In 2018 the numbers of trade union members is on the decline: many young people do not see the point of joining. Some unions, such as the Baking Food and Allied Workers Union, are bucking that trend and young people are at the heart of their union and activity, many of whom are women and often from ethnic backgrounds.
In my research of the Minute Books of the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trade Union Council I came across some interesting references to the Bakers’ & Confectioners’ Union (as it was known then). We can see how the two organisations worked together to first recruit women into their own separate unions and later amalgamated the two unions.
By 1905 the MSWTUC was ten years old and was very skilled at helping women set up their own unions. At this time most unions were male organisations, some of whom were hostile to women joining them because they feared it might bring down pay rates or were just not interested in recruiting them.
The story begins in February 1905 when the Branch Committee of the B.C.U. is approached by the MSWTUC to do some joint work in organising amongst women in the flour and confectionery trade. The B.C.U. agrees, “This union pledged themselves to assist the council in all possible ways”. The Organising Secretary, Mrs. Aldridge is requested to take on this work on behalf of the MSWTUC.
By May 11 1905 a meeting has been organised with women and girls employed in the confectionery (cake & biscuit) trade.
It was not easy to organise women because of the long hours they worked and the MSWTUC were often not allowed on their work premises to talk to the women. But by June 6 1905 it was reported that “the new Confectioners’ Union had commenced on a smaller scale mainly owing to the difficulty of getting in touch with the women”. A union was set up at a meeting that had been organised jointly by the Women’s Council and the Bakers’ and Confectioners’ Union. Miss Johnson was appointed Secretary and regular meetings were now being held.
On August 1 1905 Mr. Crick, District Organising Secretary of the B.C.U., attended the MSWTUC Council meeting to represent the women’s Confectionery Union.
There are no furher references in the Minute Books to the women’s Confectionery Union until 1909.
From February 1909 work is being undertaken to organise women confectionery workers and meetings are held at the B.C.U. offices at 56 Swan St. in Manchester. Joint meetings between the women confectioners and the Men’s organisation were now to take place.
“ A very successful meeting of confectioners was held at 56 Swan Street on Wednesday December 1st 1909. Several new members of the Society were enrolled. Mr. H. Howard the president of the Men’s Society took the chair. The speakers were Miss Emily Cox and Mrs. Aldridge from the Council and Mr. H. A. Crick Secretary of the Men’s Society.”
A year later in December 1910 it was decided that the B.C.U. would donate £25 to the MSWTUC “to be used between February and July 1911 in making a thorough canvass of women confectioners in the Manchester District further sums to be granted if meetings were arranged in the other towns.”
This donation led to the appointment of Mary Quaile as an Assistant to Mrs. Aldridge so that they could take on the work of organising the women confectionery workers. “It was felt that if the Secretary could be relieved of the routine work in connection with the office, far more time and energy could be devoted by her to the more valuable outside work of organisation.”
The difficulty of organising these women was expressed in the MSWTUC Annual Report of 1910. Women confectionery workers “were so scattered in their work that were it not for their organisation they would know but little of the relative merits of the many situations. The union provides a common meeting ground for women working in a wide area, and members are thus able to obtain a far better knowledge of the conditions of bakehouses and wages than non-union women.”
Over the next few months Olive Aldridge and Mary Quaile worked hard, canvassing women working in shops and organising local meetings ie. April 3 they organised a meeting in Levenshulme.
In June 1911 Mrs. Aldridge and Miss Ashcroft attended the Annual Demonstration of Bakers and Confectioners for the Preston district and Miss Eva Craven of the Women’s Confectioners Society spoke at the Caxton Hall meeting in support of the Eight Hours Bill for her trade.
There are no other references to work with the Women’s Confectioners Society until October 9 1912 . “ It was reported that Mr. Campion and Miss Quaile were attending a meeting for women confectioners for the Council at Eccles”.
The outbreak of the First World War leads to growing female employment and a crucial role for the MSWTUC in ensuring that women are not exploited by employers who are now keen to employ them.
Mary Quaile, who is now the sole Organising Secretary, becomes involved with organisations such as the Manchester Relief Committee and the Women’s War Interest Committee which campaigned for decent rates of pay for women war workers.
Throughout 1914 Mary was working with women sweet workers at local factories explaining the role of new government organisations ie Trade Boards which would be involved in the pay and conditions of women war workers.
The MSWTUC Annual Report explained why it was crucial for women to be in trade unions. “Never before has the organisation of women been so necessary as at present, as owing to the shortage of men through enlistment, women are being employed in their place and it is of the utmost importance that women doing the same work as men should receive the same wages.”
The final reference to women in the confectionery trade was March 8 1916 when the Bakers’ Union called the Women Confectioners to a meeting and an amalgamation of the two unions was agreed.
This small snapshot of the history of the MSWTUC, women in the confectionery trade and the B.C.U. shows how difficult it was to organise some of the poorest and most exploited workers: women. Today, this history is important in reminding us that union recruitment and organisation is not easy, but it is crucial in ensuring that workers are treated fairly at work.
The Minute Books and Annual Reports can be viewed in a new exhibition at the WCML