|Issue No 87||10 March 2001|
Whatís Wrong With The Ernies
Alison Peters asks whether the annual attack on male chauvenism in the labour movement has lost its bite.
The Ernie Awards are an annual event where "awards" are given to those who make the most sexist comments in the previous 12 months. It's a big night for feminists who use the opportunity to poke fun at men (and the odd woman) who still don't get what it is we are on about - equality. The Ernies (as they are known) have grown in the 10 years or so since they were first held to the stage where there is a huge demand for tickets with lots of disappointed women being turned away and significant media attention (some of which turns into nominations for the awards!). Why is it then that I, as someone who has been a regular attender and supporter of the Ernies, feel increasing frustration at the concept?
It all goes back to the original night held to mark the resignation of the late Ernie Ecob from the position of President of the NSW Labor Council. Ernie, who at the time was the Secretary of the Australian Workers Union (AWU) was notorious amongst women unionists for his comments (amongst others) that women who wanted to become shearers were only interested in the sex.
A few left wing women unionists (including Meredith Burgmann who had been elected to the NSW Upper House) decided that Ernie's resignation should be marked in some way and with the enthusiastic help of Meredith a dinner was arranged at Parliament House. This was the inaugural Ernies. It was small, intimate and raucous as we loudly competed for the honour of taking home the sheep trophy on behalf of our male comrades who had lived up to Ernie's bad example. We had a great time as we used fun to make the point that we still had a long way to go in the union movement. In fact it was so much fun we decided to do it again!
From there on it only got bigger and better. More categories were introduced - for the media, the judiciary and the politicians. There was also the Elaine (after Elaine Nile) for the woman least helpful to the sisterhood and the Gareth (after Gareth Evans) for the man who did the best. More and more women from outside the labour movement wanted to be there for the infamous boo offs to determine the winners. There was lots of bad behaviour, gorgeous frocks and good times. In some ways it is to us feminists what Mardi Gras is to gays and lesbians - a good natured way to present a serious message.
Unfortunately though this popularity has meant that there is less and less attention on the behaviour and attitudes of men in the union movement. With a few spectacular exceptions (like Costa's "younger woman" jibe at Sharan Burrow last year which saw him secure the Ernie in the industrial category) unions and union officials aren't being nominated and even where they are they are losing to the appalling comments of judges and politicians! Not fair!!
There are those who say that the lack of nominations about unions or union officials means that they have cleaned up their act. I say the blokey behaviour has just gone underground.
A cursory glance at the Labor Council directory of affiliates show that 12 out of 54 Presidents positions are held by women and 12 out of 60 Secretaries positions are held by women. That's a mere 22% and 20% respectively. The same exercise using the ACTU directory paints an even worse tale with 8 out of 43 Presidents (19%) and 5 out of 47 Secretaries (11%). That's sad.
In fairness I should point out that the ACTU Executive has 50% women and Labor Council's Executive has 27% women. These are the highlights in a pretty grim picture. While women, particularly young women, are getting more involved and more active in unions they are still not properly represented at leadership levels. Issues of equal pay, parental leave, discrimination, harassment and family friendly work practices still do not get the priority they deserve. Women are still the overwhelming majority of casual and temporary workers and are often "not seen" by unions with competing demands and limited resources. Its often only when these issues become a problem for men that action is taken.
This is why I refuse to believe that there are so few union men deserving of nomination. As a movement we have improved significantly and have achieved a great deal for women but we still have a long way to go. We need more nominations to stop the boys getting complacent. This year I issue a challenge to other union women to uncover the sexist behaviour we all know still goes on and to proudly nominate our blokes. They deserve to be up there under scrutiny with the judges, pollies and media. Lets see a return to the origins of the Ernies and ensure a union man gets the gold!
Interview: Working Woman
Cheryl Kernot on women in the workplace, Labor's male culture and where Meg went wrong.
Activists: Honouring Our Heroes
Anna Stewart changed the lives of Australian working families by helping women achieve balance between the competing demands of work and family.
Women: The Future is Female
Julia Gillard outlines the campaign to increase female representation within the Australian Labor Party.
Unions: Sweatshops Ė Beyond 2001
FairWear convenor Debbie Carstens looks over a unique partnership between churches and unions to end exploitation in the textile industry.
Politics: The Battle for Bennelong
Many trade unionists are working to kick John Howard out of office. But only one woman has a chance of kicking him out of his own seat. Meet Nicole Campbell.
International: Border Skirmishes
Alana Kerr travelled to Thailand to observe first hand the battle to organise Burmese women workers in exile.
History: Inside the Ladies Lounge
The McDonald sisters run Trades Hall, and have for over half a century. The building canít speak about what has gone on in that time, but Lorna and Elaine probably know it all.
Satire: Taliban to Put One Nation Last
The Parliamentary fate of Pauline Hansonís One Nation party was further obscured today as key fellow right-wing extremists moved to distance themselves from the controversial Queensland politician and the group she founded and leads.
Review: Seven Steps to Slavation
Jenny Macklin details the seven barriers that stand between women and a better working life.
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