Arrhythmia: breaking chains

Daily Mail front page from Friday May 15th 2020 – a fragment from one of the battles which led to the January 2021 revolt

For the period of the 1910 lockout, the chainmakers’ strike disrupted the daily rhythm of the chainshop, a rhythm which Sarah Chater, a teenager during the strike, recalled in 1975 as follows:

“From Monday morning, 7 o’clock, till 7 o’clock at night, till 2 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, half a crown a week. For that we had do errands, pull the… couple the chains and put them together, and learn to make it in between. ”

(1975 documentary Nothing to Lose – The Women Chainmakers Strike of 1910 Cradley Heath)

The chainmakers strike can be seen as a moment of collective defiance, with a specific relationship with the time and place it took place in: the breaking of the central rhythm of chainmaking drew strength from other strands of continuity. This included continuity of the imagined historic and natural role of women as gentle homemakers, mothers and English women: the strikers were depicted as the “white slaves” of Europe (MRC, 2021). Where it was visible, the “unnatural” imprints of labour on the female body were cause for a mix of discomfort and admiration. Wilf Williams, a boy during the strike recalls the term “Mon-oman (man-woman)”, a word still in circulation when I was growing up in the Black Country in the 1980s and 1990s, used to describe the strength and masculinity of a woman chainmaker, and also “raw-boned women” and the disfigurement of “ommer-and” (hammer-hand). Sarah Chater recalls being told as she carried heavy iron “You (a girl) adn’t ought to do that” (Nothing to lose).

The making visible of the “plight” of the chainmakers, framing this as an abomination against the natural female order of motherhood and homemaking was central to the strategy of raising strike funds and building a broad platform of support including local business leaders such as the Cadburys (MRC, 2021). A contemporary prayer documented as part of the 1975 Nothing to lose film includes the line: “Oh god, we pray we for our sisters who are leaving the ancient shelter of the home to earn a wage… may no pressure unfit them for the duties of home and motherhood”. There was a separate dynamic of continuity also running through the victory: alongside mobilising the chainmakers and building wide public support, winning the strike also involved continuity of the interest of the larger chain companies who agreed the higher wage early on on the condition of the union paying all strikers to keep going, freezing out smaller competitors (Barnsley, 2011).    

It is not unique to the chainmakers’ victory that it rested in part on mobilising around existing public beliefs about social order and morality, or that it seized the opportunity of a split in the employers which benefited monopoly-building. It is also reductive to think of the success only in the terms of the wage (a wage increase is only ever a stepping-stone to a world beyond wages, after all). The 1910 victory can be seen as a crucial point in growing the “great unrest” of that time which would include waves of strike action across the region and increases in wages and trade union organising. For the chainmakers, it involved movement from atomised and confined labour to taking over public spaces together, marching and singing: “the gaffers have had their day”: a form of “commonsing” under Federici’s (2020) definition of this. Growth in wages brought growth in respect, though the chainmakers were not naïve about the source of the contentment evident in the bosses, noting in the 1975 documentary that better behaviour must be an indication that the board “were doing better out of it themselves”. For Lefebvre (1991), political life and activity in the everyday is the opposite of despair, and is in its nature something which is repeated:

“Consciousness must be gained over and over again through action and struggle… (including in) unions” (171).

The chainmakers strike disrupted the domestic, because the domestic was the workspace. D’Atri (2021) carefully documents the victories of proletarian women around the late 19th and early 20th century as being worker led and centred around the demand for bread, agitation for better conditions in the workplace, and peace in place of imperialism (which she contrasts with pursuit of the vote and egalitarian ideals in bourgeois feminism). She does not include the chainmakers but they fit clearly into the wave she describes. Moving forward from this, D’Atri traces attempts to advance against capitalism as fractured in the growth of neoliberalism by the chasm in the left between trade union organising in the formal workplace, and attempts to fight the burden of domestic labour: a chasm which was clear in the response of the (formal and organised) left to the COVID pandemic.

From early late December until January 11th the biggest trade union revolt of COVID UK was built, primarily through disembodied collectivism, situated in members’ homes, by the National Education Union (NEU). Individual employment rights under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 were used on an unprecedented scale to embolden members to resist a perilous large-scale return to the classroom. Tens of thousands of teachers and other education staff joined online meetings as the wave grew in the wake of the “Christmas” reopening alongside evidence of asymptomatic transmission amongst young people. A government intent on keeping schools open through the winter was forced to u turn. As my partner (an NEU official) moved in and out of online webinars, the power of the collective and the confidence in resistance was charged and seemed to have a body to it even through the flatness of multiple screens.

As D’Atri (2021) has argued, there is a case that the heart of the failure to resist at a large scale the violence of how the state has managed the pandemic is the chasm between the formal and state-sanctioned organising projects to disrupt paid labour (trade unions, including education unions) and the project of disrupting and reorganising domestic labour. I aim as my research develops to trace this chasm as something which reverberates through to the current crescendo point under COVID, and to consider how this key divide is bridged or linked for a meaningful challenge (education activism being one part of this) to the regrouping state in the wake of the pandemic. The NEU acted appropriately to protect members and in resistance to their designated and patriotic role in what was being positioned as a war on COVID. Arbitrarily teachers’ role in keeping schools open in this war was defence of “mental health”, “wellbeing” and “engagement with education” of children. This was a role designated by a government which had spent 10 years burning to the ground domestic violence services, early intervention social services, Sure Start, CAMHS and other state apparatus in support of child and household wellbeing, alongside huge cuts to education spending (Cooper and Whyte, 2017). However, under this veneer the clear project of keeping children in school was keeping them out of the home, a disruption with huge consequences for an ideological determination to preserve “business as usual”.

Solidarity statements were quick, and on the ground activists across different unions were inspired by the NEU (and in large numbers acting as parents to pressure schools). However, the fundamental and perhaps inevitable weakness in this moment was the failure of the trade union movement to see the invisible labour of the home and how making this visible and demanding its value as equal labour was central to mobilising forward from the victory of the NEU for a shut-down of deadly “business as usual” under COVID. At a UCU branch level, having won our ballot on 12th January, the day that large proportions of activity were again shifted out of schools and consequentially also universities, we called on members to support the NEU and tried to centralise the demand for paid leave for carers in our local dispute. At a national level UCU called for solidarity with the NEU but was also signposting guidance on the status of members’ children as key worker children (and thus entitlement to a place in the schools the NEU were trying to minimise all possible human contact in). The NEU had managed to ride the crest of a wave to create a huge moment of resistance but there was an organising vacuum in terms of how that would then spread across the movement in a way which recognised the movement of education and care labour from schools to the home and fought a “continuity-capitalism” under COVID as a bigger project. This was not so much an oversight as something built into the organising model of trade unions, with the spheres of “workplace” and “home” treated as separate. While spatially the two spheres were partially collapsing together, this was not met by a parallel ideological collapse of boundaries.

References

Barnsley, T. (2011). Mary Macarthur and the Chainmakers’ strike of 1910. London: Bookmarks

Cooper, V., and Whyte, D. (2017) The violence of austerity. London: Pluto Press

D’Atri, A. (2021) Bread and Roses: gender and class under capitalism (3rd edition). London: Pluto Press

Federici, S. (2020). Revolution at point zero: housework, reproduction and feminist struggle (2nd edition). Toronto: Between the Lines books.

Modern Records Centre. 1910. Account of the Cradley Heath Fund at 17 September 1910. [Page from account book] University of Warwick, Trades Union Congress. Coventry.

Modern Records Centre. 1910. Women slaves of the forge. [Press cutting] University of Warwick, Work in the sweated trades, 1910s – 1920s. Coventry.

Nothing to Lose – The Women Chainmakers Strike of 1910 Cradley Heath (1975 documentary). Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zvm8Adm_MSY&gt; [Accessed 8 March 2021].

Blogs in this pilot study sequence:

5 comments

  1. Pingback: Making and breaking chains: first link | 100 miles from the sea
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  4. Pingback: Pandemic pinch point: invisible domestic labour | 100 miles from the sea
  5. Pingback: Making chains: forging the future | 100 miles from the sea

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