My review of Liverpool Dockers A History of Rebellion and Betrayal by Mike Carden



This book  is about Liverpool, about dockers, about their families and communities. It is also about democracy, trade unions and the Labour Party. It is about the past and  the present.

Mike Carden was one of the key players in the Liverpool dock strike of 1995 and in this new, inspiring,  and at times very depressing book he has a lot to say about the state of democracy in this country today and how we got to such a situation.

In 1995 I was one of the people inspired by the Liverpool dock strike. From a working class Irish background with dockers in my family I was part of that working class tradition that  believed and saw trade unions (not the Labour Party) as  the way in which  would deliver (and did deliver) a better standard of living, a better society  for me, my family and my class.

Unfortunately by 1995 all this was unravelling as  the public services where I worked were being rapidly privatised by a Tory Government , with little opposition from my union Unison and helped along by my Labour Council.

The Liverpool   dockers strike was like a clarion cry  from another era. In the introduction Mike takes us back to the beginnings of the trade union movement in this country and the role that the Great Dock Strike of 1889  played in  the beginnings of trade union history.

Without undermining totally his thesis: women did play a central if often marginalised role in that history.  Women did work on the docks and crucially the Match women, who were part of the East End dock Irish  family,   are an important part of the history of the birth of the trade union movement.

The Match Women

In over 700 densely packed pages Mike explains how dock work  “impacted on how dockers related to trade unionism, they were not going to be shackled or controlled by membership”. Indeed they “had major trust issues; their response was to fall back on their independent organisation where it always existed, on the ships, quays, sheds, pens and hiring halls of the major ports.”

 1989 was a crucial year for the dockers, the failure of a national strike led to   every UK port bringing  back casual labour in the ports and replacing  dismissed ex-registered dockers.  Liverpool was the exception.  “Opposition brought the dock shops stewards into another period of prolonged and open conflict with the Merseyside Docks and Harbour Company  and the leadership of the Transport and General Workers Union at both national and local levels.”

This would come to its head in on Monday 25 September 1995 as Mike recalls. “a small vessel berthed at Canada Dock, M.V.  Sygna, was about to set in motion a chain of events that would trigger a conflict lasting two years and four months; it resulted in 500 Liverpool dockers being sacked for refusing to cross a picket line.”

In their newspaper the Dockers Charter they called on the whole of the labour movement to support them. “We cannot allow the scars of casual labour, inhumane working environments and the absence of democratic rights of representation to destroy the dignity of our waterfront.”

From the outset the wives and partners of the dockworkers supported their men. The chapter on “Women of the Waterfront!” records the important role they played in the dispute both locally, nationally and internationally.  The children of the dockers took part in many meetings, speaking on behalf of their families and community.

Sue Mitchell, one of the WOW, reflected on her activism “Working class women have been more politicised in Liverpool, mainly because they have always had to work hard and fight for any gains.”

Apart from the usual left wing response to the strike it also attracted a new generation of activists in the Reclaim the Streets group who saw the dockers strike as their fight.

Support came from across the world and the dockers were the first group of workers to use  new digital communications to organise the first online rank and file international  trade union e-conference on Saturday 17 February 1996.

But support from their own union and in particular Bill Morris (General Secretary) was lacking. Financial support was provided to the Hardship Fund  but with dockers only receiving a fraction of official strike pay.

Bill Morris’s attitude was summed up by left wing band Chumbawamba   where they dubbed him Pontius Pilate in their song “One by One”.

Pontius Pilate came to our town

Up to the dockyards to see the

picket line

We asked him to help but he just

turned around

He’s the leader of the union now

Leader of the union

All of our questions he ignored

He washed his hands and he

dreamed of his reward

A seat in the House of Lords


On 26 January 1998, the dockers accepted a settlement and continuity of pensions but without job reinstatement, although only about two-thirds of the dockers were included.

Addressing a mass meeting Mike Carden said,  “This not a defeat. You have nothing to be ashamed of. We have exhausted every avenue to defeat the Dock Company, and you have earned the respect of everyone. You have defended  the principles of the trade union movement.”

 But it was not Morris alone  who betrayed the Liverpool dockers as Mike points out; “but an organisational culture underpinned by a well-oiled bureaucracy of local and national paid officials who, in turn were supported by the decisions of the senior-lay member committee of the union, its General Executive Council”   

Mike Carden has produced a unique in-depth personal and political analysis of the Liverpool dock strike. An inspiring book on many levels it reflects on the massive changes have taken place in the labour market and the failure of many unions to respond. The Liverpool dockers did, and we should take inspiration from their history and principled fight.

Mike Carden

Many of us are heartened by the role of new unions such as the United Voices of the World which are, not linked to the Labour Party,  more democratic, represent some of the poorest workers in the economy, and most importantly winning their disputes.

Sharon Graham, the new General Secretary of Unite, is not from any Labour Party left faction, and is pioneering a strategy of putting members first and re-energising the union. Whether she can reinstate democracy into the workings of the union is yet to be seen.

Mike Carden died on 9.12.21.  “Liverpool Dockers” is a fitting tribute to the man, his family and class.

In 1938 Bertolt Brecht was in exile but he still wrote one of the most relevant poems for our time/ any time

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About  the dark times

 Svendborg Poems



You can buy the book,  cost £20,   from Liverpool’s radical cooperative News from Nowhere.

I ordered a copy from Manchester Libraries. Hopefully this will mean it will reach out to many readers looking for hope and inspiration in these dark times.


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My review of CAUSES IN COMMON Welsh Women and the Struggle for Social Democracy By Daryl Leeworthy

In this new history book about the role of Welsh working class women Daryl says his aim is to highlight women who “were active in the trade unions and their adjunct organisations; who were involved in the cooperative movement or in Chartist activity; who read feminist literature in the miners institute libraries and other working class libraries; or who were visible in the women’s sections of the Communist and Labour parties.”

In 227 pages he rips through  150 years of  Welsh women’s history  and digs deep to tell the story of working class women who have often been marginalised or written out of  mainstream histories.

Daryl  argues that the Welsh women’s movement was built on ideas of social democracy and that  the women were driven by a determination to improve their lives and those of their community.  He records that contribution; documenting who these women were and  what they did,  and puts it within a context of modern Wales.

He shies away from the dominant thread of suffragism in women’s history,  showing that Welsh women were active long before Votes for Women  in campaigns as diverse as the Anti-Corn Law League, Chartism and anti-slavery.

Working class women had to struggle two fold,  not just  to fight for a  role   in the growing  but male dominated socialist  movement,  but also  to fend off more confident  middle class women taking their place.

The Rhondda Socialist of December  1912 argued that “what is needed is one or more women of the working class, whose interest is not the result of pity from a distance, but the effect of life’s contact with working class conditions.”  Sadly, the same could be said for today’s politics.

In the following chapters Daryl tells the stories of some inspirational working class women who were important in changing themselves and society. He shows that there were many working class women who were important players in the history of the socialist and labour movement in Wales.

There are so many fascinating women – most of whom never wrote their own biography – and have not been included in main stream histories.

Grace Scholefeld, nee Metcalf,  was born in Halifax, West  Yorkshire in 1863. Aged  eleven , like many working class children,  she went to work in a cigar factory. Following marriage and children the family moved to Keighley where Grace and Nathan joined the fledgling Independent Labour Party.  By 1904 they had moved to Cardiff .

Grace went on  to become of the first women to be elected to the national executive of the ILP and was at the forefront of women’s labour movement activism in Wales. She  was involved with organising the national annual ILP conference, and also chaired meetings of  the Women’s Social and Political Union and the ILP.

Alongside her was Mary Keating –Hill, born into an Irish working class family,  who was also a member of the WSPU and  one of the founders of the Cardiff branch of the Women’s Freedom League in 1909. She was one of the first to be imprisoned in Wales  for her suffrage campaigning in 1906.

One of the most fascinating chapters in the book is about the role of women in the Communist Party.  Whilst Labour women were increasingly becoming part of the establishment Communist women continued to challenge the state.

Many women from the Communist and Labour Party were inspired by the radical changes taking place in the Soviet Union which improved the lives of working class women. Labour Party activist Martha Herman was one of those women. She said “real peace and progress for the workers in this country can only be achieved by international working class solidarity.”

But it was Communist women who took direct action   to combat poverty, unemployment and take on the  fascists. But they were then judged and found guilty by their Labour sisters in the magistrates  courts.

As Daryl says “In their view the fight was not only against a state which harangued them but also against a Labour Party which had turned coat and sided with the capitalists.”

One of these heroic women was Ceridwen Brown. On 4 February 1935 she walked to Merythr Tydfil and led a crowd of 3,000 other angry, starving women and men who smashed up the offices of the Unemployment Assistance Board.

Ceridwen was an active communist who had visited Moscow and was under police surveillance.  She could easily be picked out on the hunger and women’s marches of the 1930s in her trademark trench coat and red beret.

Excluded from the  mainstream  labour movement she worked hard to create other networks and a far left women’s movement through the working women’s guilds.

Causes in  Common  is an important history book for all women today.  Not only does it show how working class women played an important role in  creating  the  modern Welsh state it gives a name and history to those individuals. They are no longer hidden from history.  Daryl should be commended for his use of new resources and for completing the book during covid.

He rightly points out the need for more research.  In her groundbreaking book “Hidden from History” Sheila Rowbotham wrote that she was “turning up the topsoil in the hope that others will dig deeper.”As a member of the Mary Quaile Club I think that it is  vital that groups of women and men outside the academic world  should  undertake this research.  We need to bring in working class women to excavate and bring this history into daylight.   It is their history.  They are their sisters.



Buy it, great price of £11.99,  from  the radical and community bookshop News from Nowhere

Watch “Mam” (1988) a film made about  the role of the mother in Welsh society from the beginning of the industrial age to the 1980s here




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My review of “The House that Jill Built” by Ethel Carnie Holdsworth




As a socialist feminist I am always looking around for books and authors to inspire me. I was introduced to Ethel Carnie  by  Ruth and Eddie Frow of the Working Class Movement Library.

She was a northern woman who grew up in the highly politicised community of East Lancashire; a community that valued political activism and culture. Ethel wrote poetry from an early age. Like many working  class children she started work in the mills at aged 11,  but it did not blunt her interest in a writing career.

She escaped the mills to London after  she was spotted by Robert Blatchford and went to work for the Clarion socialist  newspaper, and also  used her writing skills to encourage other working class women to write about their lives through the Bebel House Women’s College and Socialist Centre.

Returning north, a married woman with two children, Ethel , along  with her husband,  edited the first anti-fascist newspaper the Clear Light  in the 1920s from her front room.  Over the years she continued her political activity whilst writing ten novels, as well as  many short stories and poetry.

The House That Jill Built was published in 1920. The main character, Jill Bennett, is 18 years old and a typist in London when she finds out that she has inherited £10,000. With all the confidence of her class – her father was a doctor – she decides to set up a rest home for working class women in the countryside where she would offer tired mothers a month away from their husbands and children, a place  where they could eat good food,   socialise with the other women and generally do nothing.

Today this idea would be controversial. We would be asking questions about why Jill would get to make all the decisions and perhaps  challenge the idea that only mothers,  not other single women with caring responsibilities,  would not be invited to the rest home.

But the novel was published in 1920 and this type of nostalgic novel would be seen as acceptable. Also I have to comment on the dated references to Jill’s Irish background eg. “But Jill’s Irish blood was up”.  Running through the novel is also a very tedious storyline about Jill and her love life.

But,  even given the era,  it’s a rather strange story for a socialist woman to write.  Ethel grew up in one of the most exciting times for women:  prior to the First World War women were very much in the public eye through the campaign for the vote and taking a major role in trade union and socialist movements.

During the  war  women were encouraged to work in the munitions industry.  Some women, like Ethel and other working class women such as trade unionist Mary Quaile,  took part in the No- Conscription Fellowship – not just taking a very unpopular stance to oppose the war but supporting their men who refused to fight.


By 1920 women were again thrown out of the workforce. Some physically, such as the Bristol female tram workers who were attacked by veterans at their workplace.  Many women faced widowhood after the war or had to care for their disabled husbands (or brothers,  as in Mary Quaile’s case) with little support from the state. It is surprising,   therefore, that none of this is referred to in the book.

Ethel said  in 1920 said that the most difficult task “is to teach people to want something better, to sting them into rebellion against poverty, to fire their hearts with a cause”. Unfortunately this novel  does  not do that; it may have had  the opposite effect.

Not unlike today, Ethel was subject to the politics of her publisher. In 1915 she had signed a six  book deal with publisher Herbert Jenkins,  who preferred light fiction,  and  in 1925 refused to  publish her next book This Slavery which was one of her most important novels.

Original cover of This Slavery published 1925

In This Slavery Ethel, through the Martin sisters,  Hester and Rachel,  explores the lives of working class young women in the years before the  First World War. I love their anger. Rachel becomes active in the fight against the factory owners and  says “So long as this system remains as it is I’ll attack it.” Hester decides to marry but    says,  “I am tired of being a slave. I don’t want to spend my life like my mother has spent hers”. Both of them, in their own ways, decide to fight slavery, in the   factory or in  marriage.

The novel  was made more accessible to working class audiences by its serialisation in the Daily Herald in October 1923. It was then published in a cheap book edition,  making it more affordable to the audience it was written for.

Life for working class women today is harsh.  Books  can be inspirational and  This Slavery is a book for today. Unfortunately the trade union movement in this country continues to flag up depressing male stories in the much tweeted “Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”. Instead, as in 1925, they should be producing cheap copies of  This Slavery to inspire a new generation of women and men.



Find out more about Ethel at the Working Class Movement Library

Thanks to Dr. Nicola Wilson and Kennedy & Boyd for republishing  Ethel’s  novels.

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The Manchester and Salford Women’s TUC and the Manchester Sweated Industries Exhibition



By 1906 the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trade Union Council  was  a well established trade union body   known for its organising  work,  both locally and across the country. They were kept busy supporting working class women to set up trade unions and campaign for better working conditions.

The MSWTUC had a broader role in lobbying the government to enact legislation to improve the lives of women workers.  Their work amongst some of the poorest women in the north west gave them a unique insight into some of the worst and most exploitative conditions that women and girls  worked in which was often in their own home. These were known as “ the sweated trades.”

The issue of “sweated labour” had been raised in 1904 by a Reverend J.E.Watts-Ditchfield,   the Vicar of St .James-the-Less Bethnal Green, who staged an exhibition at which items that had been produced by sweated labour were shown to the public.  It lasted just two days and did not get much publicity.

In May  1906 a “Sweated Trades” Exhibition at the Queen’s Hall in London was organised by the Daily News and some of the most prominent activists of that era. On the organising committee were  Labour MP Keir Hardie, suffragette Mrs. Charlotte Despard,  socialist George Lansbury , Gertrude Tuckwell of the Women’s Trade Union League , writer  G.B. Shaw and   Mrs. Olive Aldridge of the MSWTUC.

Handbook of Sweated Industries Exhibition London

Surprisingly it was opened by one of the daughters of Queen Victoria, Princess Beatrice: its aim was to shock the people who could afford to buy the sweated goods and encourage them to support a campaign to regulate the trade.

The Exhibition’s aim was to confront the audience with the “evils of sweating”;  and so they were. The women workers could be seen making their sweated goods.  The organisers’ aims were to regulate this work by law and to “mitigate if not entirely remove these evils.” It ran for six weeks,  and alongside the women workers were a series of lectures which called for change.

Nearly  30,000 people visited the exhibition during its six week run at Queen’s Hall, London, and the first edition of the accompanying handbook (5,000 copies) sold out within 10 days.

Following this success it was proposed –  very likely  by Mrs Aldridge – that Manchester should host its own exhibition later that year. 

The first meeting of the  Manchester committee took place on 4 July 1906. Unlike the London committee  there were no rising stars of the Labour movement,  its delegates were  all local,  including the  MSWTUC, Christian Social Union, Manchester Co-operative Society, Lancashire College Settlement, Manchester Sanitary Association, Social Questions Committee –  University Settlement (Ancoats), Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades and Labour Council, Union of Women Workers and Women’s Cooperative Guild (Manchester).

They  agreed by a unanimous vote to hold the Exhibition and the Manchester Co-operative Society offered, for free, the halls at Downing Street, Ardwick  to hold the exhibition.

The Exhibition would last for three weeks and the running costs would be £500. In case of further costs it was agreed to raise a Guarantee fund of £300 by the delegates of each society. It was agreed that over thirty different trades, mainly local,  would  be  exhibited .  Councillor James Johnston was appointed Chair with  Mrs. Aldridge as the Secretary.

The Exhibition was opened by the Lord Mayor of Manchester. Lectures were given by Miss Bulley from the MSWTUC, M.Ps D. Shackleton and W.H. Lever, Gertrude Tuckwell, Miss Pankhurst, Edward Carpenter, Katherine Glasier and Clemintina Black.  Some of the most powerful speeches were given by local activists who had been campaigning for years against “sweated trades”.

Eugene Barnako,  Secretary of the  Manchester and Salford Clothing Trade Joint Committee,  said:  “I would appeal in the name of the Tailors and Tailoresses Society to all sympathetic people to at once refuse to patronize firms that cannot show that the workers are employed under good and healthy conditions.”

John Harker, who had been an  activist in the MSWTUC from its beginning in 1895 and  was Secretary of the Shirtmakers’ Union,  said that shirts were too cheap and that unless prices were increased conditions of work would not change. He proposed that workers needed to be organised and that goods should be produced under a label owned and controlled by the workers.

The Daily News reported on the Exhibition   on 10 October 1906. “Instructive Exhibition in Manchester,” noting  that there were 33 sweating shops in Manchester .

 “The workers’ stalls are of a comprehensive character, and include object-lessons in such varied industries as cigarette making, Bible and Prayer Book folding, artificial flower making, shawl fringing, umbrella-frame making, military embroidery, patchwork quilt making, slipper beading, vamp beading, button carding, hook and eye carding, and cabinet making.”

Mrs Aldridge was commended for her work in organising the Exhibition  “whose untiring labours the successful opening is chiefly due.”

The pamphlet that was produced for the Exhibition included photographs which  exposed the very poor working conditions that these goods were produced in and that children were part of this workforce.

Hook and eye carding.

During the exhibition an Anti-Sweating  Conference was held by   the Co operators and Trade Unionists which was attended by delegates from Lancashire and Cheshire.

A resolution was passed encouraging the MSWTUC “to continue the good work that they have begun in taking the initiative in regard to the organisation of the Exhibition, and to extend their efforts in every possible way calculated to lessen the conditions of sweating in Lancashire, &  pledges  itself to support their action.”

Miss Margaret Ashton seconded the proposition, and spoke about how  the sweating system affected women. “The one thing needed help women remove the evil,”  she  said, ”was to give them  votes. It was necessary that women’s voices should be heard in trade and industrial questions for their own protection just as men’s were. “  Miss Aldridge seconded the motion and emphasised the importance of votes for women in changing their working conditions. The motion was agreed.  (Daily News, 29th October 1906)

The Manchester Sweated Industries  Exhibition was a success with nearly 15,000 people attending over three weeks. The MSWTUC went on to support the Anti-Sweating League in two meetings in Manchester the following month. They continued their work supporting low paid women workers,   whilst calling for changes in legislation to outlaw  exploitation in the workplace  – and in  the home.

Both Sweated Industries Exhibitions reflected a growing campaign by individuals and organisations to regulate this home working industry. It highlighted the excessive hours that were worked, the unsuitability of the conditions of work, the use of child labour and the low pay.  

Change was happening as legislation was going through the House of Commons,  a Wages Board Bill that  had been proposed by Sir. Charles Dilke.  It proposed  a minimum rate of wages would be paid to workers in different trades and that the Factory and Workshop Act should include home workers.  All home workers should be registered and certified and Factory Inspectors could inspect these certificates.

1906 saw the election of a Liberal Government and the new Home Secretary was Herbert Gladstone who had attended the London Sweated Trades Exhibition.

The issue of “sweated industries” was now a national issue because of the Sweated Trades Exhibitions,as well as  the work of national organisations such as the National Anti-Sweating League and local organisations such as the MSWTUC.  

A Select Committee on Home Work was set up by the government in 1907 which recommended the regulation of low wages. In 1909 the Trade Board Act was passed which introduced the first minimum wage for workers in four of the most sweated trades:  chainmaking, lace finishing, paper box making and ready-made and wholesale bespoke tailoring.


Read more about the MSWTUC  here

Both pamphlets for the two Sweated  Industries  Exhibitions are available at the WCML.

The Manchester Sweated Industries Exhibition pamphlet is also available at Chetham’s Library





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My review of “Women’s Activism in Twentieth-Century Britain,” Paula Bartley

In the introduction to this wide ranging history of women’s activism Paula stresses that it is an “Introduction to the variety of women’s engagement, not a comprehensive study”. Nevertheless  in 300 pages covering  100 years she has packed in some of the most important history of women’s activity.

She shows how women are not one uniform group and are often divided by class, sex, age, ethnicity etc. In this book  Paula  reflects on the how and why women get involved in activity,  and notes that  very often that history has been marginalised or excluded from mainstream histories.

In the chapter 1900 to 1914 Paula gives an important account of the campaigns that were taken up by a group of women activists to improve the lives of working class women.

She introduces  Anglo Indian journalist Olive Malvery and Scottish trade unionist Mary Macarthur who  took up the case of some of the most exploited women workers – those who worked at home – and decided to organise an exhibition to  show their conditions of  work and call for change.

But missing from this account is the involvement of the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Union Council ,  which  was a key organisation in organising working class women across the northwest and  which had an influence nationally in effecting legislation.

The MSWTUC was created in 1895 by local philanthropists, including CP Scott of the Manchester Guardian,  but it was its organising secretaries that were at the heart of its success.

Mrs. Olive  Aldridge, the organising secretary of the MSWTUC,   was on the organising committee for both the London and   Manchester Sweated Industries exhibitions.  Her experience,  and that of the other women activists in the MSWTUC over the years,  would have been crucial to the organisers of the exhibitions.

Sweated Industries Exhibition Manchester


Equal pay for women was (and still is!) a key demand for working women. The 1960s saw a renewed demand for equality and working class women pushing their trade unions and a Labour Government to bring in legislation.

Barbara Castle was unique in being a female Cabinet member and Minister for Labour – and she herself had equal pay!  I disagree with Paula’s version of Barbara’s commitment to equal pay for other women. She was not keen on other women getting equality at work.

When in 1968 the women workers brought production at their car factory in Dagenham  to a halt by their strike action for equality Barbara stepped in, not to support their  equal pay claim,  instead  she persuaded them to return to work on the basis of 92% of the men’s rate. It took the women another  16 years for them to win their regrading claim.

An Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970 but did not come into force until 1975. The Act had many loopholes which led to employers finding plenty of opportunities to evade the legislation.

One of the most successful  equal pay strikes, not mentioned in this book,  was the Trico strike  in Brentford,  West  London in 1976. It was a community based strike one which united a workforce that was multi racial, including the Irish, Afro- Caribbean, Indian, Spanish, Maltese and French.


Trico women on strike

The women not only won equal pay, they  also exposed the unfairness of  the new Equal Pay Act  which was about decreasing pay levels rather than raising up women’s pay, and showed that a community-based strike with  strong trade union support could defeat an American multinational company.

Striker and Publicity  Officer Sally Groves summed up their success:  “The Trico women’s strike has an important place in history: the strikers were remarkable role models in the struggle for equality, and understood the importance of building alliances of solidarity and inclusiveness.”

In 2022 TUC General Secretary  Frances O’Grady summed up how backward women have gone in terms of equal pay :  “It’s shocking that working women still don’t have pay parity. At current rates of progress, it will take nearly 30 more years to close the gender pay gap.” More  shocking is that the trade union movement has failed its women members in not taking the issue seriously.

In the introduction to this book Paula thanks Clare Short, a former Labour MP and Minister, for her support in producing the book.   She represented  one of the biggest Irish communities in Britain for thirty years so it is surprising  therefore that  Paula fails to include any analysis of  the way in which the history  of the relationship between Britain and Ireland has  shaped politics in this country.

Clare Short would not have been elected in 1983  without a growing anger in Irish communities such as Birmingham against the anti-Irish racism they experienced and state sponsored discrimination such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act passed by a Labour Government in 1974 and which  in 1988 Clare voted against its renewal.

The civil rights movement in the North of Ireland led to the election for Mid Ulster of 21 year old university student Bernadette Devlin in 1969. She was Britain’s youngest MP,  but  most importantly she brought the demands for a united and socialist Ireland right into the heart of British politics. For Irish families such as mine she was an inspiring figure, a reflection of the continuing history of struggle by the Irish to achieve a united Ireland.

Today she is still inspiring and a woman who has dedicated her life (and nearly lost it) to her political activity. Sadly, she is not included in this book.

For those of us who were activists from the 1980s onwards in Irish politics – both here and in Ireland – it is our community, not Labour MPs such as Mo Mowlem who were the main players in campaigning for a peaceful resolution in Ireland.

IBRG March for Justice. credit T.Shelly

Whilst many history books, including this one, fail  to include the Irish there have been in recent years more histories of the black and ethnic communities been published. In this book we find out about how women from the Caribbean came to England to work in everything from clerical jobs to retreading tyres.

The descendants of these women went onto set up their own organisations to combat the racism and discrimination they faced as Black   and  Asian women.

Paula tells the stories of how these women organised  at national conferences, in demonstrations against police brutality and on picket lines.  Just like the Irish, it was important for these women to organise autonomously,  but this history does not show how Black and Asian women found common cause with Irish women (and men) in campaigning on issues from equality at work to police brutality and deaths in police custody.

I read   Women’s Activism in Twentieth Century Britain  as an activist  who believes strongly in telling my history  – and that of my community –  and as a socialist,  feminist and trade unionist.  It is an ambitious book which  sometimes made me feel overwhelmed with the inclusion of so much history.

Today we seem to be living in a social media dominated world where we all  live in a “yesterday and today” moment.  So looking backwards and trying to make the connection with our past –particularly successful campaigns – is crucial if we are to create a more equal and just society.  This is so important – as is this book – as Paula concludes “ Without new research and these fresh interpretations, there is a real danger that history itself –not just the people in the past –will perish.”

Buy this book  from a  women’s cooperative here


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Irish in Britain; posters of resistance 1985-2000


The Irish in Britain Representation Group  was an Irish  national  community organisation which during  its lifetime  organised and  took  part in many events up and down the country. The IBRG archive is at the WCML in Salford.

This latest donation to the archive ,  a selection of posters,  is from IBRG stalwart Pat Reynolds which   reflects the wide ranging activities that the group was involved  with  and IBRG’s links with other Irish and left wing groups.

Five of the posters were created to promote the annual Bloody Sunday March which usually  took place in London.  (Posters from  1985/88/94/98/2000)

Bloody Sunday March 1985

On Sunday 30 January 1972 a peaceful civil rights march in the Bogside, Derry was attacked by British paratroopers which left 14 men dead, some of whom were shot in the back whilst running away. It was immediately christened “Bloody Sunday, ” a bleak reminder of a similar event in 1920.

In Britain Bloody Sunday provoked the Irish community into taking to the streets in protests and demonstrations across the country.  Links were made with the people of Derry and over the years the Irish community joined together with other groups including the Troops Out Movement, Wolfe Tone Society, Women and Ireland Network, Labour Committee on Ireland, Black Action,  individual  M.P.s etc  to make sure that Bloody Sunday would not be forgotten.

In 1998 a new inquiry into Bloody Sunday was announced. It did not publish its report until  2010 when it  concluded that all the dead and wounded were innocent.  However the blame was ascribed to one single officer , Derek Wilford,  and some low ranking soldiers. The report did not place any blame on the military and political elite.

IBRG started its own St.Patrick’s Day March to promote  the particular issues affecting the Irish community in this country. This poster was of  the demonstration on 20th March 1988  which highlighted issues including the Prevention of Terrorism Act,  Birmingham 6 and Guildford 4,  and Campaign against Strip Searching.

March for Justice 1988

Two other posters are about miscarriage of justice  cases that IBRG were involved in,  that of Danny McNamee and Frank Johnson.

Frank Johnson Campaign poster 1995

From the 1980s onwards there was a cultural renaissance in the Irish community in Britain and  IBRG and  the Green Ink Bookshop  and its annual Irish Bookfair   was at the heart of it.

These posters were created for the annual Irish Bookfair which celebrated Irish culture in all its forms. (Posters from 1985/ 87/88/96/98.)

1996 Irish Book Fair

Local London boroughs organised their own Irish festivals with an agenda that reflected the Irish community and all its facets. This one at Southwark in July 1992 started with an open air mass, had Republican group  the Wolfe Tones perform,  as well as a ceili band and Chuck June and the Gamblers!

Southwark Festival 1992


Conferences took place across the country examining the lives of the Irish in Britain. IBRG held  several of these and here is the poster for the IBRG Welfare Conference of 9 July 1988.

On 1 November 1992 the Birmingham Irish community organised a conference calling on the community to “Let Your Voice Be Heard”.

Collating the posters Pat Reynolds commented:

Just strange putting them together as you walked every mile of that march, you fly posted it, you helped organise it, you were all day at that conference, maybe even spoke at it, or at least make your contribution, like history  and people passing by your eyes and your memory. You become aware that our people were brave and inspiring even in the darkest times.”


Read more about IBRG here



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Searching for Miss Nellie Kay; Manchester Tailoress and Union Organiser

Chicago Jewish Mural


Transcribing the Minute Books of the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Union Council led me to encounter Miss Nellie Kay. She was appointed as a special organiser for the  Tailoresses Society in June 1901. The address of the Tailoresses Branch is the offices of the MSWTUC. In the course of my research into her life and organising I came across this interview. My research continues, please contact me if you have any information about her. 

Journal of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors and Tailoresses  Vol.1 No. 8. January 1902


Interview with Miss Kay, of the A.S.T.

Some weeks ago I promised our readers to try to secure an interview with Miss Nellie Kay, organising secretary of the tailoresses branch of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors and Tailoresses in Manchester,  with the  object of learning something of the working lives of the large number of women and girls engaged in the tailoring trade. I have been successful: for in reply to my request Miss Kay readily agreed to meet me and give me all the information she could respecting the society which she represents and the work which she is engaged in.

I went to Manchester and spent an hour with Miss Kay; and came away after our interview filled with indignation; my feelings of anger roused by the recital of the sufferings, the wrongs and the general unhappy conditions under which thousands of women and girls in Manchester toil.

It is nearly sixty years since the poet, Thomas Hood, wrote his famous “Song of the Shirt”; a poem drawing attention to the hard, bitter lives of the seamstresses in London; a poem, too, of which it was said that it had done more towards bringing about an improvement in the lot of London sweated shirtmakers than any agitation.  I would say that a song of the tailoresses –made coat could be written which would have a similar effect to Tom Hood’s poem; only that Manchester as well as London should be affected. There is need for inquiry into the lives of the tailoresses of our first Lancashire city.

Miss Kay is a Manchester woman, and since the age of sixteen has been engaged in the tailoring trade. “My family” she said,  “have been tailors for generations, so I ought to know something about the trade.”

“Now, Miss Kay,” I said, “I would like to know, first of all, something about your society and its work.”

“Well” she replied, “there is not a great deal to say about the Society; that is, the women’s branch. It is this branch which I represent, although we are amalgamated with the Tailor’s Society. We only began about 2 and a half years ago, and we have about 100 members. In the city and district there are about 50 workshops-great and small-and we estimate the number of women and girl-workers in the tailoring trade between 4,000 and 5,000.”

“Not a very large membership compared with the numbers employed” I observed.

“No,” was Miss Kay’s answer, ”but it is very hard, uphill work trying to induce the girls to join.”

“What are the main obstacles in your way?” I asked.

“A combination of causes operate against us,” she replied. First, the trade is somewhat complicated in its working. For instance, it has a slack and a busy period. It is never a constant, steady employment. In the busy times the girls won’t join us, and in the slack times they very often cannot, on account of their meagre earnings, which won’t allow of deductions of union subscriptions. Then, again, dismissal is often the penalty a girl has to pay who joins us. Mrs. Dickenson, I believe, gave you an idea of how we go to work. We visit the girls at their workshops during the dinner-hour, and also arrange for public meetings to be held in the evenings.”

“Now, Miss Kay, “ I said, “I want you to tell me something regarding the lives of tailoresses –their working -lives, I mean. How are they treated in the matter of wages, hours, and their surroundings?”

“In  many workshops,” she replied, “the hours are shockingly long, though the legal hours are from 8-30a.m. to 6p.m., with an hour for dinner. But the law is often set at naught. I have heard of girls working till 2,3, and even until 6 o’clock in the morning during the busy season. Others again start at 6 o’clock instead of 8-30; and the girls are given to understand that if the inspector should inquire they must declare they started at the later hour.”

“But do the girls give these false statements?” I inquired.

“They do,” replied Miss Kay. “It would mean loss of employment if they told the truth.”

“What wages do they get for these hours?  I then asked.

“In the busy season expert hands can earn 25s per week” as Miss Kay’s answer. “It very rarely happens that a tailoress gets more than that, while in the slack season a women may receive 2s. And will have been every day to see if there was any work for her to do.”

“How long does the busy season last?” I queried.

“About six months,” she replied. “Then there are four months during which the wages will range from 6s. to 14s. per week; the rest of the year very little is done.”

“How  do the tailoresses manage to live during the last period?” was my next question.

“Goodness only knows,” exclaimed Miss Kay; “I have known an expert hand work a whole afternoon for 5d.; and the work she was engaged on was supposed to be of a superior quality. Before the employer engaged her he wanted to know if she was sober and respectable. Respectable! On 10d. a day. Not much to spend in drink out of that, is there? That is one of the worst places in the town, though. It is positively indecent for a woman to work there. No sanitary arrangements whatever is provided.”

“What remedy do you propose for the long hours worked?” I then asked Miss Kay.

“That the employer, who in most of these cases is a middleman, should refuse the jobs,” she replied. “You see, it is generally the grasping middleman who takes the work from a large firm of clothiers, and tries to get it done as quickly and cheaply as possible, for his own profit. And he ought either to employ another hand or two, or refuse the job.”

“Is there much outdoor work done in Manchester?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” replied she, “a great amount of home-work is given out.”

“How do the home-workers fare?” I asked Miss Kay.

“Many of them very badly” was her answer. “They have to find their own machine, cotton, and light.And although some of the work is done in fairly decent neighbourhoods, the majority of the home-workers are in the poorer districts. Besides finding their own machines and cotton, these women have to fetch the material from the workshop, and also to carry back the finished article; nothing is given for this. But the system of buying the cotton is not confined to the out-workers; employees inside some of the workshops have to pay as much as 3d.  a reel for their  thread. They are bound, too, to purchase from their employer, although they could obtain the same quality and quantity of cotton outside for 2d. per reel. That is really wrong, although by compelling the employees to sign a paper respecting fines, etc, when they commence working for him, the employer places himself out of the reach of the law.”

“By the way,” I remarked, what about ladies tailor-made dresses and costumes? Do tailors or tailoresses make them?”

“Very few tailoresses are engaged in this class of work; except just a few in the wholesale trade. Most private firms employ a special ladies’ tailor. There is a great difference between the wholesale and the private firm trade. Then again, the ordinary ladies’ costumes are not tailor made at all; indeed, the costume maker is not included in our association, as costume-making is more allied to the mantle-making trade; and they both join one union formed for their special class of workers. There is a large well-known firm in Manchester, whose speciality is costumes; yet I don’t suppose they have a tailor about the place.”

“You remaked about a difference between the wholesale and the private firm trade,” I said; and then asked,  “What is the difference?”

“It is almost like the difference, “ replied Miss Kay, “which is seem in a jerry-built house, and one built on fair and square lines. For instance, in the private trade there are no women coat-makers. Gentlemen’s coats are made exclusively by men; women being employed in making vests and trousers. In the wholesale trade, women often make the entire suit. Where men are employed in the wholesale houses it is on  the  better class order trade.”

“But does a woman who makes a coat in the wholesale workshop get the same pay as the tailor who makes a coat for the private firm?” I asked.

Miss Kay smiled at my simplicity, and replied, “oh, dear, no! You see the coat made by the woman has nothing near the same amount of work put into it as the one made by the man. There you get the idea of the illustration between the jerry-builder’s work and the conscientious builder. The wholesale trade is really the cheap, ready-made trade. And you know that a ready-made coat is almost always inferior to the one made to measure and fitted on by a private firm. Of course, you will sometimes see in a tailor’s establishment a card bearing the legend-“Suits ready-made or to measure” at the same price, or sometimes with very slight increase for the “measured “ coat. As a matter of fact there is not the slightest difference in the making of them. It is a trick of the trade.”

“Who are the largest employers in Manchester?” I then asked Miss Kay.

“Oh, the Cooperative Wholesale Society employ by far the largest number of women and girls” was her reply. “I dare say in the busy season nearly 500 are engaged there.”

“I should think they are model employers,” I remarked.

“One would naturally think so,”  replied Miss Kay, with a peculiar expression on her face; “but I am sorry to say we have had a lot of trouble with them. Indeed, the birth of our women’s branch dates from the time of the struggle between the Oldham Cooperative Society and its tailors- a struggle which extended to the C.W.S. Owing to some dispute at Oldham, the Society sent their work to Manchester to be completed. The tailors at the C.W.S. objected to doing work about which their brother “knights of the needle” of another town were disputing, and they came out on strike. The women came out with them. That is two and a half years ago. The union in this factory is in a very difficult position. Since the operatives resumed work a number of union girls have been discharged without  any adequate reason. And it is no secret that the union is looked on with disfavour by the authorities.”

I looked incredulous, but Miss Kay was most emphatic on the matter. She continued: “I have appeared before the directors, who pooh-poohed  the idea of their manager doing such a thing; and explained the dismissal of a unionist as a coincidence. It is a  very strange coincidence in my mind. They say they are not opposed to trade-unionism; but their actions seem to belie their words.”

I leave our readers to make their own comments, and draw their own conclusions.

Miss Kay told me much more of the tailoring industry as conducted in Manchester. She has worked at the C.W.S., and at private firms; she has been employed in the same workshops as Jews and Christians. “The Jews,” she observed, “often work on quite a different system to the Christian tailors. It is difficult to explain to an outsider, but their trade is a medium between the wholesale and the private trade system. They are often engaged on day work; and employers often make this system a means of getting labour cheap: as he will run, say, one-and-half-days’ work  into one day. Generally speaking, Jews work at cheaper rates and longer hours than Christians. Many of them jump into the trade with scarcely any training. In the wholesale trade their is no real system of apprenticeship; and I know of Russian Jews, who have been blacksmiths in their native land, on arriving in England have become tailors. That is why their labour is so much cheaper than Christian tailors.”


There are few pictures of Tailoresses so I am grateful to Arieh Lebowitz
Executive Director, Jewish Labor Committee who sent me this wonderful picture of the Chicago Jewish Mural. Find out more here

The Journal of the A.S.T.T. can be found at the WCML.


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My review of “Class of ’37 Voices from working-class girlhood” Hester Barron & Claire Langhamer



The authors of this wonderful book,  which  gives a voice to working class children in 1937, said that “they stumbled across an entry in the online catalogue (of the Mass Observation archive)  entitled ‘Children’s essays; observations in schools’” From this  clue  they were able to uncover the essays of children living in Bolton and the surrounding areas in the years 1937 to 1940.

Mass Observation was an organisation established in 1937 by a group of left-ish intellectuals who wanted to create an “anthropology of ourselves”. They wanted to understand the everyday life of people in this country.  “Worktown” was the pseudonym given to Bolton.

The Observers  were mainly people from outside of the town and from a different class than that of the one they had come to report on. There were a few men from working class backgrounds who became involved, such as the future playwright Bill Naughton and also local teachers  such as Miss Kemp and Miss Taylor.

Miss Kemp is one of the stars of this story. She was  a teacher at Pikes Lane Elementary School  who got her students involved by encouraging them to write essays about their lives. Through these essays we find out about the minutiae of the lives of the children:  their hopes and dreams, their sense of reality about the lives of themselves and their families.

Dorothy Kemp’s early  life was not that different from her students.  Her family were typical working class; her father worked in the mill while   her mother was a dressmaker before getting married. She  started her teaching life, aged 21,  at Pikes Lane.

But  she  was luckier than most of her students because she was able to train as a teacher.  An idealistic teacher, she   wanted to bring progressive ideas  into the classroom,   to encourage hands-on learning and also valued the experiences of the children within the curriculum.  Thus she was the ideal person to become involved with Mass Observation. One of her students writes:  “I would choose to be a teacher at Pikes Lane. I should like to teach Senior II and be a nice teacher like Miss Kemp.”

But the reality of life for most of these children is that they were destined for a job in a local mill. after leaving  school at the  age of 14. Secondary education was not free and was  only available to working class children who were able to win a place at the  age of  11.

Through the essays the harsh realities of life for these children was  made plain. Dora  summed it up: “Sometimes the teacher says, “take your books out’ but at home my mother will say, ‘Put your book away and do me an errand.’”

Mass Observation did not identify ethnicity in their reports. Bolton did have an Irish community and I wonder whether,   if they had reported from a Catholic school (which would have been predominantly Irish)    a different view on learning and politics might have been revealed.

Alice Foley   (1891-1974)  from Bolton was one of the few working class women to write a biography. And,  although she is writing about an earlier period,  it does show how through progressive organisations such as her  trade union, the  Labour Church and Socialist Sunday School she broadened her life and experiences.

In the book there  are  few references to politics.  Although   most of the young women would have ended up in the mill which  that was heavily union organised,  there is no mention of this in the references to the later lives of the girls. Trade unions and the Labour Party have always been ways out for working class   people  to a different life. Did any of them follow in Alice’s footsteps through their trade union into a better world?

For me Class of 37 is an important  book . It is well written and researched. I loved the way they incorporated the words of the girls and photographs. The authors also followed up their research with tracing the present day relatives which again is another fascinating aspect to their history.

We need more histories of working class children and people. I hope this book  it will inspire  teachers  and children  to continue the work of Miss Kemp and her students in documenting their lives.


Buy it here

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My review of “Littlewoods Pools Girls” by Joan Boyce



Every Saturday around 4pm silence would descend on our noisy living room in East Manchester  as Dad took up his Littlewoods Pools coupon and checked it against the football results read out on Grandstand. Every family we knew did the Pools.  It was the only acceptable form of gambling that went on in our family. (We never won.)

In this new book Joan Boyce  reveals the story behind the Pools, the story of an organisation that was not just a national institution but also changed the lives of women in Liverpool as well as making an important and longstanding impact  on the city.

Joan began working at Littlewoods in 1950 when she was 15. She followed in the footsteps of her sisters and many other local women as Littlewoods offered better pay and conditions for women. “Their steady, regular work was essential to the family income in a city cursed with casual work and unemployment.”

The work suited the lives of working class women,  offering good conditions and pay and,  most importantly,  a summer break after the end of the football season so that parents (or rather mothers) could look after the kids during the six week summer holiday.

Young women, like Joan, were able to progress in the firm: she was trained up as a correspondence clerk. The firm promoted from within and also sponsored employees on  further and higher education courses.

The owners  also provided a variety of welfare support with on-site nurses and access to a doctor which before the NHS was founded in  1948 was an important reason for joining the company.  There was also  a company convalescent home and  a pension scheme.

Over the 50 years of Littlewoods thousands of people worked for the firm.  Joan has  interviewed thirty three women and their comments are scattered throughout this short book; only one woman said that she did not enjoy working there due to the pressure of the work.

It was a rags to riches story as John Moores came from a poor family of eight children. He left school at 14 and continued his education at night school so he could progress in the cable communications industry. It was his idea to set up a football pools company which he did in 1926. At the age of 35 John was a millionaire.

It is a very positive book about Littlewoods as an organisation. There are some wonderful photographs of the women workers  at work, doing war work, and going on company days out. What sticks out for me, though,  is the lack of black women/men in these images. Littlewoods were a major employer in Liverpool  – did they refuse prospective employees if they were black?  Joan does not refer to this in the book and I think the question needs answering.

Today we have low expectations of big corporations who make massive profits and treat their employees unfairly. The Moores family, who created and ran Littlewoods Pools,  became millionaires but also  contributed  to their employees in terms of pay and conditions but also  to the city in many ways. Their interests included contributing to charities for handicapped children and even in funding and building boys and youth clubs in the city in the 1960s. The question I would ask:   why weren’t the Council providing these services? Why should the community have to rely on the patronage of a private company?

Joan has written a fascinating account of the history of the Littlewoods Pools Company and  given a voice to some of the women who worked there and   an insight into their lives at work. I understand her respect for the Moores family and their committment to Liverpool. But I would have liked her to be a bit more questioning about recruitment policies and also the role that the unions played in the organisation.

Buy it – only £7.99 – from my  favourite bookshop here

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Enough is Enough: The Tameside Care Workers Dispute 1998-99

TCW demonstration through Ashton-u-Lyne


In April 1999 Unison asked the Centre for Public Services to  report on what had gone wrong in the privatisation of Tameside Labour Council’s elderly care services.

They summed it up: ““This report shows a catalogue of mismanagement of a key service to vulnerable, elderly people. Tameside MBC created the worst of both worlds – it established a trust (Tameside Community Care Trust) and hived off its residential care services into the Trust’s subsidiary company  – Tameside Enterprises Limited  – which subsequently became Tameside Care Group. But the council then mismanaged this structure through political appointments, poor management, weak financial controls and lack of transparency.”

Tameside, a  Labour  Council, was the first  local authority in Britain  to privatise its residential care services in 1989 when it transferred 12 of its elderly persons homes in Tameside (450 beds) and 8 homes in Stockport  to a private company: Tameside Enterprises Limited. (TEL). The Council owned one-sixth of the new company, while  the leader of the Council, Roy Oldham,  attended board meetings until 1995.

Tameside Community Care Trust owned the other five shares. The Trustees of this company included  local Members of Parliament, Andrew Bennett and Tom Pendry,  and the local Member of the European Parliament  Glynn Ford.

The Tory Government at the time was encouraging local authorities to privatise services and  increased funding was available if homes were private rather than council owned.

The story  of Tameside Care Trust shows a blatant disregard for the needs of the elderly people in their care, the exploitation of a largely female and low paid workforce and a lack of accountability of public money. Unfortunately most of the unions, as well as the local Labour Party, MPs and MEPs went along with the privatisation agenda.

Right from the beginning of TEL the conflict of interest between the Council and the people appointed to run the new organisation was transparent – but no one challenged it.

TEL appointed the Council’s Director of Policy Paul Stonier as its Chief Executive, who  was also the husband of Shirley Stonier,  a Labour councillor om Tameside Council. .

Paul Stonier was also a member of the National Union of Public Employees and  sponsored by them as a   prospective Labour Parliamentary candidate for Littleborough and Saddleworth. Labour Councillor Simon Walker was appointed as its head of Finance. Margaret Oldham, wife of the leader of the Council, was  appointed to take TEL through quality assurance certification for TEL and given £10,000 to do so.

The National Union of Public Employees (NUPE)   was given  a single union agreement with the new organisation,  thereby excluding the other unions from any  recognition.  Documents in the archive contain  allegations that NUPE members were not properly informed of the transfer details and that they were called to union meetings without being fully aware that they were going to be asked to vote on important changes to their working conditions.

Tameside is a borough on the eastern edge of Greater Manchestermae up of  nine towns  and, although there are some wealthy areas,  it  had  and still has  many poor households. Many working class women worked in the care industry – one not known for above average wages or decent working conditions.

By April 1992 the  accounts show that TEL was insolvent.  They then  asked Tameside Council for a loan but instead  Tameside Council (who saw themselves as “landlords” ) gave £430,000 to TEL for structural improvements,  not a loan.

The management turned to the staff to save £500,000 by cutting sick pay and holiday pay. Staff refused to accept cuts and a were angry that they were not covered by a “no redundancy” policy. Stonier responded byissuing  a 90 days’ notice to staff for  a new and worse contract unless they agreed to the cuts.

NUPE responded by calling for TEL’s accounts to be inspected and for  the management to resign. In December  1992 20% cuts were imposed by the management on all staff and Unison  (who were  a new union that included NUPE)  responded by serving writs on TEL and called for the resignation of the Labour leaders.

In April 1993 Stonier was given a 43% pay rise evn though  TEL finances were found to be irregular, included faulty bookkeeping, : the auditor refused to sign the 1991/2 accounts.

Seven Labour councillors voted against the TEL cuts and were  then removed from the Labour group. The  North West Regional Labour Party later  reinstated them.

In June 1993 the police were called in to investigate TEL. Stonier was sacked for gross misconduct,  while  Head of Finance and Labour Councillor Simon Walker resigned.

Tameside Labour Council with the Cooperative Bank set up an emergency aid package and the Tameside Community Care Trust was created in September 1994.

A new  Managing Director, Alan Firth, was appointed on £40,000 per year salary. The Trustees included local Labour MP Andrew Bennett, Tameside National Union of Teachers  secretary Mike Custance , solicitor Alan Thornley (ex-Labour councillor) and senior Council Officers are advisers to the Trust.

Immediately staff were removed from national conditions and cuts of 10% in pay, shift pay and sickness payments were  instituted. Pay for the care workers had not increased since 1993. Unison lodged a pay claim for workers as the TCG announced a profit of £750,000.

On New Year’s Eve 1997 Unison were called to a meeting and the management,  instead of discussing pay rises,  offered   new contracts for staff with more cuts to pay, fewer holidays, lower pay for working Bank Holidays and the removal of all sick pay.  They then issued a 90 day notice to chnage  their contracts.

On 30 March 1998 , following a strike ballot, 200 carers went  on strike against the cuts. The management responded  by bringing in “scab” workers to whom they paid a higher rate and  used taxis to ferry them back and forth to work.  In response  the  strikers  picketed and occupied the offices of two of these agencies, against the advice of the Unison Branch Secretary;  the agencies then  withdrew from the contract.

On 3 June 1998 the carers refused to sign the new contracts and were  informed that they were  sacked.  They   went on  indefinite strike.  90% of the strikers were women and many of them were single parents. They led the strike.

In an interview in Schnews July 1998 one of the strikers summed up their feelings:

“For the past 16 years the leader of Tameside has been Roy Oldham and he has got a finger in every pie. We had a public meeting last week and invited all the Labour Councillors but not one turned up. They put off sacking us until after the May local
elections, where only one in five of Tameside voted, which I think tells you something about what people think of their local council!”

A strike committee was set up by Unison,  but it is clear from the Minutes and actions that the women ran the campaign with great support from the local community. Unfortunately Unison never broadened the strike to include Unison members in Tameside Council who carried on servicing the care homes.

An independent  support group for the strike was also set up in Manchester which the local Unison Branch Secretary was not keen on; he said it might “bring the strike into disrepute if linked with other actions.” But this was disregarded by the strikers. Martin Ralph of the group produced a pamphlet on the dispute “Support Tameside care workers: good wages, conditions and care are indivisible ” which is in the archive at the WCML.

Whilst locally, Labour MP’s deserted the women strikers, nationally left wing MPs including  Ken Livingstone, Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn supported them. Jeremy Corbyn organised a meeting with them at the 1998 Labour conference.

Apart from the usual activities of a strike which include demonstrations through the centre of Tameside, linking up with other strikes going on at the same time,  there are some really funny incidents that are documented. One day two of the strikers, Rose and Hazel, noticed the leader of Tameside Council Roy Oldham going for lunch. They decided to join him at his table and they started a discussion about the strike.

Leaflet for demonstration.

The striking carers were supported not just by local people in Tameside but the relatives of the elderly residents who organised a meeting at a local hotel to discuss their concerns.

Strikers set up pickets at the care homes operating on a daily basis from 630 a.m. to 11pm. Collections for the strikers took  place in local shopping centres. Letters of solidarity were sent to the strikers as well as information about what was happening in the care homes.

Unusual for any strike is support from a local Conservative Association but on 13 May the Ashton-under-Lyne branch wrote to Alan Firth, Managing Director of the TCG to register their concerns. They also send a donation to the Strike Fund.

Financial support for the strikers was raised by socials with radical singer Clare Mooney.  On International Women’s Day  a solidarity benefit was held at the Chorlton Irish Centre.

Banner Theatre and local singer Bernie Murphy took part in socials locally to raise the spirits of the carers and fill up the strike fund.

On December 6 a radical history walk around Manchester was organised and run by Ruth Frow  and Michael Herbert of the Working Class Movement Library   in aid of the Tameside Care Workers.

A preliminary hearing of the Industrial Tribunal took place at which the TCG’s Managing Director Alan Firth finally admitted that the Company was still owned by Tameside Council. The Tribunal unaminously agreed that the workers were sacked before they went on strike and did have a case for unfair dismissal and a date for the  full hearing of the Tribunal was set.

But this did not stop the Labour Council two months later taking out half page advertisements in the local press to say it did not own or control the Company.

One of the strikers’ son produced a Xmas card for sale with the slogan “Enough is Enough”: 1000 were sold and the money donated to the strike fund. During the period of the strike the Hardship Fund for the strikers raised  over £263,000  from Unison branches, members and the wider Labour movement.

xmas card produced by strikers’ son.

In  May 1999 six sacked care workers stood in the local council elections: Sheila Carpenter, Hazel O’Neill, Liz Taylor, Joan Ashton, Rosemary Young and Pauline Carmody. None of them were elected. Labour was returned with record low turnouts.

On 20 May strikers ended industrial action and  most accepted a settlement by Tameside Council. But  18 strikers refused the settlement and instead took their case for unfair dismissal to an Employment Tribunal.  They wanted to highlight the conditions for workers and residents in the homes. But the Tribunal voted against the strikers and made no criticism of Tameside Care Group.

Unison called on the Audit Commission to conduct an inquiry into the financial affairs and management of the Tameside Care Group. They also called on Tameside Council to conduct a wide ranging review of the future of residential care provision and operate within a “Best Value” framework as recommended by  the  (Labour) Government.

Locally the newspapers covered what turned into a national controversy over the Labour council, elderly care home residents and a strike of angry and determined women workers. A documentary was made about the strike as the strikers took their dispute up and down the country at meetings and demonstrations.

The TCW dispute is a reminder of what has happened to our public services. It shows how all the unions failed the workers and the public in defending public services. It showed the complicity of the Labour Party in the privatisation of the public services. It is one of the reasons why   few people vote in local elections, take part in local politics or are   members of a trade union.

Today it is new  and independent unions such as the United Voices of the World that are taking on care homes who are offering inadequate pay to care workers. They have just won at  Sage nursing homes in London. Find out more here

The archive of the TCW dispute is under Tameside Care Group at the WCML in Salford here





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