Re­union for Rixen work­ers

They were la­belled trou­ble­mak­ers by some, but to oth­ers they were he­roes. A group of Levin fac­tory work­ers — mostly women — took on big busi­ness at great per­sonal sac­ri­fice. Al­most four decades later, they’re gath­er­ing again. re­ports.

Horowhenua Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - Paul Wil­liams

As po­lice closed in on the front door, sec­re­tary Ann Waddell locked her­self in the sick bay. Sup­port­ers of the cause had side-stepped po­lice and sneaked down the side of the Ox­ford Street build­ing.

She opened the bath­room win­dow and, one-by-one, the horde clam­bered in. Some 30 union mem­bers from an­other Levin fac­tory, W.A. Mul­lans Ltd, de­fied threats of ar­rest to join the 50 Rixen protest mem­bers in­side.

“It was fright­en­ing. We hadn’t had much to do with the po­lice,” she said, as she re­called a mo­ment in Levin’s his­tory that gained na­tional at­ten­tion and brought change to New Zealand em­ploy­ment law.

It was the spring of 1981, and the un­der siege work­ers locked in­side Levin cloth­ing fac­tory Rixen Man­u­fac­tur­ing had taken the build­ing and ma­chin­ery hostage for the past three weeks.

They must have won­dered how it had all come to this. But they were in for the fight. Lit­tle did they know at the time, but the oc­cu­pa­tion would last six months. There had been only one other fac­tory sit-in in New Zealand’s his­tory. That had lasted six hours.

Now, some 37 years later, those Levin work­ers have been her­alded for their brav­ery as New Zealand cel­e­brates 125 years of Women’s Suf­frage.

The po­lice even­tu­ally backed off, and told Rixen owner

Ken Dungey that they would not act again un­til a court or­der was ob­tained.

A doc­u­men­tary made at the time called Even Dogs Are Given

Bones has resur­faced and been digi­tised. Plans are to screen it at the Levin Focal Point Cin­ema this week­end, in what will be a re­union for the work­ers.

Ms Waddell dug out an old flax bag brim­ming with news­pa­per clip­pings and a di­ary that pro­vides a snapshot of how they oc­cu­pied the build­ing with mil­i­tary pre­ci­sion.

The doc­u­men­tary tells the story of how Ms Waddell took a call from the Welling­ton Cler­i­cal Union early on a Tues­day morn­ing (Au­gust 26, 1981) telling her the fac­tory was clos­ing, but that they would help in the fight for re­dun­dancy.

She pulled fac­tory man­ager Alan Hall into the of­fice. She could tell by the look of an­noy­ance on his face that he knew noth­ing of the clo­sure plans. He told her not to tell the other staff.

But word soon spread. The next morn­ing Cloth­ing Work­ers Fed­er­a­tion sec­re­tary Frank Thorn and pres­i­dent Joyce Hawe ar­rived, along with union rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ju­lia Knight.

They called a stop work meet­ing, where the work­ers were told they would not only lose their jobs, there would be no re­dun­dancy pay­ments ei­ther. For three of the Rixen work­ers, it was the third re­dun­dancy they had been handed in three years. They were fed up.

The seeds of protest sprouted quickly. They de­cided to dig in their toes and oc­cupy the build­ing. They voted to re­ject the of­fer from Rixen boss Ken Dungey of one week’s wages, a fur­ther week’s pay to stay and clean up the fac­tory, and half of un­used sick pay.

Mrs Hawe stressed the need to show pas­sive re­sis­tance — no vi­o­lence and no swear­ing.

The doc­u­men­tary in­ter­viewed fac­tory worker Lynn Wood at length, who said at the time that news that “we’re all get­ting the chop” raced through the fac­tory.

“I rang my hus­band and said I’ve just been given the bum’s rush, and he cracked up and said “oh well, don’t worry, you’ll get a re­dun­dancy, it doesn’t mat­ter, it’s not too bad” and “most re­dun­dan­cies are pretty good, es­pe­cially for the ser­vice since you’ve been there”,” she said.

When union of­fi­cials broke the news at 9.30am that morn­ing of the pal­try pay­ment plan, it

gal­vanised the staff to dig in for a fight, and Mrs Wood rang her hus­band straight back.

“That’s when peo­ple started to get growly, you know, for the ser­vice they’d given the sod.”

The work­ers were asked if they could fin­ish the or­ders on hand, and Ms Waddell re­mem­ber be­ing asked to work on and file the hol­i­day pay. “I said I can’t. I’m on strike,” she said.

Ms Wood said they were called com­mu­nists and “there was abuse from left, right and cen­tre.” One day a flash new car pulled up out­side. Six well­dressed men piled out and be­gan to hurl abuse at her.

“They thought they were cool,” she said.

She said they called her every name un­der the sun. She gave back as good as she got, and ob­jected to be­ing called a dole bludger.

“How ridicu­lous. We want to work,” she said in the doc­u­men­tary.

A mem­ber of the pub­lic had walked out of a hot bread shop and, on hear­ing the abuse, of­fered words of sup­port.

“He said “it’s al­right dear, you’re not the com­mu­nist, it’s them.”

Ms Waddell said she re­mem­bered be­ing told to stop be­ing lazy and get back to work, and that “you’ve got reds un­der your beds.”

A com­mit­tee was set up and Norm Mac­Far­lane was nom­i­nated as spokesman in con­vey­ing the right mes­sage to man­age­ment and me­dia.

“We feel let down that we had to hear the news first from the union, which in turn learnt from a le­gal spokesman for the com­pany, and not from the di­rec­tors,” he had said.

On the Fri­day, the then Horowhenua ma­jor Jack Bold­er­son vis­ited to the fac­tory. Ap­plause was heard when he ar­rived, and again when he left.

“He was very sym­pa­thetic and con­cerned and is do­ing all he can to as­sist in any way.”

They slept in shifts so that ev­ery­one had a chance to go home at some stage of the day. Cut­ting benches were turned into beds cov­ered in che­quered blan­kets, and a daily ros­ter was set up to deal with food and san­i­ta­tion chores. To keep morale high and re­lieve bore­dom they knit­ted, played cards and housie and did cross­words.

While there were 67 work­ers on staff, some were ini­tially able to find new jobs and moved on, but oth­ers couldn’t and re­mained stead­fast in their be­lief of an in­jus­tice. Some of them had given the com­pany 11 years of ser­vice, while the youngest, Ja­nine Ried, was just 16.

Twelve of the staff took the first of­fer and left on September 4, while an­other 12 left a week later, leav­ing 43 to fight on. But that num­ber dwin­dled again soon af­ter, leav­ing 29 re­main­ing.

Mr Dungey had come up with an of­fer of $30,000 to end the dis­pute, but when it was boiled down he had sub­tracted the pay al­ready given out, in­clud­ing to those work­ers who had left, and it amounted to $200 each for those re­main­ing. It was re­jected.

To “stay or go” was a tough de­ci­sion for some of the work­ers in what was a tur­bu­lent time in New Zealand in 1981, com­ing right on the heels of the Spring­bok tour that had seen ri­ots on an un­prece­dented scale and had di­vided a na­tion. An­ti­tour pro­tes­tor John Minto vis­ited the fac­tory, too.

The lawyer act­ing for Rixen, E.T. Mid­lane, cited pro­duc­tion dif­fi­cul­ties as­so­ci­ated with the mail or­der busi­ness as the rea­son for clo­sure.

Ms Waddell said it was a tough de­ci­sion for some women who came un­der im­mense pres­sure from their fam­i­lies to leave.

The late Let­tie McDermott fea­tured promi­nently in the film and was in­ter­viewed ex­ten­sively, where she said prior to the stand-off that staff had of­ten talked about the need for a union del­e­gate.

It was sug­gested a no­tice be put on the board to take nom­i­na­tions and to meet dur­ing a lunch-break. But man­age­ment would veto just what type of no­tice could be put up, and “noone was game enough” to call a meet­ing.

“There should have been a del­e­gate,” she had said.

“They wanted to, but were too scared to.”

The large Ma¯ ori in­flu­ence among the staff was cred­ited as a rea­son why the oc­cu­pa­tion ran so well.

Mrs McDermott had said there was laugh­ter when she said “we’ll have you pa¯ keha¯ s liv­ing like Ma¯ ori.”

“We’re used to liv­ing as one, Ma¯ ori are, and it was eas­ier for them to adapt to it with us in here, putting their mat­tresses on the floor or cut­ting ta­ble or wher­ever,” she had said in the film.

They would never for­get the help that some peo­ple ex­tended to the pro­test­ers. Meals were passed through the win­dow. Noone went hun­gry.

Money was pledged, even some do­na­tions from Aus­tralia, and each worker was given a weekly al­lowance of $100 a week through the do­na­tions.

At one stage Mr Dungey tried to get the lo­cal power board to cut off power to the build­ing, but lo­cal power board work­ers re­fused to act. The union footed the power bill each month af­ter that.

Hun­dreds of tele­grams and let­ters of sup­port flooded in from all cor­ners of New Zealand.

Au­gust 28 — “Welling­ton Water­siders con­demn the ac­tions of Rixen Man­u­fac­tur­ers in re­fus­ing to ne­go­ti­ate and re­dun­dancy agree­ment for work­ers in­volved and will ex­tend the fullest pos­si­ble sup­port to the vic­timised work­ers of Rixen Man­u­fac­tur­ers”.

Au­gust 31- “My heart is with you. Thank you for what you are do­ing”. (June Tucker, Laun­dry Work­ers Union.)

Pick­ets were held out­side an­other com­pany of Mr Dungey’s in Napier as work­ers there showed their sup­port. It sparked the big­gest protest march Levin has ever seen, with an es­ti­mated 600 peo­ple walk­ing the streets with protest ban­ners.

In mid-Novem­ber, the work­ers voted unan­i­mously to con­tinue the oc­cu­pa­tion. Three weeks later, it was over. The prospect of spend­ing Christ­mas in the build­ing was too bleak, and on De­cem­ber 4 the build­ing was handed back to man­age­ment.

While their stand was cred­ited in bring­ing about change to cloth­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing con­tracts to in­clude re­dun­dancy clauses, there was lit­tle fat in it for those left at the end of the dis­pute.

One Rixen worker re­called try­ing to get an­other job, but was told “we’d love to hire you, but its prob­a­bly not a good idea as we heard you are one of those Rixen trou­ble­mak­ers.”

Even Dogs Are Given Bones will screen at 9.30am at Focal Point Cin­ema in Levin on Sun­day, De­cem­ber 9.

The film’s di­rec­tor Kanya Ste­wart said she was un­able to at­tend the screen­ing, but said she would never for­get the three days spent film­ing and sleep­ing on­site at Rixen.

“I was so in­spired by them. They were so brave, so coura­geous to take on their em­ployer,” she said.

“Stay­ing with them . . . you got a sense of the in­jus­tice at how they were treated.”

In the years lead­ing up to the Rixen stand-off, more than 6000 work­ers in the cloth­ing sec­tor na­tion­wide — mostly women — had lost jobs.


Fed­er­a­tion of Labour pres­i­dent Jim Knox ad­dresses work­ers at Rixen man­u­fac­tur­ing plant at Ox­ford Street dur­ing their sit-in.

Film di­rec­tor Kanya Ste­wart stayed three nights in the Rixen build­ing and still felt in­spired by the work­ers to this day.

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