Equality must be part of our industrial agenda

Ian Allinson, the grassroots socialist candidate for Unite General Secretary, has Ian talking with membersmade equality issues central to his campaign. Ian expands on some of his ideas for improving Unite’s work in this area.

I’ve previously posted about the need to tackle sexism within Unite and the need to integrate our equalities and young members work better with our industrial agenda. Most of Unite’s activity takes place within the workplace and equality issues run through almost every issue we tackle, yet we are nowhere near good enough at either addressing discrimination or taking advantage of equality legislation to help our wider industrial agenda. All members lose out when we fail to tackle equality effectively, because discrimination runs through almost every employer practice that we spend our time challenging.

A union’s equality structures should perform several purposes:

  1. Providing additional routes for members who face additional barriers to participation to get involved and build up their knowledge, experience, confidence and networks.
  2. Providing a focal point for campaigning around issues of particular concern to oppressed groups.
  3. Acting as a voice over those issues within the union, helping ensure they don’t drop off the agenda and shaping policy.

In all union structures there is a tension between maximising participation and ensuring those who fill them are genuinely representative. This is particularly significant in equality and young members’ structures.

For example, women in many workplaces face additional barriers to being elected as representatives because of sexism. Women’s structures can provide opportunities for members who aren’t yet representatives to get involved and learn from that experience. They are then better placed to overcome the barriers and get elected as workplace representatives in the usual way. But if the women’s structures are open to all women members, without any election, they could lack the democratic legitimacy to shape union policy and priorities. Why can’t each of our equality strands have both a forum open to all members sharing a particular oppression, and an elected committee of accountable representatives of workers?

I have pledged that if elected, I want consultation and an urgent review of Unite’s women’s structures to ensure they provide a representative voice for Unite women, champion issues of particular concern to women, and provide a route to participation in Unite for members who face additional barriers due to sexism. The same approach must apply to all our equality and young members’ structures.

A second area of tension arises between the role of our equality structures in shaping policy and acting as focal points for campaigning on issues of particular concern to each oppressed group, and the need to engage the wider Unite with those policies and issues if we are to achieve change. It is because of this tension that I have pledged to integrate our equality and young members work better into our industrial agenda, to review of all the union’s education and training for members and staff to raise the understanding of equality and diversity of everyone actively involved with the union, and to consult over making equality and diversity a standing agenda item for all Unite’s constitutional committees.

There’s a natural tendency for equality and young members’ work to get higher priority in industries and workplaces where a higher proportion of members are women, young, BAEM etc. But the need for such focus is at least as great elsewhere. For example, shouldn’t we be challenging employer practices that lead to a highly segregated workforce with few women? Or our own practices if we fail to recruit and involve young or black workers? It is highly likely that women working in overwhelmingly male workplaces face more sexism than those in less segregated industries, just as high votes for UKIP tend to be in areas with few Muslims or immigrants. We can’t wait until employers have desegregated work before we challenge discrimination against members and potential members. Equality must be an issue for all of Unite, not just those directly involved in the equality structures. Conversely, we must challenge employers who brag about “diversity”, but in reality just employ high proportions of women, BAEM, young, old or disabled workers but still discriminate against them or fail to adapt working patterns and practices to their needs.

All members lose out when we fail to tackle equality effectively, because discrimination runs through almost every employer practice that we spend our time challenging. Employers increasingly want to use “management discretion”, albeit sometimes cloaked pseudo-objective mumbo-jumbo, for everything including appraisals, access to training, pay reviews, work allocation, promotion, redundancy selection, conduct, capability, and absence management. Such processes are wide open to discrimination. The flip side of this coin is that challenging discrimination can be a weapon for Unite to challenge these processes to the benefit of all members. The same is true when we look at bullying and harassment, major issues in many workplaces. Where these problems are widespread members of oppressed groups are often disproportionately affected. Highlighting such discrimination can help challenge the problem as a whole.

The vast majority of Unite’s activity is carried out by activists at workplace level. So if we want to achieve real change for equality and tackle discrimination, we have to equip our activists properly. That’s why ensuring equality is properly covered in union education and discussed at constitutional committees is so important. For example, which committee wouldn’t benefit from a discussion about sickness absence management, an issue in many workplaces, which included the equality aspects?

There’s some great work going on in Unite over equalities, but not enough of it is reaching the people who need it. What proportion of our activists have had a proper look at the equality resources? How many are using the guidance on Equal Pay? How many know they should record and report it whenever they see a complaint of harassment, discrimination or bullying?

There remain real gaps in the material available to activists too. The Equal Pay guidance says you should look for patterns in data you get from the employer, but doesn’t say how to do that. In Fujitsu, where I work, we’ve had a go at this as part of our own campaign against pay inequality. I’ve also produced a guide on checking for discrimination in selection, for example for redundancy, as none was available. Our sister union PCS has done some impressive work on performance management. Highlighting discrimination has forced several government departments to either abandon it for now, or at least negotiate changes. I’m sure there are many great practical examples of how Unite has tackled discrimination issues in hundreds of workplaces, but we are awful at sharing our successes and how we achieved them. That’s why I’ve pledged that if I’m elected, Unite will systematically document and publicise case studies of lessons from members’ organising and campaigning efforts and successes. We shouldn’t all be struggling to reinvent the wheel.

Unite’s current equalities strategy is up for renewal this year. This represents a great opportunity for the union as a whole to up its game. It is time we did.