newfoundland Association of Public Employees being the first to establish women's committees in 1975.

Women's committees generally function on more than one level, functioning at the local, component, regional, provincial, or national levels. They also vary in nature according to the nature of the unions within which they function. In the United Steelworkers, for example, the Ontario district office initiated a women's committee with a call for active women to meet and act as advisory to the district director.

Women's committees have also begun to play an important role in the global arena. One important effect of this for women has been an increase in self-esteem and confidence, as well as developing their general assertiveness in the workplace and union contexts, while also moving into leadership positions (Briskin, 1999, p. 544). When observed in the global context, it is interesting to study different countries and the way in which their social context affects the union participation of women. In Sweden, for example, women who participate in unions tend not to organize separately, which reflects a national emphasis on common interests for men and women. In Canada, on the other hand, women have managed to effectively organize separately. This, in turn, reflects the ideology about gender equality that has existed in this country (Briskin, 1999, p. 546).

Globalization has also meant significant changes in the workplace structure, which also means different roles for women within these structure. There has, for example, been an increase in calls for labor flexibility and competitive wage bargaining, within which women, committees, and unions have played a central role (Briskin, 1999, p. 547). As a result, unions are also required to resist isolationism, while at the same time embracing coalitions and alliances to promote the interests of their members on a global scale.

The story for Asian countries such as Thailand, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong are somewhat darker from the viewpoint of the many young women that drive the growing economies of these countries. Most of them do not even have the most basic labor rights, including the right to strike or the right to a minimum wage. Unionization is also rare, with less than 20% of the labor force having this privilege in the name of protecting "essential industries" and in the interest of promoting maximum economic growth for these countries (Yue, 1986).

Where women are unionized, their participation in these union hierarchies is minimal, even in those unions where female membership is in the majority. Indeed, it was only in 1984 that the first woman was appointed to executive-secretary in a Singapore industrial union. Nevertheless, some women within these unions have managed to organize themselves separately to successfully wage labor battles against the oppressing forces of their government and their employers. Indeed, Yue (1986) states that South Korean female workers at three companies, namely Y.H. Textile, Control Data, and Daewoo have notably struggled against oppressive labor practices, even with the illegalization of strikes and collective bargaining under the National Defence Act. In this way, women have managed to organize against oppressive practices by standing together to struggle for their rights as equal human beings.

It is unfortunate, in the global context of today, that many women still suffer the inequalities and injustices mentioned above. This is also the case referred to by Rajalakshmi (1999). The author refers to an export-processing zone (EPZ) near Delhi, where the price workers pay for the economic growth of the country is as steep as that mentioned above, in the case of eastern countries, where women have few or no rights. Indeed, the author describes appalling conditions, where 4,000 women have no choice but to subject themselves to tight security, humiliating body searches, and dangerous conditions, with the only alternative being starvation. Furthermore, there are no health or maternity benefits. The effect of the lack of unionization or women's committees is also evident in the lack of concealment by employers, who are very frank about how "easy" it is to control women.

The article by Yue, however, indicates that, should these women make the decision to unionize and form committees to change their conditions, the sheer number of protestors would most likely be able to effect change. The conditions suffered by these women underline the importance of global unions, where women form international connections in order to ensure equal rights for all.

A more rosy picture is painted by Chandler and Jones (2003), who focus on a group of equally disadvantage women who successfully unionized and campaigned for better conditions not only for themselves, but also for others in a similar situation on a global scale. The authors emphasize the importance of activism within an organizing union in ensuring change for conditions such as those mentioned above (Chandler and Jones, 2003, p. 255).

Where globalization is the oppressive force, as seen above, the authors suggest that opportunity or agency within these oppressive structures can play an important role in finally removing such oppressing forces to create better conditions for female workers. Importantly, the authors emphasize the mental attitude of female immigrants to the United States, who found wildly disparate conditions in the United States labor market, but who nonetheless maintained a mental attitude towards the ability to effect change and obtain dignity for themselves and others like them. By contrast, those working…[continue]

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