March 2016

With International Women’s Day being observed on 8 March then Book of the Month features two books by radical women.

The first is by award winning film maker Sarah Boston, whose revised WOMEN WORKERS & THE TRADE UNIONS classic detailed study recounts the story of women workers from the early nineteenth century to the present day. It is well-researched, shrewd and lucid.

Northern ReSisters: Conversations with Radical Women by writer and political activist Bernadette Hyland also packs a punch as the author combines contemporary interviews with nine northern England radical women along with a selection of her own writings dating back to 1988.

.Sarah Boston: WOMEN WORKERS & THE TRADE UNIONSWomen Workers & Trade Unions
Lawrence and Wishart   £20.00

This is a revised version of a book originally written in 1980 and which now covers from the 1830s to 2010.
Sarah Boston reveals that at the advent of industrialisation much of the workforce, particu-larly within textiles, were women who, like those to come, were lowly paid, worked long hours and were more highly exploited than men. 

It was a situation which trade unions, dominated by skilled tradesmen from the beginning, wouldn’t challenge and even supported for decades. Unsurprisingly, therefore, that when women became active trade unionists many formed separate organisations. When struggling to improve pay and conditions some women workers took successful strike action such as the Matchwomen in 1888 (1) and then in 1910 the Cradley Heath Chainmakers, (2) who were led by Mary Macarthur, who denounced the lowly status and the lack of a living wage for women.

Women, backed by some male trade unionists, began campaigning across the labour move-ment for equal pay.  The book contains numerous examples of where even when the principle was won it was not acted upon by unions during negotiations with employers. The status quo was smashed in 1968 by a strike by women sewing machinists within the TGWU, one of Unite's predecessor union’s, that brought Fords Dagenham to a standstill. (3) Not only did the women win recognition to skilled status but they also heralded in the 1970 Equal Pay Act before later achieving a regrading that established they did work of equal value to their male colleagues and should be paid accordingly. This provided the opportunity for many other women to have their jobs regraded upwards.

Equal pay was important. Achieving it though required equal opportunities in training and education, paid maternity leave and child-care facilities. The response of many unions was, at best, lukewarm.

Women trade unionists then combined with the Women's Liberation Movement. Together they pushed unions into campaigning for better pay for cleaners, Meanwhile, an important survey by the Association of Cinematograph Television and Allied Technicians (ACTT) confirmed that despite the ACTT’s historical commitment to equality, women remained firmly rooted in the lower grades of the industry where the union was organised.

The ACTT 1973 conference instructed the union to tackle discriminatory practices with employers and appoint an officer to investigate and recommend action against discrimination. New initiatives encouraged more women to participate right across the union. It was a radical, encouraging development. It pushed other unions to draw up a set of broadened objectives for its women members that included health matters, sexual harassment and women’s portrayal in the media.

There was then good news. A survey revealed that between 1970 and 1976 there had been a fall in the gap between men and women’s gross hourly earnings such that women’s pay now averaged 74% of men’s. Women’s employment had also risen.

These gains though were lost over the following decade. The Conservative government, elected in 1979, adopted a harsh economic strategy in which “unemployment was a price worth paying.” The public sector, where many women worked, was attacked and maternity rights were also chipped away at. Women workers again fought back. There were nation-wide nurses strikes in 1982, successful opposition against plans to weaken the Abortion Act and there was a continuous stream of TUC reports and statements on many  women’s issues. 

By the time New Labour was elected in 1997 major legal restrictions had been imposed on the trade union movement. The economy too had changed dramatically as the UK’s manu-facturing base had been wrecked. With this came the decline in male employment that slashed trade union membership from 12.6 million to 7.0 million between 1979 and 1997.

Writing in the T&G Record in 1996, Margaret Prosser, the TUC President that year, recog-nised that where there was new employment opportunities these were mainly for part-time women workers in small firms. For unions to survive they must “become female or we will become fringe.” Even in unions who agreed with Prosser, a solution was difficult as it re-quired massive changes to organisations that had been male-dominated for decades. Yet unless women were at the table when union policy was being negotiated then why join a union?

Boston ends her book by examining the period from 1997 to 2010. Aside from the welcome introduction of the national minimum wage, New Labour continued with the Tories policies including privatising public services and restricting trade unions’ legal rights.

Women trade unionists reacted by undertaking campaigns, negotiating and litigating over the gender pay gap.  Within the public sector, trade unions fought continuous - often suc-cessful - battles, especially within the NHS and local authorities, to win women a fairer deal under the 1997 single status agreement. There was also some success by unions negotiating under Agenda for Change, which was aimed at harmonising basic service conditions on pay and working hours for NHS employees. 

However, within the private sector the difficulties faced by trade unions in recruiting new members allowed employers to widen the gender gap. Many women remained segregated in a limited range of jobs, making it easier for employers to pay them less. Strikes over pay and conditions by mainly Asian women workers within the TGWU at Gate Gourmet and Lufthansa Skychef Catering Company were long running and courageous but failed to pro-vide a satisfactory outcome. More pleasingly, there were bargaining successes on flexible working conditions for working parents and carers, which benefitted many women.

Boston’s book closes with an analysis of the trade unions, which despite now consisting of  more women members than men still has too few women integrated at all levels of the movement. Boston contends that if unions are to successfully challenge inequality at work and in society they must eradicate inequality in their own organisations.

Boston ends this highly readable, informative book by praising the many women who over the years have spoken out to assert the needs of women workers.

1. Louise Raw: STRIKING A LIGHT - The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their place in History

2. For more on the Cradley Heath Chainmakers go to:-


.Bernadette Hyland: Northern ReSisters, Conversations with Radical Women
Northern ReSisterspublished by the Mary Quaile Club, £5.95

Manchester's Bernadette Hyland quotes Eddie Frow, who cofounded the Working Class Movement Library with Ruth Frow, as the inspiration behind her decision many years ago to take up writing when he said: "There's workers history and there's bosses history."

Such advice was not wasted as Hyland has done an excellent job in Northern ReSisters, producing a highly readable 80 page book of workers history that combines contemporary interviews with nine northern England radical women - chosen due to their involvement in resistance movements - along with a selection of her own writings stretching back to 1988 and starting with a piece on the Irish in Britain Representation Group. (IBRG) The author was a highly active member of the IBRG, which campaigned for the Irish in Britain to be represented in all areas of society and for a peaceful and just settlement in the North of Ireland.

In 1991, Hyland conducted a highly informative interview with Bernadette Devlin (McAliskey), whose sensational election in 1969 as MP for the Mid-Ulster constituency marked a significant turning point in the fight against the ingrained discrimination of the Northern Irish State.

23 years later, Hyland takes as her example suffragettes who, using the motto "if women don't count, we won't be counted,” disappeared from their homes on census night in 1911. She asks “what would women vanish for in 2014?” in their fight to change a still increasingly unfair society.

Betty Tebbs was born in 1918, joined a union at aged 14, became active in campaigning against nuclear weapons in 1946 and even today regards "the struggle for peace as vital if we are to secure any quality of life for young people or future generations." Other women who are interviewed are involved in the trade union movement, the fight against the bed-room tax and the organising of commemorative events such as the one in Manchester each August for Peterloo 1819. All are seeking a better, fairer, more democratic society right across the world and the issue of internationalism rightly burns strong in Northern ReSist-ers.

Want to comment on this book?  Email Mark Metcalf at - See more at:
Want to comment on these books?  Email Mark Metcalf at

Don’t forget also that Unite Education has published its own piece of work on Julia Varley, a working class woman who fought all her life for equal and civil rights, decent pay and working conditions. Julia Varley: trade union organiser and fighter for women’s rights can be downloaded at:-