Category: Banners

The Co-operative Women’s Guild, the Working Class and Pacifism

The Co-operative Society was one of the few organisations to offer women positions of standing in public life throughout the late 18th and 19th Centuries.For some members this involved participation in “running the shops and the larger related organizations” (Black 1894). For most guild women participation was centred upon the co-operative store dividend system, which over time amounted to lower prices for co-operative products. In the short term this meant laying out more cash, therefore the guilds appealed to the more prosperous of working class women (ibid). Buying into this model also meant entering into a strong support network of women co-operators across the UK and Europe. Writing at the 1952 jubilee celebrations of the Scottish Co-operative Women’s Guild Isa McNair, the then national president comments that the guilds:

… enable the women of the co-operative movement to meet together and converse and in so doing help break the monotonous existence of even the most comfortable home. [...] Many, many women lonely and despairing have been restored to new life by the help of our guild sisters (McNair 1952: viii)

This support network along with the wider Co-operative Society’s reliance on women – because they controlled the household purse – to purchase co-operative products and promote among other women the advantages of consumer co-operation induced a significant level of confidence among members. Margaret Llewelyn Davies, general secretary of the Women’s Co-operative Guild (1889-1922) wrote: “As the guild grew [members] came to believe that women had public duties of every kind – that the store was a training ground for citizenship for women” (Davies 1904: 32). The increasing political confidence of WCG members was neither anticipated nor fully embraced by wider Co-operative Society members, many of who believing a woman’s voice was for ‘domestic consumption’ only (Blaszak 2000). Nevertheless, one of the strengths of the WCG as a women’s movement was to make explicit the connections between the home and the higher echelons of public life:

There is noticeably a deeper political consciousness [within the Guild], which has led to a deeper understanding of everyday economics as they affect the home. [...] How the household purse is curtailed or extended by legislative measures is now a matter of first-class concern to Guild members as wives and mothers (McNair 1952: vii).

Many of the most active members the WCG joined a range of left leaning political organisations including the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the Co-operative Party and the Communist Party (Wright 2015). Of particular relevance to the Banner Tales of Glasgow project is the political activist and WCG member Mary Barbour (1875-1958) who was a key organizer in the 1915 Rent Strikes and later an ILP councilor. Barbour ‘cut her teeth’ in the Kinning park branch of the WCG, campaigned for social improvements including children’s play parks, municipal baths and family planning clinics (Fyfe 2015).

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Scottish Co-operative Women's Guild Banners on display in Barmulloch Community Centre 15/05/2015

When Llewelyn Davies (1904: 32) wrote: “the members of the Guild are a body of reformers, whose influence must be exercised in the solution of the labour question” she was making explicit what her and other Guild members viewed as a symbiotic relationship between the WCG and promoting wider working-class interests. The industrial images below, which are details of Scottish WCG banners, further support this claim. The image on the left is a detail from Hillington Branch WCG banner depicting the Hillington Industrial Estate opened in 1938. The image on the right details the Cowlairs Possilpark Branch No. 2 banner depicting a locomotive steam engine as befitting the area’s Railway Works.

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The factory, the factory gates, the main street, the local store, the school, the community hall and the home: the everydayness of such places is politically significant. These locations were not simply “boxes of unchanging spaces” (Goyens 2009: 451) in which the women of the community convened. Instead woman played a key role in transforming them into social places, livable places. The WCG recognized this important role and in doing so politicized it.

The Peace Movement of 20th Century Europe marks an interesting area of concern dovetailing working class interests with many WCG members, who saw pacifism as being of particular importance for woman as mothers. The WCG were committed and not uncontroversial pacifists. Black writes:

As mothers and potential mothers woman could direct themselves to issues related to child-rearing and socialization, to the demilitarization of the influences on children […] The Guild was particularly active and imaginative in this respect, demanding that war toys be kept out of co-operative stores, opposing war films [and] objecting to Officers Training Corps in schools (Black 1984: 472).

Other WCG activities in this regard involved attempts to substitute Armistice Day with Peace Day celebrations and the wide sale of a white Peace Poppy as a symbol of the renunciation of war. Arguably the WCG’s most controversial action as a pacifist organization happened in 1939 when they refused to volunteer in the evacuation of children from urban centres – “interpreted by them as assistance to the war effort” (Black 1984: 473).

References

Black N 1984 The Mothers International: The Women's Co-operative Guild and Feminist Internationalism, Women's Studies International Forum, Vol. 7, No. 6, pp467-476

Blaszak B.J. 2000 The Gendered Geography of the English Co-operative Movement at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century, Women's History Review, Vol 9, No. 9, pp559-583

Davies M.L 1915 Maternity: Letters from Working Women, G. Bell London

Fyfe, Maria 2015 - Talk given at Banner Tales of Glasgow event Govan 30/05/2015

McNair I. 1952, Introduction in Callen K.M. The History of the Scottish Co-operative Women’s Guild: Diamond Jubilee 1892-1952, pp1-9.

Wright, Valerie 2015 Talk given at Banner Tales of Glasgow event Barmulloch 15/05/2015

By John Crossan

Banner Tales Workshop: Women For Peace (Glasgow)

In December 1982, approximately 200 women from Glasgow made their way south for a mass demonstration at the U.S air force base near Greenham Common. There they joined 30,000 more women who had encircled the 9mile perimeter fence of the base. This large-scale protest by women peace campaigners followed a period of direct actions orchestrated by Greenham women that year, which began with a die-in outside the London Stock Exchange on June 7th. Coinciding with the presidential visit of Ronald Reagan the aim of the protest was to “lie down and ‘die’ across five roads around the Stock Exchange, thus effectively blocking all traffic going through the city” (Cook and Kirk 1983: 40). The leaflets handed out by activists supporting the ‘dead’ read:

“In front of you are the dead bodies of women. Inside this building men are controlling the money, which make this a reality, by investing our money in the arms industries, who in turn manipulate governments all over the world and create markets for the weapons of mass destruction to be purchased again with our money. President Reagan’s presence here today is to ensure American Nuclear missiles will be placed on our soil. This will lead to you lying dead …”.

The courage, creativity and organisational skills displayed in the above actions and others carried out that year by the Greenham women made a lasting impression on those Scottish women who joined them. One group of women, on their return from the December actions at Greenham Common, set up Women for Peace (Glasgow). Their first activity was to organise, in conjunction with Faslane Peace Camp, a women’s day of action to celebrate International Women’s Day at the Faslane nuclear submarine base. 2000 women from all over Scotland and England attended.

Faslane Peace Camp is the longest running continuous peace cam in the world. For over 30 years activists at the camp have participated in non-violent direct action, civil disobedience and monitoring of submarine movements. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) website states that monitoring activities by Faslane activists “have discovered that both of the new Astute class submarines, Ambush, and Astute are having serious reactor problems. In the past it has been the observations of the peace campers that have forced the M.O.D to admit reactor troubles on submarines” (CND 2013).

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A 'die-in' by Faslane Peace Campaigners at the entrance to the submarine base. © indymedia

Another key action organised by Women for Peace (Glasgow) was a widespread call to encourage women to withdraw their labour for all or part of the day as part of the May 24th 1983 International Women’s Day for Disarmament. This ambitious action received support from the TUC and the STUC, from the Labour Party NEC, from CND nationally, from the People’s March for Jobs, student unions, trade unions and from workers at the Timex and Plesseys occupation and Wills factory in Glasgow. The actions briefly described above and others developed and delivered by Women for Peace (Glasgow) and their partners in protest established a place for an autonomous women’s peace campaign in Scotland.

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One of the banners on display at the workshop © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums

Two of the banners made and carried by these women during this period will be at the Glasgow Women’s Library on Saturday June 18th from 12-3pm. There will also be discussion led by present day anti-war activist Rose Gentle, who will speak about her experiences of campaigning against the Iraq War and Paul Griffin, who will speak about the peace activism of Red Clydesider Helen Crawfurd. In addition this Banner Tales workshop will feature a performance by the Govan Allsorts Choir, who will sing a selection of songs from the Scottish Peace Movement.

You are invited to join us to learn about some of the key moments and figures in the Scottish Peace Movement. As with all past Banner Tales workshops we want to stress the open and inclusive nature of the event. We are keen to hear your stories and thoughts about the Peace Movement in Scotland.

Johnnie Crossan, University of Glasgow

Translocal Solidarity and the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike

In the recent film Pride about the 1984-5 miners’ strike there’s a conversation in the South Wales countryside between Dai Donovan from Dulais and Mark Ashton, the founder of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), who is visiting from London. Donovan talks about an old, local NUM lodge banner with two hands grasped and says: ‘that’s what the labour movement means, should mean. You support me, I support you, whoever you are, wherever you come from, shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand’. It’s a powerful and welcome message for a mainstream British film.

But it’s also a little lacking. It can’t help but imply that Ashton was a stranger to the labour movement. As the historian Lucy Robinson has written: ‘In Pride Mark Ashton needs to go to the Welsh hills to be told what socialism is.’ There is a particular geographical imagination at work here: South Wales is synonymous with a labour movement rooted in histories and traditions, whereas London means the new politics of lesbian and gay liberation. Yet when we get a glimpse of a hands-clasped trade union banner in the climax of the film, at the 1985 London Lesbian and Gay Pride march, it is not from South Wales but the Brent National Association of Local Government Officers (NALGO).

Brent NALGO was, alongside LGSM, one of the London groups that twinned with Dulais during the miners’ strike. Dai Donovan’s brother-in-law worked for Brent NALGO, and the day after he first met LGSM in London Donovan was brought along to a big meeting of the union in Brent town hall where he appealed for support. Personal relationships could play an important role then in developing solidarity connections between the capital and the coalfields. But Brent had a more political link with mining areas. One activist in the borough told a local newspaper that during the 1984-5 strike ‘we had people, the Indian community in particular, saying they were supporting the miners because of the support they gave at Grunwick’.

The 1976-8 Grunwick strike in a photo processing plant in Brent was led predominantly by women of South Asian origin, most prominently Jayaben Desai. The dispute over workplace conditions and union recognition received significant support from other groups of workers and the broader left. In the middle of 1977 the strike committee noted that ‘miners, dockers, engineers and building workers swelled the picket to 3,000 strong.’ The miners, who came in particular from Kent, Yorkshire, South Wales and Scotland, are probably among the best remembered of the supporters.

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Jayaben Desai surrounded by police during the Grunwick strike (Pic: Phil McCowen)

In The Wheel’s Still in Spin, the radical miner, trade unionist and historian Dave Douglass wrote about how the iconic image of hundreds of miners arriving at Grunwick, led by Arthur Scargill looking ‘like Jesus at the last supper’, was used on a Yorkshire NUM Area banner. Kent NUM hung in their offices a painting donated by Grunwick strikers who visited them in the aftermath of the strike to show their appreciation for the support. The material cultures of the coalfields didn’t only commemorate local histories, therefore, but also memorialised solidarities between diverse places.

Among the strongest supporters of the 1984-5 miners’ strike in London were the Fleet Street workers who raised huge sums of money and food, and took industrial action against the worst excesses of the anti-union press. This solidarity was again commemorated on banners and other objects. Jim Douglas from The Sun newspaper chapel of the electricians’ union EEPTU wrote at the time that they had recently constructed a ‘Museum of Struggle, containing miners’ memorabilia, [which] will long serve to remind those who come after of the struggles that have taken place. In the past The Sun electricians have supported the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, the Pentonville Five, health workers and many more’.

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Some of this culture was of course lost in the defeats and re-organisation of the labour movement in the 1980s and beyond. NALGO and EEPTU have been swallowed by larger unions; the NUM still exists but the last deep coal mine was closed in December. The history is still alive however. For example, the South Yorkshire Community section of Unite, the union which now contains most of those print unions, commemorates the 1984-5 strike on its banner while organising from NUM offices in Barnsley. It’s a recognition that this history of solidarity and struggle can still inspire. In referencing the battle of Orgreave, the banner is also a reminder that the campaign for truth and justice continues.

As Ewan Gibbs has argued, ‘rebuilding the trade union movement cannot be a period costume drama’. History can be a weapon, but that doesn’t mean simply attempting to recreate the past. I made my own small contribution to the material culture of the miners’ strike when I recently worked with the TUC Library Collections on a portable exhibition commemorating the solidarity of that year. The exhibition has already been shown in venues in London and the Miners Community Arts and Music Centre in Manchester. The concluding panel of the exhibition acknowledges the destruction wrought by the defeat of the miners, but argues that remembering the spirit of solidarity in 1984-5 is a way of saying that there is an alternative to the market individualism that was central to Thatcherism in the 1980s, and that is central to the Tory government that we suffer today.

Diarmaid Kelliher, University of Glasgow