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How the frailer vessel fought back

13 July 2015

Michelle Stanistreet

Mary Macarthur and the 800 or more chainmakers who fought together and won their battle for a minimum wage have inspired so many other women in the ensuing 105 years.

Their fight - in 1910 - was no doubt in the minds of NUJ members eight years later, when they fought for equal pay on Fleet Street. The deal they struck with the Newspaper Proprietor’s Association was the first equal-pay victory for my union as well as being a key moment in the sadly ongoing fight to make the principle of equal pay for equal work an industrial reality.

It was a great moment, but it was hard fought for by women journalists who even had to fight some within their own union.

That poverty pay and pay iniquity aren’t consigned to the history books but remain with us today shows that the trade union movement fight is by no means over.  Nor will it be while some companies try to get away with paying women workers less than their male counterparts.

I came across author Low Warren’s book on journalism recently, written only a few years after Mary Macarthur and the chainmakers won their fight.

In a chapter on Women in Journalism, the author points out that:

“Women, as the frailer vessel, is not capable of the same sustained effort, for Nature never fashioned her to take part in the rough and tumble of life like the male journalist.

“They can never hope to compete on level terms with men as newspaper workers, and they will be wise to recognise that fact and to devote their attention… to those spheres of activity in which supreme.”

Warren helpfully spells out that these areas include:

 “Love, marriage, home furnishing, fashions in dress, toilette, education, women’s employment and gardening.”

Any woman setting her sights on becoming a newspaper reporter should think again:

“For the demands which such work make upon the physique, the long and wearing hours, the hurried meals, the discomfort of knocking about for long days and nights in a newspaper office, have a far more deleterious effect upon the highly strung and nervous temperament and looks of a woman that upon that of a man…. The rough and tumble of newspaper reporting is better left in the hands of those more capable of doing it.”

Thankfully women in their growing numbers paid no heed to the words of Low Warren and the many other men whose views he mirrored. They have built in number in journalism, and thankfully too in the NUJ where we have a brilliant coterie of Mothers of Chapels, running our workplace organisation, as well as Fathers of Chapel.

And for modern day inspiration, I can offer an example of a very recent dispute in local newspapers. Members working for Newsquest, one of the major local newspaper groups in the UK, in South and South East London have just gone back to work last week after being on strike for 10 days over plans to axe jobs, restructure work, close down the newspaper office forcing low paid reporters to work out of coffee shops and pubs. It took reporters going out on strike, and all of the publicity and campaigning that followed, to force the company to even talk to them about increasing pay to match the London Living Wage.

After a brilliant campaign, involving local communities and businesses, lots of engagement from politicians in Westminster and the London assembly, and a lively social media presence, NUJ members clinched a deal addressing all of their concerns on pay, workloads, resources and critically – quality journalism.

A large chunk of the two chapels were made up of young women, trainee reporters some of whom had only been in their jobs for a few months before bravely standing up to a company that is renowned for its anti-union approach.

Thanks to their collective stance, trainees are now being paid the London Living Wage and the management are well aware that staff are not simply prepared to stand by and watch the local papers they’re passionate about wither and die for lack of care and resources.

So in remembering the past today, it’s a huge comfort to know that the fighting spirit of Mary Macarthur and the equal-pay pioneers in my own union, lives on through the very many women trade unionists who continue to battle and to shape the movement we’re proud to be part of.

That’s a great legacy left behind by the women who fought here in Cradley Heath 105 years ago.  I salute their bravery and steadfastness.

Tags: , chainmakers' festival, women, equal pay, strike