In 1983 Audrey White was the manager of the Lady at Lord John clothes store in Liverpool. When her area manager sexually harassed four women in her team, she complained – and was sacked.
But Audrey was a TGWU (now Unite) member and she was going to fight. Her campaign put sexual harassment at work in the spotlight and ultimately led a long campaign and a change in employment law in 2005. Audrey tells us more below.
It was shocking to be sacked over the phone.
I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” My manager replied, “Isn’t plain English bloody good enough for you? I’m sacking you.” The company thought they could treat me like garbage but they hadn’t reckoned on me being a union member. The advice from my union was to keep going to work until they sacked me in writing.
Back at work, my manager brought in the police to arrest me if I didn’t leave the store.
The staff didn’t stand up for me – they were too scared of losing their jobs. The company refused to meet with my union so we started picketing outside the store the next day. We were there with banners and petitions from opening time to closing for five weeks. And no one crosses a picket line in Liverpool!
You can’t tell people who haven’t experienced solidarity what solidarity is like – it’s priceless.
On the picket we had dockers, car workers, staff from unemployed centres, union members, local activists. I feel such warmth when I think of those ordinary people who invested so much time and energy in supporting the cause. It was wonderful, but it was also bitter and harrowing and my nerves were on edge because all these people were fighting for my job and I didn’t want to let them down.
We didn’t even know the phrase ‘sexual harassment’ back then.
We learned how bad things were: women came up to us on the picket and said, “I had a wonderful job but my boss would do this, so I had to leave.” And, “I didn’t go along with what the boss wanted, so I got demoted”. When the company finally agreed to meet with us, they wouldn’t discuss the sexual harassment complaints, even though I’d got statements from the girls. They claimed I’d been sacked because I wasn’t ‘bubbly’ enough.
My most vivid memory from that time was the victory.
Once we lined up pickets at the Manchester and London stores, the company relented. I remember phoning the pickets from London and saying, “You can take the pickets off because we’ve won!” That night I got back to Liverpool and had the most fantastic night of my life, singing, dancing and celebrating. I got paid for lost earnings and walked back into my job.
My story shows that a woman can win – even a woman in a shop in 1980’s Britain.
When I’m in the supermarket I’ll always chat with the women on the tills. If they have a little moan about their work I’ll say, “Are you in a union?”. They’ll shake their heads and say, “I’d be the only one…” But even one woman in a workplace can change conditions if they’ve got their union behind them. And they’ll inspire other women to do the same. We can fight – and we can win.
What happened next?
In 1988, Audrey’s story was made into a film – Business As Usual. Here she is with Glenda Jackson, who played her character.