Unite celebrated International Women’s Day on Sunday (March 8) as it honoured women’s contributions to society and made renewed calls for women’s rights and empowerment in and out of the workplace.
Unite highlighted how women are making a massive difference in the workplace in a new video that featured a strike last year led by a largely female workforce that ended in victory.
Cleaners, security guards, and vending, laundry and environmental operatives working for outsourcing firm Mitie at Sellafield secured an historic Living Wage pay rise after joining together and walking out, as explained in the film below.
The union also made an especially strong showing at the TUC Women’s Conference in the run-up to International Women’s Day last week. Among many other Unite contributions, Unite executive council member Susan Matthews (pictured below), who chaired this year’s TUC Women’s Conference, gave a powerful opening speech.
Reflecting on the theme of this year’s conference, Standing Strong, Matthews said, “We are standing strong against those who wish to deny us our equality and autonomy.We are standing strong against the roll back on the gains that have been hard won and hard fought for by sisters in the trade union movement. And standing strong in solidarity with our sisters across the world against gender-based violence and harassment.”
“We must build a stronger trade union movement, one that reflects the millions of women in the workforce and that ensures we live free from the threat of violence, of hate or discrimination,” she added.
“Let’s remember that through organisation, strength and solidarity we can achieve change and build a better future.”
Period dignity victories
Also hot on the heels of International Women’s Day, Unite’s period dignity campaign, which was officially launched as a union-wide initiative in 2018, has gone from strength to strength as more and more employers sign up to the union’s period dignity charter.
On Monday (March 9) car manufacturer Nissan announced it would be committing to Unite’s charter by providing sanitary products to all employees at no cost.
The news is a significant win for the campaign, given that Nissan is the north east’s largest private sector employer.
Commenting on the news, Unite regional officer Nick Halton said, “What a fantastic way to celebrate yesterday’s (Sunday 8 March) International Women’s Day with Nissan in Sunderland committing to Unite’s period dignity campaign.
“Nissan is a pragmatic employer which understands the importance of ensuring sanitary products are accessible to all employees at no cost,” he added.
In addition to lobbying to provide free sanitary products in all workplaces and public buildings, Unite’s campaign aims to tackle the stigma and embarrassment around periods.
Unite regional coordinator Suzanne Reid, who is among those leading on Unite’s campaign said, “We are delighted that Nissan is the latest organisation to sign up to Unite’s campaign and follows in the footsteps of such high profile employers in the north east as Rolls Royce at Washington and Sunderland city council.
“Unite will continue to encourage other regional employers, as well as nationally, to follow Nissan’s progressive lead in the weeks and months ahead.”
Unite has also been a key player in garnering support for a landmark bill in Scotland, which passed a stage-one vote unanimously on February 25 in the Scottish Parliament. If approved, the Period Products Bill, introduced by Labour MSP Monica Lennon, will provide free access to sanitary products to “all who need them”.
The bill follows on from previous legislation in the Scottish parliament in 2018 which mandates free sanitary products for all students and pupils in Scotland.
The present Period Products Bill was initially opposed by the Scottish National Party (SNP) but the party made a U-turn after campaigning pressure from Unite and other organisations.
In the run-up to the initial vote on the bill, Unite sent more than 2,000 emails in a 40-hour period and also helped stage a rally outside Holyrood to ramp up the pressure on the Scottish parliament to back the bill, explained Unite regional women and equalities officer Siobhan McCready.
“Now we are entering stage two where costings and how the legislation will be rolled out are considered. This is when bills are most likely to be watered down, so we will be keeping up the pressure,” she explained.
McCready, who has been campaigning for period dignity, beginning on a local level, since 2014, said Unite’s campaign has been “truly phenomenal” after more and more employers have signed up the union’s period dignity charter.
“Thanks to campaigning on this issue, which has brought Unite together with a range of other organisations, charities and politicians, we’ve seen a sea-change in attitudes toward period dignity in Scotland,” she said.
She highlighted the construction industry in particular as one that has embraced a commitment to ensuring women have access to free pads and tampons at work.
“It’s been especially heartening to see such strong, fantastic support we’ve received from men,” she said. “We’ve really built a strong consensus around the idea that all women should have free access to sanitary products.”
McCready said while there’s much to celebrate about Unite’s period dignity campaign, more work needed to be done.
“We must get to the stage where free access to pads and tampons is total normalised – that it’s an everyday, common thing. We must challenge the narrative that women should simply shoulder the burden of being prepared wherever they go. And we need to widen that narrative to include women who are going through the menopause.
“For menopausal women, who are going through a very difficult time already, periods can be especially unpredictable and at times very heavy,” she explained. “I’d like to see the energy of our campaign go into this direction so that we support all women, no matter who they are what stage of life they’re in.”