The young, vibrant and women-led repeal campaign may seem a million miles away from the trade union movement, but LookLeft discovers that trade unions have been playing an important role in putting abortion access back into Irish politics.
In May 2016, abortion rights activists from north and south of the border met in Dundalk to discuss the role the trade union movement could play. They decided to undertake a survey on the effects on workers of restriction abortion access. This survey was to become a unique, cross-union, all-island venture: two of the unions (Unison and the GMB) that funded the survey are based in Northern Ireland, two (Mandate and the Communication Workers’ Union) in the Republic, and one (Unite the Union) operates on an all-island basis.
The five unions, along with the Alliance for Choice and the Trade Union Campaign to Repeal the 8th Amendment, steered the survey from initial idea to published report. According to Therese Caherty of the Trade Union Campaign, it was pre-existing links between pro-choice union activists that helped lay the foundations of the Campaign.
“Back in 1983 there was a trade union campaign to oppose the amendment,” says Caherty. “Some of us were looking at that particular time in 1983 and seeing what we could do that was the same. And the trade unions seemed to be the way to go.” Having worked together in the Action on X campaign and with some unions joining the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, “we segued into the Trade Union Campaign and just reconnected with all those people”.
The survey, Abortion as a workplace issue, was conducted by Ulster University. Over 3,000 trade union members took part and one in five respondents had direct experience of abortion as a workplace issue. While almost half of those stated that the person concerned had struggled to pay for the abortion, direct costs were not the only issue: 23% had wanted time off after the abortion but could not afford to lose wages and 20% had wanted sick leave but could not take it. The extra difficulties in terms of the law and discrimination faced by migrant workers were highlighted at the public launch in Dublin.
Although the study showed that abortion was a workplace issue, there was not necessarily awareness of this. Over 70% stated that the person concerned had not disclosed the abortion to anyone in the workplace. With only 1% of respondents having sought advice from their union rep and 2% stating they were reps and had advised members, trade unions were clearly not seen as a resource for women in this situation.
The Trade Union Campaign was working to change this, putting trade union facilities at the service of the pro-choice campaign. Initially, the group held press conferences, produced leaflets, and brought trade unionists supporting repeal together through social events like quizzes.
The group also helped push repeal to the front of the trade union movement by producing a model conference motion. With many members unclear about how their union’s policies are made, the Trade Union Campaign had people coming for advice on how to get their union to support repeal. The campaign explained the laborious process of motions, branch AGMs, and conferences. Although Caherty refuses to overemphasise the part the Trade Union Campaign played, she admits that “we helped lone activists who wanted to do something. We put them in contact with each other and then we ourselves worked through our own unions.”
The internationalism of the trade union movement has also been important. In April this year, the Trade Union Campaign spoke at the UK Teachers Union (NUT/NEU) Conference and learned that abortion access by itself is not enough; the social stigma also needs to be addressed.
Caherty says, “We gave a presentation on the survey and one of the things we were talking about was stigma; that secrecy, non-disclosure, all of those issues were created by criminalisation. But abortion is decriminalised in Britain and one of the women on the platform said ‘There’s still stigma. It’s not to do with criminalisation at all. That exists here. Women are still ashamed to talk about their abortions.’ So it’s a bigger issue than just whether you’re criminalised or not. It’s about the process of talking about abortion.”
The role of simply talking in an upfront, informed but non-confrontational manner was seen in the qualitative section of Abortion as a workplace issue, replicating the experience of the Joint Oireachtas Committee and the Citizens’ Assembly. Knowing of and listening to people’s firsthand accounts caused participants in an online forum to reflect on their own positions. People changed their opinions.
In the final weeks ahead of the referendum, Caherty says that one of the main ways trade unionists can get involved is by having conversations in the workplace. “Wear your badge if you can. The Artists for Repeal badge is particularly brilliant. It has ‘Want to talk to me about repeal?’”
“And know that there is a community out there,” she adds. “The trade union campaign is a resource for trade unionists across the board and the more the merrier. It’s really important that trade unions talk to each other.”
The future of trade unionism
This year’s May Day demonstration will have housing, health and repeal as its themes. Many trade unions have come out in support of repeal, attending marches and urging members to vote yes. Can this involvement help trade unions reach out to a generation which has been difficult to organise?
“I would hope that they would glean that,” says Caherty. “The unions that have stepped up are brave. I hate saying that because it shouldn’t be the case that they are brave doing it. But they have stepped out of line. I don’t know how do you say to the pale, male brigade that are on executive committees that if they want women members they’ve got to fight for women members’ issues.”
The morning after the referendum there will be hundreds of politically engaged young people who will have experience of organising, of seeing the power of collective action, and – hopefully – of winning. Whether they see trade unions as an appropriate place for their energy is up to the unions.