To fight, to struggle, to right the wrong

Equality - 01 Jan 2021

100 years ago today the National Federation of Women Workers merged with the National Union of General Workers (now GMB).GMB Activist Sarah James marks this historic day and dedicates 2021 to all those women who have fought and continue to fight to right the wrongs.

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One hundred years ago today the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) merged with the National Union of General Workers (now GMB) in the belief that class solidarity was more important than separate women’s organisations.

At the time Mary MacArthur wrote:

"Inside the national union we shall be able to demonstrate the possibility of a great industrial organisation of men and women, and have one in which women are not submerged, but one in which they take as active a part as men."

She had argued that the existence of a women-only union was never intended to be a permanent solution to the refusal of some unions to accept women into membership.

The NFWW was not hostile to mixed unions and encouraged women workers to join unions appropriate to their work where this was possible.

Its ultimate goal was to bring women into the union movement and make change within existing organising; a central reason for the merger with GMB.

Fifteen years earlier, in 1906, the NFWW was founded under the leadership of Mary Macarthur.

The NFWW, as a women-only Union, was established with the aim to recruit and organise women workers who were excluded from traditional trade unions, or where no union existed for their trade.

This mainly occurred in the sweated industries, which relied on workers who made a products at home rather than in a factory, and sold them on to the retailer, often through a middleman.

One such example of organising in the super sweated industry was chainmaking in the Black Country.

The women worked for long hours and piece work rates, often either heavily pregnant or with their children alongside them, hand-hammering chains for domestic use.

Chainmaking in the Black Country had started to receive attention from the Government in the early 1900’s, with regulation of wages and the improvement of the lives of workers more regularly discussed.

Unfortunately, throughout negotiations to establish a better wage the employers complained that higher wages would make them vulnerable to foreign competition and would encourage faster modernisation which would result in job losses.

Sound familiar? This could be any negotiation taking place in any workplace today.

In the spring of 1910, a minimum wage of tuppence ha’penny per hour was proposed.

The rate, although a low wage, would double the wage of the women workers, and was agreed within the nationally organised board.

The employers however almost immediately tried to find loopholes in the agreement.

They managed to get a six-month delay, during which they sent managers to get the women to ‘contract out’ of the minimum wage.

Many of the women Chainmakers had no formal education, rendering them illiterate meaning they did not know what they were signing, however if they refused to sign were told there was no work for them.

On 23 August 1910, the National Federation of Women Workers demanded the minimum wage be paid immediately.

The employers refused and the union, led by Mary Macarthur, called a strike for all those women on less than the minimum wage.

At a mass meeting of women workers, they all agreed not to sign the form. The strike was not easy to organise.

More than half of the women on strike had not joined the union because the weekly payment of 3d could buy a loaf of bread — food poverty was a real issue for women in 1910, a shocking issue that we are still faced with today.

At the time Mary said, “women are unorganised because they are badly paid, and poorly paid because they are unorganised”.

But tired of working day and night for starvation wages, the women voted to ‘’come out and stay out’’.

It was reported at the time that seven hundred women put down their tools, and at the end of the 10-week strike small chainmaking became the first industry in the UK to obtain minimum wage legislation, a fact we should all be proud of.

One hundred year on, and it is more important than ever that we remember with pride the strong history our Union has, and take lessons from the likes of Mary Macarthur and the women chainmakers to ensure that women’s roles within our union are properly understood and valued.

At its height the NFWW had 40,000 members and since the merger into the GMB family a century ago women have played an integral part to the union in the workplace.

Unfortunately, whilst we have an equal split in our membership between women and men, our structures do not reflect this, and as women members are often left behind, with Branch Secretary and President and Officer roles still predominately male dominated.

Only last month did we see the appointment of the first woman Regional Secretary within GMB Union, and whilst I offer my sincere congratulations to Ruth Brady, I am also calling on women throughout the GMB to get involved with your branch structures.

Become a workplace rep, attend branch meetings, and challenge the positions if they don’t work or reflect your workplace membership.

2021 is dedicated to all those women workers who have fought and struggled before us and to those amongst us today still fighting to right the wrongs.

Together, we are stronger.

Sarah James
GMB National Equality Forum Women's Strand Lead

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