The laundry workers women’s strike that won paid holidays in Ireland

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In 1941 a bill was brought before the Dail which would make trade unions pay for licences to negotiate on behalf of their members. Without a licence workers and their unions could be sued by employers for loss of profits if they went on strike. This blatant attempt at extorting money from unions was not taken well. The Dublin Trades’ Council, representing 60,000 workers, called the bill ‘a partisan attack on the working classes’. The Irish Women Workers Union urged opposition to the bill and on June 4th 100 shop stewards endorsed their union’s stand.

In August the Bill was passed. A prominent barrister, Seán MacBride was approached by the IWWU to voice opinion to the President that the bill be referred to the Supreme Court to ‘test its constitutionality‘. This was rejected by the President, who had then signed the bill, bringing it into law. The bill was now part of history, carved into the statute books. That law is still in force today.

By October it looked as if the battle was lost. Union after trade union gave in and paid for licenses to negotiate on behalf of their members. The IWWU paid out £4,200, around two-thirds of its annual income. They paid greatly for the right to represent the needs of poorly paid women workers. If the government thought they had knocked the fight out of the unions they were in for a surprise. By 1943, the IWWU served notice that every firm employing members of the union would have to agree to a minimum standard for wages, holidays and working conditions. A demand for paid holiday leave was particularly opposed by the employers.

In 1945, the laundry workers, worn out by all the overtime done during the war, voted for strike action to be taken. The Federated Union of Employers (known as IBEC today) dug their heels in. The women took to the picket line and made their voices heard. More importantly, they hit the bosses where it hurts most - in their pockets. Working class organisations lined up on the side of the strikers, the ruling class backed their own side. Not only government and employers came to the aid of the laundry owners, the Catholic bishops rowed in as well.

The striking women were horrified to learn that institution laundries (those run by Catholic nuns) were taking on contracts previously held by commercial laundries. There was a fear that the strike would lead nowhere if this scabbing continued and the work was still being done. However they stuck with their union and stayed on strike.

With solidarity from many other unions and vast support from the general public, the scent of victory was in the air by October. The FUE backed down and indicated a willingness to reconsider their position. Letters of praise and of thanks poured in to the IWWU head office. On October 30th, an agreement was enacted between the FUE and the IWWU. It laid down that ‘all women workers employed in laundries operated by members of the Federation shall receive a fortnight’s holidays, with pay, in the year 1946’.

Another step was taken for women’s’ rights, through solidarity, direct action and a refusal to back down. The laundresses won a historic struggle, and we all enjoy the benefits of that struggle today.


This article is from Workers Solidarity 98, July/August 2007

PDF file of Workers Solidarity 98


 

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