Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland (pictured left) on Sunday (July 12) helped Midlands trade unionists celebrate the successful achievements of 800 striking women Chainmakers in 1910 by drawing parallels with the ongoing need for organisation and unity in the face of attacks on workers.
Diana Holland was speaking at the 10th annual Midlands TUC-organised Chainmakers Festival. It featured live music, comedy, stalls, speeches, street theatre re-enactments and fun fair rides along Cradley Heath High Street where many of the women lived and worked over a century ago.
Chainmakers were highly skilled and badly paid. Writer Robert H Sheard described their lives in his ‘The White Slaves of England’ book. ‘At Anvil Yard…I could see nothing but sorrow and hunger and grime, rags, foul food, open sores and movements incessant and laborious.’
Non-union women workers, who earned less than the unionised men doing the same jobs, were especially poorly paid, earning well under 10 shillings (50 pence) a week.
Trade union organiser Mary Macarthur started the fightback in 1906 by establishing the Hammered Chain Branch of the National Federation of Women Workers.
There was further progress when the Chain Trade Board – established by the Trade Boards Act 1909, which created the first boards legally able to set a minimum wage – agreed a 100 per cent pay rise.
Many smaller companies though sought to avoid paying up and exploited their female employees illiteracy by tricking them into signing contracts that started the new rates six months later.
Realising they had been duped, around a thousand women, inspired by Mary Macarthur, began strike action to force their employers to pay the newly agreed minimum hourly wage of 2.5d (1 p).
Strike funds were collected and when Macarthur, aware of the media’s power, encouraged Pathe News to cover the strike this produced worldwide public sympathy and donations. The £4,000 collected maintained the struggle for 10 weeks at the end of which a famous victory was achieved when all the employers agreed to pay the minimum rate.
Mcarthur’s victory speech was wonderfully recaptured on Sunday by actor Lynn Morris. She said today’s young women could use Macarthur as inspiration.
“You no longer need a Mary Macarthur. You will find your own leaders and voices, but a word of warning on this glorious day, take heed for that which has been so hard won can be so easily lost. So keep the unity, keep the union and keep together.”
Diana Holland told the crowd the women chainmakers are being replicated today by “women workers in hotels, who after decades of campaigning are beginning to make gains because they are getting organised through Unite.
“The Cradley Heath women chainmakers show that if you are organised and in a union you can win in the most difficult of circumstances. They also by helping found the national minimum wage showed unions are not going to allow a race to the bottom.
“It is important that we keep alive the memory of those brave women of over a century ago and this Festival is a marvellous way of doing so.”