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Trouble at the mill!

Trouble at the mill!
Robin Grow

In the pre-WWII years, the area now known as Southbank contained a number of knitting mills that fuelled the growing Australian domestic market for textiles. 

The major industry of textile manufacturing was largely based on the conversion of fibre into yarn and then into fabric, which was then dyed or printed and fabricated into cloth which was then converted into useful goods such as clothing, household items (such as mattresses, towelling, bedding), upholstery and various industrial products. 

Examples were Willmott, Laconia, Butler, Lion Rolling Mills, etc., and United Mills, located on the corner of Sturt and Coventry streets (now occupied by Southside Towers). They were tough places to work for the predominantly female workforce, with noise and dust, the ever-constant risk of fire and accident, even death.  

The equipment was heavy duty, imported from Europe, so a fire could result in huge financial losses. They could also be dangerous to operate. 

In 1934, a young mill worker at the United Woollen Mills’ factory slipped as he approached a machine and was dragged into it by the arm. After a protracted struggle, he was freed and taken to hospital but unfortunately died the next day. 

The workers, many of whom were locals, relied on unions and awards to represent their interests, with one site (such as United Mills) covered by a number of unions, including the Textile Workers Union. 

 

In the pre-war years, there were continual disputes between the management and the unions. The mill workers operated under the Textile Workers Award and were paid under the piece work system, with wages linked to their output. 

 

Typical was a rate of 25/- for each piece of cloth of 75 yards. Their union preferred the piece work system to payment by time and in 1938 the weavers at the mill were presented with an option for payment that provided for time rate rather than piece work. This was regarded by the weavers as an attempt to enforce wage reductions and about 50 weavers walked off the job. 

Then it was off to the Trades Hall for compulsory negotiations. But there was a flow-on – the weavers were regarded as “key” workers and all parties quickly realised that the rest of the factory workers (about 150) would soon be drawn in if it was not resolved quickly.  

Fortunately, it was, but other strikes in the textile industry were often protracted. • 

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