My review of “Winter Hill” by Timberlake Wertenbaker at Bolton Octagon

Winter Hill, towering over Bolton, is an iconic landmark to people in the northwest: one that in 1896   pushed  thousands of activists to march to it to demand the right to roam. In a new play called Winter Hill, playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, uses the landmark to explore modern day themes about women’s political activity and to what ends should people go to to  defend their community.

1896 mass roam

In 2017 the numbers of older women involved in politics is notable. The play touches on an important theme: how do you feel if you have been politically active over many decades but now feel, in the face of rampant capitalism – in this case the selling off of land on Winter Hill for a luxury hotel that will be the preserve of the rich -a sense of hopelessness about how you can  ever change anything.

As five women of a book club descend on Winter Hill,  two of them decide that change is only going to come if they threaten violent actions. Dolly, played superbly by Denise Black, outlines the arguments for abandoning their lifelong belief in non-violent direct action, while  Vivien, a refugee from a war zone  played by  Souad Faress,  has the technology at her fingertips, although she does not get to say much. The other women are not so sure and Beth, played with passion  by Louise Jameson, challenges Dolly,  throwing back at her their lifelong adherence to democracy and their sense of loyalty to each other.

denise black

Denise Black

For Irene, played by Cathy Tyson, it is her commitment to 30 years of being a councillor and making small improvements that is most important, even though she recognises that the Council has been deceived by the  international property developers over the new hotel.

cathy tyson

Cathy Tyson

At the heart of the play is a big gap: we know what the women are against including everything from nuclear weapons to the closure of local services,  but what is not made clear is any idea of what the women are for. Maybe it is a dilemma faced by many women and men today. People are looking for hope for the future; this can be seen in the flashmob nature of people turning out at women’s marches and rallies for Jeremy Corbyn. But beyond a reflex about not wanting what we are being offered by the powerful,  there is little real debate about how we are going to  achieve real change . And whilst these issues are touched on in the play, none of the women seem desperate enough or unhappy enough to threaten to use a bomb to blow up a symbol of everything they oppose.

winter hill 4

Winter Hill  puts at the heart of current  political debate the views of women and their choices and, combined with a clever script and some brilliant acting,  makes this an engaging and prescient play.

Book to see Winter Hill at Bolton Octagon until 3 June see

Read more about women activists in Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women see

Posted in anti-cuts, drama, feminism, labour history, NHS, Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women, political women, Socialist Feminism, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Remembering Eddie Frow: Communist, Trade Union Activist, Historian…

eddie and book

Today it is twenty years since Eddie Frow died.  In his long life Eddie embodied the way in which Communism shaped the life of a man who was an activist in his trade union, a historian, a writer, a rambler, an opera lover… and so much more.

I met Eddie and Ruth  for the first time in 1981. At first  they  seemed to come from a completely different era. My political education was  built on my parents’ mix of socialism, Catholicism  and Irish Republicanism,   combined with my own experience of being at University in the late 1970s and with  being a shop steward in local government in  Thatcher’s  Britain. We should not have got on but we did, and I had many conversations with Eddie about being a shop steward, discussing  the problems I faced with my own union. His view was that as a trade union activist you often  spend most of your time fighting the people supposedly on your side.

Ruth and Eddie never seemed “old” to me. They were happy to come with my partner and me to watch foreign films at the Cornerhouse art cinema and were always interested in the dynamics of present day politics. They were generous with their time, knowledge and always ready to listen.  In her 70s Ruth took on getting a computer and grappling with new technology which gave her a new window into life.

Eddie was from a rural background, born on 6  June  1906 on a farm in Lincolnshire. His father had a chequered career,  finally settling the family in a mining village in Wakefield whilst he worked in the local mining office. Eddie went to the village school and was one of the top students. But for the First World War, he probably would have gone to the grammar school,  but instead he went to a technical school for boys where he was prepared for  entering  an apprenticeship at 16.

At home Eddie and his sister  Millicent played the violin and piano and sang  hymns with family and  neighbours. At the age of 13 his father bought him H.G.Wells’ Short History of the World, which  began his life-long  love of reading and laid the foundations for his own exploration of ideas and philosophy about the world.

His worklife started  when at 16  he started his apprenticehip at an engineering firm in Wakefield. He  joined the Communist Party in Leeds , recalling “There was a fantastic feeling that yes, there was going to be a revolution in Britain and it was going to be tomorrow.”

Through the CP  his political education began as he was guided by a comrade, Lou Davies, and introduced to Frederick Engels’ Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Daniel de Leon’s Two Pages from Roman History,  and Bogdanov’s Short Course in Economic Science.

Eddie lived at a time of great hope for working class people with the rise of socialism and the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was also a time of great misery,  including mass unemployment and an economic worldwide crisis started in  1929 by the Wall Street Crash.

Unemployment for Eddie was a constant theme throughout his life:  he worked in 21 engineering factories and he was blacklisted, victimised and sacked for his militant actions.

He was a lifelong member of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and active in the Minority Movement in the trade unions. This had been formed in 1922 by Harry Politt and other Communists in the engineering trade as part of the Red International of Trade Unions. Their aim was  the speedy overthrow of capitalism and establishment of workers’ states.

eddie and aeu

In 1930 he went to Moscow as a delegate of the British Commission of the Communist International which was  investigating the role of the British Communist Party. At this time the CP’s membership had declined  as had  its influence in the wider labour movement, because it was attacking the Labour Party as a capitalist party no different to the Tories.

But the CP played a major role in setting up the National Union of Unemployed Workers which fought for the rights of the unemployed. In 1931  the unemployed, including Eddie, numbered  well over two million. Eddie  became one of the leaders of the Salford Unemployed Workers’ Movement.  Opposition to further cuts in benefits led to the notorious Battle of Bexley Square where the SUWM march to the Town hall  was attacked by  the police and Eddie was  sentenced to five months in prison.

nuuw

From 1934 onwards Eddie was back in work, involved  again with trade union activity as well as taking on the big issues of that era , including the rise of Fascism, the threat of war and support for  the Spanish Republic.

In 1939 the CP were not supportive of the Second World War, because of  Stalin’s  pact with Hitler,  and suffered a loss of membership an d credibility,  but after June 1941 when  the Soviet Union  was invaded  by Nazi Germany  and  joined in the “People’s War” against Fascism,  membership of the CP trebled.  But this harmonious relationship between the victors in  1945 did not lead to a better world. As Eddie commented; “There was this hope of a new world. There was this hope that when the war was over, when fascism was defeated, there would be a new set-up, not only politically but industrially. But it was just an illusion really.”

Post-war Eddie became more involved in his union and the CP. This led to the end of his marriage by which time his son, Eric,  was 16 years old. In May 1953 Eddie  went to a CP school on labour history and met Ruth Engels. She said; “From that moment Eddie’s life and mine became inextricably mixed.” After the summer school Eddie went for a meal at Ruth’s digs, noted that her books were complementary to his,  and they made plans for her to move to Manchester to live with him. The rest, as they say, is history.

Eddie and Ruth did not have any children, you could say the Working Class Movement Library  was their child. It started in 1957 when Jack Klugman,  a CP tutor and historian, came to their house and commented on the amount of wall space they had,  and how it could be filled with books  as in  his house. He advised them to study labour history and start collecting material related to it. And Ruth says; “The Library began on its unstoppable expansion from that day.”

kings road

Kings Road

Their life now became an exploration of bookshops across the country,  spending their weekends and holidays collecting valuable and rare additions to the stock. They also used the material they collected producing articles for journals, pamphlets  and  books.

At the same time Ruth and Eddie were still working full-time, visiting their family and continuing their CP branch activities with  Daily Worker (now Morning Star) sales and leafleting.

In 1987 the WCML,  which was  bursting  out of their house in King’s Road, Old  Trafford, entered a new phase when Salford Labour Council offered them premises on the Crescent opposite Salford University. The offer, which they accepted, included a librarian, two library assistants and a caretaker. Ruth and Eddie settled into the flat within the building.

wcml building

WCML

Over the years through the WCML Ruth and Eddie made the history of the trade union and labour movement available to anyone who walked through the door. They were enthusiasts,  and their own experience of activism made the history come alive to individuals and groups who came through the always open front  door. To this day, people mention not just their in-depth knowledge of labour history,   but their compassion and humility that they shared with all visitors.

Eddie Frow died in 1997. He was a Communist until the day he died; he never gave up on the idea of creating a society that would put people first and stop the exploitation of the working classes. Tom Paine was his hero, and the library has a unique collection of his work, but it was Paine’s view of the world that summed up both Ruth and Eddie’s.  “The World is my country. All men are my brothers. And to do good is my religion.”

Find out more about Ruth and Eddie in this brilliant film

Writer Mike Crowley wrote a brilliant poem about Eddie.

Eddie Frow:  Previous Generation.

 

Carried the past inside him

Tucked it up sleeves and baggy clothes

inside tins at the back of wardrobes,

In rooms gone spare, in a decade gone cold.

They must be feeling it, those

who gave their all for the world we know,

(or thought we did a while ago).

Held up a vision in rain and snow.

on street corners and shop floors,

from the front of hope filled halls,

going from door to door, peddling a conscience.

For all this and more before the War.

Before all this, a point in spotting trains

caps and hands tossed in the air, rifles in Spain,

and there, behind the barricades

man again, with freedom to sacrifice.

Few remember them now, the old times.

in the rush to clear out,

grab our things and flee the council house,

something dear was left behind.

Precious those who sweep up after us

filtering the dust for gems

that belong to us. Keeping in touch

with those before us.

Edmund Frow filled a house and more,

with facts and stories from roof to floor.

Left them there, for those who want to ask.

He knew how precious we are, about the past.

Posted in Communism, education, human rights, labour history, Manchester, political women, Socialism, trade unions, Uncategorized, working class history, young people | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Political Women; Lisa Turnbull: Single Mum, Durham Teaching Assistant, campaigner

lisa 2

Lisa Turnbull did not want to be a political campaigner but in 2015  her employer Labour-controlled Durham County Council told her and  2,700 of her fellow  Teaching Assistants  that their highly skilled work  would be downgraded  and  their  pay  cut by 23%.

It’s only women’s work….

She says, “I just had to do something. I was so angry, and still am, but I have to stand up for what I believe in.“  95% of the TAs are women, who work with children and, like many other groups of women workers –  such as care workers, cleaners and catering staff – face managements who  label their work as women’s work that is not skilled or valued. But over the last few years those women are fighting back in campaigns for cleaners, care workers and TAs.

durham march 3

 Northern radical roots….

Lisa comes from a part of the country that had a dyed in the wool radical tradition  born out of the mining union  and its  close connection with the Labour Party. Forty years on and all has changed. There is little industry, unemployment is rife,  and disillusionment with the Labour Party and trade unions has hollowed out that radical tradition.

Her background is like that of many working class families in areas such as Durham. “My Dad has always been a Labour man until now:  he will no longer vote Labour.” Her father had a tradition of being in a union. “When he worked in factories he was a shop steward and when he had an accident the union supported him. He always encouraged me to be in a union.” In 1990, when she got her job, she joined  Unison and regularly paid her dues but otherwise  had no involvement in the union.

But in 2015 her employer, a Labour Council, threatened her job and her livelihood when  57 Labour party councillors voted to sack them on New Year’s Eve and reinstate them on New Year’s Day on inferior contracts.

Women, doing it for themselves….

Her union Unison were slow at defending the largely women workforce.  Lisa  says; “In the beginning we had to fight the union and I found that hard.” But the women did what women are good at,  organising themselves. They set up their own  campaign  Durham Teaching Assistants Value Us Campaign and   used social media to bring together  a workforce of 2700 Teaching Assistants who  are scattered across the county and often isolated in schools. Their first banner was made up from  broomsticks bought from Home Bargains.

durham ta logo

As well as challenging the local council they  have taken their campaign across the country – from the Durham Miners Gala to trade union meetings and conferences . Last month they had their own rally in the town centre which attracted trade unions and supporters locally and nationally from  Alan Cummings (Secretary of Durham Miners Association), Unison, ATL, NUT to the FBU London and Bolton Unison.Lisa says; “Before I would have spent my Saturday shopping instead I stood on a concrete bollard addressing 1000 people.”

But their focus is on the betrayal they feel by the local Labour Council. Lisa is categorical,   “They are Labour cuts.” And the Durham TAs  are using the local elections to name and shame the 57 councillors who voted for the cuts to their jobs. Lisa feels that through their campaign they have hit a nerve in Durham generally about the Labour council. “It is a Labour stronghold but there is a lot of unrest. People are asking questions because of the stand we have made.”

list of shame

Passing it onto the next generation….

For all political activists there is a personal cost, particularly if you are a single parent like Lisa. “My daughter is 17, over the last two years I have been out campaigning, sometimes until 9pm at night. But I believe that you have to stand up for what you believe in and I am passing that onto her.”

And it’s not just her own daughter that Lisa is talking to. When Lisa and the Durham TAs  went on strike she spoke to her class about why she did it. “Its really important to explain to children that if you do not believe in something that you have to stand up and say “no” emphasises Lisa,  “And it is important to educate the next generation about our campaign.”

strike 2

Making history…..

suffragette dora thewlis

16 year old suffragette Dora Thewlis

Knowing your own history of radicalism is key to people feeling confident in challenging unfair and unjust treatment.  The Durham T.A.’s are part of a radical history of women workers fighting for their rights.  They are documenting their struggle by keeping a record of all their blog posts, tweets, fliers and posters, teeshirts and letters received. Lisa has a book in which she is recording her speeches and  the poems she has written during the last  two years.

Nearly two years on Lisa says her main feeling about the campaign is “Anger”. Like many people who make that decision to challenge authority it is the personal cost that really take its toll. She says; “I am not going to be the same ever again.But I am fighting for something better. I have to do this, I have to be able to look myself and my daughter in the eye.”

Come and listen to Lisa speak at the launch of the Manchester and Salford Women’s TUC on Saturday 29th  April at 2. 15pm in the Mary Quaile room at the Manchester Mechanics Institute , 103 Princess Street.

Read about the Durham Teaching Assistants campaign here

Posted in anti-cuts, education, feminism, human rights, labour history, political women, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , | 2 Comments

From factory workers to care workers…

I wrote this article in 2014 and very little has changed for the poor women of east Manchester; whether elderly or working in the care sector.

My mother is Irish but all the women I interviewed for this article were white and British but over the following years my mother’s carers were part of the new local workforce; made up of African and south American women who were now starting their working lives in the care sector. Some of the white women were unhappy about this and quite rightly they saw the agencies as using these women as cheap labour; I did suggest joining a trade union to collectively improve their pay and conditions but was met with a disbelief that any organisation would stand up for them. This was contrary to the ethos of my family which believed that trade unions and the Labour Party were the way in which working class people would gain a better life.

To me and my mother these new women, like her other care assistants, were now part of our  family. Women; she shared her  secrets with and were key to maintaining her life in her own home.

This article appeared in Contributoria in March 2014

I grew up in east Manchester where  in the 1970s my mother, her friends, my friends’ mothers, all worked in the local factories. The area was full of factories turning  out engines and  metal products, as well as a colliery, a steelworks and Robertson’s Jam Works where my Mum worked. The factory was a collective experience, offering various shifts to suit the women’s childcare needs,   a cheap canteen and discounted food.

Robertson's_Jam_Factory,_Droylsden,_2005

Fast forward to 2014 and it’s all gone. The factories have been replaced by supermarkets while  the colliery and steelworks are now  buried by Manchester City Football Club’s ground. And where are the women working? Some work  in the supermarkets but many are part of a growing (up by 15%) adult care sector workforce. Ironically they work for elderly working class women such as my mother and other women of her generation who need care assistants to keep them at home.

So how over the last thirty years have the lives of working class women in areas such as east Manchester changed? Has it been for the better or has something been lost?

The rapid growth of the adult care sector is because many working class people, like my Mum, now 90, are living much longer due to better nutrition, cessation in smoking, medical advances and the disappearance of heavy industry.  Pensioners now make up half of all benefit claimants.

Longevity has also been helped by the expansion of care  in services such as Social Services and the NHS. But over the last few years the privatisation of these services has led to a deterioration of the lives of those who  work in these services, mainly women.

J and R have worked as  care assistants for over 30 years. Originally they worked for the local council and it was  a job they enjoyed. Although low paid, the council  provided a whole range of benefits that made up for this,  including a subsidised workplace nursery right across the road from the Elderly Care Home where they worked;

R said; “I could not have afforded to pay childcare out of my wages. If I had children now I would have to give up my job, it would not be worth working.”

As well as subsidised childcare  there were other advantages to working for the local authority.

J said; “We were paid overtime at weekend and bank holidays and double time on a Sunday.”

She  benefitted when  the care home became  an Intermediate Care Centre as the number and types of jobs  increased:

“I got a senior support worker job at the ITC in 2004. I have achieved NVQ3 level in Health and Social Care and I stand in for the Assistant Manager. I am responsible for giving out medication and booking in new arrivals. My rate of pay is £8 an hour but I only have a 30 hour per week contract.”

When the ITC was taken over by a private agency she carried over her pay and pension, but lost all other benefits, including extra payments for  weekends and anti-social hours.

R was not so lucky. Her care home was closed by the local authority and she was redeployed to the ITC. She was on protected pay for 14 years but when she came off the night time working contract, because she no longer needed to look after her kids, she lost pay and leave.

“I am now on the basic hourly rate of £6.19 per hour and have to work weekends if I want to improve my take home pay.”

The fact of elderly people living longer has meant an expansion in home care as more people want to stay in their own home and councils encourage this as it is a cheaper option for them.

For women such as my mother this is the only option. She can afford it as she is one of the pensioners whose benefits have improved through  Pension Credit. She is disabled and needs round the clock support which includes five calls from care assistants during the day. Even in these times of councils cutting back on personal care payments she still only pays around £16 per week for this level of care.

My mother still lives in east Manchester and her care assistants  all come  from that area. Work is scarce and, however bad the terms and conditions are for these women, it offers them a flexibility which suits their circumstances as women with childcare responsibilites.

A is 39 She left school at 16 without any qualifications and had been working since she was 12 years old as a cleaner. She has worked in factories but her experience as a carer for her brother and becoming  a mother encouraged her to become a care assistant.  She has seen how home care work has changed in recent years.

“When I worked for Age Concern as a home help, as we were called in those days, the pay was better and I worked full-time and got paid full-time. It was through them that I got my NVQ2 and did the enhanced medication training.”

She has seen how the pay and conditions of work have deteriorated.

“We are expected to do more including giving medication, doing treatments such as feeding people through their stomach.”

A is paid £6.68 per hour. She does not get paid for her mileage. Her hours for the agency can vary from 20 to 40 hours per week and she also does private work to improve her pay. Her number of agency clients can be up to 9 and she will also look after 4 private ones.

“My working day starts at 6.30am when I drop my baby at my Mum’s house. My first appointment is at 7am and then I call back to my Mum’s to take the baby to school. I have three children; 18, 12 and 4 years. Doing this job means I can be home for the kids and give them their tea but I then have to go out later to work.”

She stays in the job because of its flexibility and because she enjoys her relationships with the clients.

“I enjoy giving people a bit of love and attention. It depresses me when I see the way families treat their old folk. I see lots of cases where families take their money and they have no food in the cupboard.”

A works very much in isolation. She depends on her mother for her childcare support while her older son has taken on looking after the youngest child.

As the home care system expands increasingly care assistants such as A. and B. are looking to move into working privately for elderly clients

B like many care assistants went into care work because of her experience of caring for a relative and the need to be around for her young children;

“I thought the work was very useful to do and you are making a big difference to elderly people’s lives. But I was really shocked by the pay and lack of nurturing and support from the agencies.”

She has had a variety of jobs in her life, including being a model, a makeup artist and running a hotel. She finds society’s attitude to care assistants very poor;

“People see it as a skivying job, something immigrants do and beneath them. They are always surprised when I tell them I am a care assistant because I am well spoken and look presentable. They are always slightly taken aback and say ‘you mean management’ and I reply ‘no, bottom wiper!'”

She sees it as a valuable job, valued by her clients and families but not by the agencies and society.

“It is an important job and you have to know a hell of a lot about medication, write notes and have a legal duty of care for your client”.

B thinks that the entire care system is wrong and needs changing;

“It should not be privatised, the council should run it. The system is based on money and not the needs of the clients. Where I work the agency is paid £15 and the care assistant only gets £7 per hour.”

Care workers

The lives of many working class women in this society have changed rapidly over the last 30 years. For some it  has meant opportunities to get a better education than their parents and achieve a professional job and better standard of living. But for some women the gains made are now being destroyed as the public services are going into meltdown. As we lead a more atomised life so the need for carers increases with a growing elderly community. But it is a community that is being serviced by a group of women who are seeing their wages and terms of conditions being reduced. And it is ironic that these workers are caring for women who had better working lives when they worked in the traditional manufacturing sector.

Unison have set up a new organisation for care workers see https://www.facebook.com/Careworkersforchange/

Posted in anti-cuts, feminism, human rights, Ireland, labour history, Manchester, Socialism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

My review of “Sound System, The Political Power of Music” by Dave Randall

dave randal

Dave Randall is a professional musician and ex-member of the SWP. In this new book he charts his own awakening into the world of music and politics and tries to explain why music is so important to all of us.

It is a major task and Dave begins by  taking  us on a historical tour starting in 380 BC  and ending with  own involvement in the recent anti-austerity demo in London. Like many people he was turned on to politics by the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa in the 1980s. Recalling hearing the Special AKA’s  perform Free Nelson Mandela he says; “In that moment, surrounded by thousands of festival goers hollering the hook, I learned- instinctively felt- that the future is unwritten and ordinary people like me could have a say. Music, I realised, is our weapon.”

For me, finding out how and why people become politically active is fascinating. Dave is unusual in that he has had a life at the top of the music industry in bands such as Faithless, and also  working with famous (or maybe infamous) singers such as Sinead O’Connor,  as well as the more interesting musicians such as Sengalese kora player Doudou Cissoko.

Dave also, quite rightly, shows the importance of grassroots organisations such as Rock Against Racism in the late 1970s and its influence on many, particularly working class young people, in relating their lives to politics through music. But whilst lauding the latest version – Love Music Hate Racism- he fails to understand that today many people (of all ages) are disillusioned with left politics, whatever the mood music.

RAR was successful because it allowed young people to express their sense of hopelessness and unhappiness through not just writing good  (and not so good music) but giving them a platform to perform their music at gigs and encouraging them to start their own political campaigns.

manchester rar

Like many people who write about music (and this may reflect his SWP politics) there is a major gap  in  the books in that he can relate to  and write  about the politics of the Arab revolutions,  but there is no mention of the music arisng from opposition to  the British presence  in Northern  Ireland. There has always been a vibrant Irish revolutionary tradition in music and in the 1980s and 1990s we saw a renaissance with bands such as the Pogues and singers such as  Christy Moore,  as well as less well-known bands  (but just as  important) Marxman and Easterhouse.

One UK based band that had an incredible influence and is missing completely from the book is  the anarchist band Chumbawamba. Is it because of their politics? They didn’t just write some of the best songs about alienation and injustice,  but took part in the Miners Strike 1984-5.  Over 30 years their songs reflected the mood of the  era; songs that were also catchy, melodic and great to dance to.

Also missing from the book are few direct comments from women singers and musicians. And I do have to challenge his interpretation of Beyonce’s performance at the 2016 NFL Superbowl where she performed her song “Formation” with references to Black Lives Matters, and the Black Panthers. Dave, after pages of analysis, decides that; “When one of the world’s biggest popstars gets political in this way, a space is momentarily forced open in the mainstream media for debate.”  I don’t think so. If Beyonce wanted to really make a difference to black people in the USA she could have given them her lunch money (probably   a million dollars) to would help build organisations such as BLM, rather than allow her to rebrand herself as a C21st Black Power figure.

Why has this happened? It says something about the decline of the Left that at a political demo today you are more likely to see well off singers such as Charlotte Church spouting about injustice rather than fast food workers or care assistants.

One thing I really like about this book is Dave’s Rebel Music Manifesto where he encourages the reader to get active not just in music but politics. To me, this is much more interesting and important that the many pages devoted to the history of music and its relationship to political regimes and the masses.

In 2017 many people are angry about their lives and have little hope for the future. Thousands of people are out on demos,  but no political party or left groupso far seems able to inspire those people to do much more than demonstrate. Music is important in politics and as anarchist Emma Goldman said; “A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.”

Buy it here

Posted in Alice Nutter, anti-cuts, book review, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, music, North of Ireland, trade unions, Uncategorized, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book review; Bob Crow Socialist, Leader, Fighter by Gregor Gall

bob crow 1

Bob Crow grew up on a council estate in the East End of London: his father was a docker and his mother was  a cleaner. He left school at 16 without any qualifications with dreams of becoming a professional footballer,  and when this failed he got a job working for the London Underground.

He came from a political background: his father was part of that radical tradition of dockers who were communists, read the Morning Star,  and active in their Union. Like my father who worked in the building trade,  they were highly politicised workers who knew what side they were on and,  as Bob says  “When we used to come home at 6 o’clock at night, the news was always on and old man had an opinion about everything. All the big industries were unionised. All my mates’ dads’ families were in unions. It was just a fact of life.”

Bob joined the NUR when he was 18 on 6 May 1979 –the week that  Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. He became active in the union following a fallout with his supervisor and went to a union meeting to complain. This began his lifetime commitment to trade union activity. In 1980 he was elected as a local union representative, working on behalf of thousands of Underground infrastructure maintenance and renewal workers called Permanent Way staff. By the time of his early death in 2014 he had become not just the leader of one of the most militant trade unions in the country,  but a leader who  was loved and inspired by his members and who articulated the views of socialism and compassion which led many people in this country to see him as a working class hero.

In this well –written new biography Gregor Gall explains how and why Bob Crow achieved this fame. Central to Bob’s rise to power was the position of the RMT workers on the London Underground. Unlike any other part of the railway system in the UK, London cannot function without its public transport system. Bob Crow understood this,  and used the privatisation of British Rail to strengthen the RMT and make it an effective fighting force which would  defend its  members jobs and working conditions.  Gregor shows that Bob was much more than a Daily Mail caricature of a strike happy trade union leader. “In all, Crow led from the front in making sure that – whether through threats or action or action itself – an increasing amount of pressure was put on employers to settle on terms acceptable to RMT members.”

Bob Crow was much more than a union leader. His leadership of the RMT led to the creation of three organisations that would act, or try to, act as vehicles to promote the interests of working class people and socialism, filling  a vacuum he felt that had been vacated by the Labour Party. By 2007 he was telling the RMT  AGM,  “Any hope of the Labour Party working for workers is dead, finished, over. I think all of you who are staying in the Labour Party are just giving credibility to it.”  His response to this political vacuum was to work with selected  Labour MPs,but also to promote organisations that he believed  would lay the groundwork for a new party of labour, including the National Shop Stewards Network, the No2EU and the Trades Union and Socialist Coalition.

Crucial to all this politics was Bob Crow’s personality,  the larger than life working class male who loved his family, his football team and having a good time. He was attacked constantly by the media because of his accent, his no- nonsense up front defence of his RMT members and calls  for a better world for all people.  He defended himself;  “To be a general secretary of a union you’ve got to be larger than life…You want someone who’s got a bit of spark about them…And perhaps sometimes where some people might keep their mouth shut I have expressed a point of view where sometimes you should listen a bit more.”

One of the reasons why Bob Crow was loved by his members was because he was on their side and would do whatever he could to win them better pay and conditions. He inspired people like Lorna Tooley whom I interviewed in  2015 when researching a pamphlet on Manchester Irish Trade Unionist Mary Quaile (1886-1958) I interviewed several modern “Marys”: women active in the trade union movement today. My aim was to show the relevance of trade unionism today,  and in particular its relevance to the lives of younger women.

Lorna Tooley, who is in her twenties and Branch Secretary East Ham RMT, told me that  trade unionism turned around her life; “The union helped me a lot and showed me   what they can do and why they are there. They inspired me, all my life I have had so much shit happen to me, it was a lightbulb moment, that there are people who will stand up for each other, and will help other people who are not as strong as them….Through the union I have gained an education, gained confidence and it has also opened my eyes to injustice, not just in this country but across the world.”

lorna 2

Lorna and her comrades

Gregor Gall’s biography gives one a fascinating insight into Bob’s life, covering many aspects of not just his union work but his relationship with his family, the media and the Left.  Communist and trade union activist Eddie Frow used to say that there were only two kinds of history; bosses’ and workers. Gregor has definitely written the latter.

Buy it here

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A Better World for Women: British Women Trade Unionists visit the Soviet Union in 1925

Soviet Russian women's delegation report

In 2017 it feels  like the word hope has left the political vocabulary. Politics today seems to be all  about trying to hang  on to our jobs and our public services. It feels as if we are all in the gutter, not looking at the stars.

In 1925 things were not much better, particularly for women. After the end of the  First World War female membership in trade unions declined,  and continued to do so throughout the 1920s and 1930s,  while   unemployment rose and wages fell. Cheap female labour was used by employers to displace men while the trade union movement struggled to attract women because it failed to address their particular needs as workers, carers and citizens.

Many  people in the UK  looked to the new society being created in the Soviet Union as a blueprint for a better world. In April 1925 a group of British women trade unionists set off on a  four month fact-finding visit to the Soviet Union on behalf of the TUC. Mary Quaile chaired the delegation, reflecting  her national status in the trade union movement. When Margaret Bonfield was appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Labour in January 1924 in the first Labour Government,  Mary had taken  her place on the General Council of the TUC.

The women’s delegation took place because it was felt that, although a delegation of trade unionists  had visited the Soviet Union the previous year,  “the delegation had not included women, who it might be urged would be quick to appreciate conditions affecting the work, health and general conditions of women and children in Russia.”

The delegation was made up of four women.  In addition to  Mary, there was Mrs. A. Bridge, an organiser in the National Union of Printing,Bookbinding and Paper Workers; Miss Annie Loughlin, an organiser in the Tailor and Garment Workers Union; and Miss L. A. Aspinall, an organiser in the Weavers, Winders and Reelers Association. The delegation also included a stenographer, Miss Kay Purcell,  and an interpreter, Mrs. Z. Coates. It is hard to imagine today how mindblowing it must have been for these working class women to visit the Soviet Union in an era when foreign travel was usually confined to the middle-class. Just looking at this photo of them leaving shows how excited and happy they look.

British Womens Delegation 1925The delegation started out in Moscow, and then travelled across the country to Leningrad, Kharkov, the Crimea, Balaclava, Sebastopol, Rostov-on-Don, Kislovodsk, Grozny, Baku,Tiflis, Borzhom, Abas-Timan and Vladikavkaz. They countered  criticism that they were  being manipulated by the Soviet authorities by stating; “Whilst the local trade union and Soviet Authorities made suggestions, it was the delegation itself who decided where they should go, and what they should see, the authorities always providing all the necessary facilities.”

It was not just the geographical breadth of the women’s tour that was wide ranging,  but the subjects they investigated: factory workshops, social insurance, social issues, national minorities, textile industry, women in industry and other topics.  The printed  report  has some wonderful pictures,  not just of factories but of a Tartar Mosque in  Georgia, a workers’ rest home in the Caucasus,  and peasants at a Peasant Congress.

Mary Quaile in the Soviet Union 1925

Mary and workers at Kislovodsk

The women delegates were all women who regularly visited local mills and factories in Britain  and  so were able to comment as experts on the working conditions they  saw  in the Soviet Union. This is evident in the chapter on the Textile Industry where they looked at the way in which the work was organised compared  to British mills,  and noticed how much better the working conditions were.

In one of the garment factories they visited they commented that it was run on American lines because of an arrangement between the Russian Garment Makers Trade Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America,  who supplied them with new machinery. The delegates were able to speak to these workers more freely because they were Americans who had come over in 1920.

The Soviet Union was committed in theory  to  the equality of the sexes,  but as the country  embarked on the  New Economic Policy, which reintroduced a measure of  privately run business,  women were losing their jobs and being relegated to low skill work. The delegates reported that this was being countered by allowing women to work in previously prohibited work,  including night work,  and by raising the education level of women.

And,  whilst in both Britain and the Soviet Union there were debates about how women were going to achieve equality,  in the chapter on “The Family in Soviet Russia” the answer was clear: provide communal resources such as public dining rooms and access to social clubs with childcare facilities. They also report on the position of unmarried women with children, marriage and divorce, as well as  the mutual rights and duties of parents and children. These were  policies  well ahead of British attitudes  and  legislation in the 1920s.

Soviet banner given to TUC women's delegation in 1925

Banner given to the delegation by Soviet women

Unusual for any delegation at that time was the inclusion of an analysis of organisations specifically for children. The delegates spoke  to children in the Young Pioneers, an organisation for children of 11-16 years –  comparing with the more militarised British Scout Movement – and could actually speak and report verbatim the views of one of the children.

In 2017 we could and should be sceptical about the rosy views painted by the delegates in this report. But the delegates  have no qualms about this as  they state  in the conclusion that they thought  there was  enough negative reporting of the Soviet Union,  and that they “have emphasised the good because the bad is entirely an inheritance of the past; the good is the work of the present and an earnest hope of the future” and that “no honest observer of present-day Soviet Russia can doubt for one moment that a great and sincere experiment in working class government is being carried out in Russia.”

You can read the report at the WCML see

Posted in book review, Communism, feminism, human rights, International Women's Day, labour history, Manchester, political women, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , | Leave a comment