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  Issue No 17 Official Organ of LaborNet 11 June 1999  





Throwing Off the Chains

Interview with Brenda Finlayson

Thirty years ago, Zelda D'Aprano was so incensed by the lack of progress in achieving pay parity that she twice chained herself to public buildings in Melbourne.

Zelda, now 71, lives on the mid-north NSW coast and is writing a book about the fight for equal pay. She has also written an autobiography, Zelda, (Spinifex Press).

Why have women not yet achieved equal pay?

One of the big changes that took place after the 1969 decision to avoid paying was the reclassification of tasks and jobs done by women. The nature of women's work was changed to ensure that they weren't doing exactly the same work as men. Only 18% of women achieved equal pay following the decision in 1969.

The 1972 decision was supposed to create equal pay for equal value but that was a fiasco. The decision was crazy - it meant every section of the workforce had to prove, by the unions running a case, that a woman's work was at the same skill level as a male equivalent. The unions had to show that skills, training and profitability factors were equal by, for example, comparing a female hairdresser to a male apprentice in another industry.

How many unions ran cases and how successful were they?

Some unions tackled it. They were tremendous cases. All the cases were meant to be heard by a certain date in the 1970s but the cases were still being heard in the 1980s. By 1975, only 54 claims had been registered in the Industrial Relations Commission and many never came up because they were costly and difficult to assess. How do you gauge levels of responsibility and profitability? Justice Madden decided in 1986 there would be no more cases for equal pay for work of equal value but some have been run since then.

How has this has affected the march of women's equity?

Society deems that when a woman is born, her work is never as valuable as men's. These cases were convoluted and a drain on union funds, which suited the employers.

How do you recall the 1969 equal pay case and how did you come to be involved?

I was working as a clerk for the Meat Workers' Union. The meat industry had put up the case for equal pay in 1969 and they were optimistic. Bob Hawke was the advocate for the ACTU. The office staff were asked to distribute thousands of leaflets to highlight the case - we had to watch out for the police because it was illegal then to hand out leaflets on the streets in Victoria. I was then asked by the union secretary to go and be with the women from the meat works, for support, when the case was heard. I demonstrated with about 30 women on the street holding banners. We then went into the tribunal and I couldn't believe what I saw - the ACTU people, the employers' representatives and all the commissioners were men. All these men were arguing about what women were worth and the women were sitting there silent. It was humiliating and I was very angry.

How did the case go?

Bob Hawke did a very good job. He didn't present the case for equal pay for equal work; he argued for doing away with the pay differential between males and females and the difference is very important. If that had got up, women would have had 100% of men's wages in all industries.

How did you feel about the decision?

I was very disappointed really because only 12% of women in the meat industry got equal pay because they weren't doing the same work as the men.

How did you come to take such radical action?

Nothing happened after the decision. Two months later, I decided to chain myself up. I felt that unless some drastic action was taken, no-one would take any notice of women. There was an election coming and the ALP began flogging equal pay to get the women's vote.

How did you organise the protest?

A candidate was speaking at City Square. I went and decided to chain myself up that day. We told the media about it but didn't say what was happening. They didn't go to the candidate's meeting, they went straight to where I was. I chained myself to the Commonwealth Building, and there were three other women there with banners. I took a JP in case I was arrested. The police cut the chain 45 minutes later.

Was that the end of the protest?

No. A woman teacher rang and congratulated me and offered to join me with another friend of hers if I wanted to do it again. So three weeks later we chained ourselves to the Arbitration Commission building and the police cut us off. They warned us of the serious repercussions of what we were doing.

What was the next step in the fight?

Well, we realised we had to form a militant organisation that was prepared to fight. This meant taking radical action and not worrying about being a lady. Fourteen of us formed the Women's Action Committee - we demanded to be served in public bars (which were men-only in those days), and only paid 75% of tram fares because we were only earning 75% of men's wages. We were scoffed at, and sneered at in the press.

What did you achieve?

About 12 months later information started seeping in through from overseas, the US in particularly, about the women's liberation movement. We realised we were all on about the same thing - and this was really the start of the women's liberation movement in Australia.

How far have women come in 30 years?

A long way. Women are not prepared to be pushed around any more. This is very noticeable in the amount of marriages women walk out of now. There is no freedom for women without financial freedom and even though women still don't always get equal pay, and they do more part-time jobs than men, they are more independent than 30 years ago. Although women now receive 87% of men's wages, we cannot accept that women deserve anything less than full equal pay for any task performed.

How do you feel about the future?

I'm always optimistic. I think society has to change. We have to find a different way to survive. It is said in the future that only 20% of the population will be needed in the workforce. Where will women be if this occurs?

Do women need to be more radical?

They will be forced to be so because people are finding it harder and harder to survive. Unemployment will increase and people will be forced to be radical again.

What would you say to young women now?

They feel they are as good as the fellows, which is great because when the screws get tighter they will be forced to be more militant and strong. Some are deluded into thinking that everything that needs to be done has been done, and that's not the case. Women have the strength and the will and we must continue to champion our ideals.


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 17 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Class Consciousness
Long-time ALP member Michael Thomson has thrown a few grenades with a new book arguing that middle class trendies have taken over the ALP.
*  Legal: Reith¹s AWAs Dealt a Blow
ASU v Electrix rules that AWAs can't be a take it or leave it proposition.
*  Unions: Survey Misses the Point
Last week's attempt by the Australian newspaper to rank trade unions contained some fundamental flaws.
*  History: The Light on the Hill
Fifty years after his seminal address, Ben Chifley's words still ring true -- and still challenges Labor.
*  International: Child Labour: Kerala’s Recipe
Of India’s 55 million slave children, not one is to be found in the state of Kerala, in the south of the sub-continent.
*  Review: Bazza Mckenzie Holds His Own
Tony Moore on perhaps the greatest Australian movie ever made.
*  Women: Equal Pay - We've Come A Long Way
Thirty years have passed since women around Australia raised their fists in victory at the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission's historic equal pay for equal work decision.
*  Activists: Throwing Off the Chains
Thirty years ago, Zelda D'Aprano was so incensed by the lack of progress in achieving pay parity that she twice chained herself to public buildings in Melbourne.
*  Labour Review: What's New at the Information Centre
View the latest issue of Labour Review, a summary of industrial news for trade unions.

»  RAAF To Bomb Aussie Jobs
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