THE GMB trade union held its first annual GMB Eleanor Marx Day last Thursday, 14th January 2016, at the union’s national office in Euston around the birthday of the co-founder of the union 161 years ago on 16th January 1855 in London.
The aim of the annual event is to celebrate and remember the monumental achievements of Eleanor Marx and other radical working women and to link them to current struggles.
The first Eleanor Marx Day consisted of an evening with her biographer Rachel Holmes. The author of Striking a Light (The History of the Match Women’s Strike) Louise Raw also spoke along with reports from present day struggles from GMB activists currently taking on their employer to fight for fair pay.
Kamaljeet Jandu, GMB National officer for Equality and Diversity, said: ‘GMB Congress 2015 in Dublin resolved to hold an annual GMB Eleanor Marx Day in January around the birthday of the co-founder of the union to celebrate and remember the monumental achievements of Eleanor Marx and other radical working women and to link them to current struggles.
‘In 1889 at the age of 34, Eleanor worked alongside Will Thorne setting up the Gas & General Workers union in Beckton East London. It quickly liberated gas workers from six 12-hour shifts per week by winning an 8-hour working day. Eleanor was elected to the Executive at the 1891 Congress. The union spread like wildfire. 126 years later it had 640,000 members of which 50% are women.’
Rachel Holmes told the evening audience of over 150: ‘Eleanor Marx, when she was part of the formation of the gas workers union in 1889, she formed the first women’s chapter. She insisted on the importance of men and women working together.
‘She is not only saying that for reasons of equality but she also made an economic analysis. Capitalism depends on this division of labour to exist – you pay women less and children even less. Alongside that, she was really great fun.
‘The Trade Union Bill has been mentioned this evening. She was the daughter of Karl Marx, who was not known as a trade unionist. It was a long road. Being a trade unionist was a long journey from being Karl Marx’s daughter, a logical but a long one.
‘She was a militant daughter of Karl Marx who was considered a terrorist. They were under surveillance all their lives. Marx’s father had had to change his name to work because he was a Jew. All these things are familiar to us today.
‘Eleanor Marx got involved in trade unions as she was so long involved in the struggle for the 8-hour day. She was fun, full of energy and she was a scrapper! There’s a story of her arrival home one day with torn clothes. She told Engels: “I was in Trafalgar Square and I was attacked by a policeman.” Engels was said to have said: “I don’t believe that, you probably attacked the police.”
‘Eleanor loved the theatre. She asked what does the theatre do, what does art do, she wanted it to be shared with everyone. Young Eleanor wanted to be an actress, but she couldn’t because she could only be herself. She liked Shakespeare, then she discovered Ibsen, The Doll’s House, the story of a trapped woman. She translated Madame Bovary for the first time from the French.
‘There’s an occasion when she gets really cross because she’s been doing a bit of union fundraising and went to an event which was tawdry. She thought everybody should have the best.’
Holmes concluded: ‘Eleanor Marx was a surprisingly modest person because she just did – she did what she did. Her economic analysis of Capitalism showed it’s really important we work together.’
Louise Raw told the meeting: ‘We need our own history, our own narrative. The Match Women’s Strike is one of the greatest stories ever told. What happened is very important because we’re going back to the 19th century today. The Match Women Strike was the beginning of the modern union movement.
‘It was a big strike – 1,400 workers – and they won! And they weren’t supposed to win. The strike was for just two weeks. They were immigrant workers, Irish and from the East End. People used to say their morals were suspect. It’s when the idea began that working class women’s place was in the home.
‘They said it wasn’t important because it was organised from the outside. What an unprecedented event, a woman from a different social background made women go on strike. Eleanor had read about the terrible conditions at Bryant & May before the strike.
‘The women have the most radical, vibrant culture among themselves. They wanted roses as well as bread.
‘They were independent. People were horrified. They had to be incredibly strong to survive, getting the worse jobs and worse conditions. But they wrote to Eleanor Marx saying we are not going to go back on you because you wrote about our conditions. One girl was sacked and they walked out. The tide turned in the end because of their enormous solidarity.
‘Except for Eleanor, none of the middle class socialists wanted to know them. Bryant & May were forced to take the strikers back because the share price was dropping. They formed the largest union in the country. The dockers’ strike leaders said “don’t give in, remember the match girls”. So I wrote my book, it’s important we remember them.’
GMB organiser Nadine Houghton said: ‘I’m glad we’ve come here to honour such an inspiring woman. She was so much more as Karl Marx’s organiser. I organise workers in this movement because she made it possible. She would have seen what an attack on workers the Trade Union Bill is. She would see women are most affected.
‘I’m an organiser, many of my members are low paid women. Many of the labour movement’s greatest achievements have been through women organising, and withdrawing their labour – the matchgirls and Dagenham women. Eleanor Marx showed the way.’
Maudsley Hospital GMB rep Danielle Seychell told the meeting: ‘As a rep at the Maudsley I’m just a messenger. Ladies who work there wonder what is going to happen. ‘But everybody I work with enjoys what they do, they are proud of their jobs. We’ve started another campaign for more money. I can’t come to my ward and worry how I am going to pay the bills.We are not going to stop, never. We are not going to stop because we can’t.’
The evening was rounded off with a ceremonial cutting of a cake with the icing message ‘Happy Birthday Tussy’, Eleanor Marx’s family nickname.