Organising a strike was no easy matter. The women earned a mere pittance but families depended on every penny to survive. The women did not have the strength in numbers of men and women working in the big factories and mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Women working alone at home or in groups of four or five in small chainshops could be easily replaced.
However, the women chainmakers had an experienced and determined leadership in Mary Macarthur, Julia Varley and Thomas and Charles Sitch, who organised a strike that was to have significance far beyond Cradley Heath.
Julia Varley, the first female manual worker to rise to the ranks of trade union leadership, some years earlier had recruited many Cradley Heath women into the NFWW. She wrote: ‘We went into the forges, talking to the women as they hammered away, awakening their consciousness to their responsibilities, appealing to their pride and their motherhood.’
In 1899 Thomas Sitch had founded the union which became known as the Chainmakers’ and Strikers’ Association (CSA). Now he was to play a key role in organising the strike, together with his son Charles, the secretary of the Cradley Heath branch of the NFWW. The team set up their ‘lockout’ office in Cradley Heath’s High Street.
When the strike began, no-one could be sure that there would be sufficient funds to sustain it. Those who belonged to the NFWW could call on the union for support, but over half of the women did not belong to a union. The subscription of 3d (1.25p) per week could buy a loaf of bread, and a loaf short in a week meant less for each child, or a missed meal. The task was to bring the plight of the women chainmakers to the attention of the nation, to put pressure on the manufacturers and raise money to support the strikers.