Jobs for women: Anatomy of a win

May 29, 2020
Unionist, Jobs for Women veteran and film- maker Robynne Murphy. Photo: Peter Boyle

Women of Steel
Produced and directed by Robynne Murphy
Screening on demand June 10-21
2020 Sydney Film Festival

You’ve probably heard “The Ballad of 1891” about the Queensland shearers’ strike. You can probably sing Kev Carmody’s “From Little Things Big Things Grow” about the Gurindji Walk Off at Wave Hill in 1961. Do you know about the general strike in 1969 that freed Clarrie O’Shea from prison? Or the late, great Jack Mundey and the Green Bans that saved swaths of Sydney from developers in the 1970s? Maybe you stood on the docks with the Maritime Union of Australia in 1998 and played your own part in union history.

But do you know the story of the Jobs for Women campaign at the Wollongong steelworks in the 1980s?  No? Come gather round people and hear tell of a battle, and a victory, that by rights should be known as a landmark in Australian labour history.

Women of Steel, produced and directed by retired steelworker Robynne Murphy and funded by donations from unions and unionists, was selected for the 2020 (online) Sydney Film Festival and is screening on demand from June 10–21. It documents a 12-year struggle by hundreds of mainly migrant unemployed women to get work at Australian Iron and Steel (BHP, now BlueScope Steel), then the biggest employer in the company town of Wollongong. And, most miraculously, their victory.

Filmmaker Murphy got her job at the steelworks through the campaign, and was a steelworker for 30 years. She moved to Wollongong in 1980 with a small group of members of the Socialist Workers Party (later Democratic Socialist party, now part of the Socialist Alliance) as part of the party’s “turn to industry” — a tactic to get members into heavy industry and union organising. The men in the group got jobs at AI&S almost immediately. Murphy and the three other women joined the thousands of local women on the “waiting list”.

During the 1940s and ’50s many Wollongong women had worked in BHP subsidiary Lysaghts, building munitions. Like women the world over, they were forced out of their jobs when men returned from World War II. Many were not happy and started to get organised. By the 1970s, there were feminists organising in the area, including a Working Women’s Charter Group campaigning for the rights of working-class women.

During the economic boom of the 1960s and ’70s migrants flocked to the town to labour at the steelworks. Many newly arrived women had worked in industry in their home countries and expected to get jobs at AI&S. They duly put their names down at the employment office. But it wasn’t until the women chained themselves to the gates, while a few snuck into the steelworks to investigate if they could do the work, that they received good media which led to AI&S being shamed into employing some women.

But these gains were lost within a year or two, and the women found that the only jobs available to them were in cleaning or canteen jobs. By the late ‘70s the company was back to their old tricks, saying there were “no jobs for women”.  Many women ended up unemployed or with insecure, underpaid piecework in the garment industry.

With female unemployment in Wollongong at 40% by 1980, women who needed to work were at the mercy of small employers. This meant appalling pay and conditions for outworkers, and sexual harassment and even rape by cockroach bosses drunk on their power to hire and fire.  It was one such case that provided the final spark for the Jobs for Women campaign.

The sleazy owner of a local chicken shop sexually harassed a series of young women working in his shop under threat of the sack. The Working Women’s Charter Group called a public meeting about the issue and its cause — the level of female unemployment in the town. The next day a group of women on the special “women’s list” at AI&S, including Murphy and her comrades, was driven up to Sydney and lodged a complaint with the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board.

To find out what happened next, you should watch this film.

In brief, the women fought for jobs for the next 12 years, by any and all means necessary. They established a tent embassy outside the steelworks (inspired by the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra); marched, sang and performed street theatre; with the fellow male workers and unionists from across the Illawarra, broke down the doors of the Australian parliament, fronted the mass media to bust myths about women’s capacity to lift 16 kilograms (“about the weight of an average 4-year old”), collared former New South Wales premier Neville Wran on the street about their right to Legal Aid, and fought a (legally aided) legal battle all the way to the High Court.

Green Left asked Robynne Murphy about why they were able to win support from male workers and male-dominated unions, who might have been expected to see them as a threat to “men’s jobs”. She said one factor was that unions in the Illawarra had a good track record of taking on political issues “from freedom for Nelson Mandela to Chile solidarity”. But the crucial ingredient was that Wollongong was home to a large migrant community for whom solidarity came naturally.

“Most of the men that worked at the steelworks then didn’t have English as a first language and they experienced discrimination from the company too,” she said. “When they saw women trying to get jobs, the reaction from the men in the workforce — from very early on – was fantastic. Even overwhelming.”

The willingness to use every tactic in the toolbox, she said, was because the campaign was controlled by the women who wanted jobs.

“The Jobs for Women Action Committee was made up only of women who wanted to work in the steelworks,” she said. “I think that was a really important decision. When you’ve got a bunch of women who want work, basically most of you are willing to do whatever it takes. That was the most amazing thing about the migrant women. Once they learned, in their own languages, that they were legally entitled to work, they got involved in everything. Meetings, demonstrations, everything.”

Hundreds of women won jobs and compensation through the Jobs for Women campaign, but it has a broader legacy.

“I guess I didn’t realise for quite a while just how significant the campaign was,” Murphy said. “You didn’t see it immediately, but reflecting back on it now, I know it did change things for women. I see women driving heavy machinery now and I think, ‘oh!’”

[Women of Steel is screening on demand from June 10–21 as part of the 2020 Sydney Film Festival.]

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