Change: The ITF Women’s Maritime Leadership Programme

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015
Momoko Kitada, Erin Williams and Lisa Loloma Froholdt (eds.)Maritime Women: Global LeadershipWMU Studies in Maritime Affairs310.1007/978-3-662-45385-8_3

Leading Change: The ITF Women’s Maritime Leadership Programme

Alison McGarry 

International Transport Workers’ Federation, Women Transport Workers’ Coordinator, London, UK



Alison McGarry


Women activists in the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), face significant challenges in providing leadership for working men and women in maritime industries. But a leadership programme developed specifically for women members, can do more than provide them with the skills and tools necessary to lead within the affiliate unions of the ITF. Building women’s leadership is crucial for the strength of global unions. Union density is falling, which demands that leaders find new methods to organise and bargain to build workers’ power. The strongest unions will have women involved at all levels of their organisations. The ITF women’s leadership programme—Leading Change—prepares women activists to meet the challenge of dynamic leadership within their unions and global society. Elected and emerging women leaders have the opportunity to develop their leadership strengths and identify ways to make their unions stronger. Leading Change, developed in concert with the Harvard Trade Union Program, seeks to enable participants to plan strategic change to lead ITF affiliates, to strengthen the international trade union movement and to advance the cause of women workers across the globe.


1 Background: The ITF and Global Union Federations (GUFs)

The ITF is a global union organisation with member unions in 148 countries worldwide. Any independent trade union with members in the transport industry is eligible for membership in the ITF. Approximately 700 unions, representing over 4.5 million workers in all modes of transport, are members of the ITF. It is one of several Global Union Federations, or GUFs, allied with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Although the ITF is involved in a range of activities with respect to its affiliate unions, most of these fall under one of four key headings: (1) representation—helping affiliate unions defend the interests of their unions; (2) information—providing research and information services to affiliate unions about developments within the international transport industry; (3) practical solidarity—organising international solidarity when transport unions in one country are in conflict with employers or government and need direct help from unions in other countries (the ITF’s worldwide campaign in the maritime industry against the use by ship owners of so-called Flags of Convenience to skirt national laws and worker protections, is one recent example); and (4) organising—assisting affiliates to organise new members into their ranks.

The ITF and its member unions, face enormous challenges in today’s fast-growing—and quickly changing—globalised transport industry. The global downturn, combined with privatisation, deregulation and commercialisation, have resulted in significant job losses and reduced union membership. At the same time, however, the transport industry is growing, creating new areas of employment that are often casual, precarious and unregulated.

2 The ITF and Women Transport Workers

Women transport workers are entering transport-related industries in growing numbers. According to ITF data, more than a quarter of a million women belong to the ITF, comprising between 13 and 17 % of the membership. The biggest proportion of ITF’s women members can be found in the passenger air transport sector, while the highest proportion of women working within the transport sector overall, is in tourism-related transport. Despite occupational segregation, more women are working in operational transport jobs that were previously the preserve of their male colleagues (Turnbull et al. 2009). A growing number of women work in ports as crane operators and stevedores, train and truck drivers, ship’s officers and airline pilots. Women transport workers can be found in Argentina’s merchant fleet, driving trains in Morocco and operating cranes in India. These women tend to join trade unions, as they are a recognised part of the traditional transport workforce.

But women’s involvement in this sector goes beyond operational transport jobs. Women’s employment in the transport industry has changed along with the industry itself. Globalisation demands effective supply-chain management and depends on distribution centres to store and assemble goods, on transnational company alliances to deliver cheap goods and passenger services, on call centres to take bookings, and on express delivery services to get goods to consumers. Many of the new workers in these areas are women, who work in large numbers in service, information and administration jobs related to transport. Such jobs include security guard positions created in ports in response to new security measures, as well as logistical, technical and administrative positions. Huge new warehouses that serve the international transport industry and function as logistical hubs in locations such as Hong Kong, also employ significant numbers of women. Significantly, women working in the transport-related jobs described above, are much less likely to be organised. The outsourcing and offshoring of ticketing and business processes in rail and aviation, has meant an increase in transport-related call-centre staff in India and the Philippines, for example, most of whom do not belong to a union (Holman et al. 2007).

3 Why Organise Women Workers

In most countries, less than 40 % of the employed population belongs to unions, and women tend to join in lower numbers than men.1 Yet trade unions are unquestionably beneficial for working women (ILO 2007). According to the ITUC, the gender pay gap, estimated at approximately 22 % globally, is generally lower for women who are members of trade unions. Meanwhile, the impacts of globalisation and global recession have been borne disproportionately by women workers. Women were more likely to lose their jobs first, and lost more jobs than men during the global economic crisis (Stavrapoulou and Jones 2013). They are more likely to hold part-time or non-permanent jobs, or to work in the informal economy where work is insecure, wages are low, working conditions are poor, and workers are least likely to be protected by conventional social insurance programmes. Organising such workers into effective unions, can provide a meaningful opportunity to improve their workplaces, their standards of living and their status in society.

Unions can also play a key role in responding to big social issues that disproportionately impact women. The ITF has been at the forefront of pioneering work on HIV/AIDS, public transport provision and other transformative community initiatives. In addition to organising and collective bargaining in order to win concrete financial and workplace benefits for women members, the ITF also sees itself as having an important social role to play in responding to climate change—and its particular impact on women—violence and global pandemics. In turn, broadening the vision of unions to incorporate issues far beyond traditional workplace concerns, has the added benefit of attracting women to unions. Women workers want their unions to address, not just workplace issues, but conditions that affect their families, their health and their social status (Kirton and Healy 2013).

As women represent a growing portion of global transport workers, ITF and other unions in this sector must be able organize and represent women workers more effectively, if the unions are to survive and thrive. There are some positive signs on this front. A recent gender audit of membership, carried out by the ITF of maritime members, indicated that by far the strongest growth of membership is amongst women members (ITF 2014). But organizing is only part of this equation. Women members must also be able to participate in all areas of union life, including leadership. For traditionally male-dominated unions like the ITF, such a transition requires a multi-pronged effort that entails changing the culture of the union, creating separate structures for women leaders and providing training and leadership development opportunities in order that women members can lead change in the ITF and in their own communities.

4 History of Women in the ITF: Barriers to Involvement

Historically, women in the ITF have faced significant barriers, both to leadership and to full participation in the lives of their affiliates. The low density of women in the affiliate unions, particularly in the maritime industries, has meant that women members have often been relatively marginalized in their unions (Turnbull et al. 2009). Significantly, this has left women unable to exert influence upon a traditionally male-oriented collective bargaining agenda, meaning that the concerns of women members have been largely excluded in that agenda.

Despite the increasing numbers with which women are entering the transport industry, both the industry and its unions remain male-dominated. This gender imbalance serves to effectively shape the culture of trade unions in a way that tacitly discourages, or actively prevents, the full participation by women members. In surveys of women unionists, they consistently identify the following as limits to greater involvement in their unions (ITF 2013):


Practical barriers, including a lack of time for participation due to family activities;



Cultural barriers, including meetings that are confrontational and aggressive, and in which women members struggle to make their voices heard; and



Stereotyped expectations, in which leadership traits are defined as masculine.


5 Separate Union Structures for Women Unionists

Structures specific to women members originated within labor unions as a counter to the exclusion of women from male-controlled unions. As the workforce participation of women increased dramatically after World War II, women union members began to press for more participation and representation. Unions have approached the representation of their women members through a variety of mechanisms, ranging from formal structures such as women’s committees, to representation on union policy-making bodies or the establishment of women’s schools, as well as less formal arrangements, such as networks and women’s committees.

The introduction of such structures has not always been received positively. Male unionists have often regarded women’s committees and the like as “divisive of labor unity” and a drain on resources that should go to all members, regardless of gender. Women unionists, meanwhile, have argued that the creation of separate structures marginalizes them within their organizations (Kirton and Healy 2013

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