Breaking the chains of low-paid, precarious work

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Mary Macarthur

By Tony Barnsley, Sandwell Unison 

The growth of zero-hour contracts means that there is a growing proportion of workers in ‘precarious’ employment. Annual real wage growth, is now a distant memory and strikes are at an all-time low; with trade union membership now at 6.5 million there are many workplaces where unions simply do not exist. What can be learnt from the precarious workers of the past?

The chainmakers’ strike of 1910, where ‘unorganisable’ women workers took on their masters, and in doing so doubled their wages, inspired a generation.The domestic chain trade was made up of hundreds of small forges, many in people’s backyards. The chain bosses “commissioned” the work with each chainmaker individually. This system meant the women, who needed the work, seemed to be in no position to force up their wages.

The trade union agitator Mary MacArthur described the forges as something akin to medieval torture chambers. Poverty wages were paid for a hard 54-hour week. After a national campaign against low pay by the Anti-Sweating League,the government had introduced legislation to end “sweating” in the domestic chain trade and for a minimum wage of 11s 3d a week. But the employers refused to pay it. By then Mary Macarthur and the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) had recruited some 400 domestic chainmakers to the union.

The NFWW demanded that the women be paid the 11s 3d immediately. The response from some of the smaller factories was to lock out the workers.This was the spark for them to fight back.MacArthur organised a mass meeting and the strike had begun. The employers did not expect a long strike. They knew how little the women were paid, and that to go without meant hunger. MacArthur, aware of the dire need for money if the chainmakers were not to be starved back to work, threw her energies into raising enough solidarity funds to pay the strikers.

By 1 September some 650 chainmakers were on strike. Collections were held outside church congregations and football grounds.MacArthur wrote leaflets and letters asking for support. But she also used the new media of the era—cinema. She made a film exposing the miserable conditions of the chainmakers, watched by ten million people which helped generate the much-needed cash. Enough money was being raised to pay every striker freeing them to keep fighting to double their wages. The strike grew and so did support for the strikers and the bosses caved in. On 22 October, Mary MacArthur addressed a mass meeting in Cradley Heath and declared that the new minimum wage of 11s 3d a week had been secured by the strike. The chainmakers had won a 100% pay rise.

Whilst a future Corbyn led Labour government might pass laws increasing workers’rights, we need our class to learn the importance of struggle and collective organisation to improve our lot in an increasingly grossly unequal world.

  • Tony Barnsley’s book Breaking Their Chains: Mary Macarthur and the Chainmakers’ Strike of 1910, is available from Bookmarks
  • The annual Chainmakers’ Festival will be held on Cradley Heath High Street, the site of the famous 1910 dispute, on Saturday 7 July. For info, please click here

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