Women Trade Union Participation in India- A Qualitative Inquiry.

AuthorDash, Sasmita


Inclusion and integration of women in trade unions could draw upon bargaining power in favor of women issues and could generate equal power distribution among all its members, (Greene & Kirton, 2002; Parker, 2002) and develop a sense of democracy (Blaschke, 2015). Though India has a 100 years history of trade unionism, beginning its first movement in 1918 (Elembilassery, 2018), however only a few unions like Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) have worked for women's trade unionism (Menon, 2013). Women in SEWA are successful in their efforts, still being a women only union, might have a different scenario from a mixed gender union, as women behave differently in the presence of male members (Kirton & Healy, 2004). Forrest (1993) made a point that influx of women into labor force would limit the trade union activities, caused by the pseudo representation of women. Pseudo representation has been referred to as union membership without active work. Women lacking time for attendance of committee meetings, not able to invest time for growth of trade unions, would be a burden on other (male) union members. Women trade union membership in India has grown over time from 1351000 in 1996 to 2512096 in 2014 (Trade Unions in India, 2014), which grows the curiosity to verify the argument of Forrest (1993) and explore the level of union participation.

Studies on women union participation have gained prominence in the last four decades (Anderson, 1978; Blaschke, 2015; Greene & Kirton, 2002; Parker, 2002; Ratnam & Jain, 2002) and discovered comparatively lower participation of women as trade union members. The reasons of non-participation and low involvement broadly pulled together in factors like attitudinal, ideological (Lawrence, 1994) and social gender stereotypes, union norms, opportunity to participate (Ratnam & Jain, 2002) and the absence of female leadership in unions (Marathe & Balasubramanian, 2013). Some scholars defined the factors of low participation as structural determinants and individual's belief in unionism, along with attitude and perception towards the same (Lawrence, 1994). Ratnam and Jain (2002), have mentioned lower participation of women in trade unions in India, however they mostly focused at the union membership, not the active participation. They looked at macro level and have taken data from the major unions of India.

Debate on union participation, mostly researched in developed countries (Anderson, 1978; Blaschke, 2015), might vary on the parameters in developing countries. Rarely any study has explored the level of actual participation of women union members, office bearers or committee members at the micro level, in the Indian context. In order to contribute to this global agenda of women participation in union activities, this study had tried to find out the level of participation in India. It also tried to trace the enabling and inhibiting factors behind the same. From the existing literature on trade union participation, relevant dimensions have been selected for the study and data taken from one mixed gender trade union set up in the Eastern India.

Theoretical Background

Union participation could be segregated into two parts; first formal activities like attending union meetings and present in the election; second informal activities like helping at workplace and speaking for unions. Klandermans (1986) pointed out that seeking information about union activities, showing interest for agreements, exercising union voting rights and emotional involvement would also contribute to union participation. Discussing about union activities with others also indicated union participation. McShane (1986) also argued that merely having union membership may not display the complete participation, rather participation is multidimensional and suggested nine dimensions for trade unions participation. The dimensions are: delegate at national union convention, member of union branch committee, elected official in union branch, voted in latest contract ratification, candidate in union branch election, being held any other appointed position, voted in latest strike vote, voted in latest union election, number of union meetings attended. Kelloway and Barling (1993) have given seven union participation dimensions such as: hold union office, serve on committees, attend union meetings, talk to union leaders, vote in elections, vote in other votes, reading union literature.

Studies have explored the union participation from several dimensions such as psychology, attitudinal and demographics. Among all demographic variables, "gender" has been identified as a major one. Literature is ambiguous about women's inclination towards trade unions. As per Ratnam and Jain, (2002), and Clegg (1976), women workers show lower inclination towards unions and mostly try to stay away from it. However, according to Sinclair (1995) women carry strong confidence in the principles of unionism like men. They want to carry out union work along with men and carry tremendous potential to contribute towards it (Parker, 2002). As per a study on BPO employees in India, women have displayed favorable attitude towards union in India (Sarkar, 2009); however, their actual participation had not been revealed.

Trade unions as democratic bodies are expected to give equal opportunities to all their members, so as women represent issues and participate in its decision making process (Blaschke, 2015). Non-participation will deprive women members from extending their view points and will fail to put forward issues related to women, result in non-fulfilment of union democracy objective. Participation could bring in more number of women members and can project better identity of one union. Women unionists can work towards formation of women friendly unions which could be a pre-condition for transforming traditional masculine view of trade unions.

More bargaining power in the hands of women leaders can highlight more women related issues otherwise these issues will be sidelined from the mainstream (Greene & Kirton, 2002; Kirton & Healy, 1999). Women bring sense of diversity to the set up and, given proper opportunity to exercise their beneficial rights, can generate faster and fruitful result (Parker, 2002). According to Reddy (1981), entry of women into trade unions might contribute to lower number of strikes in India. Women members with their nurturing characters could avoid number of strikes and incidence of violence by initiating discussion. For many scholars (e.g. Forrest, 1993), increased influx of women into labor market...

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