‘Hats off to the textile workers!’

Phoebe Kelloway continues our series of articles on rebel women in Australian working class history with the story of a militant Depression-era textile strike.

Wildcat strikes were the last thing textile mill bosses expected when they cut wages in August 1932. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and the labour movement was on the defensive.

Union density was high in textiles, but the industry had never experienced unrest. Mill owners slashed wages because they figured they could: industry awards permitted wage reductions to match falling prices. Nobody expected these workers – mostly women, the majority under 25 years old – to be at the forefront of struggle.

Yet 700 employees of Abbotsford’s Yarra Falls Mill refused to accept the 15 percent wage cut, walking out on 10 August without consulting their union officials.

At Coburg’s Lincoln Mill, three young women tried to sabotage the mill motors to force a stop-work meeting. When they were sacked on the spot, their co-workers struck and won their reinstatement. A 3,500-strong city-wide strike, involving all the major mills, began on the 24th.

Launceston mill workers were also angered that their pay had been cut by 10 percent. More than 1,000 of Launceston’s 1,200 textile workers struck from 22 August. The union’s general secretary, George Edgar Russell, travelled from Sydney to support them, pledging to stay until they won.

Young women led the strike from the start. Some derided them as “irresponsible girls,” while others cheered them on. One letter writer to the Launceston Examiner declared: “Hats off to the textile workers! These flappers have shown the industrial movement the way home.”

They threw themselves into strike action enthusiastically. When 3,000 strikers met at Melbourne’s Trades Hall, The Age reported: “For the first time in its history the building was found to be totally inadequate to accommodate the large crowd.”

Undeterred, they sang “community songs” before heading to another venue, “marching along Russell Street singing”, as The Argus reported. Young women were observed “dancing and singing” in the Launceston Trades Hall. Its corridors rang out with “the enthusiastic shout of ‘Solidarity forever!’” throughout the strike, according to The Examiner.

The picket line at Launceston’s Waverley Mill was tested when “two youths attempted to pass … on their bicycles”. One was scared off easily, The Examiner reported. The other tried to push through, but was “immediately set upon by a large number of female pickets” and knocked to the ground.

As The Mercury noted, “one of the girls was hitting at him with a rope”. A policeman “swinging his handcuffs” tried to escort him through the line. Although picketers were hit and one was taken to hospital, they won the day. Perhaps the strikers’ resolve was strengthened because, according to a local source, the young would-be scab was the manager’s son!

The textile workers’ determination was not enough to outweigh their inexperience and the divisions among their officials. The Launceston strikers, urged on by Russell and with the support of the trade union movement across Tasmania, held out for 16 days.

Their Melbourne counterparts were in a weaker position. Only a minority of Victorian branch officials supported the strike, so it didn’t spread as it needed to. When the bosses threatened to withdraw their initial offer, the Melbourne strike ended after 10 days.

Although textile workers didn’t win, they made real gains through industrial action that they couldn’t have achieved through arbitration. In both states, the wage cut was halved, to 7.5 percent in Victoria and 5 percent in Tasmania. Given the Depression, it was an impressive result.