Great speech from Helen O’Connor – trade union organiser – at the Morning Star Conference on 10th February
“Now this will not be a popular thing to say for some in our movement; but I’m going to say it anyway. It’s not just bad employers and governments we have to fight. We need to stand up the divisive elements of liberalism that have gained such a hold on our movement. Yes, I’m talking about identity politics.
At a time when women need the Trade Union movement more than ever. And they are leading the movement and numbers are not joining. And there is almost complete silence and denial about this. Women are 50 per cent of the working class. There can be no class struggle without us.
Throughout history women have played powerful roles in supporting strikes protests and struggles. We heard earlier from Women Against Pit Closures and the key role they played in Orgreave and elsewhere. But far too many great women leaders have been written out of history.
Why? Because, in spite of some small progressive changes in our movement, it continues to be dominated by men and male interests. Instead of listening to women there has been a pervasive and chilling silence on the needs and concerns of women. The bullying and silencing of women in Trades Unions and on the Left simply must be acknowledged and addressed if we are to stand any serious chance of uniting and strengthening the working class as a whole.
Throughout my years of union activity I’ve experienced attacks on me by men in the movement – many of whom were right wing – and wrong about absolutely everything way the way. So I know what it’s like to be excluded; to have doors shut in my face. But far too many good women and good comrades have been driven out by smears and lies.
Why? Because they’ve argued in defence of women’s sex-based rights. The smears, lies and nasty absolutely false complaints about transphobia, the deplatforming of feminist, socialist and communist women in particular simply must cease.
Because women are leaving unions. Why?
Because many believe the unions are leaving them.
If we allow this direction of travel to continue unchecked – and I do not exaggerate – it will have the most devastating consequences for the entire working class in years to come.
Honest, respectful debate and discussion should be welcomed in our movement. It’s the lifeblood of our movement. If silence and bullying is going on it should be called out. And nobody should be discriminated [against] unlawfully in our movement. And that includes women. And language and ideas are very important. Being working class is not one of a thousand identities you choose like a new coat. It is the basis of our oppression, and the foundation of our struggle to liberate humanity. Our movement was built on the basis of solidarity and in periods of reaction it’s the women that suffer the most. The workers I organise are amongst the most exploited and downtrodden in society – many migrant workers and many women. And when they fight for better wages, terms and rights they do so not on the basis of neoliberal, hyper-individualised identity politics. For them it is not “me, me, me”; it is we, “we together” – the language of the working class.
They don’t ‘identify’ as working class; they simply are working class, and they know you can’t change the word as simply changing the way you describe it. They know they are working class every time they try to find the money to feed their kids; every time they’re bullied in work; every time they go home to housing riddled with damp; and they know every time they look at their children and cry because of the struggles that lie ahead for them.
So let’s be clear – no one should ever be discriminated against – no one; and that includes women. Solidarity.”