Australian unions and the fight for equal pay for women

by Katie Wood • Published 12 July 2015

The year 2014 marked the forty-fifth anniversary of the first decision in the federal arbitration court supporting equal pay for women, yet today the gender pay gap stands at a staggering high of 18.8 percent, or nearly $300 for full-time weekly earnings.[1] Even more troubling is the fact that the gap has been growing rapidly since a “low” point of 14.9 percent in 2004. This percentage is huge in real terms. It means that full-time female workers are on average over $13,000 a year worse off than men and over the length of a working life; when combined with time out for raising children, it amounts to around $1.4 million.[2] Women also accumulate only 59 percent of the superannuation savings of men on retirement.[3]

In recent years there has been something of a backlash against concern about the gender pay gap. Numerous articles have been written arguing that there is in fact no such thing – that any statistical differences can be explained solely by individual women’s choices to work in lower paid industries or to leave the workforce for a time to raise children.[4] This argument ignores the connection between such individual decisions and the sexist structures of society. It is total rubbish.

A 2009 study of the variables associated with the gender pay gap found that the predominant reason for the gap was the indirect factor of “simply being a woman”, by which the authors meant the experience of direct or indirect sexist discrimination. This factor far outweighed others such as industry segregation, labour force history and qualifications; a finding that the authors maintain is consistent with other Australian studies in the field.[5]

Sexism in the workforce plays out in many different ways, sometimes complex and sometimes seemingly contradictory. For instance, it is well documented that women who ask for pay rises or promotions are seen in a more negative light than men who do the same, and that the socialisation of women to be more self-effacing and passive means that they are less likely to ask for pay rises or promotions in the first place. Sexism shapes the assumptions that bosses make about their workers and it pervades the daily interactions in the workplace. It is a key factor in the endurance of the pay gap and cannot be ignored just because those daily interactions may be harder to quantify or seem to be individual and personal rather than systemic.

Industry segregation along gender lines is of course an important factor in the continuing pay gap. Women are poorly represented in the highest paid industries, such as mining, but over-represented in the lowest paid, such as retail.[6] Again, all the complex elements of women’s oppression come into play here. Women are less likely to enrol in engineering, geology and related courses, more likely to take up “caring” professions such as childcare, nursing and teaching. And these industries, because they are historically feminised, are lower paid; a fact that was acknowledged by Fair Work Australia in the 2012 Australian Services Union equal pay claim decision.

Women are also more likely to take time off work to undertake unpaid care of children, the elderly and the sick. Again, if this is presented simply as a “choice” it ignores the fact that it is stereotypically a woman’s role to take on caring responsibilities. Also material factors may affect the decision, as women are likely to earn less than their partner in a heterosexual relationship and such a “choice” makes clear financial sense.

So women’s oppression operates in myriad ways to reinforce the gender pay gap. It is really just one of the more obvious signs of the ongoing problem of women’s oppression. The pay gap, just like women’s place in society more generally, is not subject to some gradual, linear improvement as society develops, presumably for the better. Changes in government policy and the strength of working class organisation, in short various aspects of the class struggle, impact on the gender pay gap. The assault on union rights and collective bargaining under WorkChoices (and its offspring FairWork) undoubtedly contributed to the recent increase in the pay gap, as the gap is wider for women on individual contracts than for those on collective agreements (20.2 percent compared to 15.8 percent).[7]

Equal pay is a class and a union issue, and always has been. Winning legal equal pay in the early 1970s was probably the most important single step forward for women’s rights in Australia, because all aspects of women’s oppression are interwoven. How can women have more autonomy and authority in the home if they are economically dependent upon their partners or parents? What impact does the knowledge that one is receiving 54 percent or 75 percent of a workmate’s wage for the sole reason of gender have on a woman’s sense of self-worth and confidence? Access to a decent and equal wage affects, both immediately and in intangible ways, women in the domestic sphere and on a psychological level. So, even though we have so far still to go, winning legal pay equality was a key reason for the immense progress that has been made to women’s position since the 1970s.

But that victory was not an easy one. Sections of the union movement had campaigned for equal pay for decades, but faced opposition from the bosses, the media, the arbitration courts, governments and, quite often, other sections of the union movement. But if it was not for the tireless work of women unionists (as unionists) and their male comrades, we would not have won this basic but vitally important gain.

Early equal pay campaigns

Since at least the 1880s there have been serious calls in Australia for equal pay for women. Pay inequality existed in the wages of various industries where men and women worked in the same jobs, and industries that were generally accepted as female-dominated were paid far less. Some women’s organisations, like the Women’s Political Association and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, left wing organisations like the Victorian Socialist Party and unions like the Clerical Workers all supported and ran campaigns for equal pay around the turn of the twentieth century. There were some workplaces that gained equal pay, at least briefly. The telegraphists and postmistresses in the new federal public service won equal pay in 1902 following a determined campaign by Louisa Dunkley, a leader of the Victorian Women’s Post and Telegraph Association.[8]

Unequal pay and the concept of a woman’s wage were enshrined in the arbitration system in response to the famous 1907 Harvester judgement that set what became known as the family wage. Justice Henry Higgins, the Arbitration Court judge ruling on the dispute between H.V. McKay, owner of Sunshine Harvesters and the Agricultural Implement Makers Union, based the wage rate on his opinion of what it cost a man to live and support a wife and three children.

The Harvester judgement and the implementation of the family wage is widely seen by feminist historians as the material underpinning of gender segregation and discrimination. As Heidi Hartmann wrote, “the development of family wages secured the material base for male domination” by ensuring men had better jobs and that women would be encouraged into the home.[9] Ryan and Conlon wrote, “The imposing edifice of a ‘family wage’ was to bar the progress of women’s pay rates for over half a century.”[10] Sandra Bloodworth, however, argues that the gendered segregation and discrimination in the workforce was clearly enshrined well before the Harvester judgement, and that its supposed impact in removing women from the workforce and holding down female wages does not stand up to scrutiny, as the family wage was only a reality for a minority of workers. This is not to deny that the family wage held some ideological importance.[11] The decision was both a step forward and a step back in that it established that a minimum wage should be set on the basis of (admittedly presumed) social need, not the right of an employer to set whatever price they determined. But in the context of Australia’s peculiar compulsory arbitration system and the union movement’s commitment to that system, it was a step back in that it laid the basis for decades of subsequent decisions justifying unequal pay.

The Harvester judgement actually decided nothing about women’s wages. The concept was left to be developed in two subsequent decisions in 1912 and 1919. The 1912 Fruit Pickers case was the first to discuss women’s pay rates.[12] Higgins again presided and he decided that where women and men were doing the same job they should receive the same rate of pay so that the women would not undermine the male wage. But for jobs in the industry that were usually performed by women, they should receive less than a male wage. The rationale for this was that women were not, unlike men, obliged to support a family. Higgins recognised that some women may well be breadwinners, but these were “exceptional cases” and an employer need not ascertain the domestic circumstances of their employees in order to fix rates of pay. So the female rate of pay was set at what the judge decided was the cost of living for a single woman.[13] The 1919 Clothing Trades Award then established the female rate of pay at 54 percent of the male rate,[14] a situation that would last until the 1949-50 basic wage enquiry (although with some alteration during World War Two as we will see).

The first broad campaign for equal pay began around 1912, coming out of a generalised push to organise women, which resulted in the founding of 31 female unions or female sections of unions in Victoria. Female representation on the Melbourne Trades Hall Council (THC) peaked at about 10 percent, a figure that was not rivalled until after the women’s liberation movement.[15] Within the Victorian ALP the Women’s Organising Committee was formed. In 1913, Sara Lewis from the Female Hotel and Caterers Union and Herbert Carter from the Federated Clothing Trades Union proposed to the THC a campaign for equal pay. Despite some resistance from within the THC, a Women’s Industrial Convention was held that year with THC support, and an equal pay demonstration took place in Melbourne.[16]

It was reported in the THC minutes and in the ALP’s paper Labor Call that a motion was passed at the Convention urging the formation of a committee to campaign for equal pay, although according to some delegates the motion had actually been ruled out of order. There was great debate about what happened at the Convention, and it is difficult to assess what precisely was decided.[17] But the eventual outcome was clear; no committee was formed and the equal pay campaign receded into the background as the union movement was swept up in one of the most turbulent periods of Australian history with the World War One anti-conscription campaigns and the 1917 mass strike. Women unionists and political activists played important and often prominent roles in these movements, but not around the issue of equal pay.

Given subsequent debates about the motivations of unionists supporting equal pay (explored below), it is worth noting the 1926 Clothing Trades Union claim for equal pay. They argued for it on the basis that first, women had a right to economic independence, then that the male basic wage was itself inadequate, third that technological changes made women’s work equal to that of a man and finally that many women also had dependents.[18] Although some unionists did use the rationale that equal pay would prevent male job losses, it was also the case that others argued strongly that equal pay was a woman’s right and a social justice question. This argument would be put most forcefully by Muriel Heagney in the next upsurge in equal pay campaigning that followed the Great Depression.

Muriel Heagney and the Council of Action for Equal Pay

Muriel Heagney was an active member of the ALP (and its forerunner the Political Labor Council) and a union organiser, who assisted the Clothing Trades Union in their unsuccessful equal pay submissions in the 1920s (in which she quoted Engels in support of her arguments).[19] She was also a delegate to the Women’s Central Organising Committee and attended the first Victorian Labor Women’s Conference.[20] She led the struggle for equal pay in the 1930s and 1940s as honorary secretary of the Council of Action for Equal Pay (CAEP).

Equal pay became an urgent issue as the impact of the Depression began to hit in the early 1930s. Male unemployment grew rapidly and unfortunately some sections of the union movement, particularly in Queensland, responded by calling for married women to be sacked in favour of unemployed men.[21] In response, Heagney and others formed the Equal Status Committee in 1935 and wrote the pamphlet Are Women Taking Men’s Jobs? The pamphlet is a clear and detailed argument for equal pay, and Heagney unambiguously argued for the right of women to work and earn an independent living. She wrote, drawing on works like Engels’ Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State and those of the German Marxist August Bebel:

The right to work is no prerogative of men. Throughout the ages, from the early dawn of civilisation to the present hour, women have shared the burden of labour equally with men. The first industries were founded by women. In primitive times, women were almost entirely responsible for producing the necessities of life. As breadmakers, food preservers, spinners and weavers of cloth, and as agriculturalists, they produced commodities and services essential to the welfare of the whole group. Later, as unpaid helpers of their husbands, brothers and fathers, they co-operated in the home industries in the production of marketable goods. Then came the industrial revolution, and women followed their menfolk into factory and workshop.[22]

She argued that keeping women out of industry was both unjust and economically unsound as it would simply shift the burden of unemployment from men to women which would not solve the unemployment crisis nor help workers. She pointed out that in 1933 there were over 200,000 female breadwinners in Australia.

In May 1937 the Clerks Union, at this stage aligned with the left, organised a conference in Sydney on equal pay which was attended by delegates from 53 organisations, both unions and women’s organisations. At the conference, John Hughes (assistant secretary of the Clerks Union) declared that “Equal pay means the establishment of economic independence for women and provides a basis upon which they can struggle to secure the consummation of full equality.”[23] There had been a debate in the Clerks Union over the basis on which to support equal pay, with Communist Party members, such as Hughes, arguing against the position that equal pay was a means to ensure male employment.[24]

The conference established the Council of Action for Equal Pay (CAEP) and Muriel Heagney was made honorary secretary. Another key figure was Eileen Powell of the Australian Railways Union. The main unions involved in the CAEP were the Public Servants Association, the Clerks, Teachers Federation, Railways, Textiles, Rubber Workers, Postal Workers and Food Preservers, indicating the industries with a large female workforce.[25]

One of their first actions was to assist the Australian Council of Trade Unions’ (ACTU) first quasi-equal pay claim to the Arbitration Court, when they tried to lift the female rate to 60 percent from the current 54 percent of the male wage. They also organised delegations to members of parliament, petitions, speaking tours, detailed reports on the status of women workers and propaganda for individual unions to distribute. By 1941 a Gallup poll billed as the first opinion poll on equal pay found 59 percent in favour and 33 percent opposed.[26] Given the contemporary debates about women’s work and the early timing in terms of the general union campaign, the level of support is rather remarkable.

During World War Two over 94,000 women entered the workforce,[27] mainly in armaments production. This could have been and very nearly was the breakthrough for which the CAEP had been working. As women moved into traditionally male-dominated industries it prompted a number of metal unions, especially the Sheet Metal Workers (SMWU) and the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) to join the CAEP and make a turn to organising women workers.

The AEU had a long policy of attempting to exclude women from the industry, a policy that had more to do with their craft union orientation than their inherent sexism. The metal industry had always been subject to the cruel trade cycle and unemployment was a constant concern, heightened by their experience during World War One when an influx of untrained engineers threatened the exclusivity on which the AEU relied. AEU rules precluded women from joining, but this position became untenable with the influx of women engineering workers. By 1941 shop floor organisers were agitating within the union to admit women, with an international ballot finally being held in 1942.[28] By 1943 women made up 20 percent of the SMWU’s membership and the AEU employed Heagney as an organiser. By 1945, union membership in the female workforce was 51.9 percent, only 3 percent less than for men.[29]

In 1941 Heagney and the CAEP wrote that they believed that they were on the cusp of winning equal pay.[30] The ACTU had embraced the CAEP platform and in October that year the ALP came to office. There were lingering complaints about the union movement in general not taking the issue of equal pay seriously, and in particular not wholeheartedly backing the CAEP, but that was not the primary reason that equal pay failed to be achieved. It was not so much sexism as the political ideologies of the key groups in the union movement. Equal pay was dashed on the barren rocks of the Labor government’s quest for national unity and the Communists’ strident support for the war, both of which subordinated industrial organisation and militancy to the war effort.

This was illustrated by the role played by the Women’s Employment Board (WEB), set up by the Labor government in 1942 following a number of strikes for equal pay, notably by members of the Federated Rubber Workers in Sydney and the Australian Saddlery and Leather Trades Federation in Melbourne.[31] The WEB was given the power to regulate wages, hours and working conditions for women. The Board had the authority to introduce equal pay for women working in traditionally male jobs, but instead it set the female rate at anywhere between 60 and 90 percent of the male rate.

Some workers did gain equal pay, including Melbourne tram conductresses, members of the Munitions Workers Union and the Bread Carters Union, but all of these were won by direct negotiations with the bosses, often following industrial action.[32] Even those women who came under the WEB rates still often had to fight to receive that rate. So there was a rash of strikes during the war specifically over the question of women’s rates, whether equal pay or WEB rates. In 1941, 20,000 Victorian textile workers struck over war loadings. The Alexandria Spinning Mills in Sydney saw two strikes involving thousands, in 1941 (over working conditions) and again in 1943. A 1943 strike at the Small Arms Ammunition Factory in Footscray, Melbourne sparked off a broader strike involving 2,000 government factory workers. There were many more examples.[33]

Many of the strikes during the war were not supported by union leaders. Many feminist historians, such as Muriel Heagney’s biographer Rosemary Francis, contend that the lack of support occurred because most union leaders were male.[34] But their gender or even their presumed sexist attitudes were not the key reason for not supporting the wartime strikes. The union officials, including Communist Party members, strongly supported the war effort and for this reason opposed industrial action. Even the CAEP decided to include support for the war effort in its program. Strikes by both male and female workers were denounced as unpatriotic or selfish and there was generally a reluctance to go beyond the limits imposed by the ALP government and its WEB.[35] It is also worth noting that the strongest opposition to both equal pay and even the WEB rates came from the employers. While sexism has always been a barrier to achieving or even campaigning for equal pay, it was pro-war political attitudes and the employers’ defence of their profits that were the significant barriers in this instance.

In any case it was not only men who opposed equal pay. The mainstream women’s organisations of the day campaigned not for equal pay but for women to do unpaid “voluntary” work to back the imperialist war effort, something the bosses and the press lauded as a means to force down male and female wages. As well, one of Muriel Heagney’s most troublesome opponents was Jessie Street, a feminist with ties to the ALP and head of the newly formed United Associations of Women (UA) and the Council for Women in War Work. Street supported a gradualist approach to equal pay and backed the WEB rates as a step forward even though the WEB argued against equal pay on the basis that women were less productive and prone to greater absenteeism. Heagney on the other hand argued that the default position of WEB should be equal pay with women’s rates to be set only if an employer could prove less productivity or greater absenteeism.[36] Although the UA was a member of the CAEP, it campaigned for the gradual equal pay approach, on several occasions in direct opposition to the CAEP. Tension began in 1937 when the UA sent a delegation to the NSW labour minister to argue for a gradual increase in female pay. Later in the same year, during an application for an equal minimum wage by Heagney’s Clerks Union, Nerida Cohen representing the UA argued instead for a gradual increase. Finally in 1940, Cohen and Street represented the UA at the basic wage case in Melbourne, receiving much publicity.[37] Sour relations between Heagney’s CAEP and Street’s UA were inevitable, but made the CAEP’s work far more difficult, particularly because of the general union attitude of support for the WEB, which isolated the CAEP. In the debates about the WEB, the Sheetmetal Workers and the AEU resigned from the CAEP. Although the WEB was disbanded in 1944, by 1948 the CAEP had also disappeared.

Women workers in post-war Australia

In an opening sally against the wartime pay rates that had been won through strikes and the WEB, employers took a test case to the High Court to abolish WEB rates and return to the pre-war rate of 54 percent. But the strike wave at the end of the war pushed back the bosses’ attack and a compromise rate of 75 percent was set.[38]

But women workers and their male supporters were in no mood for compromise. An article by Clarice McNamara in the Labor Digest indicates the strength of feeling:

Women now are like the lion that tasted blood – they have savoured the sweets of economic independence, of some measure of equality with men in the workaday world, of the refreshing contact that comes with interesting employment outside the home. All these things are not going to be renounced overnight for the previous order in which women’s main role was that of home-maker and childrearer, while she was frowned upon or tolerated in any jobs save those of teacher, nurse, shopgirl or typist.[39]

Industrial action continued after the war, including action to maintain equal pay or WEB rates higher than 75 percent. A few examples will suffice. In February 1951 half a dozen Sydney metal shops struck for two and a half weeks to defend wartime pay rates; in April ironworkers in Newcastle struck over the same issue, and July saw female meatworkers in Brisbane successfully resist an attempt to drive down their pay rate. Usually, these actions occurred in industries with a significant Communist presence and reflected the impact of a left wing political leadership.[40]

The industrial action and the attitude so forcefully captured by McNamara above were an indication that the situation for women in the workforce had changed forever. In particular, the number of married women workers continued to rise. The number of women in the workforce in 1954 was 18 percent higher than in 1947. In 1954, 31 percent of women workers were married compared to 16 percent in 1947 and 9 percent in 1933.[41] One of the main reasons for the increase in married women’s workforce participation, aside from the experience of work in the war, was that the benefits of the long post-war boom did not automatically flow through to workers. Increasingly, the argument found in union propaganda for equal pay was that it was impossible to raise a family on one income alone. This added weight to the arguments that married women should not be penalised and that equal pay was an important issue for all workers.

Not that any of this impressed the Arbitration Commission, which in 1949-50 again rejected an equal pay claim and for the first time enshrined the female rate of pay in the basic (minimum) wage, set at 75 percent of the male rate. The excuse this time was that it would put an “intolerable strain on the economy”, not just because employers might not be able to pay but also because women’s higher purchasing power might skew the economy into crisis. The commissioners also argued that equal pay would discourage single women from getting married, which apparently would be a social catastrophe.[42]

Again in 1951, the employers lodged a claim to reduce the female rate to 60 percent, but this was rejected. This push from the employers, the new Menzies Liberal government’s hostility to equal pay and the rash of strikes to keep wartime rates or equal pay led the ACTU executive to support a call for a new equal pay campaign, with a motion passed to establish equal pay committees in 1953, though they took a couple of years to get off the ground in most states.

The 1960s and Kath Williams: towards equal pay

The Victorian Trades Hall Equal Pay Committee was established in 1955 with Kath Williams as honorary secretary. Williams was a Liquor Trades Union organiser and a member of the Communist Party. The honorary in the title refers to the fact that it was not a paid position, which was also the case with Muriel Heagney’s CAEP position. Both Heagney and Williams remained union organisers during their years of equal pay activism. According to their biographers, both experienced frustration with the structures and personalities of the union movement, particularly the male-dominated leadership.[43] The fact that both were unpaid positions suggests that the campaign was not undertaken with the seriousness it deserved. It was the case, however, that both Williams and Heagney were strongly supported by some male union leaders. The dividing line for union leaders tended to be along a political axis, with support coming from more left wing and industrially militant leaders.

The Equal Pay Committee set about organising protests, including annual Equal Pay Weeks, petitions and speakers for stop-work meetings. Williams’ connections with Communist officials were useful, as they made up a growing and significant section of the left wing union leadership in Victoria. A federal union conference on equal pay was held in Melbourne in 1956. That year, another Gallup poll showed support for equal pay had increased to 67 percent.[44] The international scene also bolstered the equal pay case, with the International Labor Organisation backing equal pay and British public servants winning it in 1951.[45]

The federal Liberal government was somewhat defensive on the matter. When approached on the question, their answer was that it was a matter for arbitration tribunals. But the tribunals were now refusing to implement equal pay because they said it was too significant a change for them to enact without legislative backing.[46] A strong campaign by the NSW Teachers Federation led the NSW Labor government to break the legislative impasse. They enacted the first equal pay act in 1958. However the provisions were so limited that it really only applied to a handful of women outside the teaching profession.[47]

Industrial militancy and the strength of the union movement proved to be the key factor in winning equal pay. In 1962 a large and important strike for equal pay occurred at the Commonwealth Industrial Gases (CIG) in Preston, Melbourne. The company announced that it wanted to replace up to 30 percent of its existing workforce with women, on the 75 percent female rate. A mass meeting of the CIG workers, mostly from the AEU, decided that they would not oppose women being employed, as long as it was on the full male rate. Negotiations with management broke down and the workers went on strike, joined by the Liquor Trades Union (LTU) canteen workers, who were mostly women. Around 1,000 workers were involved in the strike. Mrs C. Lynch, the LTU canteen shop steward, said:

During the strike, I was very pleased indeed at the wonderful co-operation that existed between the male and female workers. Up until now most women were under the impression that they had to fight a lone battle in industry. This strike had definitely proved otherwise.[48]

By late 1962, the membership of the Equal Pay Committee had widened to include the metal unions involved in the CIG strike as well as the Storemen and Packers and the Australian Railways Union.[49]

The question of how to respond to the employment of women on lower rates was a genuine concern in the 1960s, as increased mechanisation was used by employers as an excuse to move women into traditionally male dominated industries. The response from the union movement was mixed. The CIG metal unions gave a positive example, but the right wing Vehicle Builders showed the negative, responding to the threat by attempting to exclude women from the industry. The Equal Pay Committee pointed out that this was a short-sighted approach that was never going to work. Not only were bosses going to continue to push for women workers while the rate was cheaper but, fundamentally, women had the right and the need to work. In response to the Vehicle Builders campaign, a leaflet was produced highlighting the consequences of taking the wrong position with a poem, Me and Lil:

When I first met Lil the case was clear
And I talked of her in my sleep
I called her “precious”, I called her “dear”
But the boss considered her “cheap”.
For without regard to the work we did
and simply as cock and hen
he was paying me something like 15 quid
while Lily got only 10.
“Oh Lily” I said “you must leave this life,
such discrimination is vile.
Let me be the breadwinner, be my wife,
and live in superior style.”
But Lily wrinkled her film star brow
and said, “if you aren’t insane,
you had better enthuse your union now
for the equal pay campaign.”
“Oh never bother your lovely head
with political stuff”, says I,
“The boys will think I’m a dangerous Red
If I pitch them a yarn so high.”
But I wish I’d done it, I tell you straight
for the minute the trade got slack
the boss kept Lil on the old cheap rate
and I was given the sack.[50]

Another strike in 1963 at Gainsborough Furniture won a pay rise and equal pay for Furnishing Trades Society members. The union’s secretary, Bill Brown, was also president of the Equal Pay Committee and hailed it as a major breakthrough.[51] Another strike in 1960 showed that there were moves at the shopfloor level towards equal pay. Women AEU members at Borg Warner in Fairfield, Melbourne, struck over unfair pay rates for four weeks. The men in the shop imposed overtime bans to support the women (although they do not appear to have gone out completely) and the women eventually won 90 percent of the male rate. The circular about the strike was titled “Understanding the fallacy of ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’” and noted, “Some confusion did exist in the minds of the male workers as to the merits of the women’s claims in the early stages of the dispute, [but] one of the important gains arising from the dispute…is the new appreciation of the male workers of the justice of the women’s claims.”[52]

Parallel developments were occurring in white collar unions and their umbrella organisation, the Australian Council of Salaried and Professional Associations (ACSPA), which in 1968 established an equal pay committee, the Victorian Employed Women’s Organisation Council. The Equal Pay Committee eventually merged with this body, in large part because of hostility from the right wing leadership of the Victorian Trades Hall following the 1967 split with key left wing unions. It was the left unions that were the strongest advocates for equal pay and most active on the Equal Pay Committee. So when the split occurred the remaining VTHC turned on Kath Williams and the Committee and dissolved it in late 1968.[53]

Throughout the 1960s there were sporadic and often successful strikes for equal pay and centralised campaigning through the Equal Pay Committees. But nothing was shifting on the federal arbitration front, although most states implemented equal pay acts for sections of the state public service. What was missing was a generalised national push. Williams and others on the Equal Pay Committee were getting frustrated with the ACTU because of its refusal to put an equal pay claim before the Commission, and indeed it had ordered its affiliates not to do so. The ACTU leadership claimed they were waiting for the right moment.[54] This was a very poor excuse. Even when the “right moment” came, the outcome was not satisfactory; whereas even a partial victory became a definite impetus to drive the campaign forward. But the ACTU leadership have always been prone to legalism.

Winning (and not) equal pay

The “right moment” came following a long-awaited decision on a Clothing Trades Union claim for equal pay. In 1967, the Arbitration Court granted equal margins (extra payments for skill), but not equal pay in the basic wage. In the judgement, however, they invited organisations to put in claims such as equal pay because the Commission was now available to resolve “the problem”.[55]

The ACTU chose the Meat Industry Interim Award as a test case, as it covered a large number of female workers, and partly because it was one of the few awards that already had equal margins for women. Future Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke was the ACTU advocate. Zelda D’Aprano, a Communist Party member who worked in the office of the Meatworkers Union and was actively campaigning around equal pay, helped organise demonstrations outside the court, and was present at the proceedings. In her autobiography, she describes a surreal sense of alienation watching the proceedings as all the judges and advocates were men: “It was if we were mute, while the men presented evidence for and against our worth.”[56]

The 1969 decision was a bitter disappointment for those involved in the campaign. The Commission laid down nine principles to be taken into consideration when deciding which women were to receive equal pay, including that it must be established that certain work covered by the award is performed by both males and females, and that work should be of same or like nature and of equal value. Because of the highly gender-segregated nature of the workforce, the unions estimated that the decision would only affect a minority of women.

D’Aprano describes how

[a] feeling of dejection and what can we do now prevailed… [I met with Diana Sonenberg from the Insurance Staff’s Federation] knowing how people had become so despondent, we discussed the need for more dramatic action. I made a decision to protest against pay injustice meted out to women by chaining myself to the doors of the Commonwealth building, holding a placard which read: no more female and male rates – one rate only.[57]

This occurred on 21 October, 1969 and became the defining image of the campaign for equal pay.

The next battleground was not the courts but the metal shops. This reflected the limitations of the equal pay decisions and hostility from the bosses. The granting of increases was not automatic; unions were required to submit test cases to apply equal pay to the award.[58] The AEU claimed equal pay for 72,000 women process workers. In 1970, following a series of strikes, the Commission granted it on the basis that they were doing men’s work. But it set the deadline for implementation as the start of 1972. Of course the employers objected, launched an appeal and tried to absorb the increase in other wage increases or simply refused to implement the decision in their workplaces.

AEU members began local shop strikes to win equal pay, resulting in 90 percent of women members of the union receiving equal pay before the 1972 deadline. A corollary was of course the increase in female membership and activity in the union. The AEU journal declared:

Large numbers of female workers in unorganised shops became interested, and as a result our female membership has increased by 300 over the last two months, and a number of new shops organised. We now also have an increased number of female shop stewards… [A] feature of the activity was the readiness of the women concerned to take industrial action to support their demand.[59]

The 1969 decision was clearly unsatisfactory, and it took another two Arbitration Court rulings to bring about formal wage equality. In 1972, the Commission finally accepted the concept of “equal pay for work of equal value”, which broadened the definition of equal pay to not just jobs of the same type, but ones where the value could be compared. But even that was still inadequate because it left in place the existence of some female rates, including the minimum wage. In 1973 the Whitlam government amended the Arbitration Act to refer to the minimum wage as an adult minimum, removing the word male, which allowed the Commission in 1974 to abolish the minimum rate for females.[60]

Of course, that was not the end of the story. The Australian Services Union (ASU) decision in 2012 was an historic victory. The court recognised that the longstanding undervaluing of jobs considered “female roles”, in this case the social and community sector, played a part in wage inequality and went some way towards attempting to address that. Still, ASU members learned the same lessons women did following the 1969 and 1972 decisions: that a decision by the arbitration tribunal is not worth the paper it’s written on if it is not implemented through industrial action.[61]

Writing the history of equal pay campaigns

There have been many histories written about the various equal pay campaigns. Most are written with the contention that the most important barrier to gaining equal pay was the sexist attitudes and behaviours of male unionists. Some feminist historians go so far as to argue that male unionists collude with male employers to prevent the advance of women’s equality in the workplace.[62] These feminist histories engage in what Melanie Nolan has called “simplistic cultural determinism”; the idea that the complex political and economic dynamics that informed the equal pay campaigns can be reduced to the guiding driver of male chauvinism, in particular the chauvinism of male unionists.[63]

But the sexist attitudes and behaviours that some male union officials obviously displayed does not prove such an alliance existed, nor that equal pay was delayed for so long because of it. First, those that were most stridently and consistently opposed to equal pay were the employers, the media barons, the governments, the arbitration judges and their middle class backers, both male and female. Second, these histories usually ignore the divisions among male trade unionists in order to paint a bleaker picture. It is striking that throughout all of the campaigns for equal pay, male unionists were prominent supporters. This may be ascribed to the general tendency of men to dominate such spaces, but that would be rather discourteous to men in unions like the Clerks, Clothing Trades, Furnishing Trades, metal unions and others who were heavily involved in campaigns. It was union leaders from the ALP left and the Communist Party that supported equal pay from the 1920s to the 1970s and tended to argue for it in terms of social justice and women’s equality rather than male benefit.

The motivation of these male unionists has been called into question by many feminist historians. There were of course various instances when male unionists couched support for equal pay in terms of saving male jobs, or even some examples where male unionists genuinely believed that equal pay would keep women out of particular industries. But from the 1920s on, equal pay activists were very clear that a central tenet of the argument for equal pay was the social justice of women’s equality. They ensured that these arguments were presented to union members. The 1957 Victorian Equal Pay Committee circular suggested slogans for union journals such as: “who profits from unequal pay, no one but the employers”, “equal pay protects men’s jobs and the living standards of all”, “single men get the same wages as men – then why not women?”, “many women are the sole bread-winners for their families. How can they do this on 75% of the Basic Wage when the full basic wage won’t support the family?”, “Women are not working for fun, but help to pay high rents, save for a home, educate their children. The reward for their noble efforts is to pay them less than the minimum wage. Demand equal pay.”[64] At least among the left wing unions, most of which had predominantly male memberships, these slogans appear to have been adopted for their (varied) efforts in the campaign.

Anne Summers’ seminal work Damned Whores and God’s Police also ascribes chauvinistic motivations to male unionists:

Where equal pay was sought or opposed in the Arbitration Court…most unions supported the principle – because they saw it as protecting men’s jobs. It is less certain however whether most unionists saw it this way. For the male worker on low wages any decision for equal pay would be likely to have direct consequences in his own home; his wife and daughters might find jobs they would otherwise have rejected attractive for economic reasons, his own status as bread-winner would be eroded and the one area of his life where he had any power would be cut from under him.[65]

Approaching the question of motivation in the way Summers and many others do just distorts and simplifies what was actually going on. A more nuanced approach is taken by Melanie Nolan in her study of early equal pay campaigns in Victoria. First, she notes that union leaders (men and women of unions such as the Clothing Trades and Clerks) argued for equal pay on the simple basis that it was good for women. She cites the Clerks’ pay case, when the representative of the employer tried to argue that the equal pay claim was “selfish” because it would exclude women from the industry. Mr Clarey, the Clerks Union secretary, replied: “No it is a matter of justice for women… The appeal for lower rates for women is selfishness on the part of the employer who desires the same values as received from a man at less than the man’s rate.”[66] Second, she notes that, perhaps in part as a reaction to media hysteria about equal pay, many women unionists did not support the union campaign because they feared they would lose their jobs.[67] This is a strikingly similar motivation to that of the male unionists Summers and others so readily dismiss.

The fears of both male and female workers of loss of jobs were based on harsh reality, such as the threat posed by mechanisation or dilution during World War Two. The basis for both genuine solidarity and to confront sexist attitudes and behaviours is that working class men share the same interests as working class women. The example of the Vehicle Builders Union and the response of the equal pay activists above is an instructive one. Sexist behaviour like denying women a place in the industry did not prevent bosses from trying to introduce them to undercut wages and conditions. A smarter response is to demand equal pay for everyone employed in the industry, as shown by other predominantly male unions, like some of the metal unions in the later part of World War Two.

Another way in which this sort of cultural determinism distorts the history of the equal pay campaigns is to deny the positions that equal pay activists actually took. Muriel Heagney is a particular victim of this sort of historicising. She is referred to by biographers such as Penelope Johnson as a “feminist in labour circles”[68] while Rosemary Francis describes her actions thus: “Although a feminist, Heagney chose to fight for women’s economic equality within the labour movement and demonstrated a disdain for middle-class feminists.”[69] Activists like Heagney and Williams clearly at times were deeply frustrated with the unions for not taking equal pay campaigns as seriously as they would wish. But find a union activist who has never been frustrated with the union movement and you’ve only found yourself a seat-warmer and careerist. Both Heagney and Williams described themselves as socialists or communists and believed that the class struggle was the vehicle for achieving women’s liberation – which is why both fought so long and hard, in thankless, unpaid positions, within the union movement for equal pay. The re-defining of these activists and organisations as “feminists within the union movement” is an attempt to define the equal pay campaign in opposition to the workers’ movement. But the CAEP in particular, as Patricia Ranald explains,

saw itself very much part of the labour movement. Its composition was predominantly working class – most members being manual and non-manual wage earners. It sought to distinguish itself from feminist groups which it perceived as mainly representing “luxuried interests” and non-working women… The CAEP did not conceive of itself as “feminist”; it associated feminism with “all women” middle-class groups… It emphasised the necessity for the unity of the labour movement in this struggle and linked women’s emancipation with other struggles for social reform and socialism.[70]

Any hostility or lack of co-operation with feminist organisations was perfectly understandable given the conservative stance taken by the feminist United Associations of Women and Jessie Street to the union fight for equal pay.

There was (and still is) undoubtedly sexism in the union movement, both from union officials and from rank and file male unionists. An indication of that was that even as late as 1979, women only made up three percent of presidential and secretarial positions in the unions.[71] Unions, unionists and workers are not immune from the prejudices and dominant conservative ideas of our society. But they are an important site of resistance to oppression and discrimination if they choose to be. Today the union movement could be described as the largest (potential) women’s movement in the country. For the first time in history women workers are more likely to be union members than men.[72] We have won many gains over the years, but they are being snatched back by a ruling class on the offensive. Understanding the power that we do have when we stand together and fight, that is, understanding our history, should give us hope for the future.

Baker, J.S. 1981, “Dunkley, Louisa Margaret (1866-1927)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography,

Bloodworth, Sandra 1990, “The poverty of patriarchy theory”, Socialist Review, 2, Winter, Melbourne.

Bremner, J. 1989, “Heagney, Muriel Agnes (1885-1974)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography,

Brigden, Cathy 2005, “Exploring gender in peak union bodies”, paper to the Association of Industrial Relations Academics of Australia and New Zealand,

Bottomley, Adam and Cecilia Judge 2012, “Still fighting for equal pay”, Marxist Left Review, 4 Winter.

Cassells, Rebecca, Yogi Vidyattama, Riyana Miranti, and Justine McNamara 2009, “The impact of a sustained gender wage gap on the Australian economy”, Report to the Office for Women, Department of Families, Community Services, Housing and Indigenous Affairs,

D’Aprano, Zelda 2001, Kath Williams: The unions and the fight for equal pay, Spinifex.

Department of Labour and National Service 1958, Equal Pay: some aspects of Australian and overseas practice, Department of Labour and National Service.

“Equal Pay and the 250,000 women in industry”, Australian Factory, Tait Publishing, 1958.

Fieldes, Diane 2002, “‘Some are more equal than others’: Australian trade union campaigns for equal pay, 1968-1975”, thesis (PhD) University of New South Wales.

Francis, Rosemary 1989, Muriel Heagney and the Council of Action for Equal Pay: 1937-1948, thesis (MA) University of Melbourne.

Fox, Catherine 2013, “The gender pay gap: Separating fact from fiction”, Women’s Agenda,

Hargreaves, Kay 1982, Women at Work, Penguin.

Hartmann, Heidi, “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union” in Lydia Sargent (ed) 1981, Women and Revolution, Black Rose Books.

Heagney, Muriel 1935, Are Women Taking Men’s Jobs? A survey of women’s work in Victoria, Hilton & Veitch.

Heagney, Muriel 1943, Are women paid men’s rates? Council of Action for Equal Pay.

Heagney, Muriel 1948, Equal Pay for the Sexes: Survey on women’s wages, Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Johnson, Penelope 1986, “Gender, Class and work: the Council of Action for Equal Pay and the equal pay campaign in Australia during World War 2”, Labour History 50.

Kaplan, Gisela 1996, The Meagre Harvest. The Australian Women’s Movement 1950s-1990s, Allen and Unwin.

Knowlton, Cassidy 2014, “Get Fact: do men make much more than women for the same job?”, Crikey,

Labor Call, 1913-1914.

Lukas, Carrie 2012, “It’s time to declare an end to the Equal Pay Day myth”, Forbes,

McNamara, Clarice 1945, “Must Women Return to the Kitchen?” Labor Digest, pp49-55.

Nolan, Melanie 1991, “Sex or class? The politics of the earliest equal pay campaign in Victoria”, Labour History 61.

O’Lincoln, Tom, “Against the stream: women and the left, 1945-1968” in Sandra Bloodworth and Tom O’Lincoln (eds) 1998, Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History, Red Rag Publications.

Ranald, Patricia, “Feminism and Class: The United Associations of Women and the Council of Action for Equal Pay in the Depression”, in Margaret Bevege, Margaret James and Carmel Shute (eds) 1982, Worth Her Salt. Women at Work in Australia, Hale and Iremonger.

Ryan, Edna and Anne Conlon 1975, Gentle Invaders: Australian women at work, Nelson.

Stone, Janey, “Class struggle on the home front: Women, unions and militancy in the Second World War” in Bloodworth and O’Lincoln (eds) 1998, Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History, Red Rag Publications.

Summers, Anne 1994, Damned Whores and God’s Police: The colonisation of women in Australia, Penguin.

Symons, Beverly 1998/9, “Muriel Heagney and the fight for equal pay during World War Two”, The Hummer 3 (1) Summer,

The Australia Institute 2013, “What’s choice got to do with it?”

The Australia Institute 2014, “What is the gender pay gap costing women?”

University of Melbourne Archives, Victorian Trades Hall Council collection 1978.0082.

University of Melbourne Archives, Clothing and Allied Trades Union collection, 1981.0092.

Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2013, “Behind the gender pay gap”,

Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2015, “National gender pay gap at record high of 18.8%”,

[1] Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2015.

[2] The Australia Institute 2014.

[3] The Australia Institute 2013.

[4] Examples: Lukas 2012 concluded “So while a gender pay gap does exist in Australia, it does not seem to be the case that women are paid much less simply because of their gender”; and Knowlton 2014.

[5] Cassells et al 2009.

[6] This can be overstated, and the conservative and business press appear to blame the relatively high mining wages for the recent increase in the gender pay gap; a convenient excuse! In fact, because so few people actually work in the mining industry, it is unlikely to have much effect on the recent increase. Indeed, one survey found that in Western Australia, the state with the largest gender pay gap, the gap was the same before and following the mining boom. Fox 2013.

[7] Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2013.

[8] Baker 1981.

[9] Hartmann, “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union” in Sargent (ed) 1981, p22.

[10] Ryan and Conlon 1975, p91.

[11] Bloodworth 1990.

[12] D’Aprano 2001, p74.

[13] Department of Labour and National Service 1958.

[14] Department of Labour and National Service 1958.

[15] Brigden 2005.

[16] D’Aprano 2001, p76.

[17] University of Melbourne Archives 1978 and Labor Call, 1913-1914.

[18] Heagney 1948, p12.

[19] Francis 1989, p23.

[20] Bremner 1989.

[21] Francis 1989, p20.

[22] Heagney 1935.

[23] D’Aprano 2001, p78.

[24] Francis 1989, p11.

[25] Francis 1989, p34.

[26] D’Aprano 2001, p80.

[27] Hargreaves 1982, p17.

[28] Stone, “Class struggle on the home front: Women, unions and militancy in the Second World War” in Bloodworth and O’Lincoln 1998.

[29] Francis 1989, p98.

[30] Symons 1989/9.

[31] Heagney 1943, p2.

[32] Francis 1989, p86.

[33] Stone, “Class struggle on the home front”.

[34] Francis 1989, p99.

[35] Stone, “Class struggle on the home front”.

[36] Johnson 1986, p142.

[37] Ranald, “Feminism and Class: The United Associations of Women and the Council of Action for Equal Pay in the Depression”, in Bevege et al 1982, p270.

[38] Heagney’s opinion in Francis 1989, p109.

[39] McNamara 1945, p49.

[40] O’Lincoln, “Against the stream: women and the left, 1945-1968” in Bloodworth and O’Lincoln 1998.

[41] “Equal Pay and the 250,000 women in industry”, Australian Factory, 1958, p12.

[42] Department of Labour and National Service 1958.

[43] Francis 1989 and D’Aprano 2001.

[44] D’Aprano 2001, p92.

[45] D’Aprano 2001, p201.

[46] For example, when the ILO passed the equal pay convention, the Australian government representative stated that the government supported the principle of equal pay, but that it was a matter for the arbitration authorities. Ryan and Conlon 1975, p145.

[47] Ryan and Conlon 1975, p146.

[48] D’Aprano 2001, p141.

[49] D’Aprano 2001, p144.

[50] D’Aprano 2001, p149.

[51] D’Aprano 2001, p165.

[52] Equal Pay Committee circular 1960, “Understanding the fallacy of ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’”, University of Melbourne Archives 1981.

[53] Equal Pay Committee correspondence 1968, University of Melbourne Archives 1981.0092, item 6/10/2/4.

[54] Circular, University of Melbourne Archives 1981, item 6/10/1/6.

[55] D’Aprano 2001, p183.

[56] D’Aprano 2001, p199.

[57] D’Aprano 2001, p200.

[58] Fieldes 2002.

[59] Fieldes 2002.

[60] Ryan and Conlon 1975, p169.

[61] For more on the ASU campaign see Bottomley and Judge 2012.

[62] For example Kaplan 1996, p21, Francis 1989, p9 and Ryan and Conlon 1975, pp84-85.

[63] Nolan 1991, p102.

[64] Equal Pay Committee circular 1957, University of Melbourne Archives 1981, item 6/10/1/4.

[65] Summers 1994, p446.

[66] Nolan 1991, p101.

[67] Nolan 1991, p103.

[68] Johnson 1986, p137.

[69] Francis 1989, p25.

[70] Ranald, “Feminism and Class”, pp277-8.

[71] D’Aprano 2001, p227.

[72] Anna Patty, “Female workers now more unionised than men”, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 March 2014.

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