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. Paul Williams reports.

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, recalling a moment in Levin's history which gained national attention and brought change to New Zealand employment law.

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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.

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

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 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.

That's when people started to get growly, you know, for the service they'd given the sod

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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.

Joyce 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 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 Waddell remembers being asked to work on and file the holiday pay. "I said I can't. I'm on strike," she said.

Rixen mechanic Norman MacFarlane talks to Clothing Workers Federation president Joyce Howe during protest negotiations. Federation secretary Frank Thorn is behind.
Rixen mechanic Norman MacFarlane talks to Clothing Workers Federation president Joyce Howe during protest negotiations. Federation secretary Frank Thorn is behind.

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 well-dressed 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'."

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.

We're used to living as one, Māori are, and it was easier for them to adapt to it

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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.

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 on the heels of the Springbok tour which had seen riots on an unprecedented scale and divided a nation. Anti-tour 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.

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 "no-one 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 Māori influence among the staff was credited as a reason the occupation ran so well.

McDermott had said there was laughter when she said "we'll have you pākehās living like Māori."

"We're used to living as one, Māori 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. No-one went hungry.

We'd love to hire you but its probably not a good idea as we heard you are one of those Rixen troublemakers

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

At one stage, 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 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.

"I was so inspired by them. They were so brave, so courageous to take on their employer

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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.