Feminism and unionism: Local, national, global strategies for change

Jennifer Curtin, University of Auckland

Suzanne Franzway and Mary Margaret Fonow Making Feminist Politics: Transnational Alliances Between Women and Labor, Urbana, Chicago and Springfield, University of Illinois Press, 2011 (180 pp). ISBN 9-78025207-792-0 (paperback) RRP $50.95.

The profile of transnational activism has increased significantly in recent years, most obviously with the creation of the Occupy movement, which began in earnest in September 2011 and has generated widespread support around the globe. The Occupy movement has a presence in at least 82 countries, in the global north and south, and the ripple effects are such that even those not involved in the protest are aware of its presence and are likely to have some sense of its aims. In 2011, ‘Occupy’ was the named the American Dialect Society’s most notable word of the year, while in Australia, eviction of occupiers ensured continued news coverage of both the movement and the dimensions of local and global inequalities.

Obviously transnational activism around global economic inequality is not new. It is over ten years since the anti-globalisation protests of Seattle and Genoa, stimulated both media and Hollywood interest, while the World Social Forums have become an annual event. Scholarship on the dimensions of, and explanations for, the rise, intensity and success or otherwise of these movements has also grown (Bandy & Smith 2005; Clark 2003; Cohen & Rai 2000; Curran 2006; Drache 2008). However, while some of this work covers the women’s and labour movements, little deals directly with the intersection of these two key movements and the transnational alliances that have resulted when feminist union activists engage in dialogue, share resources and reframe mainstream advocacy to ensure the wellbeing of women workers. One exception is the book Making Feminist Politics by Suzanne Franzway and Mary Margaret Fonow. This book is a significant step in making visible the historical and contemporary connections between feminism and unionism, the work of feminist union activists in advancing the rights of women workers locally, nationally and transnationally, and analysing the extent to which the labour movement has come to rely on this activism for its continued relevance and survival in a global era.

Transnational activism around global economic inequality is not new.

Women’s rights to work and to economic security have always been central tenets in the fight for gender equality. Franzway and Fonow argue that such rights are most often won through ‘creative and persistent’ feminist politics, that focuses on both the individual rights of women as equal with men, but also on a more social and collective understanding of rights that challenges and aims to dismantle masculine norms that have permeated the operations and culture of the trade union movement worldwide. This creative and persistent feminist politics is revealed by Franzway and Fonow to be multi-dimensional: informed by the everyday activism performed and negotiated by women in the ‘private’ sphere; stimulated by practices that previously ignored the extent to which sexual politics prevented women’s participation; and, enabled by the demands for separate spaces within which to fuel and frame feminist activism.

Much of the book is dedicated to local and national strategies and alliances created by women workers, LGBT activists and feminists within trade unions, but the overarching aim is to reveal to readers how these strategies have stimulated the emergence of a transnational feminist activism in trade unions that supports and argues for the rights of women and LGBT workers as part of a global economy. The authors recognise the disruptive and negative dimensions of globalisation but they do not buy into the ‘pessimist’ view that all power is concentrated in the ‘hands’ of global capital (Held and McGrew 2007). Rather, Franzway and Fonow see power as dispersed and not necessarily top down and, as such, their analysis is situated alongside those who argue that the local and global are best seen as co-constitutive. They argue that the body, the family as well as public spaces are venues through which connections between gender and globalisation can be analysed (cf Harcourt and Escobar 2002). Franzway and Fonow dissect the alternative transnational sites that have emerged and enable a feminist politics to be made outside state borders but within union organisations through the creation of networks and alliances.

In this way, Franzway and Fonow’s work fills a significant gap—for as they note, although a raft of scholarship on globalisation and its discontents has been produced, very little of this deals explicitly with gender, intersectionality and feminist politics. This is not to say that feminist scholars have not addressed the topic; but much has focused solely on women’s movement organisations, state feminism and translating this to the transnational level (Moghadam 2005; Waylen 2007). Disciplinary boundaries also continue to impact on what scholarship emerges—feminist political scientists for example, tend to focus on the women’s movement and state feminism—trade unions are rarely acknowledged to be potential vehicles for feminist activism (Curtin 2011).

Franzway and Fonow’s work fills a significant gap.

The book seeks to identify and explain what factors determine the impact of union women as transnational political actors. Conceptually their arguments are underpinned by an interpretive rather than positivist approach: the authors are interested in historical and emerging political opportunities constituted through discourse and practice (chapter 1). The underlying theme throughout is that how claims are framed is critical to building alliances. This is supported with multiple examples of how feminist unionists find common discursive ground with, and within, a trade union movement that represents old politics and incorporates a legacy of resisting women as workers and as members, and of resisting their demands for separate structures and equality of outcomes, because they disrupted traditional discourses of class politics. This focus on the importance of ‘framing’ reflects similar arguments made by other social movement scholars who suggest that transnational activism promotes and enables the development of tolerant identities, whereby differences are framed as an enriching characteristic of the alliance, supporting an (albeit contingent) form of solidarity (Keck and Sikkink 1998; Della Porta 2005). The idea that women unionists form contingent solidarities around their claims for gender equality is not new (Curtin 1999), but the challenge remains as to how discursive alliances can be sustained and built on over time. Franzway and Fonow note this challenge in their conclusion, but argue that material and political gains can be made for women workers on a global scale with the creation and consolidation of new political spaces and continued feminist contestation of the sexual, racial and heteronormative politics of the trade union movement.

Building discursive alliances is not without risk. The case study of framing policy demands in terms of the ‘family’ by trade unions (especially in the Anglo-American democracies) has produced real material benefits for women workers (chapter 3), but the potential for marginalising other workers is also real, if the meaning of ‘family’ represents only heteronormative, Western, nuclear understandings. In this way, Franzway and Fonow’s findings endorse the approach used in interpretive policy research, where it is argued that critical discourse analysis is an important project in itself, for both scholars and practitioners, if we are to better understand how policies constitute gender relations and sexual politics (Bacchi 2009; Bacchi & Eveline 2010; cf Schon & Rein 1994).

Making Feminist Politics has several key strengths. The first is its engagement with historical legacies: women’s activism within national and international arms of the labour movement is often neglected, but here it is forefront, and critical to understanding how contemporary feminist unionists have taken advantage of the opportunities presented by the upsurge in transnational activism globally. Trade unions have seldom, if ever, progressively pursued the rights of women workers independently of the rights of men, or without internal feminist provocation. Rather, as Franzway and Fonow make abundantly clear, the back-story to successful transnational alliances is women’s agency: ‘the embeddedness of this male power is only revealed by feminist political activism’ (p. 9); an activism that has been in place since the 19th century. They examine in some detail, in historical and comparative perspective, women’s unions, sections and committees, as well as international labour bodies, working women’s centres, conferences, campaigns, and transnational advocacy networks that have grown and developed over time. The authors find that there is considerable sharing of knowledge, resources and strategies within these sites of feminist activism, even when material outcomes do not result (see chapter 7 on the World Social Forums), and women continue to build connections across these forums at different stages of their careers as union activists.

Building discursive alliances is not without risk.

Second, Franzway and Fonow remind us that the development and sustenance of feminist activism within the labour movement is dependent on recognising ‘the challenge of the sexual politics of everyday life, including the family, intimate relations, social reproduction, sexualities and self care’ (p. 9). Franzway and Fonow’s research highlights that women’s capacity for activism depends on the resources available for women to negotiate the demands of their ‘labouring bodies’, care of which constitutes an integral part of the workload of activism. We know from Franzway’s (2001) earlier work that trade unions are ‘greedy institutions’. So it is not surprising that separate spaces dedicated to women’s mobilisation and participation as union activists are critical to women’s efficacy and to building their personal and professional capacity to support both grassroots activism and the promotion of women through union ranks, nationally and internationally. This is highlighted most explicitly through the case study of the International Metalworkers Federation (chapter 6). The scholarship of both feminist industrial relations scholars and feminist political scientists agree on this point. That is, the substantive representation of women is more likely to occur when women have their own strategic spaces and when women are present in the hierarchies of key organisations such as trade union confederations, political parties and political executives (Bauer & Tremblay 2011; Moghadam, Franzway & Fonow 2011; Sanbonmatsu 2008).

Third, Franzway and Fonow dedicate two detailed chapters to the work of women union activists within the international trade union movement. While transnational labour-feminist activism is a core theme woven throughout the book, chapters 5 and 6 trace the (largely invisible) history and contemporary work of women unionists in constructing a discursive and institutionalised presence over the past 150 years within the ILO, the ITUC and Global Union Federations. History shows that contests over how best to frame and materialise issues of relevance to women workers have always created tensions among feminist activists and between feminist unionists and their male colleagues. And although separate women’s committees were once established as ancillaries, disconnected from core union business, feminist persistence ensured this positioning changed, albeit incrementally after WWII, ultimately resulting in increases in women’s representation in global union hierarchies and the construction of gender policy machinery within the ILO.

Trade union leadership globally is still largely dominated by men. But Franzway and Fonow reveal that feminist oversight of new and existing sites has helped to address LGBT issues, and broaden the boundaries around what constitutes concerns of import to workers in the global South as well as the North including child labour, sex trafficking, and the sexual politics of the private sphere. Success is never guaranteed: much depends on the strategic location of women’s separate spaces—irrespective of whether they are situated within local or global union organisations; on the resources dedicated to these sites; and whether the union movement views gender equality as an imperative to future mobilisation and survival. Nevertheless, what this book demonstrates clearly and convincingly is that transnational discursive alliance building by feminist union activists has challenged and confronted the male-dominated sexual politics of the labour movement. Over time, women’s ways of making politics have forced trade unions to reconsider embedded assumptions of heteronormativity, gender, race and geography and, as a consequence, have enabled the reframing of the diverse range of issues facing the contemporary global labour force.


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Dr Jennifer Curtin works in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her research agenda focuses on the representation of minority voices and interests in the political arena: primarily those of women (cross-nationally) and those in rural Australia. She is currently involved in research on cross-national comparisons of affirmative action strategies and women’s political representation in both parliaments and trade union movements.