Workplace: Dirt Cheap
Industrial: Daddy Doesnít Live With Us Anymore
Economics: Who's Afraid of the BCA?
International: From the Wreckage
Politics: Infrastructure Blues
History: Meat and Three Veg
Savings: Super Seduction
Politics: Popping the 'E-Word'
Poetry: To Know Somebody
Review: Off the Rails
The Locker Room
Thatís Our Team
Janetís Job No Victory
Royal Finger Lickers
Will $20 Restore Carr?
Meat and Three Veg
The importance of unions listening to their members, being aware of the kind of workplaces and bosses they have to deal with, and the importance of unions in ensuring decent pay and conditions under a decent labour market system, at times when the employers and conservative governments have the upper hand is well illustrated by the recollections of militant women of the 1930s. Topsy Small and Flo Cluff were two of those whose story has been saved for us by Audrey Johnson in Bread and Roses.
The Hotel, Club and Restaurants Employees Union (HCRU) seems to have originated in the late 1890s. The occupations it covered are now a part of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union (LHMU) and that union faces the same sort of challenges that Topsy and Flo dealt with as an organisers and advocates. The union represents and represented the low paid, casual and part time workers, and an industry that relies on shift work and comprises mostly women.
When Topsy began work in Sydney men dominated the union with one paid female organiser, who seemed to Topsy to be not a lot of use to the women on the job. Union politics was a big issue, with the dividing lines between the left and right much more starkly drawn in the years following the Russian Revolution and the clash between Labourites and Comms.
The internal faction battles in the ALP didn't help. The Langites versus the rest was the division, and union officials were generally beholden to one section of the ALP or the other. Vic Workman was Topsy ally in the reform of the HCRU, and it seems that the other battle, between the rights of women and the paternalism of union officials on te left and right, would possibly not have been overcome without his support and organisational assistance.
One example of the need for inter union solidarity was the affiliation to the peak body. The Langite run HCRU had dropped its affiliation, but Vic and Topsy and their committee members made sure they rejoined that important network and power base. The multicultural character of the workforce in the precarious employment of the hospitality industry was clear even then, with the groups supporting reform of the union comprising, according to Vic Workman, five Greeks, two Italians, two Australians (white I suppose), a New Zealander and Vic (an Irishman).
The membership had halved during the depression early years, and wages in the industry were well below mid 1920s rates.
Topsy became the chief women's advocate within the union, generally opposed by the Langite right wing executive who were quite comfortable despite declining numbers, as long as the left did not take over.
Award simplification, as begun under the ALP award restructuring system, and hammered home by Reith's paring them back to 20 points (soon to be 12) may sound like efficiency, but the reasons why awards had so much detail is illustrated by this story as told by Topsy to Audrey Johnson:
"We wanted equal pay - women cooks only got about half what men did for the same job, the same with waiters and waitresses - and we wanted straight shifts instead of long hours with a break in the middle. Men spent the break in a pub; women would most likely go home and do the washing. The thing that most concerned us at first was to get a menu for staff meals. It was written in to the award that the boss had to supply a meal, but he could give you anything and you had to pay for it. My first job at Ushers, the food was shocking; it was reheated food left over from the day before, even the day before that. I thought then, if you don't tell the boss he's got to give you certain things to eat, he'll give you anything. Some of those cafes gave the girl's leftover pies, sausage rolls and cakes. Even when we got it into the award that lunch must have meat, one green vegetable, one yellow vegetable and potato, you couldn't be sure it would be alright, though it looked good on paper."
The reforms that Topsy and Vic instigated in the union were mostly aimed at women members. They also started a little newsletter, Stockpot to inform member about campaigns and to let members have an outlet for grievances.
Catholics versus the Reds was another issue. Some were telling women members that they couldn't be good Catholics and side with the militants. Old Billy Dove, according to Topsy, told them that he was a good Catholic and he believed in militant politics. He and others thus helped keep the activity going.
The Langites also threatened Topsy. A large woman threatened to "do for her" and Topsy found out she wasn't even in the union but was part of the Langites seeking to control the union and their influence on the ALP.
As an organiser Topsy aroused curiosity. The women at Sargents cafť thought she would be Russian because they had been told she was a Bolshevik. She soon got the support of all the staff though.
"The manageress used to make the girls clean up after they finished - they weren't paid for that. I just stood outside at closing time and looked through the plate glass window. When she saw me, the manageress grabbed the broom away from a girl and told her to go home. It was against the award and she didn't do it again. Those were the girls who came to union meetings as my bodyguard when I was threatened."
The big employers fought hard to keep the union out and had found previous women organisers easy to intimidate. Not Topsy. She insisted on her right to enter premises.
Unfortunately the right still opposed the reforms and at the next union AGM they got the numbers to roll the reformist team.
The entry of Flo Davis to their side helped them get started again. She had worked in the industry for 15 years when she met up with Topsy and Vic. The catalyst for her involvement was at incident at the Savoy. The manager gave her a pat on the back for her good work. The manager was surprised, she said, because Flo was supposedto be an agitator. This stopped Flo, as she was a union member, but who had told the manger she was a militant. "Your organiser, she put you in said you'd cause trouble on the job."
This could easily have cost her the job and when she told Topsy ad Vic they aid she must stand up at a union meeting and tell the members of these underhand tactics. So she did and caused a storm. The organiser resigned and Flo later became the main female organiser (1939).
Flo now took an active role in Stockpot and the union journal A La Carte. She was signing u three times the number of members as the old organiser, and finding so many award breaches she couldn't keep up.
Topsy showed her the ropes when getting into the big shops, which was still a problem. One thing that was a puzzle at first was Topsy's telling her to hang onto your hand bag and don't put it down. It was because it might be stolen, but because something might be put in. There was a kitchenman in Kings Cross who complained to the hotel and said he was going to the union about his hours. The boss said to the cook: "put something in his bag. We'll get him as he goes out and he won't go running to any bloody union."
In 1941 the ginger group challenged the old guard on the union, at a meeting with a record attendance, and won. Topsy and Flo had to work even harder as they were constantly challenged by the old group, and by the big stores. Vic was the lead male organiser and did not have anywhere near the same trouble of gaining right of entry. The stores felt they could more easily intimidate women organisers, not the men. They didn't give up and found ways of getting in. One favourite was to enter big places like the Wentworth via the kitchen after midnight when staff were being illegally forced to work extra long hours because of a big dinner or dance. They had to be on the spot to catch the employers out, as if staff complained they would be sacked.
Flo and Vic were delegates to the union for thirty years. Flo became assistant secretary, and says that it was because of Topsy's advice and encouragement that she was able to do such a great job in this neglected service sector, which faces some of the same problems all over again.
Bread and Roses: a personal history of three militant women and their friends 1902-1988 by Audrey Johnson (Published by the Left Book Club, Sutherland, NSW, 1990)
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