'Go Ahead!' - Celebrating the Life of Eleanor Marx

Equality - 16 Jan 2020

The 16th January 2020 marks Eleanor Marx’s 165th birthday and I for one will be raising a glass to her.

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Eleanor was the co-founder of the GMB, along with Will Thorne, in 1889.  For many years, she was erased from our history, but in 2015 at our Congress in Dublin, it was agreed that every year we would not only honour her birthday, but also present an Eleanor Marx award at Congress to an inspirational GMB woman member.

Eleanor, affectionally known to her family, as Tussy, was the youngest daughter of Karl Marx, but she needs to be remembered, not for that fact, but for what she achieved and did during her short life. 

Eleanor was a socialist, feminist, trade unionist and internationalist, who fought tirelessly for a more equal and just society.  She would most definitely understand the issues we still face today around inequality, discrimination, precarious work and poverty.

I feel a great affinity with Eleanor not just because of her political values, but also because she was a lover of reading, the theatre and champagne. She lived in Jews Walk, Sydenham, in the London Borough of Lewisham, which coincidently is the same London borough where I was born, grew up and still live. 

My parents only lived a few streets away from the house where she lived for two years and where she died.  I am ashamed to say that it was only in 2008 that I learnt where that house was, when a commemorative blue plaque was put up by English Heritage.

Eleanor was a socialist, feminist, trade unionist and internationalist, who fought tirelessly for a more equal and just society.

Barbara Plant, GMB President

Eleanor was politically active in a time when women were still denied many basic rights and working conditions were dangerous and exploitative. In 1888, the match girls and women at the Bryant and May factory, went on strike.         

It was the beginning of what has become known as New Unionism, where workers long considered to be ‘unorganisable’, organised themselves and acted collectively to fight for better working conditions and pay.

Eleanor was a great supporter of these women workers, as she was of other ‘unskilled’ women workers.  At the Crosse and Blackwell factory for example, she successfully helped the 400 women onion skinners to victory in their strike against harmful work and little pay.

In fact, Eleanor was involved in all the main struggles that took place in the East End of London in 1889, particularly those of the gas and dock workers.

It was in that year that Eleanor, along with Will Thorne, formed the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers in Beckton, East London.  Later it would merge with other unions and go on to become the General, Municipal, Boilermakers, or the GMB as we know it today. 

Over 800 gas workers joined on the day of its launch and in just two weeks over 3,000 had signed up, uniting behind the call for an eight hour day. Eleanor formed the union’s first women’s branch and at the union’s first conference in 1890, was unanimously elected onto its national executive, a post she held until June 1895.

As some-one who used to teach literacy at adult education evening classes, it also adds to my admiration of her to know that she helped Will Thorne with his education.  As Will had started work in a factory at the age of 6, he had missed out on school and therefore struggled when he became the General Secretary of the Gas Workers’ Union.

It was Eleanor who helped him write the union’s rules and constitution and Will later wrote that Eleanor “helped me more than anyone else to improve my very bad handwriting, my reading and my general knowledge.”

On May Day 1890, at a rally demanding an 8 hour working day, Eleanor stood before a huge crowd in Hyde Park and made an impassioned speech in which she said:                      

“We must not be like some Christians who sin for six days and go to church on the seventh, but we must speak for the cause daily, and make the men, and especially the women that we meet, come into the ranks to help us.”   

That call to get work colleagues, family and friends to join a trade union as protection against the power of employers, is as important now as it was then. Eleanor was some-one who put into practise what she preached, giving working women and men the confidence to build solidarity and fight back. 

So, on her birthday, ‘Eleanor Marx Day’, it is only fitting to once again ask for nominations for a GMB woman who has followed in Eleanor’s tradition and deserves to receive the beautiful Eleanor Marx award at Congress in Blackpool.            

I look forward to seeing those nominations come in from GMB members over the next few weeks, but on the evening of the 16th January, I will enjoy celebrating the life and legacy of Eleanor at the event that GMB Birmingham and West Midlands region are putting on in her honour. 

Cheers Tussy!

In Solidarity,

Barbara Plant
GMB National President

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