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

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Book Review; Women Workers and the Trade Unions by Sarah Boston


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

Donate to keep women’s trade union history alive see

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Minutes of Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Union Council 1903-1905


This is my fourth post about the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trade Union Council, and covers the years 1903-1905.

By 1903 the Council was an established organisation which  individuals and organisations contacted,  not just for help with organising women into trade unions, but  was also  contacted by national and local organisations to gain information and support.

Organising Secretary Eva Gore Booth became a representative on the Manchester City Council Education Committee which gave the Council the opportunity to lobby on behalf of women. An example of this is in May 1903 they protested against girls being excluded from scholarships for the Municipal School of Technology.

Women contacted them about getting help to form unions from as far away as dressmakers in Sligo in Ireland to the women Chain Makers in Cradley Heath in Birmingham. Eva was asked by the Hanley Trades Council to speak at their Labour Day to encourage women to get organised into trade unions.

New groups of women including cafe workers, were contacting the Council,  highlighting issues of long hours, low pay and unhealthy work conditions. Messrs. Roberts Cafe was mentioned by an anonymous worker – possibly Mary Quaile – who later on in 1911 joined the Council as an Assistant Secretary.

Council meetings were now to be held alternately in the afternoon and the evenings so the women secretaries could attend.

The Council also stepped in when women could not access union funds. In April 1904 a fire in a local mill meant that 80 to 90 women lost their jobs. Their Union, the Winders, could only provide financial help after 5 weeks. The Council issued a circular on behalf of the women asking for financial help from other trade societies. The Weavers’ Union, a large and relatively  well-off union, lent £20. Financially independent women on the Council – including Margaret Ashton, Miss Gaskell and Mrs. Schwann  -gave £5 each.

But the question of the vote for women was to rock the Council in the autumn of 1904. Leading activists Eva Gore Booth, Sarah Dickenson and Christabel Pankhurst felt that the Council should, alongside other trade union and progressive organisations, support the suffrage campaign. In a motion  Christabel Pankhurst urged the Council; “That it is now time that the Council should bring their policy into line with that of the Unions with which they are connected by taking active part in the effort to gain political power for the women workers.”

But other members of the Council objected, saying that it was down to  individual trade unions to support the campaign, and  it would alienate their subscribers and friends. Christabel’s motion was defeated and she, plus Eva and Sarah, resigned from the Council. Affiliated unions such as the Salford Weavers with 800 members followed them,  as well as six other trade unions. They went on to form a new organisation,  which in its name reflected the politics of the day; the  Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades and Labour Council.


This spilt damaged the Council  and in 1905  its work declined. The number of meetings they held annually went from 14 to 11.They now employed only a single Secretary Olive Aldridge, and concentrated on helping to organise smaller unions including; Sewing Machinists, India Rubber Workers, the Bakers and Confectioners, Fancy Leather Workers and Telephone Operators.

The Sewing Machinists and Bakers and Confectioners now became represented on the Council.

The Council continued to step in over cases of victimisation of trade union women. In October 1905  two women from the Leather Workers Union were dismissed from their jobs supposedly because of a lack of work. Mrs.  Aldridge visited the firm and discovered it was because of their trade union activity. Unfortunately neither she nor the Union could get the women their jobs back but the Council gave a grant of 6/- a week to the women until they got work or the Union was able to support them financially.

Over the next few years the Council had to rebuild its organisation and obtain funding from new trade union organisations as well as relying on their wealthier subscribers.

To read about the MSWTUC Transcription Project see

Donations are welcome  to continue this project – there are 23 years of Minutes- please contact maryquaileclub@gmail.com

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“We cannot go on as usual”: my review of “Freedom is a Constant Struggle” by Angela Y Davis.


“Pessimism of the Intellect and Optimism of the Will”. This phrase sums up how I feel about 2016. I came across this  quote in a brilliant book  Freedom is a Constant Struggle; Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Y. Davis; a political prisoner in the 1970s, now an academic and author. It is a collection of essays, interviews and speeches in which she reflects on her life and politics, reminding us that it is only through community and collectivity that we can have hope and optimism for the future.

Angela  is one of the few women on the Left who has a public and international platform, unlike many other working class and grassroots organisers,  a gap that has undeniably led to the fragmentation and weakness of the Left, not just in this country but across the world.

In the chapter “Feminism and Abolition; Theories and Practice,” she  questions the concept of what it means to be a woman in the C21st and highlights the role of transgender women and  the way in which they are oppressed particularly in the prison system. It is Angela at her best; challenging our views about gender, linking together sexism, racism and the continuing struggle for freedom by all people. She says; “Feminism involves so much more than  gender equality. ..Feminism must involve a consciousness of capitalism.”

The title of the book is a reference to a freedom song that was sung during the C20th  civil rights movement. Angela uses it to reflect on her historical view of how  individuals, such as Martin Luther King , are used  to represent the civil rights  movement. As she says; “And I wonder, will we ever truly recognise the collective subject of history that was itself produced by radical organising?” She goes on to highlight the role of the anonymous black female domestic workers in Montgomery in the 1950s who refused to ride the segregated buses and without whom there would have not been a boycott movement for Martin Luther King to lead.


Angela constantly reminds us of past history and the key role of grass roots struggles in building radical movements. She comments; “Progressive struggles – whether they are focussed on racism, repression, poverty, or other issues are doomed to fail if they do not also attempt to develop a consciousness of the insidious promotion of capitalist individualism.”

The strength and brilliance of this book is in its wide historical range,  linking the past with present day struggles. One of the most shocking facts Angela points out  is that there are now more black people incarcerated in the US prison system than there were slaves in the 1850s. And the links between the policing of black people, in places such as Ferguson and people of colour in the C21st,  mirrors the use of slave patrols which hunted down escaped slaves. As Angela says “Then, as now, the use of armed representatives of the state was complemented by the use of civilians to perform the violence of the state.”

But this is not a depressing book. Angela shows how oppressed people in places as different as Ferguson and Palestine have recognised the links between their struggles. Many US police forces are now being trained in Israel on “counter terrorist “ training and using the same weaponry. Palestine activists noticed that police in Ferguson were using the same tear gas used against them: through social media they told the Ferguson protestors how to deal with it.


Palestine is a key issue in the book. Angela links the segregation in Palestine with the historical racism in the southern states of the US,  the apartheid of South Africa,  and the role of the USA in collaborating with these administrations. Angela is a member of the International Political Prisoners Committee which campaigns for the freedom of Palestinian prisoners, and she is involved with the Boycott Disinvestment Sanctions movement. To her the plight of the Palestinians is directly linked to global capitalism and the way in which private corporations such as G4S have insidiously crept into “securing” Palestinian prisoners as well as “policing” schools in the USA. She quotes Nelson Mandela; “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

I have been a lifelong trade unionist and community activist and my recent work of transcribing the minutes of a unique organisation the Manchester and Salford Womens TUC (1895-1919) has confirmed to me the importance of collective action, particularly for poor and working class women. Likewise Angela’s book is a reminder of how we are all part of an important history of radical community actions. As she says “It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.”

Freedom is a Constant Struggle was published before the election of Donald Trump, but I think Angela’s  summary of what we should all do would not be any different. She says; “We will have to do something extraordinary; We will have to go to great lengths. We cannot go on as usual. We cannot pivot the centre. We cannot be moderated. We will have to be willing to stand up and say no with our combined spirits, our collective intellects and our many bodies.”

Buy it here

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Minutes of Manchester and Salford Womens TUC 1900-1902

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.


Eva Gore Booth


Margaret Ashton


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.


Sarah Dickenson

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

Donations are welcome  to continue this project – there are 23 years of Minutes- please contact maryquaileclub@gmail.com

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The chains of history connecting 1910 to 2016 : from Mary MacArthur and Mary Quaile to the Durham Teaching Assistants.

Last week,  when  speaking at a West Midlands Unison meeting for women about the life of Mary Quaile,  I was vividly reminded  of the power of women and the power of women in trade unions.  While the problems women face (at this meeting sexual harassment at work was on the agenda,  not surprising given the environment of cuts)  might have changed,  the basic need for women to get together to discuss the particular issues that affect them,  and construct strategies to change them,  has not gone away. Nowadays trade unions are barely  recognisable from the days of Mary Quaile and Mary Macarthur,  but the issues that drove these women – recruiting women into trade unions, achieving  equality at work including equal pay for equal work –  have not gone away.

Mary Quaile was a grassroots person, even though she attained a place on the General Council of the TUC and later on in life became a Justice of the Peace. During her fifty years of activity she never strayed from her belief that trade unions were the answer to changing working class peoples lives and creating a fairer, democratic society but one with women at the centre.


Mary Quaile 1925

In the West Midlands area one of the most significant strike actions by women was in 1910, when  the Cradley Heath chainmakers – all women – took strike action,  and won. They were some of the poorest of workers; they did not have a vote, were illiterate, worked a 54-hour week and had to take their children to work with them. Their story is told in the brilliant book Breaking their Chains; Mary Macarthur and the Chainmakers’ Strike of 1910, written by Tony Barnsley.


Mary Macarthur addressing strikers and supporters in Cradley Heath 1910

The leader of the strike was the charismatic Mary Macarthur (1880-1921), a woman who should be much better known. Mary was the founder of the National Federation of Women Workers, and , like Mary Quaile, she was an activist who was out on the picket line in the early mornings, rallied workers at meetings in the evenings, edited a paper which she also went out and sold,  and  was always happy to lead her women workers in mass demonstrations. Mary was media savvy, she recognised the importance of getting the chainmakers into the new Pathe news at the burgeoning cinemas which led to 10 million  people finding out about the chainmakers dispute,  and no doubt influencing the victory.

The chainmakers strike was in 1910,  but my research from the minutes of the Manchester and Salford Womens Trades Union Council  shows that as early as November 1903 the women in Cradley Heath contacted the MSWTUC and asked  whether one of the organising secretaries,  Eva Gore Booth,   could come down to help organise the women. Eva went down twice,  and on 1st March 1903  the MSWTUC minutes reported that Eva had held a meeting, and that 200 new members joined.

The two Marys had much in common. They were both anti-war and  both believed that internationalism was the answer to the onslaught of capitalism. But once the First World War had broken out,  both women worked to ensure that the increase of women workers going into industry, due to men being enlisted, would not be exploited.  Once again both women went out organising women into trade unions and, most importantly,  called for “equal pay for equal work.” Employers were quite happy to get women to take on men’s job but at  lower  wages. Throughout the war both women fought for equal pay for women and, by the end of the war,  women’s wages had increased by 50%.

Writing about the importance of trade unionism in  1908 Mary Macarthur said; “It entails loyalty, self-sacrifice and self-control: that it stands for the greatest good for the greatest number, and the interests of the individual must always be subservient to the common interests.” Both Marys gave their lives to improving the lives of women and building a trade movement that included women. Sadly few of Mary Quaile’s speeches were recorded but in her obituary in the Manchester Guardian it said; “Her determination to get trade unionism for women accepted was often met with jeers, boos, rotten apples and threats of violence. She spoke at hundreds of factory gate meetings in both the East End of London and Manchester; she never betrayed any sign of fear when faced with hostility.”

In 2016 we have seen the rise of modern Marys from the hotel workers in London to the Durham and Derby Teaching Assistants and the Kinsley Cleaners. For them the need for a trade union has not gone away, and they are following in the footsteps of their sisters; Mary Quaile and Mary Macarthur.

Lisa Turnbull,  one of the Durham T.A.s says,  Looking back at strong women like Mary Quaile makes you realise that as a woman you can take the lead and fight for what’s right and fair. ..no one else is going to do it for you”.


Meet and listen to Lisa at the Mary Quaile Club Grunwick Strike   event on 3rd  December, 1pm,  at the WCML in Salford see

Watch Lisa and her comrades here

Read about the Kinsley Cleaners here You can donate by making a cheque out to Wakefield Unison and sending it to 18 Gills Yard, Wakefield WF1 3BZ.

Support the Durham T.A’s here

You can buy “Breaking their Chains; Mary Macarthur and the Chainmakers’ Strike of 1910” by Tony Barnsley here

Read about Mary Quaile  and buy Dare to be Free Women in Trade Unions Past and Present here

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

Book review; All in a Day’s Work: Working Lives and Trade Unions in West London 1945-1995, edited by David Welsh.


Reading this book reminds me of Brecht’s poem, “Questions From a Worker Who Reads” (1935).  It reminds us of our trade union history – the lives of women and men who, over the years in this country, have contributed to making this a fairer,  more democratic society- a history that is absent from the books, television and radio programmes that dominate our media, our education system and our lives. And if we don’t research and write our own history –who else will?

“All In a Day’s Work: Working Lives and Trade Unions in West London 1945-1995” is a tremendous achievement. It began with an oral history project which collected over 100 interviews between  2009 and 2013. Its aim was to cover fifty years of working class history, looking at everything from family background (and importantly how people came to this area of London),  as well as their lives at work, their involvement in trade union politics and how this affected their lives.

The project focussed on a particular area of West London,  which included the many global factories which  dominated the industrial belt, as well as smaller firms, and the growing public sector. Many of the interviews were done by volunteers with  the people interviewed playing an important role in providing photos, union membership cards, as well donating their time and views to the project.

This is a successful project and book because of the  people involved. The National Britain at Work oral history project was set up by  Professor Nina Fishman (now sadly dead), who was not just an academic, but an activist working in trade union education across the region. It also has an inspiring introduction by John McDonnell, an MP for the local area, who reminisces about his own experience of political and trade union activity. He sums up the importance of this project; “The Britain at Work Project helps us to listen and learn from past lives and past struggles. For that we owe it and all its participants a debt of thanks.”

Central to the story of West London is the manufacturing industry: it had one of the highest concentration of manufacturing, not just in London but in the whole  country. In 2016 it’s hard to imagine the scale of the number of factories and of people working in them. Just five West London factories employed 6,000 people, for instance.

They needed lots of workers,  and immigrant labour provided an important source of workers, like  Rose Madden who was born in Ireland in 1939,  and in 1957 moved to Kilburn to live with her sister and find work. She says; “I was given a job in McVitie and Price’s biscuit factory towards Harlesden. There were machines that wrapped biscuits and I was working, making chocolate…it was fascinating really, like Heath Robinson.” Rose wasn’t alone, as many people from across the world were attracted to West London to find employment and make a home in the region. Many of them experienced racism, sometimes from their own union members or officers,  and it is important  that these stories  are included in the book.

It was a time of full employment for 30 years after the Second World War, and a time when trade union organisation and activity flourished.”Many West Londoners became part of a massive social movement through this activity, a movement that was increasingly linked with communities at a London-wide level and with the national trade union movement.”

One of the fascinating stories is of the women workers at Trico-Folberth factory in Brentford, who in 1976  stayed out on strike for 21 weeks for equal pay and won. I love the comments by Sally Groves as she took part on the picket line ; “We had such tremendous support from other trade unionists- it was fantastic, to make the picket possible…We obviously had a right to speak to the drivers. Yeah it was a huge battle…I was dragged away and then Eileen was dragged away.”


It wasn’t just women and men in factories who were out on strike,  it is great to read about the hairdressers walking out of Ivan’s salon in the West End in 1973, and a strike at BHS HQ in Marylebone after it sacked a trainee manager for being gay.

Reading this book is inspiring for me. It’s not just the stories of ordinary people fighting for equality at work, but the fact that we can read their stories, see their pictures, and remind ourselves that we can change our lives at work, at home and in our community. It is a history that needs preserving and promoting,  but one that needs to be taken seriously by the trade union movement and other progressive organisations and individuals.

 Today we are living in a time when trade unions play a declining role in workplaces,  but trade unions are its members and they can make a difference, just look at the Blacklisting Campaign. Lucky for this campaign,  they have produced a book that tells their story, unfortunately many other disputes have been forgotten or just written out of the trade union histories. I hope this book can inspire other people to write up their own history of activism,  and perhaps create a blog to publicise it. You can buy it  here see

 Questions From a Worker Who Reads

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?

In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?

And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?

In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?

Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them ?

Over whom did the Caesars triumph ?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants ?

Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone ?

Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him ?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep ?

Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it ?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors ?

Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill ?

So many reports.

So many questions.

Posted in Blacklisting campaign, book review, education, feminism, human rights, Ireland, labour history, political women, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, TV drama, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , | Leave a comment