In August 1918, female tram conductors in Willesden started a wildcat strike which quickly spread around the country and to other sectors of public transport. Initially demanding the same war bonus that had been given to men, their demands morphed into equal pay, over 40 years before the Equal Pay Act.
During the First World War, women took over many of the jobs that had previously been done by men. Public transport was one area where female employees became key. By the end of the war, the London General Omnibus Company employed 3500 women, and thousands more were employed by other bus and train operators in London as well as on the Underground. Lots of women joined unions, but the unions were more interested in protecting the long-term job security of men rather than the employment rights of women. The unions wanted to make sure that men could return to their pre-war jobs with the same working conditions when the war finished, so they didn’t want women to get too comfortable. In addition, both unions and management refused to entertain the idea of equal pay, arguing that the work that women did was not worth the same as men’s.
In mid-1918, male workers were given a 5 shilling a week wartime bonus to help cope with the increased cost of living. Women were not given this bonus, and some workers in London were not willing to accept this. On the 16th of August, a meeting of women at Willesden bus garage decided to go on strike the following day, without informing their bosses or unions.
The next morning, they were quickly joined by women at the Hackney, Holloway, Archway and Acton depots and garages, and the strike continued to spread throughout the day. At first the women demanded the same 5 shilling per week bonus as men, but their demands soon escalated to equal pay, and they adopted the slogan ‘Same Work- Same Pay.’
By the 23rd of August, female bus and tram workers around the country had joined the strike, including in Bath, Bristol, Birmingham, Brighton, and Weston-super-mare. Some women working on the London Underground also joined the strike- it mainly affected the Bakerloo Line. It is estimated 18000 out of a total 27000 women working in the public transport industry participated.
The strikers held a series of mass meetings at the Ring, on Blackfriars Road in Southwark. It was a boxing arena that had been destroyed by aerial bombing. Many women brought their children and picnics with them. The strike was settled on the 25th of August after a contentious meeting at the Ring- many women did not want to go back to work. The tube workers didn’t go back to work until the 28th. The women won the 5 shilling bonus, but not equal pay.
The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970 but even now, almost a hundred years after the women transport workers’ strike, women are not paid the same as men for the same jobs. London’s female public transport workers were some of the first to make a demand that is still yet to be fully realised. Without the aid of the experienced unions, the women were able to win the same bonus as men, if not the same wage. Little is known about how the women organised, which is a shame, although it might make a very nice research project!
Sources and Further Reading
Stuart. “London Buses in Wartime.” Great War London. Last modified 30th December 2014, accessed 15th June 2016. Available at https://greatwarlondon.wordpress.com/2014/12/30/london-buses-at-war-1914-1918/
View from the Mirror. “From Prayer to Palestra: The Ring at Blackfriars.” View from the Mirror: A Cabbie’s London. Last modified 4th February 2013, accessed 20th June 2016. Available at https://blackcablondon.net/2013/02/04/from-prayer-to-palestra-the-ring-at-blackfriars/
Walker, Michael. “London Women Tram Workers – Equal Pay Strike 1918.” Hayes People’s History. Last modified 13th February 2007, accessed 15th June 2016. Available at http://ourhistory-hayes.blogspot.co.uk/2007/02/women-tramworkers-equal-pay-strike-1918.html
Weller, Ken. “The London Transport Women Workers Strike 1918.” libcom.org. Last modified 19th December 2012, accessed 15th June 2016. Available at https://libcom.org/history/london-transport-women-workers-strike-1918
Welsh, Dave. “The 90th anniversary of the Equal Pay strike on the London Underground.” Campaign Against Tube Privatisation- History. No date, accessed 15th June 2016. Available at http://www.catp.info/CATP/History.html