Posted by Alex Vernon on

Ten tales of courage, solidarity and badass women from #TUC150

When Catherine from Mile 91 asked me to help her produce 150 stories for the TUC’s 150th anniversary, I was excited by the scale of the project but, I’m embarrassed to admit, fairly indifferent to the subject matter. I didn’t know much about trade unions and – I’m cringing as I type – I thought the stories would be pretty dry compared to stuff I’d written in the past.

But how wrong I was!

#TUC150 proved to be one of the most fascinating projects I’ve ever worked on. By its end I’d produced over 40 stories spanning from 1788 (when Chartist leader William Cuffay was born in Kent) to 2017 (when Gladys Branche from Sierra Leone spoke up for the world’s least-respected women workers). It was an education – I felt like I’d done an A Level in the union movement. And I’d had a huge career highlight:  interviewing a union hero whose story made it to the big screen in one of my all-time favourite films.

Here are my top ten #TUC150 stories…

10. The brilliant Betty Tebbs 

Betty’s mum always told her that ‘girls were best’. So in 1932, when 14-year-old Betty turned up for her first day at the paper mill and discovered that boys got 13 shillings while girls barely made nine, she was furious. What did she do? She joined a union and she made sure her voice was heard. When she left the mill 18 years later, she and her female colleagues were the best-paid paper mill women in Britain. Here’s Betty’s story.

9. The WW2 recruits posted to the pits

Called Up, Sent Down book by Tom Hickman
Called Up, Sent Down by Tom Hickman – my Dad bought me this for my birthday (bless him) after listening to me rabbiting on about the Bevin Boys.

In 1943, union heavyweight Ernest Bevin was leading Britain’s war effort on the home front. A coal crisis loomed, so Ernest launched a controversial scheme: instead of being posted to the frontline, one in ten recruits were sent down the mines instead. Their names were literally pulled from a hat. Just imagine – one minute you’re all puffed with pride at the prospect of fighting for your country and the next, you’re fumbling around a pitch-black coal mine 5000 feet below Yorkshire. There was a lot of resentment among the Bevin Boys, but at least most survived to tell the tale, unlike so many of their generation. Read more about Ernest Bevin’s achievements here.

8. “We were a beacon of hope.”

After weeks of writing about long-gone union heroes via secondary sources, it was a treat to hear stories straight from the horse’s mouth. The horse in question was an 80-year-old former GCHQ linguist called Mike Grindley and by the end of our interview, I was a huge fan. When Margaret Thatcher banned union membership at GCHQ in 1984, Mike was one of 14 employees who refused to rip up their union cards – and were eventually sacked. Their passionately-fought campaign against the ban was the second longest dispute in British union history. Speaking of which…

7. When oh when will someone make a film about the 1914 Burston School Strike?

This story has it all! The setting: the big skies and bleak fields of Norfolk. Our heroes: Kitty and Tom Higdon, husband-and-wife super-teachers who want to educate and nourish the children of poor farm workers. Our villains: the rich landowners who want the poor to stay that way and feel threatened by the Higdons, so try to drive them away. The cinematic climax: the skinny yet spirited school children coming out on strike in support of their teachers – the longest strike in history, it turned out (pipping Mike G to the post). Sounds like a BAFTA winner to me.

6. Long before #MeToo…

…Liverpudlian clothes store manager Audrey White was speaking up about sexual harassment. In 1983, a senior manager behaved inappropriately towards four women in Audrey’s team. She complained – and got the sack. But Audrey was a union member and she was going to fight. Her campaign put sexual harassment at work in the spotlight and ultimately led to a change in employment law in 2005. Audrey tells her story here.

5. Bristolians boycott the buses

It’s April 1963. No people of colour work on Bristol’s buses because the bus company won’t hire them. Inspired by Rosa Parks and what she sparked in Montgomery, Alabama, brave local activists organise a bus boycott. It works. In August – just hours before Martin Luther King tells Washington that he has a dream – the Transport and General Workers’ Union votes for integration on the buses. Find out more about this big moment in Bristol’s history here.

4. “We are those lions, Mr Manager.”

Thank you #TUC150 for introducing me to Jayaben Desai, the factory worker who in 1976 led a high-profile strike against her employer, Grunwick photo processing. The 4’10 Jayaben is said to have told her 6ft manager: “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. In a zoo, there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager.” Sadly the lions lost their strike, but Jayaben’s roar made it into the history books.

3. The match women rock their hats

Striking a Light book by Louise Raw
Louise Raw’s Striking a Light – required reading for all Bryant and May match-women fans

The story of the Bryant and May match women is well known, and justifiably so. Their working conditions were dire, they bravely downed their tools and went out on strike and they won. But here’s a lesser known, rather more frivolous, but still pertinent little detail about the match women. According to historian Louise Raw, they had their own distinctive sense of style – all thanks to their ‘feathers club’. They’d chip in to a kitty, buy the most extravagant hats they could find and then share them around. So if you had a date on a Friday night, you’d get a hat. Then you’d pass it on to the next girl for Saturday night. With all that resourcefulness and spark and sense of community, it’s no wonder the match women made such a success of their strike. Here’s more on the match women.

2. “I’ve nothing but pride in that film.”

I LOVED Pride when I saw it in 2014. So I nearly fell off my chair when I found out I’d be interviewing one of its main characters – the real-life version – for #TUC150. In the film, Dai Donovan is the warm, good-humoured Welsh miner, the founder of the surprising friendship between the striking mining families in his village and the members of the London-based group ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’.  The real Dai is equally warm and good-humoured and interviewing him really was nearly-falling-off-my-chair-worthy. The interview transcript came in at 3642 words, and I had to write a 500-word story. Aaagh. You can read it here.

1. Eleanor Marx, I salute you.

Eleanor Marx tea towel
Coolest birthday present ever (though I do wonder what Ms M would think about having her face emblazoned on a tea towel, with all its connotations of domestic drudgery!)

Bloody Brilliant Women. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Stylist magazine’s Visible Women campaign. I’m delighted that amazing women from history are finally getting the recognition they deserve, but why isn’t Eleanor Marx in any of the above? I totally hero-worship her (some would call it a girl crush). Yes, she was Karl Marx’s daughter. But she should also be known in her own right as a fiercely intelligent, influential and inspirational woman – a superb organiser, a devoted teacher and a wildly popular orator who, among her many other achievements, campaigned tirelessly for the eight-hour day. If my intro to Eleanor piques your interest, you should definitely get your hands on Rachel Holmes’ excellent biography of this ‘bloody brilliant’ woman.

I regularly write for story-gathering agency Mile 91 and this post originally appeared on their blog.

Posted by Alex Vernon on

Happy International Women’s Day Anisa! And here’s Leslie Knope with a high-five.

'What would Leslie Knope do?' A worthy role model for my gal. Pic from Pinterest/
‘What would Leslie Knope do?’ A worthy role model for my gal. Pic from Pinterest/

Stories about inspirational women mean a lot more to me now that I have a daughter. I’m storing them away in my mind, ready to whip them out at timely moments when Tess is old enough and interested enough to listen. “Yes Tess, you CAN be an investigative journalist who travels round the world in 72 days! Look at Nellie Bly!” (The wonderful Nellie Bly who, I was happy to see, appeared in this list of 12 remarkable women from history ‘who didn’t give a f***’.)

A Mighty Girl and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls are also brilliant sources of amazing women that I’m saving up for Tess. And speaking of Amy Poehler, I want Tess watching Parks and Recreation as soon as possible. That way, whenever we have a problem we can turn to each other and say, “What would Leslie Knope do?” (For anyone who hasn’t seen Parks and Recreation, Leslie is the show’s main character, played by Amy Poehler. She’s an endearing, feisty, funny, thoughtful blonde with big political ambitions. And she loves waffles. I adore her.)

I’m pretty sure I know what Leslie Knope would do if she met Anisa, the young woman I’m dedicating this post to. She’d high-five her and invite her out for waffles.

I met Anisa in January when I was writing stories for the youth volunteering programme International Citizen Service (ICS). I say ‘met’ – we spoke on the phone. But Anisa was so warm and chatty about her time as a volunteer in Zambia that it felt like we’d met personally.

Anisa on ICS in Zambia with a dude with cool hair. Anisa, I salute you!
Anisa on ICS in Zambia with a dude with cool hair. Anisa, I salute you!

Here’s why Anisa has joined Nellie Bly and Leslie Knope in my list of role models:

She’s brave.

Anisa told me that in her close-knit Muslim community in Leicester, it’s unusual for unmarried women to travel abroad alone. Despite resistance from her parents, Anisa wanted to challenge this norm. “I know it sounds cheesy,” she said, “but I wanted to be a role model for other girls in my community. I was determined to travel and hopefully change things for the next generation.”

She’s honest.

When she arrived at the home of her Zambian host family, Anisa was overcome with homesickness. And she was refreshingly open about this. “I immediately rejected everything: the bare floors, the picture of Jesus on the wall, the orange sofa. The tipping point was discovering that to go to the loo I had to go outside in the dark. I was sitting on my bed, crying, thinking ‘I’ve got three months of this – how can I do it?’”

She’s strong.

Anisa didn’t let her homesickness win. Instead, “Within a week I was seeing the positives in everything. I’d got through the horrible bits like seeing cockroaches and what had seemed tough, like hand-washing all my clothes, suddenly seemed fun. I was thinking, ‘I’m happy sitting outside in the sun scrubbing my clothes – they’ll dry quickly too!’”

She’s self-aware.

ICS changed Anisa. “I wasn’t a confident person at the start and without my ICS team, I think I’d still be in my shy little bubble. As the weeks went by, I had the confidence to plonk myself down and chat with whoever was sitting around. I wouldn’t have been able to do that before – I’d have shied away or pretended to read a book.”

She made a difference.

Anisa worked with women’s groups in rural Zambia, helping challenge myths around HIV & AIDS. “We made it clear that you can’t become infected by hugging or holding hands or sharing the same plate. Sharing that knowledge was really important because it means people living with HIV won’t be as ostracised in their communities.”

I loved it when Anisa said: “When I got back from Zambia, I felt like I could take on the world. If I managed to do the most challenging thing of my life, then I could do anything!”

But then she added that as the months since her return went by, that I-can-do-it feeling had started to fizzle out. She had a job interview coming up and she wasn’t sure she was up to it.

You ARE up to it Anisa! Thank you for being a role model not just for the girls in your community, but for my daughter Tess – and for me. Happy International Women’s Day!

Posted by Alex Vernon on

Cake, comedy and Classic FM: five days of freelancing

Here’s what I’ve learned after a week back at my CharityStory desk.

Six second videos on twitter
Six second videos on twitter

Monday: hello Vine

Thanks to forward-looking charity comms folk like CharityChap and Sound Delivery, I get an intro to twitter’s new video app, Vine. It’s all about sharing six second videos on a loop. Charities are jumping on board, producing cute, quirky, rough-and-ready Vines like the ones showcased in LondonKirsty’s Storify. I’m torn. I like the way Vine gives charities another low-budget way to breathe life and character into their work. But the six seconds thing worries me. Will it lead to even shorter attention spans, with videos of barely a minute’s duration feeling like way too much of a commitment? Time will tell. In the meantime, here’s a rave review of Vine in the Independent.

Cake. Just can't say no.
Cake. Just can’t say no.

Tuesday: freelancing could get fattening

Not only am I always just moments from my fridge, I’m busily booking in cups of tea with friends and contacts in an attempt to fight off the isolation that’s an inevitable part of freelance life. Trouble is, I’m incapable of ordering tea without cake. Just can’t do it. It seems freelancing is going to get calorific – not to mention expensive.

SARI: great logo
SARI’s distinctive logo

Wednesday: where are all the racism support charities?

Preparing for an introductory meeting with the Bristol charity SARI (Support Against Racist Incidents), I do a quick Google search for similar UK organisations. To my surprise, I can’t find many. I imagine there are numerous anti-racism initiatives out there, but they’re part of larger anti-discriminatory programmes and organisations rather than stand-alone charities. Which makes the guys at SARI pretty special. I’ll be blogging about SARI again soon I hope.

Bring on the funny women!
Bring on the funny women!

Thursday: tax will always be taxing

I have a bad habit of idealising things. Contrary to my too-high expectations, I don’t skip out of my HMRC self-employment training brimming with confidence about tackling my next self-assessment. The session leaves me particularly fuzzy about what kind of training qualifies as an ‘allowable business expense’. Apparently any training that helps you get started in your new business doesn’t. But anything that could be vaguely described as Continuing Professional Development does. Confusing. If anyone out there can shed some light, I’d appreciate it. The highlight of the session was my brief chat with Jane from the gloriously named What The Frock!. It’s a Bristol venture that’s ‘putting female comedians in the spotlight.’ Love it! I must get tickets for Upstairs Downton.

"Alex, please shut up and let me go back to sleep."
“Alex, please shut up and let me go back to sleep.”

Friday: loving the office soundtrack

From Classic FM to Radio 6 Music to the amusing snuffly snores of Rosie the dog, I’m very much enjoying my new office soundtrack. I think workplaces everywhere should welcome both radios and dogs. The former might stop people plugging themselves into their own tunes (makes colleagues really unapproachable, I think). The latter have been proven to reduce stress levels – and a dog snoring loudly from under your desk really is quite funny. Woof.