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4. Battling Culture and Structure within the Trade Unions

Trade Unionism: Still for the Boys?

The only woman in the Executive Officers of a labor center, Clara has a lot of patience in store in her system, when dealing with male officers on gender concerns. "I know that my male co-officers are ally o n issues which generally affect the workers, men and women. Majority of my disagreements with them will be on women workers issues. I don’t understand why they just can’t get my point."

Women at one of the largest labor federations fielded candidates in the various positions in the leadership at its 17th National Convention. The objective: 2 out of 5 in the executive position or 40% and 3–4 of the 11 members of the National Executive Board or 27–36%. The result: 1 out of 5 in the Executive position (treasurer) and 2 for the sectoral/regional seats.

Thea was the Vice-President of her local union. She was designated by the union president to represent their union in the regular meetings of the all-presidents meeting in the federation where her union is affiliated. She was the only woman member of that body. The first time she attended the meeting, she felt uncomfortable. "I had a feeling that everyone is trying to outwit each other. The atmosphere was really different compared to how we conduct meetings at the local union which is a female-dominated leadership. I cannot put words to the difference, but I can feel it." But she has to survive in that body. She actively participated in the discussions and the men listened to her Some male co-leaders were very accommodating. They were very supportive of her. The men’s attitude towards her made her felt at ease with them.

The Philippine formal labor force was dominated by the men for a long time. Even with the entry of female labor force, the trade union movement which started out as a "male thing" remains to be such. Philippine trade unionism from its very beginning is a man’s world and a terrain which scrutinizes females who are attempting to break into the circle of "brotherhood."

At the leadership level, based on a survey done by Bureau of Labor and Employment Statistics-Department of Labor and Employment (BLES-DOLE) in 1994, there were 1,434 male union leaders while there were only 274 female leaders. In the same survey, it was found out that there were 5 male federation leaders for every female federation leader. By looking at the profile of leaders in the different unions will further show that women are stereotyped as secretaries and treasurers. They rarely make it to the presidency.

Every union has a Constitution and By-laws where one can find the written rules. But it’s a fact that every organization has another set of rules – the unwritten ones. There exists an inner circle or a core of leaders who are well-versed on the tactics and strategies that directs how things will be done in the organization. If a woman officer would like to be part of this group, then she has to adopt to the ways of life of the men in this circle. She should be there when informal meetings happens after a formal meeting/activity where the more in-depth discussion and analysis usually take place over bottles of beer. Whenever and wherever it will be held, she should be there. Meetings which last until the wee hours in the morning should be part of her system. On top of it all, she should be like men on what and how she thinks things should to be done. In short, she should play politics as it is defined by men. She should be one of the boys.

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Part of the unwritten rules is that men should be at the forefront of union work. There are very few women on top leadership position because men and women alike support a man for that position. Faced with a woman candidate with the same qualifications as the man, the members will certainly choose the man to lead the organization. Why? Because he is a man.

Sexist language is often used during union meetings. Women cannot relate to the manner of talking as well as language used by the male leaders. If a woman will call the attention of the men on this, she will surely be the butt of jokes, be branded killjoy or will be called a grim and determined feminist.

Apart from this, the heart of union work – bargaining – is usually men’s talk. Management representatives and government representatives will certainly be male-dominated. Hard-core issues discussed usually cover the issues of wages, benefits and mass/industrial actions. Issues related to maternity and reproductive health are considered to be "women thing" and therefore do not cover the general interest of the members, hence, should be given secondary priority. Women’s proposals therefore are used as trade-off when the union has to give up some provisions to gain something at the negotiating table.

As unions "wage battles" for "lofty ideals" – like better wages and greater political power – women issues are considered "very specific" and "too narrow in scope" and are often left dangling at the bottom of union priorities.

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Union Leadership: Not a Woman’s Place?

I was the Vice-President of our union when the president was impeached. I was not able to assume presidency at once because the men did not want me to become the president, instead they would like to elect a man who was not even part of the then existing set of officers. The men did not believe that I can lead the union into recovery after the disaster left by my predecessor. I was able to assume presidency through the support of the women officers. It took me two years to finally get the support of the men. I proved them that I am a good leader.

I am a president of a union in a ceramics factory. Whenever union members feel that the union loses on negotiations with the management, the men will always lament "She is really weak" or whenever faced with internal union problems they will say "Let’s see her strength."

It took me sometime before I finally agreed to run for presidency in my local union. I wasn’t confident enough that I can do the responsibilities attached to the position. Although there were clamors from the big section of the union members for me to give it a try, I was very hesitant. It was the women in the local union, the members of the Women Committee of the federation where my union belongs, and the women’s network where I am a member, which finally convinced me to run for presidency. Majority of those who were questioning my capabilities were from the Engineering Department – a section dominated by the men. "I believe, it was the women’s vote which put me into the position."

Unsurprisingly, many women find it hard to understand and cope with whenever union culture and practices are defined in male terms. Case in point: The male "character" – tough, loud and brute – continues to be the model for leadership in many trade unions, that even if a female leader is elected, she is singled out for her "masculine" qualities.

The way up is never easy for most women leaders. It is very common that they should try harder to prove that they can be effective leaders as well. Once a woman reached the top, she should keep on proving that she is worthy of the position. It means having the winnable traits of men and more because she is expected to be twice as good as men to be considered for the leadership.

A woman’s personal status becomes a public issue when she decides to run for leadership position. She is seen as short of being a good leader if she is separated, a single parent or has troubled marriage/family life. It’s where the weight of the debates will revolve instead of as-

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sessing her capacity as a leader. She can lose votes because of her personal status. But a male leader seldom experience the same treatment. He is a man and his personal status is of no concern to the union as long as he can perform the tasks assigned to a leader.

Aside from performing their functional responsibilities, women tend to get the administrative concerns or the nitty gritty jobs, like attending to the details of activities such as follow-up of participants, venue reservation and budget management as well as paper works related to various activities. Since union responsibilities also serve as venue in developing personal bonding among union officers, it is very common that women become counselors of other women, and men as well, on personal problems like husband-wife/parent-child/family/boyfriend or girlfriend vis a vis union concerns. They befriend wives or girlfriends of male leaders and invite them to join union activities to understand what involvement in union means. Support also extends to financial concerns. Caring to co-unionists are also manifested by raising issues related to health – smoking, alcohol-taking and visiting the doctor for a much-needed medical check-up.

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Battles Fought at Home

Three years ago, a union organizer was found stabbed to death inside her house Apparently, the husband killed her due to the husband’s jealousy to her buddy in organizing work. The husband fled and still on the run.

Inday was the president of the leadership majority of whom are women. There were only 2 males in the 11-member Board of Directors. Two of their females officers were already married when they were elected into office. One was not able to perform her function because she is tied down to her responsibilities at home. The other married woman in the group was very active. She has less responsibilities at home because her children were old enough to take care of some household concerns. "My problem, as a president, started when almost all of the female officers got married one after the other. Majority decided to lie low towards union work to focus their attention to family responsibilities."

It is very common in the hotel workers seminars where one or two participants will bring with them their boyfriends to have them exposed to union work even if it will mean additional cost. They have to do this to minimize the tensions effected by union work in their intimate relations. Many of our women leaders were asked to choose between the union and family/boyfriend. We have lost a lot of potential or competent women leaders because of the husbands’ demands. One husband even compared unionism to his vices taking this as his negotiating point with his wife. He told his wife to quit union work and he will quit his frequent drinking sessions with his friends. Its like saying that we both have vices which we need to quit to make our relationship intact.

I am a mother of two boys. My eldest is six years old and the second is three. I have been a unionist since I was single and so is my husband. In fact, we were introduced in a union function and our acquaintance led to marriage. I am at present a full-time educator-organizer of a national federation – with huge responsibilities that eat up a lot of time for my family. My children grew up in the care of my sister-in-law who stays with us. I really don’t have the time to attend to the needs of my children. I have to attend meetings that finish late at night. I have to conduct various education activities that require me to stay in the seminar house for three days. As much as I want to allot my Sundays for my family, our education activities are usually done on weekends to accommodate the availability of the workers. In my experience, union work is a "24-hour, 7 days a week" responsibility. One time, I asked my kids what do they want to become when they grow up. Allan, the eldest, quickly answered, "I will become an astronaut. Jerry (the youngest) will be the one to be a unionist." I asked him why only Jerry and not both of them. He answered in a very soft, bitter voice, "You’re always out, Mama and Papa. It’s always the union that you give time to." I felt so guilty I couldn’t speak.

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Most women who are active in union work are either young and single or married ones without small children. Such profile speaks of women in the active reproductive years prioritizing their responsibilities at home. The dichotomy which relegates men for productive labor and women for reproductive labor is one of the major factors why women tend to shy away from union work. A working mother faces a dual responsibility of performing productive and reproductive tasks.

A research study done by LEARN reiterated the fact that traditional reproductive work role of women has not significantly changed since men still seldom help in sharing with household management such as in ironing and washing clothes, cleaning and decorating the house, budgeting and marketing. Deciding to be active – in union work will therefore be an added burden for a woman. In a society which still believes that a she should prioritize her family responsibilities above all, it is very difficult for a woman to be an active union member, more so a trade union leader.

Husbands tend to be unreasonable on their wives’ involvement in union work even in situations where both of them belong to the same union. When asked why they vehemently oppose their wives’ participation in union activities, the answer is just big "Ah, basta!" (rough translation "Ah, it is as it is!")

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | Oktober 2001

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