By Tanya Rhodes
This blog was borne from asking my nine-year-old daughter whether she understood why her teacher, along with thousands of others across Scotland, would be going on strike on Thursday November 24th, in the first such industrial action by EIS members in Scotland in over 40 years, demanding a pay increase of 10%, in line with inflation, with further strikes to follow in the new year.
“They are protesting for more pay,” she told me. I was glad that she understood that it wasn’t about the kids having a day off school; that her dedicated and hardworking teacher and thousands like her deserve to be paid fairly for the immense commitment they show to educating Scotland’s schoolchildren. It opened up a discussion on the myriad reasons workers walk out in protest for better rights and conditions.
Industrial action through the decades has never been taken lightly. It is a move made only when other discussions and efforts have failed. Even more so now, as the increasing cost of living impacts households all over the country and people struggle to cover basic bills, downing tools and the resultant loss of pay is a tough choice to make.
We already know that the cost-of-living crisis impacts those on lower pay disproportionately – and that women are more likely to be bearing the impact of cuts due to their lower rate of employment and higher representation in low paid work. Added to the greater burden absorbed by women of invisible caring and household responsibilities, and the significant impact on women of public service cuts, it is no surprise that the Scottish Women’s Budget Group in November 2022 described women as “Acting as shock absorbers for poverty in their homes,” going on in their report, “It’s hard work being poor” – Women’s Experiences of the Cost-of-Living Crisis in Scotland to outline the gendered impact of austerity, Covid19 industry collapse and price increases.
We have seen throughout the project that the actions of both individual and collective groups of women have brought about changes, both incremental and seismic, that to an extent we now take for granted. It has also become clear that change is not always permanent or linear in nature and that potential regression in women’s rights is something that we need to be aware of and challenge. We marked Equal Pay Day on 20 November with a blog on historical women’s campaigns for equal pay and questioned – as is at the very heart of this project – what worked, what didn’t, and why we are still having these discussions and protests 50 years after workplace equality legislation, including that for equal pay, was introduced.
In our workshop at the STUC Women’s Conference in early November, we asked delegates what they thought still needed to change, despite equal pay legislation having been in place for 50 years. We were overwhelmed by the thoughtful and creative responses, but many cited education as being a key factor for change; not just workplace or public education, but delivering the message to the very youngest in society.
They also spoke of the challenges of recruiting women to the trade union cause, whether through apathy or just the sheer load that women are carrying in the workplace and in their home and personal lives and feeling unable to take on yet another role and responsibility. Some participants felt that reaching out to young people would help them to understand the role of trade unions (and therefore everyone’s role in collective bargaining), but the majority felt that educating young people about workers’ rights will ensure that in the future, they value themselves, their time and their worth.
Participants in the STUC workshop also highlighted the importance of education in supporting children to challenge perceptions around what constitutes male and female work. Research shows that gender stereotypes continue to influence children’s career choices, with work done by Abertay University revealing that boys are half as likely as girls to reject gender stereotypes and consider roles considered traditionally feminine, such as art and nursing, and therefore to choose to study the subjects that support entry into these roles. Hall et al (2021) found that the impact of this is far from short-term or individualistic, stating,
“Gauging young people’s stereotype endorsement is particularly important because academic subject choices made in secondary school shape future career options, which then determine workplace gender balance.” Working with young people around work choices is therefore key to breaking the cycle of structural inequalities.
In the last week alone in the UK, universities, teachers and postal service workers were amongst those withholding their labour in the fight for improved pay and conditions against the backdrop of a failing economy and higher cost of living. Other sectors, including rail and nursing, have walkouts planned in coming weeks. With the economic reality that the annual pay increases have long represented a de facto pay cut for many, it is unlikely that the frequency of strike action will decrease in the coming months and years. As our young people move from education into the workforce, it’s important that we prepare them to stand up for themselves and their coworkers now and in the future.