“ANY help possible will be given” was the phrase used by the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Union Council (MSWTUC) to sum up the philosophy of this unique organisation.
Formed in 1895 by local philanthropists including editor of the Manchester Guardian CP Scott and Julia Gaskell, daughter of author and campaigner Elizabeth Gaskell, the organisation laid the foundations for women’s activity in the modern trade union movement.
During this period trade unions were largely organisations of men for men: many of them were either indifferent or hostile to the needs of female workers.
The long lost minutes books came to light last year during research for a pamphlet on the life of Mary Quaile, organiser for the MSWTUC between 1911 and 1919.
It seems that Quaile took them with her when the office closed in April 1919 and luckily her relatives kept them after her death in 1958. They were presented to the Mary Quaile Club by her great-nephew Martin Ennis.
Comprising cover 760 pages of copperplate handwriting, the minutes are a summary of what was said at the meetings and the decisions taken. They were written up by the middle-class members of the MSWTUC, but are not patronising, rather they are sympathetic and forthright in telling the history of women’s struggle for equality and justice.
For 24 years (1895-1919) the MSWTUC responded to the plight of the poorest and most exploited working-class women in the north-west of England.
It raised funds from rich subscribers and used the money to rent premises, employ working-class women as organising secretaries and financially support women on strike and in straitened circumstances.
The council summed up its ethos: “To bring trade unionism within the reach of scattered individuals working in unorganised trades and to draft them off into their own trade unions.”
The MSWTUC attracted some formidable campaigners including Eva Gore Booth, Margaret Ashton, Christabel Pankhurst and Mary Quaile and not so well-known activists such as Olive Aldridge, Frances Ashwell, Emily Cox and Kate Wallwork.
Central to the work of the MSWTUC was encouraging working-class women to organise themselves: self-determination and autonomy were key issues. This was not so easy to promote when the female workers had had a poor education, worked long hours and some were also mothers.
The 1903 MSWTUC annual report explained what they were up against: “The timidity of inexperience is hard to overcome and people naturally fear to jeopardise their week’s earnings.
“Innumerable meetings are held by the council, sometimes so small that they are not in themselves worth recording.”
By 1904 the issue of the vote for women was to radically change the MSWTUC, particularly in its role as foremost organiser for female workers.
It decided as an organisation not to add women’s suffrage to its aims, maybe fearing a backlash from its middle-class subscribers, leading to a split. The minutes and letters from Gore Booth give a fascinating insight to the anger and determination of those who decided to leave.
In her resignation letter she said: “It is a profound conviction of the absolute importance of political power to the workers, especially the women workers, that forces me to take this step.”
Other leading members including Christabel Pankhurst and Sarah Reddish also resigned from the council. They then set up their own organisation, the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trade and Labour Council, which would speak to the needs of working-class women for trade unions and votes for women.
Over the next few years the MSWTUC carried on, but without some of its powerful trade union supporters, including the Weavers Union and its 800 members.
The number of meetings they held declined but its work continued, concentrating now on some of the smaller groups of workers, including sewing machinists, India rubber workers, the bakers and confectioners, fancy leather workers and telephone operators.
Some years later the MSWTUC changed its policy over suffrage and took part in demonstrations and lobbying at a local and national level.
The launch of the minutes on a new website for all to read will give back this history to today’s women and men who seek justice at work and in society generally.
It has been organised and financed by the Mary Quaile Club, which fundraised from trade unions and individuals to ensure the transcribing and publication of the minutes.
Lisa Turnbull of the Durham Teaching Assistants formally launched the website at the weekend, drawing the links between past female trade unionists and today’s struggles.
Their campaign started on the internet through Facebook but they have followed in the footsteps of the women of the MSWTUC, building their successful campaign through the tradition of meetings and demonstrations.
Like many of the women of the MSWTUC she said: “I didn’t have a choice, I had to stand up for what I believe in. I did it because I have to be able to look myself and my daughter in the eye.”