Women, Politics, and Equal Pay

Joyce Stevens

In August last year, the Sydney Branch organised a well attended one day conference at the Women’s College, Sydney University, to commemorate the life and work of labour movement and feminist activist and intellectual, Edna Ryan, who passed away in January 1997. Below, we reproduce the text of the address delivered at the conference by left and feminist historian and activist, Joyce Stevens. Joyce is the author of Taking the Revolution Home: Work Among Women in the Communist Party of Australia, 1920-1945 (1987) and Healing Women: A History of the Leichhardt Community Women’s Health Centre (1996).

This a very broad topic which we’ couldn’t cover in any depth if we stayed here for one month, let alone part of one day, for women’s. participation in politics is as broad as the theme itself – from personal and community politics to the dizzy heights of governments and courts. Today I’m going to confine myself to discussing some aspects of the industrial activism that has helped bring about advances in women’s pay rates. Those women I refer to will, like Edna Ryan, be people who realised that change comes from a wide variety of sources – from making speeches, writing articles and books, belonging to political parties and groups, and confronting and changing other social and structural barriers that sustain inequality.

In this brief paper I can only skim the surface of some of this activity but perhaps it will give us a glimpse at why subsequent generations of women keep winning equal pay without actually achieving it.

It is sometimes thought that women are less industrially active than men, but if all we do is look at the number of times women have won equal pay through industrial activity, by persuading unions, governments and courts of the justice of their claims, this view has to be seriously questioned. There are, however, many impediments to women’s activism and hindrances to their full involvement in governments, parties and other organisations which influence social outcomes, because most social structures are primarily designed to accommodate the life styles – public and personal – of men, or people who don’t have or care for children or experience a range of disabilities,

In the industrial sphere women have also rarely had the same level of social and industrial power as male workers, such as waterside workers, miners or those who work, say, in the petroleum industry, who it is said can bring the nation to its knees – though it is clear that even these workers face very powerful employer and government opposition, Women have traditionally been employed in servicing industries such as teaching and nursing. III-conceived industrial action in such industries can very quickly inflame widespread community opposition. Yet women in these occupations have a rich history of industrial activism and successes which, because of the nature of their employment, have often not been achieved by actions which are as spectacular as face to face confrontation with the employer.

For example, a consistent and major area of women’s employment since the last century has been in outwork where the exploitation is intense and where it has been incredibly difficult to establish union organisation or a national award, Yet, in 1937 such an award was finally establish’ through the widespread involvement of workers in demonstrations and action in city and country areas. Since then it has been even more difficult to enforce the award. Now, once again, an innovative industrial campaign is being conducted, involving outworkers, their union and the ACTU, which is targeting ‘brand name’ manufacturers in an attempt to enforce adherence to the award. The campaign has raised important questions about women’s role as consumer as well as producer. For instance, Jenny George was the recipient of media criticism for an action which also confronted women about whether they were purchasing clothes produced by sweated labour. Whilst slow and sometimes tedious this campaign has already won assurances from some manufacturers that they will adhere to the award.

It seems to me that the political struggles of these workers represent a different, perhaps more innovative, form of political intervention in industries where mainly women migrant workers have little economic or industrial clout. An important element in these successful activities has been the involvement of militant and feminist women in the unions at state and national level. Their empathy with the domestic and personal circumstances of women who work at home has provided the impetus both for persevering with industrial organisation in an area where this is very difficult and for convincing the union movement in general that such workers should also be protected.

Woman-initiated industrial activism in the manufacturing industry started over one hundred years ago, in 1882, when tailoresses in Melbourne – sisters to the outworkers of today – formed the first women’s union. This union led its members out on strike and won a number of important and basic industrial demands about pay and conditions.

Louisa Lawson’s journal, The Dawn, supported the tailoresses and their strike and also paid its women compositors above union rates of pay i.e. better than equal pay. There were no female rates for this work because women were not allowed into tho union or industry and were not represent in the award. Although The Dawn was a militant supporter of unions and the strike, their representative was banned from attending strike meetings by the male-dominated Melbourne Trades Hall Council. This, the Council alleged, was because The Dawn, employed non-union labour, i.e. women, and it was branded as ‘anti-union’ by the male unions which would not allow those and other women to join their ranks.

Louisa Lawson was one of these many women from outside the union movement who have given strong support to working class women in their fight for political, industrial and social rights. Similar allies for women’s. rights and activism can be found at many points in history while, on the other hand, much of women workers’ energy has been dissipated by the opposition of male comrades at work and in the unions. In 1886 the Queensland Printers Union said: “The principle of the non-employment of non-union men is as much a fundamental principle of unionism as the non-employment of women and Chinese” – an assertion both racist and sexist. While there have been some outstanding male supporters of women’s rights, in generai women have had to construct and conduct their own struggles for equity and justice.

It is a mark of women’s determined industrial activism that many women’s unions were formed in the 1880s and ’90s by tailoresses, barmaids, waitresses, teachers and in the public services, despite the prohibitions placed on them.

We might also note that two years before the Melbourne tailoresses formed the first women’s union, older Aboriginal girls who worked in the dormitories housing groups of the stolen children went on strike. This was a tiny sample ofthe long struggle these women were to wage to achieve even a modicum of social or economic justice. The girls on that occasion were not seeking equal pay; they were demanding the right to be paid for their labour. Their on-going struggle is, however, outside the scope of these remarks.

According to John Baker, former leader of the Postal Clerks and Telegraphists’ Union, if we are interested in when, where and how women first gained equal pay and status with men in the same jobs, we must look to the women telegraphists and postmistresses in the colony of Victoria from 1895, and to the debates and activities that led up to the first Commonwealth Public Service Act in 1902 in which the principle of equal pay was incorporated.

The key player in these events was Louisa Dunkley, who initiated the Victoria Women’s Post and Telegraph Association in 1899 and in 1900 helped initiate the first national public sector union in Australia, the Australian Commonwealth Post and Telegraph Association, which also adopted her policy on women’s equal pay and status.

Dunkley and the other women on her union committee carried out what was for that time a militant campaign in support of their demands; and they did so in the face of a refusal by the men’s union to defend themselves against impending wage cuts. This involved letter campaigns, public meetings, ‘and deputations. Louisa Dunkley also argued the case for equal pay before the Classification Board of the Victorian colonial service, resulting in the women receiving wage increases at a time when the men’s salaries were being reduced.

Another feature of Louisa Dunkley’s work, and of other women activists, was her preparedness to defend the working conditions of any employee, male or female. Baker describes how she would leap onto her bicycle and pedal furiously across to another office to defend a male employee if any form of victimisation was brought to her notice.

While in 1902 they saw the hard won provisions of equal pay and status for women telegraphists and postmistresses incorporated into the first federal Public Service Act, in 1904 they were dealt a serious blow with the introduction of a bar to the employment of married women in the public service. This forced Louisa Dunkley and many other women activist out of employment. Even when the bar was later removed, some sections of the union movement, for example, the Barrier Industrial Council in Broken Hill, continued to oppose the employment of married women. Repeal of this provision didn’t take place in most states until 1966, but in New South Wales it occurre< ;l in 1948, due largely to the consistent opposition of women teachers.

Muriel Heagney was another important activist for equal pay in tho 1920s and ’30s. In 1923 she drew up a claim for standard wages and conditions for men and women employed in the Victorian clothing trades. Of course, she was also subsequently associated with the Council of Action for Equal Pay, coalition made up of women and some men inside and outside of the union movement. This campaign was initiated by the Equal Pay Committee of the NSW,Branch of the Federated Clerks’ Union in 1937. The Committee involved union activists such as Flo Davis and Lucy Woodcock and non-union feminists such as Jessie Street and Ruby Rich. Some influential male union leaders supported tho campaign, which focussed mainly on propaganda and attempts to convince unions to include equal pay in their wage claims. Heagney’s booklet, Are Women Taking Men’s Jobs?, published in 1935, played an important role in the arguments for equal pay and also pointed out that the workforce in Australia was (and is) so segmented that few men or women could move into one another’s jobs.

What is perhaps not so well known is the level of industrial action undertaken by women during the Second World War. Although a Women’s Employment Board (WEB) was set up by the government to ensure that women’s wages in war industries did not undercut the male rates of pay while they were in the services, a fierce struggle took place to force the employers to abide by the decisions of the Board. In fact the employers delayed and challenged the Board’s very existence.

From 1943 to 1945 Muriel Heagney organised for the Amalgamated Engineering Union in NSW and her work log book was ‘full of discontent, stoppages and disputes’, while employers stone-walled and reclassified J>bs to save paying the WEB rates. In Victoria the Chamber of Manufactures instructed their members not to pay the WEB rates and in 1943, 3,000 women employed in vital war industries went on strike to ensure their pay rates.

Strikes and industrial activity also marked the clothing and textile industry during the war. Communists and Labor Party members in these industries initially supported the workers in their efforts to improve the substandard working conditions and low wages. As the war progressed, this changed, and when the textile and clothing trades were also declared to be essential to the war, the predominantly female workforce, which was still only being payed 54% of the male rate, entered into industrial and strike action to force an increase in pay rates. They eventually won 75% of the male rate. If the war years were a time of industrial peace, as some within the labour movement have claimed, then this was only because the women’s struggles were invisible or regarded as disreputable.

The NSW Teachers’ Federation was another important spearhead in industrial action for pay equity. Campaigns for pay equity date back to 1919 in the Teachers’ Federation. At that time, Lucy Woodcock and other key activists decided that.in order to win this struggle they first had to convince at least a m£Yority of the men and women in their union about the justice of their claims.

By 1920 equal pay had been added to the Federation’s objectives. In the following years this principle was challenged at conferences and. on the Teachers’ Council. Women teachers actively countered these challenges and in 1925 published Justice versus Tradition, under the imprimatur of “The Women’s Propaganda Committee for the. Combined Teachers”. With the continued activity of women in the Federation, the election of increasing numbers of women to Federation Council, and the election of Lucy Woodcock as senior-vice president in 1934, equal pay became more generally accepted, although in 1952 the staff of Randwick Boys’ High School called for the removal of equal pay from the Federation’s platform.

The Federation’s equal pay committee became one of the most active committees in the Federation, involving many women and men and organising petitions, meetings, the production and distribution of booklets and leaflets. At its peak the campaign also involved mass deputations where hundreds of teachers gathered outside NSW Parliament House – a quite radical and unconventional form of activity for most teachers of that era.

By 1954 women teachers had achieved 85-90% of male rates. In 1958, when the federation was arranging another mass deputation to parliament, the NSW Premier announced at an ACTU Equal Pay Conference in Sydney that his government would legislate for equal pay. The teachers nevertheless kept their appointment at Parliament House, rallying to celebrate their well earned victory. Their equal pay was phased in over five years up to 1963.

The second equally important leg to the teachers’ long campaign was a claim for equal opportunity, which, despite some advances, has still not been entirely achieved. This unfulfilled goal limits the degree to which women enjoy real equal pay in the teaching profession. Women’s lack of mobility in accepting appointments which count when promotions are handed out and the failure of head teachers to accept part-time employment for women returning to the service after child birth are just two of the reasons why teachers still don’t have equal pay. These and other factors, such as lack of child care, domestic duties, and sexual harassment, still act as a brake on the achievement ofreal equal pay.

But there is another major problem. You may have noticed that sometimes I use the term equal pay and, at others, pay equity. While I have used them as interchangeable, they don’t necessarily mean the same thing. Equal pay suggests that the male rate is the measuring stick even for deciding “equal value”, whereas pay equity is a more open-ended notion which can incorporate the need for are-evaluation of women’s tradijonal occupations using criteria that have no gender bias. Some surpnsing results have been achieved when this has been done and in a more encouraging climate than we have at present may become the next major struggle for women in the area of pay rates.

Thanks to Edna Ryan, the other women I have referred to, and many others as well, many important changes have taken place in the working lives of women, but not without strong and energetic organisation and action inside and outside of the labour and union movements.

This work is still not over. While women’s political links will play an essential role in future efforts for change, there is little doubt that current attempts by government to destroy the influence of unions is also of paramount concern for women’s industrial future. A recent book,
Strife. Sex and Politics in Labour Unions, edited by Barbara Pocock, and launched by Jenny George, makes some important points. about changes still needed in unions if the actual and potential female membership of unions is to be realised. It calls upon unions to examine their sexual politics and recast their agendas.

In an era of individual contracts where conditions are bartered for money, the many women who have preferred shorter hours, time off with sick children etc. to higher pay, will be the greatest losers. But they can also be a decisive force resisting such changes if the unions and labour movement can incorporate their needs into their agendas. SOURCES.

  • John Baker, ‘Pioneers of our Industrial History’, The Post, January-March, 1977.
  • Lyn Beaton, ‘Importance of Women’s Paid Labour’, in Bevege, James & Shute (eds.), Worth Her Salt,. Hale & Iremonger, 1982.
  • McMurchie, Oliver and Thomley, For Love or Money. A Pictorial History (?f’ Women and Work in Australia,. Penguin, 198 I.
  • Gloria Phelan, Women in Action in the Federation, NSW Teachers’ Federation, 198 I.
  • Joyce Stevens, Taking the Revolution Home,. Sybylla Press, 1987.