Posts Tagged ‘match girls’

New unionism, not at all like New Labour

20/11/2012, 03:30:32 PM

Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal continue their look at the development of the unions and their role in founding the Labour party

By the mid-1880s, the establishment had got over the initial panic stirred by the emergence of unions. Civilisation had not collapsed and revolution, like coffee in tiny, tiny cups and the ability to pass a football for more than 30 seconds before launching it into orbit, remained strictly a continental phenomenon.

Even the arrival of a couple of actual, real live working class people in Parliament in 1874 hadn’t been too traumatic. From the vantage point of the Tory benches, the Lib-Labbers’, Alexander Macdonald and Thomas Burt, looked respectable enough and it made a nice change to have someone around who could do something about that squeaky door in the lobby.

The calm was not to last.

A new, angry, voice was about to make itself heard on behalf of the unskilled workers. This new unionism was exemplified by three significant groups: the match girls, the gas workers and the dockers

At the Bryant and May factory in Bow, East London, the workers were largely young women who were casual workers. This did not mean that every day was a dress-down Friday. It meant they worked 14 hour days for less than five shillings a week, and had even fewer rights than most other workers.  So less fun even than dress down Friday, then.

On the other hand, they did get to experience one of the period’s most advanced motivational programmes – a range of harsh, arbitrary fines for tiny infractions. For example, turning up late for work meant a fine of a half day’s pay.

On top of all this, the work itself was unusually hazardous. The phosphorous used to make the matches caused yellowing of the skin and hair loss. Worse still was phossy jaw, which may sound like a popular hip hop artist, but is actually a form of bone cancer. The whole side of the face would turn green and then black, discharging foul-smelling pus. And then you died.

Even by Victorian standards, this was a bit much.

Annie Beasant and the match girls strike committee. Yes, they are judging you


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