Women Workers and the Trade Unions

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Sarah Boston’s newly revised study charts the history of women workers’ struggles within and with the British labour movement from the 1830s to 2010.

Two new chapters discuss the advances made since the mid-1980s when the book was first published, and there is a new foreword by Frances O’Grady, the first woman general secretary of the British TUC.

Boston is extremely detailed in recounting the history of women workers’ influence (or lack of it) within the labour movement. The early industrial struggles of women, such as the Jute & Flax workers in Aberdeen in 1884, are fascinating and tell the stories of rank and file organisation and the power of ordinary workers.

A lot of the book is concerned with economic inequality and the ongoing battle for equal pay. Boston quite rightly points out that for all the legislation that has been passed over the last two centuries little has changed. Its introduction has polarised issues by creating a situation where women have been segregated into occupations that are less valued by society than jobs that we see as “traditionally male”.

Boston does, however, fall into the trap of blaming men for women’s oppression by suggesting that all men in the labour movement benefit from women’s oppression and therefore try to preserve unequal pay.

There are two things here to criticise: firstly Boston conflates the TUC and bureaucracy of trade unions with ordinary workers. While it may be true that it was always within the interests of bureaucratic union structures to hold down women’s pay, Boston’s own examples show us that in practice ordinary working class men suffer just as much from the economic inequality that this creates.

Secondly, the author skips over important disputes that prove the assertion to be wrong.

She mentions briefly the three-month strike in 1975 of both women and men at the Scottish Cockburn Valves factory that achieved a £14 a week wage rise for the women workers. And in the 1976 Bakers Union dispute the threat of national strike action of both women and men again resulted in a victory, with employers conceding to demands for equal pay for 600 of its women members.

However, she does not draw the conclusion from this that ordinary rank and file working class men were willing to fight for women’s equality.

Overall the book is invaluable in its detailed research of the history of women’s struggles in the British labour movement and gives a voice to the many forgotten women who fought to get us to where we are today. In Boston’s work there is a message to us all that it is only through self-organisation and unity across our class that we will win.