Dateline Australia: Fired up to win wage equality — at last

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Australia’s working women cheered in 1972 when, after decades of hard-fought struggle, the concept of equal pay for work of equal value was finally won.

But today, 39 years later, a gender-based pay gap still yawns. Full-time women workers earn, on average, 18 percent less than their male counterparts.

Why didn’t the 1972 ruling deliver?

The catch to establishing fair women’s wages is the concept of equal value. The capitalist system does not value women’s work, which, traditionally confined to the home, was unpaid. This unpaid labour provides the basis for the underpaid labour of women on the job.

“Women’s work” is easily branded since Australia has a severely gender-segmented workforce. Sixty-three percent of all women employees work in female-dominated occupations.

But that’s only part of the story. Since the burden of household responsibilities falls disproportionately on women, 50 percent of them are employed part-time as compared to 15 percent of men. Over a lifetime, the pay difference between a man and a woman is estimated at a million dollars! Small wonder so many older women live in poverty.

The government is no ally. A new generation of workers is taking up the battle. They’re finding out the hard way that, despite its platitudes about pay equity, the Australian Labor Party government led by Julia Gillard, the country’s first female prime min-ister, is no friend.

Community workers organised mainly in the Australian Services Union (ASU) make up one primarily female sector. They are carers, community development workers, and advocates. Over 60 percent have university degrees but earn less than the average weekly wage.

For this sector, unions are pursuing an Equal Remuneration case through Fair Work Australia (FWA), the national workplace relations tribunal. Workers have taken to the streets in several mass rallies. They were enraged when the government asked FWA to consider the ability of the economy to pay, claiming that equal pay may not be affordable!

Another group, Federal Public Servants, is campaigning for one sector-wide agreement to cover all public agencies. This was the norm until 1991 when an earlier Labor government introduced “enterprise bargaining,” requiring workers to negotiate in each individual workplace. Since then, wage chasms have emerged between the highest- and lowest-paying agencies. Those employing pre-dominantly women pay much less. And lowest-paid of all is the 80 percent Indigenous workforce of Aboriginal Hostels, Ltd.

Last year, the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) coordinated all agreements to have a common expiry date of June 2011, with the goal of negotiating one service-wide agreement along with mechanisms to equalise pay. In cosy meetings, the government led union officials to believe the matter was settled.

But in December, shock waves hit the public service when the government announced that agency-by-agency bargaining — and the pay gaps that go with it — would continue for another three years. The government also declared that there would be no back pay once wage inequalities were finally addressed.

A grass-roots mood for action. The ranks are primed for a fight-back. Faced with the government crying poor, a snap survey of ASU members found 51 percent wanted strike action and 42 percent wanted a stop-work protest (usually a part-day stoppage). Unwilling to challenge anti-union laws, ASU officials called a midmorning rally only — and instructed members to seek per-mission from their employer to attend.

Many CPSU members are also itching for a fight. There have been calls for strike action and for the union to disaffiliate from the Labor Party. But neither option was even put to members through a survey, let alone mass meetings!

Instead of leading a fight-back, CPSU is concentrating on its crisis of staff resources, since about 70 pay agreements will now have to be negotiated, agency by agency, at the same time.

Officials from both ASU and CPSU have also conceded that any measures won to reduce pay inequity will be phased in only at length.

These events led the Freedom Socialist Party to call for a union-community campaign to win wage equality now. Called Pay Justice Action (PJA), the campaign held its first equal-pay rally on March 8, the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

PJA emphasizes union democracy and gives voice to workplace delegates and members. It can back the ASU and CPSU campaigns by giving them the grass-roots muscle they need.

PJA also aims to educate with a multi-issue approach about why pay gaps stubbornly persist.

To win pay justice means challenging the sexual division of labour and lifting the double burden that women face. It also means demanding a full adult wage for all, including youth and people with disabilities, and addressing the low wages and superexploitation of overseas students and temporary workers. And it means insisting on justice for some Aboriginal workers in the Northern Territory who get half their “wages” in the form of rations: a basics card that can only be used to buy limited goods at designated shops. To download a PDF of PJA’s full platform, click here or visit www.socialism.com/melbourne.

The struggle for equal pay achieved its greatest gains when the union and women’s movements organised in tandem. In 1969, feminist unionist Zelda D’Aprano made history when she chained herself to the front of the Commonwealth Building to demand equal pay. Her militancy and daring inspired others to action, including the female ranks of the union movement. Let’s do it again, and this time, take it to complete victory!

Alison Thorne is a workplace delegate with the Community and Public Sector Union and the coordinator of Pay Justice Action. Contact her at alison.thorne@ozemail.com.au.

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