Women’s Committees of the Waterside Workers’ Federation

Margo Beasley

I am currently researching the history of the women’s committees of the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia, funded by a scholarship ftom the SEARCH Foundation. With the exception of the Miners’ Federation auxiliaries, trade union women’s committees have been somewhat neglected by labour and feminist historians. The research shows that the WWF women’s committees were not merely ‘auxiliary’ to the union – in which role they were instrumental in the national waterftont disputes of the 1950s – but that they pursued specific women’s issues as well, particularly in conjunction with the Union of Australian Women. The WWF committees were active ftom 1952 until the early 1970s and were one of the few political or industrial avenues available to working class women who sought to broaden their personal contribution to the labour movement. Women have been visible, historically, in major conftontations between the WWF and employers, as well as behind the scenes in more traditional roles. There are parallels between the activities of the women’s committees and those of women involved in the current dispute hctween the MUA (formed in 1992 through the amalgamation of the Seamen’s Union and the WWF) and Patrick Stevedores, the Nationnl Farmers’ Federation and the government. Although women’s roles have changed a great deal since the 1950s, many of the issues remain the same: attacks on wharf labourers are also attacks on their families; tlllu waterfront disputes have ramifications for the entire labour movement. Women are engaged at both ends of the spectrum.