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Re-shaping trade union democracy : developing effective representation for women in UNISON

By Anne McBride


The under-representation of women and over-representation of men in trade unions raises\ud questions as to why it occurs, its consequences for women and how it can be overcome. This\ud thesis engages with these questions. It indicates the dominant ideologies and institutions\ud which underpin the dominant male model of trade unions and discusses strategies designed\ud to change the 'rules of the game'. The creation of UNISON on 1st July 1993 provides a\ud research site in which to study the extent to which trade union democracy can be deliberately\ud re-shaped so as to reflect the interests of women.\ud UNISON represents 1.3 million workers within the public service sector, two-thirds of whom\ud are women. It has been the express intention of UNISON to achieve gender democracy\ud through empowering its women members to participate in its representative structures. In\ud particular, the adoption of three key principles in the rule book: proportionality for women, fair\ud representation at all levels and self-organisation for four disadvantaged groups, is intended to\ud have a significant impact on the nature of women's involvement in the union.\ud This thesis contains extensive case study material collected within UNISON over a two year\ud period, ending November 1995. It reveals the opportunities which the three rule book\ud commitments provide for effective representation by women in UNISON. By excluding men so\ud that women can take the majority of representative positions, proportionality and fair\ud representation change the predominant values and beliefs of trade union democracy. By\ud providing opportunities for women to determine their own agenda, in the absence of men, self-organisation\ud challenges the ideology that union strength is based on unity and common\ud interests. However, the dominant model of trade unionism is not being re-shaped without\ud tension or resistance. This thesis argues that ideologies and institutions remain which prevent\ud women's access to representative structures being translated into the discussion of women's\ud concerns in UNISON's decision making arena.\ud VI

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