|Issue No 20||02 July 1999|
A Refreshing Advance
By Rosemary Webb
Women workers organising in the NSW Rail and Tramways Department Refreshment Rooms in the 1920s.
The Railway Refreshment Rooms (RRR) covered a mixed group of workers. Most of them were women and effectively casuals on 48 hours notice.
In 1938 organiser and ALP activist Eileen Powell (ARU) with ARU Secretary Lloyd Ross, and Flo Davis (HC&REU) won the first comprehensive award for the Railways Refreshment Rooms. Before 1938 only the Hospitality, Caterers and Restaurant Employees Union were covered by an award which dealt with Refreshment Rooms conditions. However, this award did not allow for the specific conditions of food service on trains.
Eileen ran a long campaign for the 1938 award but she wasn't the first to fight for better conditions for RRR workers. Between 1923 and 928 these workers had direct access to the Australian Railways Union (ARU) Executive through their own honorary elected officials. In 1923 a new Divisional Organisation was established by the Union. The re-organised RR Division consisted of 'All members other than salaried officers in the Railway Refreshment Rooms Department', such as porters, who were male and classified as 'usefuls', and those who worked in the Refreshment Rooms.
CJ Starkie was elected Divisional Secretary for the RRR in 1923 and Miss AF Graham was elected Divisional President. Starkie was a Railway employee - a porter at Petersham, and member of NSW Branch Council. He was a union activist for the RRR and the Illawarra line before becoming RRR Secretary. Miss Graham worked in the Central Railway Refreshment Rooms. In 1924 she was elected lady delegate of the ARU at ALP conference. Assisting them were the ARU's paid full-time organisers, all men, who reported on conditions uncovered during country tours. Secretary of the Union from 1924 to 1935 was Arthur Cashman, a UK shop steward before joining the ARU.
Responses to Union representations demonstrate the urgency of a full and specific award for these workers. Endless abuses are reported in the Railway Union Gazette and in the Divisional Secretary's correspondence.
Issues included:accommodation (often sub-standard and a compulsory cost for rural RRR workers whether or not they needed or used the accommodation provided by the employer); hours, overtime, split shifts, long shifts, late hours; occupational health & safety; understaffing, lack of relief;lack of response by management to periods of heavy demand;harassment by sub-managers, (often married couples posted as sub-managers to country stations); pay and job classifications; restoration of free tramway travel for female employees (repeatedly refused); access to members, and the wearing of union badges at work; and permanency.
All claims related to these grievances were resisted by management, frequently in person by Mr EP Hunt, General Manager of the Refreshment Rooms. Hunt continually refused to negotiate with the union and was the subject of numerous
complaints by Starkie. In July 1924 he responded on a disability claim for 'staff sleeping in tents at Yass': "in my opinion, the accommodation as provided is preferable to the indoor room. The tent in question should have been properly boarded before use., and, when this work has been effected the staff in question will be transferred back to the same. Under these circumstances no allowance will be entertained as referred to by you."
Occupational health and safety was an ongoing concern - almost every issue of the journal reports deaths or accidents. Miss Madge Herring of the RRR died in 1926 when hit by a truck when returning to duty at Central. Her funeral was reported at length in the Gazette, with names and description of a long funeral procession of fellow-workers.
Through the Gazette the union constantly promoted awareness of the Workers Compensation Act. There were some wins. Mrs Madge Moodie, of Central RRR lost two joints of the forefinger of her left hand in the bread-slicer.. The employer offered her payment for the days she had off work - at best a few pounds. Instead, the hearing awarded L120, midway between 90L for the loss of a joint and L150 for the loss of a whole forefinger. Starkie used this win in the Gazette to strengthen his health and safety awareness drive.
Real pay rates were low for the women, even against the 'norm' for that time of slightly more than half the adult male wage. The spread of shifts made it hard for workers to top up earnings with other work. In 1923 Mr Sherwin, Secretary of the HCREU gave evidence in the courts that in the Railway Refreshment Rooms, the shifts for a '3/4 day waitresses' were 11.45 am -7.45 pm. He was defending a member who had 'gone wrong' - presumably 'topping up' her wage by stealing. He raged: 'What position is open to a girl before 11 am and after 7 pm , when she is faced with a possibility of eight hours work during that period?'
RRR officials were not always backed by the organisers. In 1926 Starkie was angered by interference from an organiser. Miss Mitchell at Central Railway was forced to pay for on-duty breakages - organiser Davis had compromised with management, agreeing that she would pay, undercutting Starkie's position on non-payment. (It was a continuing grievance that such payment was arbitrarily deducted from wages). Starkie, Miss Graham, and later Eileen Powell and Lloyd Ross seem to have been the only ARU officials between the wars who consistently stood against management.
The plight of RRR workers was constantly before the Railway Commissioners, the Public Works Department, the ARU executive, and the labour movement generally through the medium of the Labor Daily. Constant contact between the workers, their Divisional officials Starkie and Graham, and the organisers kept issues on the boil. The downgrading of this level of representation after 1928 led to a deterioration in conditions.
Starkie's campaign was relentless, but management culture did not change. On 25 /1/26 the Public Works Department wrote in response to a union deputation two month earlier. One issue put had been classifications, another overwork - too many tables per waitress at Central Railway Refreshment Rooms, and thousands of extra meals served since the seamen's strike began. On classification the union did have a win. Starkie had demanded reclassification at the Central Station wine bar.
Management admitted: "Females employed in wine bar at Central Station (who) are paid the same rates as Counterhands ... L2.12.6 per week . .... are required to serve nobblers of wine at 3d and 6d from automatic measures, and to sell standard bottles of wine, but they are not required to posses the same skill as Barmaids at hotels or at other refreshment rooms.(We) have, however, approved of the employees concerned being paid the minimum Service Award rate for a Barmaid"
On the other hand, there was no relief for overwork. Management added a threat: 'As a matter of fact it would be possible to materially reduce the existing staff if days off and holidays had not to be granted'. Remember that this 'existing staff' was on 48 hours notice.
Shifts and unreasonable hours were raised repeatedly. Commissioners preferred to have women working at cheaper rates than to staff night shifts, or close refreshment rooms earlier.
Starkie repeatedly accused the employer of breaching its duty of care. In April 1926 he complained that the Central Station Cafeteria was 'a meeting place of many undesirables and is not a fit place for females to work in at late hours, ........ the place should be closed at 11 pm..', he wrote. Management replied 'the cafeteria serves a very useful purpose, especially in connection with trains arriving between 5 and 6 am'.
Management also refused to close Milsons Point Station Cafe before 11.30 pm, alleging that late closing at Milsons Point was justified to cover 'theatre traffic, etc', (and) that no complaints have been received from the staff concerning the matter...'. Staff at risk of arbitrary dismissal were not going to take such complaints to managers.
The Union was constantly obstructed from speaking to workers. In 1923 Hunt warned on 'Interviewing Staff': "only accredited representatives are permitted to visit Departmental premises, and then only for the sole purpose of collecting Union dues, and such visits should be confined to the meal hour on pay days, or the meal hour following pay day (in cases where employees are paid after the meal hour), and then only when the representative has first obtained permission from the local officer as to time and place suitable for such purpose."
Organiser Harry Melrose reported in 1926 that at Molong he interviewed 'Railway Refreshment Rooms girls, also basket boy' who all promised to join up. He 'had to then get permission of manager to speak to them a couple of hours later'. When he did get to speak to them, he 'discovered that they had been got at saying they "had to see their mums first".'
The union constantly pushed for permanency. In 1925 Starkie requested transfers to permanency, under continuing service conditions - that employees with more than 12 months service be switched to permanent staff, with a waiving of the age limit and with no need for a new medical examination. The Department refused, claiming parity with 'similar establishments outside the service'.
Starkie tried everything for the RRR, including improving the award. At least one unsuccessful application for a variation was put in those years. He also used all networks available to him as an active member of the labour movement - he wrote directly to Jack Lang, harangued ALP Caucus, and addressed the ALP Women's Central Organising Committee. Kate Dwyer of the Women's Committee was so incensed by what Starkie told them in July 1926 that she wanted a Royal Commission into the RRR.
Two years later the RRR division was submerged into the Traffic Division. Starkie did not nominate as the new Division's Secretary. It appears he was rolled: 1928 State Conference condemned Comrade Starkie for failing to obey a 'request' to attend conference. Miss Graham similarly was not appointed to the new executive. Did union politics do in the RRR workers? Whatever the background, the RRR suffered when Starkie went.
The story graphically shows the essentials of successful organising - maintaining industrial momentum, and locking the employer into an award. Without those award variations, loss of their prime agitator in 1928 was a disaster for RRR women. The years between CJ Starkie and Eileen Powell were an industrial wilderness for the Railway Refreshment Rooms. It was to be another 10 years before adequate protection was achieved.
Rosemary Webb can be at - mailto:[email protected]
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