Sunday, February 01, 2009

Mary Macarthur National Federation of Women Workers

Mary Macarthur 1880-1921
Inspirational trade union leader

Mary Macarthur was born in Glasgow to a Scottish highlander father John Duncan Macarthur, He held a staunchly Conservative political outlook. Mary Macarthur was the eldest of six children and was born on 13th August 1880. (some sources state she was born in Ayr)

While at school Mary showed her flare for writing by publishing a school magazine.

in 1895 the family left Glasgow for Ayr where her farther established a drapery business. He became involved in the Conservative Party and Mary in the youth section of the Conservative Party (The Primrose League).

Mary to make herself useful undertook a book keeping course in order to assit her parents business. Her father then asked Mary to spy on the local Shop Workers union meetings, but after a speech by shop workers official John Turner in 1901 she decided that rather than inform her father of the pitiful plight of the shop workers, she would join their struggle for shorter hours and better conditions.

It was here that she meet her future husband Will Anderson (later Member of Parliament for Keithley 1911 and Sheffield 1914).

Mary MacArthur became Chair of Ayr Shop Assistant Workers Union and involved with the local socialist groups in Ayr this inevitably lead to arguments and eventual falling out with her father.

In 1903 Mary was elected to the National Executive Committee of the Shop Assistant Workers Union, the first women member of that union's executive. She then opted to move to London.

Mary then secured the position of Women's Trade Union Secretary and in 1905 she worked with the Daily News on sweated Labour exhibition and helped establish the Anti Sweating League in 1906.

She became involved in many famous disputes such as that amongst the women Jute workers of Dundee, The Kilburnie net makers and the famous Cradley Heath chainmakers strike of 1910, a dispute which is credited with the Establishment of the minimum wage movement.

In 1906 Mary established the National Federation of Women Workers from a collection of smaller unions, and the union produced a monthly journal from 1907 entitled "Women Worker".

In 1911 she finally married Will Anderson.

During World War One and despite opposing the War, Mary Macarthur was appointed Secretary of the Ministry Of Labour Central Committee on Women's Employment and was able to ensure that women had a voice, even if that was not often listened too.

During the war the National Federation of Women Workers flourished especially amongst the munitions, transport and manufacturing industries.

A dispute in 1916 amongst 8,000 munitions workers in Newcastle, lead her into conflict with Winston Churchill then Minister for Munitions. The dispute resolved around the failure of local company's to abide by an award made by a tribunal to increase the women munition workers pay. The women finally resolved to stage a "sit-in" and sat in front of their machines knitting socks for solders at the front, within 24 hours the dispute was won and the money paid as was the back pay.

During the war the NFWW had a pact with the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) to guarantee equal pay but this was broken after the war, when the men returned.

Mary Macarthur was involved in the great transport women's equal pay strike on the buses, trams and underground which swept the country in August 1918 which she refered to as a "red letter week".

After the war her husband Will Anderson failed to be reelected an MP, primarily due to his opposition to the War and likewise Mary failed to be elected to Parliament for the constituency of Stourbridge. (some claim her nomination to be the first official women candidate nominated to Parliament in the UK.)

Will Anderson tragically died of influenza during the great influenza outbreak of 1919 and Mary never recovered fully from his death.

Mary Macarthur lived at 42 Woodstock Road, Golders Green.

Mary MacArthur was diagnosed with cancer and died on New Years Day, January 1st 1921.

Local Note

The local Hayes branch of the National Federation of Women Workers (probably initally covered Hayes and Southall) and the the Secretary was Mrs Hollings of 21 Leonard Road, Southall and a Miss Nutcher was the local organiser during the war.

Later a Miss F. G.Lingard, 9 Nield Road, Hayes, Middlesex became Secretary of Hayes National Federation of Women Workers.

The union had a good membership in the Hayes munition factories amongst the "canaries" (The TNT used turning the women's skin yellow) and a also amongst women workers at the Gramaphone factory.

It was claimed that by 1915 the union had 350 of the 600 women workers employed in the Hayes factories, (including amongst Belgium women refugees working in the factories) with representatives in nearly every factory.

"To fight, to Struggle and to right the wrong".

In 1915 the Hayes branch of the National Federation of Women Workers organised a delegation to demand an increase of six pence per hour as presently they only received three and half pence while men received seven pence per hour.

In June 1915 over 200 women workers attended a meting organised by the union and addressed by NFWW organiser Nutcher and Miss Pethick Lawerence spoke stating that "Hayes was full of vigour".

It was reported that the ASE were helping in trying to secure equal pay for women in Hayes, however James Andrew Seddon (MP for Newton-Makerfield) had stated that he was astonished learn of the low wages of some of the girls in the Hayes factories, but he was glad to learn that thanks to the trade union action a number of special improvements had been secured.

Miss Pethick Lawerence stated at the same meeting that "When they saw how all the Labour party in Hayes were there to help them (NFWW) ...and that...."No district had a stronger labour party than that in Hayes".

The local National Federation of Women Workers were also involved in the August 1918 tram and bus strikes for "equal pay for equal Labour" which hit West London.

(see previous posting on this site)

See also Mrs Chard's (Women's Railway Guild) work for women Munition workers accommodation in Hayes (previous posting).

(Above left Irish Women Workers Trade Union badge)