Claire Williams, Blue, White and Pink Collar workers in Australia: Technicians, Bank Employees and Flight Attendants, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 1988

Meredith Burgmann

In Blue White and Pink Collar Workers Claire Williams has continued her microsociological analysis of the Australian working class with wit and perceptions. She looks at the membership of three unions, the Australian Telecommunications Employees’ Association (ATEA), the Australian Flight Attendants Association (AFAA) and the Australian Bank Employees’ Union (ABET). The observations she makes about gender and class are irrefutable but have generally never been accepted by the macho mythology of the trade union movement. This mythology encompasses the belief (crudely put) that real work is blue collar work and, because “womens’ work is mainly white collar, women aren’t real workers”. Williams argues that young women in banks “have proletarian and not non-manual status.” Women non-manual workers were usually paid far less than male skilled manual workers and never had access to a career structure “yet this ‘class’ outcome of ‘gender’ was never considered seriously until very recently.” Unfortunately the organised trade union movement has still not absorbed the fact of women’s non manual but proletarian status. After the September Congress the ACTU hierarchy will consist entirely of blue collar males. (President, 6 Vice Presidents, Secretary, 3 Assistant Secretaries). However it is when Williams moves on to examine the flight attendants that I enjoy her insights most. She analyses the hostesses’ role as “a highly visible distillation of middle class notions of femininity. They symbolise woman. They are expected to enact two leading conceptions of womanhood: the loving wife and mother ‘(serving food, tending to the needs of others) and the glamorous “career woman” (dressed to be seen, in contact with strange men, professional and controlled in manner) and literally very far from home.'” Referring to Reg Ansett’s famous remark that the union leadership was “a batch of old boilers” Williams points out that “Ansett chose the language of ageism which … is closely linked to sexism… Obviously such a play would be meaningless if used against a male union leader but it highlights the importance of feminist ideology as an oppositional ideology in the context of unions with a predominantly female membership.” Williams reaches a number of interesting conclusions, one of which is that, in preparedness to take strike action, women are more like bank men than like flight attendant women. That is, “the social location of the people and their ideological predisposition are more important than their gender.” Her more general conclusion is that the militancy which her three target unions manifested arose because, with the exception of bank managers in the ABEU and junior managers in ATEA they all had proletarian features and that class, sometimes mediated by gender was implicated in this militancy.