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  • Writer's pictureGVHeritage Group

The Union of Women - 1 in 5!

British labour leaders maintained an anti-war stance up until the point that the government declared war on Germany. By the end of August, the Labour Party and the TUC declared an 'industrial truce' for the duration of the war and lent their support to an all-party recruitment campaign.

A declaration of war and an agreement not to strike

By May 1915, there were three Labour MPs in the Coalition Government, one of them, Arthur Henderson, in the cabinet. The two Treasury Agreements signed by government and trade union representatives confirmed labour's promise to abandon strike action for the duration of the war. It also drew the unions (including the Amalgamated Society, whose members were principally affected) into agreeing to suspend 'restrictive practices' in skilled trades by agreeing to the use of unskilled or semi-skilled labour (particularly that of women) in the war industries (known as 'dilution'.)

Between 1914-1918, 5,670,000 men were enlisted in the Armed Forces (around 38% of the total pre-war male labour force). They were partly replaced by drawing on unemployed, elderly and returned expatriate men, additional women, prisoners of war and, at times such as harvesting, school children (by the end of May 1916, 15,753 had been given exemption from school).

Women’s paid employment in Great Britain and Ireland rose by just over 23% during the war (when numbers of women aged above ten rose by just under 5%), with very marked changes within employment. Many women moved away from domestic service, textiles and clothing to transport, national and local government, banking and insurance, engineering and agriculture.

Expansion, but not everywhere Whilst some sectors saw an increase in output, others shrunk and overall civilian employment reduced. Even the number of male workers in engineering increased between July 1914 and July 1918 by 23% (excluding ordnance), while the number of female workers went up 670%. The building sector reduced by 49% (with women's employment only rising from under 1% to 6%); cotton production reduced by 27% (women were already a majority of the labour force here but, there numbers rose from 60% to 71% of the reduced workforce); and municipal services, including trams and teachers, reduced by 15% (with the proportion of women rising from 31 to 46%).

Trade Unions The First World War had the impact on trade union membership ; in a full labour market, the unions were able to negotiate higher wages and better working conditions. However, for many people these higher rates of pay were offset by the cost of living rising faster than basic wages, but at the same time mitigated by extra payments for longer working hours, and in some cases by bonuses. Trade unionism was further boosted by the fact that the government required collective agreements in many industries and insisted that employers recognise the unions. Such state recognition, often followed by the successful negotiation of war bonuses, boosted trade union membership in what used to be weakly organised industries such as hosiery in the Midlands and jute in Dundee.

Women and the Unions Trade union membership among women, which had grown by just over 140% between 1905 and 1913, rose by over 175% between 1914 and 1918, so that a little under one in five trade unionists were female. Even where there was a reduction of labour in building, cotton and flax, British union membership in these sectors increased by 74.6% and 15.7% respectively.

However, apart from the National Federation of Women Workers, the Workers' Union (WU) was the only union to make a serious commitment to organising women.  By 1918 the WU employed twenty female full time officials and had a female membership of over 80,000. This was more than any other general union and represented a quarter of the WU's own membership. In 1918 the Equal Pay strike was led and ultimately won by women tramway workers - starting in London and spreading to other towns.

Women supporting workers rights and the war effort but not suffrage

In 1914, the Women's Social and Political Union abandoned the suffrage campaign itself and ardently supported the war effort and urged all women to do the same. Sylvia Pankhurst's organisation was one of the very few to maintain the fight for the vote until its first instalment (to women over 30) was granted in 1918.

The National Council for Adult Suffrage also kept up the pressure for the vote in the war years (established in 1916 it held its first meeting at the Daily Herald offices). It was a broad based activist adult suffrage campaigning group linking the left wing of the women's movement with the left wing of the labour movement.


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