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  Issue No 3 Official Organ of LaborNet 05 March 1999  





Commemorating Our Dear Departed Equal Pay Activists

By Rosemary Webb

Two women who deserve special recognition and commemoration as part of our Women's Day celebrations are Eileen Powell and Edna Ryan, both of who played a crucial role in the struggle for equal pay.

Edna was born Edna Nelson in Sydney in 1904, the tenth of twelve children, her feminism and her socialism shaped by the working experiences of her older sisters, by her mother who had been left to support and bring up the family herself and by the events of her formative years, notably the October Revolution and the NSW General Strike of 1917.

Her book, Two Thirds of a Man covers the first four arbitration cases involving women, building anecdotally on the experience of her mother and of her older sisters. In interview she recalled that her mother, who worked as a cleaner, would pass her sisters on Pyrmont Bridge on her return home from work in the early morning, as they were leaving home to go to work.

It is no wonder she became passionate about conditions and pay equity for working women. She spoke with Joyce Stevens about her own experiences in 'Taking the Revolution Home' (1987) and with Lucy Taksa on 19 October 1987 as part of the NSW Bicentennial Oral History Project.

Her political activism began well before she joined the Communist Party (CPA) in 1927 , with the anti-conscription campaigns, the Great Strike in 1917, friendship with the IWW - one of her sisters married an IWW member. Immediately on joining the CPA at the age of 23 she became Secretary of the Sydney District Group and was involved in organising lectures and in giving them herself. And although she moved away from the Party after the 1929 Split, she never departed from her left political convictions. (Her husband Jack Ryan, as a non-recanting member of the Executive, had been one of those expelled). Eventually she joined the ALP.

She continued to work tirelessly for women by fighting conservative forces during the Depression, organising meetings and lecturing. Child endowment, introduced by Lang in 1927 was welcomed by women in the party whilst opposed by the men, who failed to comprehend its practical benefit given that women did not benefit from the family wage. (The failure to understand the immediate pragmatic urgency for a family wage for women as well as for men was one difficulty she had later with Muriel Heagney, in the latter's single-minded fight for equal pay).

Her concerns were for women, class, and a multifaceted and socially just society. For many her achievements culminated the founding of the Women's Electoral Lobby in 1971, in the Equal Pay decisions of 1969 and 1972, and in the 1974 National Wage Case in which she was WEL advocate in the Arbitration Commission hearings.

Edna 's commitment to labour history was made clear in her letters and her books which explored and analysed historical issues crucial to women's industrial identity. She was working and writing to the end - the quest was to find time for the writing she still needed to do, aside from the time she so generously gave to campaigners, to researchers, and to her friends. In the 1930s Bertha McNamara was eulogised as 'the mother of the labour movement'.

Edna Ryan similarly was a pivotal friend and mentor to the labour movement and more, a force for feminists and working women. The spontaneous procession of informal tributes since her death have been to a woman who never stopped working, a person of strength and courage, an extraordinary friend and mentor to so many people who themselves have become critical to Australian society, and a woman possessed of a no-nonsense quirky sense of humour. The women's movement, the labour movement and the country at large are the richer for her generous legacy of activism, mentoring and example.

Eileen Powell was born in Sydney on 3 August 1913, and lived until she married in the late forties in Petersham in Sydney's Inner West. Eileen's place in Australian labour history is secure and remarkable. She described herself as a child of Trades Hall and possessed an almost unparalleled curriculum vitae in the labour movement. After her parents separated in 1918, Eileen's mother, Margaret Powell, joined the ALP.

Her political training began at the age of eight when she started going to Labor Party meetings with Margaret, to Branch meetings in Petersham and to general meetings in Trades Hall. She formally joined the Labor Party when she was fifteen, trained at Party speakers' classes in Balmain, and was Assistant Secretary of the Stanmore Branch when she was 16 After a brief employment in Grace Brothers store on Broadway she started work in Trades Hall at sixteen with secretarial duties for the Labor Daily. Her employment in the building continued through to1937 to 1944 with the Australian Railways Union and even after that. When Eileen resigned from the ARU in 1944 to care for her mother , she continued in Trades Hall by taking up radio announcing with Radio 2KY. She was listed as employee number 199 (later 200) in Labor Council financial records for 1949.

Her involvement with the union movement and Labor Party continued throughout her life. Her role within the ALP was never quiescent - she was for example one of those bitterly opposed to Party failure to actively support the Republic at the commencement of the Spanish Civil War. The range of her activities in the labour movement included organising in the ALP Younger Set in the late twenties, trade union organisng, ALP broadcasting and platform speaking, editing and writing in the union journal, advocacy for the ARU and on women's pay, standing as an ALP Parliamentary cnadidate and officiating on the Labor Women's Central Organising Committee.

She was also actively involved in documenting aspects of the labour movement (though sadly otherwise only sparsely her own part in it) through her role as one of the project committee for the ARU's official history Working Lives (1990) written by Mark Hearn.

Eileen Powell was a force for change in the conditions of women workers in New South Wales. Industrially she is possibly most often remembered for achieving an award for Railway Refreshment Room workers, through a campaign with the workers and through her advocacy in the Industrial Commission. These workers, mostly women, were not officially Department employees, were not covered by other awards, were scattered through the railway towns by the nature of their employment and were previously largely unorganised industrially. The difficulties of developing an industrial award to cover unorganised workers with little industrial clout and an initially low union membership must have been profound. Yet Eileen took on the challenge through active field work, travelling to the rural railway stations to meet the women and to work with them on the award. She appeared as the union's advocate in the Full Bench Case which brought down the award.

She was actively engaged in Pay Equity work from the mid 1930's with the Council of Action for Equal Pay (CAEP) and worked with Muriel Heagney and other central pay equity campaigners. She gave evidence in the 1935 Female Wage Case in the Industrial Commission - at the age of twenty-two - appeared with Evatt in the 1942 Female Wage Case, was for 12 years to the mid 1950s Australian correspondent for the ILO Committee of Experts on Women's Work and appeared in the 1969 National Wage Case which adopted the principle of equal pay for equal work. She joined the United Associations of Women in the late 1940s whilst maintaining her ALP membership and activism. Her work for pay equity during her union employment had the support of the ARU although, as with male unionism at the time, such support is largely acknowledged to have been primarily motivated to ensure that employers would not be tempted by low female wages to take on women workers in preference to men.

In 1948 Eileen married Fred Coleman -Browne, whom she first met when she joined the Labor Daily and Fred was a young industrial roundsman with the Sydney Morning Herald. (The very small quantity of Eileen's papers as seem to be extant are filed with her husband's records and under his name in the Mitchell Library ). She retained the name of Powell after marriage. When she stood (successfully) for ALP pre-selection in the State seat of North Sydney in 1951, male opponents in the Branch tried to use this 'irregularity' to reverse the pre-selection by claiming she had not validly nominated. She retained pre-selection but, sadly for North Sydney voters, was not elected.

Eileen Powell worked intensively all her life with dedication, humour and immense ability for the labour movement and for women's working conditions. This list of her achievements merely skims the surface of her work. We were fortunate to have her, and those of us who met her even briefly were immensely privileged. Like Edna Ryan, she passed away in 1997.

Rosemary Webb is currently producing a PhD on women's industrial and political networks between the wars and can be contacted on [email protected]


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 3 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: How Organising Works
The ACTU’s Sarah Kaine is part of a new breed of union organiser who help workers stand up for themselves.
*  Unions: Big Boys Bank on Mergers
Mergers of the big banks are back on the agenda, and the Finance Sector Union is leading the community campaign against them.
*  History: Commemorating Our Dear Departed Equal Pay Activists
Two women who deserve special recognition and commemoration as part of our Women's Day celebrations are Eileen Powell and Edna Ryan, both of who played a crucial role in the struggle for equal pay.
*  Legal: New Judge Announces Zero Tolerance Of Pay Inequity In NSW
The NSW Industrial Relations Commission is training its sights on industrial raw-deals for women, and targeting the traditional under-valuation of women's work.
*  Review: Keep the Australia in Australian Television.
Local content quotas for Australian television are under threat from our Kiwi cousins.
*  Campaign Diary: Radical Conservatives Raise Their Own Bar
This Monday writs are issued for the state election, The phoney campaign ends and the real one begins; and the issue of stability, the need for it and the lack of it, is set to dominate the next four weeks.

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»  Guest Report
»  Sport
»  Trades Hall
»  Piers Watch

Letters to the editor
»  Desperately Seeking Union Songs
»  MUA Picket Videos
»  Greeting From BC
»  Tabloid Readers Are Traitors

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