Bound by Our Constitution: Women, Workers, and the Minimum Wage

By Vivien Hart | Go to book overview

THREE
Low-Paid Workers
THE TRADE BORADS ACT, BRITAIN, 1906–1909

IN 1906, the minimum wage ceased to be the parochial concern of a small circle of female, Liberal, and Labour reformers and became a national issue. The dramatic general election of January 1906 replaced a Conservative government with a Liberal one, gave the Liberals a huge majority (400 seats to the Conservatives' 157), and brought a sizable block of thirty Labour M.P.'s into office. Minimum wagers had an unprecedented opportunity. They could hope to place their bill on the programs of both a new and sympathetic Liberal government and a new and sympathetic Labour party. But in February 1906, when Dilke introduced his regular Wages Board Bill, the only sign of gathering momentum was that his usual four co-sponsors doubled to eight. 1 In July, the new Liberal government prevaricated. The Labour party made the first move later in the year, placing the minimum wage “fourth in the list of the reforms for which they as a party were to ballot and work.” 2

Meanwhile, minimum wagers were embarking on a dazzlingly successful propaganda campaign, using publicity and lobbying techniques in a model of modern political methods. Women were much involved. Nine women on an executive committee of thirty-three included Clementina Black, Mary Macarthur, Margaret MacDonald, and Gertrude Tuckwell. Public relations was political activity in which women could be equal participants, operating where no male traditions hampered them, pioneering new techniques of communication and publicity as well as continuing traditional volunteer work. The new phase was launched in May 1906, by a Sweated Industries Exhibition at the Queens Hall in London. Forty-five workers, mostly women, plied their trades in the hall, making trousers, match boxes, grummets, sacks, beaded ornaments. Their wages and circumstances were detailed in the catalog. There was a daily program of afternoon lectures, plus illustrations “by means of an Oxy-Hydrogen Lantern” in the evenings. The organizers “rigorously excluded sweated industries other than home industries, not because the promoters failed to realise the suffering these entail, but because they rightly considered that to attempt too much in an initial effort was to risk the success of the work they believed it was in their power to accomplish provided their whole strength could be concentrated upon it.” The work they had in mind, by this account, was not to abolish home work but to regulate it and ensure that “it shall be done under conditions which guarantee the public no less than the worker from disease.” 3 The exhibition became a national event, with some thirty thousand visitors and a sale of twenty thousand copies of the catalog. 4

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