"We knew we had to have the support of migrant women, of the union, and of the community or we couldn't win", Robynne Murphy, from the Jobs for Women campaign (JFWC), told a September 11 forum organised by Green Left Weekly and the Socialist Alliance.
JFWC broke through the men-only employment policy of the "Big Australian" — BHP — and set an important precedent for jobs for women in traditional heavy industrial areas of the workforce.
JFWC, which was initiated by members of the Socialist Workers Party (now Democratic Socialist Perspective), began in Wollongong in 1980, to win employment for women at the BHP steelworks. In April of that year, a claim was put before the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board. By July, there were 50-60 women involved in the claim.
The campaign was long, with a final court settlement only being won in 1995. During the struggle, especially in the early years, the women organised pickets, a tent embassy outside the Port Kembla steelworks gates, circulated leaflets in six migrant languages and gained the support of the Federated Ironworkers Union and the majority of the male workers in the plant.
"It was an incredible experience, being applauded by so many men workers as they entered or left the site. We received 2000 signatures on our petition in one day during the campaign", Murphy said.
In 1986, 34 women won $1 million in an initial settlement. "We were reported on the front page of many of the newspapers around the country", Murphy said. JFWC then launched a class action for 800 women who had been unfairly denied jobs at BHP.
During the campaign, JFWC gained broad support from the union and labour movements locally and internationally, and from women's organisations around Australia. "The campaign is now studied in a number of university history and law courses", Murphy added.
"The lesson is that you must organise, whether within a union, or elsewhere, if you are going to win", Murphy said. The JFWC was a landmark case in the history of both the women's liberation and trade union movements, she pointed out.
"We need to learn its lessons for many of the struggles faced by women and workers today."