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Eleanor Marx would be proud of GMB members today

Equality - 15 Jan 2021

The New Year is usually the time when we reflect on things past, but also look forward to the start of new beginnings and fresh hope. 

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The Roman God Janus, that January is believed to be named after, has two faces, one looking back and the other looking forward.

Very often at trade and labour movement events, such as Tolpuddle or May Day, many banners have the following words emblazoned on them:

“Celebrate our past, fight for our future”

Those of us who are experienced trade unionists have a duty to pass on our knowledge to inspire others and encourage them to take up the baton. However, we are all learners. 

We can all benefit from education throughout our lives to improve our own understanding of history and the barriers that others have faced in the past and still face in the present. If we don’t know our movement’s history with all its successes and mistakes, then how do we know what we have to do going forward.

There is no getting away from the fact that 2020 was a difficult one for GMB for all kinds of reasons. Above all, we had to be honest with ourselves, and I am proud that we were both honest and transparent about what we have to do to make our organisation more diverse and inclusive. 

The report by Karon Monaghan QC was blunt and hard hitting, highlighting the many barriers that prevent women and other underrepresented groups from participating fully in our union structures. 

However, the year ended on a positive note.  Firstly, we set up a Taskforce to work on all the QCs recommendations, made up of members from all our equality strands, as well as staff. 

We also appointed an external facilitator, Helen Mott, to lead and shape the work of the Taskforce, and we will be holding our first meeting very soon.

Ruth Brady was also appointed as the new Regional Secretary for Wales and South West, the first woman and the first out LGBT+ Regional Secretary in our history. Congratulations Ruth!

Barriers have always existed, and it would be easy to think that women have never played a part in GMB history or the history of the Trade Union movement, but the real truth is that they have always been there, just often left out, overlooked, or forgotten.

I am proud to follow in the footsteps of Eleanor Marx, who formed the first women's branch of our union and who was the only nominee to be unanimously elected to the union’s executive council in May 1890.

Barbara Plant, GMB National President

North West and Irish Region kindly sent me a Feminist History Calendar as a Christmas present, and there are numerous influential and courageous women named on that calendar who are not widely known or celebrated for their trade union or political activity and campaigning. 

I am proud to follow in the footsteps of Eleanor Marx, who formed the first women's branch of our union and who was the only nominee to be unanimously elected to the union’s executive council in May 1890. 

It was only recently that we recognised her part in our founding and now celebrate the anniversary of her birthday every year on the 16th January.

Eleanor was also confronted with sexist views within the trade union movement. At that time, male trade unionists were hostile to the idea of equal pay for women, as men were seen as being the ‘breadwinner’ and the family wage earner.

We can still learn from Eleanor and her firm belief that the inequality between working men and women is about the way our society is organised. The fight is not against men, but against the profit driven system that leads to inequality. 

Therefore, working men and women need to unite in their struggle against exploitative bosses and imbalances of power.

Eleanor realised too that working-class women have different priorities and fights from wealthier women. 

Today, as an older, heterosexual, white cisgender woman, I know that my lived experience, the barriers I face, are not the same as other woman who are BAME, LGBT+, have a disability or young.

As individuals, if we are prepared to educate ourselves, and to listen to others, we can be an ally to those who are fighting for decency, social justice, and equality.  We can help to break down those barriers that hinder inclusivity. 

We can amplify the voices of those underrepresented or victimised, whether that is solidarity for Black Lives Matter, the LGBT+ community, those with disabilities, for young or older workers, or international solidarity for refugees or Palestinians. 

It is up to us all, whatever the year, to break down the barriers, to fight against inequality, and the imbalances of power that stop people from fulfilling their potential.

 

Eleanor knew that it is solidarity and collective action that is needed to win.  She would be extremely proud, as I am, of our members in British Gas/Centrica.

Barbara Plant, GMB National President

Even though Eleanor lived over 100 years ago, she would recognise the same problems we face today, the weaking of employment rights, blaming immigrants for the under cutting of wages, demonising the sick and disabled for being lazy and not wanting to work. 

2021 will see the continuation of those challenges, plus the added one of dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic.  We know that this virus has exposed and further increased the inequalities that exist in our society.

Eleanor knew that it is solidarity and collective action that is needed to win. She would be extremely proud, as I am, of our members in British Gas/Centrica.

Starting on the 6th January, thousands of these workers took 5 days of strike action over the awful practice of firing and then rehiring the same workers on worse contracts. There will be more strike days to come. 

Fire and rehire is an abusive, bullying employment practice that should be made illegal. As trade unionists we cannot lose the decent terms and conditions, or the safe working practices, that we have already fought for and won over many years. 

Messages of solidarity have come in from customers, other unions, and politicians.  It was quite emotional to see the constant stream of support on social media throughout those 5 strike days. 

We can celebrate the birth of our union, the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers in 1889, but now in 2021, we are once again fighting for the lives and future of all workers.

Solidarity! I wish you all a happy, hopeful, and safe New Year

Barbara Plant
GMB National President

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