Betty Tebbs: 84 years of activism

Published on the TUC 150 website celebrating great women trade unionists – Betty was one of the best.

She was a teenage activist

In 1932, 14-year-old Betty turned up on the first day of her job at the East Lancashire Paper Mill. When she discovered that boys got 13 shillings while girls barely made 9, she was furious.

She immediately joined the National Union of Printing, Bookbinding and Paper Works (later to become Sogat, GPMU, Amicus and now part of Unite). And she began to question everything. Why should the girls go to the foreman’s house to fetch tea and cake for his break? Why should she put up with being groped by some of the managers? Betty started organising – and by the time she left the mill 18 years later, she and her female colleagues were the best-paid paper mill women workers in Britain.

She was a tireless trade unionist

In the 1950s Betty researched the worst place to work in Warrington – a paper bag factory – and got herself a job there so that she could organise the female workers. “The conditions there were appalling,” Betty remembered. “The toilets had never been cleaned; there was glue all over the floor. By the time I left they were on twice the money.”

After years of organising on-the-job, in the 1970s Betty decided to make it official: she got a place on a trade union organising course at Middlesex Polytechnic (now Middlesex University). While she was studying in London, she joined the pickets at the Grunwick strike, supporting women from mainly south Asian backgrounds who faced terrible conditions at a photo processing plant.

 She fought for women

Despite being told by the council’s housing committee head that “We don’t have battered women in Warrington”, Betty established the town’s first women’s refuge. It was in a large, run-down terraced building and she used her union contacts to call in volunteer plumbers, electricians and joiners to restore it.

 She campaigned for peace

Betty lost her first husband Ernie in the Second World War and she spent the rest of life campaigning for peace. In the 1960s she and her daughter Pat cut through the wire at Greenham Common and got access to the US cruise missile base, where thousands of women were gathered in permanent protest. Betty kept and treasured that bit of wire. In 1978 she became chair of the National Assembly of Women, meeting with world leaders to urge them to scrap atomic weapons.

And in 2007, 89-year-old Betty was arrested for lying in the road during an anti-Trident demonstration in Faslane, Scotland.

Betty died on 23 January 2017, aged 98. A poster at the end of her coffin had a message for her many mourners: “Scrap Trident, save £100bn.”


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