We are those lions, Mr Manager

Equality - 01 Mar 2021

GMB National President Barbara Plant reflects on historic and recent women workers' strikes for International Women's Day 2021

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Trade unions are about solidarity, and as we have seen from our resolute members on strike in British Gas, collective action is a formidable tool in the redistribution of power within a workplace.

On International Women’s Day, I want to write about some of the strikes taken by women throughout the centuries and across the globe. Some are well known, but others may be less so.

Much has been written about the 1888 strike of matchgirls and women at the Bryant and May factory, which led to improvements in their working conditions.

This was the start of what we now call ‘new unionism’, and their success inspired other workers. From 1888 to 1918, trade union membership grew at a faster rate than at any other time in our history, recruiting a much wider range of workers than the old craft unions.

In November 1909, in New York, there was the biggest strike by women ever seen in the USA. 20,000 garment factory workers, predominantly female and Jewish, protested against low pay, long hours and the tough conditions that existed in this industry.

The introduction of the new industrial sewing machine allowed employers to demand twice as much production from their employees. The strike was settled in February 1910, with the women gaining improved wages, better working conditions and hours.

New York garment factory workers

Members of the Local 25 Ladies Waist and Dress Makers Union of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, 1909

During the war, men at the London public transport system received a wartime bonus to help cope with the increased cost of living.  The women workers did not receive this bonus.

In August 1918, at the Willesden bus garage, women went on strike to protest about this unequal treatment, and within a week the strike had spread to several other transport garages and depots.

It is believed that some 1,800 women took part.  As well as the 5 shillings a week bonus, their demands also escalated to include equal pay.

The strike was settled by the end of the month, and although the women won the bonus they did not win on equal pay. 

It took another 52 years for equal pay legislation to come into force, after the women workers at the Ford Motor Company plant, Dagenham went on strike.

Nearly 200 female workers walked out during the summer of 1968, in protest of their unequal treatment. These women were sewing machinists who made seat covers for Ford cars, and were considered to be unskilled workers, whilst men who did the same level of work were graded as semi-skilled.

Moving to more recent times, in 2015, Some 5,000 women workers at the large tea estate, Kannan Devan Hills Plantation, India, staged a nine day strike/sit-in, demanding increased wages and bonuses.

They brought operations on the tea-estate to a halt. This strike was led and organised by the women workers who refused to allow men into it, stating that it was the women who did the actual work of plucking and carrying the heavy loads of leaves.

Consequently, it was the women that suffered from the occupational hazards, such as pesticide inhalation and knee damage. Eventually the government intervened, and their demands were met.

This strike is also famous for the formation for the all-women union Pembilai Orumai (Women’s Unity).

I couldn’t write a piece about striking women without mentioning the successful Glasgow Women’s strike in October 2018. 

This strike involved more than 8,000 women, many GMB members, employed in homecare, schools and nurseries, cleaning, and catering services across the city.  It is believed to be the biggest ever equal pay strike in the UK.

"The Glasgow's Women strike is believed to be the biggest ever equal pay strike in the UK."

Barabara Plant, GMB National President

Employers often see trade union members as ‘troublemakers’, but as the above examples have, I hope, shown, solidarity and withdrawing your labour, has always been an effective, and often the only tool, to improving working conditions and to challenging the power of unscrupulous bosses.

In 1976, Jayaben Desai led the strike of immigrant workers, many of them women, at the Grunwick film processing plant in North West London.

The strikers were protesting about working conditions, pay inequality and the institutionalised racism within the company.  Women were even asked why they needed to go to the toilet.

At the beginning, when these women walked out, they weren’t even in a union, but they were advised by the TUC to join the union Apex, now part of the GMB.

Although this strike was not successful in its demands, it did raise the level of respect shown to newly arrived immigrant workers.

Jayaben Desai

These are the now legendary words that Jayaben said to her manager:

"What you are running is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo, there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips. Others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager."

On this International Women’s Day, we need to remember all those women, and their male allies, who have been bold enough to be lions, because we have all, as workers, benefitted from their courage.


Read our Matchgirls Strike blog

GMB Women's History Month 2021 events

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