On Nottingham’s Radical History and Women in Trade Unions

I was invited to address the RMT’s Women’s Conference in Nottingham recently.

Nottingham Castle Gate House

Nottingham Castle Gate House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Welcome sisters, or as we say in Nottingham “ey up me ducks”

I am delighted to welcome you all to beautiful Nottingham, city of legends.

I imagine that many of you will have arrived at Nottingham Rail Station.  I know that it is looking a bit sorry for itself at present as it is in the middle of being refurbished.  Locally, we are looking forward towards the completion of a new transport hub.

You may have come from the station on the tram. If not, the nearest stop is at the end of the street, just by the Royal Centre.  Line one (to the north of Nottingham) was jointly developed by the Labour controlled County Council and City Council. The first thing the new Conservative administration at County Hall did was to pull out of the consortium which was building phase 2.  Despite this Tory attempt to put a spanner in the development of public transport the City Council has pushed on with lines 2 and 3 to the West of Nottingham. These are due to open in late 2014 and should relieve some of the traffic problems which bedevil us, especially at rush hours.

I hope that if you come back to Nottingham next year, either for a future conference or just to visit the Queen of the midlands, you’ll see a big improvement in our public transport.

I hope that while you are here you’ll take the opportunity to get out and explore Nottingham.  Although Nottingham is advertised as the city of legends (Robin Hood, Brian Clough) to my mind it has a bigger claim to the title of “city of radical progressive politics”.

Just one word of warning though, if you visit our famous castle you may be somewhat disappointed.  It doesn’t look like a mediaeval castle at all (it’s got no turrets, no keep, no moat) and it’s certainly nothing like Hollywood would have you believe.  There was a Norman Castle on the site, Richard the Lionheart laid siege to it when his brother John took refuge and Richard the third rode out from it to the Battle of Bosworth.  Although King Charles I raised his standard by the castle and started the Civil War here, for most of the time Nottingham was a parliamentary stronghold.  After the execution of Charles I in 1649, the castle was demolished to prevent its re-use.  The first Duke of Newcastle then built a mansion on the site.

However in 1831 this building was attacked and razed to the ground by Nottingham people protesting at the Duke of Newcastle’s opposition to Parliamentary reform.  The mansion remained a derelict shell until it was restored in 1875 and opened in 1878 as the Nottingham Castle Museum, the first municipal art gallery in the UK outside of London

Nottingham’s long radical history runs from Saxons defending their independence against the Vikings, through Robin Hood (the Civil War,), Luddism, the Reform Riots Chartism, the General Strike and through to the Spanish Civil War. This continues up to today, with the many industrial struggles which have rocked Nottingham over the last 80 years.

Feargus O'Connor by J B Robinson, Nottingham A...

Feargus O’Connor by J B Robinson, Nottingham Arboretum (Photo credit: mira66)

Indeed Nottingham was the only place to send a Chartist to Parliament.  Feargus Edward O’Connor was elected in 1847.  Although he is largely forgotten today a statue of him sits in Nottingham Arboretum.

The people of Nottingham are known for being no respecters of person when in pursuit of their aims.  In 1764, during the so called “cheese riots” those protesting against price increase bowled huge cheeses down the street.  Attempts by the local mayor to quell the mob resulted in his dignity being flattened by a 100lb cheese.  (I must admit that I have a list of politicians I’d like to see flattened by a cheese).

More recently during the Poll Tax Protests a council meeting was ended when local Councillors were attacked with custard pies.  Yet again Nottingham was at the forefront of the campaign and was reportedly fourth in the national league for non-payment. Official figures show that over one third of people weren’t paying.

Nottingham has also been long known for the strength of its women’s organisations.  From the middle of the nineteenth century young women became the main source of labour in the lace factories.  This led to the City’s reputation as home to many young, attractive, self-sufficient women.  As a result the Nottingham Trade Union of Women Workers in the Lace Trade, and The Nottingham Female Political Union flourished.

The Nottingham Co-operative Women’s Guild aimed to improve the conditions of women especially in poor neighbourhoods.,  Nottingham Women’s Welfare Centre opened in 1926 as only the third birth control clinic ever in England .

In 1971 a group of Women’s Liberation activists opened a women’s centre out of the front room of one of their members. A number of organisations gravitated to the centre and once they had dedicated premises they were able to form a focus point for groups such as Women’s Abortion & Contraception Group, Lesbian Group, Feminist Theory Group & ‘Battered Wives.’ (Now known as women’s aid) By organising together despite opposition, they managed to provide a strong women’s centre that has helped to contribute to the environment in Nottingham, which has encouraged, educated and supported women to be leaders and influencers.

All of this shows why Nottingham is such a good place for the RMT’s women’s conference.

However, there will be some people who question the need for women’s conferences and women’s organisations within trades unions.

There’s no doubt that the nature of trades unionism has changed.  As of January this year there were 53 unions affiliated to the TUC representing some 6 million workers.  In 2000, 38.5% of the affiliated membership to the TUC was female, today it is 49%  In unions representing public sector workers (including health and teaching) women are the majority, up to 70%.  In comparison the same figures show that of the 76,000 RMT members some 12% are female.

We know that trades unions are good for women.  Studies[1], show that workers in unionised workplaces are far better off than those in non-unionised workplaces and that this is particularly true for women.  Trade unions are agents of greater equality – economic, sexual and racial.

In unionised workplaces:

  • pay differentials are reduced
  • there is more flexibility to help women achieve a work-life balance

And trades unions often offer access to education and training which help their members.

This is significant in the face of the Government’s austerity programme.  The cuts to important public services will affect many of us as users but will also disproportionately affect women as employees.  And we’ve seen the number of firms that have gone bust in recent months – all our high streets bear the scars of the Government “talking the economy down”.

So given the increase in women in trade unions and the attacks on women’s services we could ask why aren’t women more active in trade unions[2].  There seem to be a number of factors at play which still means that much of the trade union culture is male-dominated.

For instance:

  • Women still encounter hostility when they take on trade union responsibilities
  • Some rules of procedure seem designed to be deliberately obscure
  • Women often lack confidence in their own abilities, (we have a confidence gap where men will apply for jobs when they have 20% of the needed qualifications whilst a woman won’t apply unless they have over 80%)
  • The assumption that members are available outside normal working hours ignores the unequal division of family responsibilities (a problem which all the more acute for single mothers)

If we are to recruit and retain women members and represent them effectively then unions need to strive to become more women-friendly.

This means:

  • Giving women space to explore issues together (we know that women tend to contribute less when they’re in mixed groups)
  • Helping build our confidence
  • Challenging the way in which unions work, especially where women make up a smaller proportion.

I’d like to play tribute to the RMT for providing a women-friendly space through conferences such as this.  I appreciate that being a trade union representative is frequently difficult in the workplace so I would encourage you to take advantage of this women’s only event to explore issues, share experiences, and consider how you can support each other.  Personally I’m a great believer in the value of social media in helping build networks between people who may be isolated.  I hope that you’ll all come out of the Conference feeling its been worthwhile.

I can see from the agenda that you have a busy couple of days ahead.  But I hope that you will get some time to explore my fine city.

Once again, welcome to Nottingham

Thank You


[1] 1999 by Professor David Metcalf from the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP)

[2] Research carried out among organisations affiliated to European Trades Union Confederation in 2002