The fight for workplace rights and wage justice for Australian women has been a long and continuing one. With many industries suffering labour shortages during World War 2 new opportunities arose for women to not only increase their involvement in paid employment but to also push for greater parity with men. Then, as now, this required sustained and canny organising to achieve.
Where improved pay was won it often demanded defending in the post-war era. Ultimately such fights needed to be connected, and were, with a broader nation-wide push for equality.
The following article, a book excerpt from Knocking The Top Off: A People’s History of Alcohol in Australia, chronicles how two organisers within the Liquor Trades Union, Jean Young and Kath Williams, successfully led struggles for the rights of their members and for women at large.
In April 1941 20 unionists at the Hotel Alexandra walked off the job after their employer J. Richardson refused to address a lack of facilities for women staff to rest, bathe and change. Waitresses, who were required to wear uniforms, had long been forced to change into them in a hallway outside a men’s toilet. In demanding improvements, the workers carried out the first official hotel strike in Victoria.
After a fortnight the dispute escalated and the Liquor Trades Union (LTU) threatened to pull out the Alexandra’s other 70 staff. Pressure was further ratcheted up after stink bombs were set off in the hotel’s bars and dining room. The day after these sent patrons running, management relented and agreed to put in the necessary facilities. Subsequent refusals to re-employ strikers led to a boycott of a number of hotels, wine saloons, caterers, and bottle shops owned by the Richardson family.
Central to the campaign’s success were the efforts of LTU organizer Jean Young, who was no stranger to militant or ground-breaking activity. According to an account of her life written by union historian Alleyn Best, she emigrated from Scotland in 1927 under a migrant scheme that required her to work for two years as a domestic servant. Following that she was employed at the Esplanade Hotel. Involvement in supporting the bitter timber workers strike of 1929 led to her being threatened with deportation.
Young subsequently joined the CPA and sold its Working Woman newspaper on the streets, outside factories, and by going door to door. As an activist within the Unemployed Workers Movement’s Womens Committee she spoke at numerous meetings and rallies during the 1930s. She also helped organise Melbourne’s first International Women’s Day rally in 1931 and worked as a paid CPA functionary for a time. Her connections with the party, combined with employment as a bar attendant in the Victoria Palace and Australia hotels, led her to join a rank and file reform team within the LTU. This union covered a number of fields related to hospitality work and alcohol production, and Young became its first elected female organiser in 1938.
Empowered by the union’s newly elected left-wing leadership, Young played a key role in recruiting members and organising amongst long neglected restaurant, café and boarding house workers. In this she was assisted by other women unionists, including her former co-worker at the Australia Hotel, Lorrie Shore, and Susan McComb, who in 1937 became the first woman elected to the LTU’s management committee. Employer resistance to the unionisation of canteens within department stores was broken and gains at the likes of Myer generalized to other eateries.
Such success enabled Young to overcome internal union resistance to her organising in pubs, which the leadership had previously not considered ‘suitable places for a woman to enter.’ Long running temperance activism had curtailed the number of women employed as bar staff in Victorian pubs, but some still remained. In Barmaids: A History of Women’s Work in Pubs historian Diane Kirkby states that ‘between 1902 and 1908 all the Australian states introduced legislation limiting or restricting employment, and by 1916 two states and New Zealand had succeeded in passing prohibitory laws.’ Ranked among the latter, Victoria dictated in 1916 that only those women already working in the industry could continue to do so. This was not as strict as in South Australia, where women were banned altogether, but attrition saw numbers drop steadily over the following decades.
In addition to clearing obstacles to her own work, Young persuaded the union to reduce union fees for female employees in 1940, on the basis that they were paid roughly 40% less than men. She also convinced the LTU to adopt a ‘militant and progressive policy for equal pay for the sexes.’
This was the context in which the 1941 Hotel Alexandra strike took place. Such effective militancy could lead to obstacles. Young’s role in firstly recruiting workers at the hotel, and then organizing the strike, reportedly led the Victorian Minister for Labour to prevent her renomination to the state’s Hotel and Restaurant Board.
The recruitment and conscription of men to fight in World War Two opened new employment opportunities for women to work in pubs, as well as to be paid equally. Faced with major labour shortages Licensed Victualler Associations (LVAs) in South Australia and Victoria lobbied governments to change the rules regarding female eligibility. The LTU agreed to support this but only if the LVAs also guaranteed to pay women the same as men. Its position was undoubtedly influenced by Young and other women’s activism, but also reflected a desire to preserve male wage rates.
Western Australia was the only state at this time in which all bar attendants were paid equally. Seemingly progressive on the surface, its introduction in 1911 was guided by other motivations. Kirkby observes that the ‘award specifically stated that it was an undesirable occupation for women and that they had been granted equal pay in the hope they would be forced out of the industry.’
Despite this precedent it took decades, and the exigencies of war, to achieve equal pay elsewhere. Following some stalling, and a failed attempt to keep wages down via the arbitration courts, employers in Victoria and South Australia agreed to concede equal pay as well as shorter working hours. With wartime regulations giving the federal government the power to overrule state governments, SA opted not to challenge the lifting of the ban. It did succeed however in limiting the age of female bar staff to over 30. Under pressure from the Anti-Liquor Alliance the Victorian government delayed change for a time before eventually settling on a hiring age of 35.
Lacking the leverage of unions in South Australia and Victoria, workers in states which had never placed strict restrictions on women’s bar work were unable to achieve wage justice at this time but did improve pay differentials. Most other alcohol related jobs similarly saw inequality continue, although women in Victorian distilleries did win equal pay in 1944.
Achieving wage equality for bar staff in Victoria took more than a year of negotiations. While Young got to witness this victory in 1943, she did not play a direct role in its conclusion. Burnt out from decades of activism, her health declined and she resigned from the union in mid-1942. She continued her involvement in the CPA but core activism on the question of women’s working rights fell to others.
Among these was Kath Williams, another communist, who was elected as a full time LTU organiser in 1948. In Kath William: The Unions and the Fight for Equal Pay biographer Zelda D’Aprano describes the conditions and nature of William’s work:
[She] commenced work on a very low salary. She was expected to ‘bring in her own wages’, which meant walking from one hotel to another, going from restaurant to restaurant and also being responsible for canteens. Her job entailed recruiting staff into the union, collecting dues, listening to the members and taking up the issues which concerned them. She was on her feet all day and constantly dealing with difficult employers reluctant to negotiate or agree to a settlement of disputes.
Williams focused on organising the most exploited workers within the industries the LTU covered. She set up the first meeting of café and restaurant workers since Young had retired and helped lift recruitment from 50 new members a month to 500 a month by 1949. To maintain membership in a high turnover industry she also established a strong system of shop stewards.
Her appointment came at a time when the equality of pay mandated by wartime regulations was being steadily wound back across Australia. As D’Aprano argues:
It was taken for granted that pay justice for women was a burden on the economy; thus women were condemned to go on being financially dependent on men and to subsidising the economy both by their cheap labour in the workforce and by running their homes for their men in the workforce.
Pushing back against prevailing trends, the LTU put a claim before the Federal Arbitration Court calling for conditions to be maintained in SA and Victoria and equal pay to be introduced elsewhere. According to Best, when the commission instead moved in 1949 to wind women’s wages back to 75 per cent of male bar attendants’ it inexplicably left Victoria out. This was welcomed by workers in that state but opposed by local temperance advocates, who wanted women to be phased out of pubs once more via the re-introduction of former restrictions. Licensees were happy to keep employing women but wanted low-wage parity with their interstate peers.
An attempt by publicans to overturn the decision in the courts was met by a determined campaign. When an appeal reached the Arbitration Court in December 1949 a stop work action involving 400 women, roughly 80 per cent of the state’s female bar staff, was held. The action drew support from the Seamen’s Union, whose secretary Bill Bird stated his members were angry at the prospect of ‘hard working women’ losing their jobs and pay. Maritime unions promised to put a ban on malt supplies should dismissals occur while the LTU itself warned of major disruption in the industry. By the next year the commission’s original decision was upheld and agreement reached between unions and employers to protect equal pay and women’s access to bar work in Victoria.
D’Aprano argues that Williams was deeply influenced by her close contact with arbitration courts and wage boards during this period. Off the back of major reversals for most women she saw that making the principle of wage justice a national standard would require ‘massive support from the ACTU, professional associations, all Trade Union Labor Councils, the trade unions and the support of women all over Australia.’
This would clearly be a long-term undertaking and became one that Williams committed herself to within and beyond the LTU. Her efforts in building support across various industries led to her being elected organising secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council’s Equal Pay committee upon its formation in 1955. Along with other female unionists, and progressives in organisations such as the Union of Australian Women, she took part in numerous Victorian and national campaigns and events over the next twelve years. While change was often incremental these activities kept the issue of discrimination in the public spotlight via rallies, petitions, leaflets, reports, conferences, debates, deputations, appearances before industrial boards, and other means.
Aged 72, Williams retired from her LTU organiser role in 1967. In the context of rising industrial militancy and changing social mores, her work, and that of a multitude of others, began to finally breakthrough in the years that followed closely after. Nationally LTU members had long kept the issue of wage justice alive in their sector. Following stop-work meetings and a coordinated July 1967 hotel strike in four states, the federal Arbitration Commission included equal pay for female bar staff in the January 1968 Hotel Award.
In the same year the ACTU and the meatworkers union lead by George Seelaf (see elsewhere in this book), began pursuing what Williams and others had long advocated, an equal pay case before the federal Arbitration Commission to cover all women in the country. The court ruled in favour of ‘equal pay for equal work’ in 1969 but this was strictly defined and only covered the minority of women whose roles matched their male counterparts’ in every way. Further campaigning in workplaces, courts, and the streets was required for the commission to adopt the principle of ‘equal pay for work of equal value’ in 1972. Since then workers and unions have had to continually fight for this to be applied correctly and campaigns continue to seek wage justice through the lifting of pay and conditions in heavily feminised industries.
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Knocking The Top Off: A People’s History of Alcohol in Australia features 67 chapters and numerous illustrations, providing an alternative history of Australian activism, culture and society from the bottom up. It includes contributions from Wendy Bacon, Gary Foley, Jeff Sparrow, Maggie Brady, Rowan Cahill, Bruce Carter, Carol Corless, Daniel A. Elias, David Nichols, Alex Ettling, Diane Kirkby, Tanja Luckins, Alison Holland, Terry Irving, Phoebe Kelloway, Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Chris McConville, Michael Quinlan, Iain McIntyre, Lisa Milner, Nick Southall, Janey Stone and Graham Willett.