Equal Pay in historical context -Chapter 1 of my History Honours dissertation

Equal Pay in historical context

New Zealand and Australia were settler colonies of the British Empire in the early 19th century. Many women migrants from Britain to New Zealand were domestic servants or seamstresses.[1] Settlers brought with them British values and cultural outlooks. In all three countries, ideology – if not reality- emphasised the male breadwinner, with dependant wife and children. While both countries gained greater independence from Britain in the early half of the 20th century these values continued to survive.

Many feminist commentators argue the state played a crucial role in upholding the male breadwinner ideology. It did this through creating a dual labour market with men in the primary and women the secondary sector of the economy.[2] The state also did this through gendered welfare systems.[3] Labour organisations were often proponents of the breadwinning concept as well. In the late 19th century the labour movement sought male wages that would be enough to support their dependants as well.[4]

Both Australia and New Zealand had a system of arbitration whereby disputes or contentious decisions regarding rates of pay or conditions were decided by an independent tribunal. The parties, namely the unions, the employers and the government would then be bound by the decision which was referred to as an Award.[5] In 1894 in New Zealand the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act (IC & A Act) introduced compulsory arbitration for certain industries where the union and employer could not agree an outcome in bargaining.[6] A decision of the arbitration court was binding on all parties once made. For female labour the IC & A Act was a mixed blessing. On the one hand the introduction of arbitration set a minimum wage and level of conditions which eradicated the sweat shop conditions some women faced in the 19th century. Arbitration also resulted in wage rates that were lower for female employees, something usually favoured by unionists fearing that female workers would be used to undercut the male wage rate.[7] By the early 20th century some labour organisations supported equal pay as a way of discouraging employers from employing women as cheap labour.

Unlike Australia, In New Zealand the male breadwinner wage was not formalised in the arbitration system, but was included in the 1936 labour legislation.[8] In 1912 the Australian Arbitration Court ruled in the Mildura Fruit picking case that wage levels should be decided according to the sex of the job, and that jobs that were deemed men’s work would be paid at a higher rate.[9] In 1919 the Australian Arbitration Court set a basic rate of pay for women that was 54% of the basic male rate.[10]  While the New Zealand Arbitration system was never this blatant, the New Zealand system also sustained and systematised the wage advantages of men over women.[11] To protect male workers’ wages and status, arbitration courts in both countries would either prohibit the use of female labour, or impose conditions that would make it unattractive for employers to employ women.[12] A New Zealand example of this was the 1912 Typographers Award where the Union successfully sought a clause stating that women would be employed on the same rates and conditions as men.[13] Doing this made sure there was no monetary saving by employing women, meaning employers were more likely to employ men.

Further, when the depression of the 1930’s hit New Zealand, women were blamed for contributing to male unemployment. In 1931, Legislative Councillor Robert Masters argued that women taking up roles in offices and stores had caused the unemployment of men.[14] Tim Frank in his essay Bread Queues and Breadwinners: Gender in the 1930s argues, in an era where masculine identities were constructed around employment, occupational status and breadwinning were undermined by unemployment.[15]

The Public Service was not covered by the IC & A Act, but by the 1912 Public Service Act. New Zealand Public Service departmental wages and conditions were set centrally by the Public Service Commission for departments. This provided for an Appeal Board which had a similar function to the Arbitration Court.[16] Decisions on appointments and pay grades could be appealed and taken to the Public Service Appeal Board which, much like the Arbitration Court, made binding decisions about employment issues. The Public Service Act of 1912 set a basic minimum wage for adult males in the public service but had been silent on females.[17]

The New Zealand Public Service Association first put forward an equal pay resolution at its conference in 1914.[18] While officially supporting equal pay, the issue was not pursued in any serious way by the organisation.[19] While the PSA had female public service representatives on its executive from 1914, this did little to spur the PSA into action on this issue. One barrier to building a strong public service campaign was that not all public servants were covered by the Public Service Act. The Post Office and Railways had their own legislation.[20] But social attitudes of PSA members regarding women and work were the main reason this was not a priority issue for the union prior to the 1940s.

Raelene Frances and Melanie Nolan’s study of gender and industrial relations in Australia and New Zealand describes how the male breadwinning concept and, by extension, that of female dependency was found in most industrialised capitalist societies from the late 19th century.[21] This idea seems to have taken a much stronger hold in Australia with the ‘Manzone Country’ concept of masculinist culture marking the gendered division of labour.[22] While the male breadwinning concept had been imported from Britain, historians have made the case that in New Zealand the concept of women being bound to the house and children was stronger compared with other advanced capitalist countries.[23] In 1891 the total proportion of women in the New Zealand workforce was only 25%, increasing only to 28% by 1926.[24] It is in this context that an environment developed in New Zealand and Australia where centralised and compulsory wage fixing was designed to protect male wage-earners.[25]

As in New Zealand, the issue of equal pay for Australian women had been raised within the union movement and by feminist organisations for a number of years. An example of this was in 1902 when the Victorian Women’s Post and Telegraph Association led a campaign for equal pay and opportunity for women.[26] At this time the Australian Commonwealth Public Service had just been established after Australian Federation in 1901. Australian women could work in the Public Service but were expected to retire once they married. By contrast in New Zealand women were employed only on a temporary basis until the 1940s.

The Second World War resulted in significant labour shortages both in New Zealand and internationally, due to the number of men being called up to fight. In New Zealand, the National Service Department began a programme of industrial conscription to fill the labour shortages with women workers.[27] Popular images from the time show women entering traditionally male dominated occupations such as engineering or munitions. However the majority of women who entered the workforce at this time were in professions already regarded as conventional women’s job such as food processing and textiles.[28] The increasing number of women entering the workforce can be seen as accelerating the trend that began pre-war. The New Zealand government framed this situation as a necessary evil and that domestic responsibilities of women needed to be put on hold to contribute to the war effort.[29]

In Britain the Women Power Committee (WPC) was established in 1940 in response to the large number of women who were needed to enter the workforce.[30] In Britain labour shortages caused by the war were even greater than in New Zealand and Australia. Realising this would add weight to existing calls for equal pay, the British government introduced a scheme whereby, after an 8 month probation period and subject to satisfactory performance, women employed in men’s work could receive the male wage.[31] Most women conscripted into work did not receive equal pay as a result of this measure. A 1941 Gallup poll in Britain indicated that 68% of those interviewed supported equal pay.[32] Equal pay was to remain on the political agenda throughout the war in Britain.

During the Second World War calls for equal pay in New Zealand grew due to increased female participation in the workforce. In 1943 the PSA set up a sub committee to investigate equal pay, but within the context of the male wage being required to support a family, therefore, the investigation also looked at enhancing the family allowance.[33] At this time, most rank and file PSA members and many New Zealand workers generally believed that male workers should be the breadwinners of the family and their wages should reflect this.[34] Mary Boyd was one of the PSA women’s representatives in the mid-1940s. Boyd recalls that women in the public service were not all of one mind. Many women agreed that women should finish employment after they were married. Those who were driving the PSA equal pay campaign were university graduates such as Rona Bailey (nee Meek) who went on to become president of the PSA women’s committee in 1945.[35] For many women who supported the concept of rate for the job, they supported this as a way of protecting the male breadwinner income at a time when women were entering the workforce during the war.[36]

See the source image
During the Second World War women entered the workforce in high numbers.

Mary Boyd was asked to write a report outlining the arguments for equal pay in the public service in 1944, which she did with the help of civil servant Bill Sutch.[37] The report titled the case for equal pay for equal work reviewed changes social at home and overseas, also the forms of exploitation women had suffered in history. The report recommended that men and women should receive equal remuneration for work of equal value and that this be observed throughout the New Zealand Public Service.[38]

In 1943, the PSA Executive made the decision that any campaign for equal pay, and specifically rate for the job without gender discrimination, would need to be coupled with calls for a universal family allowance.[39] Prior to 1946 family allowances were not universal. At the time 83% of women public servants, when surveyed, said they wanted both equal pay and a universal family allowance.[40] Universal family allowances meant families no longer were as dependant the male breadwinner wage, removing a significant barrier to the equal pay campaign.

In Australia, both Liberal and National Coalition governments (the conservative political block in Australian politics) and Labor Governments used the Australian arbitration system as a way of avoiding the issue of equal pay. As in New Zealand, the onset of war resulted in women entering the workforce in significant numbers. In March 1942, the Curtin Labor Government established the Women’s Employment Board, which operated independently from the federal arbitration system.[41] This board made the decision to raise the minimum rate for women from 54% to 60% of male rates.[42]  This board was scrapped in 1944, but was the first move towards shifting female rates at a time when women were needed in the Australian workforce. The official position of the Australian union movement’s peak body, the ACTU was to lift the rates of women workers. In 1937, the ACTU had put forward the basic wage claim to lift women’s wages to 60 percent[43] as a first step towards equal pay for women. The official policy of the ACTU was to support equal pay for work of equal value, however it and its affiliate members continued to press for a family wage, buying into the male breadwinner concept which undermined their position.[44] Despite the ACTU’s official position on equal pay, much of the movement was less than wholehearted about women entering the workforce, let alone equal pay.[45]  Even as late as 1952, the President of the Queensland branch of the Australian Workers’ Union declared the union should not tolerate employment of females in industry while a breadwinner was unemployed.[46]

These ‘masculinist’ attitudes in Australia did not necessarily mean public opinion was against the concept of equal pay. A poll conducted by the Melbourne Herald in October 1941 found that 59 percent of those polled supported equal pay for women.[47] In 1943, Arbitration Judge A.W. Foster believed that ‘the community in the future, if not in the present, will have to face the problem of so-called “equal pay” much more earnestly than it has so far done.[48] Statements like this show that arbitration judges in Australia were feeling some pressure on the issue of equal pay. However, both state and federal governments continued to avoid the issue for many years by leaving the decisions in the hands of the arbitration system.

Strong comparisons can be made between the Australian and New Zealand campaigns in the 1940s. Because both countries used similar arbitration systems, unions used the Arbitration Courts as a tool to seek equal pay or at least to draw attention to the issue. Like the ACTU, in New Zealand the Federation of Labour (FOL), the private sector union peak body, was calling for women’s wages to be increased in awards. The FOL position was that achieving one rate for the job in awards was the job for affiliates, rather than the central organisation.[49] Like many Australian unions, in New Zealand a number of male dominated unions were opposed or indifferent to equal pay.[50] Other unions supported calls for equal pay but not out of any belief in women’s equality.

In 1945, equal pay was awarded to tram conductors and postal clerks in Australia.[51] This compares with New Zealand where, according to PSA equal pay activist Mary Boyd, Tramways was the first union to gain equal pay in an award through Arbitration in the 1940s.[52] In Australia this issue was complicated in 1956 when the Tramways Board tried to employ female tram drivers on equal pay rates. In this case the union threatened strike action to stop the move.[53] In Britain the Transport and General Workers Union demanded equal pay for fully trained bus and tram conductors.[54]  When the matter went before the Industrial court in April 1940 it ruled in favour of equal pay, making this one of the first group of workers in Britain to achieve this.

At the start of the Second World War female conductors were employed on the Auckland buses.[55] To cover for the shortage of male conductors the employer proposed to extend working hours. The Tramways Union responded to this by proposing that female conductors and the 40 hour week be maintained. At the conclusion of the war, despite having actually campaigned to bring women into the workforce as a way of retaining conditions, the union executive voted to close membership of the union to women in 1946.[56]  In a union publication towards the end of the war it was stated “I am sure our women comrades will be only too happy and will make way for the men folk when the time comes.”[57] The employer did not heed the union’s call to stop employing female conductors until 1956 when the last public tram in Auckland stopped running.[58]

In both Australia and New Zealand, the Tramways Unions were not advocating equal pay on the basis of women’s equality. Instead, Tramways members were seeking to protect male’s breadwinner wages by making the employment of women more expensive. Despite this, the Tramways Union in New Zealand was still viewed as the leading union advocates for equal pay in the 1940. This example did provide encouragement to women within the New Zealand PSA who were advocating equal pay for their members at this time.[59]

A turning point for the campaign was in 1946 when the New Zealand Labour government made the family allowance universal rather than means tested.[60] As outlined earlier, until this point it was widely believed male wages should assume that men were the breadwinners in the household. Making the family allowance universal removed a significant barrier in arguing for rate for the job and ending wage discrimination based on gender.

Another significant step in the public service was when the PSA successfully campaigned to allow women to have permanent roles in the public service.[61] At this time, Rona Bailey and Kath Ross had been elected representatives to the PSA national executive.[62] These two had been active on the PSA Women’s subcommittee set up in 1943 along with Mary Boyd and a number of other women who became active at the time. This subcommittee engaged in regular meetings and surveys of women members in the service, which increased pressure on the PSA executive to be stronger advocates for their women members. Rona Bailey cites the change in PSA leadership, and specifically that Jack Lewin was elected PSA President in 1946, as shifting the PSA to take a stronger position on women’s issues.[63] He was at the centre of a group of young activists, known as the Korero, who increasingly challenged the leadership’s deferential attitude to the government and the public service commissioner.[64] In 1952 at the height of the cold war his Korero grouping were accused of being a communist front organisation. In subsequent executive elections Lewin and the Korero group were defeated by what Lewin claimed were National Party supporters.[65]

Women involved with the PSA equal pay campaign in the 1940s looked overseas for ideas on how to successfully promote the cause. Canada was viewed by New Zealand equal pay campaigners as a country that had made significant advances in the cause. In May 1944, Helen Harrison, Secretary of the NZ PSA women’s committee, wrote to the Canadian High Commission about women civil service employees.[66] In a detailed response the High Commission explained that under the Canadian Civil Service Act of 1927 there were no formal differences in pay grades for men and women.[67] This was in contrast to New Zealand where there were salary bars for women in the public service. However, during the Second World War the Canadian National War Labour Board was established to set wages.[68] This board set a lower minimum rate for women employed on government contracts.[69]  The justification for this was that Canada, like most other countries, had increased numbers of women entering the workforce but women were not as experienced or productive as male workers.[70]

Universal family allowances and inclusion of women as permanent members of the Public Service removed two major obstacles to equal pay in New Zealand. In New Zealand and Australia, there were still powerful ideological and institutional obstacles to overcome. Unions would continue to use Arbitration Courts and the public sector equivalents to highlight the issue of equal pay in the 1950s. International developments at the ILO strengthened arguments for equal pay.

[1] WB Sutch Poverty and Progress in New Zealand AH & AW Reed 1969

[2] Nolan 25

[3] Nolan 25

[4] Nolan 25

[5] Arthur Sullivan and Steven M Sheffrin Economics: Principles in action. Pearson Prentice Hall 2003 324

[6] Robin Ingram The Politics of Patriarchy: The response of capital and organised labour to the movement of women into the paid workforce Auckland University 1988  205

[7] Ingram 205

[8] Cybele Locke Workers in the Margins Bridget Williams Books 2012 51

[9] Marilyn Lake The Independence of Women and the Brotherhood of Man: Debates in the Labour Movement over Equal Pay and Motherhood Endowment in the 1920s Labour History number 63, November 1992 9

[10] Nolan 22

[11] Stephen Robertson Women, Work and the New Zealand Arbitration Court 1894-1920 Labour History, Number 61, November 1991 30

[12] Robertson 33

[13] Robertson 34

[14] Barbara Brookes A History of New Zealand Women Bridget Williams Books 2016

[15] Tim Frank Bread Queues and Breadwinners: Gender in the 1930s in The Gendered Kiwi, Auckland University Press 1999

[16] Burt Roth Remedy for Present Evils: A history of the New Zealand Public Service Association from 1890 New Zealand Public Service Association 1984

[17] Nolan 238

[18] Nolan 235

[19] Nolan 235

[20] Nolan 234

[21] Ralene Frances and Melanie Nolan Gender and the Trans-Tasman World of Labour: Transnational and Comparative Histories Labour History Number 95 November 2008 29

[22] Frances and Nolan 29

[23] Frances and Nolan 29

[24] Nolan 30

[25] Frances and Nolan 29

[26] Kath Williams The Unions and the fight for equal pay Melbourne 2001 75

[27] Deborah Montgomerie Man-powering Women: Industrial Conscription during the Second World War Women in History 2 1992 184

[28] Montgomerie 188

[29] Montgomerie 186

[30] Harold L Smith The Womanpower Problem in Britain during the Second World War The Historical Journal Volume 27, Number 4 1984 929

[31] Harold L Smith The Womanpower Problem in Britain during the Second World War The Historical Journal Volume 27, Number 4 1984 935

[32] Harold L Smith The Womanpower Problem in Britain during the Second World War The Historical Journal Volume 27, Number 4 1984 935

[33] Corner 22

[34] Nolan 235

[35] Mary Boyd, interviewed by Alison Lash, epcas 38, series 38,  August 9 1985

[36] Mary Boyd, interviewed by Alison Lash, epcas 38, series 38,  August 9 1985

[37] Mary Boyd, interviewed by Alison Lash, epcas 38, series 38,  August 9 1985

[38] Mary Boyd The Case for Equal Pay for Equal Work Women’s Consultative Committee, 4 April 1944

[39] Nolan 235

[40] Nolan 235

[41] Patmore 173

[42] Patmore 177

[43] Williams 79

[44] Patmore 177

[45] Sheridan and Stretton 136

[46] Sheridan and Stretton 136

[47] Williams 81

[48] Sheridan and Stretton 135

[49] Ingram 235

[50] Ingram 235

[51] Sheridan and Stretton 135

[52] Mary Boyd, interviewed by Alison Lash, epcas 38, series 38,  August 9 1985

[53] Williams 103

[54] Harold Smith The Problem of “Equal Pay for Equal Work” in Great Britain during World War II The Journal of Modern History Volume 53 Number 4 1981

[55] Ingram 224

[56] Ingram 230

[57] Ingram 229

[58] Ingram 231

[59] Mary Boyd, interviewed by Alison Lash, epcas 38, series 38,  August 9 1985

[60] Nolan 235

[61] Trevor Richards interview with Cath Kelly and Margaret Long for special Journal lift out 1986

[62] Corner 25

[63] Corner 25

[64] Colin Hicks. Lewin, John Philip from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 5-Nov-2013  http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5l9/lewin-john-philip

[65] Roth 130

[66] Correspondence Helen Harrison to Canadian High Commission, May 1944

[67] Correspondence Canadian High Commission to NZ PSA, May 1944

[68] Niemann 37

[69] Niemann 38

[70] Niemann 38


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