Australian Screen

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For Love or Money (1983)

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clip First women's union education content clip 1, 2, 3

This clip chosen to be G

Clip description

This clip talks about the conditions that led to the Melbourne Tailoresses Strike of 1882 to 1883.

Curator’s notes

By the 1870s industrialisation and the growth of textile and clothing manufacturing had brought women into the factories as cheap labour. Oppressive work practices or ‘sweating’ in the garment industry was common. By 1880 a group of tailoresses, led by Helen Lothan Robertson, had begun campaigning against the actions of employers. In 1882 Melbourne clothing manufacturer Beith Shiess & Co attempted to reduce the already low piece-rate wages. In response, Robertson and the tailoresses formed the Tailoresses’ Association of Melbourne, the first exclusively female trade union in Australia. A list of claims was drawn up and when no response from the manufacturers was received, a strike was called on 15 February 1883. Increasing prosperity, a relatively tight labour market and the support of The Age newspaper in garnering public sympathy resulted in most employers accepting the claims by March 1883.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

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.

Educational value points

  • 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, who, with fewer than 10 employees, 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 in order 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.

This clip starts approximately 18 minutes into the documentary.

A sequence of etchings, newspaper headlines and archival photographs of women in factories and in their homes display on screen as we hear narration and dramatised voiceovers of two fictional women from the 19th Century.

Narrator Trade unionism, the great workers’ movement of the 19th century. But the men who call for unity of the working classes exclude women and Chinese from their unions, scorning them as cheap workers.
Woman 1 (voiceover) If the leaders of the labour federation had truly at heart the welfare of their working sisters, they would allow women to be incorporated under to the men’s unions.
Woman 2 (voiceover) Trade unions would dispute, or force out of sight, if possible, the right of women to enter the labour market at all. But women must have work, for there are thousands not depending on any man for support.
Narrator(voiceover) In the clothing trade, conditions are desperate. Tailoresses take home hours of work after their long days in the factory, just to scrape a living. She must keep her mind on this work before her. She must stay here. She must not let her eyes wander. She must keep working. She must not think too often of the time. She must keep her eyes in focus. She must not think of where she would like to be.
Woman 1 (voiceover) In the course of my rounds one day, I came upon a deserted wife left to support three children. She was struggling to make a living by making shirts for a factory at four shillings a dozen. She had worked all Sunday, had risen early on Monday morning and stayed up till midnight working continuously, except for the necessary interruptions of meals and of dressing and undressing her children.
Woman 2 (voiceover, sneering) Oh, yes. ‘Mrs M. wore a magnificent dress’, the paper says. But it doesn’t tell how our faces are ground, how we are crushed to get the gold to pay its price. ‘Mrs M. was in rose coloured tulle. It set off her pretty complexion.’ The dye for the rose-coloured tulle, girls, is our blood!
Narrator Single women in the factories and married women in their homes are pitted against each other. Middle men and manufacturers compete by cutting the women’s wages down to starvation level.
Woman 1 (voiceover) Six weeks ago, we were getting four and eight-pence a coat, including an extra pocket. The firm tried to reduce the amount to four and tuppence, but we refused to accept it. They then took off thruppence. Then they said they’d take off another thruppence. And then we struck.
Woman 2 (voiceover) We got some (inaudible) printed and in the darkness of night, two of us plastered the factories with them. The meeting that resulted was very successful and was really the starting point of our improvement.

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australianscreen is produced by the National Film and Sound Archive. By using the website you agree to comply with the terms and conditions described elsewhere on this site. The NFSA may amend the 'Conditions of Use’ from time to time without notice.

All materials on the site, including but not limited to text, video clips, audio clips, designs, logos, illustrations and still images, are protected by the Copyright Laws of Australia and international conventions.

When you access australianscreen you agree that:

  • You may retrieve materials for information only.
  • You may download materials for your personal use or for non-commercial educational purposes, but you must not publish them elsewhere or redistribute clips in any way.
  • You may embed the clip for non-commercial educational purposes including for use on a school intranet site or a school resource catalogue.
  • The National Film and Sound Archive’s permission must be sought to amend any information in the materials, unless otherwise stated in notices throughout the Site.

All other rights reserved.

ANY UNAUTHORISED USE OF MATERIAL ON THIS SITE MAY RESULT IN CIVIL AND CRIMINAL LIABILITY.

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