Many roles, many barriers. Davena Rankin – first black chair of STUC Women’s Committee

Davena Rankin
Davena Rankin

#stucwomen16 UNISON’s Davena Rankin is chairing this year’s STUC Women’s Conference. Here is her speech in full opening today’s proceedings.

I have had the honour and privilege of chairing the STUC Women’s Committee in the past year. I am the first Black chair of the Committee and with the support of the Committee, decided that the strapline of this Conference would be Women: Many Roles, Many Barriers.

It is a strapline that recognises that women self define in so many different ways throughout our lives and, as such, the discrimination we face, while underpinned by systemic gender bias, will always also include additional and personal elements.

Over the last 12 months I have had the privilege of addressing several conferences and rallies on behalf of the Committee.

As I began to write this speech, I looked over my previous ones to see what the issues had been over the past year. You might not be surprised to hear that there were quite a few. I was even tempted to list them all, but then I realised I could sum them up in three little words:

Cameron and Osborne

Three little words, but what a huge and devastating impact they have had on communities across Scotland and the rest of the UK. They and their cronies have attacked and fought to destroy the public sector and welfare state, because of their ideological pursuit of their big society and small state.

We know that they adopted the phrase, women and children first as we have been forced to pay the price for bailing out the bankers.

Since 2010, 86% of all of the austerity measures have been funded by women and children. The effect of Osborne’s failed fiscal policy is that there will be an additional 800,000 children and an additional 1.5 million working age adults living in poverty.

His policies directly led to a growing level of in-work poverty: • where food banks are spreading throughout the UK; • where families make the difficult choice of feeding their children or heating their homes; and • where zero hour contracts, underemployment and low wages see workers being forced to work longer hours just to make ends meet.

And to top it all off, in an effort to show that he was really a friend of the worker, he introduced an age-differentiated rebranded minimum wage and had the audacity to call it the living wage.

He never did learn that his plan A failed, the economy stagnated, inequality grew and yet he failed to acknowledge that when Plan A fails the alphabet has 25 other letters and it is time to move on.

Well talking of moving on, both Osborne and Cameron have now been forced to move on, making way for a new team. While the faces may have changed the core policies haven’t.

We have a new Prime Minister, one that claims to be on the side of the worker and yet she has voted against curbing exploitative payday lenders, she has voted against building 100,000 affordable homes, she has voted against tougher regulations for banking and she has voted against proposals that aimed to reduce tax avoidance. And let’s not forget that as Home Secretary she sanctioned the pilot of the “go home” vans in London.

So while her warm words are intended to paint herself as the defender of workers’ rights and the champion of the excluded, we know from her voting record that she is no friend of ours.

The event that triggered a new Prime Minister was the EU Referendum – a vote that highlighted deep and entrenched divisions in our society. Scotland overwhelmingly voted to remain, but we were in the minority across the whole of the UK.

There is no clear plan or proposals from the Government.

When asked what would Brexit look like – all we get is Brexit means Brexit.

So while we don’t know what the big plan from Government is – and some would say they don’t know either – we do know that we will have a huge fight as the trade union movement as Brexit is delivered.

We have the Brexit negotiations being led by the three stooges – or to give them their Sunday names, Johnson, Davies and Fox. Three white privileged men – hardly the standard bearers for equalities and workers’ rights.

Which means we must be vigilant to ensure that the hard fought for and hard won workers’ rights and equalities’ legislation we currently have and that successful Conservative Governments have branded as red tape are not simply wiped off the statute books.

I understand that people voted to leave the EU for a variety of reasons, however, I don’t believe that the majority did so to have fewer rights at work. Which means that as trade union activists we must organise, mobilise and agitate to ensure our rights are not eroded.

We now have an opportunity to increase our membership as we have demonstrated that when we stand united we can defeat this government – Osborne’s climb down over tax credits was a direct result of some nifty organising and lobbying by trade unions.

But we also need a Scottish Government and a parliament that is willing to stand with the Trade Union movement as we fight to protect our rights.

Over the years, we have heard Scottish politicians of all political shades say that, if only they had the power, they would do things differently.

Well they have been gaining increasing powers over the years and as someone once said, with great powers comes great responsibilities and it is time those powers are used to ensure we have progressive policies in Scotland.

To be fair, the Scottish Government has adopted different approaches and the steel crisis shows the difference between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

But at a time when we have a Tory Government that slashes harder and faster than anything Thatcher could ever dream off, and with Brexit on the horizon, we need a Scottish Government that is bold and daring and is willing to put their kind warm words into action instead of wringing their hands and blaming Westminster.

There is very little point in having additional powers, if all that happens is we see a Tory-lite agenda or, as we have seen in some areas such as local government funding cuts a Tory-plus agenda.

As always, women bear the brunt of the cuts as we are more likely to be providing the public services as well as accessing them on a more frequent basis.

Unsurprisingly, as women bear the brunt of the austerity measures, the Women’s Committee has been busy and I want to highlight a couple of areas that the Women’s Committee have been focusing on.

The Women in Work Project has been funded by the Scottish Government and carried out by a researcher named Aleksandra Webb based at the STUC.

Her research looked at women in the workplace and the role of women in the trade union movement. It was first time we had seen such a depth of analysis specifically carried out within the Scottish Trade Union Movement. She wrote a series of reports and these can all be found on the STUC webpages.

Some of the lessons learned included the need to improve our collection and monitoring systems to make access to this type of data easier in future.

We also need to make sure that we support and mentor the next generation of female trade union activists to make sure that they are not forced to re-learn the lessons we have learned the hard way and can instead focus on fighting new battles.

This is an area of work that needs to continue and the Committee will be looking at how we can access additional funding to allow this to happen.

A key area of work for the Committee this year has been abortion rights.

The ability to control your own reproductive health and to decide when or even if you have children is key to achieving equality for women.

Access to safe and easily accessible services is a class issue. It has been and always will be easier for the well-off to access birth control and when necessary abortion services.

It is something that is constantly under attack, whether that is from politicians, such as Donald Trump, or from movements like 40 days for life or Abort67.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act, it is obscene that it has never been implemented in Northern Ireland meaning that the UK justice system still criminalises women.

While there are still women living anywhere in the world that face the threat of jail for exercising control over their own body, there is still much work for the Trade Union Movement to do.

The Women’s Committee work plan also focused on the fight against the Trade Union Act and on the February 29th this year, the STUC organised a leap day of action to defend trade union rights.

I am proud to report that on that day we did become the face of the Trade Union Movement as we dominated social media. But of course you expect no less from your Committee.

This year, we also established the joint equalities’ chairs’ group to look at how the STCU equalities’ committees could work together in a more strategic way. The committees already work together in an ad hoc way on specific issues, such as childcare, transport and older women in the workplace to name but a few issues.

However, there are issues such as the under-representation and participation of women, workers with disabilities, Black workers and LGBT workers that cut across the work plans of all of the committees that perhaps a joint approach could be more effective. Of course, that feeds back into the theme of our Conference as women can self define in all of those aforementioned groups.

It’s still early days, but we hope to report back to future conferences on the progress of the group.

I have highlighted only a small fraction of our workload and more details can be found in our Annual Report.

I would also encourage you to visit the STUC Women’s Committee Facebook page and the STUC website, which includes a Health and Safety toolkit we have developed that focuses on women in the workplace.

As always, I am extremely grateful to all the staff at the STUC who have supported the Committee over the year. I am as always in awe of Ann Henderson and her apparently endless energy. She makes such a tremendous contribution to the Trade Union Movement, often working in the background that I feel she doesn’t always get the recognition she deserves.

I would also like to pay tribute to my family who have supported me and in particular over the last year. My son has displayed a level of patience with me that is beyond his years. He is of course a true trade union child having attended his first trade union meeting, when he was only a few months old.

I was chairing UNISON’s Scottish Women’s Committee and as I chaired the meeting, Bryce was passed around the Committee members. Bryce has attended many Committee meetings with his only annoyance being that he isn’t allowed to vote. We do have young members in UNISON, but at 13 I think that he may still be a bit too young to join.

I would also like to thank my mum, Elizabeth, another good UNISON activist – who has supported my trade union activities over the years. I know that I am very lucky, as without her I would not be able to be as active as I am either within UNISON or the STUC.

So Conference to the business at hand. This Conference is our opportunity for us to come together and demonstrate the strength of the Trade Union Movement and to show the real face of the Trade Union Movement and share the ways in which we make a difference to people’s lives, every day of the year.

The motions debated and carried at this Conference will form the backbone of the Women’s Committee’s work plan and they are really important. But what are even more important are the speeches and contributions you make to this Conference.

Your experiences form the basis of the evidence we present to Government Ministers and policy makers. We need to know about your successes, but also about the challenges you face in your workplaces and society. The diversity of workers found in this room is a source of strength and knowledge for our movement.

Without your contributions the Committee are voiceless, which is why it is so important that everyone contributes to Conference as it makes us a stronger movement.

So in conclusion, a wise woman once said that a strong woman is a woman determined to do something others are determined not be done. It is a saying I believe truly reflects Trade Union women.

So while one determined women can make a difference, imagine the strength behind a movement of determined women – which is why we can achieve the impossible, but only when we all work together – after all Unity is Strength.

Thank you for listening and I hope you find Conference informative and enjoyable.

More information can be found at

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