Here is a tale of an incident in the strange life of a historian whose study is always in a dreadful muddle. A simple (or completely weird) coincidence resulted in this short blog.
As I sat at my desk in the afternoon with a cup of tea, reading the news (there you go, I was already distracted from the work I was supposed to be doing) about potential strike action by GMB members at Burton’s Biscuits in Edinburgh, a piece of paper fell off my ‘filing’ pile and fluttered to the floor. Stooping to retrieve it, I saw that it was an appeal for funds to sustain 30 women employed by MacKenzie & MacKenzies’ Biscuit Makers in Edinburgh in 1908. Wondering by now what year I was actually in was enough to get me off my chair and start digging around in folders of research notes that go back years. This is the result.
First, the piece of paper that fell off the desk:
The women, in the icing department (referred to – as female labour so often was – as girls by the press and by their union) were told on 15 January 1908 that new piece-work rates were to be introduced in their section. In effect, these amounted to a reduction of around 8 pence a day, which would bring some of the women’s pay down by as much as 30 per cent. The women alleged that they were given just a few minutes to digest the news, clearly in the expectation that they would agree it and carry on working. Deeply concerned, however, that if they accepted the new rates, more reductions would follow, the women walked out. This principled stand was a very bold move by a group of low paid workers, over half of whom appear at that point to have been either very new trade union members or not members at all. As such, those women were not yet entitled to union strike pay.
Quick to offer help was the Edinburgh branch of the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW). This all – female union, established for women who worked in some of the worst paid industries in the country – and considered by many in the labour movement to be too difficult to organise – was barely two years old but its fighting tactics had already begun to improve pay and conditions for women workers across Britain and its membership was on the rise. The Federation’s HQ was in London but its founder was the indefatigable Glasgow-born Mary Macarthur (1880-1921). She had cut her union teeth in Scotland when she was still a very young woman, before moving south in 1903 and becoming secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League. It was under the umbrella of this organisation, which aimed to strengthen women’s trade unionism nationally, that the NFWW was formed in 1906. Its very first branch had been, in fact, formed in Edinburgh during a dispute at a paper bag factory, which ended with the women returning to work on their own terms. The branch quickly came to the attention of the Edinburgh Trades Council whose members were ready and willing to give it much welcomed support when the MacKenzie & MacKenzies’ women walked out in early 1908.
The president of the Edinburgh Federation branch, Mrs Lamont, had been on hand to support the paper bag workers in 1906 and her reputation as a dedicated activist was recognised by Mary Macarthur, who entrusted her with the vice-presidency of the national NFWW. At the same time as repeated – and futile – attempts to negotiate with the management at MacKenzie & MacKenzies’ went on, the local labour movement helped not only to recruit new members into the Edinburgh NFWW branch but to help with the urgent need to provide them with strike funds. The Trades Council deplored what it claimed was just the latest reduction to be introduced by MacKenzie & MacKenzies in just three years. It feared that this latest proposed cut would reduce the wages of even the most expert workers, many of whom had been with the firm for between six and 11 years, to about nine shillings a week. Enough was collected from across the national labour movement and from well -wishers to ensure that all strikers received 5 shillings a week until they were eligible for strike benefit from the NFWW. For some of the women, this represented half of their usual weekly wage and so, although on its own, it was nowhere near enough to live on, it may have stopped some of them from having to seek help from the parish, from charity, family or from money lenders.
New union though the NFWW was, the tactics used by its leadership were effective right from the start. Mary Macarthur ensured that in every dispute her union was involved in, meticulous research was undertaken to make sure that all facts were fully investigated and that organisers understood the characteristics of the local economy. Once this was done, it was on to a campaign of naming and shaming in the hope of humiliating a firm into backing down. In the case of the biscuit makers, the union issued a circular to be sent out to 200 or so shareholders of MacKenzie & MacKenzies, highlighting the management’s continued refusal to settle the dispute and emphasising the implications of paying such low wages to its workforce. It also let it be known that MacKenzies’ was paying considerably less than two other local employers engaged in the same type of work.
The Federation set about attracting the support of some prominent names to appear on platforms at public meetings or to make known their sympathy with the cause, as did Lady Barbara Steel, the Scottish social and suffrage campaigner, who also contributed to the strike fund. Soon after the strike began, Thomas Richards, trade unionist and Labour MP for Wolverhampton, was in Edinburgh giving an impassioned speech on behalf of the strikers. Reported in The Scotsman, Richards expressed his outrage that MacKenzie & MacKenzies, supplying biscuits not just to the Royal Household but to the House of Commons, was in fact nothing more than a firm of sweaters. He told his audience that if girls sold their labour to any employer, they ought to be able to earn enough to keep them in comparative comfort, good clothing and have enough left over to put by for a rainy day. The failure to pay the women a living wage was, in his view, nothing short of un-Christian behaviour. His speech chimed perfectly with the NFWW’s ongoing national campaign to highlight the immorality of paying scandalously low wages to women workers and it proved a highly effective way of raising money to support strikers. By the time the NFWW embarked on perhaps its most famous strike – that of the women chain makers of Cradley Heath in 1910, fighting for the country’s first minimum wage – it had acquired a good few years of experience of these tactics. In Edinburgh in 1908 a total of £103 1 shilling and 4 pence was collected by the local labour movement for the biscuit icers. Of this amount just over a quarter came from the Federation.
The financial and moral support kept the women out on strike into the Spring. The Trades Council praised their spirit of comradeship and recorded with pride that despite its length, the strike had remained solid. Several attempts to negotiate with MacKenzie & MacKenzies were made but the firm remained adamant that its proposals would not mean wage reductions for its employees. Even threats to raise the question in Parliament or to kick up a national stink about the behaviour of the Royal biscuit making establishment did nothing to lead to a change of heart. By June, according to Edinburgh Trades Council, the fund was helping just four of the strikers because all others had found work elsewhere. There was at least pride in the fact that none of the women had returned to MacKenzie and MacKenzies. The NFWW’s Annual Report for 1908 recorded that year as a trying one for the Edinburgh branch (there was another – more successful – strike, this time at a paper bag factory) but nonetheless it had managed to increase its membership overall. In the next few years, with the help of some brilliant women activists and with the continued support of the Trades Council, the branch strengthened and grew. Such progress, however, could never be taken for granted. The NFWW did all that it could do protect its members from employers who intimidated, threatened or sacked those regarded as ringleaders and troublemakers. Its 1908 Annual Report shows that during that year three members of the Edinburgh branch received victimisation pay of £1 and 4 shillings each, presumably to compensate for loss of earnings.
The union conceded that not all workplace struggles for fairness ended in victory but it constantly reminded workers that a strong union branch and solidarity were of untold importance. Using her analogy of the union as a bundle of sticks, Mary Macarthur frequently reminded women that an employer could easily pick off a single twig but that he was powerless when faced with an unsnappable bunch.
Solidarity, in other words.
One final note. The union in question in the 2020 dispute in Edinburgh is the GMB. 100 years ago this winter, Mary Macarthur’s National Federation of Women Workers merged with the National Union of General Workers which in turn – in the late 20th century – became part of the GMB. History is never just history. A piece of paper that falls off my desk changes nothing but it reminded me that the struggle for justice has been long and that it goes on.
And I took a good hard look at the biscuit with my tea today.
The notes that I referred to for this piece were largely gathered over the past decade or so from the TUC Library, the National Library of Scotland. A big thanks to the staff at both.
Thanks also to the British Newspaper Archive