Mary MacArthur: The Chainmakers’ Champion

By Jill Mountford

For as long as workers have been fighting for their rights there have been key women organising other women and fighting alongside men. We begin a series on these inspirational women, often hidden from history.

Mary MacArthur was a socialist and trade unionist. She had what Labour MP Margaret Bondfield described as “boundless energy and leadership of a high order”.

Mary left Glasgow for London (at the age of 23) in 1903 to pursue political activity, leaving behind the man she loved and who wanted to marry her. Mary was active in the women’s suffrage movement, trade unions and the Independent Labour Party. She set up the National Federation of Women Workers in 1906 to organise women in small unions and workplaces of the “sweated industries” and to campaign for a minimum wage.

She was involved in the setting up of the Anti-Sweating League and in 1910 she played a central role in the Chainmakers’ Strike that won the first minimum wage for women in Britain.

The Chainmakers’ strike (in Cradley Heath, West Midlands) was an indefinite strike of around 700 women over pay. The chainmaking women worked for long hours and piece work rates, often with their children alongside them or heavily pregnant, in small forges hand-hammering chains for domestic use; some forges were in their own backyards, with as few as two workers in a workplace.

The oldest striker, Patience Round, was 79 years old and had been making chains all of her working life. Early in the strike she said: “These are wonderful times. I never thought that I should live to assert the rights of us women. It has been the week of my life — three meetings and such beautiful talking.”

In March 1910 a minimum wage of tuppence ha’penny per hour was proposed to replace the old piecework system. Low as this was, it more than doubled most women’s pay. The bosses, however, got a delay for six months. During this gap they had forms drafted saying workers wished to “contract out” of the minimum wage. They then dedicated middle managers’ time to getting these forms signed by illiterate women workers. Those who refused to sign were told there was no work for them.

Meanwhile employers were stockpiling chains made under the old rate which they would sell when the new rate became legally binding.

On 23 August the National Federation of Women Workers demanded the minimum wage be paid immediately. The employers refused and the union called a strike for all those women on less than the minimum wage. At a mass meeting of 400 women workers, they all pledged not to sign the form “contracting out” of the minimum wage.

The strike was not easy to organise. These women earned around five shillings a week for 55 hours work; they needed every penny of their pay to eke out a miserable existence for them and their families.

More than half of the women on strike had not joined the union because the weekly subscription of 3d could buy a loaf of bread — a serious matter for these women in 1910.

Mary set about raising national awareness of the strike and the women workers’ conditions, and the donations to the strike fund came flooding in. Mary reported that 20 people were working day and night to respond to the letters of support. This was mainly down to the work of Mary herself. She exposed the chainmasters. She was media-savvy, and used it to promote the cause of women, placing the likes of Patience Round at the forefront of the struggle.

The last of the employers gave in by 22 October, when the dispute ended. But though this was an historical victory the mood was subdued. J J Mallon, one of the organisers, said he thought this was because the women realised what they’d had during the strike — a great sense of power and solidarity — and that was now over.

In the summer of 1911 Mary organised more than 2,000 women in 20 concurrent strikes in Bermondsey and other parts of London.

She was founder of the Women Worker, a newspaper (eventually weekly) for women trade unionists, with a circulation of around 20,000.

Unlike many socialists in Europe, Mary opposed the First World War. After the war she stood as a Labour candidate in Stourbridge but she did not win; it was thought her stance against the war went against her.

Mary did marry the man she loved, Will Anderson; he had moved down from Glasgow a few years after her. They fought the class struggle together until his death in 1919. Mary died of cancer at just 40 years old, but knowing not one moment had been wasted from the fight for justice and freedom for the working class.

Great shoulders on which we can stand!

***

First published Solidarity (Vol. 3 No. 189) 19 Jan 2011

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