Thursday, June 26, 2008

Remembering the 'Her' in Heritage

BLISS TWEED MILL. Class struggle in the Cotswold countryside.

THOUGH I'm no longer on the shop floor, or sites, I'm attending this weekend's conference of the National Shop Stewards' Network, as one of the delegates from my trades union council (the devil makes work for idle hands!) and hope to participate in a workshop discussion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, something we somehow didn't get at the "official" movement's conferences of trade union councils that I've been to.

It's highly relevant. New Labour likes to exhort us to "live in the real world", much as they have increased the numbers that die in it. How real is it to whinge about rising prices and fuel crises, and forget there's a costly war we are paying for? Or pontificate about "carbon footprints" when jets are taking off from here and towns there go up in smoke? And why should we not talk about solidarity with Iraqi workers when the same big companies profit from war and from privatisation here and in their country?

But I'll also be remembering the need for internationalism and solidarity at home by taking along some DVDs to sell, of the new Grunwick strike film produced by Chris Thomas for Brent Trades Union Council, in commemoration of thirty years since that historic battle. It's not a "didn't we do well" celebration, because despite the truly heroic determination of the Grunwick strikers, mainly women and mostly Asian, and in spite of magnificent solidarity from other trades unionists, the strike was defeated. It was defeated by the combination of a stubborn employer, encouraged by right-wing anti-union "freedom" campaigners, vicious police bully-boys, backed by the media and the state; and weak-kneed union leaderships. But just how, and what was learnt from it, is discussed by some of the participants in the events talking in the
Grunwick film.

Although it marked a turning in the 1970s, in trade unionists rallying to the side of immigrant workers, Grunwick was not the first time a group of exploited women workers came to the fore in struggle. Nor was it the last time when the movement will be judged by how much solidarity it brings to them. We might think of the Gate Gourmet workers at London airport, or the Fremantle care workers in Barnet.

But it is good to see that trade union activists are taking responsibility for maintaining this aspect of our class memory and history. When Brent TUC was preparing its Grunwick commemoration event, we protested at the town hall because local libraries had been told not to take our leaflets. (History is still hot to handle!) A young woman outside who did take a leaflet was fascinated by its story. "Gosh, I grew up around here and did not know about any of this."
Politicians and tame historians talk about "our" heritage, but we are not leaving it to them.

This Saturday, June 26, there's an afternoon event at Congress House, Great Russell Street, London WC1 (nearest tube Tottenham Court Road) to commemorate the strike of women workers at Bryant and May's match factory in the East End, 120 years ago. It is at 2pm-4pm, organised by the Greater London association of Trade Union Councils with support from the South-East Region TUC. The matchgirls, as they were called, many of Irish origin, were working under atrocious conditions, handling dangerous chemicals which caused the bone deterioration known as "phossy jaw". The women's struggle for decent pay and conditions inspired the menfolk too, encouraging the great dock strike the following year.

Events don't always happen in the order you might expect, nor in an urban battleground like the East End. A few years ago, walking with a pal near Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, I was intrigued to see what looked like a rather fancy old factory chimney in rural surroundings, and we went to have a look. The large building we found, with attractive water feature, had been converted to flats, but converted from what? We found out that this had been Bliss Tweed Mill, built in 1873, and one of the biggest employers for a century, as well as an impressive building.

In November 1913 the Workers' Union (later to be part of the TGWU) began what was to be an eight-month long strike at the mill, mostly of women workers, led by a Miss Varley, who was the union organiser. During the strike the women met at the Fox hotel, now a pub in Chipping Norton, and their struggle attracted support from socialists at Oxford as well as suffragettes.

On Saturday, August 9, labour historian Mary Davis will lead a mobile seminar, starting from Oxford railway station at 10am and visiting Chipping Norton, as well as nearby Ascott under Wychwood, where in 1873 the authorities arrested 16 women, two with young babies, and sentenced them to hard labour, for the offence of picketing in support of their husbands who were striking agricultural workers.

The tour will also take in the Cowley car plant, where in 1934 women workers led the way in fighting for better pay and conditions and union recognition. "The girls are game, are you?", asked strike posters.

The Oxford touring seminar is supported by South East Region TUC, and enquiries can be made to

Talking about women who are game for a fight seems as good an opportunity as any to mention some female bloggers with whom I've linked. When I was a youngster I enjoyed a few Sunday outings with Mum and Dad to Todmorden and Hebden Bridge, now known to TV viewers as "Last of the Summer Wine" country, but also with their mills and industrial history, on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border. I also read my Mum's copy of "I haven't unpacked", by local author Willam Holt, who later did a TV series on his travels. Keeping up the area's left-wing tradition, the Mayor of Hebden now is Susan Press, who blogs "It's grimmer up North", and is a supporter of the Labour Reprseentation Committee, and the Convention of the Left planned to outshine New Labour's conferenc ein Manchester this Autumn.

Tami Peterson,whom I've met at a meeting with writer Mike Marqusee and since in Hands Off the People of Iran, is a quiet-spoken American-born socialist, also supporting the Labour Representation Committee, and on the editorial board of Labour Briefing, and she is blogging at

Someone else I've met through Hands off the People of Iran(HOPI) is Vicky Thompson, a left-wing student activist in Manchester who seems to have got right up the nose of the Socialist Workers Party hacks, and that can't be bad in my book. Vicky has just announced her new blog at

Labels: , ,


At 9:17 PM, Blogger joe90 said...

I left a small notice in the comments at the Socialist Unity website about your article RP. Find it here -
27 June 2008

all the best RP!


Post a Comment

<< Home