The subject of this article is Bessie Bond, an ACT organiser between (approximately) 1945 and 1961and one of a small number of women to hold a prominent role in the union in this early period.
Bessie Bond (née Span) was born in Glasgow in 1901. Growing up in the slum districts of the city, Bessie’s family lived in poverty, often relying on Parish Relief and the small amounts of money her widowed mother earned from occasional work. Leaving school at fourteen, Bessie worked in a local tailoring factory, training as a tailoress. In the two interviews conducted with Bessie for the ACTT (now BECTU) History Project in the late 1980s, Bessie expressed pride in her work in the tailoring industry, repeatedly describing herself as ‘very highly skilled’ (Bessie Bond, ACT/T Organiser: BECTU Interview 12). In Glasgow Bessie received her political education gaining experience of trade union activity within the Tailoring and Garment Workers’ Union (T&GWU), and joining the Communist Party shortly after its establishment in 1920. Bessie became an experienced activist in both the trade union movement and the Communist Party.
In 1925 Bessie moved to London, where she continued to work in the tailoring industry, before teaching herself to type and moving on to clerical work in the 1930s. Shortly after moving to London Bessie met her future husband, Ralph Bond, who was then working as a Party Functionary in the Communist Party, responsible for co-ordinating the activity of members working in industry. Bessie was initially introduced to Ralph because she was one of a small number of factory workers within the Party. Ralph, a documentary film director, was co-founder of the London Workers’ Film Society (1929), and member of the ACT’s General Council, and it was through him that Bessie established connections with senior members of the ACT during the 1930s.
Bessie first began to work for the ACT in a voluntary capacity during the Second World War. At the personal request of George Elvin, the General Secretary of the ACT, Bessie occasionally assisted Winifred Pearson, Elvin’s secretary, with work at the union’s office, such as the distribution of union circulars. During the War, Bessie worked for both the Communist Party and the ACT. Although offered an official, full-time position in the union, Bessie was initially reluctant to accept the role, fearing potential accusations of nepotism due to Ralph’s senior position in the union. However, following the breakdown of their marriage, and as a result George Elvin’s continued requests, Bessie accepted a full-time position in the union (around 1942-43), working for the union’s organiser, Bert Craik. Whilst many of ACT’s union officials had previously worked in the film industry, entering the union through the shop floor, Bessie had no production experience; instead Bessie seems to have gained entry into the union due to her experience within the trade union movement, her political credentials and her personal relationship with Ralph.
In the trajectory mapped out by Bessie in her BECTU interviews, Bessie progressed through the union from working in a supportive role for Bert Craik, to deputising for him, to working as a full-time organiser in her own right. Bessie’s first official role in the ACT was as a ‘general factotum’ (ACTT, 1983: 72), a job which she described as that of an ‘ordinary office worker’ (Bessie Bond: BECTU Interview). Bessie performed a variety of general office work, as well as taking responsibility for the membership cards. Whilst working in this role, Bessie increasingly performed aspects of the organiser’s role, providing advice to shop stewards in Bert’s absence, and deputising for Bert, attending branch meetings on his behalf. The 1945/46 ACT Annual Report announced that Bessie’s appointment as organiser was due to ‘increased demands on the office’ (ACT Annual Report, 1945/46: 31). Bessie’s oral history testimony indicates that the post-war period witnessed an influx of members into the ACT, as workers from service film units joined the union, alongside increased production in the film industry (Bessie Bond: BECTU Interview).
Whilst Bert remained the union’s senior organiser, Bessie was assigned responsibility of the Laboratories, the largest section of the union in terms of membership. The Labs was the only industrial section of the union, and provided the ACT with a ‘working class base’ (Chanan, 1976: 32). From the available information it can be argued that Bessie was appointed to organise the Labs because she was an experienced trade union activist within an industrial workforce. Reflecting on her experience as organiser in the two interviews carried out over 20 years after her retirement Bessie expressed her fondness for the Labs, stating that she ‘“loved the Labs”’ and describing the section warmly as ‘“the proletariat”’ (ACTT, 1983: 72). Bessie’s affinity with the Laboratory membership stems from her own working-class identity, something which comes through clearly in her BECTU interview.
By the time of her retirement in the early 1960s Bessie had worked in many of the union’s sections, including Shorts and Documentaries, Stills, Publicity and Continuity. As organiser Bessie would coordinate union activity across numerous workplaces, which included unionising workplaces, attending branch meetings, helping with the election of shop stewards and dealing with disputes. However, Bessie’s narrative in her BECTU interview rarely focuses on the specific details of her role. Bessie’s testimony instead emphasises her personal relationships with union members, revealing the importance of emotional work to Bessie’s experience of trade union activism within the ACT. For instance, when Bessie is asked about her performance as organiser, she does not reflect upon the successful conclusion of a dispute, or another such achievement, but on her perception of her popularity, and the fact that ‘a lot of people came [to her] with their personal problems’ (Bessie Bond: BECTU Interview).
Bessie Bond was the first woman to hold the organiser position within the ACT, a traditionally male-dominated union. Whilst Bessie insisted that her role was not related to her gender, stating in her interview for Action that she was ‘“not a woman’s organiser”’ (ACTT, 1983: 72), researching Bessie’s experiences within the ACT contributes to our historical understanding of women’s experiences of activism within the trade union movement. Bessie’s oral history testimony for the BECTU History Project reveals the routes through which women were able to enter the union and perform official roles, and illuminates aspects of her union work such as emotional support which are absent from official sources such as the union’s journal and its annual reports. The extent to which these aspects are gendered will be a subsequent line of enquiry for my research.
Bessie Bond (b. 1901), ACT/T Organiser: BECTU Interview 12 [https://www.bectu.org.uk/advice-resources/history-project]. ©BECTU
ACTT (1983) Action! 50 Years in the Life of a Union, London: ACTT
Chanan, M. (1976) Labour Power in the British Film Industry, London: BFI
ACT/T Annual Report (1945-46, 1961-62)
Burton, A. Ralph Bond (1904-1989) [Online] BFI Screenonline. Available from: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/554490/ [Accessed 26/11/2014]
Frances Galt is currently studying for a PhD with Vicky Ball, examining the relationship between women practitioners within the film and television industries and their trade union, the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians (ACTT), in the period between 1960 and 1989. Using archival material, pre-existing oral history testimonies, conducted by the BECTU History Project, and new oral history interviews I will explore the nature of women’s activism, their experiences of activism and the factors which enabled or inhibited participation, as well as investigate the discrepancies between official union policy on gender equality and ‘women’s issues’ and the lived experiences of women in the industries. I will also develop a historical context to the ACTT’s 1975 Report Patterns of Discrimination Against Women in the Film and Television Industries. I am currently working on the first chapter of my thesis, researching the relationship between women and the Association of Cinematograph Technicians (ACT), ACTT’s predecessor, from the union’s establishment in 1933 to 1959. This chapter will provide a historical context for women’s activism and the ACTT’s official position in the later period.