Women take on BHP and win — a feminist herstory that needs telling

Four of the campaign leaders, Diana Covell, Lou-anne Barker, Louise Casson and Robynne Murphy, in front of the steelworks.

Below is an abridged version of a speech delivered by socialist unionist Robynne Murphy to this year’s ACTU Congress. Murphy spoke alongside three women from the Electrical Trades Union, who had formed the “Sparkettes”, a network to support other women in their union.

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I worked at the steelworks in Port Kembla for 30 years, during which time I was involved in a long campaign with mainly migrant women for the right for women to have secure and well-paid jobs.

We took on BHP and won jobs for women. I’m now a retired Australian Workers Union (AWU) member, and I'm making a film about the campaign which has become an important part of our shared feminist history.

To understand the campaign, I have to take you back to Wollongong in the 1980s.

Two-thirds of young women were unemployed, others survived on piece work — sewing in backyard “factories” with no union protection and shitty conditions. They were paid by the garment and had no sick or annual leave and certainly superannuation.

They had to deal with high levels of sexual harassment from their bosses. Some even had to catch a bus to Sydney each day and then get home in time to start their second, unpaid, job — in the home. Women also bore the brunt of the high unemployment at that time.

We had had enough and decided that if things were going to change for women, the main employer in Port Kembla, BHP, had to take on women workers, because they were telling us "there are no jobs for women".

We wanted to use new anti-discrimination law, which had never been tested, in a class action. We were not naïve, however, and we took the law with a grain of salt. We knew we would need to get broader community support if we were to have a hope of testing the law and winning.

When we started our campaign for the right to work in “industrial” — or male — jobs, we had no idea that it would take so long. We had no idea there would be so many hurdles or that, eventually, our campaign would have such a far-reaching influence both legally and socially.

It was a simple ask: we wanted the right to work, decent pay and good union conditions.

That simple ask is one working people still aspire to today.

Long battle

What unfolded was a 14.5 year battle against BHP, the biggest company in Australia at the time.

It was a battle that changed the face of industrial work for women. It also changed occupational health and safety legislation for both men and women.

We used untested anti-discrimination laws, both direct and indirect discrimination, and our case was the first successful class or representative case to be run in Australia. The judges' ruling in this case likened it to the famous 1907 Harvester Family Wage Case, and the first Equal Pay Case of 1972.

BHP had more than 2000 applications from mostly migrant women who were looking for a secure job and better life. Those applications were put aside, gathering dust. Women waited up to 10 years for a job, while men only had to wait a few weeks.

A big challenge was to ensure that all the women, who spoke at least seven different languages, could equally participate in the campaign. So we campaigned for interpreters and they were at every meeting.

We were also acutely aware that the AWU was led by male officials and represented a membership that was nearly 100% male. We didn’t know what would happen if we asked them for help, but we knew we needed their support

We had a special weapon: the Working Women's Charter Group, an ACTU initiative of the 1980s that included experienced union women who advised us on tactics. Faye Campbell, who features in our pilot film, was the AWU organiser.

So a group of unemployed women rocked up to a meeting with the union they hoped they would be in when they got jobs at the steelworks — the Federated Ironworkers' Association of Australia (FIAA), now the AWU.

Our reasoning was that to fight BHP, we would need all the help we could get. And we didn’t want to fight for jobs at the steelworks if the union did not support us. Imagine going into the steelworks and being faced with union hostility.

That meeting led to an ongoing relationship with the FIAA/AWU, which continued through all the negotiations with BHP, the court hearing and special meetings of women members.

The Port Kembla branch not only defended our right to work when retrenchments came around, but the officials spoke out publicly against dividing the workforce. I commend Nando Lelli, who spoke at a 10,000 strong meeting in our defence. He said, there is only one kind of union membership and it has nothing to do with marriage. This was a first for a male-dominated trade union movement.

Anti-discrimination laws

During the first conciliation discussions, before the court hearing, BHP argued it was complying with the NSW Shops and Factories Act, an archaic law dating to before World War I supposedly to protect women's childbearing ability. It stated that women and children could not lift more than 16 kilograms. In fact, this law was discriminatory as well. But BHP hid behind this legislation.

The Anti-Discrimination Board (ADB) commissioned an independent report that looked at all the weight-restricted jobs at the steelwork. Its findings were damning.

The report revealed BHP had nothing in writing about which jobs were weight restricted and which were not. Not only that, the ADB exposed the sexist nature of BHP management in court, including some of its internal surveys which included such statements as: “She has an aversion to the men”; “Her hair won’t fit under a hard hat”; and “Men can’t swear”.

Our campaign exposed the discriminatory nature of this archaic legislation and paved the way for a new form of legislation — the manual handling code.

It has always been clear to us that our victory was a victory for the trade union movement as a whole. It was also a victory for the women's movement, the migrant community and progressive organisations everywhere.

Today, as our rights on the job and at home continue to be eroded and attacked we want this film to show the power of collective solidarity, which can and will win if we stick together and are prepared for a long fight.

We've made the bulk of the film on a shoestring budget. It comprises interviews, home videos and stories from the activists in the campaign; re-enactments; and archival footage from 1980–94. We need your help to finish the film.

We have been assisted in this work with a few great donations from the AWU, the NSW Teacher's Federation, and the Victorian Australian Services Union and Victorian Trades Hall Women's Committee.

Now, we need a little more help to get our story onto the big screen and get your union's name on our wall of struggle, into the credits and have your special union premiere.

[Go to our website for more information or contact us on our Facebook page.