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The Women Chainmakers’ Festival is back

LEE BARRON, secretary for the TUC Midlands region, argues that the 10-week strike carried out by women workers in the Black Country in 1910 deserves to be as well-known in the labour movement as the Tolpuddle Martyrs

THE TUC’s Women Chainmakers’ Festival returns in person this Saturday after a two-year break due to the Covid pandemic.

The event was the first trade union festival dedicated to female trade unionists. It is an event that we are tremendously proud of.

The chainmakers were the midwives of the modern trade union movement and deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
 
The chainmaking industry employed thousands of Black Country women in the early 20th century. Working conditions were atrocious and pay was pitiful.

In 1910, the Chainmaking Trade Board set a rate of 2½ pence per hour for adult women workers. At the end of the Trade Board’s consultation period in August 1910, many employers refused to pay the increase.

The founder of the the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), Mary Macarthur, was one of the workers’ representatives on the trade board. The employers tried to renege on the deal but in response the women took a stand and the NFWW called a strike.

The strike attracted a great deal of public support and within a month a majority of employers had agreed to the rates.

Following a further six weeks of action, the remaining employers finally agreed to pay, securing a pay rise of nearly 100 per cent for the workers.
 
The world in 2022 is vastly different from the world of 1910. Nevertheless, the struggles of 1910 offer useful insights into the challenges that we face today.
 
Too many women are still discriminated against due to their gender. The gender pay gap persists at 15.4 per cent, and the gender pensions gap is more than twice the pay gap at 37.8 per cent.
 
We know that 54,000 women are forced out of the labour market every year due to pregnancy and maternity discrimination. And one million women have been forced to leave their jobs due to the lack of support for them while experiencing menopause.
 
Violence against women extends into the workplace with half of all women experiencing sexual harassment at work, rising to seven in 10 for disabled women. One in eight LBGT women have experienced serious sexual assault while at work.

The government promised to bring forward an employment Bill to stop discrimination and support women to balance work and care. They promised to make Britain the best place to work in the world. Yet, we are still waiting. And in waiting, the government are abandoning working women.

In 1910 it was said that the chainmaking industry was too difficult to organise because it was so fragmented.
They said that the workforce was too apathetic. Sound familiar?

Many of these challenges present themselves today with the increasing casualisation of large parts of our economy.

But Macarthur was a smart campaigner. She built broad alliances and drove a wedge between employers. She used the media imaginatively and organised mass meetings as a way of bringing women workers together.

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

Therefore, the TUC Women Chainmakers’ Festival is rightly an important date in the movement’s calendar. A great family fun day out with music, theatre, comedy, kids’ activities as well as speeches and stalls.

And in the struggles we face now, the lessons of the chainmakers have never been more relevant as we organise and campaign to secure fairness, dignity and security for workers today.

Visit www.womenchainmakers.org.uk for more information.

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