Irish Women Workers Union: 75 Years of Struggle

Review of These Obstreperous Lassies - A history of the Irish Women Workers Union, written by Mary Jones, published by Gill and Macmillan, 1988. Reviewed by FBWU Jacobs

[At the time of this review the supporters of Militant were being witch-hunted in the Irish Labour Party, so some pseudonyms were used.]

This book is a history of the Irish Women Workers Union (IWWU) during the 75 years of the union's existence from 1911 its amalgamation with the Federated Workers Union of Ireland (FWUI).

The history of this union is a history of working class women, fighting on issues such as equal pay, paid holidays, the right to return to work after marriage and against sexual harassment in a society dominated by men.

It examines many of the battles which the union fought, such as the strike in 1945; of 1,500 laundresses which after eight months win the right to a fortnight's holiday with pay which was a major achievement at the time. A worker wrote to the union office: "Only for you the worker would be lost if we had not great women to fight for us after all yous brought the Employer to their knees and they had to submit".

The laundry workers had a determined leadership but they were fighters themselves too as their song (to the tune of Lili Marlene) said:

Outside the laundry we put up a fight
For a fortnight's Holiday
They said we would have to strike,
So we keep marching up and down,
As we nearly did for half a crown.
We are a fighting people,
Who can't be kept down.

Another of their struggles, was one in which the Dublin Box company tried to cut the wages by five shillings in 1928. Not only did the IWWU defend their wages but it gained an increase through strike action and for the first time in this company their union representatives were recognised.

From these struggles involving such people as one time union president, Constance Markievicz, and long serving Executive members like Helena Molony, Louie Bennett and Helen Chenevix, , the union continued to be active not only in the workplace but intervening in political issues, challenging legislation which prevented women working at night in 1930, and campaigning against he anti-women provisions of the 1937 Constitution.

The union supported the 'Mother and Child Scheme' in the early 19i50s which was proposed by Noel Browne to ensure for all mothers 'the best medical care available, regardless of class distinctions'. The IWWU demanded that it be linked to a 'comprehensive health service....ensuring the best possible medical care…irrespective of social standing, wealth or poverty'.

The IWWU right up to its last years as an independent trade union had women like the long serving general secretary, Maura Breslin, still fighting to defend women in low paid and part-time jobs, like contract cleaning.

I found this book very interesting and strongly recommend it to all workers. Its expensive but demand that your library get a copy.

[Editors note: June 2004. This book is out of print, but as the original author says, ask your local library for it and they may be able to get it for you.]

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