Academic journal article Hecate

Migrant Women Organise: The Kortex Strike of 1981

Academic journal article Hecate

Migrant Women Organise: The Kortex Strike of 1981

Article excerpt

The story of the Kortex strike in December 1981 is an inspiration to we who, as revolutionary socialists, believe that people can be transformed in the course of struggle. It also illustrates how women's oppression and their exploitation as workers combine and interact so that a struggle in the workplace very quickly spills over into the home and family life.

Before the strike, most of the women had never been involved in any struggle; there were no elected shop stewards and they had virtually no contact with their union officials. The men (and they were all men) who claimed to be shop stewards were nothing but company stooges.

The women at Kortex fitted neatly into the stereotyped idea many people have of women (especially migrant women): passive, submissive, super-exploited and badly organised. How often do we hear statements such as: "Because of their life-long training in `feminine' ways, women are much more obedient and submissive on the job...It is very difficult for women to go against their conditioning in this sphere...It is difficult for women to consider joining a union much less do anything more militant"?

That may be true on the face of it. But this focuses too much on women's weaknesses. What it forgets is, that when they become involved in struggle, women can quickly break out of this passivity. It ignores the fact that throughout history (especially since the rise of capitalism), women have often played leading roles in massive social upheavals; and that once they break out of their feminine bonds, their struggle can take on a dynamic above and beyond similar struggles of men. They can leap to leadership and be more militant than men.

Many women sympathetic to socialism worry about how to ensure that women are not left on the sidelines of any socialist revolution. The Kortex strike only lasted ten days and involved just 300 women. But even this relatively small struggle had an enormous impact not only on the women's consciousness but also on that of their families.

It is an example of why we say the key to women's participation in building a new socialist society lies not in keeping a watchful eye on men, but in building on struggles. It is through struggles such as the one at Kortex that women will become leaders of the revolutionary movement itself.

The strike at the Kortex textile factory in Brunswick (Victoria), at the beginning of December 1981 was to last but ten days. In the course of the struggle the three hundred women employed in the factory had to fight cops using batons and wearing guns; and face arrest, bullying from company goons and intimidation from their bosses.

How did women with no trade union experience, no history of militancy, and with problems of communicating in several different languages get involved in such a strike in the first place? The key to the answer lies not in that factory or in any perception of their own oppression and exploitation by the women themselves. That perception was only to come in the course of the struggle.

The answer lies in the nature of the class struggle itself, which goes on all the time. At times, it is only at the level of individual workplaces. Then it is easy to think there is no struggle. At other times, there are upsurges for one reason or another, right up to and including the struggle for power in society. Often a tense situation can continue for ages -- and all it needs is a spark to start the fight that has been brewing. It is because of this uneven development that we should reject proposals to hold back more militant workers until the less militant are ready to fight.

And if ever there was an argument against holding back the most advanced, this strike is it.

To see how it began, we must look at what was happening in the working class as a whole. The Storemen and Packers and Transport Workers Unions, along with other militant sections of the trade unions had won pay rises of $25 and more. …

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