Women textile workers have always been an important part of the Polish workforce. This month in Zyrardow they were involved in a long sit-in strike in protest at food shortages.
Inside the factory they sat, clinging to each other, crying about their children, scared but stubborn, refusing to give up their strike.
The centre of the Polish textile industry is the city of Lodz, where 135,000 women are employed. Ten years ago it was the women of Lodz whose strike finally forced the government of the day to revoke the price increases which had caused the biggest upheavals since 1956. This summer Janina Ratynska investigated the life in a Lodz textile mill for the Polish women’s magazine ‘Girl Friend’. Translated by Kara Weber.
In the spinning hall there are cans of ht green liquid. White scum floats over its murky depths. It tastes vile. It’s mint tea – a reviving drink. Nobody will let this revolting stuff past their lips. Not a trickle will flow, even down the most parched and thirsty throats. The spinners quench their thirst at a rusty tap in the toilets.
Conditions in the spinning hall are tropical. Anything up to 104 degrees and 75 per cent humidity. It’s the yarn which needs these temperatures and this level of humidity. Nobody even mentions the needs of the people here. Water drips from the faulty air conditioning units. The cold splashes feel like icicles on your sweltering back.
It’s three in the morning. A young woman by one of the spinning machines suddenly starts jumping up and down. First on one leg, then the other, swinging her arms. She’s thin, her blonde hair tumbles about her face. From a distance she looks like a little girl playing hopscotch. As you approach the illusion vanishes. Her looks exhausted, running with sweat, her lips parched, in her eyes an expression of intense effort. Seeing me she stops in mid hop like a mechanical doll.
‘Don’t look at me like that. I haven’t gone crazy. It’s just that I haven’t slept for three days. I’ve got small children and my husband is away on a delegation. If I had a cup of coffee, I could clear my head, but as it is I just fall asleep standing up.’
It’s the third shift at Harnam Cotton Industries in Lodz. Every night over 400 women work in its spinning and weaving halls. They leave home at half past eight in the evening, crowd into their packed buses and trams and ride to work. Once there, they change into their overalls, stiff and sticky from accumulated dirt, sweat and dust. Once upon a time these overalls were washed every day, now it’s once every two or three weeks. There’s no detergent.
They bind their legs with elasticated bandage. They all do it, even the young ones. Varicose veins appear after only a few years’ work at the looms. Whether spinning or weaving, five years is enough to make a fine network of purple lines cover every pair of legs, even the most young and slender ones. ‘Do you know what I sometimes call myself?’ says the Spinning Manager, Kazimierz Biesaga. ‘A mule driver. I respect these women, their work, their patience, their endurance. But when I see them working at night the image of labouring mules persistently returns to me. Underfed, short of sleep, running on their last legs. They bring sandwiches of dry bread and pickled cucumber. Butter would melt, and anyway there’s little of it and they have to save it for the children. Their husbands need any cold meat that’s going.’
They patrol their looms and spinning frames incessantly, first 200 metres one way, then 200 metres back again. ‘We have our own version of the old kids’ riddle,’ says Mr Biesaga, ‘What carries on working without eating or drinking? You know the answer? A Lodz yarn worker. Or perhaps you know the song about the spinning girls sitting like a row of angels? None of these are angels any more. All the creams and face masks in the world won’t help. To look at them you wouldn’t think some of them are thirty years old. No, you wouldn’t. What you see are bags under the eyes, wrinkles and bent shoulders. Halina Kaczmarek has worked the three shifts at Harnam’s for 30 years. ‘I’ve had enough of this struggle to survive. When I’m working nights I never catch up on my sleep. I come off the shift and instead of going to bed I go to stand in a queue. Since June there’s a special system for the sale of milk in Lodz. From 6 to 8 in the morning only mothers with special children’s health cards can buy. Ordinary people don’t get a look in, they have to stand and wait. If there’s any left at eight o’clock then there’s a chance of getting a bottle, but sometimes there’s none left. Then I go to another queue for meat.
‘Yesterday I stood there from eight in the morning till two. I got 500 grams of shoulder. After standing in line I return home, snatch a bit to eat, do my cleaning, washing. I have to fetch water because I have a home without conveniences. I go to lie down for an hour after dinner. The racket in the house is dreadful; everything’s switched on at once, the radio, the telly … I sleep, it doesn’t bother me. Then I cook supper and leave home for work.
I know nothing about politics, but those people in the government, you know the ones who are having to explain themselves now because of us, I wouldn’t put them in prison, what for? They should come and work here, at Harnam’s. I’d give them top pay, let them make their seven thousand, we don’t want any discrimination. But then I’d give them ration cards and chase them round to do their share of queuing. That would be their greatest punishment.’
Kazimiera Chodorowska has worked at Harnam’s for 30 years. ‘The worst is finishing a week of night shifts and going back to work on Monday. Your body has to adjust yet again. You sleep over your machine, your mates wake you up. If they put the afternoon shift to follow on from nights it would mean a two o’clock start. You wouldn’t get so tired and your nerves wouldn’t get so frayed. But when we raise the matter it’s like banging your head against a brick wall. Anyone would think they wanted to run us into the ground. The best solution would be to abolish the night shift altogether.’
For many years the workers of every light industrial enterprise have tried to get rid of the third shift. It was the most important demand made at the lowest level, at meetings, works council conferences and production committees. At the higher levels it was never mentioned.
At the last meeting the unionists presented the government side with a report dealing with the third shift, compiled by experts from the Lodz Polytechnic, the Medical Academy and Lodz University.
It’s a shocking document. On the basis of carefully detailed experiments it shows the effects of night shift work on the women workers. It links such work with pregnancy abnormalities; level of miscarriage much higher than normal; greater percentages of children born with congenital abnormalities.
It is said that the body’s constant adjustment to work patterns during the morning, afternoon and night exploits, even plunders, the nervous system of women. It leads to loss of control and equilibrium and to physical exhaustion.
According to surveys, a considerable proportion of women working the three shift system have broken families.
What has the department of light industry to say about this? The Assistant Director of the Work, Wages and Social Services Department of the Ministry of Light Industry, Edmund Wojcicki says: ‘We received the report with mixed feelings. You must admit its tone is a little alarmist. In any case, you cannot view these matters solely from the standpoint of the workers. The interests of society as a whole must count for something.
‘Goods totalling a value of 70 billion zloty are produced during the third shift. The market, already very scantily supplied, would be greatly impoverished if this production were eliminated. There will be no third shift, but you won’t be able to buy a single towel, shirt or sheet in the shops.
‘This does not mean that we see no openings for limiting three shift working. Such possibilities exist and our department has already worked out introductory measures.’
Five years is a long time. The workers themselves say – we can hang on. And they will endure it all, the sleepless nights, the queues, the nightmare conditions. But they must know for sure that the fruit of their work, in the murderous, destructive conditions, will not be another crisis in ten years time but a peaceful, dignified life, free of deprivation.
Women’s Voice, April 1982, Issue 62
Author Janina Ratynska (originally written for Polish women’s magazine ‘Girl Friend’)
Translated by Kara Weber