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“In the past, there were never any women in the Executive Committees of SACCAWU. Now there are women at the regional, national and even at local level Executive Committees. We are finding that women can now stand for themselves with support from the top levels of the gender structures.”
South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU)
SACCAWU is the main retail-sector trade union in South Africa. Its membership includes casual/temporary workers, a group typically not recognized or organized by other unions. Despite the fact that women make up the majority of membership, SACCAWU operates within a male-dominated leadership and organizational culture.
THE CHANGE PROJECT: Getting women into leadership roles
SACCAWU’s change project focused on building women leaders from the shop floor. They strategy was to focus their efforts in shopping malls, thus enabling the team to work with women at the source of employment, training them on activism and awareness and capacitating them for leadership roles, starting with shop steward. Remaining local enabled women to play a more powerful role in dealing with local problems and management. It also kept women in close contact with each other, enabling them to build support amongst each other, strengthening the group professionally and personally.
Eight months into the change project, the coordinating shop steward reported that, “the mall-committee structure and the process we followed helped encourage women to stand as shop stewards.” The elected woman shop steward in the pilot mall developed into a stronger, more confident/able leader as she became increasingly familiar with union process, worker’s rights and gender issues. She also became the model for empowerment and possibility for other women, her leadership position and new skills becoming something to emulate.
With her participation in shop-steward elections, she was able to stay in close contact with the women workers, ensuring they were informed of meetings, activities, processes and other important information. Armed with information and access, the other women workers had more motivation and ability to act on their own behalves, to vote for women shop stewards and to lend their voices to the issues that affected them directly.
The greatest success of this project was achieving true gender integration, i.e. electing a woman to shop steward fulfilled a regular union function, but it also simultaneously challenged previous gender inequalities embedded within union structure.
This pilot became the de facto model for increasing women's power and position within the union structure and improving women's lives, both at their place of work as well as within their community. Seven other malls followed suit, implementing the same process. The union’s National Gender Committee subsequently developed and widely distributed a set of guidelines based on the pilot's success.
A side benefit of this process: the National Gender Committee introduced and facilitated workshops for shop stewards and workers that tackled gender issues previously bedeviling the union, such as sexual abuse by people in high-ranking positions. Women were now actively discouraging abuse. This opportunity to educate members on roles and responsibilities, demonstrating different leadership styles and creating an environment of transparency in which leaders could be held accountable, injected hope in the union’s own democratic processes.
Overall, women’s capacity to influence decision-making and to confront internalized oppression has improved. Information and education campaigns have helped tackle the issue of violence against women. In one example within the union's structure, safe and reliable transport and child-care are now provided for union meetings, as well as for campaigning workers coming to and from shift work/extended working hours.