Posts tagged ‘Richard Leonard’

April 3, 2018

If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves? – trade unions and women’s inequality

“Stand forward, sons of toil, and speak for the party out of which you may have taken, or may take, your partner for life” wrote a domestic servant from Aberdeen in 1854 in response to a meeting held the previous evening to discuss shortening of the working week by three hours through the introduction of a half-day holiday on Saturdays. The meeting had been arranged by men and the focus of their concern was working class men.

Letter to the Aberdeen Journal, 8 March 1854.

The Half-holiday movement – A word for females

Sir, I have read the report of the meeting held in the County-rooms on January 17th, on the subject of a Saturday half-holiday. It has often struck me that many speak of the working-classes as being only tradesmen, mechanics, carpenters, masons, and such like, and I am certainly quite of opinion that many such have great need for release from their toil, to breathe the air with freedom.

It was said by one who addressed the meeting that time was necessary for repose, for recreation, and enjoyment; but are these blessings needed only by tradesmen? There are others who have to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow, and I also term the working-classes. I for one belong to a class who have very long hours, and very long weeks — just from Monday morning till Monday morning.

I am unable to write logically on the subject, but I may be able to convey my ideas in such a plain way that they may be understood by those interested in the subject. It was stated at the meeting by a speaker that he did not think the sons of toil were ever intended for such long hours of toil by their Maker; and I would add, that I am of the same opinion with regard to the daughters of toil. Just look at their hours of toil. Rise with them on Monday, and go through all the duties of the day till they go to rest at night. Every day and every week has its own duties, and Saturday comes, but in place of a half-holiday, the hours are sometimes as long as decency will admit of, not to infringe on the Sabbath. Then Sabbath morn arrives, but with it very little release from toil, or opportunity to breathe the air. Say, then, should not their hours be shortened?

Then, when we consider how the education of the female part of the working-classes has been neglected in youth, I think one and all ought to consider if something cannot be done for them. If it could be felt how much of the well-being of society depended on the female part of it, every energy would be put forth in their behalf. It comes home to all in some respect or other. There are few of the sons of toil, but try to have a home of their own as soon as possible, and some fair one to make it comfortable to them, and manage the affairs of it. In the wife and mother is laid the foundation of character and education for the rising generation. How necessary then that it be a solid foundation! I did not think so much could be done by women in this respect, as I have seen within the last three years that I have been eye-witness to it, and you know seeing is believing. Stand forward, sons of toil, and speak for the party out of which you may have taken, or may take, your partner for life.

My idea is, that if masters and mistresses could do a little for the bettering of their female servants, they would suffer no loss by their work falling behind, and they would have less to do with Industrial Schools. There are many mistresses who cannot tell if their servants can read or repeat any part of the Shorter Catechism. Show them, by your way of treating them, that you wish to better them; and it must be a strange heart that love does not beget love in. Many servants, in place of going to church on Sabbath, go to see their friend, and acquaintances; and who can blame them for so doing, when they have no time allowed them for it, on week days or evenings? Give them a half-holiday, that all such visits may be made, and on Sabbath spend an hour in hearing them read and repeat the Shorter Catechism, and any such Sabbath like employment.

I may be blamed for bringing family matters before the public, but perhaps what I have said may be taken up more fully by some one who can say it better. But, here again, I am sorry to remark, that I find that the best public man is not always the best in the family circle. My creed is – if you wish any benevolent project to prospect in public, it must be begun in private, and carried out in your own family circle. I support this idea by my observation for years of those who, in public, say, Shut the Post-office, but whose letters go regularly thither on Saturday afternoon, to be carried forward by the Sabbath post. We have seen the length of the speakers at the meeting, now let us see their breadth, and whether they will come and help us. We cannot raise a public meeting to tell our grievances; yet I hope they will not leave the work half done. But I am encroaching on your space and time too much; so I remain, yours,

A HOUSEHOLD SERVANT

(The bold emphasis is mine.)

Sejourney Truth

Sojournor Truth

 

About this same time in the USA women were involved in similar and different struggles, against sexism and racism –

“That little man…he says women can’t have as much rights as men, cause Christ wasn’t a woman. Where did your Christ come from: From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with Him.”

(Sojourner Truth, evangelist and reformer, at a Women’s Rights Convention, Akron, Ohio, 1851.)

The anonymous domestic servant in Aberdeen wanted women in non-industrial occupations to benefit from a little time off so they could visit friends and family, go for a walk or simply read a little much like other people not constrained by long and exhausting hours labouring for their employers.

The movement to shorten Saturday work to a half-day – not really a half-day as work was to stop at two in the afternoon instead of five – had been gathering momentum. For the working classes then there were no happy Fridays. Working hours established by governments and laid down in legal frameworks for employment did not follow a trajectory of improvement necessarily as is only too clear today. When the working week ran over 6 days and before the introduction of a 10-hour day males and females were worked to death. In 1847 the maximum hours a woman could lawfully be employed for in a factory was 58 a week. Three years later this was increased to 60 hours.

With half-day Saturdays (2pm stop) the rest of the working week had to be squeezed into what remained of Monday to Saturday early afternoon. Of course for many domestic servants there was no clocking on and off; they were on duty around the clock seven days a week. It is against this background the letter-writer put pen to paper to record her frustration at the different attitudes between organised industrial labour and much women’s work. She is angry that consideration has all gone towards the interests of men with no recognition of the plight of domestic servants and women in particular. The very nature of domestic labour split up this huge workforce into individual households so there were not the opportunities to meet and organise to put pressure on employers and governments to act in their interests.

For those whose voices were heard the prevailing sentiment as demonstrated in press reports was of the generosity and kindness of employers in granting extra hours off on a Saturday instead of condemnation of practices which overworked employees to the detriment of their health and family life. Some who opposed a 2pm stop on Saturdays complained that working men would make bad use of their leisure time, as if that was any business of theirs.

It is incontestable that the emergence of trades unions led to improvements in working conditions and pay. The declining influence of unions is regrettable and the result has been a mushrooming of low wages, long hours, zero hours contracts and the rest where we’ve seen successive governments working in cahoots with greedy and unprincipled employers to drive ever-greater exploitation of the workforce.

equal pay 1

However, Britain’s trades unions been equally culpable in the gross and unwavering exploitation of women workers. Too often they have been organised by self-serving cliques who enjoy practices of patronage that any Renaissance prince might be proud of. They emerged to protect and advance the interests of members and being mainly male continued to be defined through their advocacy of male interests and to that end were found to be opposed to what they regarded was the dilution of their crafts by women. We should not be surprised for union men did not live in a bubble of social democracy but were influenced by the mores of the time in which women were seen and treated as inferior beings. It was, therefore, a case of men putting obstacles in the way of women and of women’s skills being designated subordinate to men’s purely on grounds that if women carried them out they must be substandard.

Don’t pay attention to nonsense you read in books that suggest women hardly participated in ‘manual’ work over the centuries. They always have been whether from necessity or choice women could hammer, mould and chisel as well as any man given the opportunity but were denied such opportunities increasingly as male unions dominated protection of industries. And don’t confuse the lives of middle class and upper class women with the experiences of the poor and working classes – chalk and cheese.

Women have always been active in socially progressive movements alongside men although they haven’t always been welcomed. Within trades unions female membership increased through the 20th century but the unions remained in the hands of men, run by them for men. For lots of trade unionists they might talk a good talk but walk arm-in-arm with women – no. Women were always regarded as a threat to their status.

For a lot of people the adaptability of women to pick up traditional men’s jobs during the Great War and later during the Second World War was something of a revelation but most regarded this interregnum as a blip on the employment landscape and women were quickly hustled off to resume more domestic labour. And the unions were there to make sure they did.

In more recent times the unions pushed for and won equal pay legislation for women – of course the definition of what that meant in reality was a thorny one – with that ever-present anomaly of the definition of skilled work against unskilled aka women’s work.

A sheen of equality in the workplace: in 1965 the Trades Union Congress pushed for equal treatment of women workers in industry. But…but…it’s that old canard of you can take a horse to water or more relevant to women… you can agree policy/pass laws but you can’t make the men around you recognise and implement them.

In 1968 women workers at the Ford plant at Dagenham in London and later at Halewood famously went on strike for equal pay. The legislation was there but did that make any difference to their earning? Did it hell. The Labour Party was in government and its female Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, Barbara Castle, was sympathetic and the women were granted an increase – initially that was still 8% lower than men doing equivalent work.

Much foot shuffling and more horses led to a barricade of water troughs with courts, male unions and governments all resisting female equality. In 1970 the Equal Pay Act was passed. No rush boys…to be implemented five years later. Where’s that bloody horse when you need her or is it a him? It was the UK’s membership of the EU and equality legislation under the Treaty of Rome that moved things on a bit for women.

Equality for females in the workforce has been a sair fecht (hard struggle.)

You could be forgiven for thinking that into the 21st century women, at long last, were recognised for their contribution to the economy and their skills. But here comes horsey.

Among the most glaring examples of deliberate resistance to implementing equality practices trot up Glasgow City Council, run by the Labour Party- a party stocked and maintained by trades unions – for the best part of 80 years was exposed as under-paying women and not only that so determined were they to deny there was any wrong in their practices, they spent or rather squandered £2.5 million of public cash in an attempt to prevent women from getting compensated for years of underpay through a legal challenge in the courts. One hundred years and counting women were still being sidelined by the personification of the union movement in power with Glasgow’s Labour governing body still ‘at it.’

equalpaydemo.jpg.gallery

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/15568711.Revealed__Labour_led_Glasgow_council_spent_millions_fighting_women_workers__39__equal_pay_claims/

As I write the current Labour leader in Scotland, Richard Leonard, agreed that the Labour run council had put ‘too much resistance’ to equal pay claims by women under their control.

“We have seen the length of the speakers at the meeting, now let us see their breadth, and whether they will come and help us” wrote our doughty Aberdonian over 160 years ago.

It took a woman and a new political party, the SNP, in Glasgow to clean out the equivalent of the Augean stables.

A sair fecht? It surely has been and one that isn’t over, not by a long chalk but it’s time that old horse was put out to grass.

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