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  Issue No 108 Official Organ of LaborNet 24 August 2001  

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Review

The Fight for Equal Pay


In this extract from her new book, Zelda D'Aprano looks at the contribution Kath Williams made to the struggle for equality.

 
 

Equal Pay

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Moves made by the Menzies Government to reduce women's wages stirred the campaign for equal pay among trade union circles in Victoria - notably in the Liquor Trades Union which had large numbers of female members employed in circumstances which left them open to exploitation by employers. Pressures of this sort, together with the climate produced by the ILO recommendation, persuaded the ACTU Congress meeting held in Sydney in September 1953 to carry the following resolutions:

That this Congress calls on the Federal and State Governments to legislate for the provision of equal pay for the sexes in all occupations and, in the first instance, to grant equal pay to their own employees.

We call upon the ACTU to establish Equal Pay Committees to undertake the task of campaigning for legislation and to arouse the interest of male and female workers in the demand for equal pay; such committees to be co-ordinated on a national basis by the Executive of the ACTU.

With the lower wages paid to women, Kath found it necessary to enlighten men in the trade unions who found it easier to oppose women entering their industry than to support equal pay even though such a move would prevent women being used against them.

Kath set her mind on becoming a delegate of her union to the Trades Hall Council, the structure with the power to make important decisions. The THC met every Thursday evening, a commitment she willingly undertook, knowing that if she was going to succeed in mobilising all the unions, getting onto the THC was the first step. Achieving this goal depended entirely on Jim Coull, then Secretary of her union.

Jim Coull was an old Scottish socialist who did not belong to the CPA. Kath had a constant 'battle with Jim'. He was a 'supreme bureaucrat and chauvinist' while at the same time being a 'terrific orator'. He often spoke at the Yarra Bank, an open-air forum held regularly on a Sunday afternoon in Melbourne situated by the Yarra River, where speakers from various political parties, religious groups and faith healers were able to expound their theories and philosophies. Jim was known to be capable of 'mesmerising and/or entertaining' his audience for two hours 'talking a lot of bull'. With his broad Scottish accent he often had the listeners 'roaring with laughter', but 'his depth of understanding of trade unionism was sadly lacking'. His obvious study of adjectives, and his great ability with invective, gave him the skills 'to tear any opposition to ribbons' if they dared oppose or heckle him.

Kath had to work under this man's authority 'and he could be ruthless, he was a smart operator'; nevertheless, he supported her in her determination to be on the THC and she was duly elected to this body in 1954. Kath was now able to have a direct influence on the entire representation of the Victorian trade union movement, which assembled weekly at the THC meetings.

Kath was to have many heated disagreements with Jim over the years but, when speaking of these incidents with friends, without minimising the seriousness of her arguments, she always managed to present a tolerant and sometimes humorous side to the narration.

Average attendance at THC meetings was 150 males and about ten females. Most of the women delegates in attendance were selected by their unions to be supportive when votes were taken but they added little to the discussion. Most women found the atmosphere of union meetings alienating. Kath wasn't overawed or intimidated by the heavy male presence or atmosphere. Her experience over the many years of involvement in political parties, and dealings with hotel managers on the job, had given her the strength to address meetings with confidence.

The type of workplaces Kath was responsible for in her job had a high turnover of staff making any attempt at unionising difficult. She would no sooner enrol a woman into the union when, within months, the employee had left the job. By establishing good shop stewards, Kath was successful in winning absolute support from the women working in the cafeterias at Coles and Myers, both having been difficult places to organise. 'Women members of the LTU remembered the dedicated service Kath gave over the years and indicated their gratitude for her support in time of need'.

There can be no doubt that being a 'first-class' organising, successful in recruiting members and able to deal with the problems confronted on the job, made Kath's job reasonably secure. Despite the fact that she stood up to Jim Coull and argued over what she considered to be important issues he did not dismiss her; he had a deep respect for Kath even though at times he thought she was on about a lot of 'froth and bubble'. Ultimately, Kath went on to become a delegate from her union to the ACTU Congress. Only those attending the ACTU Congress or Conferences would know of Kath's contributions when present. Knowing what men were like in politics and the unions, I suspect that while the men were supposedly listening, they were not really hearing what she said.

From here on, Kath continued with a consistent campaign of talking, lobbying, cajoling and coercion for the proposed Equal Pay Committee to be established. Much of this lobbying took place at a personal level, at the faction meetings prior to the THC meetings, and in the meetings.

In November of 1954 a special meeting of women union members held at the Trades Hall in Melbourne resolved to approach the THC requesting the THC establish an Equal Pay Committee (EP Committee) in keeping with the decision made by the ACTU Congress of 1953. In March 1955 the Executive of the THC called a meeting of unions with women members, which resolved to set up the desired committee.

In all, it took two years of discussions, consultations and meetings after the initial ACTU Congress decision in 1953 before the THC EP Committee sent a circular to all affiliated unions in 1955 notifying them that the EP Committee had been established.

The years of effort Kath expended in getting the THC EP Committee up and running were acknowledged by the unanimous decision of the THC when electing her to the honorary position of Secretary/Organiser of the THC EP Committee. Yes, it was another unpaid job for a woman, but a very important strategic position, and one, which Kath with her experience was able to utilise to the utmost degree.

Those elected to the committee were: Messrs. G Hayes, Boot Trades; D. MacSween, Clothing Trades; A. Williams, Electrical Trades; G. Collaretti, Hospital Employees' Federation; W. Steel, Federated Clerks'; and Mrs K Williams, Liquor Trades Union. Kath was the only woman on the committee and the only communist.

The THC EP Committee aimed to carry out ACTU policy by all possible means: using leaflets, meetings, press, radio and election campaigns appealing for moral and financial assistance to help carry on the campaign for equal pay. The Committee did not waste any time before getting into action. At the impending ACTU Congress, it was decided to consult with state governments to enact equal pay legislation and for State and Labor Councils to establish EP Committees. It was also decided to convene a conference of unions with women members to be held in March 1956. The circular went on to stress the importance of the work in view of the attacks being made on women's wages, and the use being made of women as cheap labour which depressed general wage levels. As well, it stated: 'We would be pleased to send a speaker to your next Committee of Management or General Meeting to put the case to your membership'. The circular was signed by Mrs K. Williams, Hon. Secretary.

Extracted from KATH WILLIAMS: THE UNIONS AND THE FIGHT FOR EQUAL PAY by Zelda D'Aprano Spinifex Press 2001


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*  Satire: Niche Identified in Left-Wing Publications Market
A marxist-feminist activist has discovered a gaping hole in the lucrative left-wing publications market.
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*  Review: The Fight for Equal Pay
In this extract from her new book, Zelda D'Aprano looks at the contribution Kath Williams made to the struggle for equality.
*

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