Interview: Under Fire
Politics: And the Winners Are ...
Economics: The Common Wealth
History: Walking for Justice
International: Deja Vu
Legal: The Rights Stuff
Review: That Cinderella Fella
Poetry: Is Howard Kidding?
The Locker Room
Age of Consent
Make Ads Not Law
Nice One, Workers!
Dog Eat Dog
No Place For A Woman!
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you about how I became involved in the union movement and to relate to you what it was like to be woman activist in the years before most of you were born. I am reminded of the time when my great grandson, Michael, introduced me to his class. He said "This is my great grandmother, Nanna Doreen, and she is very, very, very old!"
I cannot tell you how delighted I am to see so many women activists in the union movement today. A far cry from when I first entered the workforce which is almost sixty five years ago.
I had completed six years of primary school and with the help of my teacher sat for and passed the Intermediate Certificate. My teacher held great hopes for me continuing my education but my mother's finacial circumstances ruled that out. So when I was offered a position in the local post office at Captains Flat I accepted. I was fifteen years of age.
The Postmaster's message on my first day at work was that post offices were no place for women. How wrong he was! By 1946 there were over 6000 women in the PMG engaged in work normally done by men. The APTU was the first union to secure equal pay during the war years.
The postmaster saw to it that I never had a spare moment. If the office was not busy he would send me out to chop wood saying "Righto Miss Kerr, if you have nothing to do you can go and swing the axe for awhile." Off I would go to confront a mountain of wood with a man sized axe while he and the Postal Clerk would bask in the glow of the big open fire.
I joined the Australian Postal Workers Union shortly after I began work, not out of any commitment to unionism but because a union official said I had to. I never did see him again. My brother's reaction when I told him I had joined the union was to tell me unions were no place for women! I continued to pay my union dues out of my meager salary of four dollars per fortnight half of which I gave to Mum.
After working for twelve months in the local post office I read a notice in the Commonwealth Gazette asking for women to train as Morse code operators in Sydney. Without consulting anyone I made an application for the traineeship, was accepted and some months later was on the way to the Big Smoke with a small suitcase and five quid (ten dollars). I was sixteen years old. The only advice my mother gave me on leaving home was "Don't come home in the family way or I will break both your legs." I am pleased to report that I survived the war with both my legs intact.
I worked for the Postmaster General Dept. until my marriage in 1946 to David Borrow who had recently returned from service in New Guinea. I applied for leave to get married, which was granted along with the sack as no married women were allowed to work in any sector of public service.
After living for several years in West Australia I returned with my family to Captains Flat where David obtained work in the mine.
As a small child I made up my mind, after observing the treatment metered out to most women, including my mother, I would never be treated as second class.
When my oldest boy was ten, David was killed in a mining accident. I was left with four small children under the age of ten and ten dollars in David's bank account. It cost me three guineas to get that through letters of administration.
I travelled to Sydney to learn of the decision as to how much I had been awarded in Workers compensation and was told the following by the man who had the responsibility of conveying the decision. This is what he said
"Mrs Borrow, it has been decided that you will receive the minium amount of compensation for the following reason. Dispite the fact that you have four children your chances of remarriage appear to be good as you are not an unattractive woman." I sat there at the end of a long polished table thinking, "Isn't he a nice man telling me I am attractive." I know what I would say today!
With the compensation I received I put a deposit on a house in Wollongong and moved there with my four small children.
A few months after my arrival in Wollongong I obtained a position in the local post office at Warrawong and on receipt of my first pay envelope I realised I was being paid a much lower rate than my male counterparts. When I queried the postmaster as to why I was receiving much less than the young fellow working next to me he said it was because I was a woman! I soon found out that while I had been out of the workforce making babies and playing housewife all the previous conditions accorded to females in the PMG had gone down the plughole.
This was totally unacceptable to me so I decided that something had to be done about it. But what? There was no union representation for PMG workers in Wollongong and we only saw union officials from Sydney when there was an election to be held.
Two other union members and myself approached the State branch of the union and made the request that a sub branch be formed in Wollongong. Permission was granted and along with men unionist three women and myself began to attend the monthly meetings of the union. The reaction of males when the question of equal pay was raised was very hostile. Also there was a great deal of difficulty in convincing other women that we were entitled to the same rate of pay as male workers.
It wasn't until 1968 when the ACTU fought the case with Bob Hawke as advocate that equal pay was granted to some women. The reaction of one woman in my workplace to this great leap forward was to say "We will just have to work harder so we won't feel guilty about taking it." Other women didn't think we deserved to be paid equal pay and the men became very resentful.
Finally and years down the track it was deemed that having served a year in a position and passing the medical board permanency was granted.
I was elected honorary secretary of the sub branch of my union, a position I held for over thirty years. The union membership was mainly men and covered both postal and Telecom workers. At our monthly meetings it was almost all men who attended apart from two other women. One of those stopped attending as after one meeting her husband beat her up!
I found it most frustrating that I was not able to convince women members to come along. However I understood the difficulties they faced as the majority did not own cars or even drive and they had small children to care for. After a days work and cooking a meal etc it would have been extremely hard to venture out on the bus to come to a meeting. I would imagine that some of those issues are relevant today for women.
I was elected to the State Executive of my union in 1981 the first women to be elected. On arrival at the first meeting of the new executive there was no welcome mat laid out. On the contrary there was a distinctive atmosphere of resentment from the twenty-three men present. The first words to greet me were uttered by someone telling me there were no female toilets in the building. I told the person who relayed this vital information that he should look after his own bladder and I would take care of mine.
The meeting opened and the "F" word was on everyone's lips. After a few minutes the secretary stated "that as we now have a woman on the executive we should perhaps moderate our language." This was met with a barrage of comments like "they want equality" etc. I informed them I was familiar with the word and referred them to the union rulebook that stated 'No drunkedness or bad language will be tolerated at union meetings" and suggested that if we all stick to the rules that would solve the problem.
During the two years I served on the State Ex. not once did I get support for any motion I put forward regarding women or anything else for that matter.
On my retirement from the paid workforce in 1991 I was awarded life membership of my union.
I have stood on picket lines over many issues, marched, leafleted, and defended my workmates over many injustices. I have been saddened by our defeats and rejoiced in the gains we as trade unionists have made.
Before I retired I was told by young women at my workplace that she hated unions. I said I was sorry to hear I say that and told her of the gains unions had made that she now enjoyed. I said that women once had to work for much lower pay than their male counterparts and her reply was that she would not have worked for lower pay. I told her she would have if she wanted a job and said I did not expect her to carry a red flag down Crown Street on May Day but that she should appreciate and respect the gains made by unions.
I have never been a radical feminist although there are some who would dispute that statement. Especially my son Steve who claims I gave him a copy of "SCUM" (The Society for Cutting up Men) for his 15th birthday. I am of the opinion that equality in the work place and home will only be achieved when both men and women take up the issues specific to women.
During my time as an employee of Australia Post management made it clear to me that as far as job opportunities and chances of promotion were concerned, for as long as I was involved in union activity my chances of promotion were nil.
In any case I was not about chasing promotion or big bucks and I was happy doing what I had always done, defending the rights of the workers. I suppose what I have related to you about my life is a blue print of what not to do if you want advancement in the workplace which is still a boys club as is the union.
As for the officials in my union during my time the kindest words I can say of them that they were self serving, right wing grubs with little talent and even less commitment to the people they were paid to serve.
It took courage for women of my generation to stand up and challenge the inequality that we were expected to accept. And it takes courage today. I look back on my life with few regrets and much satisfaction. From the day I became a single parent until today I have tried as far as it was possible to be in control of my life.
Meanwhile I will continue to pursue my lifelong activities such as supporting union struggles, peace and human rights. I will continue to speak out when and where I see injustices being perpetrated and I will defend the rights of women.
I will conclude by saying that my life experiences have been something that no amount of money could buy. We only get one chance at living and the chasing after material things, the big houses, and all the trapping that society says we must have in order to be fulfilled mean nothing if you have not enjoyed your time on earth. I can honestly say despite some sadness and hardship my life has been great and given the chance I would do it all again.
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