A Life Too Vital to Forget
Tuesday 13th October 2015
BERNADETTE HYLAND on how the Mary Quaile club are putting the pioneering trade unionist’s life back in the spotlight
UNITE’S successful campaign at Pizza Express recently shows how trade unions can make a difference in the low-paid, zero-hours sector.
Activists may not realise though that they are following in the footsteps of one of Unite’s unjustly forgotten trade union activists: Irish woman Mary Quaile.
Dare to be free was the motto that Quaile wrote above her signature in an autograph book of famous trade union activists in the 1920s. The motto summed up her life. She dared to become a trade unionist and activist in Manchester in the early 20th century and was a key figure in Manchester Trades Council, the TGWU and on the TUC general council in the ’20s.
Today her life is an inspiration for low-paid workers and trade unionists facing the onslaught of new Tory legislation that directly attacks the rights of workers to take strike action and legitimises using scabs to cover strikes.
Quaile was also known for her support for marginalised groups including homeworkers as well as encouraging more women to join trade unions.
She was born in Dublin in 1886, one of nine children to James and Bridget Quaile. James was a prominent member of the brick and stone layers’ union in the city, but, like many Irish workers over the centuries, he moved to England for work.
Quaile went to work at the age of 12 as a domestic — a familiar path for Irish women to work in the houses of the upper classes of Manchester.
By 1908 Quaile was a cafe worker in one of the many establishments in the city of Manchester. Cafe work was not pleasant or well paid. She was not prepared to accept the poor pay and conditions and, like many cafe workers of that period, she chucked aside her uniform and with her fellow workers walked out of the cafe and went on strike. Quaile set up a cafe workers’ trade union and started her lifelong commitment to trade union activity.
When the first world war broke out in 1914 Quaile was one of the brave people who spoke out against it. Not an easy task for her, particularly as at least one of her four brothers was conscripted. When he was invalided out she became his carer.
Quaile was elected to the general council of the TUC in 1923 — one of the first women to be so.
And in 1925 she went to the Soviet Union as part of a TUC delegation, spending four months travelling across the country finding out about the new socialist society.
She was awarded the TUC silver medal in 1951 in recognition of her life’s work as trade unionist. Quaile died in 1958. Her obituary said that “her determination to get trade unionism for women accepted was often met with jeers, boos, rotten apples and threats of violence.
“She spoke at hundreds of factory gate meetings in both London’s East End and Manchester and never betrayed any sign of fear when faced with hostility. Her warmth and lovable personality won for her many friends in the labour and trade union movement.”
Her name had been almost forgotten except in work of Ruth and Eddie Frow of the Working Class Movement Library, who inspired a new generation of historians and activists to research her life.
Like many working-class women activists of that era, Quaile did not write her autobiography and it’s been quite a task for socialist historian Michael Herbert to piece together her life from newspapers and other sources.
He says: “Mary was very well known in her own era as a trade union activist, speaking at countless meetings, but she quickly became forgotten after her death as often happens. We need to remember Mary and other women of that era such as Julia Varley, Anne O’Loughlin and Dorothy Elliott, who were pioneers in organising low-paid women workers, and put them back into the history of the trade union movement.”
The Mary Quaile Club was set up in December 2013 by a group of activists who are determined to remind people of the importance of Quaile. The club holds regular discussions on working-class history and its links with contemporary political issues facing working people in Tory Britain.
As part of Manchester TUC’s May Day in 2016 the club are planning to produce a pamphlet and play about Quaile’s life to inspire new activists to learn from her and recognise the value of trade unions.
The pamphlet will tell the story of Quaile’s life in the first half — a new history of Mary’s life — and in the second half it will publish the stories of modern-day “Marys,” both young and older women, who are following in her footsteps as activists in their trade union.
Sarah Woolley, a young activist in the bakers’ union BFAWU, is a shop steward who is involved in recruiting new union members in the fast-food industry. And rail union RMT activist Lorna Jane Tooley will discuss her role as a young woman who has been involved in the recent industrial disputes on the Tube. She says that being a trade union activist gave her the confidence to join the Green Party and stand in the 2015 general election.
And what do these new modern Marys feel about following in her footsteps? Tooley said: “She had some guts and spirit and is a good role model. It’s amazing that she achieved so much.”
Woolley commented: “She’s done what I would like to do — lead my shop out on a strike and stand for the TUC.”
The club has also started fundraising for the play, which will link her life with the fast-food workers of today: to remind people of her life and show young workers that they can change their lives at work through getting involved in a trade union.
Unite North West women’s and equalities officer Sharon Hutchinson said of Quaile: “Mary Quaile was a woman ahead of her time. She is a shining example to women of today, showing how anything can be achieved if you have the determination and commitment. I know the women of my union are proud she is a part of our history.”
The play will be premiered at Manchester TUC May Day in 2016 and a financial appeal has now been launched to raise £11,500 to get the play produced. Support has come from both individuals and trade unions including Unite, Unison, Bectu, NUJ and the Professional Footballers Association. Donations can be sent to the Mary Quaile Club, c/o 6 Andrew Street Mossley OL5 0DN. Further information see https://maryquaileclub.wordpress.com/.