The Women who helped to shape Britain’s Union Movement

According to an old saying: behind every strong man is a strong woman. In the trade union movement, we would like to believe that strength comes from men and women standing shoulder to shoulder fighting for worker’s rights regardless of gender. While this is largely true, it hasn’t always been the case.

Since the mid-1800s, women have been battling on two fronts to receive the recognition they deserve in the workplace. On one side they struggled with employers for equal pay and working conditions. On the other, they grappled with their unionised male counterparts who saw the unskilled labour that women provided as a threat to the union agreements they already had in place.

Frances O’Grady became General Secretary of the TUC in 2013 – the first woman to ever hold this position. (Image courtesy of Sarah Turton)

Pushing the boundaries which seemed immovable was a daunting task that some of the most formidable characters in the women’s trade union movement did and still do relish. Once marginalised and voiceless in the workplace, women now account for almost 55% of overall union membership. In Napo, this figure stands at 70%.

The fact that in 2013 Frances O’Grady became General Secretary of the TUC – the first woman to ever hold this post – proves that women activists continue to push on with the work set out by those who came years before them.

Clementina Black who became honorary secretary of the Women’s Trade Union Association in 1886 spent the subsequent years travelling the country recruiting female trade unionists. She was instrumental in the Consumers’ League, an organisation which encouraged customers to put pressure on employers who paid low wages to women. One successful campaign led to the boycott of Bryant & May matches which eventually led to the match-girl strike in 1888.

Napo itself can lay claim to women who have made illustrious names for themselves in the movement. Gertrude Tuckwell became the first woman magistrate in London in 1919 and founded the Magistrates’ Association. Tuckwell became chair of Napo in 1933 and was a staunch advocate for the training of magistrates, the appointment of specialists to juvenile courts and favoured probation over corporal punishment.

NPG x124853; Gertrude Mary Tuckwell by Bassano
Gertrude Tuckwell became chair of Napo in 1933 after becoming London’s first woman magistrate in 1919. (Image Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)

Many years later, Yasmin Ishaq moved a motion at the TUC Women’s Conference that would change the way it operated forever. “While we believe that we should work together with men for the betterment of women’s lives, it should be women who decide what needs to be changed,” Ishaq told delegates. The motion was carried making 1992 the last conference with male delegates in attendance.

Unions have at times been criticised for not recognising issues faced by all sections of their membership – a perception which was challenged in 1976 with the Grunwick dispute.

Jayaben Desai led a mainly Asian female workforce in a dispute against working conditions, pay inequality and institutionalised racism at the mail-order film-processing firm in London. She famously said: “What you are running here is not a factory it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips; others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr Manager.” After months of picketing the Grunwick strikers eventually received wider union support in the form of marches, blockades and postal workers voting to boycott postal services to and from the firm.

Although it ended in defeat, Grunwick is remembered for the way thousands of workers regardless of race or gender came together to defend the rights of migrant women workers – a legacy which holds great importance today.

“We are the lions, Mr Manager.” Jayaben Desai led the Grunwick strikers in a dispute in 1976 which eventually received backing from the wider trade union movement. (Graham Wood/ Getty Images)

Great strides have been made to ensure the movement is more inclusive but it would be foolish to become complacent. Not enough work has been done collectively to close the gender pay gap or stamp out other types of discrimination faced by women in the workplace. It’s true women now hold significant positions in unions, but it should be said that those from a BME background are still underrepresented – even though union density is highest within this group. The anti-trade union agenda being pushed by the government, attacks on pensions and the threat of job cuts mean now more than ever women need to stand on the giant shoulders of those who came before them and continue the fight.


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