The inside story of a successful, but difficult, 14-year campaign to force BHP to hire women is nearing completion after 3 years. But the Women of Steel film needs your help to get to the finishing line.
Robynne Murphy, director and producer, was one of the many women who took on the Big Australian from 1980–1994. A steel worker for 30 years, Murphy told Green Left Weekly the film “documents the inspiring, true story of women who battled Australia’s richest company for the right to equality in the workplace”.
“Denied work at the steelworks, Wollongong’s major employer at the time, women faced either exploitation in backyard sweatshops, or having to make the pre-dawn trek to Sydney every day in the hope of finding work.
“It took a local shop keeper’s cruel sexual exploitation of young women’s desperate situation to spark a rebellion which became the battle known as ‘Jobs for Women’.”
The company hit back: it pitted male steelworkers against the women, including any of their wives who joined the campaign. They also campaigned against the campaign leaders, describing them as “union agitators”.
Murphy, a long-time socialist, said the attempts to label and undermine the campaign were unsuccessful because the activists worked together democratically and the campaign brought in more and more allies.
The Jobs for Women campaign was relentless: it included direct action at the Port Kembla steelworks, setting up a tent embassy — an alternative employment office — outside the factory gates and appealing to the High Court of Australia.
The campaigners forced the courts to test anti-discrimination laws. “BHP had bottomless pockets for its legal defence, while we had to struggle even to access the most basic legal aid,” Murphy said.
Ultimately, the working-class and migrant women won with the help of significant allies.
“This is an inspiring story, rich in humour and rebellion,” Murphy said. “It shows how solidarity can not only overcome the biggest hurdles, but that it can change the world.”
The documentary has gathered support from leading activists then and now — former MP Jennie George, historian Ann Curthoys and ACTU Secretary Sally McManus.
Unions and individuals have donated just over $100,000 to get it to the “rough cut” stage. But it needs to secure a final $60,000 to finish. Veteran filmmaker Martha Ansara, composer Jan Preston, editor Phil Crawford, historian Graham Shirley and sound/picture mixer Michael Gissing have joined the post-production team.
“Women of Steel will tell the stories of the women who helped shape anti-discrimination law in this country. It will be the first time they tell their own stories on film.
“It will demonstrate how, through persistence and sticking together, we can overcome injustice,” Murphy said. You can help by making a donation, big or small.
[The Women of Steel promo can be viewed here. For further information visit the website, Facebook or email email@example.com. All donors will join the film's Wall of Struggle on its website.]