Mary Quaile: Trade Unionist and fighter for working women

Mary was born in Dublin and came to Manchester in 1908. She became active in the trade union movement and rose to a prominent position in TGWU. She was on the TUC General Council during the General Strike of 1926. In her later years she returned to Manchester.

Mary Quaile was born in Dublin (where her father was secretary of the Irish Brick & Stonemakers Union) and came to Manchester in 1908, working in the Socialist Clarion Cafe at 50a Market Street. She helped establish a Cafe Workers’ Union in Manchester and became its secretary.

In 1911 Mary was appointed as Assistant Organiser to support Mrs Aldridge at the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Council. The Council had been established in February 1895 at a meeting in Manchester Town Hall with a view to promoting trade unionism amongst women workers. The Committee was drawn principally from prominent Liberals in Manchester, whose politics were progressive, not socialist. In 1904 the Council became divided over the issue of women’s suffrage and its two paid organisers – Sarah Dickenson and Eva Gore-Booth – resigned and established a rival organisation, the Manchester & Salford Women’s Trades and Labour Council.

In 1914 Mary became the organising secretary for the Council after Mrs Aldridge left. In April 1919 the two Manchester women’s trades councils merged with the Manchester & Salford Trades Council (with Sarah Dickenson appointed Women’s Organiser) and that same year Mary took up a new post as National Women’s Organiser for the Dock, Wharf & Riverside Workers’ Union, which eventually joined the Transport & General Workers Union in 1922. She quickly became prominent in her union, standing for election to the General Council of the Trades Union Congress in 1923 when she came third in the ballot behind Margaret Bondfield and Julia Varley. When Ramsay MacDonald appointed Margaret Bondfield to a job in the first Labour Cabinet as Minister for Employment in January 1924 she resigned from the General Council and Mary took her place as the runner-up, attending her first meeting in March.

Mary replaced Margaret Bondfield on the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations, joining Julia. Both women attended the National Conference of Labour Women in May 1924. At the end of the month they went to a conference of International Women Trade Unionists in Vienna where they were instructed by the General Council to maintain the position of the TUC, which was that women should be organised inside the International Federation of Trade Unions and not form a separate autonomous organisation. After the conference finished they stayed on in Vienna for the International Trade Union congress.

Mary was a member of the TUC Women Workers Group, which was looking at the organisation of women in trade unions, following a resolution at the TUC the previous year. In May 1924 the TUC sent out a letter to all unions stating that in their opinion “much could be done to further the trade union organisation of women if all men Trade Unionists would do their utmost to get their wives and daughters to see the importance of becoming trade unionists themselves.” This was followed up by circulating over 100,000 copies of a leaflet Get That Union Feeling, directed at women workers.

Mary attended the TUC Women’s Conference held on 20th March 1925 in Leicester which discussed ways of recruiting more women workers and called on stronger trade unions to come to the aid of the weak, blaming past Executive Councils and union officials for not having made special efforts to organise women. Later that year at Congress Mary spoke in the discussion on women’s organisation within the TUC, stating her belief that it was necessary to have a women’s group “because of the work that had been done not only in organising the women but in educating them in their responsibilities, and the part they had to take in their own trade union movement” and was chair of the women’s trade union delegation to the Soviet Union in 1925. Mary was elected again in 1925 to the General Council, beating Julia Varley when Margaret Bondfield stood again. She was now one of the most prominent women trade unionists in Britain.

The Leicester conference resulted in the TUC launching a recruitment drive for women in the early months of 1926 with Manchester and Salford as its first target, where Mary spoke alongside Margaret Bondfield and Walter Citrine, the new TUC General Secretary. She also spoke at meetings in Leeds and Bristol.

In May 1926 the TUC called the General Strike in support of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, whose members had been locked out by the coal-owners. The strike was very solid in Manchester and Mary spoke at a mass meeting in Platt Fields, attended by many thousands on Saturday 8th May. Despite the magnificent response of trade unionists across Britain the TUC, in the greatest betrayal in British trade union history, called off the General Strike unilaterally after ten days without consulting the miners, leaving them to fight on alone until starvation forced them back on the owners’ terms in the autumn.

In September Mary attended the First Annual Women’s Conference in Bournemouth. She did not stand for the General Council in 1926 and the following year Mary returned to Manchester, living in Levenshulme, and again took office as secretary of the Women’s Group on the Trades Council. In 1935 she was elected Vice-President of the Trades Council, the first woman officer of the council, and from 1936 to 1958 she acted as Treasurer. In her later years she was awarded the TUC Silver Badge for Trades Council Officers at a reception at Belle Vue attended by some four thousand people.

Article by Michael Herbert

3 thoughts on “Mary Quaile: Trade Unionist and fighter for working women

  1. Pingback: Manchester’s Radical History – Työväenhistorian uutisvirtaa

  2. Pingback: The General Strike in Manchester, May 1926 « Manchester's Radical History

  3. Pingback: Me, Mary Quaile, Andrew Simcock and the Womanchester statue project; or Historians? of course you don’t have to pay them… | Red Flag Walks

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