British women workers’ history

This video from England says about itself:

Women Chainmakers’ Festival 2010

CWU TV attended the Women Chainmakers’ Festival this year, held at The Black Country Living Museum in Dudley. Music and theatre performaces were held throughout the day including speeches from CWU‘s very own Billy Hayes, Tony Benn and many others. Activists also took part in a march around the museum to recreate Mary Macarthur‘s famous march. (Created October 2010).

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Saturday 7th June 2014

As the labour movement celebrates the Chainmakers’ Festival this weekend, the Star charts the dramatic course of events as the women workers of Cradley Heath battled for a decent wage

During the 19th century most production of large chains had become industrialised.

But what was often known as “small chain” industry, for agricultural or domestic use, was almost exclusively carried out in the home or a back garden shed.

Much of their manufacture was performed in tiny workshops, mostly by women and young girls and usually hand-worked by women who were largely non-unionised and their treatment bordered on the abusive. Over the years small chainmaking became increasingly focused in Cradley Heath in the West Midlands.

Many of the workers were paid under three shillings a week — an outrageously pitiful sum. In contrast, the London docks strike of 1889 was over a demand for six shillings an hour.

Any pressure for improved terms and conditions saw the employers threaten to invest in mechanisation, which would eliminate the jobs altogether.

In 1905, women chainmakers in Cradley formed their own Cradley Heath and District Hammered and Country Chainmakers’ Association, a bona-fide trade union not often much mentioned in accounts of this struggle.

In 1907, this body entered the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) wholesale by means of block affiliation, to be transformed into the NFWW chainmakers’ section.

Unions in this sphere had tended to be local and craft in character but, as the trade union movement became stronger and more militant in the early years of the 20th century, a trend towards more general organisation ensued.

Alongside this trend, the campaign against “sweated” labour in general industries, mostly dominated by women, finally produced some movement.

In 1909, against the background of a small but rising number of Labour MPs being elected, a Liberal government enacted the Trade Boards Act that would have a galvanising effect on some 60 or 70 years’ agitation in the Black Country chainmaking industry.

The Act provided for the fixing of minimum wages where “the rate of wages prevailing in any branch of the trade was exceptionally low, compared with that in other employments.”

In early 1910 a minimum wage for hand-hammered chainworkers was proposed for 2½d an hour for a 55-hour week, nearly double the existing rate. (A loaf of bread then cost 2½d.)

As the deadline for enactment of the new rates in small chainmaking drew near, employers announced they would simply not pay the legally backed rate and would also keep the old piecework system. Some employers even tricked the women to sign up to a waiver from the regulation.

Noting no sense of any desire by the employers to act, all “female workers engaged in the Hammered Branch of the Chain Trade” were asked to observe the afternoon of Monday April 11 1910 as a half-day holiday, to hear a report on the Trade Boards Act and its effects on the chain trade.

Speakers at the meeting included the trade unionist Mary Macarthur and Mr JJ Mallon, president of the Anti-Sweating League.

At the time, there were 7,000 chainmakers in the Cradley and Cradley Heath district, over two-thirds of them women. Something like 850 now came out on strike or were locked out for refusing to accept the stance of defiance against the trade boards of their employers.

Macarthur was a key name associated with the dispute. As leader of the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), she was certainly able to play a significant role in the corridors of power to push things forward, lobbying in Parliament, with the press and with the Trade Board.

She was also central to the collection of a fantastic amount of £4,000 — estimated at around £370,000 in today’s money — for the strikers, which sustained them in a long battle.

Yet usually forgotten in accounts of this struggle is that most of the actual practical work regarding the dispute, including the hard slog of keeping the women together and maintaining the support of male trade unionists, was carried out by Julia Varley (1871-1952), with Macarthur spending most of her time in London.

Varley had started out in working life at the age of 13 as a sweeper in a Bradford woollen mill.

In Cradley Heath, things had reached a head. Now the women were refusing en masse to sign the employers’ document exempting them from the Trade Board stipulations and, on August 27, the employers declared a general lockout of all workers.

During the first week a mass meeting ended with a procession along the high street with the women singing Onward Christian Soldiers.

Support money was paid out by the Cradley Heath branch of the NFWW to aid the dispute.

In the first week of the strike, 212 union members and 202 non-members received 5/- and 2/6 respectively. The effect of this was electric.

By the second week, numbers supported in this way had risen to 226 members and 430 non-members.

An official demonstration was arranged and 5,000 people gathered outside the Grainger’s Lane School.

Led by the Quarry Bank silver band, the procession proceeded to Cradley and Colley Gate and then back again.

Many small children and babies were carried, while all listened intently to Varley and a deputy for Macarthur from London.

The mood of the women was joyous — liberated, even.

On Saturdays, collectors from among the women went as far afield as Birmingham and all over the Black Country and came back laden with cash.

No-one asked if they had authority to collect on the streets and all they had to do was rattle their buckets and say “give to the Cradley girls’ strike.”

Public support for the strikers was strong and press reports were highly emotional.

On September 1 1910, the Daily Express ran an article about Mrs Patience Round, an “aged striker of 79,” and one of 12 striking chainmakers over the age of 70.

The Birmingham Despatch revealed she had been chainmaking since she was 10 years old. The reports mention Mrs Round’s limited horizons, having “never in her life stepped across the outskirts of Cradley Heath,” as well as her domestic situation — working from dawn to dusk to provide funds to care for her disabled husband.

Patience went on record to say: “These are wonderful times … I never thought that I should live to assert the rights of women.”

There were at this point 638 women locked out, 320 of whom were unionists and 318 non-unionists.

In all, up to 800 individual strikers were paid strike pay, which was almost certainly the reason why, within a month, 60 per cent of employers had agreed to pay the minimum rate.

It was now a game of waiting.

The third week of the strike saw a Monday rally and demonstration at the Empire Theatre, so did the fourth week.

By now 35 manufacturers had agreed to pay the full rate. By September 24 — the fifth week of the dispute — steady progress to resolution was clearly under way.

The middlemen stated that they were prepared to pay the Trade Board rate, if the major employers agreed to place orders only with middlemen who signed up to the board rates.

Six-hundred trade unionists were now working under the proper rates with 140 unionists and 280 non-unionists still in dispute.

In the sixth week of the dispute, on the Sunday, there had been yet another large meeting at the theatre, this time with Labour parliamentary leader Arthur Henderson and celebrated novelist John Galsworthy as the main speakers.

The employers rejected the middlemen’s proposals and the dispute went into October with bitterness increasing. Talk turned to picketing out all factories — what today would be called secondary action.

Eventually there was a sudden settlement.

It was a complete climbdown, since all employers agreed to deal only with middlemen who had signed up to an agreement to pay board rates — there now being no less than 153 such middlemen fully signed up.

A packed meeting of women at Grainger’s Lane School that very day concluded that this was the complete and decisive victory they had been looking for over the last 10 weeks.

The women had been presented with countless chances to settle but, for them, it had to be all or nothing.

Not one employer went out of business as a result of the higher wages, no women lost their jobs, nor did the trade move abroad.

Enhanced by Zemanta

5 thoughts on “British women workers’ history

  1. Pingback: Margaret Bondfield, British pro-peace World War I heroine | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: British Conservatives, elections and racism | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Saturday 1st July 2017

    posted by Morning Star in Features

    LOUISE REGAN celebrates a momentous 1910 struggle by determined women chainmakers that changed history

    Today the annual Women Chainmakers’ Festival takes place on Cradley Heath High Street in Sandwell. This Festival re-enacts the struggle and celebrates the achievements of women trade unionists both then and now. It is an opportunity to see how the women worked, hear about their dispute and learn from current trade unionists.

    In 1910 the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath laid down their tools and left their backyard forges to strike for a living wage. These courageous women, led by the union organiser Mary Macarthur, showed that by standing together and fighting for a living wage they could win.

    After 10 weeks they won their dispute and more than doubled their weekly income from as little as five to 11 shillings. Their victory helped to make the principle of a national minimum wage a reality.

    These women took a huge risk because although they were earning a pittance the small amount of money they did earn enabled them to put food on the table.

    However, the campaign was supported both nationally and internationally and money was donated to the strike fund to support them. So much money in fact that at the end of the strike there was enough left to build The Cradley Heath Workers’ Institute (pictured) — a centre of social and industrial activity and a place for women to meet and organise.

    This centre opened on June 10 1912 and in 2006 — to save it from demolition — it was moved brick by brick to the Black Country Museum where it stands today as a physical reminder of the women’s strike in 1910.

    So why over 100 years later do we still remember these women? Why, when some feel that women have made such huge gains do we need to talk about strike action from the past?

    First, I think it is important we do not forget the lessons of the past but also that we realise that through struggle, through organising and engaging people we can and do make a difference.

    At the moment we are seeing increasing numbers of people living in poverty. Workers whose wages do not even meet their basic needs, who have to resort to the use of foodbanks to survive, who in the winter have to choose between heating and eating and who struggle to get by on a daily basis.

    We also know that the impact of austerity has hit women hardest. Benefit changes since 2010 will have affected women’s income twice as hard as men’s by 2020 and women on below average incomes will be the hardest hit.

    We need to use struggles from the past to build confidence among women today to challenge the system.

    We have recently seen teaching assistants in Derby and Durham having that confidence and resisting an attack on their pay and conditions, a deal that would have seen some women losing up to 20 per cent of their salaries.

    These courageous workers stood strong and built massive support for their cause. People were outraged when they heard their story and rightly so.

    In 1970 the Equal Pay Act was introduced; nearly 50 years later we know that the pay gap for full-time workers still stands at 13.9 per cent.

    Many women’s organisations raise awareness of the fact that from early in November women are effectively working the rest of the year for free. It is time that real action was taken to end the gender pay gap.

    And, finally, we still live in a society where two women each week die at the hands of a current or former partner and yet there is not a national outcry about this. What is even more shocking is that when these murders are reported in the press the story too often focuses on the man — what a good father he was, a hard worker, how he was driven to it — the victim becoming a nameless afterthought.

    We must find ways to challenge this, to ensure that women are safe when they leave abusive relationships and that they are listened to and believed when they say they feel at risk. However, we also need to do more to overcome domestic abuse and violence in our society.

    We have without doubt made progress since 1910 in lots of ways but as we have seen when austerity hits, when things get tough, the impact disproportionately affects women.

    So the Women Chainmakers’ Festival allows us to remember women and their struggles from the past, celebrate women trade unionists now and build our movement to defend women’s rights for the future.

    Louise Regan is national president of NUT.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.