Please step aside brothers

It was 2pm on Tuesday 23 May 2017 at the Brighton Centre. As reps took their seats for the opening of the nineteenth annual delegate conference of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union. I observed from the balcony: delegates in their rows, senior officers on the platform, and the National Executive members at their tables. There were around a thousand trade unionists, but something looked a bit odd.

PCS is a union of civil and public servants. Women make up more than half of the British civil service workforce. Some 59% of PCS members are women, but they make up only 44% of activists. Even within this largely older, white men predominate. So where then are all the women?

Since the sustained attack on our union’s facility time by the Tory Government began after 2010, more union business is done in a worker’s own time than ever before. This attack impacts women, specifically. Attending three-day conferences on the south coast of England as annual leave can be problematic for many workers. You’re less likely to be able to spare that time if you have caring responsibilities or households to run. Sadly, it’s still mostly women forced into this predicament.

Let’s be clear, the species of the older, white man of the PCS conference is not the enemy of progress. Throughout our movement, both individually and collectively, these brothers are among the most committed, hard-working trade unionists in the country. Many make great sacrifices for our movement, winning astounding victories in both personal cases and collective bargaining for workers. Most of our brothers dedicate themselves to putting equality at the heart of our union, increasing our diversity and encouraging the participation of more women, young, disabled, black and LGBT+ workers.

But all trade unionists know that real change comes not just when we agree policies at conferences, but when we change shop floor union practices and apply them to bargaining with the employer. Collective policies, more inclusive union practices, rule changes, reservations and quotas can be debated and agreed endlessly. Yet, winning hearts and minds to increase diversity requires action, and so the idea of ‘Step Aside, Brother’ was born. Simply, it calls on our brothers in the movement to ask ‘what can I do?’. I publicly launched the idea with a well circulated blog post on International Women’s Day 2018.

A number of months earlier, a massively influential union leader confided in me that he would not seek re-election to a senior position, as he wished to encourage a woman to stand while he would continue his activism in a more junior post.

Most inspiring about this comrade’s decision is not the altruistic sacrifice, but his deliberate political assessment. Here, an astute and committed class fighter assessed where best to position his influence next. Recognising his own seniority in the movement came from a lifetime of activism, his power didn’t require holding office, but instead is present in his politics.

A year on, PCS conference voted through rule changes to add to our existing reservations for black members on our NEC. Now young members, LGBT+ members and disabled members will also have reserved seats at the NEC table. A further consultation will take place over whether women candidates should fill 50% of seats or more.

The left has been debating gender versus class my entire adult life. Our attempts to improve women’s representation have too often been denigrated as creating unnecessary divisions, objectively right wing or more sinisterly, an overt attack on class politics.

There are some more visible women in leadership roles today; Nicola Sturgeon, Theresa May and Frances O’Grady. But that doesn’t mean the under-representation of women is magically fixed. The TUC’s lacklustre approach to fighting austerity isn’t because Frances O’Grady is a woman. For 143 years, men have directed the TUC’s institutional power compared to O’Grady’s seven years and I don’t know of anyone worth their salt who’d say that the Tories’ crisis is down to Theresa May’s gender.

Historians of the Scottish TUC pride themselves that we have always had active women members. In 1897 Margaret Irwin, won the highest vote in the election of the General Council. But, when nominated for chair, she declined, asserting it was too soon to appoint a woman. It would be another 40 years before Bell Jobson presided over the 1937 Congress. The STUC today alternates between male and female Presidents annually but we have not yet had a woman General Secretary in our 121 years.

The union movement collectively represents and gives voice to working people from all walks of life. Yet the stereotypical trade unionist still presents as an older, blue collar, straight, white, able-bodied man. How can this be when over the past 40 to 50 years, union strength has declined with traditionally male-occupied industries, and manufacturing jobs? Union power has rapidly grown in the public sector where more women occupy a larger part of the workforce. So, I ask again: where are all the women?

There are 6.2 million unionised workers in Britain. Women make up over half the workforce and are more likely to be a union member. But from union leadership roles right down to the shop floor, the under-representation of women is a serious organising oversight.

Some contend that ‘Step Aside, Brother’ is an unfair call out to union men when bosses, politicians and the powerful run free. Class divisions in our society are appalling. The richest 1% in Scotland owns more wealth than the bottom 50% combined. But this isn’t an either/or. Systematic under-representation of women in unions is a reflection of deeply embedded sexual inequalities in society.

‘Step Aside, Brother’ will not fundamentally overthrow the power elite, capitalism or smash the patriarchy. But since when did that become an excuse for inaction? Workers, women and men, deserve better from their movement. Our structures should reflect the society we wish for, not the unequal one we are in. That shows we’re serious about strengthening the power of workers.

If ’Step Aside, Brother’ has hit a few raw nerves, it is because most of our good, committed comrades think they either have no power or responsibility to make the change. ‘Step Aside, Brother’ seeks a conscious and deeply political critique and offers a choice to men occupying multiple union positions to act for the collective good.

‘Step Aside, Brother’ should not alarm or threaten male activists, or make them think they’re not valued, or not wanted in our movement. Most brothers know they are. The tireless representation of workers, fighting employer injustice, inequality and discrimination are valued and respected beyond doubt. I witness first hand the personal sacrifices many make for the collective gains of workers. So, ‘Step Aside, Brother’ is not a call for resignation, jack it in, give up all, or step out. The ask is for those union men, at a time of their own choosing, to step aside from just one of their multiple positions to actively mentor an under-represented member into the role.

Could ‘Step Aside, Brother’ undermine union democracy or left slates? No. This isn’t not an electoral challenge, it’s a personal, comradely request. ‘Step Aside, Brother’ seeks to build participation in our unions, not diminish activism. We need more members participating and less individuals holding unique multiple positions. It would be a hugely sexist assumption to say that women not yet elected to a position are the playthings of the right.

Might this all lead to right wing women replacing left wing-men? I doubt it. ‘Step Aside, Brother’ is no army of right wing women, fiddling equalities processes to throw out left wing men. ‘Step Aside, Brother’ is not even about reserved places, quotas or women-only shortlists. Under a feminist spotlight, ‘Step Aside, Brother’ looks like a tame measure, because it puts the man himself in charge in determining when to step aside, and who to mentor.

‘Step Aside, Brother’ is well-received by a growing number of women right across our movement. Some report that the ‘Step Aside’ message has stirred them to think about how they might give up a position to mentor someone through. That’s great, but it is not sisters we need to make a concerted effort to step aside. More sisters need to ‘Step Forward’. Brothers, think about it. True power is present not when you grasp it and hold on to it, but when you pass it to someone else.

Lynn Henderson is the President of STUC and a national officer for PCS. See for her original article.