The working-class women who beat the Big Australian

June 19, 2015

Author Carla Gorton at the Cairns launch of the book and associated film project. Photo:

Women of Steel: Gender, jobs & justice at BHP
Carla Gorton & Pat Brewer
Resistance Books, Sydney
$10 paperback, 73 pages

This book is a fascinating and inspiring summary of the “Jobs for Women” campaign. Initiated by a small group of socialist feminists and migrant working class women in Wollongong in 1980, the campaign that raged for 14 years eventually beat BHP, the largest company in Australia at that time.

BHP mobilised huge resources to try to delay and overturn the women’s victories. They forced BHP and its subsidiary AIS to hire them and allow access to steelworks jobs for other women. By 1994, they had even forced the “Big Australian” to pay compensation for not hiring them for so many years.

The compensation amounted to $1.4 million to the original complainants and smaller amounts to a further 709 women. The total estimated costs to BHP were $4-9 million.

The women’s victories had immediate implications not only for BHP’s operations in Wollongong and Newcastle, but for all industries and businesses in Australia.

The landmark victory was won by making alliances between unions, local migrant communities, the women’s movement and sections of the ALP. It also made astute use of the law.

In this account, a precise Marxist analysis, the voices of the women at the heart of the struggle speak directly to readers about why and how they struggled so hard and against such large odds to win justice.

Between 1980 and 1989, 34 mostly migrant unemployed women lodged complaints with the Anti-Discrimination Board over BHP’s persistent failure to employ women at its Port Kembla steelworks. At the time, the steelworks were the major employer in Wollongong.

It was also the only place in Wollongong where men and women could get the same pay for doing the same job.

Wollongong was also a town with an unusually small proportion of jobs available for women. Of the roughly 20,000 people working at BHP, between 1977 and 1980 only 58 of them were women. AIS kept two separate lists of job applicants based on gender.

Between June 1977 and September 1981, there were only 47 men on the waiting lists and they were usually employed within two to three weeks of applying. In the same period, there were about 2000 names of women seeking jobs.

Most were never employed, and those few who were waited about two years for a job. One woman applicant dated back to 1972, while the longest wait by a man for a job in the same period was ten weeks.

Wollongong is a town with a powerful labour history. A successful campaign to get BHP to employ women was won by feminists in 1973. But the campaigners had not approached unions for support, and waged the campaign on behalf of other women rather than for themselves. This meant, when the next economic downturn hit in 1976, BHP was able to either push most of the women employed to resign by transferring them to the coke ovens (BHP’s cancer pit), or else retrench them without generating an outcry.

The Jobs for Women case became a landmark in Australian legal history. It not only won a representative action, but tested untried provisions in new anti-discrimination law that refer to indirect discrimination.

As the first case to get a ruling on indirect discrimination, it forced all Australian companies to re-examine their retrenchment, superannuation and other employment benefits policies to see if they had been skewed by past discriminatory practices.

The victory required a hard, protracted battle that relied as much on ongoing collective political action as on anti-discrimination laws.

It was initiated by, involved, and led by working-class and migrant women whose first language was not English. It built alliances between different oppressed groups, and these were key factors in the success of the campaign.

The women campaigned for nine years to win support from the community and steelworkers with a tent embassy to get steelworkers to sign petitions, street marches, media coverage and community education work. They won support from the Federated Ironworkers Union, the South Coast Labour Council, and many other unions. The combination of assistance from experienced trade union women and support from the FIA was central to the campaign.

The FIA’s support from the start was crucial to win jobs and then maintain them during the huge retrenchments of 1982. It was unprecedented that a big steelworkers’ union would take action on behalf of a group of unemployed women outside the union. It stopped BHP from repeating its tactic of divide and rule that succeeded in 1976.

Wollongong was central to the huge immigration programs instigated by Australian governments to encourage post-war development. BHP’s constant drive to cut labour costs meant it sought cheap, dispensable and often unskilled migrant labour.

By the 1980s, half the population of Wollongong was born outside Australia or had parents born overseas. More than 70 languages were spoken in the steelworks.

The difficulties this caused led to the first migrant resource centre in Australia being opened in Wollongong in August 1980. This centre became a great source of support for the Jobs For Women campaign.

The campaign also had a positive effect on the women’s liberation movement. It showed there was no universal template of what it means for women to experience disadvantage and oppression. It showed that women with different priorities, needs and goals could win their demands through collective, united struggle.

AIS started to employ more women, but refused to hire the complainants. As negotiations went on behind closed doors, public campaigning continued with pickets and a protest march.

BHP bowed to pressure, hiring all the complainants by February 1981. More than 300 women gained jobs as a result of the campaign before AIS closed its books in September 1981 and began a program of massive retrenchments. This slashed the work force from more than 20,000 workers to just 6000 in 1996.

Women lost jobs due to the “last hired, first fired” rule. The campaign then switched to demanding compensation from BHP for the wages and seniority the women had lost due to BHP's refusal to hire them when they first applied.

The amount would be based on the wages each woman would have been paid from the point of applying for a job at BHP to the point when they were actually hired, calculated from when the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act was passed in June 1977.

The women also wanted to establish that this ruling would apply to every woman in Wollongong who had applied for jobs at AIS. This formed the basis for a representative case that established a legal precedent for women who had gained jobs in other non-traditionally female industries.

As a woman steel worker says: “None of us with any money, and we applied for legal aid. We applied five times and we were denied each time … This went on for 14 months. We had to have a campaign on the right to have legal aid.”

As well as individual complaints, the women continued to pursue representative action, as Australian law at the time had no “class action” provisions.

The process revealed the deficiencies in the Australian legal system, such as inadequate translations of language and the legal processes.

The women overcame the barriers put before them by organising as a group. This let them discuss and learn from their experiences and support each other.

It was the women’s political action to force the anti-discrimination law to be implemented that was critical, along with the alliances they created.

A woman steel worker said: “When someone has a go at BHP, dares to bite the toe of BHP, you can see this little rippling effect throughout the whole town. People responded. Of course a lot of people said, 'Oh, I don’t know about these women’s libbers, but they’re having a go and that’s all right.'

“But when we took a bite of the toe and then grabbed the whole bloody leg, everyone sat back and realised we were absolutely serious with this campaign. And we’ve won a lot of respect in Wollongong because of that.”

Changes were made to state and federal anti-discrimination legislation as a result of the Jobs for Women campaign, which is still the leading Australian case on indirect discrimination.

It clearly established that industrial relations practices could and did discriminate on the basis of existing employment awards and registered industrial agreements.

It led to the adoption in 1992 of a federal law to enable class actions instead of just representative actions.

In the two decades since this landmark victory, Australia's political environment has become more difficult. The gap between rich and poor has widened, public services have been privatised or cut to the bone, and trade unions have been attacked by neoliberal governments. Union membership had declined to 17% by 2013.

The organised feminist movement has also declined. There has been a shift in feminist theory to an emphasis on individual choices. This makes individuals responsible for their achievements and blamed for the structural barriers that hold them back, based on class, gender, race or ethnicity.

However, the need to campaign for the rights of women and working people is now more urgent.

A woman steelworker says in the book: “You have to be prepared to really fight, to put your shoulder to the wall and push and push, and that’s exactly what we’ve had to do. Practically every minute of that nine years has been pushing.”

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