Unite women fighting back

Unite Equalities hosts special International Women's Day online event

Reading time: 8 min

Unite Equalities hosted an inspiring International Women’s Day online event at the weekend (March 9), which showcased a number of Unite women reps making a big difference in their workplaces.

Unite national women’s committee chair Jane Stewart, who chaired the event, opened the webinar by reading out a message from Unite general secretary Sharon Graham as she introduced the day’s speakers.

Unite rep Laura Roberts, who represents members at automotive giant Ford, told of how she’s helped implement a new menopause policy in her workplace.

Laura said that key to the success of this policy was careful planning and taking into consideration the huge variety of experiences people have with the menopause.

They looked at all the different ways the company can make adjustments, including provision for breaks, offering different forms of PPE and more. Training, she said, was also vital.

She explained how she made the business case to her employer for having a menopause policy. Laura noted that many women leave the workplace because they aren’t supported during the menopause, and this happens to coincide at the age that women have the most experience and skills.

“We built that case with the employer and got them on board, so that they recognised this was a workplace issue, and they had to try and retain these women in the workforce,” she said.

Since the policy was launched, Laura said that there’s been a ‘very positive response’.

“I know from hearing from some of my colleagues who’ve utilised the policy that it’s already changed their world at work,” she noted.

Unite rep Michelle Bowsher spoke on how she and her colleagues have worked to set up a similarly outstanding domestic abuse policy in her workplace, Principality Building Society.

Michelle highlighted the complexities of domestic abuse and how it has a devastating impact on victims. Like Laura, she said training played a fundamental role in implementing a robust policy where workers and management are armed with the knowledge to support colleagues who are experiencing domestic abuse.

Provisions in the policy include ten days paid domestic abuse leave pro-rata, three nights’ stay in a hotel including meals and laundry for those seeking a place of safety, with an additional five days paid leave, among many other forms of support.

Michelle hailed how the union and her employer worked closely together to implement such a progressive policy.

“It’s not possible for unions and employers to always be in agreement on everything — we wouldn’t have such a need for unions if that was the case,” she said. “But when employers and unions do work collaboratively for the well-being of colleagues, it sends a really strong message not only to employers and employees, but also to the wider community, that we can achieve a better outcome in situations where unions and employers work together.”

Attendees from the event heard from a number of Unite women reps from across sectors who have taken industrial action within the last year, including Unite rep Apryl Walcott, who works for charity Oxfam.

Apryl spoke of the challenges she and her colleagues faced going out on strike for the first time in the charity’s history last year.

Thanks to a co-ordinated campaign, Unite reps helped make Unite’s Oxfam branch one of the fastest growing in the entire UK charity sector. Ballot turnouts were huge, with an 88 per cent turnout to strike. But it wasn’t easy getting there, Apryl noted.

Although Oxfam workers had seen massive real-terms pay cuts over the years, many were reluctant to strike because of their loyalty to Oxfam and its causes.  

“It was really hard shifting that mindset from absolutely loving the organisation to potentially going out on strike,” Apryl said.

But thanks to their efforts, which culminated in two days of strike action, Oxfam workers won a significant pay rise, as well as an improved recognition agreement with Unite.

Apryl said that as union members, management now “takes us much more seriously”.

“We’re consulted a lot more in large part because we’ve doubled our membership to 500 members plus strong – and because they know if we say we’re going to do something, we’re going to follow through and do it.”

Meanwhile, Unite rep and public health nurse Janet Taylor spoke of her experience joining one of Northern Ireland’s largest ever strikes, when 170,000 public sector workers downed tools in January.

“Everybody had had enough,” she said. “It’s a responsibility having a public sector strike because we literally brought our country to a standstill. It wasn’t just the NHS; it was our road workers, our teachers, all the people who make things work, train drivers – everybody.”

Janet lauded how Unite has supported striking members with generous strike pay, and she also highlighted the widespread public support she and other public sector workers received during the unprecedented strike.

Meanwhile, Unite rep Jane McQuire, who works for bus company in Abellio in London, spoke of how she and her colleagues drew inspiration from bus strikes sweeping the UK that garnered millions in pounds of pay rises for members.

After a sustained organising campaign to increase membership, Abellio bus workers in London took a total of 20 days of strike action, and in February secured a pay rise in excess of 13 per cent – “the highest to date in London,” Jane said.

“We’re winning the fights, and sisters are at the front of the picket lines,” she added.  “We must continue to fight for our right to strike. By fighting for better pay and conditions, we’re taking the profits away from the greedy shareholders and putting it back into workers pockets.”

Finally, Unite Equalities’ online event also heard from Unite rep Diane Power who works for catering firm Baxter Storey at Drax Power Station. Diane and her colleagues, who are predominantly women, have been taking strike action since December in a fight for fair pay.

On International Women’s Day on Friday (March 8), the striking catering workers announced that they are set to escalate their dispute after voting to extend their strike mandate.

Diane highlighted the challenges they’ve faced with both their employer Baxter Storey and Drax management, who have dug their heels in over pay negotiations. But she said that she and her striking colleagues are determined and thrilled to be receiving so much support from Unite.

Diane told of Unite’s International Women’s Day event she attended at Wortley Hall in Sheffield, where the striking catering workers got a standing ovation.

“It was an amazing day,” she said, as she welcomed advice and support from other Unite women who’ve taken strike action*.

Unite executive council member for women Angela Duerden took a number of insightful questions from attendees, while Unite national officer for equalities Alison Spencer-Scragg closed the event.

Alison highlighted the importance of International Women’s Day and why the fight for equality never stops.

She said, “We’ve got statistics showing that 33,000 girls become child brides every day, that women are 47 per cent more likely to suffer serious injuries in car crashes because – believe it or not – safety features are still designed for men; that for every female film character there are three men; that only six countries give women equal legal rights at work as men; that it will take 106 years to close the gender pay gap. If anyone needs reminding why we mark this day and why we say ‘action not words’ – then they need only look at these stark statistics.”


For those wishing to donate to the Drax/Baxter Storey strike fund, details are as follows:

Sort Code: 60-83-01

Account No: 20173962

Account Name: Unite North East Region 1% Fund

Reference: BaxterStorey


You can find out more about Unite Equalities on our webpage here.

By Hajera Blagg