Category: Labour History

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

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

Red Clyeside - What Remains?

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There is an unfortunate lack of remaining objects (such as banners, badges, flags, etc.) from the early twentieth century Red Clydeside period. What is clear though is that despite their contemporary absence, material cultures were central to the labour and social organising which emerged at this time. A cursory glimpse at Red Clydeside will reveal the imagery of the waving of the red flag, pictured above, during the George Square gathering of striking workers in 1919. This has become the symbol of this period and in many ways the defining imagery of Glasgow’s popular and political history. Thus, while there may be a lack of remaining materials, it is clear that the activists and political groups utilised material cultures within their campaigns and the circulation of such items became crucial to their movements. This post aims to introduce these material cultures of radicalism through an overarching engagement with Red Clydeside by briefly reflecting on the material cultures of historical activism through key events and individuals.

The forty hours movement of 1919 witnessed the raising of the red flag in George square during a large demonstration. Industrial strike actions were taken across the Clydeside region in January of that year to enforce a shorter working week of forty hours (working hours were approximately 57 at this point). Over 60,000 people gathered in central Glasgow on Friday 31st January and the red flag was raised in George Square. In total, it is estimated that over a million working days were lost to employers during this dispute. Material cultures were central to the movement with banners and flags clearly evident during these demonstrations, whilst they were also accompanied by the singing of political songs, such as the ‘Red Flag’.

The Strike Bulletin newspaper was a further resource produced on behalf of the strike committee and became an important circulating document providing workers with updates of local developments and broader struggles (references to Ireland, India and Spain were made) throughout the two week strike. Newspapers, pamphlets and letters are amongst those items which have been preserved, maintained and made available from this period. The workers were ultimately defeated following the violence of ‘Bloody Friday’ in George Square where police violently intervened during the strike, yet the events of 1919 were viewed as a major trigger for subsequent reforms. This is reflected in the establishment of a shorter working week of 47 hours shortly after the strike and a significant shift towards the left within parliamentary politics (Glasgow returned 10 labour MP’s in the 1922 election). With this in mind, the raising of the red flag in George Square in 1919 can be viewed as a symbol for the broader movements of this period.

Prior to this momentous strike, the working class of Glasgow responded to the First World War in a similarly hostile manner. Again the activities during this period made use of material cultures to promote an anti-war culture, which critiqued the war from multiple perspectives. In Glasgow, women such as Helen Crawfurd, Mary Barbour and Agnes Dollan channelled their anti-war efforts through the Women’s Peace Crusade (WPC). These women had a significant presence within the city and held regular open-air meetings around Clydeside and produced leaflets, pamphlets and badges that were distributed throughout Scotland. Such activities were representative of the strong female position within the working class presence of Clydeside. Reflecting on her involvement with this movement and the strategies used, Crawfurd stated that:

It has been, and still is my opinion that we do not make sufficient use of the artistic and the spectacular in our work. Youth needs this. It was a most valuable addition to our propaganda and educational work. We organised public meetings, demonstrations and street corner meetings and sold badges which the women wore in their buttonholes

The use of such cultures were perhaps most prominent during the famous 1915 rent strikes as pictured below. The rent strikes are often referred to as the most successful campaign to emerge from the Red Clydeside period. The campaigners, primarily women within Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, (including members of WPC), forced a rent restriction act returning rent to pre-war rates.

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The street corner strategy was common within Glasgow and was also commented upon by Glasgow-based activist Guy Aldred in his newspaper The Commune. It is clear that activists were eager to place a particular emphasis on the importance of street meetings in articulating a working class and feminist politics. Echoing this sentiment, Aldred claimed that his Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation was "concentrating on making a Socialist proletariat" and "that is why we prefer the street corners" (The Commune, March 1923).

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These material cultures of Glasgow also crossed borders with communication and the circulation of documents prominent beyond Clydeside. There would be regular exchanging of material goods on trips and organised visits to other politically minded groups. Similarly postcards, letters, badges and pamphlets would be distributed to support other like-minded struggles. This support was often pragmatic, such as the provision of resources during a strike, but also held a wider political element through the exchange of ideas. Guy Aldred reflected on the potential significance of this in relation to pamphlets:

A pamphlet is different. At the moment it may appear to be extremely dull and of a small consequence. One may regard it as a lifeless creation. Yet its ultimate worth may be very great. It may prove to be a work of great historical significance. Headlines are not always indices to events.

The possibilities for pamphlets, and other material cultures, to inspire and create solidarities were made clear during this period by political activists and campaigns. That said, these exchanges and forms of organising were not always without there issues. For example in 1919, there is evidence of racism and violence amongst sailors within the local docks during this period whilst longer forms of discrimination towards migrant workers were also prevalent. Thus, it remains important not to romanticise material cultures without acknowledging the coexistence of hostilities and tensions within movements.

The material cultures of Red Clydeside are perhaps defined by their present day absence but their significance is reflected in the historical narratives of the period. Despite the missing material, Red Clydeside’s retains a central place in the popular memory of the region. Recent campaigns for a statue of Mary Barbour reflect this longer trajectory of radicalism. Similarly, the sites and places of protest still resonate with present day political organising. Demonstrations and marches regularly gather at Glasgow Green due to its historical significance as a site of organising. There is clearly a public memory which has passed on through the generations of Glaswegians. What remains clear, from only a brief look into the material cultures of Red Clydeside, is the diversity of political memories and reflections from this period. Many different struggles and traditions formed the history now defined as Red Clydeside. This diversity must be remembered in any characterisation of the city’s cultural and political history. Guy Aldred, Helen Crawfurd, the anti-war movement and the forty hours movement begin to reflect this diversity, but also illustrate solidarity and continuity between different movements. Through this understanding it is clear that such materials, as newspapers, badges, placards and pamphlets, became a crucial part of the assertion of a historical working class presence.

Paul Griffin, University of Glasgow

Alistair Hulett at The Fraser Centre Milgavie, Scotland performing The Red Clydesiders from his 2002 song cycle Red Clydeside. The original album was recorded with Dave Swarbrick on fiddle and is available by mail order from Alistair's website on www.alistairhulett.com