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The Missing ‘W’

There used to be an extra letter in the abbreviation we now use for International Women’s Day. It wasn’t violently pulled down and removed in a swift act of revisionism. Rather, it was remembered less and less each year until a whole new day took its place, sanitised and acceptable to those who had previously felt threatened by it.

It was a W - an extra W: a letter with a proud history of militant acronyms from the wobblies to the waterfronts. 

Look at it: W. Equal across its length. Sharp at its points. Able to bear weight on strong angles. It was taken from the women of the world. Forgotten, like Martin Luther King’s socialism in corporate messages during Black History Month. Deformed, like the corporate feminism that is now celebrated every March 8th. 

It was a working W. 

We used to acknowledge the day as International Working Women’s Day, but no longer.

This year, the 8th (IWD) lands on the second Monday in March. And so, for us here in the birthplace of the eight hour day, International Women’s Day and Labour Day conjoined one another in a very fitting reminder of some forgotten truths. We commemorate and celebrate International Working Women's Day once again.

First and foremost among these forgotten truths is that women had much more than a supporting role in the history of militant struggle. In almost every country where unionism took root, women were its first cultivators. It was not a unionism borne from glory or from theory. It was a survivor’s unionism: a rough and ready, ramshackle solidarity in which sisters, mothers and daughters stuck together because no other choice was available to them. Marginalised for so long by even the men who might have (and should have) stood alongside them, there was little left to lose.

And because the world is determined to never let women rest, their fight continues to this day. They fight now for their place in history, and it isn't a fair fight. Their actions are dutifully recorded by historians but their identities, their agency and their achievements are swept aside. It is our job, as their descendants, to see that justice is done.

The Tailoresses

Common to all the stories of early working women taking action is the archetype of the "factory girl." She was a real problem, in every way you can imagine. Like most women that have ever lived and breathed, society couldn't decide whether it needed her or hated her. Industrialists needed her exploitable labour to keep profit margins high, but the same suits working her to death also didn't want her to have the freedom that came with employment. Society needed them in the factories, but it wanted them at home raising children. What it really wanted was automatons.

In Melbourne, in 1882, these factory girls were becoming quite the problem indeed. Wealthy families struggled to find domestic servants while Bourke Street bars were full of carousing women. The very industry many of them worked in was producing such affordable, yet high quality, garments that it was impossible to tell them from the ladies a gentleman might bring home to mother and father. These were signs of a societal decay that women were simultaneously causing and needing to be saved from.

And like any good moral panic, it was largely based on fiction.

The reality was that the great majority of working women at the time did so to support families: children, elderly parents or husbands who could not work themselves. They were increasingly becoming breadwinners, and yet were continually portrayed as beer swillers. So when a convenient argument was needed for why women's wages should be cut, it was obviously for their own good.

Wages were cut repeatedly. Rather than an hourly rate, they were paid piece rates based on what kind of garments they worked on. The different rates of pay would be enough to baffle even the most seasoned of today's union officials, and their complexity was often the reason they could be manipulated so easily.

Much has been written about the eight hour day and its roots right here in Melbourne. Stonemasons all over the city downed tools one day in 1856 and from then on there was eight hours work, eight hours recreation and eight hours rest for all. In reality, the eight hour day was not enjoyed by all. The powerful craftsmen's guilds and trade unions had the kind of strength to enforce the new standard. Precariously employed women did not. Since they were paid per piece instead of per hour, many took extra work home with them in the evenings in order to make enough to survive. The resulting workday often exceeded fourteen hours with minimal breaks. And every time the rates were cut, the hours had to get longer to make ends meet.

The first rumblings of industrial action started with a further reduction in their rates. The women were reportedly not shocked by this most recent cut, but it was becoming apparent that a line had to be drawn somewhere. Ellen Creswell, one of the leaders of the action, said later in her testimony to a Royal Commission into the events of the strike that they had "no means of redress unless we strike."

There is a common tragedy in many stories of women taking industrial action. Even sympathetic historians who describe them as "brave" and "strong" will rob them of their initiative. They become blunt instruments. In the case of the tailoresses, they were often smeared as having been tricked by troublemakers at the Trades Hall Council. Ample evidence exists to the contrary, and the THC was only notified once the strike had begun.

Another tragedy in turning these women into blunt instruments makes us think that they merely stopped working, and that was the extent of their industrial muscle. However, as many readers will know, going on strike is hard work in itself. The first group of women to walk out of their factory were those at Beath, Scheiss and Co. but the garment industry in Melbourne was in such a poor state that addressing problems at one workplace would do little to improve the lives of workers. Funnily enough, the management at Beath, Scheiss and Co. agreed.

Employers, it turns out, are not big fans of capitalism. They like making money, but they hate the kind of competition that they so often point to when demanding to be left alone. In the textile industry, ruthless competition between firms was resulting in a race to the bottom in wages and in profits. Beath, Scheiss and Co. got to the point where they admitted they would be more than happy to agree to the demands of the striking women as long as they could get the other factories in line too. Demonstrating once again that working people are the ones with the true power to bring about positive change, the women set about organising the other sites.

They stood outside the gates of factories, they did the rounds in their neighbourhoods and social circles, they called meetings at Trades Hall for all women to attend. What resulted was a steady increase to a peak of 700 women on strike across 13 of Melbourne's large textile firms. The strikes lasted for months, during which picket lines and relentless recruiting continued. One by one the companies caved to demands, agreeing in principle to new rates of pay, and the number of women on strike fell again as they went back to work.

Of course, victory was not achieved in the long run. Despite initial agreements by employers, the proposed pay increases were not properly secured. In May of 1883, almost six months after the first women walked out of the Beath factory, a union committee voted to accept a log of claims that had been offered by the employers, lower than what they had initially been asking for.

The true victory, however, was in establishing the Melbourne Tailoresses and their union (and women in general) as a serious force in the Victorian economy. News of their methods spread to Ballarat, to Sydney and to New Zealand where sister unions were established to follow in their footsteps. A core of lifelong activists was galvanised, and in 1884 the struggle of working women was to be set in stone by the commissioning of a Female Operatives Hall to sit beside the Trades Hall on Lygon Street. (The fate of this second Hall is another story of tragedy and loss, and will be discussed later in this issue.) The successors to the Tailoresses' union, the TCFUA, still represents workers in garment factories and, shamefully, still faces many of the same problems of 1882: piece rates, long hours, and the exploitation of migrant women. 

Five years later, on the other side of the world, a story so similar would unfold that it points to a bias among historians at best, or collusion at worst.

 

The Bryant & May "Matchgirls"

The term "matchgirls" is used here as a jumping off point for familiarity, but it will not be used henceforth. They were women. They were deemed girls because, even though many of them were indeed quite young, they were often depicted as powerless and unable to coordinate the resulting strike on their own. Girls were easy to ignore, or paint as having been duped by troublemaking middle-class socialists. However, they were undoubtedly women who were capable of everything that eventuated and more.

They are often written about as a blip, an oddity that occurred prior to much more significant industrial events. Their strike occurred in 1888, one year prior to the Great London Dock Strike of 1889, and the women are relegated to its long shadow. The dock workers are often looked at as the beginnings of a new type of unionism: casual, "unskilled" and low paid workers taking action. Prior to this, trade unions more closely resembled artisan's guilds and they closely guarded their position in society and the economy. But East London being what it was, it is inconceivable that the men who shut down the docks were not the husbands, brothers and sons of the women who had walked out of the Bryant and May match factory the year before. They were shown the way by the trailblazing women in their lives.

The story most commonly told goes that the women were organised and convinced to go on strike by a prominent socialist and journalist by the name of Annie Besant. Anyone who has ever spent time among a group of working women knows that this is definitely bullshit. Some fancy woman breezing in and telling them what they should do doesn't sound believable at all, especially at a time when widespread poverty made walking out of the factory so incredibly risky. No, these women organised themselves and did not make their decisions lightly.

Ms. Besant did, however, play a role in the events of the strike, albeit in an indirect way. She and the newspaper she worked for, the Link, published an article in July 1888 entitled White Slavery in London. (If that title made you wince, you're not alone.) The investigation into the realities of the Bryant & May match factory uncovered horrendous conditions: low pay, virtually no security, frequent abuse and monstrous health and safety problems. Chief among these was what was known as "phossy jaw." So named for the white phosphorus used in the making of matches, the substance seeped into the bones and specifically the jawbones of the women who worked so closely with it day in and day out, and rotted them from the inside.

 
A match factory woman suffering from "phossy jaw."

A match factory woman suffering from "phossy jaw."

 

The article caused public outcry, but the company denied every word of it. In an effort to preserve their image, management's plan was to circulate a letter to the women of the factory stating that the claims made by Ms. Besant were fabricated, and that they, in fact, enjoyed working for Bryant & May. The women were told to sign the letter, thereby absolving the company of its sins in the eyes of the public.

A million different quips have been made about this being the moment that set the match women alight. Or striking a match. We wish only to say in this account that the women were likely far less concerned with wit when they told the foreman where to put his letter. A handful of women flatly refused to sign, and when they were "put off" (i.e. sacked) the women who worked beside them every day walked out with them. Then the women who worked beside them walked out.It was not long until the entire factory, and then neighbouring factories, and then factories all across the East End were empty. Reports vary, but trustworthy accounts put the number at 1400 women walking out of factories on the first day.

As opposed to the struggle of Melbourne's tailoresses, the matchwomen had another roadblock on the way to representation: the established unions themselves. Whereas the union men in Melbourne took a mostly paternalistic, condescending view of the women taking action, the men in London were outwardly antagonistic. The women were not a union in the formal sense, and calling themselves such would be an affront to their sacred brotherhood.

Faced with societal pressure from the voices who denounced them as destructive upstarts, and domestic pressure at home strongly suggesting that simply going back to work and keeping your head down was the more responsible thing to do, the women held strong. After almost a month of picket lines and taking collections for the strike fund, a deal was reached whereby workers would no longer be fined for expenses incurred through accidents on the shop floor, and their rate of pay would be increased.

If they were not a union to begin with, they were certainly one by the end: recognised by their husbands and brothers and, more importantly, recognised by themselves. The great victory of this strike, like the tailoresses before them, was that of claiming their rightful place among organised labour, and in seeing themselves as worthy of being there.

Sadly, the matchwomen aren’t remembered for their progress. They walked out of a factory and they walked back in, that’s all the books ever say about them, if they say anything at all. But they are remembered. If you ask a British person about famous strikes they will, to their credit, more than likely respond with “the matchgirls.” Pressed further, however, they are likely to know little else about what happened to those pioneers of unionism.

 

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Where the Tailoresses and the "Matchgirls" are at least remembered by signifiers that mark them as people, 146 burned bodies (123 of whom were women) are now only remembered by the fire that killed them. Fire is a force of nature, and when it kills people it is a tragedy. These women were not killed by fire, they were killed by their employers in a very real and direct way. Not a single one of those deaths was unavoidable.

The story of "the fire" is repeated again and again without reference to the 20,000 women who went on strike, two years earlier, for their right to be safe at work.

In the early twentieth century, over half of the country's clothing was manufactured in Manhattan's Garment District. The industry was known for squalid sweatshops and rampant mistreatment of its workforce. Strike actions had taken place intermittently even as early as the 1850s, but an influx of Jewish immigrants following a wave of pogroms in Eastern Europe was rapidly changing the face of the working class in New York City. They brought with them a history and a culture of class consciousness that differed from the American spirit of individualism, and overconfident employers were caught out by newly imported organising tactics.

Activists were able to build solidarity in their communities, not just their workplaces, since workers from the same factories often lived in the same tenement buildings and dense New York neighbourhoods. Bubbling discontent led to some isolated strikes, and came to a head in November 1909 at a union congress, where the question of what to do about the conditions in the textile industry was being considered. Clara Lemlich, a Ukrainian migrant and member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) became fed up with the pontificating by union leaders. She stood up and declared, in Yiddish:

I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.

Lemlich, only twenty three years old, became one of the leaders of strike that was resoundingly endorsed following her motion. They expected maybe five thousand women to join the strike, but a contingent of eighteen thousand joined the strike on the first day. By the second day they were twenty thousand, giving them the name they are now remembered by: The Uprising of 20,000.

Various incidents at the larger manufacturers had served as moments of incitement, but certain problems were common to all sweatshops. Some points of contention were things one might expect, like wages and hours, but others were workplace indignities suffered specifically by women, such as unwanted sexual advances, threats, and invasions of privacy. One particular workplace practice was deemed unacceptable by the striking women: the common practice of locking the factory doors during work hours, effectively preventing workers from leaving. It was meant to counteract supposed "unauthorised breaks'' but it was simply a method of control and surveillance.

The strike lasted eleven weeks, during which time the workers were arrested, abused, fined, beaten and marginalised by the rest of society. Clara Lemlich herself suffered six broken ribs and was arrested seventeen times. A ten year old girl was arrested and sent to the workhouse without a proper trial for allegedly harassing a scab. As the weeks went by, however, momentum and staunchness was difficult to maintain. The strike fund was running dry and the companies were making small concessions to entice the women back to work.

The strike was ended on the 15th of February, 1910. Several important wins were achieved: 339 out of 353 firms signed standard agreements including a fifty-two-hour week, at least four holidays with pay per year, no discrimination against union members, provision of tools and materials without fee, and negotiation of wages with employees. More importantly, the ILGWU had successfully flexed its industrial muscle and grew their membership exponentially. Its conservative leadership was shown to be useless and misogynistic during the strike, and was rolled by a new breed of active, passionate and pissed off women. In subsequent years, the industry was one of the best and most heavily organised in the country. The Uprising of 20,000 had been a true turning point for the working class in America. But it was, of course, not without further tragedy.

Two years later, in 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire. The practice of locking the doors of the sweatshop led to 143 workers being trapped by the blaze and either being burned, choking on the smoke or jumping from the high windows of the 8th, 9th and 10th floors where the workers were trapped. The women were killed, plain and simple. The tragedy had been foreseen when the women walked out to protest their working conditions. It had specifically been one of their demands during the strike, to end the outrageous practice. Instead, 146 people - 123 women - had their lives taken from them.

In the wake of the fire, memorials and marches were held. Many tried to overlook the deliberate nature of the tragedy, instead focusing on the loss of life and simply mourning the dead. It was an unfortunate incident, something that could have just as easily happened to any group of people. Others saw it for what it was: murder. It was a sacrifice made because business would rather lose lives than lose productivity through "unauthorised breaks."

Some, like Rose Schneiderman, member of the Women's Trade Union League and active participant in the Uprising, were disgusted with the systems and the society that had allowed her sisters to burn. She told a meeting of her own organisation:

I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting.

Her words are a reminder to us, today of all days, that our rage is justified and our disappointment should be voiced loudly and often.

 

Bangladesh

If the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy doesn't exactly sound like a remnant of the past to you, you're not alone. Industrial manslaughter is as big a problem as it has ever been, which is why Victorian unions fought so hard to have it legislated as a crime recently. Some crimes, however, are so monstrous that a manslaughter charge feels small by comparison. The only true justice can be found in the total overhaul of the industry which took so many lives. 

In 2013, 1,134 workers were killed by their bosses at Rana Plaza in the Bangladesh District of Dhaka. Cracks were seen in the building's walls and foundations the day before it collapsed, and everyone was evacuated. The shops and apartments in the building were empty when the collapse occurred, but the textile workers were threatened with the withholding of one month's pay if they did not go back inside to work. The very next day, at around 9am, the floors gave way and over a thousand workers were killed. It is recorded as the deadliest structural failure in human history. 

But much like the Triangle incident, it would be a shame to not see the context surrounding the disaster. Since the building collapse, union membership and registration has grown dramatically. This has been led by the predominantly female workforce of the textile industry. However, to see it as a direct reaction is also reductive. Their fight has not just been about health and safety, which would be understandable considering the circumstances. 

Bangladesh is to the world today what the Garment District was to the United States in the early 20th century. Following Rana Plaza, however, the "Made in Bangladesh" label took a serious hit. Major brands demanded guarantees that such high-profile incidents were not going to occur in future, fearing that consumers were having their attention drawn to the working conditions in the places their clothes were manufactured. Improvements were made, and today the kinds of death traps that were common in previous years are increasingly rare. But this desire to rebuild the Bangladeshi brand started its own set of problems. 

Anxious to return to business as normal and reclaim their place in the global economy, large Bangladeshi firms cracked down hard on burgeoning unions. Activists were arrested, beaten and killed by police. When large scale strikes gripped the country in December 2016, criminal cases against 34 union leaders were fabricated and many were prosecuted on bogus charges. Rather than a wake up call for the importance of worker representation, Rana Plaza and its aftermath have proven to heighten conflict between workers on one side, and government and employers on the other. 

Today, women in these garment factories work 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week. Nazma Akhter, a union leader in Dhaka told Forbes Magazine in 2020: "Low income and difficult conditions contribute to a lot of problems in health and nutrition. The women often fall sick and lose income." She also reports unchecked sexual harassment in the workplace. The pandemic has only worsened things, as global supply chains have been interrupted and many brands have cancelled their orders. A month-long lockout of the factories took place in April 2020, leaving thousands of women without work at all. They protested, but were met with overwhelming force from the police.  

All of these stories seem to repeat, echoing each other across the world and the decades. We've come a long way, but the struggle is not a historical one. It is happening right now, still to this day.

 

The Countless Others

The stories recounted above are the ones we know. The ones that have been documented. The fact that they are often recounted incorrectly should speak to the fact that history has no interest in doing justice to women's struggles. So it should come as no surprise that many struggles are either forgotten or not recorded in the first place.

This year, on International Women’s Day, we should remember the working women who fought for their place, not just among society but among the working class to which they belonged. It is because of them that progress has been made, because nothing would have ever been handed to them otherwise. Many of them did not make it: their bodies were bent and broken by work, their lives were given to the profits of others. There are a great, great many whose stories and names we do not know. We should remember the ones who stood up and fought back, but also the ones who could not. And we should think about the women who, still to this day, do not feel empowered by International Women’s Day because 364 other days of the year are dedicated to, and dependent upon, their oppression and their silence.

Remember the burned bodies, and to hell with good fellowship.

This piece was adapted and expanded from an article by VTHC Assistant Secretary Wil Stracke, published in The Age on Monday, March 8th.

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