A stitch in time.
Experiences in the rag trade
By Betty Reilly
Australian Left Review, September 1982
By Bob Gould
My bookshop in King Street, Newtown, is about 200 yards from
was the piece of waste ground called the Bullring, where the circus
used to play in Newtown and where working-class public meetings used to
The Bullring was the site of the famous debate during the
Period between the Stalinist leader Lance Sharkey and the then Langite
Jack (J.R.) Hughes, who later joined the Communist Party and became a
leading figure in it and the clerks' union.
A little more distant is Missenden Road, which runs to
Road, passing Prince Alfred Hospital, now a centre of militancy in the
nurses' union. The corner of Parramatta and Missenden roads was the
site of one of the two fatalities in Australian trade union life. On
this corner, police killed a striker during the 1917 general strike.
All through the 1980s this corner was dominated by a deserted
skeleton of a building, which has become an elegant apartment block,
like so many deserted industrial sites around Sydney.
For nearly 60 years, this was the Bonds Athletic building, a
custom-built industrial operation for the dominant firm in the
Australian textile industry, whose ads featuring a comic figure called
Chesty Bond were ubiquitous in Australia from the 1920s to the 1960s.
In 1982, Betty Reilly, a Communist Party veteran, published a
memoir of her industrial experiences in the CPA, including her
"industrialisation" in the Bond factory and other textile plants in
World War II.
In this article, Betty Reilly is frank and regretful about the
played by the CPA in opposing the spontaneous militancy of the
super-exploited, mainly women, textile workers fighting for equal pay
at that time.
Around the same time, during World War II, the CPA strenuously
opposed the efforts of Muriel Heagney, the equal pay officer of the
Melbourne Trades Hall Council to use the crisis of the war period to
press for full equal pay for women.
Heagney, a one-time member of the CPA, was dismissed as a
who didn't understand the importance of opposing such demands in the
interests of the war effort.
Betty Reilly's little memoir is politically interesting for
reflection on the CPA line during the war, and as a warm and human
memoir of the struggle.
Sometimes lightning does strike the same spot twice. About 15
later, the pioneer Communist novelist Dorothy Hewitt also
"industrialised" herself in the Bond's factory and based her rather
romantic novel, Bobbin Up, on her experiences there. This novel
is notable for a description of the two Communist protagonists making
love with the knowledge that their love is strengthened by the presence
of the recently launched Sputnik circling the earth. Some CPA critics
regarded that aspect of the novel as pornographic.
Dorothy Hewitt's autobiography, Wild Card, is an
moving and useful account of her very serious attempt to integrated
creative writing with Communist political and industrial activity.
A stitch in time. Experiences in the rag trade
For many centuries, women and children have been associated
spinning and weaving in one form or another. But it wasn't until
mid-19th century capitalist development in Britain, when the old
cottage-style or domestic textile industry was replaced by mechanical
devices, that they were congregated into large factories.
New steam-driven machines promoted new divisions of labour and
boosted production. This enabled employers to sack most males, with the
exception of maintenance staff and overseers, and replace them with the
much cheaper, flexible-fingered labour power of women, aged between 16
and 20, and children, many under the age of 10, who controlled all the
processes of production.
The textile industry then held pride of place in British
manufacture. But it soon became notorious for excessively long hours
%#151; up to 16 a day being common — incredibly cruel, unhealthy,
substandard working conditions, near-zero wages and, of course, huge
profits. In a nutshell, the period of capitalism's greatest progress
was the period of the most brutal, sadistic exploitation of the working
class, and especially degrading to the human rights and dignity of
women and defenceless children.
In An Outline of European History, Maurice Dobb has
this to say about that period:
The employers utilised a law of Henry VIII which provided
that parish officers were to put pauper children out to apprenticeship
and they had children dispatched to them from London and elsewhere, to
work in their mills nominally as apprentices, actually as indentured
slaves. These wretched children were worked anything up to 16 hours a
day, being kept awake on night work by the whips of overseers — heavy
iron sticks known as billy rollers — or by plunging them in tubs of
cold water, or if the employers were "humane" — by being made to sing
A physician's report of the time declared that "the mill
not a moment free except for meal times, and never goes out into the
fresh air except on its way to them. The factory system in Bradford has
engendered a multitude of cripples."
However, by the time the textile industry was transplanted
Old Dart to Australia, trade union action and factory legislation had
largely curtailed these cruel excesses and the eight-hour day had been
legalised. Nevertheless, as we shall see, wages and working conditions
in most Australian mills continued to chug along the old
institutionalised Dickensian path.
The depression of the 1930s hit textiles badly. Many
plants either closed down or operated at half-mast. Unemployment was
Paradoxically, World War II was the linch-pin for the
revival. By April 1940 both the sixth and seventh army divisions had
been recruited and sent overseas. Huge and profitable government
cost-plus contracts for supplying the armed forces began flooding in to
stimulate the textile industry as never before.
Simultaneously, through government-sponsored regulations (The
Minimum Rates Regulations and the Women's Employment Board), women's
wages began rising from a low of 54 per cent of the male basic wage to
75 per cent, and up to 100 per cent of the male rate in many industries
previously closed to females, transport for example. But women
returning to textiles, a traditional female labour industry, were
expected to survive rising living costs on a miserly 54 per cent of the
male basic wage — not even the basic rate.
And because the textile industry had been declared under
manpower regulations as essential to war production, our wages were
pegged and we were prevented from seeking jobs elsewhere for more
dough. The imposition of this form of economic conscription played
right into the hands of greedy textile barons, fully determined to
resist all attempts to alter existing wage rates.
Communists in industry
When war started in September 1939, not too many Communists
be found in the textile industry. But the few stalwarts, like Lindsay
Mountjoy and Bob and Joyce Batterham and several others, aimed to
unionise the industry; to encourage the plugs to unite and fight for
wage hikes and humane working conditions; for more frequent union
meetings and to democratise union elections.
And in June 1941 when Hitler lashed out at the Soviet Union,
followed closely by the Japanese Pearl Harbour horror, our agitation
and propaganda was broadened. We now emphasised the changed character
of the war and called for national unity and an intensified war effort
by all working people; we also urged the unions and government to
increase pressure on the textile bosses to lift wages and amend the
deplorable working situation, then assessed as a national blot.
But apparently our propaganda didn't cut too much ice with the
majority of textile workers, and towards the end of 1941, and again in
February 1943, they thumbed their noses at all and sundry, threw in
their billies and went out to grass.
My involvement with textiles began during the 1941 strike.
unemployed, I offered my services to the Newtown Strike Committee and
assisted in the collection of money and food for family relief.
Maybe that strike inspired me to help change the complexion of
textile industry. For shortly after, young, enthusiastic, politically
green with a starry-eyed dedication to the Communist Party, Joe Stalin
and the war effort, I joined the underpaid at Bond's Knitting Mills in
Camperdown. There, I quickly cottoned on to the meaning of rabid
exploitation; and to what Karl Marx meant when he talked about a class
of wage earners with neither property nor hope of acquiring any — a
class which, in his phrase, "had only its chains to lose".
At Bonds, for just over £2 weekly, we were expected each
day to slip
silk waste from 1728 stockings before being eligible for a bonus.
Although not actually muzzled, silence combined with heads down and
bums up was the unofficial order of the day. Needless to say, several
of us failed to meet these austere requirements. And before the
euphoria of reaching the bonus level came, the little note in the
light-on paypacket arrived dispensing with our services — minus the
golden handshake. And as union fees at Bonds were deducted from wages
and paid directly to the organiser in the bosses' office, no job
delegates were around to question our dismissal or to intervene on our
Nothing daunted, I trudged over to the Australian Woollen
Marrickville and signed on as a doffer — mounting and taking down large
bobbins — in the section spinning wool into yarn for Yankee soldiers'
uniforms. If the going was tough at Bonds, it took all my staying power
to remain put at the AWM, despite coercive ball-and-chain manpower
At the AWM, 75 per cent of the workforce were women, many the
of enlisted servicemen rearing young families alone, and teenage girls
on starvation wages. We adults yackered long, exhausting hours — up to
12 daily — for the princely sum of £2/16/9 weekly, including
Not having been cleaned since the days of elastic-sided boots
straw-decker hats, the huge departments in the plant were dark, dismal
and depressing, with overhead water sprays and underfoot hot water
pipes keeping the concrete floor damp and the atmosphere moist. The
ventilation was poor, the noise deafening and the place lacked stools,
lockers, lunchroom, canteen, and had inadequate toilet and washing
The rate of tuberculosis was high, colds, chest complaints,
fatigue and undernourishment were common. Standing up constantly
resulted in varicose veins and swollen feet. And for years after
leaving textiles, my hands were plagued with frequent outbreaks of
Occupational health hazards, now recognised and compensated
like bysinossis, a disease resembling silicosis of cotton workers, were
also prevalent. Add this not inconsiderable little lot to no paid
annual leave, sick leave or long-service leave, and a picture emerges
comparable with the squalid conditions in cruel mid-19th-century
In contrast to Bonds' company union set-up, members at the AWM
scarcer than the proverbial duck's dentures. So, securing a receipt
book and membership cards from headquarters, I set about getting the
joint organised. And in two flips of a tiger's tail, the plugs in my
and adjacent rooms were into the union and rearing to go. Being
suitably impressed, the union organiser exemplified the lack of
elementary democracy in the union by appointing me shop steward and not
calling a meeting to let the plugs decide.
Nevertheless, a petition demanding a canteen, stools, change
better ventilation and other urgent needs, circulated on the day,
afternoon and night shifts, was highly successful. When presented by a
departmental deputation, the startled manager couldn't believe his eyes
and began the interview by questioning the authenticity of the 1000 or
Meanwhile, the union hierarchy, under job pressure and fearing
another strike like the Black Death, had got their act together. A new
log of claims was presented calling for an increase of six bob weekly
in the male rate; the adult female rate to be 90 per cent of the male
rate, and a 20 per cent increase for juniors.
Although not yet in force, the bosses had already agreed to
week's annual leave, one week's sick pay, and increased rates for
certain classes of work. But the wage claims were well on the way to
grief. When first presented to Justice O'Mara and given the arse by
him, they were then referred to the full Arbitration Court on the
question of whether an anomaly existed in respect to female rates
because of a decision by the WEB, which had fixed the female rate at up
to 90 per cent of the male rate.
The full Arbitration Court decided that there was no anomaly
respect to female rates and the union's claims were referred back to Mr
Justice "boss-aligned" O'Mara. So began the dickering and farting
around saga so typical of class-based arbitration courts to this very
Time marched on and with it the growing frustration and anger
the women at the court's delay in finalising our new award. A delay
especially irksome to women still trying to scrape along on 54 per cent
of the male basic wage, knowing that their relatives and friends
performing similar tasks in nearby factories were receiving 75 and up
to 100 per cent of the male rate.
Well, how do you think they felt? They obviously felt like a
Toohey's because, in February 1943 1000 or so women spontaneously
stormed out of the Alexandria Spinning Mill in defiance of the boss,
the union and the government. The women immediately elected a strike
committee and scouts were soon outside the AWM calling on us to join
them. But, 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. The strike's spontaneity took
everyone by surprise. But support for it was patchy and confined to
women only in several large woollen and cotton plants. Men who took
over from women for the night shift refused to join the strike and the
knitting mills refused to be involved. However, in one case 70 men were
thrown idle because wool and basil workers declared the wool "black".
Members of the Wool and Basil Workers Union had decided during a
previous dispute that where men handled machines usually operated by
women, they would not supply the wool.
The union top brass quickly moved in, ordering the women back
work; old O'Mara danced up and down and stopped hearing our claims; the
Labor government threatened to fine and/or jail workers absenting
themselves from work, and the bosses took advantage of the situation to
withdraw the gains already achieved.
But the women, angry and tenacious, were not to be intimidated
threats of reprisals. It took three mass meetings, plus assistance from
Eddie Ward, then federal Minister for Labour, and Jock Garden, Liaison
officer between the government and unions, before agreement was reached
under protest "to return to work with no confidence in the union
executive and we ask the Labor Council to inquire into the conduct of
As for me, I'd be the only woman on record who took the count
Leichhardt Stadium for proposing to hundreds of irate workers that we
return to work in the interests of defeating fascism.
What was the main issue?
Stable doors are quickly banged after the nags have bolted.
certainly chalked up a few errors like — losing sight of policy on
industrial disputes — best expressed at the time by Tom Wright, member
of the CPA Central Committee and NSW secretary of the Sheet Metal
Workers Union. He had this to say in March 1943 to Justice O'Mara in
the Arbitration Court concerning the employers of 20 factories trying
to dodge a decision of the WEB to award women 90 per cent of the male
While pledging ourselves to avoid stoppages of work which
can only be harmful to the war effort, we warn the employers concerned
that there is a strong feeling among women employees about the delay
and that further delays will lead to serious disputes for which the
employers will bear full responsibility.
A nicely balanced statement indicating political nous and
flexibility in handling complex situations.
In contrast, we tended to overemphasise uninterrupted
the war effort causing lines of communication with workmates to foul
up. In turn, we lost sight of the main issue — the feelings of deep
resentment among women who daily saw themselves getting poorer and
farther behind in the thrust for more bread.
In general, our propaganda and tactics remained fairly static
confusing instead of being updated. For example, calling on the plugs
to get into the union and fight while appealing for an uninterrupted
In retrospect, we should have been out in front giving
leadership to textile workers in the 1941 and 1943 strikes. The
arrogant Pommie bosses should have been thumped hard for holding up war
production by stalling on wage increases. Crafty old O'Mara, who was
aiding and abetting the bosses by seeking loopholes in women's wage
rates regulations should have been exposed; the Labor Party, then in
government, should have been called upon to honour its pledge to the
International Labour Organisation that, if elected to office it would
legislate for wage parity. And the right-wing union top bananas should
have been soundly indicted for their outright opposition to both
strikes, their boss collaboration over the years, and their complacency
and cautious indifference to the workers' needs.
That was part of the action almost 40 years ago. Women in
now have the rate for the job — but what a rate. Spinners last year
were getting roughly $167 weekly, or around $4 hourly. Weavers,
considered the industry's aristocrats, were getting slightly more.
Compare this token with the average weekly wage for males in NSW in
June 1981 of $294-odd, and you get a real rat-shit rate for the job in
the textile industry.
The major responsibility for this mockery of wage parity rests
the largely male-dominated right-wing union tall poppies. Their fear of
struggle and strife with the bosses over the years has dominated their
thinking. Now, it dictates their reluctance to fight to reduce the
ever-widening gap between lower and higher paid industrial workers.
Women workers have a responsibility too, despite ethnic
and language problems relatively non-existent until after World War II:
responsibilities like becoming more knowledgeable and vocal about the
policies and aims of their union; more assertive about their right to
adequate wage rates; employment conditions suitable to domestic
requirements; and being more aware and demanding of their right to
proportional representation on job and union committees for the airing
and realisation of particular needs.
From the very beginning of the modern textile industry,
has been handled effectively, and extremely profitably, in the main, by
adult and junior women. We can be thoroughly optimistic about a future
when the whole textile caboose — including management and
administration — will be added to the control women already exercise
over all the processes of plant production.
Betty Reilly joined the Communist Party in 1937, and at the
of writing this piece in 1982 was still actively interested in
politics, the women's movement and the movement for peace and