LOUISE REGAN celebrates a momentous 1910 struggle by determined women chainmakers that changed history
Today the annual Women Chainmakers’ Festival takes place on Cradley Heath High Street in Sandwell. This Festival re-enacts the struggle and celebrates the achievements of women trade unionists both then and now. It is an opportunity to see how the women worked, hear about their dispute and learn from current trade unionists.
In 1910 the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath laid down their tools and left their backyard forges to strike for a living wage. These courageous women, led by the union organiser Mary Macarthur, showed that by standing together and fighting for a living wage they could win.
After 10 weeks they won their dispute and more than doubled their weekly income from as little as five to 11 shillings. Their victory helped to make the principle of a national minimum wage a reality.
These women took a huge risk because although they were earning a pittance the small amount of money they did earn enabled them to put food on the table.
However, the campaign was supported both nationally and internationally and money was donated to the strike fund to support them. So much money in fact that at the end of the strike there was enough left to build The Cradley Heath Workers’ Institute (pictured) — a centre of social and industrial activity and a place for women to meet and organise.
This centre opened on June 10 1912 and in 2006 — to save it from demolition — it was moved brick by brick to the Black Country Museum where it stands today as a physical reminder of the women’s strike in 1910.
So why over 100 years later do we still remember these women? Why, when some feel that women have made such huge gains do we need to talk about strike action from the past?
First, I think it is important we do not forget the lessons of the past but also that we realise that through struggle, through organising and engaging people we can and do make a difference.
At the moment we are seeing increasing numbers of people living in poverty. Workers whose wages do not even meet their basic needs, who have to resort to the use of foodbanks to survive, who in the winter have to choose between heating and eating and who struggle to get by on a daily basis.
We also know that the impact of austerity has hit women hardest. Benefit changes since 2010 will have affected women’s income twice as hard as men’s by 2020 and women on below average incomes will be the hardest hit.
We need to use struggles from the past to build confidence among women today to challenge the system.
We have recently seen teaching assistants in Derby and Durham having that confidence and resisting an attack on their pay and conditions, a deal that would have seen some women losing up to 20 per cent of their salaries.
These courageous workers stood strong and built massive support for their cause. People were outraged when they heard their story and rightly so.
In 1970 the Equal Pay Act was introduced; nearly 50 years later we know that the pay gap for full-time workers still stands at 13.9 per cent.
Many women’s organisations raise awareness of the fact that from early in November women are effectively working the rest of the year for free. It is time that real action was taken to end the gender pay gap.
And, finally, we still live in a society where two women each week die at the hands of a current or former partner and yet there is not a national outcry about this. What is even more shocking is that when these murders are reported in the press the story too often focuses on the man — what a good father he was, a hard worker, how he was driven to it — the victim becoming a nameless afterthought.
We must find ways to challenge this, to ensure that women are safe when they leave abusive relationships and that they are listened to and believed when they say they feel at risk. However, we also need to do more to overcome domestic abuse and violence in our society.
We have without doubt made progress since 1910 in lots of ways but as we have seen when austerity hits, when things get tough, the impact disproportionately affects women.
So the Women Chainmakers’ Festival allows us to remember women and their struggles from the past, celebrate women trade unionists now and build our movement to defend women’s rights for the future.