When Catherine asked me to help Mile 91 produce 150 stories for the TUC’s 150th anniversary, I was excited by the scale of the project but, I’m embarrassed to admit, fairly indifferent to the subject matter. I didn’t know much about trade unions and – I’m cringing as I type – I thought the stories would be pretty dry compared to stuff I’d written in the past.
But how wrong I was!
#TUC150 proved to be one of the most fascinating projects I’ve ever worked on. By its end I’d produced over 40 stories spanning from 1788 (when Chartist leader William Cuffay was born in Kent) to 2017 (when Gladys Branche from Sierra Leone spoke up for the world’s least-respected women workers). It was an education – I felt like I’d done an A Level in the union movement. I even visited the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, which is dedicated to the group who paved the way for the union movement. And I’d had a huge career highlight: interviewing a union hero whose story made it to the big screen in one of my all-time favourite films.
Here are my top ten #TUC150 stories…
10. The brilliant Betty Tebbs
Betty’s mum always told her that ‘girls were best’. So in 1932, when 14-year-old Betty turned up for her first day at the paper mill and discovered that boys got 13 shillings while girls barely made nine, she was furious. What did she do? She joined a union and she made sure her voice was heard. When she left the mill 18 years later, she and her female colleagues were the best-paid paper mill women in Britain. Here’s Betty’s story.
9. The WW2 recruits posted to the pits
In 1943, union heavyweight Ernest Bevin was leading Britain’s war effort on the home front. A coal crisis loomed, so Ernest launched a controversial scheme: instead of being posted to the frontline, one in ten recruits were sent down the mines instead. Their names were literally pulled from a hat. Just imagine – one minute you’re all puffed with pride at the prospect of fighting for your country and the next, you’re fumbling around a pitch-black coal mine 5000 feet below Yorkshire. There was a lot of resentment among the Bevin Boys, but at least most survived to tell the tale, unlike so many of their generation. Read more about Ernest Bevin’s achievements here.
8. “We were a beacon of hope.”
After weeks of writing about long-gone union heroes via secondary sources, it was a treat to hear stories straight from the horse’s mouth. The horse in question was an 80-year-old former GCHQ linguist called Mike Grindley and by the end of our interview, I was a huge fan. When Margaret Thatcher banned union membership at GCHQ in 1984, Mike was one of 14 employees who refused to rip up their union cards – and were eventually sacked. Their passionately-fought campaign against the ban was the second longest dispute in British union history. Speaking of which…
7. When oh when will someone make a film about the 1914 Burston School Strike?
This story has it all! The setting: the big skies and bleak fields of Norfolk. Our heroes: Kitty and Tom Higdon, husband-and-wife super-teachers who want to educate and nourish the children of poor farm workers. Our villains: the rich landowners who want the poor to stay that way and feel threatened by the Higdons, so try to drive them away. The cinematic climax: the skinny yet spirited school children coming out on strike in support of their teachers – the longest strike in history, it turned out (pipping Mike G to the post). Sounds like a BAFTA winner to me.
6. Long before #MeToo…
Liverpudlian clothes store manager Audrey White was speaking up about sexual harassment. In 1983, a senior manager behaved inappropriately towards four women in Audrey’s team. She complained – and got the sack. But Audrey was a union member and she was going to fight. Her campaign put sexual harassment at work in the spotlight and ultimately led to a change in employment law in 2005. Audrey tells her story here.
5. Bristolians boycott the buses
It’s April 1963. No people of colour work on Bristol’s buses because the bus company won’t hire them. Inspired by Rosa Parks and what she sparked in Montgomery, Alabama, brave local activists organise a bus boycott. It works. In August – just hours before Martin Luther King tells Washington that he has a dream – the Transport and General Workers’ Union votes for integration on the buses. Find out more about this big moment in Bristol’s history here.
4. “We are those lions, Mr Manager.”
Thank you #TUC150 for introducing me to Jayaben Desai, the factory worker who in 1976 led a high-profile strike against her employer, Grunwick photo processing. The 4’10 Jayaben is said to have told her 6ft manager: “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. 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.” Sadly the lions lost their strike, but Jayaben’s roar made it into the history books.
3. The match women rock their hats
The story of the Bryant and May match women is well known, and justifiably so. Their working conditions were dire, they bravely downed their tools and went out on strike and they won. But here’s a lesser known, rather more frivolous, but still pertinent little detail about the match women. According to historian Louise Raw, they had their own distinctive sense of style – all thanks to their ‘feathers clubs’. They’d chip in to a kitty, buy the most extravagant hats they could find and then share them around. So if you had a date on a Friday night, you’d get a hat. Then you’d pass it on to the next girl for Saturday night. With all that resourcefulness and spark and sense of community, it’s no wonder the match women made such a success of their strike. Here’s more on the match women.
2. “I’ve nothing but pride in that film.”
I LOVED Pride when I saw it in 2014. So I nearly fell off my chair when I found out I’d be interviewing one of its main characters – the real-life version – for #TUC150. In the film, Dai Donovan is the warm, good-humoured Welsh miner, the founder of the surprising friendship between the striking mining families in his village and the members of the London-based group ‘Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners’. The real Dai is equally warm and good-humoured and interviewing him really was nearly-falling-off-my-chair-worthy. The interview transcript came in at 3642 words, and I had to write a 500-word story. Aaagh. You can read it here.
1. Eleanor Marx, I salute you.
Bloody Brilliant Women. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Stylist magazine’s Visible Women campaign. I’m delighted that amazing women from history are finally getting the recognition they deserve, but why isn’t Eleanor Marx in any of the above? I totally hero-worship her (some would call it a girl crush). Yes, she was Karl Marx’s daughter. But she should also be known in her own right as a fiercely intelligent, influential and inspirational woman – a superb organiser, a devoted teacher and a wildly popular orator who, among her many other achievements, campaigned tirelessly for the eight-hour day. If my intro to Eleanor piques your interest, you should definitely get your hands on Rachel Holmes’ excellent biography of this ‘bloody brilliant’ woman.
Thanks to Alex for this blog. Alex is a member of the Mile 91 team and a freelance editor and writer.