Mary Quaile, the Irish Trade Union Activist, was born in Dublin to parents who were themselves very active in equality for all people. Her father was secretary for the Irish Brick & Stonemasons Union. Her mother encouraged and supported him in his endeavors. The young Mary Quaile became an ardent student of her father’s involvement in Trade Unionists, and it was only a natural progression for her to involve herself in highlighting the rights of ordinary workers; particularly women in this era.
Around about 1908, the family moved to Manchester. This move set her on the path to becoming one of the most influential women in the Trade Union movement. She got a job in the Socialist Clarion Café at 50a Market Street. Working with and observing the women working for a pittance to try and earn a living, she became frustrated by the lack of support for women who had to work in these menial trades and conditions.
So, along with other women who were of the same opinion as herself, she established a Café Workers Union in Manchester and went on to become its secretary.
By 1911 Quaile’s name became a legend in organizing and fighting for the rights of all women, wherever they worked. It came as no surprise that she was duly elected and appointed as the Assistant Organizer to Mrs. Aldridge at the Manchester and Salford Women’s Council. This Women’s Council had been established in 1895 by like-mined women in Manchester’s Town Hall, with a view to promoting Trade Unionism among all women workers in factories, shops, and cafés. Quite a lot of women who were in the menial, lower paid roles were Irish, and this only heightened Quaile’s determination to succeed in her role to establish the rights of equality for all women.
It is no surprise to learn that the Committee of women came from prominent Liberals in Manchester; whose politics encompassed progressiveness, and insisted that they were not socialist. The original Council became divided in 1904 over the issues of women suffrage. Sarah Dickinson and Eva Goore-Booth (both paid organizers) resigned and set up The Manchester and Safford Women’s Trades and Labour Council.
By 1914, Mary Quaile had become the organizing secretary for the Council after Mrs Aldridge left her post. Qualie opposed the 1914 World War and made her stance publicly known.
By 1919, Quaile was appointed as National Woman’s Organizer for the Dock, Wharf & Riverside Worker Union, which subsequently joined the Transport and General Worker’s Union 1922. In 1923, her leadership, stamina, and determination saw her standing for election to General Council of Trades Union Congress. She came third in the ballot box behind Margaret Bondfield and Julie Varley.
When Ramsey MacDonald appointed Margaret Bondfield to a post in the first Labour Cabinet in January 1924 as Minister for Employmen, she resigned from her post with the General Council. This of course meant that Quaile then became Bondfields’ successor, attending her first meeting in March of that year.
Her role in her new post meant that she would travel to Vienna with Julie Varley to attend the International Women Trade Unionists Conference. They were instructed to maintain the position of the TUC, meaning that women should be organized inside the International Federation of Trade Unions and not from a separate autonomous organization. They also attended the International Trade Union Congress.
Following on from her success in her role within the General Council, she immersed herself in promoting the value of all Trade Unions and their role in promoting women’s causes. She traveled widely to deliver this message, giving lectures on the importance of women’s roles in trade unions. She visited Leicester and other venues in Leeds and Bristol and at many factories in of London and Manchester in March 1925. This resulted in the TUC launching a recruitment drive in early 1926 with Manchester and Safford being its first targets.
That same year (1925) she was made chair of the women’s trade union delegation to the Soviet Union. Quaile was then elected again in 1925 to the General Council, beating her old rivals Julia Varley and Margaret Bondfield. She was now one of the most prominent women trade unionists in Britain.
In May, 1926, the TUC called the General Strike in support of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, whose members had been locked out by the coal-owners. The strike was very solid in Manchester and Quaile spoke at a mass meeting in Platt Fields, attended by many thousands on Saturday 8th May. Despite the magnificent response of trade unionists across Britain, the TUC, in the greatest betrayal in British trade union history, called off the General Strike unilaterally after ten days. They took this action without consulting the miners, leaving them to fight on alone until starvation forced them back on the owners’ terms in the autumn.
Quaile felt betrayed by this decision, as she had spoken so passionately about trade unions being the future for all workers who were in dispute about with their employers. Unassuming and approachable, she was at the forefront of helping all these people to be supplied with alms.
By 1926, she had made a decision to return to Manchester, and did not stand for re-election to the General Council. She resided in Levenshulme. Once again she took office in as secretary of the Women’s Group to Manchester. 1935 saw her elected as Vice President of the Trades Council; a very prominent role. She was the first women officer of the Council, acting as Treasurer from 1936-1958. In her later years, she was awarded the TUC Silver Badge for Trades Council Officers at a reception at Belle Vue, attended by some four thousand people.
Quaile died in 1958, after a lifetime of promoting the cause of Trade Unionists for women in particular. She felt the driving need to try and assure equal rights for women. Her obituary appeared in the Manchester Guardian and reads as follows:
“Her determination to get trade unionism for women accepted was often met with jeers, boos, rotten apples, and threats of violence. She spoke at hundreds of factory gate meetings in both the East End of London and Manchester; she never betrayed any sign of fear when faced with hostility. Her warmth and lovable personality won for her many friends in the labour and trade union movement.”
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a ana ---- (May her soul be at Gods right hand)