International Women’s Day 2024 – Who better to celebrate on International Women’s Day than women Trade Unionists and Activists?

Social Workers Union (SWU) Supporting International Women's Day | #InspireInclusion #IWD2024

In her final blog as SWU National Organiser, Carol Reid highlights an important element of women’s history.

Women have played a key role in the British Trade Union movement since its inception and have shown passionate commitment to withholding labour – even in the face of poverty and deprivation undoubtedly experienced when out of work.  In this blog I’m looking at just a small selection of the many strikes and collective action led by women over the centuries.  There is much more to explore, and I urge anyone with an interest to spend some time researching this interesting topic.

Yorkshire Card-Setters Strike

The first strike over pay was organised in 1832 when 1500 women card-setters downed tools in Yorkshire.   These women were not only striking for better pay, but for equal1 pay.  Working-class women’s pay was abysmal and less than their male counterparts (who themselves earned a poor wage) and they faced criticism and a lack of support from many men, including some of the early male trade unionists whose focus was primarily on the ‘standard male worker’2.  Despite this, many men of course realised that the working-class struggle for better pay and working conditions incorporated not only men, but women and children – their own families – and offered solidarity to striking women workers, a reasoning underpinned by socialist ideology3.  Little seems to have been recorded relating to the outcome of this strike, which is disappointing as I for one would love to know more about it.

Chainmakers’ Strike

Photograph of Mary Macarthur addressing the crowds during the chainmakers' strike, Cradley Heath 1910. Image from Black Country Living Museum, Wikimedia Backstage Pass day.

The Cradley Heath Chainmakers were a group of women working in small, cramped forges in outbuildings next to their homes. The work was hot, physically demanding and poorly paid.

In 1909 the Liberal government passed the Trade Boards Act to establish and enforce minimum rates of pay, and for many women this was nearly double the existing rate. However, many employers refused to pay the increase, so in 1910 the women’s union, the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), called a strike4.

The strike lasted 10 weeks and attracted immense popular support and donations from all sections of society.  The founder of the NFWW, Mary Macarthur, used mass meetings and the media – including newly popular cinemas – to bring the situation of the striking women to a wider audience, and within a month 60% of employers had agreed to pay the minimum rate.  The dispute finally ended on 22nd October when the last employer signed the list5.

Matchgirls’ Strike

“The Matchgirls’ Strike” has an almost sentimental Victorian ring to it, but it was against the backdrop of a brutal and highly dangerous workplace that these women and girls courageously walked out.

At the Bryant & May match factory in Bow, east London, many workers were very young girls and women, working long hours for little pay, with fines for petty offences.  They also had to work with dangerous white phosphorus that could cause a form of cancer known as ‘phossy jaw’.  Unrest was mounting and then came an unexpected external spark.  On 15 June 1888, at a Fabian Society meeting, Henry Hyde Champion reported 20% dividends at the factory while workers got ‘starvation wages’.  He proposed a boycott on Bryant & May matches, which was passed unanimously.

Annie Besant (1847-1933), a prominent social reformer and Fabian, met with some of the workers outside the factory to find out more about their conditions, which led to her article, White Slavery in London in the newspaper The Link (23 June 1888)6.  Bryant & May were furious and tried to cover up the allegations by forcing their workers to sign false statements.  They refused.  The final straw was a dismissal of one of the girls at the factory – 1400 girls and women walked out on strike on 5 July 18887.  On 17 July, the London Trades Council and the Strike Committee met with the Bryant & May Directors.  This resulted in ALL the Matchgirls’ demands being met, and terms agreed in principle.

Photo of matchgirls participating in a strike against Bryant & May, London 1888

It is no surprise that the Great Dock Strike took place only a year later.  Many of the Matchgirls had dockers as family members, and it doesn’t need too much imagination to see how their victory inspired their fathers, brothers and husbands to follow suit.  Ultimately, these two strikes led to the formation and growth of the labour movement, and the Labour Party itself8.

Dagenham Strike

The strike for re-grading and equal pay organised by women sewing machinists at Ford Dagenham in 1968 is one of the heroic episodes of British labour movement history. In terms of both working-class militancy and women’s self-assertiveness, it was a product of movements that were already on the rise, and an important catalyst for further struggles and gains in the period that followed.

The machinists originally called for their jobs to be re-graded from unskilled (Grade B) to semi-skilled (Grade C), but it soon became clear that a big underlying problem was the existence of a ‘women’s rate’, which was only 85% of the unskilled male rate. Equal pay became one of the strikers’ key demands, and their action galvanised a wave of wider struggles.

The women weren’t just fighting against sexism in wider society and law; they were also fighting for recognition by their own unions. Lower pay for women was, at base, a way of capitalists saving money — this both generated and was reinforced by institutionalised ideas that their work was less important and their wages “pocket” or “pin money”, to support their “serious duties” in the home. Since the 19th century, women workers have been viewed by sections of the movement as a threat to men’s employment, and some trade unions had supported bans of married women working.  After a three-week long dispute, which brought Ford to its knees, the striking women won the abolition of the ‘women’s rate’9.

Grunwick Strike

Many people in Britain remember 1976 as the hottest summer on record; others will remember it as the summer of discontent for workers at Grunwick.  On Friday 20 August 1976, a group of workers led by Jayaben Desai, walked out in protest against their treatment by the managers. They soon realised that having a trade union at their workplace would help them to fight for better rights, so they joined APEX (Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff) and began to demand that Grunwick recognise workers’ right to join a trade union.

After Jayaben and her co-workers spent months picketing outside the Grunwick factory, their cause was taken up by the wider trade union movement.  By June 1977 there were marches in support of the Grunwick strikers, and on some days more than 20,000 people packed themselves into the narrow lanes near Dollis Hill tube station.

After two long years of struggle, the Grunwick dispute ended in defeat for the strikers. But according to Jayaben Desai, not everything was lost:

“…because of us, the people who stayed in Grunwick got a much better deal. When the factory moved, the van used to come to their home and pick them up because it was difficult for them to get to the new place. Can you imagine that? And they get a pension today! And we get nothing. That was because of us, because of our struggle”.

From a very small factory in North London, though it ended in defeat, today Grunwick is remembered for the way in which thousands of workers, black and white, men and women, came together to defend the rights of migrant women workers10.

Miners’ Wives

2024 marks two significant anniversaries of miners’ strikes in Britain.  The 1974 Miners’ Strike and the strike of 1984 to 1985, that is etched in the memories of many.

Many women and miners’ wives, up and down the country, began organising support of the strike at the onset of the Miners’ Strike (1984-1985).  Women of the “Women Against Pit Closures” (WAPC) group took it upon themselves to be responsible for fundraising, picketing, secondary striking, organising rallying events, public speaking, hosting meetings, and providing essential food and sanitary items for families across the country.  The women wrote political materials, pamphlets and articles, promoted the cause through the press, and traveled across the country networking with other activist groups.

The women’s unpaid labour and essential support contributed to both the strength and the length of the Miners’ Strike and led to a more positive representation of the strike in the press.

One activist explained, ‘We as women have not often been encouraged to be actively involved in trade unions and organisation.  It’s always been an area that’s seemed to belong to men.  We’re seen to be the domesticated element to the family … I have seen change coming for years and the last weeks has seen it at its best.  If this government thinks its fight is only with the miners, they are sadly mistaken.  They are now fighting men, women, and families.’11

Social Workers & Service Users Against Austerity

SWASUAA Manchester 10.21

What better way to finish than by highlighting SWU’s own Austerity Action Group (AAG) and its lengthy links between social workers and people with lived experience, working side by side to expose the injustices and inequalities brought about by imposed austerity and the cost of living crisis.  We as social workers are familiar with its damaging affects upon communities, families, and individuals. The AAG has been led for several years by the wonderful life-long activist and social worker Angi Naylor, raising the banner and supporting the voices of people experiencing poverty12.


  1. The Vote Before The Vote ( ↩︎
  2. Women’s labour and trade unionism – a dangerous combination? — University of Strathclyde ↩︎
  3. Our history | Fabian Society ↩︎
  4. TUC | History Online ( ↩︎
  5. “Rouse, Ye Women”: The Cradley Heath Chain Makers’ Strike, 1910 ( ↩︎
  6. Lesson-3-White-Slavery-in-London-by-Annie-Besant.docx ( ↩︎
  7. The Match Girls’ Strike – People’s History Museum: The national museum of democracy ( ↩︎
  8. The Story of the Strike | Matchgirls Memorial ( ↩︎
  9. The Ford Dagenham machinists’ strikes, 1968 and ’84 | Workers’ Liberty ( ↩︎
  10. The Grunwick Dispute | Striking Women ( ↩︎
  11. Miners’ Strike 1984 to 1985: Women Against Pit Closures – People’s History Museum: The national museum of democracy ( ↩︎
  12. Leave No Stone Unturned in the Fight Against Austerity: Campaign Action Pack (2017) – SWU Social Workers Union ( – please note an updated version of this resource will be launched in summer 2024 ↩︎