A century after middle-class Irish women won the vote, Natalie Fleming considers feminism and socialism as twin prongs in the ongoing fight for equality, writes Kevin Mullan.
Natalie, aged 47, cracked a significant glass ceiling when she became the first woman Secretary of the Derry Trades Union Council back in 2016.
Two years later, on the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, 1918, she said it was a particular honour to hold the position, especially given the North West’s proud tradition of feminist and trade unionist activism.
RPA 1918 granted suffrage to propertied women over the age of 30 and famously saw Constance Markievicz, the first ever woman elected in a General Election in Ireland.
And Derry produced its own contributors to that struggle for suffrage including, to name but one, the novelist and activist Kathleen Coyle, who under the nom de guerre, Selma Sigerson, published ‘Sinn Féin and Socialism’ with James Connolly in 1919.
Today, as women and workers continue to struggle for equal rights and better pay and conditions, Ms. Fleming is proud to be carrying on in that tradition.
“Trade unionism and feminism go hand in hand,” she maintains.
“People would call you a ‘leftie’ as an insult but I would wear that as a badge of honour. I’m proud to be ‘left’. I’m more than happy to be out there.
“It’s really important for us on the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote, to have a woman as one of the public faces of the Trades Council,” she adds.
Natalie is one of a legion of women helping transform the public perception of trade unionism, which has often been seen as the purview of tubthumping older men. While there are no plans to dial down the tubthumping any time soon, she’s keen that more women and more young people take their place within the trade union vanguard locally.
“That’s something myself and Lucille O’Hagan [Secretary of the Ballymena & Antrim District Trades Council] did talk about. We’re always forward thinking.
“We have the May Day Parade and you can see the difference, young women with prams marching in the parade and proud to do so.
“Before it was, ‘look at them oul lefties’. Now it’s well tied in to the jazz festival and we are also heavily involved in Foyle Pride, which is always important for us. But just because we’re women and we are feminists we are not excluding men. A lot of men are feminists as well.”
Natalie, who lives in Rosemount with her partner Martin, and her two daughters Claire and Hayley, first joined the Communication Workers Union (CWU) when she got a start at BT 29 years ago.
Centrally active in the trade union movement ever since, she acknowledges that the employment profile in Derry is now utterly unrecognisable from what it was in the late 1980s.
“What we talk about at nearly every Trades Council meeting is jobs. The lack of jobs in Derry and the lack of quality jobs. We don’t want jobs for the sake of having jobs in Derry.
“You have all these big call centres. Great. But the standard of work that is there isn’t good. Whenever I left school and went into BT I was told it was a job for life. There’s no such things as a job for life anymore. Manufacturing is more or less gone out of this town.”
Natalie runs BT’s ‘Work Ready’ programme in partnership with the DTUC.
This involves taking young people behind the scenes at the BT Exchange on Queen’s Quay and allowing them to learn practical skills and make themselves more employable.
It’s based out of the People Plus Centre on Patrick Street, a thoroughfare which Ms. Fleming sees as emblematic of Derry’s employment problems.
“We are based in People Plus because of the training facilities. When I look down Patrick Street,which was filled with manufacturing jobs,” she recalls.
The near absence of light engineering jobs in Derry notwithstanding, the ‘Work Ready’ programme has proven very successful.
For example, it’s supported 21 young people in Derry into work and a further seven into education and it recently won a Business in the Community Employability award.
“We approached BT three years ago and asked if we could run a programme for young people who were not in work, bring them in and show them what was happening in that big ugly building. BT jumped at the opportunity.”
“The young people were a credit to themselves and deserve the same opportunities enjoyed by their contemporaries in Belfast and other parts of Ireland and Britain.
“It was designed to give them opportunities and education and learning, but we’re actually learning from them.
“When we ask them about the opportunities they’d like, they say they’d like to build a website or design an app. The work that they can do is amazing.”
Outside of her trade union activism Natalie hails from a well-known Derry family - her brother Gary used to play for Nottingham Forest and Manchester City and cousins Paul and Lynn are prominent figures within Sinn Féin - but she is very much her own woman.
Insofar as politics is concerned she’s actually a card-carrying member of the Labour Party. “I’d be a big Jeremy Corbyn fan,” she said.
Like other local members of the party she was not impressed, however, when Mr. Corbyn failed to meet the DTUC when he visited Derry last month.
“I was a bit disappointed when Jeremy came to Derry that he didn’t meet with the Trades Council. I did actually try to organise a meeting. I will be writing a letter of complaint back to the Labour Party about that.”
When not attending DTUC meetings, or running the BT Work Ready programme, Natalie can variously be found sitting on the CWU’s Disability Advisory Committee, as an Industrial Tribunals panellist, completing a degree in International Labour and Trade Unions at Ruskin College in Oxford, or editing the CWU’s Disability in Focus magazine.
How does she find the time? It “keeps the mind active,” she laughs.
Natalie considers veteran trade unionists such as Daisie Mules, Liam Gallagher, Goretti Horgan and Eamonn McCann as mentors and wants to emulate them by encouraging more younger people onto the rolls.
“Unfortunately, an awful lot of young people don’t see any value in the union unless they are in trouble, which is a big problem. We need to get the message out there that the trade union is not just there for when you’re in bother, they are there to support you.”