IT’S not hard to find historical examples of women in Scotland being at the forefront of the struggle for workers’ rights. More than a century ago, in 1911 and 1912 respectively, women working in the Singer sewing machine factory in Clydebank and in the Ryedale glove factory in Dumfries went on strike.

Turn the clock forward some 70 years and women were those occupying workplaces to try to stop closures, in the case of Lee Jeans, Greenock, in 1981, and in 1982 at the Lovable Bra plant in Cumbernauld and Plessey electronics in Bathgate.

Into the new millennium, there have been more strikes by women workers – in 2001 by NHS medical secretaries in Glasgow, in 2004 by the nursery nurses and in 2018 by Glasgow City Council workers.

Yet it is only in recent years that women have won the leadership of most unions in Scotland. The Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) has just under 550,000 affiliated union members. Well over half these members are women because the largest unions in Scotland have predominantly female memberships.

Among these are the EIS teachers’ union, the GMB general union, the PCS civil servants’ union, the UCU university and college union, the UNISON public sector union and the Usdaw shop workers’ union.

READ MORE: Stephen Flynn: UK must bring back £400 energy rebate before winter

The STUC has been headed by Roz Foyer since 2020. She is its first woman general secretary, while Andrea Bradley became the EIS’s first woman general secretary in 2022. Louise Gilmour, Cat Boyd, Mary Senior, Lilian Macer and Tracy Gilbert are the regional secretaries of their respective unions in Scotland.

Outside of Scotland, Christina McAnea heads UNISON, Sharon Graham Unite, Pat Cullen the RCN, Jo Grady the UCU, Sarah Woolley the BFAWU bakers’ union, Michelle Stanistreet the NUJ journalists’ union and Shavanah Taj the Wales TUC. PCS will have its first female general secretary – whichever candidate wins later this year.

The battle has been a long and hard one to secure this representation. Traditionally, women had only made it so far as to occupy the positions of presidents when they did make it to the apex of their unions.

Though a lot more than just ceremonial positions, the presidents’ roles were not nearly as powerful as those of the general secretaries and often were only held for a year at a time.

How has this welcome transformation come about? There have been campaigns – like the Stand Aside, Brother one pioneered by Lynn Henderson, a former PCS Scottish regional secretary – and internal union self-organisation by women as well as reserved seats on union executives to ensure representation for women.

The National: Roz Foyer is the general secretary of the STUCRoz Foyer is the general secretary of the STUC (Image: Agency)

Yet most of the explanation has come about for two reasons. And, these are based upon the now long-standing phenomenon of women making up the majority of a union’s members.

The first is that union leaderships go through generational changes. When incumbent male leaders ready themselves for retirement, this has provided the opportunity for women candidates to successfully put themselves forward, whether through the process of election or appointment.

The second is that to be credible candidates, women union members as activists and officers have had to show that they are at least equal to if not better than their male counterparts.

This does not mean acting in male, macho ways. Rather, it means showing the acumen and steeliness to carry the day with arguments and campaigns inside and outside of their unions as well as with employers and governments.

The move by Lilian Macer, the newly appointed UNISON Scottish secretary, to build upon the basis of last summer’s successful council refuse members’ strikes with the threat of a repeat by UNISON’s school staff members is one indication of this.

READ MORE: Organisers say momentum is back after Edinburgh independence rally

So, while these women union leaders have not ignored what are commonly referred to as “women’s issues” – whether they be about unequal pay, leave for maternity, menstruation and menopause or flexible working for caring responsibilities – they have concentrated on the issues that span all of their members’ interests.

Put another way, they have led for their members as workers by being leaders of workers, meaning it’s more than just a case of “sisters doing it for themselves”.

What portent does this hold for the future? It provides a strong basis for women to maintain these leadership positions. But more importantly, it should help encourage other women to see that unions are no longer necessarily the “boys’ clubs” of old and are, thus, more welcoming to women.

It should also mean that the next generation of women union leaders are already in the making at the level of activists and local officials and officers. Through the campaigns and struggles that are to come in the next few years, this will mean that these women are well placed to take up the reins for the future fights.

In the world of work, this gives some sense to the saying: “The future is female.”

Gregor Gall is visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds