Betty Spears was born in Sydney in 1926, the daughter of Jack Spears, a railway guard, and his wife Mary. Her family were ALP supporters who assisted William McKell and Tommy Shannon in their campaigns.
Educated at St Brigid’s School, Marrickville, Betty began work aged 16 at the Department of Labour and Industry. In 1947 she took up a clerical job with the Bread Carters’ Union and joined the Federated Clerks’ Union. This was during the tumultuous years of battle between the Communists and the Groupers for control of the Clerks’ Union, which ultimately the Groupers won – and Betty was on the winning side. In 1954 Betty moved to the Vehicle Builders’ Union, where she worked as office manager while remaining an active member of the FCU until she retired in 1988. In 1954 she joined the Dulwich Hill Branch of the ALP and four years later was expelled from the Party for standing on a unity ticket in the FCU election. During her expulsion she nevertheless worked on the polling booths for the Party in both state and federal elections. At Geoff Cahill’s suggestion she rejoined the ALP in 1974 and for many years was a member of Clovelly Branch.
It was for her union activity and her fight for equal pay that Betty is best remembered. She was a long time delegate to FCU State and Federal Councils, a delegate to the NSW Labour Council 1959-86 and a delegate to the ACTU Congress from 1959-86. After holding the positions of FCU State Vice President 1959-71 and then becoming Deputy President in 1971 it is surprising that she did not become President. Perhaps it was the union’s culture that baulked at a female president, for although the membership was overwhelmingly female, the union executive was overwhelmingly male. In 1986 she was made a life member of the FCU, at the time one of only ten bestowed, and in 1988 she received a Labour Council Scroll of Honour.
Betty Spears was a quietly spoken woman, not given to overt displays of emotion, who efficiently executed her union role and unwaveringly pursued the cause of equal pay. In 1956 she first represented the FCU on the Equal Pay Committee of the NSW Labour Council, and around 1967 became secretary to the Committee. After the 1972 federal Equal Pay Case, the Committee spent some time considering whether to build on the decision by pursuing a political campaign or initiating proceedings in the NSW Industrial Commission. Labour Council president John Ducker and Betty sought Neville Wran’s opinion, and he said they had good grounds for a test case. In the end, the Committee began a political campaign to coincide with the case in the tribunal, and the success of these initiatives led to the Equal Pay Committee being disbanded. However, the battle wasn’t over, as pay anomalies and lack of equal opportunity remained.
The 1977 ACTU Congress resolved that each state labour council should set up a Working Women’s Charter Committee (WWCC). From 1978-84 Betty was the convener of the NSW WWCC which had ten members elected from sixty unions.
Betty Spears’ activities were not confined to the labour movement, although it consumed most of her energies. Betty strongly supported education for girls to enable them to succeed in life. In the 1960s, when she was a member of the St Brigid’s ex-students association, bursaries were set up to enable girls to continue on at school. In 1979 she served as president of the Business and Professional Women’s Sydney Club. She was awarded an OAM in 1979.
In 1984 the WWCC received grants from the federal and state Labor governments for a children’s long day care centre. June De Lorenzo, from the Bus Employees’ Union and Betty were instrumental in establishing the Betty Spears Child Care Centre at Tempe, near the bus depot. Initially providing 24 hour care, it became a long day care centre with 48 places. Betty understood the needs of working women who are also carers. She had cared for her invalid mother for 15 years and, without children herself, she understood the importance of child care for working women.
After her retirement in 1988 she lived a life of quiet enjoyment, playing golf and keeping up with her network of friends. She was involved with her local church, Mary Immaculate, as well as being secretary of the Waverley Historical Society from 1994-2006. She died in January 2012.
1961 FCU Central Council Meeting. L-R C Davies, Deputy President; P O’Toole, Secretary; J Macken, President; B Spears, Vice President; V Higgins, Assistant Secretary.
(Photo from Lynn Milne: The Clerks: Life and Work of the Federated Clerks Union in NSW, 1907-2003, United Services Union, Sydney, 2008, permission courtesy of Australian Services Union.