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SocietyDecember 5, 2021

The women who occupied a Levin factory for 96 days


Today marks 40 years since the Rixen factory occupation ended. Huw Morgan speaks to the women involved.

At 3.30pm on Saturday December 5, 1981, Ann Waddell and 26 of her colleagues walked out of the clothing factory in Levin that they’d been occupying for 96 days. It was the longest workplace occupation in Aotearoa’s history and one which historian Toby Boraman calls “the most important in this country’s history”. That August, they were told the Rixen factory was closing and they would not be receiving any redundancy pay. Four decades later, Waddell says they “felt like a bit of shit being thrown out of the paddock”. Though the women left without winning redundancy for themselves, their actions forced a redundancy clause onto the Clerical Workers award at the same time. 

During the 1970s and 80s, New Zealand’s economy, like most rich nations, was ”de-industrialised”. Factories were closed, their assets were stripped, and blue-collar workers, such as those in textiles “were the first ones hit,” says Boraman. Between 1974 and 1981, the industry lost 14,000 jobs. But at the Rixen clothing factory, business was good and they sometimes struggled to keep up with orders. The sudden closure, Waddell says, “was the last thing we expected”.

The factory had previously been taken over by Fred Ellison and Ted Dungey, businessmen based in Napier, and Rixen became a cut, make and trim operation. It was a mail order business, and the garments, “run of the mill womens clothes”, were sent to Napier for distribution. The 67 staff got on reasonably well and were mostly working-class Māori and Pākehā  women.

Aged 24, Waddell had been working at the factory doing the wages for a couple of years and “I was just working at the factory and back home again”. She went to the inaugural Sweetwaters music festival in Ngāruawāhia in 1980, where she’d been filmed coming out of the showers topless, “I was a bit of a wild child, I suppose,” she says, laughing at how shocked her mother had been to see her on television.

Waddell found out about the factory’s closure on Tuesday August 25, 1981, when the Clerical Workers Union called. “What are you talking about?” she asked, and went to find the manager, who had no idea either. By the next morning, everyone knew. “It was pretty devastating,” she says.

The first signs of resistance were three days later, on the Friday. Dungey had sent a lawyer from Auckland but “he didn’t tell us very much”, and they decided not to carry on working until he’d talk to them. Dungey had been “quite an impressive person…very suave”, but he hadn’t shown up himself, so “we just wanted to stick it to him”. On the following Monday, the Clothing Workers Federation arrived. Its secretary Frank Thorn, inspired by a woman-led occupation in Scotland that had days earlier overturned a factory closure, suggested something similar. Waddell says it was unanimous: “we’re going to strike, picket and occupy 94 Oxford Street, Levin”.

After the first groups appeared in 1970, the Women’s Liberation Movement produced a dizzying array of campaigns and organisations. Like most movements, there were disagreements between radicals and moderates and in Up From Under, Christine Dann writes that the years between 1977 and 1981 saw the most ideological turbulence. At the 1979 National Women’s Conference, Donna Awatere and Mona Papali’i famously accused the movement of racism.

Kanya Stewart was a recently-out lesbian and as a middle-class Pākehā, believed their criticism “was very good”. She’d witnessed racism before, having had an Indian husband. On moving to Dunedin together, she’d been “absolutely horrified” by “how racist New Zealanders could be.”

She’d worked at the National Film Unit and was an editor on the groundbreaking Women series. Commissioned by TV One, it was a series “made for women about women by women”. Unsurprisingly though, Stewart recalls, in the halls of television “we were feared a little bit…especially by the men” and no further projects were commissioned.

In 1981, Stewart left a two-week video production course at university “fired up” and joined Auckland Community Women’s Video, a group making films about women. Stewart read about Rixen and thought “we’ve got to do this”. They made contact, packed up and drove down to Levin.

The occupation was in its ninth week and 67 had become 43, all of them women but four. Dungey had come to see them on September 16 and offered $30,000. But the sum included money already paid to people who’d left, so amounted to just a few hundred dollars each, and wasn’t based on the length of service. 

The staff rejected it and eight days later he called the police. As they arrived, there were only a few people inside the building, at risk of easy arrest. The call went out to get as many people inside as possible. “I locked myself in my office,” says Waddell. She opened the window and people clambered through. Not just Rixen workers, but people from the Mullan car plant nearby also piled in, like Waddell’s cousin. “What the hell are you doing here?” she said, as he climbed through the window. “We got a call to come and support you,” he answered. Copying the direct action from the Springbok Tour protests earlier that year, they sat in the main hall and linked arms, hoping that police would avoid mass arrests of mostly women. 

Dungey tried to cut the power to the building but the workers at the power board refused, and the Union stepped in to pay the power bill.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of the Rixen story is that the factory was not a hotbed of political militancy. They didn’t even have a union delegate. Lettie McDermott, a worker who features in the documentary, explained how they’d tried to pick one, but were thwarted by the owners and were too timid to try again. “No one was game enough to call that meeting.” Given the industry’s decline, Waddell says, people didn’t want to be seen as “stirring the pot”.

The documentary Even Dogs Are Given Bones shows the day-to-day activities that kept the place going and is soundtracked with a song written by Mereana Pittman. Most of the women were “fine about us just hanging out and taking the shots of them,” Stewart says. There was a day shift and a night shift, committees for food, action and knitting and living was marae style. 

Luminaries of the political left like Sonja Davies and John Minto came to Levin and the feminist magazine Broadsheet wrote about them. “It was just phenomenal,” Waddell says. Other unions gave money, and they were able to take $100 a week each, enough for food and rent. Waddell was sent to a meatworks to speak. “Pretty daunting,” she remembers. It was an industry renowned for staunch unionism, and often sexism, but she left being “cheered and clapped”. They picketed outside Dungey’s distribution centre in Napier, and organised a 600-person march through the centre of Levin, the biggest in the town’s history.

On November 13, the Federation of Labour came to help with negotiations. Joyce Hawe, a former clothing worker and the first Māori woman elected to its executive, was their link. There was another vote on whether to continue, and of the 27 people left, not one voted to give up. A few weeks later, with no sign of an agreement, they’d had enough and decided to leave.

There were significant strikes elsewhere, but Rixen “was a special event,” says Boraman, because “it was an example of workers taking over a building and running it themselves”. When asked whether they recognised the significance of what they were doing, Waddell says no. “Shit, I had no idea! We just wanted to stick it to him because he didn’t want to offer us anything.”

Despite all their work, no one from Rixen was offered work in the trade unions afterwards, and the story was largely forgotten until the documentary was recovered and screened at parliament in 2018. Since then, McDermott and Hawe have died but Waddell still sees a couple of the others. She’s been a member of unions ever since.

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