Women in the Trade Unions

Unite against prejudice & oppression!

23 May 2022

The following is a lightly edited version of a talk given by IBT supporter Adaire Hannah at a delayed commemoration of International Women’s Day held on 10 April 2022. The panel discussion, entitled “Breaking the Bias”, was organised by the Wellington Socialist Society in collaboration with Friends of Vogelmorn.

International Working Women’s Day originated in 1908, when on 8 March female needle trades workers in New York City marched for an 8-hour day, the end of child labor and suffrage for women.

On 8 March 1917, Petrograd’s women textile workers led a strike of over 90,000 workers. This event was the beginning of the Russian revolution. The Russian Revolution made 8 March into a holiday for working women and demonstrated that working men were in struggle together with working women—against some feminists, who wanted International Women’s Day to be a women only event [see “Marxism, Feminism & Women’s Liberation”]. Krupskaya, a senior member of the Bolshevik Party, wrote: “That which unites women with working men is stronger than that which divides them. They are united by their common lack of rights, their common needs, their common condition… and their common goal.…”

Lessons from Napier Tobacco Factory

A long time ago, in the late 1960s, when I was very young, I spent two university summer holidays working at the Napier tobacco factory. We women were the labourers while the few male workers were mechanics—a more privileged layer. Whenever one section of the workforce went on strike, the other section usually worked—that is they scabbed—so gains were few. The factory employed a forewoman whose main responsibility was keeping us women in line.

During my second university holiday I discovered after Christmas that there were practically no cigarettes left in the stockpile. The factory was dependent on everything that came off our machines. This was a time when we had strength. So I began talking with the women about taking action for better conditions and pay. These talks taught me that the divisions between male and female workers, and between skilled and unskilled workers, undermine our strength.

Napier’s summers are very hot, and with the heat from the heaters on the machines added, the factory was stifling. So we called in the union. A union official came and walked around the aisles next to the forewoman with his shirt sleeves rolled up. He did not talk to any of us before he left. The forewoman told us that the factory was deemed “not too hot.” This was my first engagement with a union.

I learned five important lessons from working beside these women:

  1. The gender division in a workforce has to be overcome. We will not win if we do not fight together.

  2. A woman boss is a boss, not our sister.

  3. While unions are important defence organisations, they are not always our defenders.

  4. Blacklisting of workers must be stopped.

  5. And I needed to find a revolutionary organisation that would provide me with the skills and knowledge to be an effective trade unionist.

Defending Adult Community Education

Leap forward a few decades to 2009, when the National Party Minister of Education was Hekia Parata. She cut the funding to Adult Community Education’s budget, which catered for 22,000 adult students, from $16 million to $3 million. At the same time as she made these cuts to public education, she gave an additional $35 million to private education.

The school I worked at was one of the biggest providers of Adult Community Education. The secondary school teacher’s union, the PPTA, had a completely pathetic response: not much more than suggesting members write letters to Members of Parliament. Our branch of the union decided we had to do more to support our Adult Community Education tutors, so a resolution to strike was passed and we began to organise. There was lots of talk about tactics. We liaised with our Adult Community Education colleagues, wrote press releases, informed our community, came up with chants and slogans, stood on the corners of a major intersection before school with placards, and we held a very noisy pre-school rally outside the Ministry of Education offices. Our caretaking staff, who are not members of our union, made poles for the placards. Our staffroom after school was often a hive of industry.

Two days before the strike, I was called to the head office of the union, where I was dressed down by the president and four other senior members. The president demanded that I agree to call off the strike then and there—it was illegal, the union was up for $100,000 fine, and every member who participated was up for a $10,000 fine. Of course, I said it wasn’t up to me to call the strike off. That was a decision for the branch. The next day we held a branch meeting to discuss the head office’s demand. The branch reaffirmed its decision to strike. So teachers, students and community members marched from school to parliament [see the video “Wellington Walkout against Night Class Cuts”].

The strike was a high point. We had understood and acted on the principle that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Several teachers said that for the first time they felt like real union members, not just fodder for an event organised by someone else.

Unite against the Bosses

How do these stories about two actions of a trade unionist relate to the topic “Break the Bias”? Bias and prejudice are part of the arsenal of capitalist rulers to maintain power. Divide and rule: male against female, white against non-white, religious divisions, straight vs the rainbow community, employed vs unemployed. National Party leader Chris Luxon calling some workers “bottom feeders” is a perfect example of his class bias. Workers must fight against all such prejudices: it is these chains that maintain our exploitation and oppression.

The 1991 Employment Contracts Act—which later became the Employment Relations Act—restricted the right to engage in industrial action, except during our contract negotiations, which are limited to wages and conditions. The union movement’s failure to fight this appalling legislation with the necessary strong strike action has left the union movement in its current state. Life cannot be divided into politics and money. We trade unionists must join together to defy this legislation [see “General Strike to Stop the Bill”]. Yes, that means defying the law: a law deliberately fashioned by the bosses and their representatives in government—Labour and National—against workers’ ability to exercise our right to fight bias and prejudice. In other words, exploitation and oppression.

Unite against Imperialist War

The most important thing going on in the world right now is the war in Ukraine. In its own way, this war poses the same lessons for workers that were posed in my Napier factory example. The workers of the West and Russia have no interests in fighting this war [see “NATO Provokes Russian Attack on Ukraine”]. It is a war just like the wars that wrecked Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, by bosses and governments that are run for bosses. We must heed the call of Marx: “Workers of the World Unite.”

The workers of Alexandroupoli [Greece] and the port rail workers of Thessaloniki have refused to load NATO arms shipments destined for the war in Ukraine. They have the right idea. A Thessaloniki union congress passed this resolution: “No involvement of our country in the wars in Ukraine that are taking place for the profits of the few at the expense of the people.… We will not become complicit in the passage of the war machine through the territories of our country.” Remember, Greece is a NATO member, so this political strike is a significant event. It is also highly likely to be illegal under Greek law. I salute these Greek workers and call on workers around the world to follow their example.

Related articles:
Marxism, Feminism & Women’s Liberation (1917 No.19)
General Strike to Stop the Bill (26 April 1991)
‘Defiance of unjust laws’: Class Struggle Trade Unionism & Critical Support (1917 No.33)
Class Struggle on the Waterfront (1917 No.4)
NATO Provokes Russian Attack on Ukraine (1917 No.33)