This year unions have launched a new equal pay campaign, “Pay Up”, in recognition of the persistent inequality in wage levels. Women make up half of the Australian workforce yet on average earn 17 per cent less than men.
Over the years significant victories have been won by women and men who fought together in their workplaces to end wage discrimination. While the gender pay gap still remains, the history of militant industrial struggle around equal pay shows how the fight in the workplace is crucial for women’s liberation.
Class unity: A militant strategy
Prior to the Second World War women on average received only 54 per cent of the male wage rate. As huge numbers of women moved into the workforce, to work in war-related industries, disputes over pay erupted.
Strikes by women workers at two munitions factories led to the establishment of the Women’s Employment Board (WEB), which set a wage rate of 90 per cent of the male wage for women working in war industries. Employers, however, often simply refused to pay the rates set by WEB.
Women workers were forced to strike to enforce the WEB rulings. At Simmonds Aerocessories in Melbourne a strike by 132 women sheet metal workers, supported by 150 male engineers, lasted four months. A strike of just a few days at Richard Hughes in Sydney proved enough to force bosses to hand over $6000 in back pay.
The post-war years saw inequality again entrenched in the workplace.
In a landmark ruling in 1969 the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission granted the union claim that women receive “equal pay for equal work”, although only in jobs mostly done by men. Just three years later, figures revealed that only 18 per cent of women had benefited from the decision. The majority of employers circumvented the decision by reclassifying women’s jobs onto lower scales compared with men who did the same work.
Equal wages were a key demand in the early Women’s Liberation Movement, symbolised by Zelda D’Aprano’s protest where she chained herself to the Commonwealth building in Melbourne.
Unions took up the campaign for equal wages. The Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) saw the need to take the fight to the factory floors.
Enthusiastic support among male rank and file AEU members (the union was 97 per cent male) to campaign for equal pay drew large numbers of women into the union. The AEU reported that, “we now also have an increased number of female shop stewards,” and described, “the readiness of the women concerned to take industrial action to support their demand.”
By the beginning of 1972 the industrial campaign had proved successful—90 per cent of the women in the metal industry had won equal pay.
Another example was the insurance industry. By the early 1970s, women clerical workers were voicing anger over unequal pay scales and lack of promotion opportunities.
In 1973 a rank and file group called Militant Insurance Clerks produced their own newsletter and quickly gathered signatures from 460 insurance workers on a petition demanding an industrial campaign to fight for equal pay.
When their union, the Australian Insurance Staffs’ Federation, eventually called workplace meetings they were advertised as “women only.” Women office workers crossed out the words “women only” on the union notices, believing equal pay was a matter of concern for all union members.
Phil Griffiths, a young clerk at Royal-Globe Life Insurance, explained why equal pay was an issue for the men in the office: “Because the union has not been seen to defend the wages of women…it has not been able to organise women into the union to fight for the interests of all insurance staff…[The union] must work to convince the male membership that their future lies in fighting with women for their mutual individual interests”.
The message appeared to be getting through. A stop work rally in November 1973 surprised many. Phil Griffiths described the scenes: “I think they [the union officials] expected 50 people, and there were…3000…and the sense of anger was tremendous.”
The insurance companies, who profited by paying lower wages to women, held out. An increasingly angry membership led the union to declare a national clerical strike. However the union officials canceled the strike at the last minute, preferring to negotiate behind closed doors. It took a further two years to win equal pay across the industry.
The ongoing fight for equal pay relies on industrial action in the workplace. Gender divisions among workers in the metal and insurance industries broke down when both men and women fought together against their employers for equal pay. Men were prepared to strike, sacrificing pay, to win equal wages for women. The broader fight for women’s liberation can learn much from these struggles.
By Carl Taylor