I recently read an excellent article by Peter Cresswell in the North West Labour History journal about the groundbreaking 1981 strike by 450 Liverpool City Council typists. At the time, it was the longest strike by white collar women workers in the UK and it became a historic fight for equal pay and equal rights for women.
UNISON North West currently has 300 low paid, predominantly women hospital workers on strike for equal pay and treatment in St Helens and Blackpool- they have just taken their twelfth day of action. Reading Peter’s insightful article, I couldn’t help but see some parallels between the two disputes. The typists’ strike lasted six months and our current crop of strikers will require the same grit and determination if they are to overcome multi-national outsourcing behemoth Compass.
The typists’ strike arose because of the continued injustice relating to the low pay and lack of opportunities for typists. Liverpool’s branch of NALGO (one of the unions which merged to form UNISON) submitted a regarding claim for all typists, secretaries and machine operators. The Liberal controlled City Council delayed and eventually rejected the claim, sparking a wave of action which culminated in the strike itself.
Before that though, the typists voted overwhelmingly to work to rule. In what is surely one of the sassiest work to rule actions of all time, the typists refused to correct poor grammar. They also refused correspondence with Councillors or work for Council committees.
Much like our current Compass dispute, the 1981 strike clearly brought new blood into the union and developed activists. Helen Morgan, one of the typists who went on to form the strike committee said: “The only involvement I had previously was that of strike action when I was instructed to by the branch office.” Whilst this discipline is to be commended, it’s clear that Helen was not meaningfully involved in her branch until the strike. Similarly, another striker, Denise Knibb said: “I had never been involved in any kind of dispute previously and was not active in the trade union.”
The detailed and entertaining account of the strike published in the North West Labour History journal chronicles some fantastic moments during the dispute. One such account describes a council meeting which took place shortly after several NALGO members had been suspended for their work to rule actions:
“At a full, packed City Council meeting a Liberal Councillor said that nobody had been suspended, evidently trying to distinguish between suspension and not being paid. A young typist bravely stood up and said “I’ve been suspended”. As Labour councillors shouted support and pointed to her, several other typists stood up and in a Spartacus moment said “I’ve been suspended, too!”. The Typists Strike had entered the public consciousness.”
The typists’ work to rule actions were so effective that they forced the Council to set up an Emergency Committee to run affairs for the first time since the Second World War!
During the strike itself, the typists developed a routine of weekly mass meetings, picketing and visits to other branches in search of support and strike funds. Helen Morgan reflected upon this period: “For me the whole six months of the strike was one long adventure, I got to do exciting things, I was interviewed for a T.V. programme... I lobbied and attended the TUC meeting held in Blackpool and was invited to attend the Mayor of Blackpool’s cocktail party being held for the NALGO delegates that evening. Members there started donating money to Rose Dee and myself and eventually we had buckets full of cash for the strike fund. We also managed to get a bottle of scotch from them plus £2 to buy mixers for the women who had come with us ad were waiting outside on the coach to return home.” We could do with that level of solidarity being shown to our striking hospital workers in Blackpool, and I’m sure the scotch wouldn’t go amiss either!
The strikers were met with chauvinistic attitudes by some of their colleagues and fellow union members but through their determination, they won the respect of the workforce and made the union a more welcoming place for women workers.
Eventually, the strikers’ pressure paid off, the dispute came to an end on 15 December as the Council agreed to partial arbitration. The results of the arbitration were ultimately disappointing and the strike certainly didn’t end in unequivocal victory. That being said, there were some positive outcomes and the strike stands as an extraordinary testament to the bravery of 450 pioneering Liverpool women. I’m sure that if our Compass strikers exhibit the same courage, they will be triumphant.
You can read ‘The Liverpool Typists Strike 1981’ by Peter Cresswell here. Please consider supporting the North West Labour journal by purchasing the latest issue. You can buy online here: https://www.nwlh.org.uk/?q=node/145. The journal is also available at News from Nowhere bookshop, 96 Bold St, Liverpool L1 4HY.