Friday, July 30, 2010
Tony Barnsley - Breaking Their Chains, Mary Macarthur and the Chainmakers' Strike of 1910
Winston Churchill famously said that "History is written by the victors", but the story of the Chainmakers' strike shows that this isn't true. The hundreds of women chainmakers who went on strike in 1910 for two months have been forgotten to history. Their inspiring victory was unlikely to be celebrated by those who write what passes for official history, because it was the story of how the most downtrodden, isolated and poverty stricken workers took on their bosses and won a stunning victory.
The story has recently come to light, according Tony Barnsley's preface, with the demolition of the Workers Institute in Cradley Heath. This institute was built with the cash left over from the workers' strike fund, so great was their support. The demolition of the Institute and it's rebuilding as part of the Black Country Museum and the rediscover of the story of the women's strike has led to an annual celebration of their victory. Something that would no doubt bring a smile to those who took part.
In this short book, Tony Barnsley covers an immense amount of ground. He starts with the appalling conditions that were the norm for workers in the Black Country. Low pay, appalling housing and a short life-expectancy. Despite being known as the "work shop of the world" the majority of those who lived in the growing industrial areas around Birmingham benefited little from the huge profits to be made from the coal and manufacturing industries.
But their had been some gains - trade union organisation and strikes had benefited some. But the women who made the chains that were exported around the world hadn't been part of this. Theirs wasn't a peripheral industry, they made the iron chains that helped to moor merchant ships in docks around the British Empire. They made the chains that bound many slaves in the plantations. But mostly these links were forged in the individual homes of the women and their families. This system of sweating out, meant that negotiations were individual - between a single woman and the middle men, who made their own profits from the deal.
Into this battle steps the real hero of this tale - Mary Macarthur, a union organiser who mobilises and inspires the women and their families, and puts them at the heart of a campaign that publicises their plight. As Barnsley says, she clearly had an "eye for getting the message across the press", the primitive newsreels showed film of the appalling conditions of work to tens of thousands of people around the country. Reproduced in the book is a wonderful photograph of some of the oldest chainmakers - in their 60s or 70s, they sit, proud in their best clothes. "England's Disgrace" read their signs.
The solidarity money poured in. The strikers were able to survive with decent strike pay, and the bosses quickly found the money to double the women's wages.
The story of the strike cannot be separated from the inspiration story of Mary Macarthur herself. A pacifist and socialist, she was an inspiration speaker and organiser. She launched the first women workers union, but argued that women should organise together with men, so collectively they were stronger. Her women's union quickly joined the wider TUC. She stood, but lost, for parliament and would no doubt have been an inspiring official politician.
But the story also can't be separated from the wider story of the British trade union movement, and one of the excellent things about the pamphlet is the way that the author puts the strike into the context of the growing industrial might of British workers. From the "New Unionism" to the "Great Unrest", the chainmakers struggle was an important battle in a much wider war.
In conclusion Barnsley points out that the Chainmakers' strike shows that there really are no "unorganisable" workers. Today there are still sweatshops across the globe, not a few of these in the UK. The battle for social justice continues and there are lessons from a century ago for us today.
The Chainmakers Festival takes place in September and is rapidly becoming an important date in the Trade Union calender. There is more information on the 2010 event here.
Tony Barnsley's new book is published by Bookmarks the offical bookshop of the TUC. It's sponsored in part by branches of the NUT and NASUWT in Dudley.