- 'Threads of solidarity' revisited:gender forums as important sites for contesting gender inequality
Globalisation and the concomitant feminisation of flexible labour have seen a significant increase of the share of women in the labour market. This trend has been accompanied by an increase in the number of women that constitute members of the trade union movement worldwide. Despite the significantly high membership, women continue to be marginally represented in trade union structures. A global survey conducted by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) found that less than 50 per cent of unionised women believed that trade unions were responding to their needs (ICFTU 2000:5).
This paper highlights some of the attempts by women trade unionists to close the representation gap between men and women as well as to ensure that the make up of trade union decision-making structures, correspond to the demographic pattern of trade union membership. These efforts were operationalised by women's networking and mobilising of solidarity through gender forums. The paper will focus on the role and impact of gender forums.
In the context of the paper, 'gender forums', which are sometimes referred to as equity forums or gender perspective teams, are discussion networks that are formed with the express purpose of addressing issues of gender equality within trade unions and the workplace. Gender forums were found to exist in all three union federations and in most of the affiliate unions that were surveyed. Women trade unionists were found to have been largely responsible for the establishment of the gender forums. [End Page 96]
The title of the paper 'threads of solidarity' is a concept borrowed from the invaluable work of Iris Berger on women in South African industry (1900-1980). Berger's work focused on women in textiles, clothing and food industries. Our survey covers the clothing, textile and leather sectors. According to Berger, threads of solidarity were the bonds and interconnections that women workers developed towards each other. These bonds sometimes tended to transcend racial boundaries:
The experience of factory work left a particularly strong imprint on many South African women, creating bonds among working women that promoted their involvement in labour resistance.(Berger 1992:5)
Berger found that with respect to the Garment Workers Union (GWU) and the Food and Canning Workers Union (FCWU) for white and black women respectively, 'the importance of non-class elements came to form an important aspect of women's working class identity, as did the bonds that women were able to build among themselves and between their lives inside and outside the workplace' (1992:294). Thus the unions that appealed to women were those that transcended the divisions among work, community and politics. According to Berger, these unions gave serious attention to women-specific issues such as remuneration, equity, reproductive control and sexual harassment.
By contrast with their male counterparts, the white women working in industry in the 1930s were designated as semiskilled employees and were paid a little more than black men. They gained a more privileged position than black women only gradually during the forties and fifties. Thus, in certain respects, their experience of class and of interracial relationships was very different from white men's. In the Transvaal garment industry a small group of women of all races worked at similar or identical jobs, sometimes in the same factories and belonged to the same trade union, even if to different branches. Thus under difficult circumstances, there were attempts to structure interconnections between the two groups of women that retained some vestiges of fairness and comradeship, some thread of 'class' solidarity.(Berger 1992:296)
However Berger concluded that, at the time, South Africa remained a 'bastion of attitudes and practices demeaning to women' and the bonds of solidarity portrayed by women workers were dependent on the structural aspects of the respective unions or the industry (1992: 294). These favourable factors manifested themselves in the clothing, textile and food industries. According to Berger, there were rare circumstances, particularly among [End Page 97] Cape food and canning workers, which provided a context through which the common problems of gender and class fostered truly egalitarian joint organisation among women of different...