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TUC Women’s Conference 6-8 March 2024

A New Deal for Women. That was the theme of this year’s TUC Women’s Conference, although one delegate commented: “What New Deal? Did we ever have an Old Deal?!”

A New Deal for Women. That was the theme of this year’s TUC Women’s Conference, although one delegate commented: “What New Deal? Did we ever have an Old Deal?!”

This summed up pretty much the mood of all 293 delegates from the various unions represented at the Conference. As over the couple of days of Conference we heard that, despite a lot of progress having been made, on many issues women still bear the brunt, and black women even more disproportionately, especially in the current cost-of-living crisis.

The conference opened with the Chair’s address (Deborah Raey, Aslef union – Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen) who reported on the work the TUC Women’s Committee had been and will be focusing on for 2023-2024, in particular continuing on: tackling and preventing all forms of violence against women and girls in workplaces and in our movement. She explained that Aslef had run an internal survey, and no surprise, the details were used in the media to smear the union whilst taking strike action, nevertheless, the union is proud to focus on the need for culture change within the workplace and within their ranks.

Matt Wrack, General Secretary, FBU – Fire Brigades Union, and current President of the TUC, also went into more detail in his speech, saying there are some very high-profile reports to face up to and bringing shame on our movement, a failure to build an inclusive movement. Recent reports in media, shocking incidents of abuse, a failure of management structure to take appropriate action. Lack of confidence, also not reporting as no trust action will be taken by management. And this couldn’t be divorced from politics. Since 2010, the government minister for the Fire Rescue Service no longer told the Service how to recruit/vet and the first teams to be scrapped were the ones dealing with Equality & Diversity, nevertheless that doesn’t excuse the situation. The FBU commissioned its own research and found that 30% reported some form of inappropriate behaviour within the union and also the lack of confidence to report it. Some who reported complaints ended up being targeted/subject to counter-complaints, got worn out and stepped back from being active. The FBU have accepted the report in full.

The panel debate on the Wednesday afternoon also focused on this crucial subject.

Kate Bell, TUC Assistant General Secretary, informed the conference that the TUC will be carrying out its own climate assessment.

Annette Mansell-Green of the BDA (British Dental Association), reported on the TUC working group having been set up after a high-profile case within one of the affiliates. Some affiliates have been very brave and run internal surveys to try to uncover what is happening within their own unions. She said the TUC is against Non-Disclosure Agreements and also that more women in leadership (most members in trade unions are women) are needed to affect culture change.

Maria Exall from the CWU – Communication Workers’ Union, spoke about the toolkit they developed for members and activists under the ‘Speak Up, Speak Out’ campaign, with mandatory training from the top down being rolled out for all those to be done within 6 months of taking up post. Also, a new complaints procedure was set up. From an LGBT+ perspective, she mentioned that 7 in 10 experience unwanted behaviour in the workplace and 1 in 8 serious sexual harassment including rape. Members reported non-reporting at times for fear of being outed.

Michelle Codrington-Rogers (from the NASUWT – The Teachers’ Union) explained how black women are often disproportionately affected and the importance of knowing how intersectionality works. She stressed the importance of the focus group on Friday at conference for any woman who self-identified as black on ‘Black women’s experiences of workplace sexual harassment’. The TUC has commissioned Professor Gill Kirton (Queen Mary University of London) and Dr Cécile Guillaume (University of Surrey) to carry out research to illuminate Black women’s specific experiences that are frequently invisible or marginalised within the conversation about how to tackle and prevent workplace sexual harassment.

Sue Ferns (Prospect union) also told conference that a code of conduct had been introduced for staff and their national executive committee and that training was being rolled, as well as a firm commitment against non-disclosure agreements.

In the discussion, Kate also came back and told conference that also 7 in 10 disabled women reported suffering sexual harassment. Questions discussed/answered were what could be done to encourage reporting, such as the most important factor to be found ‘listening’; what proactive steps could be taken to provide safe spaces within the trade union movement, such as self-organisation, the importance of confidentiality, for formal structures to enable and provide that safe space and being aware that not all experience the same issues; how to ensure it is a priority when there may be so many conflicting priorities, but it is actually a key priority as currently it is ‘excluding’, a third of the movement ‘may get it, another third is willing and knowing that something needs doing but there is still that third that may think ‘bloody hell’ and may see equality and diversity still as an add-on. The panel concluded that the work had started from a crisis in the movement but now work to be carried on as it would be shameful if nothing is done about this.

Conference then went on to discuss in more detail around motions tackling all forms of violence against women and girls. Numerous examples were given in speeches of unwanted behaviour witnessed or experienced in the workplace.

One composite focused specifically on ‘Empowering and including women across our trade union movement’, recognising that, collectively, the trade union movement still has a long way to go until women are fairly represented, especially at senior levels and called on the TUC and the TUC Women’s Committee to play an active role in inspiring and helping women to get more involved in our vital work.

On Thursday morning, we started with a panel debate on the escalating violence in Gaza, the occupation of Palestine and solidarity from trade union women. Hearing about the harrowing situation on the ground from Aisheh (Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions) giving stark figures of 60,000 pregnant women being amongst those displaced, many miscarrying from hunger and lack of water.  Sarah from the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem gave an update on their work also. Aisheh finished off with a chilling closing remark, thanking the TUC for being able to be with us today as she may not be there a next time.

After this panel discussion the conference went on to discuss issues around ‘Women’s rights at work’, such as the fact there is also a pension gap as a result of multiple factors including the gender pay gap and unpaid caring responsibilities, and the importance of access to flexible working.

A next session had motions focusing on issues, some general, some sector specific, on ‘Organising women in the workplace’ such as bereavement leave and pay and maternity provision and supporting women’s maternal and mental health. In many speeches, women very bravely shared their personal experiences, of still-births and miscarriages and rather than being supported having been either bullied into returning to work or being sanctioned under draconian absence management policies.

There was a session with motions focusing on ‘the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on women, Childcare and recognising the value and impact of paid and unpaid care’. Conference recognised that responsibility of juggling paid work with caring for children and other dependent family members falls disproportionally on women within our society and that the increase in the cost of childcare is impacting negatively on women in work. The current cost of living crisis is pushing families into poverty, and it is widely known that this disproportionately affects women, BAEM, disabled and migrant workers, and other groups who already face inequality in our society. Good quality childcare is often too expensive and/or not accessible to many working parents. Childcare costs take up nearly half of women’s average earnings and has become unaffordable for many women due to the additional pressure of the cost-of-living crisis. The lack of affordable childcare is forcing many women to either reduce their working hours or leave the workforce altogether, which might lead to the widening of the gender pay and pension gap.

The conference then went on to focus on further important issues around ‘Women’s health in the workplace’.

One of the two emergency motions submitted was on ‘Abortion law and prosecutions’, recognising the dramatic rise of women facing prosecution under archaic abortion laws in England and Wales. Compare this to the situation in France, where in the same week abortion was enshrined as a constitutional right and the Eiffel Tower was lit up with the words ‘Mon corps, Mon choix’ – ‘My body, My choice’.

Further motions centred around the ever-important issue of menopause in the workplace (so much that needs addressing still by employers), menstruation and related health conditions. One delegate from the POA – Prison Officers’ Association, pointed out the lack of provision in some estates and women having to carry dirty sanitary towels around all day and take them home and that period products should be provided (other delegates adding that this is not a luxury product), just like toilet and soap to be available to enable women’s dignity at work. Another delegate in the rail industry shared her experience of lack of toilet facilities (on trains and stations) and people having to take time off at times of heavy bleeding, or even having to hide in bushes to change. There feels to be still too much misunderstanding and even stigma around these issues and women’s health continues to wrongly often be considered under capability policies. One delegate commented getting a supportive line manager is a bit like winning the lottery!

A total of 46 motions and 2 emergency motions were carried (there were 11 composites – ie motions that were ‘merged’ and taken as one composited motion because they were dealing with the same subject/same actions), and the motion chosen to go forward from this Women’s Conference to the main TUC Congress (all equalities conference vote for one motion to go forward) was the composite motion on ‘Childcare’.

You can read the Women’s Committee Report to Conference 2024

You can read all the motions/composites 2024 TUC Womens Conference Final Agenda

And the two emergency motions Emergency Motions TUCWC242

As well as an address to conference by TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak, Anneliese Dodds, the Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, also gave a keynote speech. She pledged that Labour would enact dual discrimination provisions within the Equality Act which will especially help women and anyone with intersecting protected characteristics.

There were also a range of interesting fringe meetings and workshops to choose from.

The fringe meeting I attended on Thursday was organised by the Trade Union Coordinating Group (TUCG – to which Napo is affiliated) on ‘Winning for Women in the Workplace’.  One of the speakers, from the FBU union, commented on the postcode lottery that existed in the Fire Service around maternity provisions and them being wholly inadequate, in terms of occupational hazards and recruitment, retention and inclusion. She commented you get better treated breaking a leg than getting pregnant! The FBU’s campaign ‘Fight for 52’ has seen important wins around increasing the maternity provisions with one Fire Services offering 54 weeks however that the fight continues for all services to have decent maternity provisions where they still fall below the 52 weeks.

The workshop I attended on Friday was organised by the Women’s Budget Group, and for those, and I consider myself to be one, who might think ‘The Budget’ and statistics and figures may be way above their heads or too complicated to even try to comprehend, this session demystified all that and gave a fascinating insight on what the Chancellor’s budget actually meant for women. You can see their presentation with more details Spring budget 2024 and LDP pesentation TUCWC

Consequently, they are offering some free online sessions looking at how activists can use local data to build campaigns. The sessions are linked, but equally valuable as standalone sessions if you are only able to attend one.

  • Session 1: Discovering Data – 18th March, 1PM -3 PM OR  21st March, 6:30 PM- 8:30 PM
  • Session 2: Delving into Data – 3rd April, 6:30 pm- 8:30 PM OR  4th April, 1PM – 3PM
  • Session 3: Local Labour Data -8th April, 6:30 PM – 8:30 PM OR  9th April, 1 PM- 3PM

You can sign up for any of these here.

Do consider going to the 2025 TUC Women’s Conference!

Wednesday 5th March – Friday 7th March 2025

It is really worthwhile attending this. Napo sends 2 delegates each year. As it is classed as a Trade Union ‘activity’ and not a ‘duty’ under Trade Union legislation, paid time off to attend this conference is not granted unfortunately, so TOIL or Annual Leave needs to be taken, however do speak to your line manager and ask them if one day could be given as a Training & Development day as you will surely learn a lot by linking up and listening to and sharing experiences with sisters in the wider trade union movement. And, just as attending Napo’s AGM, you will guaranteed come away invigorated from this too!

International Women’s Day Research Seminar at the Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge – you can watch the recording if you have missed it

On Friday 8th March there was also an interesting hybrid event organised by Cambridge Institute of Criminology on theme Many Women, Many Feminisms: Varied Responses to Violence against Women. You can find the recording of this webinar here

Annoesjka Valent, National Official (Women in Napo – link official)

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