The Campaign in New Zealand and Australia (Chapter 5 of my History Honours dissertation)

The Campaign in New Zealand and Australia

Like New Zealand, Australia was influenced by both the ILO convention and the British move to implement equal pay in the civil service. In 1953, the ACTU in NSW initiated a campaign for equal pay expressing concern at the large number of women workers who were being discriminated against.[1] In 1956, the Trades and Labor Council of NSW created an Equal Pay Committee.[2] The Committee focussed on raising awareness of the equal pay issues through public meetings, leaflets and petitions to government.[3] Circulars from the committee detailed how women in the British civil service had won equal pay.[4] One of the initiatives of the committee was to call on unions to lodge equal pay claims in the wage tribunals that set wage rates in Australia.[5] Not all unions advocated for equal pay, or if they did it was a mechanism for defending male wages and discouraging employers from hiring women as cheap labour. Within the trade union movement there were increasing splits between left and right factions at the start of the cold war in the late 1940s. There was pressure after the Second World War for returned service men to receive preference in employment over other job seekers.[6]  Feminist and other progressives were looking to intensify the struggle for equal pay and equal opportunity for women.[7] Women in Australia had made gains during and after the war, resulting in an increase to the minimum female rate to 75% of male’s minimum rate in the 1945-50 basic wage enquiry.[8] After this move equal pay was considered the logical next step. Continuing to improve the lot for women workers would not prove to be an easy task however. In the early 1950s, the Australian union movement barely fended off an attempt to lower the female basic wage to 60% of men’s.[9] Also throughout the equal pay campaigns in the 1950s the level of enthusiasm by many unions were not strong, as many of the more conservative union leaders were not sympathetic. In 1957, the chair of the Queensland Equal Pay committee said he found it difficult to whip up enthusiasm among unions for equal pay in that state.[10] In South Australia, equal pay meetings and events did not commence until 1958 and even then were poorly attended.[11] This issue of unions lacking enthusiasm for the cause was not unique to Australia, as in both New Zealand and Britain a number of unions also were not actively pushing the equal pay cause at this time.

One difference the British and New Zealand campaigns had compared with Australia was that in Britain and New Zealand litigation had been used effectively as a tool to shift public opinion by demonstrating the injustice of women being paid less. The Australian Public Service Board which, like the New Zealand Public Service Commission, set public service pay rates, believed the issue of equal pay went beyond its responsibility. In March 1957, the Secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council called on female public servants to go on strike against the government in support of equal pay demands.[12] The Victorian Public Service Association opposed this call for strike action, and argued that the focus should be on the Public Service Board which set wages rather than the government.[13] This disagreement within the Australian union movement, about who the campaign should be targeting explains why litigation did not build the campaign in the same way in Australia.

The Australian State most advanced on the equal pay issue in the 1950s was New South Wales, where Labor had governed since 1944. Powerful state unions with an effective relationship with the state government helped this happen. The NSW PSA had in the late 1930s been active within the Council of Action for Equal Pay, a coalition of women’s organisations and some trade unions.[14] This coalition was disbanded in 1948 having been active throughout the Second World War. Sentimentalised ideas of women returning to domestic roles gained favour and earlier support dwindled.[15] By the mid-1950s there was a revival of agitation by unionists and women’s groups in NSW.[16] The ACTU held women’s conferences in the mid-1950s in NSW and these were reported on by New Zealanders involved in the equal pay campaign. In 1958, the New Zealand PSA Journal reported that the Equal Pay Committee in NSW was doing weekly radio talks, amongst other campaign activities.[17]  At this time the NSW government had announced plans to introduce equal pay legislation, which it subsequently did the following year. In March 1958 the Equal Pay Committee held the National Working Women’s Conference in Sydney.[18]  Margaret Long from the PSA equal pay campaign attended this conference.[19]  Here she announced that the newly-elected Labour government in New Zealand would introduce equal pay legislation. This forced Labour finance minister Nordmeyer to come out and deny this in the media, saying that Labour only supported equal pay in principle. Nordmeyer was reportedly furious and claimed that Long had no right make this announcement at the Sydney ACTU conference.[20] This response was not untypical of how politicians in the three countries studied responded to pressure on the equal pay issue.

[1] The Northern Star Lismore Equal Pay campaign by unions September 24 1953 1

[2] Williams 100

[3] Williams 100

[4] Williams 100

[5] Williams 100

[6] Ellem 53

[7] Ellem 53

[8] Marian Quartly and Judith Smart Respectable Radicals: A history of the National Council of Women of Australia 1896 -2006 Monash University 2015 207

[9] Sheridan and Stretton 137

[10] Sheridan and Stretton 137

[11] Sheridan and Stretton 137

[12] Sheridan and Stretton 137

[13] Sheridan and Stretton 137

[14] Markey 105

[15] Penelope Johnson Class and Work: The Council of Action for Equal Pay and the Equal Pay Campaign in Australia during World War Two Labour History Number 50 1986 146

[16] Johnson 146

[17] PSA Journal Radio talks on equal pay volume 43 number 7 July 1956

[18] Williams 112

[19] Margaret Long, interviewed by Alison Lash, epcas 38, series 38, October 10 1985

[20] Jim Ferguson, interviewed by Cath Kelly and Margaret Long, epcas 38, series 38, November 22 1986

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