Photo: Match from Markus Grossalber flickr photostream

In 1888 the match girls of Bryant and May match factory in London went on strike, after years of discontent and triggered by the unfair dismissal of a worker in the July of that year. Workers were not unionised, employed as they were on the 19th-century equivalent of zero-hour, self-employed contracts. The predominantly female, immigrant workforce was paid a fixed fee dependent on the task they completed and were required to purchase the string and glue required to complete that work from their own earnings.

Their strike action was in response to unfair fines levied upon workers, long hours, low pay and poor working conditions, but in particular related to occupational health and safety. Working with white phosphorous without protective equipment caused a condition: ‘Phosphorous necrosis of the jaw’, nicknamed ‘phossy jaw’. Their jaws rotted over time. Following early symptoms of painful toothache, workers with the condition would initially have to have their teeth pulled and, as the rotting continued, eventually have their lower jaws surgically removed, or face a painful death.

The 1888 strike was not the first industrial action for the matchmakers. They had been involved in organised political action in the 1870s, and throughout the 1880s. In 1871 they were protesting the attempt to place a new tax on matches, eventually withdrawn after a written protest from Queen Victoria, and strikes protesting low wages took place in 1881, 1885 and 1886, though none were successful.

An activist called Annie Besant published an article in her newsletter, ‘The Link’, in June 1888 regarding the health implications of working in the Bryant and May factory. In response, managers at Bryant and May tried to get their workforce to sign testimonies to the contrary. When the workers refused, a colleague was dismissed, and the action triggered in response. By the end of the first day of action, 1400 women had laid down tools and withdrawn their labour.  By July 6th, the factory had come to a standstill.

The strike got extensive media support, and a deputation of the women were received at Westminster. This was important because Bryant was a leading Liberal and wanted to avoid negative publicity. Eventually, management stopped holding firm and engaged in negotiations with the women, supported as they were by Annie Besant. The terms agreed upon included the abolition of workplace fines relating to the cost of materials,  workplace grievances no longer had to be mediated by factory foremen (who often hid the complaints from management, or were the cause of complaint). Lastly, food could be consumed away from the factory floor, meaning food would not be contaminated by the white phosphorous. The matchmakers returned to work, with marginally improved conditions, though the use of white phosphorous was not banned for another 20 years, despite attempts from the Salvation Army to set up a competing factory in the same area, using the less harmful red phosphorous.

Though there was undoubtedly success and victory to be found in this industrial action, it does highlight how slow positive change can be in the context of industrial relations. It shows how reluctant employers can be to provide safe, comfortable, non-exploitative environments for individuals to work in. In the current context, consider how happy employers are to allow workers’ wages to be topped up with welfare benefits, and how employer representatives will repeat the adage ‘work is good for you’, without acknowledging that only good work is good for you. Bad working conditions now can be as horrendous as they were for the Bryant and May workers; just ask the employees making viscose clothing in poorly ventilated factories, construction workers who never made it home from working on the World Cup stadiums in Qatar or one of the thousands of workers worldwide with respiratory conditions caused by working with asbestos.

And these examples only relate to visible and measurable illnesses. It seems we all still fumble with how to address the issue of mental health within our industrial actions and collective bargaining – or our future health if we want to explore occupational pensions and their reduced value. Perhaps our contemporary demands are too complicated or convoluted by their relationship to employment legislation, which is much improved from the laws of 1888.

As with the Bryant and May workers, contemporary industrial action is influenced by public perception, and, unfortunately, the standing government. Approximately 23% of us are unionised, a luxury the match girls did not have. In the public sector, over 50% of the workforce are in a trade union. Trade unions are organisations developed to bargain and negotiate with employers for better conditions, yet our conditions are getting worse – especially for those working in education, transport and health and social care. The worsening conditions of work, in the context of a cost-of-living crisis, have elicited the highest number of strike days in a decade, bringing the number of (all sector) strike days in 2022 to over a million – a 30-year high. More than 450,000 working days were lost due to strike action in November 2022 alone. The highest since 1990, with rail staff, NHS workers, postal workers and many other industries’ staff taking action over pay and working conditions.

The governmental response has been to table a Strikes (minimum service levels) Bill – anti-union legislation that continues a pattern of legislation that has limited union members’ freedom to withdraw their labour. If the bill gets passed, some trade union members would be required to continue working during strike action. However, the bill is deliberately ambiguous, and does not make clear what the minimum service levels would be for each industry. Employers could legally dismiss employees who ignore a “work notice” ordering them to work on days of industrial action.

It took one dismissal to trigger the match girls into action; how many will it take us?