MOST accounts of trade union struggles in the 1980s are dominated by the miners’ strike, but a dispute took place in 1983 which has been largely forgotten. It was a victory for one woman, her union and the many people who stood in solidarity with her on the picket line outside the Lady at Lord John women’s clothes shop in Liverpool city centre.
Central to the dispute was Audrey White, the shop manager, who had a political background rooted in the Labour Party, and was the only person in her workplace who was a member of a trade union, the Transport and General Workers Union.
What started out for White as a complaint by her female shop assistants about the behaviour of a drunk male manager in the shop led to her becoming a national figure campaigning against what became known as sexual harassment at work.
The dispute also brought to light bigger issues for political activists, including the use of legislation against picketing and the use of stripsearching by the police.
“In 1983,” White says, “I didn’t even know what sexual harassment was: I did know that what he did was sexually interfering with junior members of staff. The staff said to me that they wanted it stopped.”
But when White complained to her manager she got the sack. Jobs were scarce in Liverpool in the 1980s and she needed hers. Luckily for her she was in a trade union and got advice that she had to go back into the shop until the firm formally sacked her.
The national company, Werff, refused to recognise or negotiate with the TGWU, so White, her family and supporters decided to organise a picket of the shop in Liverpool and urged the public to boycott the firm’s shops across the country.
Picketing the shop was a good tactic as the company was gearing up for a launch of the newly refurbished interior and did not reckon on White and her supporters being there all day, every day.
As White says: “We picketed six days a week, all day, getting thousands of people to sign our petitions and boycott the shop.” And it was successful because, as White says: “Nobody crosses a picket line in Liverpool.”
But the daily pickets — which included White’s family, people from organisations as diverse as the Kirkby Unemployment Centre and local MPs — challenged the law on secondary picketing.
One day the police turned up at the picket line and arrested 17 people, including a 16-year-old school student. She was strip-searched in the local police station with the cell door kept open.
White was named in a high court writ but the court case was thrown out when the judge was made aware of the young woman’s treatment by the police.
Looking back, White reminds us that “we made trade union history, the police were forced to pay costs to the trade union.”
Eventually White got her job back, but it was not easy returning to a hostile environment in the shop. But she won again when her case went to an employment tribunal.
However it was not until 2005, and the passing of an amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, that a legal definition of “harassment” was set out in law.
In 1987 a film called Business as Usual was made about the dispute with future Labour MP Glenda Jackson taking White’s role. But she did not like the script and ended up suing the film company.
White comments: “The film does not teach women what sexual harassment is really about and it fails to talk about the role of the unions and the law.”
White went on to become involved in the TGWU’s women’s committee, but became jaundiced about the role of women-only committees in trade unions.
In 2017 she is still an activist in the Labour Party, Unite Community branch and the Liverpool Pensioners Association. And her advice for women and men today?
“Join a union, get active, if we don’t fight, we cannot win.”
In 2017 the precarious position of many female and male workers in the labour market makes sexual harassment more prevalent.
I spoke to Sophie Shaw, equalities representative of the Unite London Hotel Workers Branch. She said: “People don’t speak out about it. Zero-hours contracts mean that managers are in charge of your life. They decide if you can pay your rent, buy food and have a life.”
And the line between providing a service and keeping the customer happy is a dodgy one.
Shaw says: “Particularly in the service sector you are expected to accept a customer hugging you.”
Shaw sees the role of trade unions as key to challenging this harassment.
“Unions can empower people, particularly some of the most vulnerable, including workers whose first language is not English, by ensuring that information is translated, that workers know what their rights are and the knowledge that the union will stand up for them.”
Business as Usual will be screened by the Mary Quaile Club on Saturday April 8 at 1pm at the Three Minute Theatre, 35-39 Oldham Street, Manchester with Audrey White as the guest speaker. To book places contact: [email protected]