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History The ‘chain reaction’ that set British trade unionism on its way

KIRI TUNKS writes about the importance of women workers organising and their historic victories

IT’S AN incredible story — in 1910, 3,500 low-paid, largely illiterate women working in disparate small shops pulling together to form a trade union to demand a decent living wage. And what did they do when the bosses reneged on paying it? They went on strike for 10 weeks, eventually winning the first minimum wage agreement.

Their victory had a huge impact on working people — increasing the wages of the poorest workers by some 100 per cent.

Emboldened and supported by Mary Macarthur, the founder of the Federation of Women Workers and a giant in trade union history, their determination to fight for what they had been promised is a huge lesson in resilience and courage.

It is one of the most inspiring tales of workers’ struggles but how many people know about it?

Often the history of working people (especially working women) is hidden and belittled even by our own movement.

I am proud that the National Union of Teachers worked with people in this region to produce educational resources on the women chainmakers to use in schools. They are available for download from our website.

It’s why this festival is so important — it keeps the legacy of the chainmakers alive and inspires us to keep going today to improve the lot of the working people in this country.

Last weekend I was at Matchfest — a day which celebrates the historic struggle by women in the Bryant & May match factory in Bow, east London, for better working conditions and pay. A group of mainly teenage girls led 1,400 workers out on strike — and won.

Their victory inspired their brothers and fathers who worked in the docks to strike the next year and a new trade unionism was begun.

There have been plenty of other struggles which women have been at the forefront of: the right to vote, the fight for equal pay (kick-started by the Dagenham strike). We remember, too, the historic fights by largely immigrant women at Grunwick and Gate Gourmet.

This history is a reminder that women’s relationship with the trade union movement is not new. We now make up over half of the TUC membership but we have always been there.

Women have always organised ourselves — even when, sometimes, established leaders blocked or discouraged us. We are still too invisible, particularly in leadership roles, and this is a disparity we need to put right.

Women workers are often the lowest paid working in the most precarious jobs. This is especially true if you are from a black or immigrant community.

But, like the chainmakers, that doesn’t mean women won’t organise. Look at the London hotel cleaners and the McStrikes in this country, look at the teacher wildcat strikes in the US.

It is women and people from minority ethnic or disadvantaged backgrounds that benefit most from being a member of a trade union.

The attack on trade union rights in this country is a direct attack on the most vulnerable and a deliberate resistance to sharing the wealth of this country fairly with the people who make it.

Women need the trade union movement. But the trade union movement needs us. We are half the workforce. We cannot build a mass, powerful movement without women at its heart and out in front.

As Mary Macarthur said: “Women are unorganised because they are badly paid, and poorly paid because they are unorganised.”

We must find new ways to organise working people and make sure all our members are active and engaged and that our unions look like their members at all levels of leadership.

We cannot be discouraged by the anti-trade union legislation. We must rise to the challenge. We have too much to lose if we don’t.

Kiri Tunks is NUT section president of the NEU.

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