The Wollongong Jobs for Women Campaign

A group of people posing for a photo

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Jobs for Women activists on their way from Wollongong to Sydney
for the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal court case
Photograph courtesy of Robynne Murphy

The Wollongong Jobs for Women Campaign*

A background piece by Fran Hayes

The Jobs for Women campaign, faithfully captured in the recently launched film Women of Steel, began in the 1980s.

The campaign’s objective was to get working class, mainly migrant, women into mainstream jobs in the BHP steelworks in Port Kembla NSW. Job options for these women in Wollongong were severely limited. They could do clothing outwork, which was financially insecure and physically hazardous, or they could travel hours to and from Sydney each day for factory work.

By the early ‘80s, women had been seeking employment at the steelworks for some time. BHP’s separate lists for male and female applicants for jobs showed blatant sex discrimination, with 47 male applicants and 2,000 women applicants on the respective lists. The average waiting period was two and a half months for men but up to seven years for women.

The campaign consisted of practical actions such as marches and media interviews, setting up a Jobs for Women ‘tent embassy’ which formed the focal point for the local campaign, and legal strategies using the anti-discrimination legislation available at that time.

The Jobs for Women Campaign took its first step for legal redress for BHP’s discriminatory hiring practices when in 1980a group of women complained under the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (the ADA) that the company had failed to hire them because they were women. After a long period of conciliation, the company agreed to hire the complainants as well as over 150 other women.

The women employed showed they were physically capable of doing the full range of jobs at the steelworks and relished the reward of a fair and regular pay packet. Unfortunately, many were subjected to extreme bullying and harassment by male workers at the steelworks.
However, no sooner had women gained a foothold in the steelworks than, in 1982, the Australian steel industry suffered a major downturn. BHP laid off several hundred workers, applying the time-honoured last on, first offprinciple. Many of the women were retrenched.

In 1984 the women filed further complaints under the ADA, alleging the retrenchments to be themselves the result of earlier discrimination. The women argued that if they had not been subject to the original discrimination but had been hired at the time that they applied for jobs, they would not have been retrenched.

The Equal Opportunity Tribunal found in favour of the women and subsequently awarded over $1 million to the complainants, with several individual awards reaching the maximum of $40,000. The company then took the case to the Court of Appeal and having failed there, to the High Court. In December 1989, the High Court dismissed the company’s appeal.

This was a landmark Australian case in the legal interpretation of the concept of indirect discrimination. In 1994 the last of the 709 individual claims was settled.

As the women’s claims progressed through the legal processes, something remarkable was happening in Sydney. The Federated Ironworkers’ Association (FIA) was the union that covered workers at the steelworks. The South Coast Branch of the FIA gave the women great support. But when the Equal Opportunity Tribunal upheld the women’s indirect discrimination complaint regarding the discriminatory impact of the ‘last on, first off’ principle, when combined with long delays in hiring the women, there was an outcry from the FIA Head Office and other unions in Sydney, who saw the decision as an attack on time-honoured union principles.

The right-wing unions did not want another tribunal (the Equal Opportunity Tribunal) having jurisdiction over industrial/employment matters, which they considered the province of unions and the NSW Industrial Commission.

There followed a concerted effort by the Labor Council of NSW to have the employment jurisdiction of the ADA removed, leaving industrial/employment matters to be dealt with only by the NSW Industrial Commission.

In November 1985 a right-wing stacked meeting of Labor Council affiliates passed a resolution to this effect. This resolution was then passed by Labor Council. Amazingly, the same resolution was passed at the 1986 Labor Party State Conference – and suddenly we had a State Labor government with a policy to extinguish the employment jurisdiction of the ADA.

This meant that NSW workers would be deprived of a remedy for workplace discrimination, even when specialist anti-discrimination expertise may be more appropriate than an industrial tribunal to the matters in dispute.

To union and political activists of today, it might seem unbelievable that the plan to gut the employment jurisdiction of the ADA could have progressed so quickly and seamlessly from union to Labor Council to the Labor Party. But that is how things were done back then. Union factions played hard to get their positions adopted, and were then in a strong position to influence ALP policy.

Today, it may be difficult for some to see why the right-wing unions in Sydney fought so hard to deny access to a specialist anti-discrimination tribunal to NSW women workers experiencing discrimination at work. One of their concerns was their unfamiliarity with the workings of the anti-discrimination tribunal, as compared to those of the Industrial Commission, where they felt more comfortable. Another was a view that the anti-discrimination body was run by union-bashing feminists. (They had been very disturbed by a recent article by a feminist academic which was critical of the lack of support provided by unions to their members in a number of high-profile discrimination cases.) Mainly, however, they were concerned with losing exclusive control of all industrial matters affecting their members.

The Campaign Against Discrimination (CAD)

Once Labor Party feminists and other feminist activists discovered the plans to amend the ADA, they quickly formed a group called Campaign Against Discrimination (CAD). The group prepared a leaflet outlining the issues and the danger our State anti-discrimination system was facing and distributed it widely throughout NSW unions and women’s organisations.

The policy was quietly dropped by the Labor Government, and it was never implemented. It appears CAD had achieved its goal.

The dispute over the ADA had its roots some years earlier within the NSW Labor Council. As white-collar women unionists (mainly from the Left) began filtering into Labor Council from the late 1970s, older male union officials (mainly from the Right) felt distinctly uncomfortable. This uneasy relationship ruptured entirely in March 1983 when the Left women, who had been calling for a speaker from the Anti-Discrimination Board to be allowed to address Labor Council, were told firmly by Labor Council Secretary Barry Unsworth that this would not happen. To add insult to injury, he then added that the following week the Council would be addressed by the Building Trades Group entrant in the Miss Australia Quest. This led to loud hissing and booing from the women and Barry’s response to them (emblazoned across the next day’s papers) was that they would be ‘no competition’ in the Miss Australia Quest.

The ensuing walkout by the women was the first open declaration of the important schism over women’s employment rights. The next day a meeting of Left women was called and the Left Women in Trade Unions Caucus was formed. This was essentially the core of the later Campaign Against Discrimination grouping. Signatories to the leaflet they handed out at the next Labor Council meeting included the Social Welfare Workers’ Union, the Administrative and Clerical Officers’ Association (federal public servants), University Academics, College Academics, NSW Teachers’ Federation, Actors’ Equity, Maritime Services Board Union, Independent Teachers and the Nurses Association.

There could be no doubt that the Labor Council saw the Anti-Discrimination Board as a feminist outpost, supported by white-collar union feminists.

Employment remains a significant area of discrimination dealt with under the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act.

* This article is © Fran Hayes 2021.

Fran Hayes has spent her working life in the Australian union movement and in public sector policy roles related mainly to women’s employment issues. Since 1996, she has also run a consultancy, Fran Hayes Workplace Solutions, providing services to clients from unions to corporations. Fran has been continuously active since 1983 in women’s community organisations, including the Women’s Employment Action Campaign, the National Pay Equity Coalition, the Sydney Feminist Collective and the Coalition for Women’s Refuges. She was an active member of the Campaign Against Discrimination in 1986.