Workers in Tobacco Industry

“Cigar woman” at work. National Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia

The lion’s share of tobacco factory workers was represented by women, from the founding of the Ljubljana-based tobacco factory in 1871 to the discontinuation of the tobacco line in 2004.  

After the Sugar Factory fire in 1873, the Ljubljana-based Tobacco Factory was moved to the new complex on Tržaška. It triggered the growth of city population, as well as the share of women employees.

In 1879, satirical writer Jakob Alešovec published a note on the tobacco factory women workers. He paid special tribute to the Ljubljana “cigar women”, ascribing them moral debauchery and inclinations towards “free love”. His depiction reflects the prevalent bourgeois viewpoint of the time: women should not work for money. However, the number of the tobacco factory women workers persistently grew.

The Ljubljana Tobacco Factory, one of thirty production facilities under the Vienna-based Central Direction of Tobacco Factories, was by its function exceptionally social. It sported a doctor’s station, a canteen, a library, and even a kindergarten. In time, the two tobacco workers’ trade unions achieved pay rise and better working conditions, while work-related diseases and deaths were in decrease. Before World War I, the factory enjoyed the status of the best industrial employer near and far. The “cigar women” had the reputation of privileged workers and their emancipatory opportunities were augmented by the high wages and the social welfare rights (sick and maternity leave and allowance, pension), as well as abundant social contacts in the workplace.  

However, women did not have access to leading and administrating positions. It was only in 1913 that the archive mentions the first woman administrator. World War I significantly changed that percentage. Due to general war draft, women took over numerous work positions, before reserved for men, and managed to do the work more than just averagely well, according to the testimonies. This was almost entirely annulled in the post-war period. More qualified women workers and administrators appear only in the late 1930s, when the Great Depression began to appease. In general, the mid-war period brought on a weak position of the working class. Low income and pensions coincided with capricious employment policies. The administration favoured precarious and season workers because the regularly employed had the right to pensions. Bonuses for dependent family members were only allocated to married men and widows but not to mothers out of wedlock.  

The Ljubljana Tobacco Factory was exceptionally social in its character. It sported a doctor’s station, a canteen, a library, and even a kindergarten.  

During World War II, the Tobacco Factory was operative under emergency conditions. The supreme leadership of the tobacco monopole was first transferred to Rome and, after Italy capitulated, taken over by the Ljubljana City Hall, under general Rupnik. He supported workers mobilising into collaborating National Guard units, promising them full workers’ pay. A large portion of the workers, women included, nevertheless actively supported the Partisan movement.

Post-WWII period was more pleasant for the workers, with increasing workers’ rights and the introduction of self-governing systems. Tobacco production was updated, so the factory quickly hired qualified workforce – of both genders. With administrators now mostly female, women also became production managers, supervisors, and heads of departments. Factory workers had close ties, a strong sense of belonging to the factory, fortified through work excursions, common activities in spare time and celebrations, notably Women’s Day. Former tobacco workers of both genders recall numerous friendly, even romantic ties, woven in the traditionally “family-friendly” factory. 

In the early 1990s, the factory was privatised and the workers’ position became ever more uncertain. On Workers’ Day, 1 May 2004, with Slovenia’s EU entry, production was stopped. It was a black day for tobacco workers. Today, the tobacco smells and lively workers remain mere memories among the mighty yellow buildings and the Tobacco Woman statue, addressed by the Ljubljana Feminist Bike Tour organised by the Urbana Vrana Institute.

Tobacco Museum

Until the beginning of the 20th century, the tobacco factory had been the largest Ljubljana-based building complex. Its mighty architectural facilities on the intersection of the main western artery Tržaška with the Bleiweisova still draws attention even today. The Tobacco Museum’s permanent exhibition, showcasing the life of the factory and its workforce, is accessible to the blind and the visually-impaired persons, as well as to the deaf and hearing-impaired persons, but not to persons with limited mobility.