Louisa Dunkley was born in the working class Melbourne suburb of Richmond in 1866. She is remembered today for her leadership in the battle for equal pay. At 16, Louisa got a job with the Postmaster General’s Department, eventually becoming a qualified operator. Unfair conditions fuelled Louisa’ s interest in unionism, and she established a committee of women telegraphists and postmistresses to campaign for equal pay. They formed the Victorian Women s Post and Telegraph Association in 1900 in response to reluctance by the existing all-male union to admit women. Described as “a brilliant advocate,” Louisa argued the case. The women won a big increase, but not equal pay.
Louisa was a pioneer, and many followed in her footsteps. Muriel Heagney was renowned for her leadership of the Council of Action for Equal Pay and her union organising. She published Are Women Taking Men’s Jobs? during the depression to counter propaganda against the employment of women. Jessie Street was passionate about the right of women to economic independence. She took up the cause for the right to paid employment regardless of marital status. Top of her list was campaigning for equal pay and child endowment.
Kath Williams is another inspirational pioneer. A communist, unionist and fiercely independent woman, Kath was the driving force behind equal pay campaigns in the 1950s and 60s. She was the Secretary of Victorian Trades Hall Equal Pay Committee and an indefatigable campaigner, leading a team of activists who organised rallies, seminars, deputations and annual Equal Pay Week actions. In 1957, she presented an equal pay petition with 62,000 signatures on it to the Commonwealth government.
By the late 60s, many of the trade union women campaigning around equal pay were part of the grassroots women’ s liberation movement. Amongst them was Zelda D’Aprano. Zelda inspired other women to join her in the struggle by taking bold actions to demand equal pay.
It’s almost 130 years since Louisa Dunkley started her first job, and women still do not have equal pay. Women who work full-time earn on average 18% less than men who work full-time.
This is despite several important decisions including some “wins” along the way. The many court cases and rulings did not happen in a vacuum. In workplaces and on the streets, working class people, led by working women, were organising.
The 1902 Public Service Act actually allowed for equal pay. Yet discrimination was rife: married women were required to resign from the public service, a practice common in other industries, including teaching and banking. Appointments to administrative and clerical positions were closed to women.
A 1907 court ruling, known as the Harvester Judgement, entrenched unequal wages for decades. It established the male basic wage to keep a man, his wife and two children “in frugal comfort.” Women, despite the number of dependents they had, were to satisfy themselves with 54% of the male basic wage.
In 1928 a claim for equal pay by the Clothing Trades Union was rejected. In 1937 the ACTU conducted its first equal pay case. The result — women’s wages remained at 54%. This continued until World War 2 when the Women’ s Employment Board ruled that women in some vital industries would get 75% and others 100% of the male rate — but as a temporary measure only. As part of the 1950 Basic Wage Inquiry, the ACTU argued for equal pay. This was once again rejected, but the rate for women was increased to 75% of the male rate. In 1959 the NSW Teachers Federation fought and won equal pay for teachers in that state. Other states followed. A decade later, the ACTU conducted and won the famous case that established the principle of equal pay for equal work — it impacted just 18% of working women! December 15, 1972 was the day when finally equal pay for work of equal value was achieved. Or was it?
When it comes to what women actually get paid, there’s a fundamental problem with relying on the concept of equal value. The capitalist system does not value women’s work. This stems from women’ s role in the nuclear family, which remains the basic economic unit of capitalism. As Karl Marx explained, the value of labour power — which is the basis of wages — is the cost of both producing and reproducing it. But because the work of reproducing labour is confined to the private sphere, the home, it is not directly compensated.
Australia also has one of the most gender-segmented workforces in the world. Sixty- three percent of all employed women work in female-dominated occupations, and 65% of all employed men work in male-dominated occupations. The key structural reason why, despite pay technically being equal,” is that the work done by women is deemed to be of lesser value.
As a result, many groups of workers in female dominated industries have had to fight to address the gross under-valuing of their work, despite the 1972 ruling. Childcare workers and librarians are amongst those who have made the case that their work is under-valued, because it is seen as women’ s work. The 1986 Victorian nurse’ s strike saw workers stream out of hospitals and onto picket lines, loudly proclaiming, “dedication doesn’ t pay the rent!”
Following in the footsteps of all who have campaigned before them, community sector workers and federal public servants are currently running campaigns which, if successful, will reduce the gender pay gap.
The Australian Services Union (ASU) is conducting a campaign: Pay Up: No more lip service to equal pay. The ASU and other unions representing workers in the community sector are running an Equal Remuneration Case at Fair Work Australia (FWA) to address the woefully low rates of pay in this predominantly female sector. Workers have taken to the streets in several mass rallies and were enraged when the federal government’s submission asked FWA to consider the ability of the economy to pay, claiming that equal pay may not be affordable!
Federal public servants, through the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), are pushing for a sector-wide agreement to cover wages and core conditions in place of agency bargaining, which has led to massive pay gaps. The lowest paid agencies in the public service are those with a largely female workforce, and the lowest paid of all is Aboriginal Hostels Ltd. Last December the federal government kicked CPSU members in the teeth, just as it did with community sector unionists. It pulled the pin on a common public service agreement, unilaterally announcing that agency bargaining — and the lack of pay equality this system produced — will continue for another three years.
Over the last 130 years, workers have fought tenaciously for equal pay and achieved many wins along the way. Yet this battle is far from complete. Join the campaign to continue where Louisa, Muriel, Jessie, Kath, Zelda, the striking nurses and untold millions of others left off. Get behind Pay Justice Action! Help build the International Women’ s Day Equal Pay Rally, Tuesday 8 March, 5:30 pm, State Library, Melbourne.