In the 19th century, the Black Country became the centre of British chain making, and right at the heart of both the industrial revolution and the Black Country were the women of Cradley Heath.
There’s a lot of talk, these days, about the modern ‘gig economy’ and the struggle to organise workers in it. Cradley Heath shows that unions have been operating in a gig economy for over one hundred years.
At the time, most large industrial chain was made in factories, but smaller chains were hand-hammered mostly by women in forges at the back of their homes. Several women would work in each small, overcrowded outhouse forge in hot and unhygienic conditions, creating chains from rods of iron delivered to them by ‘foggers’.
These ‘foggers’ worked for large companies, essentially acting as middlemen; delivering the iron, collecting the chain, and taking a percentage of the women’s earnings. The weight and amount of chain produced determined how much money the women made, but despite working long hours in these awful conditions their wages were, unsurprisingly, pitiful.
Unfortunately, without legal protections and no welfare state to safeguard them, these women could do little but be grateful for their meagre pay and abysmal employers. Much like the zero hour contracts of today, the women chainmakers were paid next to nothing to work precarious, non-guaranteed hours. Most of the women were also mothers and had to bring their children and babies into the dangerous conditions with them.
Their struggle, however, had not gone unnoticed. A movement grew against this kind of ‘sweated labour’, and soon a powerful lobbying group emerged: the National Anti-Sweating League. This group was founded by, amongst others, Mary Macarthur, a union organiser and avid campaigner.
Growing up in Glasgow, Macarthur became active in union politics at the age of 21 when she joined the Shop Assistants Union. Eight years later, in 1909, she gave testimony to a select committee in Parliament. Her efforts helped to pass the 1909 Trade Boards Act, setting minimum rates for workers in some of Britain’s toughest trades – chain-making, box-making, lace-making and the production of ready-made clothing.
Unfortunately, many employers found ways around paying the increased wages to their workers. For the most part, chainmakers could not read or write, so were often tricked into signing contracts that opted them out of their entitlements. Others were denied work entirely if they refused to sign. With a lack of support, and no real means of communication between the women scattered across Cradley Heath, many signed up because they had no other choice.
Hearing about their case, Macarthur decided that something needed to be done. Aside from her work for the National Anti-Sweating League, she also founded the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), a union designed specifically for working women. Using her charisma and public speaking skills, Macarthur rallied the chainmakers to leave their tools behind and go out on strike for the right to be paid fairly.
Organising the action, and supporting fundraisers, was only part of what Macarthur gave to the strike. She utilised her knowledge of old and new media to great effect: first, through photographs of the chainmakers themselves, and then through news reel video footage of their awful working conditions, which was shown in picture houses across the country.
Leaflets were distributed throughout the Black Country, with Macarthur herself organising and chairing meetings. This helped to create a physical link between the women, and with it a real sense of solidarity. She even enlisted the help of Nobel Prize-winning writer, John Galsworthy, to write a report on the strike. In total, nearly £4,000 was raised in strike funds and, with the help of Pathé News, the story of the women chainmakers spread well beyond Britain.
Within a month, sixty percent of employers had agreed to pay the minimum rates. After ten long weeks of action, by the end of which nearly a thousand women had joined, the strike was won across the board.
Thanks to the chainmakers themselves staying out on strike, Macarthur’s organising skills, as well as support from the TUC and the Liberal Government, the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath went from earning five shillings for their fifty-five-hour week to around eleven shillings. There was even enough strike fund monies left over to build a workers’ institute in Cradley Heath, which now stands in the Black Country Living Museum.
One hundred and nine years later, and ninety-eight years after the National Federation of Women Workers merged with GMB Union, we are still running campaigns that hark back to the times of the chainmakers. Many employers, and particularly many delivery companies, use tactics that would seem more at home in the 1900s than today. We have a long way in protecting workers’ rights but the fight against exploitive employers is as relevant as ever.
In that fight we should take inspiration from our past achievements as a movement. The 1910 Women Chainmakers’ Strike was a resounding accomplishment and set the precedent for a national minimum wage. Today, we see the chainmakers reflected in the Glasgow Women’s Strike for equal pay, where thousands of women took to the streets to march on Glasgow’s City Chambers. It’s a beautiful story: Mary Macarthur’s native city and the union that succeeded hers coming together to fight for working women.
Macarthur’s struggle was echoed in the way the Glasgow Women’s Strike used media and literature, the incredible sense of solidarity between working women, and the fact that the sectors they were working in were considered almost impossible to organise. Macarthur once said “women are badly paid because of their unorganised condition, and they remain unorganised because they are badly paid.” As a movement we recognise this link, and it is something that we always need to consider when organising. Women do make Glasgow: they also make unions, and history.
To remember that, Midlands TUC host the annual Women’s Chainmakers’ Festival in Mary Macarthur Park in Cradley Heath. It is a celebration of change, and of victory: the only festival in the UK that celebrates the contributions of women to our movement. It is a proud part of the GMB union’s history and our 2019 Congress passed a motion to recognise it as a national event.
The women chainmakers are an inspiration. They came together, despite the odds and the distance between them, out of necessity and a determination to create a better world than the one they had inherited.
The union movement has always been about more than just legal protections at work and this is something that we must remember when organising in the current political climate. Our movement is about family, community and power in the hands of working people. It’s about the strength to stand up for what is right.
The women chainmakers of Cradley Heath sent a message that bad employers can be taken on and defeated, that laws can be changed, and that unions can create lasting improvements in our lives. They blazed a trail for our movement: as workers and as women.