[Editor: This report by Rose Summerfield was circulated prior to the 1893 conference of the General Laborers’ Union. It was published in The Shearers’ and General Laborers’ Record (Newport, Vic.), 15 March 1893.]
Resume of my work in connection with the General Laborers’ Union, commencing August 1, 1892.
Mr. President and Gentlemen — In conjunction with Mr. Petrie, I started the Australian Workers’ Labor Bureau, hoping by this means to come into direct contact with the servant girls, and form a branch of the Union with them; and also supply them with situations at a much lower cost than the other registry offices. We also held socials in the Carrington Hall. Through these two mediums I succeeded in enrolling seventy or eighty girls, but received very little money from them. The cause of this was mainly due to the great depression existing in Sydney, hundreds of girls being unable to obtain employment of any kind. We had to abandon the socials, as they proved too expensive an experiment. Had we received any support from the Trades’ and Labor Council, our socials might have been very successful, as the trades unionists through them may have patronised us. The Bootmakers’ Union tried to assist, but their trade was in a very precarious state, and left the members without means. As it was, the wrong class of men came, who did us more harm than good.
Somehow the employing class got the idea that we were started with the sole intention of supplying them with cheap labor. We had numbers of applications from town and country asking us to supply servants, and the lowest possible wages offered. The girls and women refused to accept, and we soon found out that we were boycotted by the employers; and as we could not succeed in obtaining situations for the girls, and as many of them had been out of work for two and three months, we had to abandon the idea of forming a union amongst them, for the simple reason that, womanlike, they expected to receive a benefit of same kind straight away. Besides, when out of work and out of pocket, they became too dispirited to take any action, though the majority agreed that a union and a home for servants, plainly, cheaply and well conducted, would be the greatest boon possible for the servant girls of Sydney. We kept the office open for three months, deciding then that we had given it a fair trial in every way. It was closed as a Labor Agency, as it hindered me very much from doing active work outside.
I visited several of the boot manufactories at dinner time and in the evenings, but met with little success sometimes a few girls would appear at the socials. A few joined our ranks, but from constant association amongst them I learned that the trade was in such a deplorable state that the girls were really afraid to join a union for fear of being dismissed. Of course I tried very hard to persuade them that unionism amongst the workers was the only way to better their condition, but the subject being entirely new to them, it would want an organiser possessing great tact, energy, perseverance and diplomacy to be constantly working amongst them to educate them to a knowledge of their position. This would entail the expenditure of a fair amount of money before anything like a return could be hoped for.
With the amalgamation of labor, the organisation of women workers will be much easier of accomplishment, because the men will then understand it will be much to their advantage, especially in the boot and tailoring trades to have the women organised to keep up wages and stop the sweating system.
In response to an invitation from the Bourke Branch of the G.L.U. I visited Bourke, where I delivered two addresses and formed a branch of the Women’s Division of the A.W.U. A co-operative laundry was started there, and the girls with whom I came in contact seemed to take an interest in union matters. One of the papers gave a short account of one of my lectures; the other paper devoted two and a half columns to it.
I afterwards visited Young, and gave an address on “The necessity of organisation of women workers,” but do not know if any good results came of my visit there, as Mr. Toomey made arrangements for a trip to Gundagai the following day. I spoke at Gundagai on the night prior to the demonstration on the subject, “Why the workers should be organised and federated.” The result of this was a full report of my lecture in the Gundagai Times, and a leading article following in the Junee Democrat, whereby our Union was splendidly advertised. My work in the city was not successful, beyond the advertising of our Union among some hundreds of women. I tried to induce the tailoresses to amalgamate with us, but found that their union was in a very precarious state, indeed. Had I been confined to the city I might have been of some assistance to them in reviving it; but as I had to leave town occasionally it was no use my attempting the work, as it is of great magnitude, and needs monetary assistance more than we were prepared to ask for at the present juncture, partly because the depression in the trade was very great, and hands were prepared to work for almost any wages offered.
Hearing a great many complaints regarding the registry office system from the girls calling at my office, I wrote a few letters to the Sunday Times, but they were not acknowledged. They certainly, after the receipt of one of my letters, tendered the advice that “the law” was the remedy for the people who had been victimised.
On Mr. Spence’s arrival in Sydney, it was decided that I should make personal inquiry into the working of the Sydney Registry Offices. This occupied a few weeks of my time. I found out sufficient to write half a dozen reports upon it, which the Daily Telegraph will soon publish. It will, I hope, be the means of doing away with a very great evil that is ruining a great number of our working girls. The system showed me pretty plainly how it was that our office had to close at a loss.
I may here state that I asked assistance from a few prominent women in the city regarding the women’s movement. Mrs. Julian Ashton published part of my note in her passing notes, but it seemed that her appeal tended to strengthen the idea that we were running our place in the interests of the employing class to provide them with cheap labor. Other ladies promised, but did not fulfil; whilst others again thought that New Unionism was dangerous, and whilst I was right enough personally, my efforts in women’s work was not to be aided or noticed in any way.
On the 16th December I visited Cooma, addressed a meeting at the School of Arts, in conjunction with Messrs. Rae and Mooney, on “The benefits of unionism for women workers.” I spent a little over a week’s time in Cooma, and started a branch of the A.W.U., and feel sure that if the work of organising is carried on in a proper manner that the women in the country towns will soon be brought to see the advantage of unionism, especially in the towns where shearers spend some time will the result be satisfactory, because the women seem to understand a little more about the matter than their city sisters; and another important factor is that they are easier to approach.
I have spent the last few weeks in Melbourne, working up the registry offices, and must say that I have experienced just a little more difficulty here in this matter than in Sydney, The system is equally bad, but not made so palpable to the people who are deceived.
I was introduced to the Trades’ and Labor Council, and met with a cordial reception from that body, the Secretary and several members promising me their assistance in any work undertaken by me in Melbourne. I spoke in the Victoria Hall on Sunday night, the 12th February, on “Women workers” to a good audience, touching upon the low wages paid to many classes of women workers; and the necessity for the education of women on union and social questions, The speakers who followed were unanimous upon the latter point; also that the women workers’ question was a most important one, and needed the assistance of unionists and public speakers. If the General Laborers’ Union can see its way clear to carrying on the organisation of women throughout the colonies, the Labor question, which we all admit to be of great magnitude, would receive material benefit, and an important factor to aid towards its settlement.
I have found through association with various workers that women’s cheap labor in many instances forces men out of employment, and causes incalculable mischief in the community. The sweating system is carried on chiefly through its medium, and the women who take work home at a cheap rate are the great cause of wages in factories and workshops being reduced.
As depression is so general all over the colonies, the chief method of carrying on the work of organising will be through the distribution of literature — chiefly in leaflet form — of a simple character explaining the necessity and benefits of organisation; also lectures, and where practicable where unions can be formed in country districts, where agents are resident, socials to be held occasionally, and a short address given, people meeting in harmony for amusement of this kind being productive of good.
If women once learned the advantages to be gained for not only themselves, but their fathers and brothers by organisation and combination, they would soon leave off dealing with Chinese and Indian hawkers. It is the women who in their ignorance patronise these aliens that makes the men’s battles still harder to fight. The true Australian when combined would assist wonderfully in wiping out the colored curse, who do so much damage to the furniture trade, the hawking and laundry industry, and make it almost impossible for the average Australian to compete with them in market gardening.
The necessity for the women question to be dealt with is an indisputable one. The work attached to it will necessarily be rather arduous and expensive, but it should, I think, recommend itself to every unionist who has the cause of humanity and progress at heart, that is at least worth attempting.
I have herein given a brief account of my work since my inception as organiser of the Women’s Division of the Australian Workers’ Union, and whilst sincerely deploring the fact that I have not been a financial success, I think I can safely lay claim to have been an advertising success for the A.W.U.
Mr. President and Gentlemen,
Yours in Unity,
The Shearers’ and General Laborers’ Record (Newport, Vic.), 15 March 1893, p. 2 (columns 6-7)
Rose Summerfield was the women’s organiser for the Australian Workers’ Union (which was formed by the merger of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union and the General Laborers’ Union).
A.W.U. = Australian Workers’ Union
G.L.U. = General Laborers’ Union of Australasia
sweating = the act of unscrupulous employers overworking employees, usually for low rates of pay
[Editor: Changed “August 1, 1892,” to “August 1, 1892.” (replaced comma with a full stop); “llttle” to “little”.]