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What do we want? Equal Pay! When do we want it? Now!

By Liz Ross - posted Wednesday, 22 June 2011


Well, said one woman on getting the age pension – equal pay at last!

Before the days of the Age Pension, in the early 1900s, some women took somewhat more drastic action – dressing as men to get equal pay. In October 1906, the Victorian Socialist Party's paper The Socialist described the case of Marion (Bill) Edwards, who, they wrote "says she first donned male clothes to enable her to get a living easier than she could as one of the gentler sex."


The Socialistwent on to argue that the moral of the story was "equal pay for equal work and thorough training for both sexes, with economic freedom for all." And they – and the later Communist Party – were strong supporters of women's rights in all spheres.

But the equal pay battle, fortunately, wasn't left to these tactics. The late 1800's saw unions support women members in the fight for equal rights, including equal pay. The Shearers Union, while not having women members, supported equal rights for women, WG Spence writing that the new unionism "makes no distinction of sex."

Women postal workers had equal pay rates and the union resisted attempts to undercut this. Another union to entrench a uniform rate for women and men was the Liquor Trades Union during its amalgamation process in 1910, a gain the Australian Railways Union later tried to copy for its female workers in the railways restaurants, after it won coverage of the work in 1918.

1912 saw a bit more action with the Commercial Clerks' Wages Board granting equal pay (though it was reversed early in 1913 after an appeal by employers), fruit pickers also won a single rate for the job (Mildura decision) and the Labor Women's Convention of that year supported the campaign for Equal Pay led by the Victorian Lady Teachers Association. 1913 saw an Equal Pay Convention in Melbourne.

In the 1920s a Victorian Trades Hall Council report called for equal rates and twice during the decade the Clothing Trades union took cases for uniform minimum pay to the Arbitration Commission (now Fair Work Australia).

One union that I'll make special mention of now, is the Australian Insurance Staffs' Federation (AISF), which was founded in 1920 as part of the growth in white collar unionism following World War I. A special meeting of female members in 1927 affirmed the principle of equal pay for the sexes, which was then adopted by the Federal Executive as AISF policy.


In fact, there was such agitation in the1920s that one employer complained that "much is heard these days of equal pay for equal work," a concept he dismissed as an "abstract principle...which must often yield to considerations of practical convenience."

Between the wars the growing female workforce in teaching and clerical work, in particular, fuelled the push for equal pay.

A renewed push was kicked off at a union-based Equal Pay Conference held in Sydney on 22 May 1937. Convened by the NSW Branch of the Federated Clerks' Union (FCU), there were delegates from 53 trade unions, women's and other organisations. It was effectively the first "conscious equal pay movement in Australia."

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About the Author

Liz Ross is an activist and member of Socialist Alternative.

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