What Have the Unions Ever Done for Me?

Nadine Houghton explains why trade unions are so important – and why the Tories want to crush them

As Parliament hears the second reading of the Trade Union Bill the Tories will focus on restricting the ability of trade unions to ‘hold the country to ransom’. They will paint the caricature of donkey jacket wearing, trade union militants calling strikes at the drop of a hat and bringing the country to a stand still. The Bill, they say, will prevent this.

In reality the bill not only ‘seeks to slay a dragon that doesn’t exist’ but Cameron’s bid to take on the unions is an attempt to rewrite history, disregarding years of struggle by trade union members to win some of the rights we enjoy today.

We need to kill the unhelpful stereotypes that the Tories will rely on to bring this legislation in, showing what strikes have really achieved. We need to humanise strike action, reminding the public that striking workers are teachers, nurses, fire fighters and care workers.

The real history of strikes is one that has delivered genuine and tangible progress for the lives of ordinary, working class women, children and men. It is one that we should celebrate and not allow the Tories to demonise. Examples of this can be found from the birth of new trade unionism in this country to present day.

The Bryant and May factory strike was organised by young, working class women in 1888. The young women were unable to sit during their 11.5-13.5 hour shifts, their low wages were fined if they left their work benches dirty and they lost their hair through carrying boxes on their head. Constant exposure to white Phosphorous led to ‘Phossy jaw’ which caused throbbing toothaches, abscesses in the jawbone, brain damage and potentially death.

The Bryant and May workers were self organised young women. They were powerless and voiceless against a ruthless employer until they formed their own union and took strike action. The strike and the fierce determination of these magnificent women put the issues of health and safety, pay and working hours well and truly on the map. It was the match that lit the fire for the struggle ahead.

In 1968, female sewing machinists working in the Ford Dagenham plant went on strike for 3 weeks. Their demand was simple: equal pay. Classed as unskilled workers the women’s wages were considerably lower than their male counterparts. Their courageous strike action put the issue of equal pay for women on the political agenda and it brought forward the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

These are just two examples of significant strikes led, not by the stereotypical trade union leader, but by grass roots trade union members. Ordinary (in these cases women) fighting only for what was fair and just. There are many more examples we can draw on to make our point.

Trade unionists do not have to think of strike action as simply the last resort when all else has failed, we should be proud of what strike action has achieved: the ultimate expression of working class solidarity, the means to redress the power balance between worker and employer. We can not allow the Tories to set the terms of reference for this debate. By remembering and reviving our history we can ensure the argument is on our terms.

Health and safety, an end to child labour, equal pay for women, shorter working hours, a ‘living wage’, an end to bullying and harassment, maternity rights have all been won by ordinary working people withdrawing their labour. We must not allow future generations of workers to be robbed of the right to fight injustice and to create a fairer society.

This article originally appeared at Huffington Post

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