International Women’s Day 2015

Women and new unionism: lessons for today

Women workers have been at the forefront of the fight against austerity, photo Paul Mattsson

Women workers have been at the forefront of the fight against austerity, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

As women and men around the world celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, women workers are bearing the brunt of austerity. The Fawcett Society has reported that the pay gap in the UK between men and women is 14.9%. 64% of low paid workers are women. 92% of lone parents are women and most likely to live in poverty. Costs of childcare are among the highest in the world.

These conditions mean women are being thrown to the forefront of anti-austerity struggles. When considering what the most effective ways are to fight back industrially and politically, lessons from the many improvements won by women in the past are vital.

Here Heather Rawling looks at the lessons of new unionism for the struggle for women workers today.

Socialists are often the memory of the working class. History books studied at school and the capitalist media give either a distorted view of the role of the working class in historical movements or ignore it completely. This is even more the case for women ‘hidden from history’, their stories often told, if at all, from a middle class or male perspective. It is the job of socialists to revisit the past to remember, be inspired by, and learn from, previous struggles.

In the late 19th century British imperialism was weakening. Although still a powerful economic power, Britain had gone into relative decline against the new economies of Germany and the US.

Skilled and craft workers had previously been able to win concessions from their employers using the craft unions they had developed to represent them. Membership was strictly limited to apprenticed workers and subscription rates were high, so women and other semi-skilled and unskilled workers were excluded. Only 5% of the workforce was organised.

The unions tended to be moderate and protectionist – limiting the number of skilled workers to protect their wages. They became known as the ‘aristocracy of labour’. However, the numbers of low paid, unskilled workers were growing in the towns and cities. Many of these workers were women.

By the 1880s, casual and ‘sweated’ labour dominated the East End of London.

In the summer of 1888 1,400 workers – mostly young women and girls – walked out of Bryant and May’s match factory in Bow, east London. This strike was to become the launch pad for ‘new unionism’, which led to the development of new general unions for the vast army of unskilled workers. It also played a major role in the formation of the first mass workers’ party in Britain – the Labour Party.


News of the matchworkers’ dispute spread and had an impact on unskilled women workers as far away as Ireland. Shirtmakers in Derry contacted the local branch of the boilermakers’ union and asked to be allowed membership.

The boilermakers asked the Derry Trades Council for advice and Eleanor Marx, revolutionary activist and daughter of socialist thinker Karl Marx, was enlisted to advise them. Consequently, Derry Trades Council became only the second to admit women and unskilled workers.

The Bryant and May's matchwomen on strike

The Bryant and May’s matchwomen on strike   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

After the matchwomen’s victory there was an upsurge in industrial action. The Times recorded more than double the numbers of strikes per quarter in the first half of 1889, after the match strike, as in the first half of 1888, before the strike.

And these records are not exhaustive: strikes of women cigar makers in Nottingham and tin box makers in London are not shown. Neither are the strikes by women workers at mills in Kilmarnock and woollen weavers in Wakefield.

Great Dock Strike

The Great Dock Strike was one of the most celebrated of this period. In fact, the dockers were among groups of workers that contacted the Union of Women Matchmakers to ask for advice in establishing their own organisations. Like the matchwomen, they were also casual labourers.

Capitalism dictates that the interests of working class women and men are inextricably bound together. The struggle for better pay and conditions, and against injustice and exploitation, draws women and men together to fight for their common interests.

The Port of London was a massive employer and an estimated 15,000 families depended upon port work. 90% of workers were casual, just like many workers today on zero-hour contracts. With high unemployment, competition for jobs was intense and pitted desperate docker against docker. The matchwomen responded enthusiastically to the call of the dockworkers and others for help.

On 14 August 1889, Ben Tillet, socialist and general secretary of the Tea Operatives and General Labourers’ Association was suddenly called to a dispute at the South West India docks. Men had refused to work over the employers’ failure to pay them their bonus. Union organiser Tom Mann, whose politics were influenced by his reading of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto, was also present and he saw how the men had been inspired by the matchwomen.

Mann showed that the matchwomen were better strategists than any of the “learned ladies and gentlemen of the Fabian Society”, whose tactics were to write exposés in the press. Union organisation, strike action and solidarity with other workers brought the women success – not a reliance on convincing the rich and powerful of their just cause.

The Great Dock Strike spread to other workers – stevedores, ship painters dockyard mechanics, carpenters, biscuit and jam factories, to name a few. The biscuit and jam factories employed mainly women. In fact many matchwomen worked in the jam factories during summer when the match trade was slack. Newspapers referred to “London on strike”. The East London Observer asked: “Is the strike a socialist rising?”

Rent strike

Women played an important role by declaring a rent strike. Banners were strung across Commercial Road and read: “Husbands are on strike: landlords need not call here”. They promised not to pay the rent until the strike was over. The dockers were almost starved back to work but international solidarity came to the rescue. £30,000 was donated by Australian port workers.

Eventually the dock company agreed to almost all the strikers’ demands. Hundreds of new unions and trades councils were established over the next few years and old unions were revitalised as the gains of the unskilled workers spread to the wider movement. This was despite the efforts of right wingers like Henry Broadhurst, a Liberal trade unionist and MP who opposed change. Broadhurst became increasingly isolated and was pushed aside by history. The right wing leadership in some of our trade unions today should beware. They will also be tossed aside when workers move to improve their pay and working conditions and find their leaders a block to achieving their aims.


At first, the employers were caught by surprise by the scale and suddenness of events. However, the employers regrouped, launched an offensive and went back on the deal they had struck. There are lessons here for today. Even when workers move might and main to achieve better conditions, any gains are only temporary. Only socialism can bring about lasting change and improvement in workers lives.

The employers’ counteroffensive was later sealed with two legal decisions: Lyons v Wilkins in 1896 which outlawed picketing, and the infamous Taff Vale ruling of 1901 which enabled employers to sue unions for losses resulting from strike action. These rulings convinced many workers of the need for political representation in parliament.

In March 1889, workers at the Beckton Gas Works were made redundant. Will Thorne and Ben Tillet formed an organising committee and the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers was born. 800 members were signed up. News of the meeting spread like wildfire and they pledged to fight for the eight hour day. Socialists were involved in the creation of the union from the outset.

Sunday morning ‘crusades’ recruited men at other gasworks to the union and membership grew to 3,000. The union quickly won a reduction in the working day from 12 hour to eight hour shifts, an extra shilling’s wages per week and one less shift per fortnight. Success breeds success. In June, tram workers organised a rally and the atmosphere in the East End was explosive.

Manningham Mills

At the end of 1890 a 19 week strike by a largely female workforce at Manningham Mills in Bradford began. The workers had seen their wages reduced year on year, just as the real value of wages today has been reducing since the start of the recession. They were facing another reduction in wages. They could take no more. 5,000 workers came out on strike.

Learning from the matchwomen, they immediately appealed to other workers and trade unionists for funds. Disturbances broke out when the authorities tried to prevent the strikers from holding mass meetings and rallies. There was a riot in Bradford city centre and the Durham Light Infantry made bayonet charges. Just like in Ireland today with the arrests and imprisonment of protesters against the attempt to introduce water charges, the state will attempt to crush movements of workers when they threaten the interests of the rich and powerful.

Unfortunately the Manningham strike failed but it left a rich legacy: there was a growth of radical politics in the city, leading to the formation of the Bradford Labour Union. The union was socialist in its politics and hosted the founding conference of the Independent Labour Party (which played a vital role in the later founding of the Labour Party) in 1893.

Women workers striking against povety wages in Bermondsey in 1911 , photo TUC library collections

Women workers striking against povety wages in Bermondsey in 1911 , photo TUC library collections   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Laundresses in London in 1891 were becoming radicalised and Tom Mann supported them. More male trade unionists began to understand the need to organise among women workers. Trade unions were no longer actively closed to women.

New unionism led to the organisation of tens of thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled workers, and the development of the Independent Labour Party. Membership of trade unions increased from 750,000 in 1888 to more than two million by 1900.

It wasn’t just the rapid growth in trade union membership that gave birth to new unionism, it was also the shift in consciousness and support for socialist ideas. Working class representation in parliament became necessary to further the cause of workers.

It was the matchwomen, working in the most terrible conditions and for pitiful wages, who became the mothers of modern trade unionism.


Women throughout history and around the world have played a major role in developing fighting organisations of the working class and initiating huge movements for socialism. In his history of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky wrote:

“In February 1917, in spite of all the directives, the women textile workers in several factories went on strike and sent delegates to the metal workers with an appeal for support.” The women were demanding bread and peace. The February revolution had begun. The most exploited in society could take no more. The heroic Greek cleaning women who recently fought tenaciously for their jobs back, played a major role in inspiring others and helped to bring the left wing Syriza to power.

In austerity Britain women are the hardest hit by cuts to public sector jobs, wages and pensions as they make up the majority of that workforce. Their traditional family roles mean that they suffer when services and benefits are cut and women will be left filling the gaps as state services are withdrawn.

As women’s economic independence is eroded, their ability to flee domestic violence is threatened and funding for women’s refuges has also been cut. Resisting sexual harassment at work is difficult if you are on a zero-hour contract.

Yet the lessons of the rise of new unionism show that it is possible to organise casual workers and fight back against austerity. To do that, we need strong, democratic organisations and a political voice.

Where women and the working class find their struggles thwarted by right wing leaders, the fight will break out elsewhere, as the women involved in the struggle against rent rises on the New Era estate showed and as the magnificent struggle against water charges in Ireland has also demonstrated.

With the growth of numbers of women at work in post-war Britain, women would wear badges stating “a woman’s place is in her union”. New unionism was the start of a long battle for equality which has not yet been won, despite the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts being law since the 1970s.

We need trade unions that democratically elect leaders committed to fighting for better pay and conditions. And just like the 1880’s and 1890’s women and men need political representatives that will fight tenaciously on behalf of the working class.

The Labour Party no longer does this. We need representatives like the Socialist Party TDs – Joe Higgins, Ruth Coppinger and Paul Murphy – do in Ireland, and Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant does in Seattle.

The work to create a mass party of workers will not be easy or straightforward – just as it wasn’t easy or straightforward for workers at the turn of the last century to form the Labour Party – but it is a vital task on the road to socialism and true and lasting equality for women.

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