Sweatshop rebels

The 1981 Kortex strike


This chapter is based on my own direct involvement with the strike, recounted in a talk at the 1982 Women and Labour Conference in Adelaide. The original published version was entitled ‘Migrant Women Organise: The Kortex Strike of 1981’, Hecate, vol. X, August 1983, later reprinted as a pamphlet, Sweatshop Rebels, Redback Press, Melbourne, 1983.

How quickly people can change. The December 1981 Kortex strike illustrates how women’s oppression and their exploitation as workers combine and interact. A struggle in the workplace can spill over into the home and family life, with remarkable consequences.

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

The Kortex workers seemed to fit the stereotype of passive, submissive, easily exploited migrant women. Yet their ten-day strike, involving 300 women, brought enormous transformations. In the course of the dispute they had to fight cops wielding batons and wearing guns; and face arrest, bullying from company thugs and intimidation from their employers.

How did a workforce with no trade union experience, no history of militancy, and with problems of communicating in several different languages get involved in such as strike in the first place? The answer does not lie in that particular factory, nor in any perception of their own oppression and exploitation by the strikers themselves. That perception was only to come in the course of the struggle.

To see how it began, we must look at what was happening in the working class as a whole. After several years of recession and industrial defeat, the workers’ movement was fighting back, recording three to four million strike days annually between 1979 and 1981. The Storemen and Packers and Transport Workers Unions, along with other militant sections of the labour movement, had won pay rises of $25 and more as well as a shorter working week. Their victories had created an atmosphere of confidence and combativity among weaker unions. When you drove around the northern and western suburbs of Melbourne, you would frequently find pickets of workers on strike for higher wages.

One of the women at Kortex had a husband working at Rowntree’s chocolate factory, where they had won a pay rise by industrial action; others had husbands working at Ford in Broadmeadows where there had been a long and bitter stoppage not long before. As well, a very small number belonged to the Victorian Turkish Labourers’ Association (VTEB), a revolutionary communist group who had been involved in the Ford strike. The printing shop next door was on strike. There was an atmosphere in the area that you could win wage rises, if you were prepared to fight. All that was needed was a spark to ignite the pent-up anger and militancy.

This spark was provided, ironically enough, not by the employers but by the officials of the Textile Workers’ Union. When they failed to show up one Friday for a meeting about a $25 pay claim, the women were furious and they walked out, making plans to picket the factory on the following Monday.

On the Monday morning, by the time three hundred of them had picketed their factory, and marched to another Kortex factory nearby and brought all the workers there on strike, they began to feel their collective strength. It was now they began to talk of their oppression and super-exploitation, talked bitterly of the conditions they had endured for years, and drew up a log of demands.

They wanted an end to the compulsory ‘bonus’ system. The so-called ‘bonus’ system meant that if you didn’t get the extra amount of work done for the bonus, you were sacked. And even if you did finish it, you never knew just how much it was worth ¾ it seemed to change at the bosses’ whim. They wanted a canteen so they had somewhere decent to have lunch and tea breaks so they didn’t have to smoke in the toilets. And speaking of tea breaks, they wanted more of them. They only ever had one a day. They wanted the right to visit the toilet when they chose and for as long as they chose. The existing system was two visits a day, and these for only three minutes. Any longer brought the supervisors to drag them back to work. And perhaps the most galling of all was the compulsory donations they had to make for the bosses’ birthdays. They wanted that stopped.

So after one day, it was no longer simply a fight over pay. One woman told me that no Australians worked there because ‘it’s not a factory, it’s a jail’. And for the first time, they had begun to break down the walls of that jail. As a result of their own activity they began to see the world, and their position in it, in a new light.

Tuesday morning was to be a test of their newfound strength. And it was now that their lack of trade union traditions ¾ the very thing that held them back before ¾ could be a source of strength. Even quite militant workers can be demoralized when their trade union officials refuse to support them. But these women had no conception of the union officials doing anything for them. When the officials refused to bring out the scabs working inside (about ten to twelve), the women’s response was to say: ‘We’ll strengthen the pickets ¾ and no one will get in to work’. These strikers had broken out of the bondage of a lifetime. They were not about to sit quietly and be defeated.

So they strengthened the pickets. Again, unlike more experienced unionists, they had no concern for what others would think of them; they were not concerned about how they would look in the press. And unlike many pickets closely allied to union officials, they welcomed support from socialists. When members of VTEB and the International Socialists (I.S.) went to the pickets, we were treated as if it was the most natural thing in the world for us to be there. One day later in the week, when one TV camera crew followed me around, obviously hoping to prove that the picket was being run by ‘outsiders’, the women gathered around me and began chanting ‘no money ¾ no work’ until the camera crew gave up the chase.

The strikers did not hesitate to defend themselves again violence. When the cops attacked them with batons, they used their shoes to beat them back. When the union officials called them ‘a pack of animals’ they were so angry they drove the officials into the factory yard, to hide behind the fence with the Kortex owners and managers.

After the pickets had stopped a couple of trucks from entering the factory gates, the excitement and exuberance which erupted was so infectious that those visiting the picket found themselves caught up in Turkish dancing and learning songs about cutting out union officials’ tongues. Whenever anything exciting or dangerous happened, the women made a high pitched, trilling noise, which echoed around the factory walls.

The use of their own cultural ways to strengthen the pickets probably explained why at least eighty to a hundred women arrived daily by 7:30 am, after finishing as late as 11:30 the night before. You always felt welcome on the picket, and that there was some point in being there even when there was no new development in the struggle: there were always singing, dancing and discussions.

The lively atmosphere was particularly important in this dispute. In most strikes, the employers and managers keep a low profile. But in this one, they played a very prominent role in trying to demoralise the pickets, organising scabs and directing the police. They probably had as little sleep as the picketers themselves. It was clear that the women’s high spirits annoyed them immensely. It became just as clear that if the picketers could get to speak to any of the women trying to enter the factory, they could usually talk them out of it. The bosses went to absurd lengths to prevent this happening.

On Tuesday, when the afternoon shift was about to start, the managers used men we called the ‘goons’ (paid $25 an hour) and the police to surround women approaching the factory to try and escort them into work, past the pickets. But they were fighting a losing battle. There were incidents where a handful of women were being hassled into the factory surrounded by three or four cops, two or three bosses and their thugs. When strikers went over and managed to talk to these women, they managed to draw them away from the intimidating group of men to join the picket. Then the picketers would erupt into wild excitement.

To be on that picket was to understand what sisterhood really means. They didn’t talk about it, but it was there, because the women had a shared experience of common oppression and because they understood each other from working together, day in day out. The only reason any woman went to work during the strike was out of fear. If the picketers could talk to them, they could overcome that fear.

One event illustrates how well they understood how to undermine their opponents’ confidence. A group was approaching the factory when some of the Turkish women called out to them in Turkish. There were some quiet smiles, and an air of amusement which we didn’t understand (not speaking Turkish). The new arrivals approached the police lines at the factory gate and looked as if they were about to go in to work. Several of the Turkish women left the picket and went over to them. After a few words between the two groups, they all walked back to the picket. At first we thought it was simply the same event we had witnessed many times. But the excitement this time had a different quality. Bursting with curiosity, we asked what was going on. They explained that they knew the women were coming to the picket, but had called out and told them to do what they had done, so as to make it look as if more women had been won away from the bosses.

The picketers had now established that they could effectively close down the factory, so the union officials called a mass meeting for the Wednesday morning. This seemed as if it could be a stumbling block for the strikers: they had no knowledge of meeting procedures, they spoke lots of different languages (mainly Turkish, Greek, Arabic, Croation and Italian) and few spoke English fluently. When busloads of women from other factories owned by Kortex began to arrive, it was clear the bosses were determined to win ¾ even if it meant foul play.

They had leaflets in every language spoken in the factory, arguing for a return to work with the $13.50 the Arbitration Court had awarded to the whole industry. As far as anyone knew, the women in the bosses’ bus weren’t on strike anyway.

Unfortunately, the picketers had only been able to get leaflets translated into English, Turkish and Greek, but they had the edge on the employers. On that day, meeting procedure was not the main requirement. They needed courage, determination, the will to fight on whatever ground their opponents set.

The union officials made a show of only letting in union members at the door but, somehow, the goons were all inside the hall when the meeting began. The officials were determined that the I.S. and VTEB members supporting the strike would not get in. But the striking women would have none of that. Some of them crowded onto the stage carrying placards saying ‘no money ¾ no work’, and chanting slogans. Their response to provocation was no longer simply spontaneous; it was becoming more political. The trilling noise was more and more replaced by slogans which they had all learnt in English. The women on the floor kicked up such a fuss that the officials had to throw out every one of the goons.

As a large proportion of the women were Turkish, Sultan spoke in English and Turkish. Sultan was a member of VTEB; her role along with other members of VTEB in providing leadership throughout the strike was important. They understood the importance of solidarity from outside, the need to keep all the strikers actively involved, the value of militancy and politics. On this day, her speech was crucial in holding firm any women inclined to give in to the mounting pressure. Because of her role at the picket (she had been arrested the first morning) she had a standing which any interpreters employed by the officials lacked. In fact, they were regarded with suspicion (as they are in many strikes involving migrants). And because of her own difficulty with English, she could use words and phrases, which the women understood.

The strikers refused to vote any way other than by a division ¾ and they won. The officials had no choice but to declare the strike official. They closed down the three Kortex factories in Melbourne. The television that night made great play of the fact that police were called in to stand between the two sides in the division. They were supposedly necessary to prevent the strikers from intimidating those who wanted to go back to work. Not a word about the intimidating tactics of the employers. This was an attempt to portray the strike as a fight between different groups of workers. Of course, picketers often do have to fight scabs that are people they have worked with. But in this strike, the women knew that those who voted to go back did so out of fear ¾ and they wanted to win them over, not intimidate them.

A second mass meeting was called for Friday to be held at Trades Hall. This time the strikers had leaflets in Arabic as well. But the bosses were much better organised than the previous time. They had supplied a list of names which the union officials used to admit people to the meeting. Because the women on the pickets didn’t know those from other factories, they couldn’t be sure who was eligible and who wasn’t. But it was clear that some of the company goons were being let in. As well, the factory owners and managers had megaphones, and placards saying ‘We Want Work’. They were learning from the picketers how to hold a demonstration. But try as they might, they couldn’t get chants going with anywhere near the enthusiasm of the picketers.

The strikers didn’t waste time being angry with the women with the bosses. They kept their anger for the bosses themselves, their goons, the police and the union officials. One of the employers went off trailing blood from his nose all down the corridors of Trades Hall. The air was stifling as hundreds of people crowded into the corridors. There were continual fights between the two sides, shouting, chanting and occasionally the high-pitched trilling. Amid all this, the picketers managed to steal one of the bosses’ megaphones.

Inside the meeting, pandemonium broke loose when the officials announced there would be a secret ballot (the offer was the same as on Wednesday). The women for the strike were politically opposed to a secret ballot: they said everyone should be willing to show where they stood in front of their work mates. But, just as importantly, they didn’t trust the officials, a mistrust which was to prove well founded.

After a long argument, it became evident that the other side was going to vote and the officials would use the votes to call off the strike. So those who wanted to continue the struggle decided to participate in many arguments going on in about five different languages. The scene was one of chaos, but this was to increase when they tried to lodge their votes in favour of staying out. The supervisors from the factory were guarding the ballot boxes. They were vetting the ballot papers, trying to tear up those for continuing the strike, and letting the other side vote more than once. Some of the women we knew from the pickets left the room and sat outside, refusing to even try to vote.

But the chaos frightened the employers, and they began trying to get the women back to the buses, declaring the whole thing a farce. They feared the enthusiasm of the strikers would infect their own side ¾ and the only way to be sure was to keep order, and to keep both sides apart. During the ensuing bedlam, some of the VTEB men got into the meeting room. They began to attack some of the goons. But the women from the picket pushed them out of the way, yelling: ‘Get out of the way, let us at them!’ and using their shoes to good effect.

When the vote came out, it was 365 for staying out and 362 to go back ¾ out of a meeting of no more than 500. The officials had set it up, so they had to accept the result. On talking to the strikers while driving back, we learnt that this victory had depended on the fighting spirit of the young women, some as young as sixteen. Some of them had fought their way in and voted up to ten times. When we laughed, they simply replied: ‘Some of the older women could not get ballot papers, so we had to vote for them.’ They had learnt lessons no amount of formal ‘education’ could teach them. Of course, the vote was a farce, but the strike had been saved ¾ not by playing ‘fair’ but by sheer determination.

Over the weekend, the union officials and the bosses organised a meeting inside the factory for Monday morning. They sent out letters to the women’s homes. That Monday morning, the officials were nowhere to be found, but it was soon obvious that a secret ballot was taking place. Being one of the few who spoke English, I rang the union office to find out where they were. I was told they were at the Kortex picket. So I rang the company, and said I was an organiser with the union. Were any officials or organisers there, please? ‘Oh, yes,’ came the reply, ‘they’re all here. Which one do you want?’

The employers had cars circling the neighbourhood picking up women and hustling them into the factory, with security guards and police keeping the pickets at a distance. The security guards were later called off the picket by their union, the Miscellaneous Workers. But the police provoked a violent confrontation and used the opportunity to arrest several people. One of the bosses gave an I.S. member a black eye.

It became necessary to send in a delegation to find out what the offer was. That was the only time any of the women were afraid of the struggle. The thought of a small number having to go inside with police, bosses, thugs and union officials without the support of the mass of strikers, almost made them lose their courage. But eventually, four or five volunteered to go with Sultan. They discovered they were being offered an extra $11.50 at the end of March 1982, on top of the $13.50 granted by arbitration.

Not a massive amount, and not as much as the militants wanted to hold out for, but still a victory. And that wasn’t all. On the last day before the Christmas break, the women stopped work for a party ¾ for the first time ever. The bosses were so nervous they didn’t say a word, and so the workers had won for themselves a half-holiday. Solidarity inside the factory was at an all-time high; some improvements were made in working conditions and shop stewards elected.

It must be evident from the accounts of both the pickets and the mass meetings that the women’s self-confidence grew enormously; and solidarity between the different migrant groups was improved. But there was another important area of their lives which was greatly affected by the strike: relations between themselves and their families. There was never any suggestion that the struggle should be confined to the women themselves. This was not just in relation to their men, but also to socialists who offered help and support. Influenced by the revolutionary politics of VTEB members, they welcomed all the support they could get, while confidently running the strike themselves.

The men who came to the picket lines quite naturally fell in behind the women’s leadership. They bought the coffee, minded children on the picket line and, where necessary, played an active role in the fighting. They helped translate leaflets, and at the mass meetings it was mostly men and members of VTEB and the I.S. who handed them out. This freed the women to do more political work such as preparing speeches, speaking to women who might be wavering, leading chants when the bosses’ bus arrived.

Such work was more important than leafleting, but because those of us leafleting were more visible to the employers and union officials, they firmly believed that if they could keep us away from the strike it would collapse ¾ that we were wholly responsible for this outbreak of what they considered completely unreasonable behavior. This was a complete misunderstanding. Outside supporters could provide back-up, and sometimes advice, but without the courage, creativity and will to fight of the Kortex workers, no amount of ‘outside interference’ could have made the strike happen.

It was not only on the pickets that attitudes began to change. In the homes, the men took over child care and house duties to free the women to attend the pickets for long hours. Here was an example of how women’s issues and those of class exploitation are bound together; how a struggle can change attitudes and break down divisive stereotypes.

As they fought to change their circumstances, the Kortex strikers also changed themselves and those around them.

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