I’m heading off today on a little tour of Britain, thankful for the milder weather, but inspired to talk about our women in our movement.
This year’s International Women’s Day is a great opportunity for us to shine a spotlight on the role women have played in building our trade union movement over the last 150 years. More importantly, we can celebrate the women who are taking that struggle forward today.
As I was putting together the PowerPoints and speaker’s notes, dwelling on tales of Victorian working conditions, sweatshops, and poor-houses, I couldn’t help but contrast them with some studies out this week.
First, the Office of National Statistics told us that the life expectancy of the poorest girls in England fell for the first time since the 1920’s. They also say that the gap between the most well off and the most deprived women is around 8 years. I was minded to think - what would Mary McArthur think of this?
Mary is one of our ‘150 stories for 150 years’. She was a union organiser, most famous for achieving a minimum wage for women chain makers, who worked in appalling conditions on a piece rate basis, never knowing if they could feed their families. How would Mary feel about today’s female precariat, working in hotels, catering and homecare, experiencing much the same as those Cradley Heath chain makers over one hundred years ago.
Well Mary would get them in the union. Because only organised workers can provide the strength of solidarity needed to face an employer and negotiate change. She would plan and deliver a targeted organising campaign, just like ‘Care Workers For Change’ here in the North West, tackling some of the low pay and insecurity for, mainly, women working in that sector.
Second, is the TUC report on agency workers. Workers earning up to £4 less per hour than directly employed staff, and the gap can be as wide as £7 for those working anti-social shifts.
Agency work no longer seems to be a stepping stone into secure employment. Instead, agency workers are getting trapped in low paid, insecure work which provides them with fewer rights. And our report shows that young workers are especially at risk of getting trapped in insecure agency work. Two-fifths of agency staff employed for more than a year are aged under 35. Again, I was minded to ask myself - what would Jeannie Mole think of this?
Jeannie organised women workers in Liverpool around the turn of the 20th century. Women in sweatshops with very few rights, laundresses and washerwomen, and ropeworkers who she encouraged to strike to tackle fines for turning up late. Alongside this she set up a socialist food van, and a people’s hall to fill the gaps that such precarious work left in people’s lives.
Today’s precarious workers are still struggling to make ends meet. Increases in food bank usage amongst those in work present us with the same challenges Jeannie faced. And at risk of repeating myself, I know that if Jeannie were here she would sign them up and organise them, providing representation and support, showing these workers there is another way. In much the same way as our unions are organising domestic workers today and food and retail workers such as those in McDonalds.
Modern day organisers face some of the same problems that Mary and Jeannie faced but we have the advantage of more tools at our disposal. The success of those unions, breaking into and delivering deals for workers in previously unorganised sectors is often down to the imaginative use of technology and campaigns based on tweets as much as marching the streets. We need more of this if we are going to reach those workers who most need our help.
As I travel this week celebrating the women of our past, present and future, I know I will hear inspiring stories, meet fantastic organisers, and will get the shot in the arm that sisters and solidarity provide. More women than men now join unions and it’s up to us to make sure we do Mary and Jeannie proud.