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Betty Tebbs: a hero of the working class

UNITE EDUCATION celebrate the unique contribution of Betty Tebbs, legendary union activist and radical, with a new biography

A few years ago, the late Betty Tebbs sent a copy of her self-typed autobiography to Unite assistant general secretary Toney Burke. After reading her fascinating story Unite thought about storing it in the archives of the print and paper unions at the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell.

But when the Unite education director Jim Mowatt began a programme of publishing biographies on the unsung heroes of Unite and its legacy unions, it was decided to get the manuscript professionally edited and printed. Now a 64-page illustrated book, a biography written by Mark Metcalf, has been produced and was launched in Manchester last week.

Born in Bury, Lancashire, in 1918, Betty became an activist in one of Unite’s legacy unions, the National Union of Printing, Bookbinding and Paper Workers, which later became Sogat, then the GPMU, Amicus and now Unite.

As a young woman she worked in the East Lancashire papermaking industry where, shocked at unequal pay rates, she began her work as a union activist, eventually becoming a highly respected Mother of the Chapel (senior shop steward).

During WWII she worked as a crane driver at the Manchester engineering munitions factory Mather & Platt, and it was during the war her first husband Ernie was killed fighting fascism.

After 1945 she became politically active in the Communist Party and a committed peace campaigner having seen the devastation caused by the atom bombs dropped on Japan.

Betty eventually joined the Labour Party and became a popular and a hard working local councillor.

She also worked in different jobs becoming an activist in the shop workers’ union Usdaw, but on returning to the papermaking industry she voluntarily took a job with a plan to organise the “worst organised company” in her branch. Through determination and skill she successfully organised all workers at the company into the paperworkers’ union.

Betty became a delegate to Sogat union conferences where she campaigned for equal pay. She also attended many international conferences campaigning for world peace. She was eventually awarded Sogat’s Gold Badge of Merit.

Betty was also a founder member of the National Assembly of Women and secretary of her local CND branch. Aged 89 she was arrested on a demonstration at Faslane in Scotland and was honoured by Manchester City Council with the Elizabeth Gaskell Women’s Award.

Unite’s Len McCluskey recalls: “I was proud to speak alongside Betty at the 2016 Labour Party Conference at a packed Unite-Daily Mirror fringe meeting. Even in her 90s she was a marvellous speaker and received a long and rousing standing ovation following her speech. She was a great friend and comrade. I am delighted that Unite has published this biography of Betty’s remarkable life.

And actor, playwright and Betty’s great friend Maxine Peake said: “When comrades became disheartened Betty always gave the same answer: ‘We have to carry on the struggle. It is up to us.’ For Betty it was the only answer. Her story is a guiding light for all of us in that struggle.”

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