Celebrating the role of women

By Juliette Astrup on 05 October 2018 Women's Rights TUC Trade Unions RCM Annual Conference

This year’s conference was brought to a close with a ‘whistle-stop tour’ of some of the most inspirational women in the history of the trade union movement. 

TUC North West regional secretary Lynn Collins FRSA remarked on a year of anniversaries, which include 150 years of the TUC, 70 years of the NHS, 90 years since full suffrage for women and 100 years since partial suffrage, and 50 years since the Dagenham Ford machinists strike.

Then she shared some snapshots of women leaders in the union movement from its earliest days, starting with suffragist and trade unionist Mary Macarthur who became general secretary of the Women's Trade Union League and was involved in the formation of the National Federation of Women Workers. 

Mary famously compared a trade union to a ‘bundle of sticks’ which has strength in unity, while ‘a worker who is not in a union is like a single stick. She can easily be broken or bent to the will of her employer.’

Lynn also spoke about Mary Bamber, who in 1911 became one of the first trade union officers. She ‘reached out to women in the hardest to organise places – the rope trade, the sack makers the laundry workers,’ said Lynn, and was described by Sylvia Pankhurst as the: ‘finest fighting platform speaker in the country.’

Next up was Jeannie Mole, who came to Liverpool in 1870 and started to organise and unionise women workers, representing families in court when a woman was injured or killed at work. In other words, ‘the first health and safety rep’, said Lynn.

And Alice Foley, who joined the Weavers Union in 1912 and was eventually appointed general secretary in 1948, after a lifetime devoted to the union and several thwarted attempts to take up the role.

Finally, Ellen Wilkinson, who started in the trade union movement and went on to become the first Labour Party MP, and the second woman cabinet minister.

Conference chair Susan Bookbinder brought the two days of information, insights and inspiration to a close, saying she could summarise it in three worlds: ‘Kindness, passion, collaboration. That’s how I will remember you,’ she told delegates.