My review of “Poster Workshop 1968-1971” by Sam Lord with Peter Dukes, Jo Robinson and Sarah Wilson.

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It is the May elections this week and the title of this book will resonate with many people: they are that disillusioned with the political process and politicians.  But this book is not about politicians; it is about how people at a grassroots level, 50 years ago, really did believe that they could change society and not just here but over the water in the North of Ireland,  in South Africa and in  Vietnam.

This book tells the story of the Poster Workshop in London and how they  used the new technology of screen printing, which allowed people to produce cheap and accessible posters  to convey important messages for all kinds of political movements.

The Poster Workshop was part of a bigger worldwide  movement which began in France in May/June 1968 when students alongside workers went on strike,  challenging the right wing government and demanding seismic change in society. It was a movement that spread across the world, offering hope for people at a grassroots level to turn society upside down and make it a fairer and more just place to live.

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It was not just about challenging the system –  but combined with the new hippy counterculture – threw it back on individuals and groups to produce an alternative lifestyle, one that was based on a do it yourself politics,  reflected in actions which ranged from squatting to the occupation of factories. And Poster Workshop responded to  this; “ working without bosses, and with an open-door policy, they invited people to come in and print their own posters.”

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It is hard to imagine in these days of Facebook and Twitter the difficulty in the 1960s for groups to get their message out and respond quickly  to events. The Poster Workshop and other “peoples printshops” were crucial in passing on skills to activists to make their own pamphlets, leaflets and newsletters – and,  most importantly,  having “peoples printshops” to print them cheaply. But it was part of a vibrant political culture; “These groups didn’t just find new forms to raise political issues, but also took their performances to “the people” on protests and pickets, in tenants and community halls and squats.”  

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The story of how the Poster Workshop started up is fascinating. Radicalised by the Vietnam War,  art school graduate Sam Lord built a screen printing table in his kitchen and started producing political posters. A meeting with Jean Loup, a French Tunisian, who had been active in the Atelier Populair – a student-occupied print workshop in Paris which produced posters to promote the revolutionary activities in 1968 – led to the creation of the Poster Workshop.

The Poster Workshop was a mixture of art graduate and activists,  and it inspired other people, including a Cockney pensioner called Scriv, to design, print and maintain the workshop.

They didn’t just  travel  around the country and beyond to pass on their skills to other groups,  but went over to the North of Ireland where an often forgotten struggle of the 1960s was being played out.  The Poster Workshop were invited  by  People’s Democracy: a political organisation that campaigned for civil rights for the Catholic minority (at that time most of whom  could not vote in elections) and a united socialist republic.

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Art school graduate Sarah Wilson  went to Belfast and  showed people how to make the posters. “In a small community centre a board was put up inviting people to write down ideas for slogans. They were checked every day, and the best selected for new posters.”  When the locals could take on the work themselves Sarah then moved onto Derry to start another workshop.

Not surprising to those of us involved in Irish politics, it was only in Belfast that people who fly posted were arrested by the British Army, and one  was sent to prison for three months. In Britain fly posting was seen as a minor offence,  usually resulting in a fine,  but it reflected how much more serious were the politics going on in North of Ireland.

Leafing through this book it tells us so much visually about the politics of the era. The posters are beautiful, anarchic and direct. They shout out against unfairness, injustice and discrimination,  but they also encourage and inspire in a way that art work today does not. Maybe because they were part of a grassroots movement that belonged,  not just to the poster makers, but to the society at that time.

Unfortunately, at the moment, there is lots of nostalgia around about past events and sadly, many of them such as Grunwicks and the Miners Strike, where we lost. And although today, through social media,  we can communicate fast and direct,  the technology is not communal, it is not about sharing a creative process,  and very often does not empower people.

The power of the story of the Poster Workshop and all the groups and individuals involved screams out; yes we can do it, we can change society and we will do it together.

“In our youth we danced for liberty and personal freedom, not the liberty to exploit and oppress, but to turn our dreams of equality into reality. Let’s continue dancing!”

Buy it for £10 here

 

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Posted in anti-cuts, book review, Catholicism, Communism, drama, education, feminism, human rights, Ireland, labour history, North of Ireland, political women, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

The IBRG archive at the WCML; the rebirth of a Branch. Part Two

 

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IBRG Logo

 

Today most of us involved in our trade union or community organisation use the internet,  including FB and twitter to communicate with our members. In the period of this archive there was no internet and contact with members was made by sending letters,  while minutes of a meeting were written in books.  There was a great deal of paper as leaflets and  posters were produced to publicise events.

IBRG Manchester existed from 1984 to 2002 but there are gaps in the minutes. There are no minutes for the organisation before 1986, although  the branch did exist because it produced the defining document “A New Deal for the Irish Community in Manchester” in  October 1984. As is often the case people take or misplace files.

1986 is an important year for Manchester IBRG as the branch was  revived with new people, particularly women, who joined  and changed the profile of the organisation.  One of the documents, handwritten by me as secretary of the branch,  sums up a year’s organising, so it  must be March 1987. I may have written it for the branch AGM or a national meeting as it also refers to the other northern branches.

IBRG document 1987

The notes sum up some of the problems of restarting the branch including  “wresting authority from older members.” When I came back to Manchester in 1986 the  Manchester IBRG meetings were held in Our Lady’s Catholic Centre in Moss Side.  To me, and other second generation Irish ( particularly women), it was anathema to have anything to do with the Catholic church. Also, the branch was more of a drinking club for some quite reactionary men.

Taking the meetings away from this inaccessible venue was crucial to bringing in new members,  which was not easy as the Irish community was scattered across the city. In the minutes the branch meetings take place in various venues from Manchester Polytechnic to Manchester Town Hall to St.Brendan’s Irish Centre in Old Trafford.  Traditional Irish centres , except for St. Brendan’s,  were wary of what they saw as a “political group” using their premises. This was not surprising given the police activity at the time which intensely surveilled the Irish community. It also reflected  the views of some of the older generation,  who were quite happy living in what I termed a “Celtic twilight” ignoring the bigger political issues facing the Irish in Britain and on the island of Ireland.

IBRG NEW MEMBERS

New members

This change in the profile of the branch is shown in some of the earlier minutes when it votes to donate £15 to a Bolton IBRG member, Margaret Mullarkey, so that she can go on the annual Women’s Delegation to Ireland (ie the  North of Ireland). Another issue taken on by the branch is highlighting the use of strip searching of Republican women in prisons in Ireland by holding a meeting to publicise a national campaign.

In the 1980s Manchester had a left wing Council run by Graham Stringer which had a progressive policy on Ireland, due to the influence of an  internal  Labour grouping: the Labour Committee  on Ireland. There was also a local Troops Out Movement as well as remnants of older republican groups such as Sinn Fein.

IBRG was not a party political group,  but lobbied the Council to ensure that the Irish were given a proportionate say in their policies for ethnic groups in the City and to try and reflect the reality that the Irish were the largest ethnic minority whose needs had often been marginalised.

The Council had a Race Unit and a Race Committee which sought to represent communities in the city. In the mid 1980s the representatives from the Irish community included Ann Hilferty, a respected member of the community and who joined IBRG. The other representative was an Irish Catholic priest, John Ahearne. This reflected the nature of the established  Irish community at that time ie largely Catholic and conservative.

IBRG took up issues around anti-Irish racism that lit a spark within the larger Irish community. In London in 1984 the left wing Greater London Council sponsored a new book on anti-Irish racism written by Liz Curtis called  “Nothing But the Same Old Story: The Roots of Anti-Irish Racism showing that it was as old as Britain’s colonial involvement in Ireland.

Nothing but

 

At a national level IBRG  produced policies on anti-Irish racism which led to our branch being involved in activity  on this issue eg  one of our members stood  in a bookshop and read out the Irish jokes to challenge the management. But anti-Irish racism could be found in all parts of the establishment.  One of our big campaigns was against the racist stereotyping of Irish men in an educational booklet produced by the Equal Opportunities Commission. We encouraged local Irish people to pass on their examples of racism to the Council’s Race Unit,  who would also write letters to the offending organisation.

Challenging anti-Irish racism and discrimination was part of establishing a positive Irish identity,  particularly for new generations of Irish children. It drew the links between the Irish who lived in Britain and those on the island of Ireland.  IBRG nationally called for a political settlement in the North of Ireland: one that would take into account the view of those on the island of Ireland as well  as those  in the diasporas  of Britain and abroad.

When the Labour Council invited representatives from Sinn Fein to visit the city in 1986 we took part. IBRG’s policy on the conflict in the North of Ireland was about encouraging all parties to get involved in the political process. Over the years IBRG was one of the few Irish community organisations that encouraged the inclusion of Sinn Fein into the process and the right of the Irish in Britain to have a say in any long term settlement.

But,  whilst this activity found support within certain sections of the Irish community,  those Irish people who were happy to use their Irish identity to gain jobs or positions of power in the establishment,   were not so happy.  This would surface in conflict  over various issues including the Radio Manchester  Irish radio programme  Irish Line which was taken away from Manchester IBRG and handed over to Irish acceptable to the BBC  and became the twee Come Into the Parlour. There was further division  over the first  Irish Week in 1988 when traditional Irish organisations tried to exclude IBRG events on women, the North of Ireland  etc.

 

Posted in education, feminism, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, North of Ireland, political women, Socialism, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

My review of “Striking Women Struggles and Strategies of South Asian Women Workers from Grunwick to Gate Gourmet” by Sundari Anitha & Ruth Pearson

striking women

There is something strange going on when plays about trade union defeats (including   We are the Lions, Mr Manager about  Grunwick and   We’re Not Going Back  and  Shafted  about the Miners’ Strike) have never been so popular,  whilst actual trade union membership is on the decline. Trade union membership has halved from a high of 13.2 million in 1979 to 6.2 million in 2016.

In this new book  on South Asian women’s involvement in struggles for equality at work, the authors show that there is a history of over four decades of South Asian women taking part  in labour struggles in the UK.  They  place that activity within a broader context; one that takes into account how and why the women  came to the UK;  and how the connections of race, ethnicity, gender and class thrust them into their roles as women who resisted oppression at work and took their activity onto the streets.

The authors challenge some of the myths around  the Grunwick strike; “the celebration of the strike increasingly resembles a kind of political nostalgia, a longing backward glance to the muscular activism of mass picketing, confrontation with the police and a centrifugal drawing together of all the progressive elements in the labour movement and the wider left.” Instead they show  the forces lined up against black and ethnic minority workers: how they were not just fighting discrimination by employers, but  also from fellow white workers – and even trade unions.

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Grunwick picket line

This book documents this history, and  shows how black and ethnic workers, together with their communities, challenged discrimination. In 1963 a local community group, the West Indian Development Community in Bristol, challenged a local bus company that refused to employ black and Asian people as bus crew,  a policy that was supported by the white workforce,  and  shockingly by the trade unions. Following the example of  black people in the USA at that time the local community boycotted the bus company,  and through a national campaign,  forced the company to lift the ban on non-white workers.

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Bristol Bus Boycott

Lobbying by trade union members to challenge discriminatory practices within the trade union movement led  finally in the  late 1970s and early 1980s to a recognition  that racial discrimination needed to be challenged , and that black and ethnic minority workers needed to be incorporated into the trade union movement.

But what was, and is, the reality for black and ethnic minorities in work and as trade unionists? In Striking Women through the stories of the women at the heart of two important strikes – Grunwick in 1976-78 and Gate Gourmet in 2005 –  we get a more complex view of the women activists that is grounded not just in their lives at work,  but at home, and as part of the complexities of the UK labour market.

Central to this story are  the women themselves. The authors interviewed five of the elderly Grunwick strikers, and twenty seven Punjabi women workers who were sacked by Gate Gourmet in 2005. They interviewed them in their  own language of Hindi, “In the hope of bringing forth submerged accounts and hitherto unvoiced memories.”

The authors also interviewed senior officials in the TGWU (now Unite), observed Employment tribunals, and analysed the full judgements of the seventeen Employment Tribunal cases. The research gone into this book, and the analysis of these two disputes, must count for one of the most complex and complete examinations of the dynamics between trade unions and their members. It also shows how the massive changes in the political and economic realities of the period from the 1970s to the 2000s have undermined both workers and trade unions,  and challenges present day trade union practices in representing workers.

Much has been written about the Grunwick strike, but in this book we actually get to hear from the women themselves, and most importantly as they look back at what was a defeat, the women are sanguine; “I felt great that I can do something. I was no longer scared of our community. Of what people will say.”

The Gate Gourmet dispute was at a different time,  and  led to different consequences for the women involved. By 2005 the women had been working in a unionised workplace for many years,  but the anti-trade union legislation (which the Labour Government would not abandon) meant that it was not going to be a Grunwick mark 2,  but this time with a happy ending.

But many of the issues were similar for the two groups of women workers. It was about feelings of injustice and a need for collective action to address these grievances.  But the realities of 2005 meant that; “South Asian workers were once again subject to arbitrary management, treated as a  “disposable” labour force and left unprotected by the wider labour movement.”

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Gate Gourmet workers

The challenges for trade unions in 2018 are formidable,  but unless they are prepared to challenge their own policies and practices as organisations,  their relevance to groups such as black and ethnic minority groups is questionable. The Grunwick and Gate Gourmet strikers proved that South Asian women (like other ethnic groups) are prepared to organise collectively to oppose oppression at work,  but the challenge  to the trade unions is to prove that they can change their approach to these workers and adopt a more proactive approach to organising workers in an era of globalisation and restructuring.

Buy Striking Women, cost £18 (!!) here

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Rising Up; How the MSWTUC worked with the Bakers’ Union to organise women confectioners.

women in chocolate factory

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.”

AnnualRep1910

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

 

 

 

 

Posted in education, feminism, human rights, labour history, Manchester, political women, Salford, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Irish Collection at the WCML: a new chapter- the role of the Irish in Britain Representation Group. Part One.

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Opening of Irish Collection 1990. Tony Coughlan Executor of Greaves Collection and me, secretary of Manchester IBRG

 

Over the centuries the Irish  have played a key role in the labour and trade union movement in this country. The Working Class Movement Library has some of the most important archives which  document this activity and show the continuous thread between generations of Irish and British activists.

In the Irish Collection are the archives of  Tommy Jackson and Desmond Greaves. Tommy Jackson (Thomas Alfred “Tommy” Jackson 1879-1955) was a founding member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain,  and later the Communist Party of Great Britain. He was a leading communist activist,  newspaper editor and a freelance lecturer.

Desmond Greaves (C.Desmond Greaves, 1913-1988), was a political activist and labour historian. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1934 and in 1941 joined the Connolly Association. The Connolly Association worked to organise Irish workers into trade unions and campaigned for a united Ireland within the Labour movement. In 1948 he became the editor of the Connolly Association’s newspaper the “Irish Democrat” and remained so until his death.

My friendship with Ruth and Eddie Frow and their comrades in the Communist Party and the trade unions showed me the important link that there was and still is between the Irish and radical history in Britain.  In the WCML they ensured that this history was collected, they wrote articles and pamphlets to promote this history and always encouraged other people to research and write up that history.  They showed  the continuous link there is and was between  generations, from the United Irishmen to their contemporaries such as  Tommy Jackson and Desmond Greaves, while local activists such as Mary Quaile had made a tremendous contribution to labour and trade union politics.

In 1981 a new wave of Irish activists became involved in not just the campaign for a united Ireland but also civil rights and equality for the Irish in Britain. The early 80s were critical times during the conflict in the North of Ireland, it was a time of the hunger strikes when 10 young men died for their right to political status. The 80s was a time when 40,000 Irish people  each year were making the journey across the Irish Sea to Britain.  It was a time when a new generation of second and third generation Irish people became active in a variety of organisations from the Troops Out Movement to the Irish Abortion Support Group and the Irish in Britain Representation Group. It was a time when there was an active  group of people in the Labour Party who fought for a progressive policy on the North of Ireland, supported the rights of the Irish in this country and  most importantly, prepared to fund groups such as IBRG.

IBRG Haringey

IBRG Haringay 1980s

Set up in 1981 the IBRG was a community based organisation with branches across the country. There  were several in London plus Birmingham, Cardiff, Coventry, Manchester, Bolton, N.E.Lancs, Leeds and Merseyside. Over the years branches flourished  and declined by turn, reflecting the problems of organising events and activities and finding activists and funds to keep going.

This new archive will link up with the Jackson and Greaves archives in  telling the story of IBRG from 1981-2002. It has much material on the Manchester branch but there are Minute Books from other northwest branches as well  national documents, minutes of meetings, leaflets, reports, photographs, videos and ephemerae.

I hope the archive will show what inspired people like me to get involved in IBRG,  but also why, as a working class women, it made sense for me not just to be a member of my trade union but also to follow in the footsteps of many other Irish people to campaign for equality for the Irish in this country  and  a united Ireland.

I am  now cataloguing the  IBRG archive and will be posting about it  as I work through the material.

Posted in Catholicism, Communism, education, feminism, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, North of Ireland, political women, Salford, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Working Class Life: written by working class activists. Read “A Bolton Childhood” by Alice Foley

a bolton childhood

In this occasional series I want to rediscover the autobiographies of working class people that have been forgotten or marginalised. They are important in understanding how and why people become activists. They are important in asking questions as to why today there is such a lack of working class people who are active in all kinds of political organisations from political parties to trade unions.

Alice Foley (1891-1974) wrote a biography of her early life called A Bolton Childhood, which was published in 1973 and re-issued by Bolton Libraries and Arts in co-operation with the Bolton Branch of the Workers’ Educational Association in 1990. It covered her life until 1918.

At the start of  A Bolton Childhood  we are immediately thrown into the realities of the life of the working classes in the 1890s. “I was born on a scurvy, inhospitable day, in late November, 1891, a premature victim of nature and the hazards of “moonlight flit”.

Life for the Foley’s was harsh, partly because her father who was Irish, was involved with the campaign for Home Rule,  and would disappear for weeks as he agitated around the country. The family was left to live off her mother’s earnings as a washerwoman. “During these years mother plodded gamely on, battling with a feckless husband whom she neither loved nor understood, and succouring her six children who she never really wanted.”

The Foleys did have access to a local library and it was Alice’s job to be the “chief book borrower”. The books were dished out to brothers and sister,  but as Alice’s mother could not read it was up to her to become her reader. As she says;” almost every day when I returned from school she would say coaxingly “Let’s have a chapthur.”

Alice’s life at school was dogged by her awareness of her poverty,  and also that she came from a mixed family ie her father was Catholic and her mother  a Protestant. This did not go down well in a Catholic school run by nuns.

Her father’s politics did not win them any friends either,  particularly, when he took the side of the Boers against the British. “This brought us into conflict with the prevailing patriotism of the day and I remember we youngsters endured some good “hidings” when engaged in mock street battles, for the English side invariably out-fought us numerically if not in courage.”

Alice grew up at a time when militancy in trade unions, particularly in the local textile trade, was growing. Her sister Cissie  was involved in the textile trade union and had “Tenaciously elbowed her way into the male precincts of that executive. She was also allied with the Suffragettes and more disturbing still, a zestful member of the local Labour Church.”

Alice left school at 12 and,  after failing as a shop assistant,  she found work in a mill. Many years late she had not forgotten this first experience of factory work. “I still sharply remember the agony of fatigue endured by standing on one’s feet from early morning to late evening, so exhausted that I frequently fell asleep over tea or supper, too tired event to eat.”

Alice lived in a time of militancy when workers were taking on employers who saw mechanisation as a way of cutting wage rates. She mentions the 1905 Daubhill mill strike of which she says,  “In retrospect, however, it could be seen as a first shot in the human struggle to retain traditional methods of production against those fierce on-coming thrusts of technocracy and automation which were to harass and bedevil the cotton industry for the next half-century.”

By the age of fifteen she was representing  her fellow workers.”Pushed forward by my workmates I began to stammer out the substance of our complaint, but the manager, now too bad tempered and irritable to listen or argue, let forth a volley of abuse and ended by peremptorily ordering us back to work under penalty of immediate dismissal.”

Alice Foley, 16

Alice aged 16.

This did not stop Alice’s trade union activities and she went on to commit  her life to  working in the trade union movement. One of the joys of this book is her discovery of another world; that of music and culture. One chapter is devoted to that:  it’s called; “Moments of Magic”

She says; “But these subservient days were occasionally shot through with moments of magic when the spirit of freedom and joy broke through. Such a moment became enshrined in my first visit to the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan at the Theatre Royal,  Churchgate.”

And through organisations such as the Labour Church  and the Socialist Sunday school she gained a political education, hearing lectures and speeches by local left wing orators including Victor Grayson.  Alice met other working class people who wanted to escape the drudgery of the factory system and explore poetry, music and a different way of life.

Alice comments about that era; “Life was ever meaningful, even if something of a battlefield, and we had abiding faith in the ultimate achievement of the human race.”  Frustratingly her  autobiography finishes in 1918:  she never completed it and today it is out of print.

In 2018 there are still women like Alice and Cissie out there,  discovering politics and activism,  but  unfortunately few of them write up their lives or will get the opportunity to publish them. There is a massive gap in radical history, one that the Frows tried to fill when they created the Working Class Movement Library.  The Mary Quaile Club was set up to promote Mary and also to draw links with working class women today. We would love to work with women who want to write up their history of activism. Please  contact us at maryquaileclub@gmail.com

Find out more about Alice at the WCML see

Posted in biography, book review, Catholicism, Communism, education, feminism, human rights, labour history, political women, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Following in Sylvia’s footsteps; from 1918 to 2018. Meet Charlotte, Josephine, Eden and Lauren.

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Sylvia speaking in the East End of London

Sylvia Pankhurst’s  response to the 1918 Representation of the People Act reflected her politics. She had opposed the First World War from the start and  spent the war years defending the rights of poor women and children in the East End of London who had  become economic  victims of that war. Sylvia believed that a partial suffrage victory was no victory at all, particularly when it left most poor women still without the vote. Her words could be echoed today by the inheritors of her philosophy and activity. Uncompromising, and offended by the legislation, she responded;

“Saddened and oppressed by the great world tragedy, by the multiplying graves of men, and the broken hearts of women, we hold aloof from such rejoicings; they stride with a hollow and unreal sound upon our consciousness.”

1918, and  the years following,  were a bad time for women in this country. The 1918 Act rewarded the homecoming soldiers by giving all men the vote,   whilst as the  war industries wound down tens of thousands of women who had been working  in traditionally male industries were bundled out of the way for men:  a miserable  reward for keeping the wartime economy going.

Female unemployment rose rapidly. By March 1919  at least half a million women were registered as unemployed, but it was probably higher as the Labour Exchanges were encouraged to refuse to register women as not genuinely seeking work. Just like in 2018. Also they could be refused benefit if they turned down work,  no matter how unsuited to their skills or how badly paid. Just like in  2018.  Many women were forced to return to domestic service – or rather “domestic slavery” as many  women called it.

In 2018 suffrage history has been sanitised. On 6  February, for instance,   Theresa May was welcomed by  Helen Pankhurst, Emmeline’s grand-daughter, to the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester (the home of the Pankhurst family until 1907) to kick off their celebrations of 1918.

Charlotte Hughes, anti-austerity campaigner and writer was not invited to this event, of course. She blasts; “In my opinion it is abhorrent that Theresa May is celebrating a 100 years of some women getting the vote. Since Theresa May and the Conservative party have been in office, women have been victim to what appears like endless cuts to their income, their right to stay at home to look after children, while the cuts to legal aid and women’s aid services and refuges have forced women and children to live with an abusive partner.”

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Charlotte on the picket line at Ashton-u-Lyne Job Centre

The #Vote100    events symbolise the massive gap there is between the well off women who can turn up at these events and promote their books, their businesses and brand  as “feminists”.  Absent from these events are the young women who are today’s Sylvia Pankhursts:  the true inheritors of suffragism and radical politics.

Life for young women in 2018 has improved dramatically over the last 100 years. Young women today have a personal and economic independence only dreamed of by women in 1918.

But life is still hard. I spoke to Josephine Clark, aged 23, a parent and student nurse. She is one of the lucky student nurses as she started her training when there were still  bursaries, but even with her partner working full time they, like most people, are  just one pay cheque away from economic meltdown.

Josie Clark

Josephine

She has been politicised by her grandmother, Christine Clark, a Green Party and feminist activist. “Everything I know about politics I have learnt from my Gran,” she says.   “I have voted since I turned  18 and always for the Green Party.” But working in the NHS has made her change her views. “I really like Corbyn, and being worried about the state of the NHS,  I decided to vote Labour at the last election.”

Josephine sees herself as a feminist. She cares about inequalities,  and feels that even in 2018 they are still there. “I do feel equal to my partner,  but I think that there needs to be improvements in the way women and ethnic minorities are treated.”

Student Eden Lewis, aged 19, is confident about being a feminist and holding her own against the men on her sports journalist course. “My generation is not going to let people keep us down, we won’t stand for it.” As a young woman she was involved in the “Girls Against” group which challenged sexual harassment at pop concerts. She voted for the first time at the last General Election and reluctantly voted Labour. “The Labour MP, Helen Goodman, does nothing for the area and the only other choice was Tory or UKIP.”

Eden at polling station

Eden

Eden’s mother is Lisa Turnbull, one of the most inspiring women activists of the Durham Teaching Assistants Campaign. Eden supported her Mum, not just in keeping her morale high, but wrote a leaflet for the campaign and took part in their actions. “Taking part in their campaign made me more vocal and more politically aware.”

Lauren McCourt, aged 23, is a feminist and  a prominent activist in her union, the BFAWU.  She has chosen to challenge the everyday oppression meted out to young people in her workplace, some of which has parallels with 1918. “We have zero hour contracts, low pay, and bullying managers. Unions are important to protect people against these issues.” And just as in 1918 the response from women was to get organised.  “Being in a union for a woman shows the management that women will fight back against issues such as sexual harassment.”

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Lauren (Photo Steve Speed)

In 2018 some feminists are trying to turn Sylvia into a kind of celebrity feminist as shown by the campaign to get her a statue which literally means turning her Marxist politics into stone. What women need is her anger and actions to make real her socialist view of the world. The true inheritors of that philosophy is found in the words and actions of women such as Charlotte, Josephine, Eden and Lauren.

Come and hear Lauren McCourt speak on 10th  March at 2pm at a joint event between the Mary Quaile Club and the Working Class Movement in Salford. Book tickets at trustees@wcml.org.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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