THE HON TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION
SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
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2014 ACTU NATIONAL WOMEN’S CONFERENCE
THURSDAY, 21 AUGUST 2014
I want to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, and pay my respect to elders both past and present.
Thank you Aunty Joy Murphy for providing the welcome to country.
I also want to acknowledge all of the activists from the union movement here in the room, including the ACTU Women’s Committee who have organised this conference.
Thank you Ged for your words and your welcome – it’s easy to see that the union movement has a strong future with you at the helm.
It is particularly important that this conference is gathering today, a week after figures emerged from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that the gender pay gap in Australia is actually growing.
The average man now earns 18.2 per cent, or $283.20 per week, more than a woman doing comparable work.
When we hear that the gender pay gap is at a 20-year high, it’s easy to feel angry that women's work isn't valued properly, a fact even harder to stomach when we are then told we live in a post-feminist world.
That's when we need more than ever to spend time in the company of other union women, to celebrate our strength and most importantly to organise for change.
History of trade union women
It’s also worth taking a moment to remember the past.
Muriel Heagney was the daughter of one of the founding members of the ALP and a lifelong campaigner for equal pay for clothing workers.
In the 1930s, rising unemployment in the Great Depression gave rise to a campaign to get women out of the workforce.
Heagney responded by helping found the Council of Action of Equal Pay, saying:
‘a woman’s right to work rests not on the number of her dependents, nor on the fact that she does or does not compete with men, but in the absolute right of a free human being, a taxpayer and a voter, to economic independence.”
Of course Heagney faced stiff resistance: from employers, from wider society, and from within some parts of the trade union movement itself.
But that basic driving principle - that women’s rights at work are human rights worth fighting for - kept her campaigning for change throughout her life.
As Edna Ryan, one of the feminists she inspired, said, ‘Muriel was a real goer, she never missed a trick.’
Muriel first called for a standard minimum wage for men and women in a submission to the Arbitration court in 1923. It would be over 50 years, in 1974, that the National Wage Case decision granted women an adult minimum wage.
Muriel lived to see that great result of her decades of activism – but survived just a week after the decision. She must have been hanging on for it.
For her to see, after half a century, her call for equality at last becoming law, it must have felt bittersweet.
To win the fight for formal pay equity, and yet to see that substantive equality was still a far way off.
Of course, Muriel was a pioneer, but she was never on her own. She was an inspiration and she was part of a movement:
- Kath Williams, who had to quit being a teacher twice each time she got married in the 1930s and 40s, who drove the equal pay campaign within the Victorian trade union movement, leading to the ACTU congress in 1953 agreeing to establish equal pay committees in each State.
- Jenny Acton, the ACTU advocate in the 1985 claim for nurses’ salaries to be increased to put them on par with similar occupations like firefighters and police. Some of you might remember the campaign that accompanied that case, with women boarding Melbourne buses and trams bound for the Commission and paying only 67 cents of the $1 fare, because they were only making 67% of the male wage.
- Anna Booth, who would become ACTU Vice President after pushing for equal pay for clothing workers in the 1980s and 90s. She helped broker deals with clothing brands and retailers who promised to only deal with suppliers who paid their workers properly.
Modern union activism and Labor in government
It’s a line of activism that runs right to the present day.
I remember when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister in 2011, meeting unionists at the forefront of the equal pay case run by the Australian Services Union.
I met Maree, a delegate who had spent her life contributing to the labour movement as an active unionist, and contributing to her community running local neighbourhood services.
Yet her work was still not given equal value because it was caring work – ‘women’s work’.
Maree became an active and passionate equal pay advocate, in a campaign that forged a personal relationship between her and Julia Gillard.
I remember talking with Maree that day, and then walking straight into an auditorium full of delegates and organisers, where Julia announced the federal government would provide $3 billion to fund our share of equal pay for social and community sector workers.
To me, it felt like the labour movement at our best: unions organising working people to achieve real change, and the parliamentary wing living up to its history and its purpose.
And I was grateful to have many moments like that as member of the Labor Government, working towards gender equality:
- The strengthened Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 2012 which allows the Government to set industry-specific minimum standards and requires companies to report on the composition of their governing bodies like boards;
- $22.4 billion to make quality early childhood education and care more affordable and accessible;
- Giving workers the right to request flexible work arrangements from their employer after having a child, if they are experiencing domestic violence, or if they have caring responsibilities.
Tony Abbott and the Federal Budget
Only a few years later, and we live in a very different political moment.
It won’t surprise you to learn that our minister for women, Tony Abbott, hasn't said much about the widening gender pay gap.
Instead his ideology, laid bare in this year's budget, seems designed to make economic inequality worse.
The Labor movement built superannuation and helped build up workers’ retirement savings.
Abbott’s budget cut the Low Income Superannuation Contribution, stopped our increase to superannuation, and gave back tax breaks for wealthy individuals and companies.
When Labor was in government, we committed to funding wage increases for aged care workers and early childhood educators. We knew that the work that these professionals did – caring work – was undervalued.
The Abbott Government tore up these wage increases as soon as they got into office, and in the budget they cut funding to early childhood education even further, including cutting all federal funding for preschool.
The Labor Party and the union movement together fought for and built our first national paid parental leave scheme – which Abbott at one point said would be ‘over my dead body’.
In trying to persuade him we should have been careful what we wished for – now as a late convert, Abbott wants to introduce his own scheme which pays the most money to the richest Australians, and he plans to fund it by cutting pensions and wage increases for underpaid workers.
The agenda for the union movement today
At this moment, with a widening gender pay gap and a conservative government making the challenge of inequality worse, the union movement is needed more than ever.
Over these next two days, you will sharpen the union movement’s strategy to deliver for working women.
You will need to talk about what you want, and as organisers you know that means tapping into what makes you angry:
- The gender pay gap means that in a 38 hour working week, women who start at 9am, by 3.38pm every day are working for free.
- According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the number of people who reported having being sexually harassed in the workplace actually increased between 2008 and 2012 – most of them were women, and most people reported having been harassed in the workplace. Better reporting often means people have the confidence for the first time to complain about behavior that has been common and acceptable in the past, but how are we responding to this increase in the reports?
- The rise of insecure work in Australia and around the world is leaving women with fewer rights and less economic independence. The ACTU’s own inquiry in 2011 revealed stories like the Sydney women working casually in the textiles sector who were paid piece rates that amount to $4 to $5 per hour to produce garments with a retail value of up to $1,000.
As well as setting your agenda for the future, you also need to spend some time reflecting on the wins you have had, and drawing strength from each other:
- Acknowledge the women who have built strong organizing campaigns in their unions, as well as the women who have stepped up as delegates and activists to grow our movement.
- Share ideas about what has worked and what hasn’t; learn from and mentor each other; build on the network of women unionists that spans every industry across the country.
Because chances are you will need those friendships in the years ahead.
Joyce Barry was a tram conductress for 27 years before she finally became the first a qualified female tram driver in 1975.
It wasn’t just the sexist attitudes in the community which stood in her way. The final and biggest hurdle for her to overcome was her union’s ban on women tram drivers, in a high-profile campaign that drew on the solidarity of the broader labour and women’s movements to finally succeed.
Joyce Barry, reflecting on the campaign, said: ‘I’ve stuck rigidly to one thing – that I wanted this done so that girls had equal opportunities in the structures of our union.’
Making sure that our union movement reflects the diversity of its membership, right up to its leadership, is just one of the many challenges that require union women to work together.
Together, you can build better unions, better workplaces, and a better Australian community.
Today I wanted to pay tribute to some of the women who have been part of the trade union movement’s history, like Muriel Heagney and Joyce Barry.
I want to pay tribute to some other union women.
Ged Kearney, leading the ACTU and the national conversation on insecure work.
Sharan Burrow, re-elected this year as the General Secretary of the 170-million member International Trade Union Confederation.
And our future union women leaders, some of them in this room.
Australia has a proud history of women leading the fight for economic and gender equality, and I know it has a bright future too.
So I wish you all the best for the conference over the next two days: I hope it propels you to make your mark on Australia’s workplaces and our country.
I know you’ll leave them the better for it.