The Women's Conference of the rail union RMT on 1 and 2 March was hosted by Dover Shipping Branch and was themed around "women in maritime".
Jacqui Smith, Maritime Co-ordinator from the International Transport Workers' Federation, told us of ITF's recent battle to stop shipping companies using mandatory pregnancy testing before employing female workers. The conference passed a motion to instruct RMT to develop an organising plan specifically aimed at recruiting women seafarers to the RMT, an initiative that is long overdue. Another resolution asked the RMT to carry out a survey of female seafarers' well-being and to produce a booklet aimed at reducing fatigue. Internationally, women make up only around 2% of the maritime workforce.
There is a particular need for women seafarers to collectively formulate demands within the women's structures of the RMT and then for the RMT to throw its entire weight behind their struggles. The case of women seafarers illustrates the need for women's self-organisation to challenge discrimination within our class and ultimately make our union stronger.
That need extends to every area where the RMT is organised. Sadly, the bureaucracy and culture of the RMT is yet to fully embrace women's self-organisation. In a session about how to involve more women in the RMT, one woman said that she had resisted getting involved in "women's activities" for years because she didn't want to be labelled and restricted by her gender.
In 2018, we elected the first female President in our union's 100+ year history, Michelle Rodgers. Michelle is a huge advocate for women's participation now, but for many years Michelle herself did not want to get involved with RMT's women's structures for similar reasons. That is an understandable personal choice, but I wonder how much it stems from a culture where the unspoken assumption is that the issues we are expected to unite around are those that affect white, able-bodied men. The RMT has no female officers and an all-male Executive. Women's issues and voices are too easily neglected and marginalised.
To counter this, at last year's AGM, Workers' Liberty and others championed changes to the RMT constitution that would give more power to the equalities committees. The RMT bureaucracy, helped by their supporters in the Communist Party of Britain, frustrated this proposal. Some argued that organising around equalities is "divisive". We did win some changes, and women's participation is growing. With nearly 70 delegates, this was a big women's conference. However, it feels like we have a long way to go before the leadership and dominant culture of our union reflects and embraces the diversity of its workingclass membership.
Nonetheless, this was the first Women's Conference since the limited gains won at last year's AGM, which gave the equalities committees the power to "organise activities", subject to a plan being approved by the union's Executive. This meant the conference had a new, can-do feel. If ideas for activity were suggested, we were able to say we would "put them in the plan". Previously, we could only ask the union bureaucracy to do things for us; resolutions were carried out slowly, partially, or not at all. Now the Women's Committee will be able to work with Women's Officers around the country to organise recruitment and workplace campaigns about sexual harassment, for example. It will be a lot of hard work, and will require rank and file pressure and co-ordination, but in the next year we should start to see some real results.