A little while ago I attended a regional meeting of the United Left in the Unite union.
Myself, a woman comrade, Rhiannon, and her six-year-old daughter Star were there. We had political debates on Unite and the Labour Party, Libya, reports from the executive and from the United Left AGM.
The most surprising thing was how Rhiannon and Star were treated. Afterwards I emailed some of the United Left people with the following:
“I just wanted to say I was very surprised at how Rhiannon was spoken to at the meeting.
“Someone said that in politics you get lots of unpleasant things said and that you have to get used to it. But what was said to Rhi was not about hostility in political debate.
“Rhi is a single parent. She has been very active over the last year — in the student protests, in the anti-cuts campaigns, in the union and Labour Party. She is always reliable and conscientious, and has to be very organised to do this while looking after Star. Sometimes she can get childcare and sometimes she can’t.
“I would have thought that trade unionists would welcome someone young who has shown that they understand why the union is important, and would try and encourage and support them, recognising how difficult it can be for her. Yet those few people were extremely unpleasant.
“The bloke who spoke at the end was glaring at Rhi and Star throughout the meeting. Near the end he was very rude and said aggressively ‘can’t you control your child?’, and one woman actually said to Star: ‘my children are much better behaved than you’, in a very unpleasant way.
“I was shocked by their hostility. I thought it was a debate won years ago that trade unionists should encourage people with children to attend and that it is the meeting’s responsibility to provide childcare or help with children. It is not just up to the child’s mother to entertain and ‘control’ the child. If it were, they might as well not attend because they can’t fully participate in the meeting.
“I think it is a political issue how socialists treat each other, and particularly how they treat children. We are for a different and better morality, not just for economic improvements. How this issue is dealt with is a reflection of what sort of world we want to see.”
Other people in the meeting, however, went to talk to Rhiannon, and told Star that Rosa Luxemburg used to get shouted at in meetings too. They have said that next time the chair will make it clear that children are welcome, that other members of the meeting will help amuse Star, and that they will make it clear that it was the adults’ behaviour that wasn’t acceptable, not the child’s.
They can’t afford childcare but they recognise it is up to them to make meetings welcoming for women with children. They have contacted Rhi following the meeting to reassure her that she will be supported. It was dealt with in the right way and we will use this as an example to other trade unionists of how you should respond to children attending meetings.
However, she has faced the same hostility at Liverpool TUC.
Rhi is determined to keep coming but is getting increasingly frustrated about how she and her daughter are being treated. It means that in meetings she is becoming increasingly bothered about “what people think” about Star, and feels under increasing pressure to tell her to stop doing things.
Her experiences show that getting involved in political activity when you have children is not easy, especially if you are a single parent. Not only do you have to be very committed and well organised, but you also have to overcome hostility and disapproval.