Labour History

Defying Industrial Trends and Resisting a Wage Cut: Melbourne and Launceston Textile Workers’ Strike, 1932

Labour History (2014), 107, (1), 53–73.


Textile workers in Melbourne and Launceston defied contemporary industrial trends by going on strike in late 1932, against a wage cut. Despite the fact that industrial struggle was at a record low, they embarked on the first major strike in the textile industry in Australia. This article explores their motivations for doing so. These mill workers, who were largely young women, had endured low wages, often worked less than full-time hours, and harboured grievances about their working conditions. The young women’s income was often essential to their households, since many male breadwinners were unemployed. Upon the implementation of the wage cut, Communists agitated for strike action, and some Australian Textile Workers Union officials urged the strikers to continue. Textile workers were influenced by union leaders but gave the Communists a mixed reception. They displayed their own determination to resist the wage reduction.

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1. Mercury, 3 September1932, 9. Both would-be strike breakers returned home, having failed to enter the mill. See alsoExaminer, 3 September 1932, 7. Google Scholar

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32.Author’s estimate. For calculations of ATWU density (comparing those of Worrall and Kelloway), seeKelloway, “Melbourne and Launceston Textiles Strike, 1932,”appendix 4. Google Scholar

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44.This reduction was due to have been implemented from 1 July, but the ATWU had it postponed until 1 August.Argus, 11 August1932, 7. Google Scholar

45.Ibid., 20 August1932, 23;Mercury, 22 August1932, 5. Google Scholar

47.Transcripts 239/1932, 411–13;Examiner, 27 August 1932, 7. The smallest spinning mill, Reliance, was exempted by the union from industrial action, along with the local knitting mill, Thyne Brothers. Google Scholar

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50.Even the names of these leaders were rarely recorded. For a discussion of the available information, seeKelloway, “Melbourne and Launceston Textiles Strike, 1932,” 25–26. Google Scholar

51. Workers’ Weekly, 19 August1932, 4;Working Woman, September 1932, 1. These women were promptly dismissed, but re-instated the following day when their co-workers struck. Google Scholar

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53.Transcripts 239/1932, 351. The exact size of the workforce at Reliance is unclear, although it was smaller than that of the Waverley mill, with its 120 employees;Examiner, 22 August1932, 7. Google Scholar

54. Examiner, 2 September1932, 7. Google Scholar

56. Red Leader, 7 September1932, 4. They were C. Lavers and J. McPherson. Google Scholar

57.Ibid., 17 August1932, 5. Google Scholar

58. Mercury, 6 September1932, 5. Google Scholar

59.J. Tuthill, letter to the editor, Examiner, 31 August1932, 3. Google Scholar

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63.Transcripts 239/1932, 43–651passim.This case decided on variations to the existing 1927 Award. Google Scholar

64. Examiner, 26 August1932, 7. For a full list of Tasmanian rates, see Tables 1 and 2. Google Scholar

65. Argus, 20 August1932, 23. The rates differ slightly between states because they were based on different cost of living indices. SeeCAR 25(1927):197, 199. Google Scholar

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69.Transcripts 239/1932, 313, 317, 327–28, 335, 344–45, 351–52, 369. Google Scholar

70.David Edward Lark, with 28 years’ experience in the industry in Australia, testified that January to June was typically very busy. Transcripts 239/1932, 585–86, 604. Google Scholar

71. Examiner, 29 August1932, 7. Google Scholar

72.Transcripts 239/1932, 330. Google Scholar

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83.Ibid., 312, 314, 324, 335, 367–68, 585. Google Scholar

84.Ibid., 352. Census data indicate that only 3.5 per cent of female woollen and tweed workers earned an average of £3 a week or more.Census(1933):1524. Google Scholar

85.SeeWorrall, “All Wool,”ch. 6, 216–50for a thorough analysis of mill working conditions. Google Scholar

86.Transcripts 239/1932, 315. Google Scholar

87.Ibid., 340, 356, 326. Google Scholar

88.Ibid., 335, 346, 196, 162, 356. Google Scholar

89.Ibid., 559. Google Scholar

90.Ibid., 214, 325a, 196. Google Scholar

91.Ibid., 214, 235, 311, 315, 326–27, 339, 351, 354–55, 362, 385. Google Scholar

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94.Ibid., 354–55. Google Scholar

95.Ibid., 361. Google Scholar

96.Ibid., 211, 343, 369–70, 389–90, 401–2. Google Scholar

97.Ibid., 402. Google Scholar

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99.Ibid., 325a. Google Scholar

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103.Ibid., 357. Google Scholar

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116. Red Leader, 17 August1932, 5. The report was dated 11 August. Google Scholar

117.Ibid., 7 September1932, 6. Google Scholar

118. Argus, 12 August1932, 7. Google Scholar

119. Workers’ Weekly, 19 August1932, 4. Google Scholar

120. Argus, 11 August1932, 7. See also“Stop Press: Strike at Yarra Falls,” Textile Journal of Australia 7, no. 6(15 August1932), 260;“A Strike in the Textile Industry,” Textile Journal of Australia 7, no. 7(15 September1932), 294. Google Scholar

121. Argus, 25 August 1932, 7. Google Scholar

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123. Workers’ Weekly, 19 August1932, 4. Google Scholar

124. Argus, 23 August1932, 7. It is unlikely that these Communists were textile workers because the CPA lacked a presence in the mills, but it is possible that a small number of them were in the industry. Google Scholar

125.Ibid., 25 August1932, 7. Google Scholar

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127. Red Leader, 7 September1932, 6. Google Scholar

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130.Editorial, Mercury, 23 August1932, 6;Editorial, Examiner, 23 August1932, 6. Google Scholar

131.For an exposition of these manoeuvres, seeKelloway, “Melbourne and Launceston Textiles Strike, 1932,” 24, 37. Smith presumably had support from other Tasmanian Branch officials. Google Scholar

132. Argus, 29 August1932, 7. Google Scholar

133.The fact that donations were not forthcoming in Melbourne may have been due to a shortfall on the ATWU’s part, or it may have been that other unionists would not support the strike if it was associated with Communists, due to the hostility between them and the rest of the labour movement. SeeMacintyre, The Reds, 185–88, 199–200. Google Scholar

134. Examiner, 26 August1932, 7. Google Scholar

135.Ibid., 23 August1932, 7; 25 August 1932, 8; 5 September1932, 7. Google Scholar

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137. CAR 32(1933):611. Google Scholar

138.Transcripts 239/1932, 636, 641, 642a–644. Google Scholar

139. Examiner, 25 August1932, 7–8. The discrepancy was largely due to NSW base rates being higher than Commonwealth rates, a situation which only continued for a few more months. SeeSheldon, “State-Level Basic Wages,” 255–61. Google Scholar

140.Transcripts 239/1932, 49. Google Scholar

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150. Examiner, 25 August1932, 7. Google Scholar

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153. Examiner, 20 August1932, 7; 22 August 1932, 7;Mercury, 22 August1932, 5. Google Scholar

154.Letter to the editor, Examiner, 30 August1932, 10. Google Scholar

155. Mercury, 24 August1932, 5. Google Scholar

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Author details

Kelloway, Phoebe