Class struggle on the home front
Women, unions and militancy in the Second World War
An earlier version of this chapter originally appeared as ‘Women in the Metal Trades’, Front Line, 5, International Socialists, Melbourne, December 1976
Winnie the War-Winner was Australia’s answer to Rosie the Riveter. Feminine yet patriotic, she entered paid employment not for her own sake, but to support the war effort and her soldier husband.
Hats off to these women! No one who has not seen them can possibly appreciate how great is their contribution to the nation’s war effort ... In one factory I saw a girl who had come straight from a beauty parlour. She was doing work that was dirty and hard on the hands. When she was asked how she found the work after a beauty parlour, she said she liked it much better ... ‘It’s much more interesting and besides ¾ I’m making cartridges for my husband to fire’.
The content of propaganda varied at different stages of the war. From the outbreak of war in September 1939 until Pearl Harbour in December 1941 there was no absolute shortage of labour. The transfer of labour from one sector to another sufficed, and the propaganda emphasis was mainly on thrift and self sacrifice. While the use of makeup had to be curtailed (‘The girl ... who hoards cosmetics ... is plainly speaking a traitor to her country, to other women and to her true self’) looking stiff or masculine ‘is what every feminine girl will always try to avoid’, since ‘women who are careless about their looks are often careless about their jobs’. At this stage the authorities resisted pressure to create service branches for women, and tried to divert patriotic urges into knitting socks and rolling bandages.
After Pearl Harbour there was an absolute shortage of labour as the armed forces and defence production expanded, and Australia was expected to feed US forces in the Pacific. Cabinet endorsed ‘the extensive employment of women.’ They set up the Women’s Employment Board, registered women for employment, and launched a major recruitment campaign. The Women’s Weekly announced ‘Australia is calling on her women as never before’, and posters urged them to ‘take a Victory job’:
You’ll find it no harder than your house job. Easier perhaps. In fact, many war production factories, with their spic-and-span canteens, bright music and carefully-planned rest breaks are more fun to work in than any house.
The Women’s Weekly re-oriented to an industrial audience. The appointment of the magazine’s top management Frank Packer and Edward Theodore to the Allied Works Council (created to solve ‘manpower problems’) around that time may not have been a coincidence. The Weekly now emphasised factory work and femininity at the same time:
When doing our job on munitions we don’t neglect our appearance ¾ but still keep our feminine charm by always having our Escapade lipstick with us.
Such charm was a moral obligation, since ‘Grooming ... not only promotes but sustains morale.’
By late 1943 the threat of invasion was largely removed, and the demand for labour eased, except in the rural sector. Postwar expectations were to the fore and articles asking ‘What will women do when the war is over?’ were common. Employers kept reminding employees that their jobs were only for the duration. The manager at the Maribyrnong Ordnance Factory wrote:
The questions are often asked ... Are the women of any real value in industry or are they merely a temporary expedient brought into being during the war period? The answer to both is yes.
By 1945 the Women’s Weekly was announcing a ‘new era of feminine loveliness’.
Winnie the War-Winner was thrifty at home, hard-working and uncomplaining. She was called upon to be men’s equal, but only temporarily. She had to do long hours of dirty work, yet remain feminine. Everyone would recognise her essential contribution, but she would receive less pay than men. The new job gave confidence, but the only outlet offered was more knitting and new ways to cook rabbit. She must at all times remember the boys in the trenches, yet never behave like them.
But Winnie was only a myth. Let’s look at the reality.
From the florist to the factory floor
The war period was one of restructuring and rationalisation. New technology, increased need for precision and greater specialisation meant big changes in factories. Conveyor belt flow systems became much more common, and there was a marked increase in the number of semi-skilled metal workers. Employers regarded female labour as very suited to the changed conditions. The propaganda reflected the dilemma the changes generated. Government and employers wanted female labour, but maintained an eye on post-war conditions.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbour, a proposal to cabinet suggested ‘necessary supplies of female labour can be obtained without offering men’s wages, particularly if appeal is made to patriotic sentiment ... It is probable also that a substantial supply of female labour could be secured for munitions and other industries without departing from the present principles regarding the payment of females’. An employers’ representative on the Manpower Committee, thought it would be easy to ‘send the women home at the end of the war’. But the constant reiteration of the images only shows the propagandists’ underlying lack of confidence. Nor was this attempted manipulation simply due to the sexism of the bosses or authorities (still mostly male). Wartime capitalist society manipulated both sexes in the ‘national interest’. Though more overt than in peacetime, the prevailing ideology was still essentially in the interest of capital.
The frequently raised concept of the ‘reserve army of labour’, the idea that women were sent from the home into the workforce during the war only to be returned to domesticity at its end, places too much reliance on this propaganda. Propaganda is not the same as reality. The audience were not mindless automatons. Although social pressure was high, those who went to work did so for their own reasons, and were not the simple victims of manipulation. One study shows that during the war, age, marital status and class were the main determinants of whether women entered the workforce.
The ‘reserve army of labour’ theory is also numerically an oversimplification. The female proportion of the workforce had risen steadily for decades. As early as 1927, about half of all factory workers in Australia were female, and in Victoria they were 65%. Early in the century, they were mostly in the traditional areas such as clothing, textiles, shoes and food preserving, but in the 1920s and 30s they began to move into metal and engineering, where they did ‘light repetitive work’ such as core-making, drilling and assembling.
However, during the war change was much more rapid. Between July 1939 and June 1945 the female ‘working population’ (those employed, actively seeking work and armed services) increased from 677,500 to 811,200. Some of this can be accounted for by natural increase. The number of females ‘not normally seeking occupation who have become breadwinners’ peaked in June 1943 at around 99,300. This is the best estimate of the number who went from being housewives to paid employment. More important than the move from the home was the change in the type of work. Most moved from self-employment, domestic work (as servants) and unemployment to being wage and salary earners. This category increased from 64.5% to 80.1% of the female working population between 1939 and 1943, while domestic servants declined from 18.3% in 1939 to 5.9% in 1945. A 1941 survey of 780 women in a South Australian munitions factory illustrates this change: 34% had been domestic servants, 24% factory workers, and others shop assistants, waitresses, nurses, domestics and clerks. Only 47 (6%) had not previously been employed. The other important change was that many were now married ¾ married females’ participation rate more than doubled between 1933 and 1945.
During the period, all industrial sectors of the economy experienced a decrease in masculinity (proportion of the workforce male), but it was most marked in government munitions factories and in banking and insurance. In the metal industry, where a massive increase in demand for war equipment and munitions combined with large numbers of men leaving industry to go into the armed forces, the number of women rose from 1,375 in 1933 to 52,847 in 1943. By 1945 they were 13% of all workers in the industry.
More women were working, doing what had previously been men’s work, and at better wages. The above factory survey found the ‘girls were obviously attracted by high wages offering in munitions work and the vast majority were prepared to do overtime for extra pay’. The average weekly wage in munitions was (ú3.3.0) ($6.30), compared to the average previous wage of those surveyed of (ú1.7.6½) ($2.75).
This raises the most vexed issue in the new industrial climate. When the government set up the Women’s Employment Board in 1942, its charter was to encourage and regulate the employment of women in work usually done by men or in new war jobs. It had to set hours and determine any special conditions. But the impact of the WEB was mainly felt when it had to set wages in the non-traditional and new jobs. This it did based on ‘the efficiency of females in the performance of the work and any other special factors which may be likely to affect the productivity of their work in relation to that of males’. The words ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity’ opened the door to piecework in some areas. But most important were the actual pay rates themselves.
The minimum rate for adult females had been fixed at 54% of the male basic wage in the historic Harvester award in 1907. The WEB regulations now required it to set wages at between 60% and 100%. While a few workers, such as tram conductresses, clerical workers and some in retail won 100%, most awards were for 90%. The employers did everything they could to get the WEB to decide on less. Led by the Metal Trades Employers’ Association, they fought hard against the board and many of its decisions. There were numerous attacks in the High Court and the Board twice had to suspend sittings when the Senate disallowed regulations. The employers used delaying tactics at hearings, and frequently refused to implement decisions for higher wages. They claimed women needed more supervision, and were less productive due to lesser strength and greater absenteeism. One tactic was to slightly redefine jobs so they weren’t quite doing the full work of men. Another was to break the job down so it entailed less responsibility.
This pressure seems to have influenced the WEB itself. The Board commented on one application:
The evidence is that the woman has done practically the whole of the work of an oiler and greaser and has been prevented from doing the full amount of work by reason of some restrictions that the employers think fit to impose upon her, possibly out of regard for a feeling that she might not be capable of climbing a high ladder. She says she is able to do it and we have no doubt she is capable of doing it. We think she should not be prevented from earning the full award rate.
She still only got 90%.
As Lynn Beaton comments, there was no serious opposition to the conscription of women into low paid jobs, yet there was bitter resistance both to WEB rates and to the WEB’s very existence. The opposition was not so much to women working, but to them entering new fields and receiving higher wages.
The wartime environment challenged all classes and institutions. The rest of this chapter concentrates on the response of the working class and its institutions to women’s new role, but also briefly considers the response of upper class women.
Dilution and unionisation
Important as they are in defending workers’ rights, unions are part of the capitalist system, devoted to improving conditions within the system, not to overturning it. As a result, full time officials are in a contradictory position. On the one hand their livelihood depends on making gains for workers. On the other hand their interests are tied up with the institution (their union), so they form a conservative layer which accepts the existing social order, and tends to restrain militant struggles which might challenge it.
The ideological pressure on the working class during the war was tremendous. All society’s institutions lined up behind the war effort. The leadership of most unions joined in the mainstream propaganda, supporting the ‘battle for production’. The Federated Ironworkers for instance campaigned hard against strikes and when they did break out, support from the union structure was almost non-existent. The leadership called for ‘increased discipline’ to deal with the ‘larrikin element’ on the waterfront:
We should not wait for the boss to sack these people, but we should sack them ourselves if they are not prepared to mend their ways and pull their full weight.
Officials were not always so rigid. For instance, the Tramways Association in Melbourne had a lengthy dispute over staffing and long hours, including a stopwork meeting on football Grand Final Day in 1944. The vice-president justified wartime industrial action, declaring, ‘If tramways employees are not prepared to make the small sacrifice of a stopwork meeting, the future of the men who are fighting will be jeopardised’. By and large, however, workers fighting to defend their rights during the war faced great resistance from their full-time officials, and from those of their fellow workers heavily influenced by this propaganda.
The entry of women into a previously male domain was a complicating factor. Although craft unions in the non-traditional areas had long resisted this and the wartime influx generated more outright sexism, the reactions of male unionists cannot be simply ascribed to sensitive male egos. Mostly their response to female labour was also tied up with traditional union principles. Often these were the narrow principles of craft unionism. Sometimes the unions’ attitude was conditioned by their limited aims in a social crisis they didn’t understand ¾ as in the depression.
Despite the wartime exigencies, the Amalgamated Engineering Union never gave up the right to strike, although the leading body was ‘perturbed’ when strikes took place before informing officials. The Australian AEU was a branch of the British union until 1968. It was an old organisation with long traditions. Engineers were craft-conscious, proud of their skills and standards of work. The AEU was comparatively wealthy and before World War II provided many non-industrial benefits such as insurance against loss of tools, accidents, sickness and unemployment. Although the number of unskilled worker members was growing slowly, historian Tom Sheridan says ‘there is no doubt that the AEU remained predominantly a craft union right to the end of its separate existence in 1972.’ Its attitude to women in the industry and as members was conditioned by its basic outlook, which Sheridan explains:
As with all other unions, the AEU’s raison d’etre was to guard and improve its members’ conditions of work. Within the policy structure erected on that premise the major influence was the fear of unemployment ... Their long experience of the cruel trade cycle naturally made them hesitate for a considerable period before finally accepting that the 1940s had ushered in a new era of full employment. Most engineers’ doubts disappeared only in the late 1950s and their long conditioning has continued to call forth most of the old automatic reflexes into the seventies.
One of the ‘old automatic reflexes’ was opposition to women. Sheridan shows how this opposition was tied up with fears bred by experience, particularly of job losses.
During World War I, Britain had experienced a rapid influx of (male) engineers who hadn’t had the long training previously considered necessary to do tradesmen’s work. In World War II, the AEU was determined to have more control over these ‘dilutees’. It negotiated with the government very early on and an agreement allowing (male) ‘dilution’ was reached in 1940. Policy in the early 1940s was:
designed for the immediate and future safeguarding of its own membership, whose economic interests constitute the primary concern of the organisation. Second preference in employment was to be given to men disemployed through war conditions; and, thirdly, the employment of women was approved, provided that they be paid the male rate for the job. If and when normal conditions return it was assumed that the reverse order would prevail in discharges from the industry in line with the time-honoured practice of last on first off, taking it for granted that this represented a natural order of priority in industrial status.
Increasing numbers of females in the industry in the early 1940s created a dilemma. The rules precluded their admission, but both officials and rank and filers knew that the presence of unorganised workers weakens a union’s position. The AEU couldn’t negotiate for them, but in order to protect its members’ own wages it had to ensure equal pay. From 1940, despite continuing sexism on the shop floor, there was mounting pressure up through the union structure to change the rules.
Resisting ‘dilution’ meant that AEU members had to fill the extra demand for labour as much as possible themselves, by working long hours and making efforts to ‘supplement the 44-hour week with as much overtime as the human form can stand’. Their position on ‘dilution’ meant the union was unable to protect members’ interests in this situation. Not only couldn’t it look after their health, it couldn’t even use overtime bans as a tactical weapon. For instance, the AEU refused in early 1941 to be associated with an overtime ban as part of a campaign against new tax provisions. In the end the government was forced to intervene and limit hours to 56 per week.
This situation, together with the increasing numbers of unorganised on the shop floor, led to pressure to admit women. In Britain, AEU shop stewards helped organise them into other unions. In Australia by 1940, organisers (who were close to the shop floor) were putting pressure on the leadership. The initial reply was a flat no ‘on principle’, but by April 1941 they were pressuring the executive committee in Britain for permission to organise females ‘for our own protection’. London refused, but district officials kept up the pressure in Australia. Eventually there was an international ballot in July 1942, although bureaucratic hold-ups delayed the rule change until April 1943.
At this point, the AEU moved quickly to ‘unionise women workers in the real sense of the word.’ Recruitment was rapid and Muriel Heagney, a well-known trade union activist and feminist, became organiser of the AEU women’s section. In May 1943 they produced a special recruitment pamphlet and the first meeting of female shop stewards was in Sydney in November 1943.
Equal pay remained a central issue for tradesmen. While officials negotiated with the government, there were many stoppages on the shop floor. Engineers at Fords, Homebush (in Sydney) struck for three weeks in late 1942 over women employed on first class welding, and there was a similar dispute at ACI Engineering. The strikes provided pressure for negotiations, and regulations introduced in May 1943 provided equal pay on tradesmen’s or second class machinists’ pay, though male journeymen had preference. The pay question being settled (from the men’s point of view), the AEU became less concerned about female wages.
The Sheet Metal Workers Industrial Union was very different. Much smaller and poorer before World War II, it didn’t even have a publication until December 1936. The Victorian branch got its first typist and its first car in 1940. The union was small enough for deaths of individual members to be reported in the newssheet. Sheet metal working only became a recognised apprenticeship in 1938, after many years of agitation.
There were always a small number of women working in the industry, particularly making cans for food, but before the war few State branches tried to organise them.
The SMWIU did not meet the massive influx in the first years of the war with the same resistance as the AEU, but the response to women in the industry and as members was still hesitant. Its 1940 federal conference attempted to restrict female labour to work on which they were engaged in 1930. In December 1941, the question of female labour was ‘burning’ in South Australia. ‘Members must make up their minds as to the conditions under which they are prepared to tolerate this class of labour’. The participation of women members in industrial action over the dismissal of a Sydney delegate, their first association with a dispute, was met with mild surprise and condescension: ‘We hasten to congratulate our "sisters" on their very fine show of solidarity’.
Like the AEU, the SMWIU regarded the presence of large numbers of women as temporary. But in April 1942 the union decided to organise them seriously. The newssheet explained:
It is more necessary than ever that they be recruited to the unions. Already the Ironworkers Union has thousands of female members and the ASE has commenced to organise others. Shop stewards of the SMWIU where female labour is employed, must immediately organise them into our union, where they will receive the protection of our organisation and be able to play their part in the struggle to maintain and improve conditions.
They appointed female shop stewards, held two conferences in 1943 and elected a women’s committee. Miss Doris Beeby became women’s organiser. Before the establishment of the WEB, the SMWIU actually managed to get full equal pay for some jobs in munitions factories. They also achieved in several cases equal pay for junior females, but were unable to get employers to apply it generally to adults.
Under the WEB, the union changed its orientation slightly. Its general secretary thought the Women’s Employment Act was ‘the most revolutionary legislation enacted for many years’. When the Board made a common ruling of 90% in the metal trades, although there were still applications for equal pay, their focus became implementation of the WEB ruling. The union’s secretary reported in 1944 that the SMWIU made more applications to the WEB than any other union.
The campaign seems to have been quite impressive. The union put up a ‘strenuous’ fight before the Board and after the Labor Party’s election victory called on them to use their majority in both houses to legislate for equal pay. They also pressured employers to improve the often scandalous conditions such as poor ventilation, woefully inadequate toilets and washing facilities, heat and fumes. At one factory, the workers ‘used to have to sit on the floor, but now we have tables and seats so are thankful for small mercies’. They backed their campaign up with calls for industrial action. ‘We urge all our members ... to keep up continuous agitation in their shops to secure improved conditions’. In Melbourne there were fortnightly meetings at Trades Hall and ‘several women attended the meetings, mostly older women. They were very militant.’
But the SMWIU’s policy on the war was one of full support, and their continual pushing of the battle for production must have undermined industrial action. Such shop floor action as did occur was justified by arguments like ‘Workers ... who get decent wages and conditions are going to be more efficient than those working under a sense of injustice.’ The first women’s shop stewards meeting in February 1943 pledged itself to ‘avoid stoppages of work, which can only be harmful to the war effort’. The second conference in December passed resolutions on:
100% unionism among women, closer co-operation between men and women workers in the workshops, carrying out of the Union’s policy of full support for the war, with particular attention to combating absenteeism and lateness, to ensure increased production.
This contradictory attitude meant the officials supported members when they struck, but still tried to get them back to work as quickly as possible. For example in one case, the leadership recommended a return to work on the not very promising grounds that management proposed ‘to confer with representatives of the unions involved and place the cards on the table’. Nonetheless, the leader of the SMWIU, Tom Wright, was exceptional for his time. A member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Wright argued in the Communist Review that the party must support strikes if necessary ‘to defend and extend wage increases won for women’.
"Offending the public conscience": militancy during the war
There was widespread acceptance among male unionists that industrial action should be curtailed. Restraint was determined on political grounds, but there was also a material basis for it ¾ for many men at least. Although frozen, male wages were at a much higher level than during the depression. This was due to increased overaward payments, great increases in overtime at penalty rates, and ‘war loadings’. For instance, Sydney newspapers advertised in 1941 for toolmakers atú12 ($24) a week (not including overtime) when the award rate was ú6.11.0 ($13.10). Around this time an adult woman in the metal trades with 12 months experience (not doing tradesman’s work) received ú3.12.0 ($7.20) while a girl under 16 got 12/6 ($1.25). Not surprisingly, men felt their own pay was fairly high, particularly compared to the pre-war years, and they were often reasonably satisfied. When they were involved in struggles these tended to be defensive, trying to (as they saw it) protect themselves against the new women workers. Moreover, men with a tradition of unionism were more tied to the officials: they were more inclined to follow the policies of the leadership including support for the war effort.
The situation for women was quite different. Their lack of an industrial tradition had the paradoxical effect that they were less likely to listen when union officials called for restraint. Moving from housework or traditional occupations into ‘important’ work for the first time, they gained new confidence. At the same time, the wage situation was chaotic.
At the beginning of the war, private industry was paying 54% of the male rate. The Department of Munitions, under an agreement with the unions, paid 62% in its factories. The 1942 Metal Trades Award, set by the Arbitration Commission, awarded 65% for the first three months and thereafter 75%. The WEB rate was mostly 90% except for tradesmen’s work, which was 100%. In some workshops, there were two or three different pay rates for essentially the same work. In other cases, the company simply refused to pay the WEB rate and kept paying the lower rate of the Metal Trades Award. Even government factories did this. In one case where the AEU intervened the workers received back pay totalling about $60,000.
The result was often that women were more militant than men. Industrial action, short stoppages and strikes were frequent. In fact strikes by women workers at two private munitions factories in 1942 led to the establishment of the WEB itself. Between 1943 and 1945, Muriel Heagney recorded in her notebook many instances of stoppages over wage rates. In one dispute, ‘girls on the comb benches threatened reduction in output on benches of 60% of the male output unless rates were equalized.’
In the Small Arms Ammunition Factory in Footscray (Melbourne) there was a particular problem because, as a pre-war employer of women, pay was lower than in other munitions factories. Several thousand male and female workers held a stopwork meeting at the local band rotunda in early 1943, demanding the 90% rate for females. Then more than 2,000 women from government factories went on strike, without success.
At Simmonds Aerocessories in South Melbourne, when workers were denied the WEB rates, ‘feeling reached boiling point’ and 132 women sheetmetal workers struck for the extraordinary period in wartime of over 4 months. With the strikers supported by 150 engineers, the case went as far as the High Court before the company capitulated and paid the 90%. The union officials supported the stand of the strikers, yet endeavoured ‘along with the shop committee, to try to come to satisfactory arrangements with the company to avoid any cessation of work’.
When management at AWA in Ashfield (Sydney) refused to pay theú5 ($10) granted by the WEB, and kept wages at ú3.12.0 ($7.20), 150 women and girls in the aircraft assembly section joined the AEU. When the Board arbitrarily decided that only 75% of them were entitled to the WEB rate, a three week strike followed. Eventually the members were ‘prevailed upon’ to return to work in return for the government undertaking legal proceedings. We are not told who did the prevailing, but we are left with a clear impression that the strikers were quite prepared to stay out longer.
Direct action brought quicker results than negotiations. When a Sydney company, Richard Hughes, refused to pay the WEB rate, the case dragged through the courts for over six months, with the company (backed by the industry association) repeatedly appealing to different bodies. By June 1944 it had become obvious to the workers that they were getting nowhere; a strike and lockout led quickly to a settlement involving $6,000 in back pay. In October 1942, 450 female employees from four other Sydney factories only needed to threaten to stop work for the employers to agree to give them retrospective pay.
Following the failure of the employers to pay the awarded 90% at a Footscray (Melbourne) munitions factory, there were daily stopwork meetings. Jessie Street, a well-known feminist of the time, described the atmosphere at one. The (male) secretary of the FIA assured them they would get their money and urged them to return to work for the sake of ‘the boys in the trenches’. This provoked an angry response and shouts of ‘We know all about the boys in the trenches ... they’re our husbands and sons’. A very militant meeting, followed by a strike, led to Prime Minister Evatt sending a telegram promising to ‘bring pressure to bear’ if they went back to work, but the response was riotous. After three days on strike, Evatt agreed to pay the difference until the employers paid the full 90%.
Rosemary Davies, who worked in aircraft repair at Sydney airport, told how when their 90% rate was cut, all the women joined the union and wanted action. The union advised her to organise a stopwork.
All that night I wondered if the girls would do such an unusual thing (for them). All the papers and magazines told us that strikes and stopwork meetings were anti-war effort and quite taboo with the boys at the front. Next morning in the locker room, I ... asked them to join me out on the tarmac at morning tea time for the stop work meeting ... The men talked to the girls and encouraged them and some discussed whether to take action to support us.
On the tarmac, Rosemary climbed onto some wheeled aircraft steps.
By then the girls had gathered courage and passed my prepared resolution unanimously, and became stirred up ... They stubbornly refused to go back to work until Captain Young came to see them. The foreman carried the message to him, but he refused, saying he would accept a men’s delegation. This made the girls mad!
After two hours the men did see the boss, and the women’s pay was restored at the next payday.
Even though the immediate claims were over wages, other issues contributed to the militancy. At Kavanagh and English in Sydney, where women sheet metal workers struck for over 5 weeks over failure to pay the 90% in 1943, a union delegate had earlier in the year attacked the firm for refusing to do anything about conditions. ‘The factory is in a very dirty condition and is infested with vermin ... There are only three toilets for 75 girls.’ During the strike, The Sheet Metal Worker reported ‘there was widespread interest and support throughout the trade, and voluntary collections were made to supplement relief.’
Eventually the Trades and Labour Council intervened, and with complete solidarity the strikers won.
The WEB rates applied to only about 85,000 women. The remainder of the 800,000 working during the war were in more traditional areas, where wages were already established and pegged at very low rates. In the metal industry, with overtime, pay could range up toú9 ($18) per week, but in food processing would not have exceeded ú4 ($8). Not surprisingly there was a critical shortage of labour in the industries supplying the food, clothing and other supplies to the Australian and US forces (not to speak of the civilian population). Rather than raise wages, in 1942 the authorities introduced a form of industrial conscription known as Manpower, requiring all females without children between the ages of 18 and 45 to register. This created a lot of resistance. When they called up 2,000 in Sydney to work in fruit canning factories, 1,800 failed to attend the interview, while some that came brought borrowed babies to prove their unavailability. Manpower could also force transfers. For instance, Queensland munitions workers sometimes had twenty-four hours notice to go to work in canneries. These women were hostile, and according to the Ironworkers’ paper Labour News, were being ‘kept at work with difficulty’. Addressing strikers at Bulimba Cannery in 1944, the union officials successfully argued that striking was only ‘a last resort’. The women returned to work in return for negotiations which brought only a small gain ¾ an increase of 16s ($1.60) on their wage of ú3 ($6) for that season only, and after that a drop back to ú3.5.0 ($6.50).
Anger at the Manpower regulations was one reason female union membership rose from 32.8% of the female workforce in 1939 to 51.9% in 1945, and the number of disputes from 416 to 945.
The textile industry saw important strikes during the war. In September 1941 mass stopworks in several Victorian centres led to 20,000 on strike over war loadings.
After the strike decision, about fifty men and women rushed the stage and tried to take over the meeting. They were quickly dispersed by the police. Speakers were howled down and counted out. Faction fights broke out in the audience. Women screamed at one another, and when the division ... was carried by a large majority, calls of ‘what about the boys overseas fighting for 5/- a day’ ‘scab’ and ‘Fascist’ were heard above the din.
Around the same time 9,000 in Sydney defied their leadership in a strike. It started at Alexandria Spinning Mills where bad conditions underlay the militancy. There was no lunchroom and the workers ‘used to get mad when they read about (the boss’s) race horses winning’. Donations from unionists supported the strike and shopkeepers gave food. Publicity included speaking from a stump in the domain, and many young women ‘came forward who’d never spoken in public before ... they got a wonderful response and they were very good’. After two weeks the Sydney Morning Herald thundered, ‘probably no strike since the war has so offended the public conscience’.
Another major struggle came in 1943 following a failure to raise pay from the traditional 54% in a new award. Again at Alexandria Spinning Mills one thousand women ‘stormed out’ of their factory, set up a strike committee, picketed, and sent delegations to other factories. At one, ‘the striking girls scaled wire grilles to reach the girls working inside ... At other factories the girls were confronted by police at the factory gates.’ By the end of the week, rank and file committees were leading 10,000 workers, who wanted a ‘continuation of their struggle until they had received some kind of justice’.
They would need all their strength. Arrayed against them were the employers, the Arbitration Court, the Labor government and the press. Textile Workers’ Union officials were openly hostile. Not only did they direct the workers to return to work, but they gave names of strikers to the Arbitration Court so they could be fined for ‘absenteeism’. They also manoeuvred so that all in the industry could vote on a continuation rather than just the strikers.
Among those pressuring for a return to work was the Communist Party, which supported the war effort on orders from Moscow. Betty Reilly, a Communist Party activist who worked in a mill, described the response when the strikers’ delegation arrived to call them out. ‘Due mainly to my influence, "Winnie the War Winners" were in the majority at the AWM and my workmates shouted back "what about the war effort" and continued to work.’ However when Reilly later spoke at a mass meeting, the response was very different:
I got up and … tried to convince them of the need to keep on producing for the war effort ... Well this was greeted with howls of derision.
I’d be the only woman on record who took the count at the Leichhardt Stadium for proposing to hundreds of irate workers that we return to work in the interests of defeating fascism.
Although Reilly and others like her sincerely supported workers’ struggles, the party’s position meant a contradiction for them. She herself later recognised: ‘I should have been on the side of those women, criticising the lax and complacent union officials, who, rather than lead us in this strike ... were forcing us back to work.’
There were strikes in several other industries. In 1941 the government tried to ban the Christmas holidays. Large numbers of workers, many of whom had worked overtime for the past year, defied the ban without official union sanction, and resigned on Christmas Eve, only to reapply for their old jobs early in January. As boot and food factories were mainly involved, many must have been women.
The Clothing Trades Union had a policy of no strikes during wartime. A statement from the leadership claimed that, ‘in so far as the men were concerned, this objective was largely achieved and at no stage during the war was there a dispute even of a minor nature involving males’. But: ‘Circumstances in regard to female employment are totally at variance to those surrounding employment of males and the result has been somewhat disastrous.’
Perhaps this referred to Berlei, where the CTU was hand in glove with the management and there was no shop floor organisation. Workers were angry at the sacking of a popular manager and the storing of materials in their lunchroom. Most were young and not long out of school; lacking knowledge of industrial traditions, they used a technique from school, passing notes from machine to machine. In this way they elected representatives and decided to stop work after lunch. As part of the settlement, management agreed to a social committee. The bosses’ attempt to dictate its membership was foiled when committee members were elected again by notes.
When the WEB awarded female railway employees 90% in January 1943, rejecting union calls for equal pay, angry Melbourne porters and ticket collectors marched from Flinders and Spencer Street stations to a protest meeting in the middle of peak hour traffic. Waitresses at restaurants at Farmers Department Store in Sydney struck for several weeks in the same year over the sacking of a waitress and the issue of holiday pay.
Towards the end of the war, industrial disputation stepped up. As Daphne Gollan put it, ‘workers’ war weariness and frustration at long hours, pegged wages and bad working conditions in some industries made them very ready to strike.’
New South Wales, during the 20 months ending August 31 , had 1,432 industrial disputes involving 588,951 workers and resulting in a loss of 1,461,671 man-days. At times in that period and since, industrial disputes wholly or partially deprived the neutral citizen of meat, bread, laundry, newspapers, tyres, theatrical entertainment, hospital attention, buses and trams, coke for stoves, potatoes, restaurants, hot baths, country and interstate travel and other amenities.
These included lost ‘woman-days’. For example, about 450 waitresses working mainly at Sargents and Cahill’s restaurants in Sydney took industrial action in September 1944. They decided not to work on Fridays and Saturdays as a protest against employer refusal to implement a new award. Women and girls at the Sun sparked off the 1944 Sydney printing strike. Although they were poorly paid, the issue was not wages but having to work a 44-hour week while male compositors worked 40 hours. Females were new in this industry and had already made their mark: ‘Lots of old customs got tossed overboard, due to the girls.’ The union officials were largely uninterested, not even including their names on published membership lists. It was only a week after the strike began that the federal secretary realised they worked 44 hours.
A little war job
In wartime, the argument that all classes and layers in society have the same interests is particularly strong. With the ‘national interest’ foremost in most people’s minds, the idea that all were essentially in the same boat was very appealing. Yet a glance at the experiences of upper class women shows they lived through a very different war from that experienced by the working class.
Early in the war, voluntary work played a major role in creating, as Carmel Shute puts it, ‘a mass war consciousness amongst women which transcended class barriers and provided a persuasive model of self-sacrifice’. In addition it undermined the bargaining power of those moving into the new industry sectors. ‘Voluntarism branded women’s labour as cheap ¾ and expendable’. This was an important factor forcing unions to accept dilution.
While voluntary work was advocated for all, it was only practical for those with leisure and independent incomes. The executive members of the Women’s Voluntary National Registry in NSW all lived in exclusive Sydney suburbs. They had backgrounds in conservative women’s organisations, several had honours and at least two were ‘Ladies’. While ostensibly open to all, most women’s service organisations used economic means to restrict their membership. Members had to pay for expensive uniforms, and in some cases their own cars, motor-cycles, horses or rifles. Muriel Heagney denounced the Voluntary Aid Society as a ‘socialite outfit’ and claimed experienced clerks, nurses, domestics and cooks were being rejected because of preference for ‘dilettantes’.
Many continued their usual social round, disguised as patriotic activities. A writer to the Women’s Weekly objected to those ‘who play their bridge so many days a week, and not in the cause of some war charity’. (Italics added) The Ladies’ War Aid Kennel Association gathered ‘to conduct dog parades and other activities in aid of patriotic funds’, holding its first champion dog show at the elegant Toorak residence of Mrs G.J. Coles who ‘as usual came forward and lent her spacious grounds’. Mrs AB Challen insisted that ‘croquet now is only a means of keeping players fit for useful war work.’
The most popular courses for the socialites were in driver training. Some did do real work ¾ of a sort. Labor MP Eddie Ward drew attention to ‘well known Melbourne society girls’ working in the Department of Information. This was defended as voluntary and ‘a little war job’; the minister denied they were driven to the offices in limousines. Some even went into factories. Dame Mabel Brookes worked at an explosives plant at a time when many factories were still working a fifty-six hour week, or more with overtime. She used to ‘turn up regularly in her Rolls Royce about three days a week. She’d be there from about 10.00 am to 3.00 pm. Everyone fussed around her and she didn’t work very hard, but she wasn’t such a bad stick’.
Unions made some effort to resist. The Council of Action for Equal Pay kept a close watch on the women’s auxiliaries and volunteers whose work ‘tended to undermine the campaign for equal pay’. At a conference in 1940, delegates criticised the government for emphasizing unpaid industrial work while ‘ignoring the new special problems inherent in the socially necessary paid work of women and youths in wartime’. One delegate warned voluntary labour could be used to break strikes. Carmel Shute comments:
The voluntary war organisations remained outside the sphere of trade union organisation and their free labour undercut, largely indirectly, the wages and conditions of workers of both sexes. Moreover, their notion that the primary duty of women in the war was to serve the ‘national cause’, irrespective of the conditions under which they did so, seriously diminished the bargaining power of women as they entered new sectors of industry and the armed services.
The role of socialites can be seen in the 1943 strike at Duly and Hansford in Marrickville (Sydney). In May, a thousand munitions workers, mostly women, struck for ten weeks against the employment of non-unionists. The management was anti-union, and the workers already had some experience of short stoppages, when first the FIA and ASE members, and then the whole workplace stopped over ten workers refusing to join. Despite government pressure and a hostile press, the strikers won.
One of the non-unionists, Mrs G Cassiday, was the socially prominent wife of a KC who hoped the fight at Duly and Hansford would be a first step in eliminating strikes. The (upper) class arrogance of another can be seen from her comments after meeting a representative of the Minister for Labour: ‘It is unfortunate they sent that type of man to interview us. All the time they have treated us like wharf labourers’. As Daphne Gollan says, the non-unionists combined ostentatious dedication to the war effort with ‘resentment at workers’ efforts to use labour’s favourable bargaining position to gain some advantage’.
It is fashionable to give all credit for the equal pay fight to feminists, and place the blame for failure to achieve it during the war on union sexism. Andree Wright cites Jessie Street’s belief that ‘half hearted support from the trade unions was largely responsible’ and argues more could have been achieved ‘had ACTU co-operation been more frequent’.
In fact feminists also played a role in restricting wage gains. Jessie Street herself was a leader in the conservative United Associations of Women whose membership was mostly well-to-do. During the 1940 basic wage case, the UAW attempted to intervene to put their case for a gradual introduction of equal pay with 60% immediately and 5% quarterly increments. The unions were furious as they had been arguing for full equal pay, but the publicity for a gradual approach weakened their case. The UAW’s class-based concern for the ability of employers to pay outweighed their support for equal rights.
But in any case we shouldn’t focus entirely on union officials, when rank and file action achieved so much. Ryan and Rowse comment that ‘it is difficult to gain an accurate picture of the class consciousness of the women in the workforce’ and even Daphne Gollan in her study of a dispute says, ‘the main actors, the women strikers, remain silent and invisible’. Yet this chapter has shown that the curtain of silent invisibility is not so difficult to lift. We have found a picture of a repeated industrial struggle.
Even a ‘national cause’ as intense as the war could not abolish the class divisions affecting both sexes. And in the post-war era, as working women faced new difficulties, class conflict would again shape their lives.
Read the next chapter