25/01/2008 - Back to our Roots

This year sees the 120th anniversary of the Matchgirls' strike of Bryant and May workers. They developed 'phossy jaw', a cancer caused by regular contact with yellow phosphorus as a result of their dire working conditions. Their pay of fewer than 5 shillings a week was reduced by fines for talking, dropping matches and going to the toilet! It reminds us of why Trades Unions were formed and why they are still important today.

It should also remind us of the importance of education. These girls could read and write. When Annie Besant published her first story about their conditions in The Link the factory owners sought to force their workers to sign a statement that they were happy with conditions. Illiterate people might have been bamboozled but forty women refused. When the bosses sacked them 1,400 women walked out in protest. It was the start of the first strike by an ordinary group of women in our country. They used their writing skills to gain public sympathy and within three weeks their demands were met.

What would have happened if these women had been unable to read and write? History might have been very different! Education has always been important to Unions. Solidarity members have served as 'Learner Reps' in other Unions. Now Solidarity itself is organising in this area - it's vital work that goes back to the roots of what Trade Unionism should be about.