Honouring the legacy of trade unionist Mary Macarthur
On Tuesday 7 March 2017, on the eve of International Women’s Day, the Mary Macarthur Plaque was unveiled on the site of her Golders Green home. Mary Macarthur was a Scottish woman, trade unionist, and Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League. Active in the fight for universal suffrage. Founder, in 1906, of the National Federation of Women workers ‘open to all women in unorganised trades who were not admitted to their appropriate trade union’. She was involved in the Exhibition of Sweated Industries in 1905 and the formation of the Anti-Sweating League in 1906.
So, she was a powerful, committed trade unionist and activist – one of the movement’s towering figures. A true great. Her towering moment came in 1910 when the women chain makers of Cradley Heath won a battle to establish the right to a fair wage. These women chain makers played a crucial role in shaping the trade union movement. They deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Bryant & May match women and the sewing machinists at Ford in Dagenham.
They fought for a better life not just for themselves, but for generations to come. 3,500 chain makers paid starvation wages deciding to stand up to their bosses and winning Britain’s first ever minimum wage as a result. A famous victory. Here were a group of ordinary women who through the strength of their convictions shaped Britain’s industrial and social history.
At the heart of the chain maker’s struggle was the inspirational Mary Macarthur who rebelled against her Conservative father to fight for social justice, for women, for fair pay and the vote for all adults. Her life is a reminder that the Left is at its most effective when it is a coalition of progressive forces. And Mary was also way ahead of her time in the strategies she used. Building broad alliances. Driving a wedge between employers. Public and political campaigning, for example making the case for trades boards. And imaginative use of the media – whether it was popular newspapers or the cinema, Mary used what were then cutting-edge techniques for getting the chain makers’ message across.
Above all Mary instinctively understood the value of organising and used mass meetings as a way of bringing women workers together. As she so famously put it ‘Women are unorganised because they are badly paid, and poorly paid because they are unorganised.’
Sadly, what was true in the first decade of the 20th century is true in the second decade of the 21st century where there is, in 2017, still an average gender pay gap of nearly 14%. Where there are, this year, over 900,000 workers on zero hours contracts – a shameful record for a government that says it cares about working people and wage insecurity.
We must reach out to women workers – earning low wages in insecure employment. We must show them that the trade union movement is concerned about their lives, their hopes and their hopes for their children. I want working women, of all ages and of all sectors, to see themselves in the trade union movement; to feel empowered by the possibility of a collective voice and collective action to improve their lives. I want us to recreate the spirit, the tenacity and the drive of Mary Macarthur. Her example, the lessons she can teach us, are as important now, today, as they ever were and we should learn from her. She is an inspiration to us all.
This is a transcript of the speech I gave to mark the occasion.