Class and gender war story

Common Cause

By Kate Hunter

Published by Fledgling Press, 2019, £9.99

Reviewed by Heather Rawling

Set during the first world war, Common Cause continues the story of Iza, a skilled compositor in Edinburgh (see Women in the Workplace 1910, a review of The Caseroom, in Socialism Today 218, May 2018). Kate Hunter has placed the story around real events and trade union struggles with her in-depth knowledge of the print industry. As with her first novel, there are graphic descriptions of working-class life – the poverty, overcrowding and disease, as well as the feeling of community and common cause. The characters are sketchy as the author prioritises recounting the events.

It was extremely unusual for women to have skilled jobs and after Iza had become a compositor there was a strike to prevent more women entering the trade, at first temporarily, but the ban became permanent. The men feared that the bosses would favour women workers as their wages were a great deal lower. Only a struggle for equal pay enforced through trade union control could have cut across this divisive tactic of the employers.

Common Cause begins in 1915, a time of shifting sands in class consciousness as the initial patriotism of a country at war starts to subside and class issues come to the fore – working conditions, pay and overcrowded housing. Unity among workers of different skills and jobs is another theme.

The list reads of trades now mostly superseded by the march of technology: lithographers, compositors, monotypers, rulers, cutters, machinemen, machine feeders, folders, binders, warehousemen and labourers. Eventually, the whole of the print industry unites around a pay increase and in support of the stone polishers, a group of semi-skilled workers who had been fighting alone for a while.

Iza, ‘a frock at the frame’ on half the agreed union rate, is pulled in different directions as her identity as a woman, a skilled worker, a trade union member, a mother and a wife whose husband enlists to fight in the war. By this time, the struggle for votes for women had largely been abandoned by the middle-class leaders who spend most of their time doing charity work. Common Cause grapples with the identity politics of the early twentieth century, long before the term had been coined.

Iza is proud of her job and bringing a valued wage into the home. So she is devastated when she is sacked (‘let go’) for having too much time off because of childcare problems. Publicly-funded nurseries, crèches and after-school clubs were needed then as they are today. Interestingly, the government managed to fund nurseries during the second world war to enable women to work as part of the war effort.

Kate Hunter describes how there are domestic winners and losers in war. Some industries benefited, such as North British Rubber Works which made trench boots. Others, including book printers, did not: “It seems the country needs starched cloth-lappers and lunatic asylum attendants but does not need learning and intellectual stimulation”. Printers were denied reserved occupation status.

In the 1910 strike, dealt with in The Caseroom, Iza found herself torn between her loyalty to her class and her gender. She chose her class and stayed with the Warehousemen and Cutters Union, a product of New Unionism, the rise of mass general trade unions. In that previous novel, it was the socialist revolutionary James Connolly who advised Iza to join it. In contrast, her friend Margaret, more of a feminist, joined the women’s section of the Typographical Society.

Iza seeks her friend out after she is sacked and finds her at the Women’s Freedom League shop in a middle-class area of Edinburgh. The novel describes how working-class women would feel ill at ease with these women with starched blouses and new clothes, with accents and voices that grate. They cannot understand why working-class women do not flock to their shop, if only to feed themselves and their starving children. ‘Take the food to them’ is the obvious answer, but for these ladies to venture into the tenements of Edinburgh would be too much for them to bear.

With Iza’s husband in the trenches, she is left to struggle to feed and clothe their children, pay the bills and rent. She is forced to give up her tiny flat, becoming a live-in domestic help for one of the wealthy Suffragettes, a skivvy for Mrs Sinclair. Tricked by promises of becoming a governess, Iza moves away from her community into a soulless middle-class suburb.

It is reminiscent of the differences in Russia before the revolutions of 1917, between working-class domestic servants and their well-to-do female employers who attempted to organise them into a cross-class union. The Women’s Freedom League was also a cross-class movement that largely abandoned the campaign for the vote during the war.

Nonetheless, strikes over pay did take place during the war and a certain unity developed. Iza is heartened by this although the trade union officials drag their feet. The women’s branch of the Edinburgh Typographical Society had begun a strike by demanding an increase to 25 shillings (£1.25p) a week minimum, and the strike spreads to all trades.

The bosses offer 21 shillings to the women, trying the old divide-and-rule tactic. The women, however, vow to stay out until the men’s demands are met. Unity prevails. This was at a time when Red Clydeside was invoking fear and hatred in equal measure in the ruling class, and its response to trade unions demanding better wages was vicious.

Kate Hunter also gives glimpses of the cruel and inhumane treatment of injured soldiers and their families. She describes what happened to any soldier who developed ‘mania’ and became a ‘dangerous lunatic soldier’. The state took complete control, giving the family no say in his treatment, frequently prevented from seeing him. Mania is blamed on family history, with a total denial of any role the army and the war may have had on a soldier’s mental state.

The back cover of the book promises that Iza will find her true common cause from the conflicting loyalties to nation, class, gender, family and her marriage, as she ponders an uncertain future. The backstory is the history of workers’ struggles in the Edinburgh print industry during the war years, and it whets your appetite to find out more.

James Connolly and the 1916 Easter rising feature briefly. Connolly was born in Edinburgh and had a cobblers shop there for a brief time, and workers were influenced by events in Ireland as well as on Red Clydeside. The novel leaves many questions unanswered. But maybe that is not its role. It enriches our understanding of working-class life during this turbulent time, and helps draw conclusions about its relevance to struggles today.