Where can you read about the history of the trade union movement? Over the years I have been on many trade union courses, but none of them gave me any insight into the history of my union or the origins of the trade union movement. I am currently researching the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Council and felt I needed some background reading, but discovered that there are few overall histories of the trade union movement, and even less about women’s role in it. One exception is Sarah Boston’s book Women Workers and the Trade Unions.
This work is not only very well researched but is written in an accessible and interesting way, no doubt influenced by her own history of being a trade union rep in the ACTT and understanding the audience she wanted to get her book out to.
I like Sarah’s anger about the way in which women’s role in the trade union movement has been marginalised and often ignored. “The policies, attitudes and behaviour of trade unions towards women both puzzled and outraged me,” she says, Her analysis doesn’t just record women’s role in trade unions but puts it into the context of women’s lives and their position in society.
She has taken on a massive task; recording the history of women workers and trade unions from the early 1800s to 1980 when the book was published. She has had to dig deep to unearth women’s stories using primary material including the records and journals of the early women’s movement, annual reports, records and publications of the TUC and those of individual trades unions. As a co-founder of the Mary Quaile Club I know that it was only by chance that we managed to contact Mary’s living relatives who had saved the Minute Books of the Manchester and Salford Womens Trades Union Council (1895-1919) and were happy to hand them over to our Club so that we could transcribe and publicise them.
The story of women’s role in the trade union movement can be a depressing one. At its heart is the fact that women have not just struggled to fight for justice at work but they have had to fight for recognition by their male comrades, fight to be accepted as members of the union – and then fight for equality within the union.
Sarah’s book dispels many myths about women as union members. She shows how women did organise themselves as workers even before the 1870s, but it was in the last quarter of the C19th that women really became organised, particularly in the massive textile industry where the weavers’ unions comprised at least 75% of all organised women workers at that time. But although the weavers’ unions gave women full rights of membership the leadership was generally male with women sitting on local committees.
Women needed trade unions, or at least ones organised by themselves, to improve their low wages. As far back as 1888 the TUC passed a motion, moved by Clementina Black, supporting the need for women to receive equal pay with men. But running throughout the tortuous history of women’s relationship with the men in trade unions is the sexist attitude that women only worked to supplement the family income, ignoring the fact that many women were the main wage earner in the family.
For me one of the most dynamic eras is the 1900-1914, mainly because of my work on the MSWTUC. It was a time when the campaign for the vote energised working class women and journals such as Mary Macarthur’s The Woman Worker covered issues including equal pay and maternity benefits. And it also opened the debate about women’s rights interviewing Russian socialist feminist Alexandra Kollontai, for instance.
Poverty was the key issue affecting women’s lives but organisations such as the Women’s Cooperative Guild supported by women’s trade unions also lobbied for maternity and sickness benefit for all women. The WCG held meetings across the country offering lessons on basic hygiene and care for baby and mother and even produced a small booklet called Maternity, Letters from Working Women which gave a voice to women about their experiences of childbirth. It is heartbreaking reading some of the comments made by the women weavers.
Reading this history is depressing in many ways; particularly the uphill battle women had (and have even today) to get their voices heard in the labour and trade union movement. But it is also inspiring that so many individual women and groups did take on not just their fellow workers and employers, but also fought hard to improve the lives of women at work and in society.
Today in 2017 we are seeing a major onslaught on our lives as women and as workers and it is frightening to see all the benefits and improved working conditions being swept away under the guise of “austerity.” Recently in a free national newspaper a woman wrote in to say that she had to choose whether to become pregnant and lose her job or decide not to have a child at all. Women Workers and the Trade Unions is a reminder of how far we, as women trade unionists, have come, but it is also a wake up call to all women today that what have got is under attack – and we need to start fighting back!
Some women (and men) are doing so and the example of the Durham Teaching Assistants (94% women) is inspiring because it shows how trade unions are still important but that new methods and strategies are needed; they used Facebook and Twitter to organise themselves and run their campaign.
They are following in the footsteps of a rich and radical trade union tradition in this country; one that will not go away as long as women believe that they can make this a fair and just society.
There is now an updated version buy it here
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