‘The Boys Have Wives’: Women in unions

Sally McManus, Australian Services Union

Suzanne Franzway, Sexual Politics and Greedy Institutions: Union Women, Commitments and Conflicts in Public and Private Sydney, Pluto Press, 2002 (186 pp). ISBN 1-86403-134-4 (paperback) RRP $34.95.

In 1998, Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) President Jennie George told a large group of union women that she could not have possibly done her job, or held a leadership position within her own union if she had had children. There were strong but mixed responses from the audience. There was the powerful pull of the second wave feminist cultivated superwoman from the younger women, who were aghast at Jennie’s comments, and even more aghast that their much respected leader and feminist would say such a thing. These women were childless themselves, and largely free of what Suzanne Franzway identifies as the ‘greedy institution’ of family. From the rest of the audience, mothers themselves, there were knowing and resigned nods.

Jennie’s comment was cause for reflection for us all. Weren’t we making huge improvements in women’s participation in the union movement? Did we not now have many women in leadership positions? Hadn’t we finally convinced ‘the boys’ and achieved 50 per cent women members of the ACTU Executive? Weren’t our leaders and heroes now both men and women? Hasn’t there been a great leap forward over the last ten years? Or, is there yet a long way to go?

Sitting in a hotel room with Jennie later on that day, I asked her more about what she had said. She looked at her suitcase and around the room. ‘This is my life’. She was leaving the next day for another hotel room on the other side of the country for more meetings with members, more lonely hotel rooms and the rest of her week, month, year was the same. ‘You see’, she told me, ‘The boys have wives, I don’t have a wife. They have someone who looks after them, makes their dinner and keeps a house. I don’t have this support’. I looked at her. She looked exhausted and I knew she was telling the truth. Even if she had a partner at this time, it would be a very special and unique man who would be prepared to be ‘the wife’ and put up with the absences, exhaustion and all consuming nature of being the leader of the country’s union movement.

Suzanne Franzway’s book, Sexual Politics and Greedy Institutions takes up the theme of the dual institutions of the union movement and the family, which both demand ‘commitment, workload and emotional labour’. This is her definition of a ‘greedy institution’. The book is in part case studies of a small group of union leaders and activists from South Australia; and in part a political analysis of the way union women express their feminism within the politics of the Australian union movement. She looks at how traditional masculine class based politics intersect with feminism and the experience of women union activists. Her use of case studies make the account intimate, which is a necessary—albeit rare—attribute of the many books on union politics.

Franzway’s book is refreshing and honest. Her analysis is compelling because her arguments are grounded in the real experience of women union activists. She pinpoints a range of conflicts for union women. First is the assumed general neutrality of male unionists and their politics. As Franzway points out, male trade unionists do not experience conflict ‘because their class and gender interests coincide’. Franzway analyses the type of union ideology women develop that allows for their experiences while still fitting within ‘traditional unionism’, and finds that it involves a commitment to both social justice (as opposed to ‘male’ solidarity) and collective action. This theme takes her all the way to an examination of concepts of self-care and how women express femininity while in positions of authority.

It has been women, both lesbian and straight, who have challenged homophobic institutions.

The subtle ways women subvert or modify their activities to reconcile their feminism with a ‘men’s movement’ is also a strength of her book. The overt referral to male colleagues as ‘the boys’ and describing the male heroics as ‘cowboy behaviour’ is a common experience of union women. Franzway does not pick up on other equally enlightening terms that women use to subvert the culture. For example, she notes the propensity of union men to compete over who works the hardest and who’s the biggest martyr. Many union women refer to this as ‘a pissing competition’ or ‘dicks on the table’ (that is, ‘let’s prove who’s got the biggest’). Nevertheless, Franzway makes the point well.

Franzway devotes much of the book to the overall theme of the dual institutions of family and union movement and doesn’t miss the irony of overworked women officials who spend all day fighting for the rights of other workers to do reasonable hours of work. Of course, most women share the key issue union women face: inequality of workload in the domestic sphere. The critical point Franzway makes is the lack of organisation among union women to address this issue (or the issue Jennie George raised about the difficulties in bring up children and maintaining union activism).

My criticisms of Franzway’s book are minor. The case studies are limited to one state, and I suspect a particular generation of union women, making her more general observations problematic. Franzway acknowledges that the Australian union movement is not homogenous, but the conclusions she draws are by nature limited by the scope of her case studies. For example, in the chapter, ‘Sexual politics in a “men’s movement”’ she addresses the issue of ‘compulsory heterosexuality and homophobia’, and draws the conclusion that ‘being out’ as a gay or lesbian and a union activist is near impossible.

However, this is not true of many unions, especially in Sydney, where these battles have been fought and where there are many unions, both blue and white collar, in which gays and lesbians have achieved acceptance. It has been women, both lesbian and straight, who have challenged homophobic institutions with much, at least localised, success. Franzway agrees with industrial relations researcher Shane Ostenfeld, who concludes that much of the resistance here is influenced by the political progressive ‘left’ and Catholic conservative ‘right’ divide (p. 103). I always found it ironic that two senior women union leaders who were partners and both from the ‘right’ kept their relationship a secret amongst their male right-wing colleagues, but could be open among women from both factions in the knowledge their relationship would not only be accepted but their decision not to be ‘out’ amongst their ‘boys’ would be honoured.

Most of the women Franzway interviews appear to work in unions where the officials are predominately male. They are therefore working amongst a dominant masculine culture. There have been significant changes over the last five years, which has meant that for some (although a minority of) unions this is no longer the case; not just in terms of membership, but also in terms of organisers and elected officials. This is where a real shift in culture and sexual politics is happening. It would have added greatly to Franzway’s consideration of how women might navigate the issues of family and union institutions—of what a feminised union culture might look like—to include some of these examples in her case studies.

Much of this change is the result of a deliberate strategy by union leaders such as Bill Kelty and Jennie George to inject large numbers of younger people (50 per cent of whom are women) into paid union positions. This, in my opinion, is having a revolutionary impact on the dominant cultures of unions that is only starting to be realised. Without such a strategy, unions and union cultures would be vastly different today and over the coming decades. Women have proven themselves to be very good organisers, and like Franzway’s subjects, put their heart and soul into the cause. The difference for this generation of women, is that they are closer to achieving the critical mass necessary to bring about cultural change within the union movement. Critical mass, however, appears to be lacking for the women Franzway interviews.

Most unions that have employed young women are now facing the challenge of keeping these women, as the ‘greedy institution’ of the family becomes an issue. The sharing of caring responsibilities with partners is a regular point of discussion among younger union women—and I believe these negotiations are entered into with all the skill used in negotiations with bosses. Changes are happening. The use of part-time work or job-sharing, even five years ago, was unthinkable for a union official. It is now common in most unions because there is no choice if unions are to keep experienced and skilled women organisers or officials.

Franzway’s book is a snapshot in time, but the cultural revolution that is occurring, although not her object of analysis, needs to be acknowledged and is just as interesting. Having said this, the picture Franzway examines is an accurate and important portrayal of the issues facing women in what is still a men’s movement.

Sally McManus is Assistant Secretary of the Australian Services Union (NSW & ACT Services Branch). She joined the union movement in the first intake of the Australian Council of Trade Union’s Organising Works in 1994. Sally was an organiser in the information technology and social and community services sectors for eight years, and Youth Representative on the ACTU Executive between 1998 and 2000. She contributed to Barabara Pocock’s 1997 edited collection Strife: Sex and Politics in Labour Unions (Allen & Unwin, Sydney).