Seventy women at Kiegass in Leamington and ABEX in nearby Warwick which make components for cars came out on strike on 5 April for the second time in two months. Last time they came out for union recognition and went back after a day and a half on the advice of AUEW officials who said they would negotiate on their behalf. Negotiations didn’t work so the women decided that a strike was the only way to win.
They see union recognition as a way to fight for better wages and working conditions. They are very badly paid at £30 to £45 a week take home pay and work in very unsafe and unpleasant conditions. Sandra Healy: ‘The toilets are always disgusting and there is no canteen or adequate safety facilities. Since the last strike we now have a nurse but she’s out on strike with us.’
Many women have been injured in the factory by metal flying into their eyes, fingers getting stuck together with high power glue, and when one woman drilled her finger, Wardman, the boss said she had done it on purpose in order to get off that particular machine! Fiona Gordon: ‘When I injured my eye, the stuff they gave me to put on it said on the bottle “use once and throw away”. God knows how long it had been in the cupboard. Also I asked them to write it in the accident book, but it seems that they haven’t even got one.’
It’s not easy for the women to be on strike, many of them have families who are unemployed but on the whole they are supported, though desperately short of money. The attitude of the local press has been that the strikers are ‘irresponsible young girls mainly under 18.’ Yvette Gledrie, shop steward, said: ‘It’s bloody disgusting. It’s not irresponsible to be on strike.’
Dawn LacLaine added: ‘Only a few of us are under 18, there are women out on strike who have been working there 14 years, they must be desperate as they’ve got a lot to lose. They’ve got families and pensions to think of.’
After the report in the Morning News, a delegation of strikers went up to the newspaper offices and forcefully demanded the right of reply to the article that had called them ‘irresponsible’. Which they got.
Dawn is one of the six shop stewards, she had no experience of trade unions before the strike and this has been a problem. ‘For a start, my age, I’m only 17 and at the beginning of the strike there was a lack of communication even between the strike committee. None of us know what we were doing at all, so I suggested we just start organising picketing rotas and being informed for a start. Simple things like you’ve got to tell everyone what’s happening.’
There was and still is to some extent a communication problem between the Asian women strikers and the other women. But the experience of the strike has started to change things.
‘Some of the women now have more respect for the Asian women; they take more time to talk to them. As a shop steward you’ve got to take the time to talk to everyone, even if they don’t speak good English.’
Other attitudes have changed too. Dawn said: ‘Before I went out on strike myself, I thought strikers were a load of rabble and scroungers. Now if I read about a strike I’ll balance both sides for a start. You can’t believe what you read in the papers.’
Also though the women want union recognition, they have started to realise that they must do things themselves. For instance, taking collections and making sure Kiegas and ABEX goods are blacked. On Friday 16th they took a bucket collection for the strike fund outside Flavels, a local factory, and raised almost £50. Yvette said: ‘The union official came today and told us that he was doing these things but just not telling us!’
Fiona added: ‘You’ve got to check up on them, because you just don’t know what they’re doing.’
For instance last Friday the women turned away a lorry from Fords in Daventry, a factory the union officials said they had contacted. As the strike continues the women are becoming more confident; they have been encouraged by other trade unionists visiting the picket lines, such as the men from Automotive Products in Leamington and Talbots in Coventry. Also the success of the Massey Ferguson occupation is encouraging. A delegation of women strikers visited the occupation last week and found the advice of the Massey workers very useful.
The women are determined to win. Anne Hickman: ‘When you break down what we’re earning compared to what we’d get on the dole, once you’ve taken off bus fare or petrol money, all we’re working for is £5 or £6 a week.’
Sandra Healy added: ‘If we go in they take us back as a union, or we don’t go in – we’ve got nothing to lose.’
Maureen Casey, Leamington SWP.
Women’s Voice, May 1982, Issue 63