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Women across divides,
an experience in organising women

by Siri Jensen, representing the Women's Front in Women across Divides 

Paper given at the conference Women and political action in London, June 99

Women across divides started out in 1994 as a co-operation between The Women's Front (WF) and women-dominated trade unions, nurses, teachers, social workers, trade and office workers, hotel and restaurant workers, about a country wide conference in Oslo.

Today trade unions with a large number of women, women groups inside male-dominated trade unions, an immigrant women group and some other organisations relevant to women, for instance of gays, do now take part.

Our main activity is a yearly national conference, that by now is organised by around 20 organisations/groups, with a lot more taking part in the conference itself. The conference is attended by 200-250 women - and a few men. We discuss strategy and try to develop a common understanding of important issues for women. There are also yearly conferences in two other cities, organised by similar committees, independent of the one in Oslo. And there has been some smaller common actions, for instance demonstrations in some of the bigger cities demanding higher and equal wages in 1996. And we also took part in a larger demonstrations against privatisation in 1997.

The background for this initiative was common discussions and campaigning around the 6 hour working day, and the growing attention to the question of women wages from women dominated trade unions.

An earlier initiative from the WF, in co-operation with some shop stewards, had launched the term Women's Wage and demanded a wage to live on (a living wage) which also makes it possible to support children.

The political platform of this campaign stated that women earn less than men, but also that there is less wage differentiation between women than between men. The wages of women are more dependent on gender than on education or profession. We also emphasised the fact that the reason women get lower wages is not because we are stupid, have chosen the wrong education/profession or are organised in weaker trade unions. We are paid less, because we are women. The term Women's Wage makes it more visible that this is a common problem, based not on biology or myths, but on the reality of women's situation in society. It helped to create an understanding and unity across wage levels, classes, private and public sector. And women dominated trade unions took up the demand of a living wage and equal wages. This laid the foundation for Women across divides.

Women across divides has focused on women's wages as the fuelling issue, trying to find some demands that are able to unite across organisations, and on working time. But we have also taken up themes as the welfare state, privatisation etc.

We say in our folder that "Women across divides is first and foremost an idea, a way of working. The idea that co-operation between trade unions, on a local level, and women organisations, across borders, outside the system, formal and informal, is necessary to break through with women's interests, on a small or large scale." This is very important to us. This is not a static organisation, we want to inspire similar co-operation everywhere.

Our aim is to create a forum with space for women with their multiple reality and demands, where women are not defined as a problem, but seen as a strength, an informal forum, with a space for unconventional thoughts and actions.

About our way of working

- We chose an organisational level where we knew there were people who were interested and able to go through with it. We wanted this to be as easy as possible, and started out without challenging the more sceptical. We wanted it to be fun. For us, this was some local organisations in Oslo (and later in Bergen and Stavanger, and partly in Tromsø). We did not want the central level to take part, because they would be more strictly bound by their formal policies. We wanted more space. But we invited women (and men) and organisations from all over the country to the conferences, also male dominated. First started, it was easier to get more organisations interested.

- We are not an organisation. Organisations choose to participate in each separate project, so there will be some differences as to who takes part in what. So they may take part without wider and more long-lasting obligations. For instance, some organisations have chosen to participate in the conferences, but not in other events. Of course some actually participate on a more permanent basis. It is also possible to be a part of the organising group formally (with the name of the organisation on the program), without participating in the work.

This means that those who take part in the work are those who really want to do it.

To secure continuity, the organising group continues after each conference, even though many of them do not any longer have a formal mandate. They take part as individual activists - and prepare the next move. Then the organisations are again asked to give their formal support.

We have also decided not to invite women departments in political parties to the group, only to take part in the conferences itself. We don't want to encourage divisions along party lines.

- For us, it was important to start out with both women groups and trade unions. Because this defines a different setting from a trade union only forum. In Norway, and I guess also elsewhere, when trade unions co-operate, there are a whole lot of formal, and even more informal, rules. For instance, the TUs are in different main confederations, with chauvinism and competition among them. But, putting a women's group into the room, these rules do not apply any more. Then you have a women setting, not at TU setting, with a lot more freedom.

So we secured participation from different main confederations and from both public and private sector, because these are important divides that we wanted to bridge from the start. Still the domination of women from public sector is a problem we have to deal with.

Unity and difference

Oppression of women and a common consciousness of this fact unites. It is the basis of this co-operation. The way we organise and work leaves less place for the traditional male games of power and rank.

Starting out on the basis of common interests, we have on our way, luckily, been forced to handle other divides. Women have participated in the conferences, criticising us for ignoring their situation, demanding to be seen: young women, immigrant women, lesbian women, single mothers, handicapped women, women outside paid work/on social security. The main way to meet this critic has been to secure participation in the organising group, to make different women present when the programme is made. We have tried, in our conferences, to combine focus on common interests with presentations that make different groups of women visible.

In 1997 - the situation of immigrant women was a main theme, trying to focus on what the trade unions can do to further co-operation between Norwegian women and immigrant women. Last year - when the main theme was power - we had separate presentations about the power of immigrant women and of functionally disabled women. But at the same time lesbian women felt invisible. This year had a presentation by a trade union activist working in the hotel and restaurant business, about how we can have a trade union movement with room for all kinds of people. He has been engaged in organising immigrants, both women and men, and gays.

We also want to experiment with the form of the conference, for instance the relations between presentations, groups and plenary sessions to make the participants more active. We also use cultural events. One year the conference was held in a room with portraits of important men from the history of the labour movement. Next year we made our own portraits of women pioneers - national and international - and placed them over the old ones together with the presentation of texts about the women. These portraits are now a part of every conference.

Some theoretical points

My position is that I am a long-standing political activist and part of the leadership of a small, maoist type, communist party in Norway, AKP. I want to add that this party has put far more emphasis on women questions than what is common to this tradition, and this has been my field of work. I have also been working on questions as women's wages, 6 hour working time, and the situation of single mothers in The Women's Front for many years. And I have represented the WF in Women across divides since the start. I therefore have both a practical and a theoretical background for my activism in this field.

Women comprise at least half the working class, but has largely been ignored by the trade union movement. The TU have been using gender neutral concepts, as for instance "low paid", making it invisible that it's a question of women. Even women-dominated TUs have not taken into account the fact that its members are women.

Class-theoretician have had trouble fitting women into their way of defining class, as preconceived gender neutral categories. I still think class is an important concept. Why should we accept that this is not any longer a relevant concept, when it has become evident that women are the majority belonging there.

There has been some changes in the later years, with more talking about the interests of women, but now they are making equal rights a gender neutral concept. TUs are still gendered organisations.

The majority of working women have common interests:

This puts women in the forefront of the struggles for a living wage, against the modern flexible working hours and against privatisation and cuts in public spending.

But women have no organisations suited to take up this struggles taking into account both their class interests and their interests as women and they are split up between different TUs. The difference and distance between the women movement and TUs has been large, both in themes and culture.

My view is that women need both class consciousness and the experience of the trade union movement and women consciousness and the experience of the feminist movement, - to be able to unite and fight for their rights. And it's necessary to add consciousness and experience related to the struggle against white domination and racism.

So there is a need for new forms of organising that are able to encompass the whole of women's lives and struggles. These kinds of organising has to grow within and across the organisations of today, from co-operation between the different organisations that take up different parts of women's lives in a way that opens up for new groups of women. As I see it, women's organisations and groups have a special role to play in this process, even though they are small, considerably smaller than the TUs. I see Women across divides in this perspective, and that is what makes me so excited about it.

What is achieved - what is the limitations?

Women across divides has become very popular in a short time. It has become a concept. It obviously fulfilled a need, women in the TU movement feel a need to have a place to discuss and act about women questions. Women across divides has made it easier to take up women questions and has strengthened the work with women issues in the participating TUs. It has played an important role in the process of opening up the TUs for co-operation across branches and confederations. When we started up, this was still halfway illegal, at least looked upon with great scepticism. Now this is more or less accepted. The climate have changed. Organisational chauvinism is reduced in this process.

The co-operation in Women across divides has brought together women from different organisations, they have got acquainted, and this has developed a network that is in operation on a lot of issues, independent of the actual work of the organising group. They have become used to thinking about seeking support with each other on issues that comes up.

The Women across divides has also helped to maintain focus on the women's wages through the last years. This is important when the official labour policy is moderate wage claims, and when some scholars try to define wage discrimination against women as narrow as possible; as what is left when all other factors are accounted for. That is to the difference between women and men doing the same work at the same workplace, with the same education and seniority.

Of course there are also a lot of differences of opinion. Different TUs have different policies.

The organisations of the lowest paid women are focusing on low pay, the organisations of those a bit higher up (but definitely not highly paid) have been focusing on equal pay, and getting better paid for their education. As women with 3 years of further education on a higher level as nursery teachers, nurses etc. are paid far beneath the men in comparable male dominated occupations.

On an early conference we managed to make a kind of platform for our common struggle: We agreed "to stand on two legs" - and respect each other:

This platform has no official status, we are not taking decisions at our conferences. We are discussing, and we are giving out ideas - then it is up to the participating women to take this back to their local and central organisations and fight it there. But both the platform and the conferences have played an important role to increase the pressure on the leading bodies in the TUs and to bridge and soften the contradictions and divisions that have risen during the official negotiations.

And of course it made it easier to get support when we arranged demos with slogans based on this policy in 96. Another difficult issue where the conferences have been vital to the discussion is where the negotiations ought to take place in the public sector, at the central or local level. Experience shows us that the local negotiations prefer to give higher wages to men, especially in the leading positions, and only tend to split the organisations in quarrels about peanuts.

These differences of opinion are not suppressed, but out in the open. We also take care not to roll over anybody on vital questions, even if they are a minority. We seldom decide difficult questions by voting, but try to find solutions that everybody can live with.

And there is an important difference between Women across divides and the participating organisations. We can concentrate on the building of a public opinion and an opinion inside the TUs, on the main points. We are not forced to take a stand in the detailed negotiations with their tactical decisions. We are a bit on the outside, at the same time there are people inside the system who participate in our conferences and takes up our points.

This way of organising of course has got its limitations. It is suited to discussions and influencing activists and organisations and broad campaigning, but it is more difficult to obtain forceful actions. At the conferences people have no mandates from their unions/organisations to agree to common action, but what we can do, is to give ideas to what can be done at different levels. The demonstrations we have arranged have been comparatively small, because the organisations have not given them priority as they would have done with actions of their own. But it is not impossible to do more active campaigning. One of the issues we have done some active campaigning about, is the demand for governmental money to raise the wages of women in the public sector, the question of woman's wages being a political issue not only a trade union issue. This autumn there has been a broad alliance behind this demand in relation to the presentation of the state budget.

Our main limitation is that we have too few activists that are not engaged beyond their limits in organisational work for their own organisation. There are a lot of things we could have done had that not been the case. For instance more common actions and giving more opportunities for women to participate in work between the conferences.

The popularity and acceptance of Women across divides open up a lot of opportunities to bring women together. To me the Women across divides is a very meaningful way of organising women with a potential that we have just started to explore. A forum where women can set their own agenda.

Some basic facts about Norway: