What’s the link between International Women’s Day and a strike of timber workers in Glebe in 1929?
The first Australian rally organised for International Women’s Day was held at The Domain in Sydney in March 1928. It was organised by the Militant’s Women’s Group, an auxiliary of the Communist Party of Australia, who were campaigning for equal wages, paid leave and unemployment relief.
Just under a year later, in January 1929, Judge Lionel Lukin’s unpopular arbitration judgement for timber workers came into effect.
There were numerous timber yards and mills in Sydney in the 1920s and 30s, many of them clustered around the foreshores of Glebe and Pyrmont. They were large-scale employers of local labour in these areas.
Workers at the yards stored and processed the timber – much of it hardwood – for the building trade. For these skilled workers, Lukin’s award meant more hours – he reintroduced the 48 week – and less pay. His judgement came on the eve of the economic Depression of the 1930s, and was a harbinger of what was to come for working people in Sydney.
Workers at Hudson’s timber yards in Glebe took strike action in protest to Lukin’s award by not working on Saturday mornings throughout January 1929. On 2 February, the workers were locked out. Hudson’s began to ship in strike breakers, or scabs, to replace the strikers. The strikers – which included timber workers and their wives and families – picketed outside the front gate.
On 8 March 1929, the Militant’s Women’s Group organised a second International Women’s Day rally at Belmore Park to support the wives and children of the striking timber workers. They also stormed the offices of the Timber Merchants Association, leaving its Secretary, Mr F H Corke ‘pale and trembling’.
Throughout the timber workers strike, Hudson’s timber yards was the scene for violent clashes between police, scabs, strikers and picketers. In July, hundreds of police arrived with their ‘basher gang’ to disperse up to 400 picketers. The following day, there were thousands of picketers outside the mill, and clashes ensued.
Women played an important role in the strike. Just weeks after the lock out, the Militant’s Women’s Group organised relief depots throughout inner Sydney to supply timber workers and their families with food. According to Mary Wright, one of the members of this group, they went house to house with the timber workers wives to collect food and to explain the position of timber workers to the mostly female householders. Donations were collected for over a year.
The involvement and support of local women and the timber workers’ wives ensured that the strike ran for over eight months. Apart from the work of the Militant Women’s Group in organising relief depots and public rallies to support the timber workers and their families, women fund-raised with dances, euchre parties and fancy dress balls.
Women were also vocal and active members of the picket line. In August 1929, local Glebe women Sarah Peninton and Doris Flanagan were arrested for abusing the police.
The 1929 timber workers strike was ultimately unsuccessful – there was a federal election looming and the Labor party, hoping for a victory, forced the timber workers’ union to back down and to accept Lukin’s award. But the strike had long-lasting impact on the local Glebe community. Many of the men never returned to work at Hudson’s timber yards. But many of the women became politicised by their experiences on the front line of the timber war.