A ten-week strike involving recently unionised women home-workers is the subject of Neil Gore’s latest production.
“‘Rouse, Ye Women” is a folk-ballad opera telling the stirring story of the Chainmakers’ Strike of 1910 through uplifting songs sung by Bryony Purdue as Mary MacArthur, and Rowan Godal as “Bird”, a downtrodden chainmaker.
With only a guitar and banjolele, a simple but evocative set, and an imaginative use of lighting, the audience are quickly transported to a backyard outhouse in Cradley Heath.
This foot tapping, hand clapping, chorus sing-along performance is an inspiring play well worth taking part in. The lyrics resonate long after the play has ended. “They steal the roses from our cheeks” sums up the life sucking nature of wage slavery.
The stage is set as a terraced house backyard, like thousands in the area at the time. It was the place of work of isolated, non-unionised women. Here they would slave away for 12-hour days, bent over raging furnace fires, hammering out 5,000 links a week for a low and inconsistent piece-rate pay.
The work and materials the women got was at the “goodwill” of the “Fogger”, the grubby, unscrupulous middle-man, who more or less on whim would decide rates of pay and how much work the women would get. He would fine them when his targets were not met or when he considered the women’s work to be sub-standard.
These women were among the most downtrodden wage-slaves in Britain at that time. Rarely seeing daylight, hunched over their anvils with their faces aflame, they would, like sweatshop workers the world over, age prematurely.
There is one story recounted by a chainmaker’s grown-up son of his mother starting work at seven a.m., giving birth around midday, and being back at anvil with hammer in hand by teatime. This woman had no superpowers — just the desperate need to feed her family and pay the rent.
Enter stage left Mary MacArthur, the inspiring organiser for the National Federation of Women Workers, ready to win these women to trade unionism and a significant pay rise, winning what is claimed to be the first minimum wage victory.
Mustering support from all over Britain, Mary MacArthur pulled an ingenious stroke when she got the strike, in all its detail, onto newsreel and played in cinemas across the land before the main feature. She organised the women into small groups and they toured around speaking at meetings about their struggle and raising funds to keep the strike going.
So much money was raised, just under £4,000, that after strike pay the surplus funds were used to create a lasting legacy of a workers’ education institute. A beautiful red brick building in Arts and Crafts style was built and remains today. The strikers were led to a cracking victory where most women won a 100% pay rise.
Like many good strikes, that one achieved a lot more than its demands. It opened up a world of possibilities. It introduced and embedded the concept of solidarity and other big ideas to these downtrodden, poorly educated and unorganised women.
The oldest striker was Patience Round. At 79 years old, after 67 years a chainmaker, she took her first strike action and expressed the experience of workers the world over on finding their voice and discovering ideas that can turn the world upside down. “These are wonderful times. I never thought that I should live to assert the rights of women. It has been the week of my life, three meetings and such beautiful talking”.
Today there are millions of sweatshop workers around the world working in appallingly dangerous conditions, for long hours and subsistence pay, old before their time, dehumanised by the capitalist system. It is estimated that 85% of sweatshop workers are women and children.
The story of the women chainmakers should not be seen as a sentimental history lesson of downtrodden workers of the past but as a lesson for what we have to do now to build a different future for the working class.
Some years ago Cradley Heath council decided to build a bypass where the chainmakers’ beautiful red brick building stood. After protests they agreed not to demolish it but rebuild it brick-by-brick elsewhere in the area.
Likewise the labour movement today needs to rebuild solidarity strike-by-strike, workplace-by-workplace, building a beautiful wall of workers’ solidarity.
• On tour around Britain over the next few months.