The Commonweal Collection is inspired by the idea of a more peaceful world in which all of us can thrive without oppressing or marginalising others. For those involved in movements for nonviolent social change, this means an active engagement with how dynamics of power, inequality, and difference can benefit some at the expense of others, and a commitment to increasing equality and inclusion in all our practices.
Here are some questions to reflect on:
- When we say ‘we’, who do we mean? Who do we include or exclude, deliberately or inadvertently? Whose voices are we not hearing? Whose needs are we ignoring?
- What could we do to be more welcoming and accessible to a wider range of people, and to create an atmosphere where everyone feels able to be themselves and to contribute their experiences and strengths?
- How do we recognise and challenge systems, assumptions, or ways of working that benefit some at the expense of others?
- How might we support each other in learning how to become more inclusive and better at challenging inequality and injustice between ourselves, within our movements and in the wider world?
For most of us, this is an ongoing learning process, both because we have grown up in a world that is far from equal and because our own lived experiences are limited. Research shows that most people overestimate their ‘intercultural competence’ – so it is good to approach this with an attitude of humility!
But if we think about these questions seriously and try to act on them, our movements will be stronger because they will draw on everyone’s skills, strengths, and experiences. We will stand a better chance that the change we are trying to create will benefit more people too.
Taking a look at equality, diversity, and inclusion in the trade union movement
The trade union movement has historically been largely ‘white and male’. This is changing: Though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the voices we hear in the media, the majority of trade union members in the UK are now female. We are making progress, but we still have a long way to go. In this section of this blog, I’m going to look at what it means for me to answer Ute’s questions in relation to the work that I do, as a trade union equality officer.
When we say ‘we’, who do we mean? Who do we include or exclude, deliberately or inadvertently? Whose voices are we not hearing? Whose needs are we ignoring?
When we say ‘we’ in the trade union movement, we usually mean the people who are already members. There are good reasons for this: You join a union for a collective voice, and we are a democratic movement – so when we say ‘we’, we do mean decisions made by our members. If you want a say, you need to join!
All well and good, but… we don’t always stop to ask who ‘we’ are.
The first step is mapping – finding out who are members are, and whether they reflect the diversity of the people we are trying to represent. For example…
- If we have members in a factory, it might be that most of our members are men working on the factory floor, but we haven’t tried hard enough to encourage the office staff (who are predominantly women) to join. We probably have not engaged enough with the cleaning staff on outsourced contracts, who are much more ethnically diverse. This means we aren’t hearing those voices, which means we may not be fighting the battles for better terms and conditions at work for those groups of people … which means they are less likely to join… And round we go again!
What could we do to be more welcoming and accessible to a wider range of people, and to create an atmosphere where everyone feels able to be themselves and to contribute their experiences and strengths?
For me, the answer to this question comes down to a two-way street. If we are too instrumental in thinking about what we want from you, people can tell! In other words, if everything I do is focused on ‘how do I get you to join’, or ‘how do I get you to become a union rep’, people may feel I am not truly interested in their experiences and perspectives. I try to start from finding out what you care about and (where it’s true!) demonstrating with our actions that we care about that too.
In a trade union setting, this might be the core of what we do – listening to those diverse cleaning staff in the factory about how the night shift manager treats them, or how their workload has increased, and acting on it. At the regional level where I work, it might be about showing our members from different backgrounds that they are important in the union too. For example…
- It has to be more than a token rainbow flag at Pride events! For Pride this year, as well as stalls and brunches for our LGBT+ members, we produced a newsletter describing the work we do with this community of members throughout the yea
- For Black History Month, we invited all our Black and Asian members to help plan events – and this led to a video series on ‘Windrush stories’. As a result, two Black members stepped up as reps in their workplaces – because we got to know them, and for the first time they understood more about how the union fits with the fights for justice that they care about.
How do we recognise and challenge systems, assumptions or ways of working that benefit some at the expense of others?
One approach to this is about educating ourselves – there’s a lot of information out there about structural racism, the patriarchy, ableism (the idea that society is set up to work for those without impairments), and heteronormative practices. So in my trade union context, we are increasing the opportunities for our members and activists to do training courses on lots of equality issues.
Secondly, I think it’s about noticing patterns. If we know that half the people who work in a particular industry are women, but the union decision-making committees in that sector are full of men, then we have a problem! Sometimes it’s obvious. Sometimes we need to look more closely. For a long time, we’ve run quarterly reports on how many of our members belong to each of our equality sectors (women, Black and Asian, LGBT+, disabled members). Recently, we’ve started looking at how many of our activists do – and seeing if it matches. And then looking more deeply at the roles they hold. In our case, we found they are more likely to be ‘equality reps’ than branch secretaries. An important role, of course, but their voices are less likely to shape core union decisions.
All of this information helps point us to where we need to take action. In our case, we are creating development opportunities specifically targeted at our female, Black and Asian, LGBT+ and disabled members – and working with all our branches to help everyone, including ‘straight, white, able-bodied men’, understand how they can help make the union a more welcoming and diverse place, at every level.
How might we support each other in learning how to become more inclusive and better at challenging inequality and injustice between ourselves, within our movements and in the wider world?
Sometimes it’s as simple as paying attention to religious holidays, or noticing that we are holding meetings at school pick up time – likely to impact more women than men still. But more often, it’s about how included people feel when they get to an event or join a group. Part of that, I think, is about whether people feel that the work we’re doing is the stuff they feel is important. So, for example, one of our sector committees was full of men who mainly talked about pay issues. We couldn’t change that straight away, so we set up a women’s network for female members in that (male-dominated) industry – and found they talked much more about issues like sexual harassment, poor facilities for women, and the need for menopause policies and better understanding in the workplace. We are now supporting the women to get these issues on the table for negotiation – and this is bringing more women into decision-making places which were previously almost entirely filled with men.
I might sum this up as listening to the people with the life experience, and being a good ally – helping their voices be heard. And because, for all of us, whoever we are, there will be life experiences we don’t have, it’s about being open to new ideas, learning about things we never realised were barriers, and not feeling threatened or embarrassed that there are things we don’t know.
The other side of this is listening to the intent, and not blaming when someone doesn’t know something yet. We are doing the best with the tools we have – so when we need to, let’s help each other find better tools!
Find out more
There are many resources that are helpful in grappling with these questions. You might want to have a look at some of the following:
- On the concept of ‘privilege’ and learning to identify any privileges you might benefit from. (Peggy McIntosh)
- On the social model of disability (Scope)
- What is patriarchy? (London Feminist Network)
- What Is Structural Inequality? (Penn State University)
- A model for understanding different ways in which individuals and organisations understand differences and commonalities, and for developing our capacities to do this more effectively. (Intercultural Development Inventory)
Authors: Ute Kelly (framing of questions) and Heather Blakey (trade union examples), Commonweal Trustees