Why the trade union struggle needs to be a feminist one – and vice versa

The history of International Women’s Day is not a story from the past – it is a story that transcends time.

Commentary icon8 Mar 2023|Comment

Esther Lynch

General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC)

The history of International Women’s Day is a story of women who would not settle for the status quo. It’s a story of women workers protesting against unfair working conditions. Of women who demanded a voice when they had something to say. Of women who came together and collectively demanded civil, social and political rights. It’s not a story from the past – it is a story that transcends time. Still today, there are countless things that women will not settle for.

Across Europe, women have suffered disproportionately from economic and social consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as women were overrepresented on the frontline of the Covid crisis, women are now being hit hardest by the cost-of-living crisis because of the ongoing undervaluation of their work, part-time work due to unequal distribution of caring responsibilities, the gender pay gap and in consequence, the gender pension gap. According to EUROFOUND research from last November, almost half of single mothers (44%) and 31% of single women anticipated difficulties affording energy costs over the next three months. That compares to 26% of single men.

The struggle for equal pay and equal pay for work of equal value remains a high priority for the trade union movement. Women workers must enjoy the pay, conditions, and status they deserve. The legacy of Covid-19  must be the enforcement of equal pay for work of equal, of a collectively achieved re-evaluation of work predominantly done by women, of a collective correction of the term “low-skilled” workers.

In terms of tackling the undervaluation of women’s paid and unpaid work, as a baseline, more support for trade unions is needed. At EU level, a step in the right direction was recently made very with the Pay Transparency Directive. It is thanks to the demands voiced by women workers across Europe that the Directive will contribute to coming closer to enforcing equal pay for work of equal value and to make sure that no women worker has to stand up alone against an employer when claiming her right to transparent information on her pay. The Directive also secured a safeguard of trade unions’ prerogatives to bargain on measures for equal pay – a provision that was met with unfounded, yet fierce resistance.

Another building block to achieve gender equality in society and the world of work is the eradication of gender-based violence.  Again, trade unions have proven all along that workplaces are safer when workers are represented by trade unions and employers negotiate with trade unions. This applies to support for victims and survivors of sexual harassment, domestic violence or third-party violence. The trade union movement has also a role to play in the digital sphere – an arena that is conducive to escalating existing forms of gender-based violence, while producing new forms of cyber violence and cyber harassment that target women in particular and marginalised groups. As online screening and networking become more important in the labour market, a growing number of women are having their careers wrecked due to cyber violence like revenge sharing  of intimate pictures. The trade union movement must be at the forefront to make sure victims of cyber violence and cyber harassment are not discriminated against by an employer.

Employers must live up to their responsibilities when it comes to making the world of work safe for all women workers. This is why on International Women’s Day, the ETUC will gather, in the tradition that marks International Women’s Day, to demand our voice be heard and to highlight women workers’ right to travel safely to and from work. This will be our contribution to the stories that are International Women’s Day – stories that share one imperative: Women coming together and demanding change – for the many, in all their diversity, not for the few.

This article was first published on the TUC blog.

Esther Lynch

Esther Lynch – the first Irish General Secretary of the ETUC – first became a union representative when she worked in a micro-chip factory in the... Read more »