Equal Adam and Eve: Where is the gender struggle in Cosatu?

Gender issues are on the agenda of the upcoming Cosatu Congress. Liesl Orr* argues that numerous resolutions have brought Cosatu and its affiliates no closer to gender equality. Only "action" at work, in the union, in society and at home can bring us closer to this ideal.

The title of this article is deliberately intended to have two meanings. It asks a question about how far we have come in advancing gender equality in Cosatu.

But it also implies that we are not seeing active struggles, that there is stagnation, paralysis and virtual invisibility of gender struggles in Cosatu.

Over the years it has been openly acknowledged that Cosatu has made little progress on gender issues. Since Cosatu came into being there have been strong resolutions on gender issues, but these have remained commitments without significant action. Countless Congress Reports have lamented the lack of progress on gender issues and numerous resolutions have renewed Cosatu's stated commitment to gender equality.

But if we look back over the last 17 years of Cosatu's existence, we see that the position of women workers and trade unionists, and thus their demands and resolutions, have remained largely the same. This is why the theme of the Cosatu Gender Conference this year was “Assessing our Practice: From Policy to Action”.

Old problems remain

Interviews with women leaders for a Naledi book on gender strategies and women's leadership in Cosatu revealed that many of the same problems that existed at Cosatu's formation, still remain a problem today. These include:

an overwhelming male domination in leadership, lack of effort to ensure more women are elected as shop stewards lack of support for women leaders, resistance from male unionists to being led by women the existence of barriers to women's participation.

….male domination continues

Although there have been some improvements in the representation of women in leadership, these changes are very slow and union leadership remains overwhelmingly male. “The main decision makers are still almost all men,” Zwelinzima Vavi pointed out in his address to the recent Gender Conference, even in unions whose members are mostly women.

He went on to say that the few women that are elected to leadership are subjected to the “deputy phenomenon”. This means that “almost all our affiliates have elected women in national positions; but almost all of the positions are deputy presidents, or treasurers.” Women also face a lot of resistance from men.

A Nehawu provincial leader reported that upon her election some of the men in the union said: “Akukhomfazi ozosiphatha.” (no woman is going to lead us). A Saccawu regional treasurer said that the men would make decisions without consulting her until she confronted them, saying “if you guys don't want to work with me it's tough luck because I am here to stay.”

"You see you would have the best of revolutionaries, the best Marxist that you would ever find in the trade union movement, but many of us do not strike a balance between theory and what we do in practice," says Numsa general secretary, Silumko Nondwangu. "What we say is not translated into our daily activities, how we relate to women in the organisation. You would be surprised how comrades relate to women and some of the things that they do. We are not confronting those issues directly."

…lack of efforts to ensure more women are elected as shop stewards

Another problem is that unions are not focusing attention and resources on ensuring that more and more women are elected as shopstewards. Without women shop stewards at the base, women cannot go upwards into higher levels of leadership.

…barriers to participation persist

Unions have long resolved to remove the barriers to women's participation in union structures, through providing childcare and transport at meetings, ensuring that the timing of meetings is sensitive to family responsibilities, and that meetings discuss and address issues that affect women workers in language that they feel comfortable with.

But childcare at union meetings still remains a luxury, especially at local and provincial levels. Most union meetings take place at night, often without transport.

And union meetings are often characterised by heavy political jargon and debates that are alienating to many ordinary workers and often have very little connection to their daily concerns. "Male comrades in my region speak in these high Karl Marx words," says a Numsa shop steward. "And the females in that region are not so outspoken – not so Karl Marx, Gramsci and I don't see them getting the same political education as males.”

Gender struggles at home

Another reality is that very few women workers have the freedom to attend meetings whenever they choose to, because they have disproportionate responsibilities to husbands and families.

Gender power relations still keep women in the home, looking after the daily needs of their children and partners. Interviews with women leaders point to the fact that having a husband is more of a barrier to union participation than having children.

A Saccawu leader talked about how her husband put down a condition that she should stop her union involvement when he paid lobola. “… it was very difficult for me to adapt to such conditions and so we had to part ways," she says. "He met me when I was in the trade union.

He behaved or pretended as if he understood, but when he paid lobola he changed colour, he became a chameleon. That under no circumstances are you leaving on Sunday morning to attend meetings. I had to make a choice of ensuring I protect and serve the members. Because it is very important for me. I am what I am today because of the trade union.

I understand everything outside because of the trade union”. Many active women leaders have divorced or separated from their partners because of conflict over their activism. Women leaders often have support through extended family to help with taking care of children, but husbands often try to control the movement of their wives.

Our society still sanctions this very real oppression as legitimate (and many male union leaders practice this in their own homes).

GEAR fails black working class women

Thus far in our new democracy, the position of black working class women has changed very little, and similarly new legislation has not significantly touched unequal gender relations.

In fact, the government's conservative macro-economic policy has limited its ability to actively transform gender relations through the provision of basic services and employment creation, which would impact on women's unpaid labour and their disadvantaged position in the economy.

Women at work – more work to be done!

There is still widespread discrimination of women workers. Sectors where women predominate are often the most vulnerable and exploited, such as domestic and informal work.

Growing casualisation affects women workers particularly with the loss of access to benefits such as maternity leave and pay. This is where union organisation and action are needed. Collective bargaining demands such as parental rights still need to be won in practice. For example, Cosatu and its affiliates have done very little to pressurise employers and the state to provide childcare at workplaces or in communities.

Why no progress?

What is the explanation for this lack of progress? The biggest problem is that we focus on resolutions, policy and structures and these do not lead to change.

Change requires action. In addition, patriarchal gender relations are very deeply entrenched in our society, through the economy, ideology, religion, culture, and so on.

Our own organisations can reproduce this gender inequality – or they can challenge it. But to challenge unequal gender relations requires a massive, deliberate and conscious struggle.

It requires that women stand up in their numbers and refuse to be treated with disrespect. It requires that male comrades are continuously challenged. The struggle for gender equality is "a struggle" – and at the heart of it lies power.

The language of ‘gender' and the appeal to men and women to work together to eliminate gender inequality has at times tended to blunt our understanding of the power relations at the centre of the gender struggle.

Some unions have begun to suggest that the reason for lack of progress is because men have not been sufficiently involved and often ignore gender issues. But bringing men into gender structures and educational workshops does not challenge power relations.

The best way to educate male trade unionists about gender issues is for them to work with strong and vocal women that challenge their practices and beliefs.

But the key point is that we must "act" to challenge gender power relations. The lack of political will to deal with gender issues on the part of the predominantly male leadership is part of the problem.

The way to get the gender struggle moving is to ensure that our leadership are constantly pushed, prodded and if necessary, forced to move forward by strong and vocal women in the organisation. It is up to women to refuse to be pushed around and to lead the struggle for their emancipation.

Discuss in your workplace

How do we build layers of militant and vocal women leaders? What issues can we use to mobilise women workers to advance gender struggles in the union and workplace?

How do we ensure that Numsa commits resources to advancing these struggles? Are you promoting women leadership in your workplace, local, region? Are you breaking down barriers to women's participation in your workplace, local, region? Are your actions at home contributing to gender equality?

*Liesl Orr is a Naledi researcher