Mary Quaile Club event on Saturday 8 April. Not “business as usual”: the issue of sexual harassment at work

Audrey White, Bernadette Hyland and Sophie Shaw

Our first event for 2017 took up the issue of sexual harassment at work,  an issue that was put on the agenda in the 1980s by the influx of many new women trade unionists into the movement. The campaign at the Lady at Lord John shop in Liverpool in 1983 stands out as a landmark event that pushed the issue into the public media,  as well as highlighting the repressive trade union laws and the use and abuse of strip searching.  The  shop manager Audrey White  was sacked after objecting to the area  manager’s sexual harassement  of  young female staff. She won her job with the support of her union, TGWU, after the shop was picketed  every day for five weeks.

We wanted to talk about this campaign because – like other disputes  concerning and involving women in the trade union movement – it has been largely forgotten eg  over the last two years two books published  about the politics of Liverpool in the 1980s gave only a token reference to the dispute.

Glenda Jackson , Sam and Audrey

In 1987 a film was made, Business as Usual, based on the Lady at Lord John dispute,  which  starred  Glenda Jackson,  John Thaw and Cathy Tyson. Like a number  other recent films about radical history such as  Made in Dagenham and Suffragette, it failed to show the reality of the dispute, concentrating instead on unfair distortions of the personal relationships between the main characters as well as in the meetings between the trade union and the employer.

We were delighted be able to welcome Audrey to our event, who after the screening told   the audience the true story of the dispute. She showed how important it was to have a trade union that would take the issues concerned seriously,  and also a support group that was ready to  picket the shop every day  and pressurise the management to resolve the dispute. The success of the Lady at Lord John dispute is a classic example of how trade unionists win disputes,  one that is just as relevant today as in 1983.

To bring the issue up-to-date our second speaker was Sophie Shaw, Equalities representative of London Unite Hotel Workers Branch. She has a number of  years experience in the hotel industry,  and spoke about the working lives of hospitality workers in the zero hours economy. Sophie showed how sexual harassment is rampant in an industry where women are dependent on getting enough hours to make up their wages,  and also the vulnerability of the many foreign workers who may not understand the employment laws.  She explained how her union is challenging the unfair treatment and exploitation of women workers and how we, when we book hotels or pay for meals,  can make a difference when we decide where to eat or sleep.

After the speakers had finished  Bernadette Hyland chaired a  lively discussion on the issues raised with many  contributions from the audience.

Gina in her realm…

Our thanks to Audrey  and Sophie, and to Gina  and John (and Mandy the wonder dog)  at Three Minute Theatre where  we have held many Mary Quaile Club events in the past. Gina’s vegan cakes went down very well with the audience!

Further information on the Hotel workers branch of Unite go here

You can watch Business as Usual  here

To read more about women in the trade union movement see Sarah Boston’s excellent book Women Workers and the Trade Unions buy it here

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Posted in Mary Quaile club meeting, trade unions, Uncategorized, women's history, working class history

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