By Ciaran Doolin, Fightback (Wellington).
Early migrants to New Zealand had high hopes. From the slums of the East End to the peasant villages of Guangdong province, they carried with them a shared vision of a fresh society, one where the injustices of the “Old World” would be no more than painful memories. However the discontinuity between their dreams and the reality of colonial life was marked.
The moneyed class in early New Zealand had a different future in mind. They were intent on replicating the modes of production prevalent in the industrialised world, while avoiding the reaction from below – the “evils” of Chartism and other progressive working-class movements.
While male workers in early New Zealand were forced to endure the vagaries of a barely regulated labour market, with only the flimsy shield of a balkanised union movement to protect them, women faced an oppression that was manifold. Not only were they paid considerably less than men for the same work, they were also expected to spend their “non-working” time tending the home and raising children. They were denied political representation, and the trade union movement made painfully slow progress in organising unions for female workers.
In 1879 the New Zealand economy spiralled into a deep depression. There was widespread unemployment, a substantial fall in the general rate of wages, and child and female labour proliferated. Fierce competition drove employers to cut every corner, and the union movement, fragmented and consistently on the defensive, could do little to protect the most vulnerable workers – or at least that was what many thought. In January 1885 a Trades and Labour Congress was held in Dunedin to discuss the general problem of labour throughout the country. Hitherto no mention had been made of organising female workers, but at the conference a prominent unionist read a paper on female labour:
It has been generally conceded that female labour is far more at the mercy of unscrupulous employers than that of males in consequence of their want of organisation and forming themselves into trade unions, and, though the females of this colony are much indebted to Mr J. B. Bradshaw, M.H.R., for getting the Factory Act passed, there is much to be done yet in the way of protecting females by getting them to form into trade unions, upon the basis of the Victorian Tailoresses’ Union, so that they could become a power for good in the colony and assist in future legislation for the advancement of their own and the children’s welfare.
The sentiments were echoed by C. J. Thorn, the President of the Congress. Despite the aspirational tone of the conference little immediate action was taken.
However, through the courage and persistence of a small group of men and women, the scales of industrial power began to turn. In late 1888 the practice of “sweating” was exposed in Dunedin. The Reverend Rutherford Waddell, concerned with the social problems in his parish, discovered large numbers of women working excessively long hours for a pittance in cramped quarters. He delivered a sermon on “The Sin of Cheapness” which was widely read after it was reported in the Otago Daily Times. In January 1889 a capable reporter with the Times made investigations into the practice. In a series of articles he made further revelations largely confirming Waddell’s impressions. The associated agitation led to a Royal Commission in 1889.
The Commission found that in almost every trade child labour was rife and underpaid female work common. It was in the tailoring trade, where “sweating” was most prevalent. Male tailors, who were earning £3/10/- a week in 1874, were now unable to get £1/15/-. In comparison, girls worked excessive hours to earn just 10/- to 12/- a week. Frequently girl apprentices worked for 12 months for no salary and then had to make their way as volunteers. Conversely, middle men were found to be taking upwards of 30% on shirts. In one case, fourteen young girls were found busy hand-sewing in a room 21x11x8 ½ feet ? less than a quarter of the space considered adequate. Lunch rooms were not provided and men and women had to eat their lunch on the streets. To avoid inspectors a number of girls often worked on the roof.
At the end of January 1889 Waddell published a letter in the Otago Daily Times calling for the establishment of a Board of Arbitration and a Working Women’s Association. In early February, he convened a meeting of concerned citizens to decide what was to be done, and a Committee was set up. The Committee resolved to submit to the large employers a minimum price list. The price list was approved unanimously by the manufacturers, but the warehousemen (who played a key role in the supply chain) rejected it and it could not be enforced. The Committee then advised that the only practical solution was to form a union, and a motion was brought to that effect, which passed without opposition.
Thus the ground was laid for the formation of the Tailoresses’ Union. The significance of the new union was two-fold. It was at once contending both with the forces of capital and the prejudices, shared across the classes, that women were simply incapable (or not worthy) of successful combination. By early July the Committee had everything it needed to launch the union. John Millar, leader of the Seamen’s Union and later the Maritime Council, was elected the first secretary, Waddell the president, and Harriet Morison the co-vice president, and 564 initial members were registered. The Committee, which had up to this point been handling basic negotiations with employers on behalf of the tailoresses, handed the management over to the women of the union.
Having effectively held the position of Secretary (the most important position in the union) through 1889, Morison immediately took over the role when Millar relinquished it in 1890. Born in Ireland in 1862, Morison immigrated to New Zealand with her family in 1874. Taking tailoring as her trade she began a lifelong career as an advocate for working-class women. Under her leadership the union established reading and luncheon rooms and a benefit fund for sick workers. The net result of the union’s organising was wage increases between 12.5% and 50%, a considerable reduction in work hours and the abolition of home-work. The Dunedin union grew to 900 members and, within 12 months of its formation, branches were established in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch with memberships of 450, 422 and 700 respectively.
In May 1890, the Dunedin union assisted other workers on strike. Levying 6d per week for female workers and 1/- for male workers, the union pledged £20 weekly to the Auckland tailoresses and £5 weekly to the Petone millworkers. The union gave strong support to the Maritime Strike which began in August 1890, with grants of £50 and £25 made to the strike fund. In 1890, the Otago Trades and Labour Council was re-established and the Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union was one of the leaders of the process. Morison travelled throughout the country assisting other branches. In late 1891, she was sent to Auckland, where she spent seven months trying to revive the Auckland branch. On arrival she found the union on the verge of collapse and the workers being coerced and sweated. She was influential in a re-enactment of the same process of agitation – public meetings, newspaper investigations etc. – that had occurred in Dunedin. By the end of her visit Morison had managed to lift the minimum wage to 7/6 per week, and, after the failure of conciliation proceedings, sent a petition to the government calling for the introduction of compulsory arbitration legislation. One historian has argued that it was the difficulties faced by the Auckland union that persuaded William Pember Reeves, the Minister of Labour in the reformist Liberal government, to include the compulsory clause in the historic Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1894.
Morison was involved in many other issues concerning women beyond the industrial struggle. She led an unsuccessful attempt to set up a convalescent home for Dunedin clothing workers, and sat on a local committee to manage ambulance classes for women. She edited the “Working woman’s corner” in the Globe newspaper from January to March 1891. Morison was also a committed suffragette and Christian. She was a founding member of the Women’s Franchise League in Dunedin, the first in New Zealand, which she formed with Helen Nicol in 1892, and a member of the suffragist New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Morison, alongside rank-and-file union members, circulated suffrage petitions. The strength of local unions influenced the number of signatures collected in the three national petitions. Dunedin, in particular, consistently did well; Nicol reported that two-thirds of those signing were working women. In Auckland in 1891, 397 women signed. The local union was revived, thanks to Morison’s organising, before the next petition in 1892, and it was signed by 2,479 Aucklanders. Morison and the union were influential in a public campaign which helped prevent anti-suffragist H. S. Fish, member of the House of Representatives, from winning the 1892 mayoral election in Dunedin.
Despite her outstanding talent as an organiser, Morison did not competently manage the union’s finances, and in 1896 she was forced out of the union due to an accusation, probably false, of embezzlement. She continued her advocacy for working women outside the union as an inspector of factories for the South Island from April 1906. However, so many complaints were laid by factory managers that Morison was removed from her position, and in May 1908 she was placed in charge of a newly opened Women’s Branch in Auckland, which was essentially a labour bureau for domestic servants. After years of difficulty with senior figures in the Labour Department, in 1921 Morison finally resigned from the public service when the Department of Labour closed the Women’s Branches and made her and three other women redundant. Harriet Morison died on 19 August 1925 at her home in New Lynn. She had never married. The union she worked so tirelessly to build outlived her by 20 years.
Morison and the Tailoresses’ Union shattered long-held assumptions about the role of women in 19th century society. Not only were women in industry capable of combining, but they were able to do so with a high degree of success. In the context of a depression, wage increases of up to 50% were unheard of, especially for workers in such a weak industrial position. While many male unions were denouncing the phenomena of class-conscious “New Unionism” that was sweeping the Western world in the 1890s, the tailoresses were providing substantial support during the great Maritime Strike of 1890 and to unions involved in day-to-day struggles in other industries. Moreover, the Tailoresses’ Union was able to integrate a political arm – namely suffrage – into their organisation without diminishing the efficacy of its industrial functions, a harmony which few unions had yet been able to attain. Their leader, Harriet Morison, epitomised the step change that was occurring in New Zealand society, a shift that would define the course of the country’s history in the coming century. As a woman she stood for the right of her gender to be represented politically and to self-organise industrially, and as a trade unionist she stood for the liberation of the labouring classes from exploitation.