This is the third post about my work on the MSWTUC Transcription Project.
From 1900 onwards the MSWTUC changed in many ways. Up to this point it had been involved in organising women in laundries, bookbinding, shirtmaking, fancy box making, printing, upholstery and the india rubber trade. It had 950 members, and two organising secretaries whose job was not just to encourage women to join unions, but also to give them the self confidence to run those unions.
Its profile was changing as more women became active in the Council, trade union representatives now sat on the Council, and the number of yearly meetings went up from 5 to 11. The dynamism of its work is reflected some of the new people becoming involved in the Council. This included Eva Gore Booth, who became an organising secretary in 1900, and was active in both trade union, socialist and suffragist politics; Margaret Ashton who went onto become the first woman Manchester City Councillor in 1908; and the future suffragette Christabel Pankhurst.
The Council was now an established group which had not just individual women and groups of women approach them, but was now part of a network of organisations that responded to changes in legislation and took part in research projects concerning women at work.
The Council were not afraid to challenge male trade unions that did not take women’s role in industry seriously. An interesting case was in April 1900 when one of the organising secretaries, Mrs Dickenson, reported that the Cigar Makers Union were de-unionising 25 women members because they worked on new machinery in the cigar making process. The Union was concerned that the employer was using young girls who had not served an apprenticeship on the machines.
The Council objected to the Union throwing the women out of the union. They did not believe that the CMU could hold out against the mechanisation of the process, and asked them to take the 25 women back into the union. They also said that if the union continued this policy, then they would “withdraw all help in matters of organisation from the Manchester branch of the union.”
Many women – particularly Jewish- were working as tailoresses in firms such as the Co-operative works. The Council began to organise this very poor group of women workers and a Miss Kay became secretary of the Tailoresses Union. It went onto become one of the most vibrant trade unions.
In 1901 we find out that Miss Kay has an interview with the Directors of the Co-operative works and challenges them about the wages received by the women workers. They agree to allow Miss Kay to check the wage books of the girls at the end of the year to see if the tailoresses’ income had been affected by a new system of working.
Miss Kay went onto become a full-time organiser for the Tailoresses and took a place on the Council. Later on the male union decided that they would stop paying Miss Kay’s wages suggesting thta she should go back to tailoring. The Council opposed this, and instead decide to raised the funding for her post through private contributions and grants from women’s Trade Unions.
The MSWTUC now had women approaching them directly for help. In June 1901 a Jewish tailoress asked for help because of “ill treatment received from her employer”. No details are revealed – it must have been serious, perhaps physical abuse- the Council responded. “Help had been given and the man had been slightly fined at the police court. There had been talk of a further summons from the employer but it had fallen through.”
By July 1901 the Council discusses how they could get free legal advice for women workers. The case of the Jewish woman is used as an example. Later on in November 1902 a woman weaver (age 15) has an industrial accident and lost a finger. The council steps in and gets the woman a lawyer to represent her and get compensation.
In March 1902 the male union for weavers, the Northern Counties Weavers Amalgamation has a meeting with the Council who agree to start organising women weavers. In April 1902 they report that ’ “Since the meeting books had been sent into the weaving sheds & 720 women had given in their names. Each shed had appointed a woman to form a committee. A meeting was to be held on Thursday evening at the office”. The womens weavers union went onto become one of the most dynamic in the northwest.
Read about the MSWTUC Transcription Project here
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