Academic journal article Hecate

Addressing Work: Industrial Women and Organising in the Interwar Years

Academic journal article Hecate

Addressing Work: Industrial Women and Organising in the Interwar Years

Article excerpt

It is not to be wondered at that class hatreds should grow when a wage rate is fixed which is as near to the poverty line as one can get ... less pay to women workers being nothing but exploitation.1

We have, and will continue to, make public the long hours worked and the disgracefully low wages received by these women.2

This article examines interwar industrial organising in New South Wales, particularly organising for women workers, and especially organising for women in the printing industry. Despite the historical focus on interwar Sydney, the industrial situations and the women discussed are part of the extended labour context for the federal arbitration system which existed between 1904 and 1996, that was connected by federal unions and labour networks, and that informed post-1996 resistance to neo-conservative 'workplace' relations. Labour market and regulatory framework changes to interwar industrial representation underpin the analysis, but my primary focus is the occupation of and the processes of union organising. The overview of issues and tactics aims to raise awareness among union practitioners and activists, academic analysts, and policy makers, of the historical base of women's organising, and of significant continuities in union organising strategies.4

Through a case study approach to organising in separate industries, the article illustrates challenges for Sydney-based organisers in the interwar years. It also suggests how female and male officials approached workplace advocacy, either separately or in cooperation. This provides insight into the nature of organising for women, and the industrial negotiations between female activists, including organisers, and male officials or male organisers. I argue that the industrial situations described below cumulatively emphasise the importance to workers of good industrial organising, committed union officials, and skilled advocacy at workplace and tribunal level. The analysis also highlights the critical facultative role of a supportive union hierarchy for organisers in the field. The closer focus on organising for one group of union women - females in the printing industry - necessarily incorporates study of the work of interwar organiser Mel (Imelda) Cashman, a former women bookbinders' official, whose organising strategies and industrial networks illustrate my contention, developed elsewhere, that successful advocacy for women workers in the interwar years required collaboration with other labour women.5

Interwar Context

During the interwar years trade unions and the labour movement operated in an environment significantly altered through wider social, civil, economic and industrial shift following World War One.6 This shift at first enhanced challenges and opportunities for women in the union movement. For example, excluding domestic service, the numbers of women in paid employment increased during the 1920s at a rate slightly greater than that of the overall population, meaning that unions had more females to organise after the war.7

Structural changes in trade unions, including mergers, along with industry and operational changes, affected industrial priorities for women union officials as organisers, and as workers and union members after World War One. Some operational changes were the outcomes of the wartime withdrawal from the labour market of male workers, with a short-term opportunity for female workers to extend their profile in industry.8 Certain union mergers were already in negotiation when war began, such as the merger of the Printing Industry Women's and Girls' Union and the Australasian Typographical Association (ATA), which together became the Printing Industry Employees Union of Australia (the PIEUA).9 The labour movement was also confronted by changes to arbitration and conciliation, including to the tribunal structure, in the twenties and thirties.10

Female unionists whose unions (both in the states and federally) merged with their male counterpart organisation included printers and bookbinders, clothing workers and tailoresses, barmaids and hospitality workers, and bookmakers. …

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