R7338 For Love or Money, 1983: First women's union

R7338

Description

This clip shows etchings, newspaper headlines and archival photographs of individuals and women in factories that illustrate the history of women's employment in late-19th-century Australia. The visuals are accompanied by a voice-over narration, readings of original texts and an avant-garde soundtrack. All these elements, together with the rapid change of images, dramatise the background to and beginnings of organised female unionism in Australia.

Acknowledgements: Reproduced courtesy australianscreen online.

Educational value
The clip refers to the Victorian Tailoresses' Strike of 1882-83, a landmark event in Australia's history because it was the first strike in Australia of a women's union. In 1882, following sporadic, unsuccessful strikes against pay cuts, women in tailoring factories formed the Victorian Tailoresses' Union. In February 1883 around 1,200 tailoresses went on strike. By the end of the month most employers had accepted the Union's log of claims on hours and wages (although they were not bound to act on them). The strike raised public awareness of working conditions in factories.
The clip features women at work during the 1870-90 Australian manufacturing boom, which drew thousands of women into factory life and outwork, especially in Victoria. The number of clothing and textile factories in Victoria rose from around 70 to more than 200 by 1881, offering an alternative to domestic service for some women. The growth intensified competition, particularly from small operators with fewer than 10 employees, who were exempt from regulations concerning the employment of women and girls in workrooms and factories laid down in the 1873 'Factory Act'. The Act fixed the hours of work and standards of lighting, air space and ventilation for the factories and workshops, but could be petitioned against. Piece rates were then reduced in the factories to cut costs.
Helen Lothan Robertson (1848-1937), a pioneer of female trade unionism in Australia, is pictured in the clip. From a Scottish migrant family, Helen started her career in the clothing trade at 14. Responding to oppressive work practices, she helped form the Tailoresses' Association, which later became the Tailoresses' Union. She led a deputation to the Trades Hall, and obtained their support. Having helped lead the successful Tailoresses' Strike of 1883, Helen became a foundation member of the Female Operatives' Hall. She was an active member of the Eight Hours Committee from 1894 and was vice-president and then a member of the executive of the Federated Clothing Trades Union until 1925.
The movement from a 10-hour (8 hours on Saturday) to an 8-hour day, led by Melbourne stonemasons, is referred to in the clip. The stonemasons argued that an 8-hour working day was not only appropriate given the extremes of the Australian climate, but also allowed time for workers to improve their 'social and moral condition'. On 21 April 1856, an 8-hour day was introduced into the building trades in Melbourne and was a world first; 8 hours still constitutes a 'working day' today. Australia's Labour Day holiday commemorates this achievement.
The clip refers to the period 1850-1900, which saw the development of Australian trade unions. Transportation ended in the eastern states in 1853 and from 1851, with the discovery of gold, large numbers of immigrants arrived in Australia seeking a new life. Various craft unions were formed despite unions being outlawed in Britain, a decision that was not rescinded until 1870. The first union in Australia was the Stonemasons' Union formed in 1850, which formed the backbone of the Eight Hour Day movement in Melbourne and Sydney.
The clip is from the award-winning documentary 'For Love or Money' (1983) by Megan McMurchy, Margot Oliver, Margot Nash and Jeni Thornley.
Growing tension between professionalism on the one hand and radical feminist politics on the other characterised the period and the team that made 'For Love or Money'. The tension led to splinters in the various women's and feminist collectives of the day. The filmmaking team of 'For Love or Money' embodied some of these differences. The fact that the film, book and study guide were completed and successful, both in terms of wide distribution and returns to the AFC, was a testament to the team's ability to resolve differences and to manage film industry, trade union and community investors.
'For Love or Money' draws from a wide variety of archival sources, including home movies, newsreels, documentaries, diaries, popular songs and interviews. These are unified with a voice-over narration by actor Noni Hazelhurst. It also draws from more than 200 films made in Australia between 1906 and 1983 and has original music by Elizabeth Drake. The film won many awards, including the United Nations Media Peace Prize of 1985.
'For Love or Money', produced in 1983, is an Australian archival compilation documentary. Other examples of this style of documentary from around the same time are 'The Song of the Shirt' (UK, 1979), about women working in the clothing industry in 19th-century Britain and 'The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter' (USA, 1980), about women replacing men in US factories during the Second World War.
Topics
Australian history
Factories
Strikes
Unions
Women's rights
Working conditions
Rights
© Education Services Australia Ltd and australianscreen online, 2009, except where indicated under Acknowledgements