Equal pay
Fighting for equal pay

The Australian metal industry 1969-1972

By DIANE FIELDES [email protected]

(Based on a chapter in a forthcoming PhD thesis on equal pay. Written 28 November 1999. A companion piece is included in the book Rebel Women, which you can read about on our Booknotes page.)


This article is a case study of the actions undertaken by the major union in the Australian metal industry (the Amalgamated Engineering Union -- AEU) to campaign for equal pay for women. It deals with the years 1969 to 1972, a period bounded by two important decisions by the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission granting forms of equal pay to women workers.

A substantial literature now exists dealing with the content and the effects of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission’s 1969 and 1972 equal pay decisions. Before looking at the specifics of each decision it is worth spelling out their common features. Most importantly, both were hedged about with qualifications. Both decisions retained the concept of the "family wage". Wage-setting continued to be underpinned by the notion of the male breadwinner and dependant female. In order to lessen the impact on employers, the increases that were granted were to come into effect in instalments over a number of years. Both claims were initiatives of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), both were opposed by the employers and the Liberal-Country Party government, and both failed to address the fact that there was no minimum wage set for women. The effect of this last factor meant the lowest-paid male in 1973 got $60.80, while employers could still pay women as little as $34.50.

The effect of the 1969 decision was to grant "equal pay for equal work", i.e. that where women did "equal work" alongside men they should receive equal pay, but that otherwise equality did not apply. The ninth principle outlined in the Commission's decision spelt this out very clearly -- equal pay was not applicable "where the work in question is essentially or usually performed by females but is work upon which male employees may also be employed". The restrictive character of the 1969 principles was illustrated by its application to female classifications in the Meat Industry Interim Award in December 1969. Commissioner Gough granted equal pay to about 120 women out of 2,000 employed under the award. By the time of the 1972 equal pay case, figures could be produced to show that only 18% of women workers had benefited as a result of the 1969 decision.

When the unions approached the Commission again in 1972 it agreed to widen equal pay to "equal pay for work of equal value", but the effects were still limited. Whereas before 1972 male and female jobs were compared to see if they were basically identical, after 1972 work was compared to see if it was very similar in content or tasks, rather than any attempt being made to evaluate the work more generally. A further negative outcome of both decisions was the attempt by employers to reclassify (or re-name) women’s jobs in order to avoid the consequences of the rulings. This was particularly widespread after the 1972 decision, with one survey finding that over 60 per cent of employers had reclassified women’s jobs onto a different (and lower) scale to men in similar work.

Despite the restrictions inherent in the decisions, women’s wages relative to men’s did increase after 1969. However, just as it would be mistaken to attribute the equal pay decisions to the enlightenment of the Commissioners (rather than to the pressure of the trade unions), it would also be wrong to give them the credit for the actual wage increases that were achieved. The granting of increases was by no means automatic. Unions were required to ask to have the test case rulings applied to the awards that determined the wages of their particular members. Different unions achieved diffferent results. Through industrial pressure the AEU was able to get a ruling to phase in equal pay for women metal workers over a two year period. As a result of further industrial action at the workplace level, 90 per cent of women members of the union had equal pay by the start of 1972.

"Equal pay on the instalment plan"

In November 1969 the AEU officials sought to have the "equal pay for equal work" ruling of that year applied to their women members. The union lodged an application with the Commission for equal pay under the Metal Trades Award "to remove discrimination between males and females on ‘substantially similar’ work" by eliminating reference to the female rate. In a hearing before Commissioner Winter at the end of 1969, metal industry employers would not agree that any of the classifications where women were employed came within the nine points of the 1969 equal pay decision. Instead they demanded a lengthy and costly inspection and work value inquiry. In March 1970 they argued that women must be doing exactly the same work as males in the classification, and where the workforce was predominantly female, there was no case to answer. Despite this being a virtual restatement of the Commission’s original decision, Winter found in favour of equal pay at the process worker classification, to be phased in by January 1972.

The report "Union break through on equal pay" indicates that the AEU lodged its claim for over 300 classifications, although women were employed under only a small number of them at that time. In April 1970 the union’s journal was able to report a success which reflected "the degree of activity which has been marshalled by the metal trades unions and shop stewards in support of this principle", i.e. not just by the women members. When the employers lodged an appeal against the decision in March, the union’s response was that "we should each resolve that if necessary industrial action would be taken to ensure all females under the Federal Metal Trades Award receive equal pay with males". The employers’ appeal was dismissed. The union then campaigned shop by shop for immediate implementation of Winter’s decision, and was able to spread it to other classifications covering women workers.

Emphasised throughout was the role of industrial action in securing this successful outcome: "Following the Arbitration Commission’s decision granting equal pay on the instalment plan for female process workers, a considerable amount of activity was developed in those plants where we have female members ... On several jobs, women stopped work on the day of the appeal and a large number of workshops sent representatives to the Court in order to express their opposition to the employers’ appeal". After rejection of the appeal, some employers tried to absorb the equal pay increase into existing over-award payments. This too was successfully resisted. In addition, "large numbers of female workers in unorganised shops became interested, and as a result our female membership has increased by 300 over the last two months, and a number of new shops organised. We now also have an increased number of female shop stewards ... a feature of the activity was the readiness of the women concerned to take industrial action to support their demand".

An interesting comparison can be drawn between the gaining of equal pay in the metal industry and the experience of those unions that did not pursue the issue industrially. Some unions, such as that of the bank officers, attempted to gain equal pay through solely legalistic rather than industrial means. This was a failure. If the letter of the 1969 decision had been applied (as it was to the bank workers when their union went to the Commission in November 1969), women in the metal industry would also have received nothing. Yet about 90 per cent had equal pay by the start of 1972 as a result of the campaign. In those areas where there were still inequalities, industrial action continued. John Halfpenny, Victorian State Secretary of the AEU at the time, explained that "The over-award payments assumed great importance because at a certain time they actually constituted about 30 per cent of a metalworker’s wages ... When equal pay was established in the award ... the employers’ attention then turned to the over-award payments, to make sure they remained unequal ... [That was] basically outside the Commission’s jurisdiction to arbitrate on". When asked how the union had dealt with this, he replied, "Collective bargaining they call it nowadays". For example, at Email, the electrical appliance manufacturer, a series of stopwork meetings by members, most of them women, won increased over-award payments of $3.50 a week for women and $1 for men. The extra money for women was part of a union-wide campaign for equal over-award payments. Similar action at the same workplace and at K.G. Luke won further differential increases which leveled up over-award payments between the sexes.

By contrast, the union which covered workers in the insurance industry was even more timid than the bank officers’ union. Having been refused negotiations about equal pay by the insurance employers in 1969, and disheartened by the Commission’s rejection of the bank officers’ application of that year, their leaders failed to take any further action over the issue until July 1972. As a result, women insurance workers did not get even a semblance of equal pay until late 1975.

Why look at the metalworkers?

The AEU’s relative success is interesting in the light of a number of features of the union. Most important is the significance of the union in Australian industrial relations more generally. Tom Sheridan in his history of the AEU, Mindful Militants, gives a number of reasons for the AEU’s standing as a pacesetter in wages and conditions, particularly by the late 1960s/early 1970s: the distribution of metalworkers throughout the economy (by 1970 metal trades unionists were 17 per cent of all unionists), and the traditional role of the fitter’s rate as representative of all craftsmen’s wages. So metalworkers are important, even though this period also starts to see the decline of their industrial centrality with the growth of white collar militancy. In the early 1970s, whatever happened in the metal industry was a standard to which other unions aspired. What this meant in relation to equal pay was all too clear to the metal industry employers. One reason given by them in their appeal against the granting of equal pay was that "because the Metal Trades Award is involved the decision is likely to have an influence on proceedings in relation to other awards".

The second significant feature is that in class terms, the AEU was very combative. By the 1970s the union was virtually synonymous with successful industrial militancy. Sheridan talks of "the overall success of AEU members’ non-stop offensive in these years [1960s/70s]". In addition the AEU (and its successor from 1972, the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union -- AMWU) had a much stronger workshop orientation than most Australian unions, with a tradition of independent rank and file action. This tradition of fighting at the rank and file level also influenced the way the union approached the question of equal pay.

The final factor of note in the metalworkers’ union’s campaign for equal pay is the composition of the union’s membership. In March 1969 the AEU’s female membership was approximately 2,000 out of 84,000 (2.4 per cent). In December 1974 the AMWU had 186,121 members of whom 16,000 (8.5 per cent) were women. It is again possible to draw a useful comparison with the insurance industry (approximately 50 per cent female in this period). If equal pay is regarded as an issue in which the "gender interests" of women workers are counterposed to their male counterparts, we should expect a stronger response from unions with large female memberships, and a correspondingly weak one from unions such as the metalworkers’. Yet the differentiating factors were not the number of women in the industry, but the industrial strength and militancy of the union (and also their politics, in a more general sense). Women in a union like the AEU were able to make greater advances than those in relatively less well-organised areas of the workforce, even though they were numerically marginal to the union as a whole.

The campaign itself -- the ugly, the bad and the good

Nonetheless, there was a contradiction between the positive result on equal pay and sexism inside the trade union. One place this could be seen was in the pages of the union’s monthly journal. As late as 1975 the AMWU was still emphasising the importance of the "family living wage" as the basis for wage campaigning. The union also contained some backward (or at best contradictory) attitudes to women’s right to paid employment. For example, the same issue of the journal (July 1968) contains two such reports. The first, regarding National Instruments in Melbourne, involves the discovery that women process workers had been doing tradesmen’s work for four years. The initial response of the organiser was to demand that the company take the women off this work. The second case is more overt. The organiser’s complaint after the retrenchment of five night shift workers at CAC in Melbourne (including three men with families) was that "while retrenching these employees the Company was retaining the services of married women, whose husbands were working in other establishments". Such attitudes were reflected both in writing and visually in the Monthly Journal, with articles such as "Choosing a career for your son?" (about job opportunities in the metal industry), and numerous sexist cartoons and advertisements (see appendix). The June 1972 front cover shows a photograph of a huge mass meeting in which not a single woman can be seen.

In other words, the AEU did not embark on the campaign for equal pay as fully-formed opponents of sexism. John Halfpenny went so far as to say that, "In the very early days of the equal pay campaign, the majority of women didn’t support it and the majority of blokes didn’t support it. The majority of women didn’t support it because they thought they’d lose their jobs, and the blokes didn’t support it because they didn’t think the women were worth as much as they were." Sylvia Bramston, who became a shop steward as a result of equal pay campaigning at National Instruments, confirmed the opposition to the equal pay fight that existed amongst women as well as men. Her account of attempts to get equal conditions for workers of both sexes at National Instruments gives some indication of the resistance that activists could come up against (as well as evidence that it could be overcome:

We needed a woman shop steward where we worked ... When the men were negotiating with the company, the women’s angles were never brought up. One of the big arguments, which nearly led to a total national industry strike was ... [getting] concessions [fares] on the aircraft because we worked in the aircraft industry ... The men got it for their dependents, but the women didn’t. I couldn’t take my husband because he was not dependent on me. The men could take their wives, and our argument was that most of our fellows were married to professional women -- school teachers, doctors, accountants, they were all working, they were not dependent on them. Therefore, our argument was, OK you can prove your dependency and you can get the perks. Of course, needless to say the boys switched sides. Before that they’d been very much against us getting it, but they then switched sides and supported us and we ended up getting the same thing as the fellows.

However, it would be wrong to ascribe all opposition to the equal pay campaign simply to the acceptance of sexist ideas on the part of male or female metalworkers. Sometimes other problems intersected. Explaining why some sections of the workforce played more of a role than others, Halfpenny points out the negative role of other divisions in the workforce: "Some sections of what are now the metalworkers weren’t that involved, like the boilermakers -- there weren’t any women boilermakers ... There were women sheetmetal workers, there were women engineering workers but without any real exceptions they were all process workers ... It was difficult to get too many workplaces where the tradesmen would stand up for the women process workers to get equal pay -- because they wouldn’t even stand up for the male process workers."

Militancy and politics

Yet the union still campaigned vigorously for equal pay. The following section attempts to identify the countervailing factors to sexism inside the union. The first of these is what might be called the "background militancy" of the union, reflecting a basic level of class consciousness directed in the first instance against the employers in the industry.

As mentioned earlier, by the time of the equal pay decisions the AEU was virtually synonymous with successful industrial militancy and rank and file activity against employers. One sign of this was the willingness of well-organised workplaces to take significant industrial action over what would appear by the industrial relations standards of the late 1990s to be quite minor issues:

We worked a lot of overtime because we had to keep aircraft flying, and you’d work until ten o’clock at night. You used to get a lot of vandals into the car park, so they built a car park with wire mesh around it with barbed wire on the top and a gate and a security guard, and they used to lock the gate in the morning, open it at lunchtime, lock them again, open them at night ... Well, the big argument was over the morning. We were supposed to start work at eight o’clock. At five past eight they locked the gates and that was it. And if you wanted the gate to be opened you had to go in, get the security guard, park your car, come back and clock on. Now it could take him twenty minutes to come out, which meant instead of being five minutes late for work, you ended up being half an hour late for clocking on, and of course you’d get docked. And they did it with just a notice on the wall, they didn’t talk to anybody about it ... Well, one person got caught and of course all hell broke loose. When the shop steward went up to talk to the management, he was rude to him, so ... it was ‘Right, everybody is out’ and we just dropped our tools and walked out, and we were all standing out on the pavement. And I think we were out for about a week over that.

While the Monthly Journal (and former officials like John Halfpenny) might attribute successful militancy to the "splendid leadership" provided by union officials, it was much more often the case, as the journal’s own pages attest, that strike action occurred spontaneously. One of the best indicators of this phenomenon in the metal industry was the letters sent by union organisers to the higher echelons on the trade union movement, asking for endorsement of disputes that had already taken place and been won at the workplace.

Reflecting a common class position across the gender divide, this tradition of militancy was shared by women workers, and was not confined to issues such as equal pay. In the same period in which overt sexism was common in the Monthly Journal, there were also reports which in some senses contradicted that sexism. For example, a strike at Iplex Plastics in Elizabeth, South Australia was described as "one of those disputes which deserves a particular mention". The mainly female workforce held a stopwork meeting about various complaints. Management used non-union labour to operate the machines during the stopwork, leading to a strike by all three shifts. Approximately 250 of the workers were AEU members but there were also "30 or 40 hard core non-unionists". A mass meeting then decided that "all the claims were less important than the fact that non-unionists still operated inside the plant". A further mass meeting was then held on 6 August 1970. Many of the workers involved had no previous experience of industrial action, and particular women shop stewards played a key role in organising rosters for pickets and so on, leading to a successful outcome.

Sometimes the women’s lack of industrial experience could make them more volatile:

It was quite remarkable really ... Johhny Halfpenny was in then as State secretary and we warned him and said, look, handling women in the workforce is a totally different thing to handling the fellows. And he said, ah she’ll be right, she’ll be right. And the first time they all went out on strike they rang him up and said, right, you better get out here and do something, we’re all out on the footpath. It was one of the big factories up in Lilydale ... Reynolds Chains ... the women all went out there and poor old Johnny nearly went grey over that because they said, look, if we’re going to strike, we’re not striking for nothing. We came out because we want it, and if we don’t get it we’re not going back, and that’s all there is to it! No argument. They gave him a very hard time.

Nonetheless, it was in action around equal pay that sexist ideas were most undermined. The AEU had a history of strike action over this issue before the 1969 decision. At the National Instrument Company (mentioned earlier as an example of the union’s contradictory attitude to women working), women had been used to do tradesmen’s work in the "Gyro Section". The women were all union members, and "no complaint could be lodged about the way the work was done". The AEU organiser saw that this was undoubtedly tradesmen’s work.

It was in this section that Sylvia Bramston had managed to get a job when she returned to paid work when her youngest child was eight. Imagine her surprise when

The first thing the fellow said was, look, you know, don’t take it personally, but we’re all going on strike because you lot are coming in. The technicalities of it was that the company was trying to break the work down from skilled tradesmen’s work into small sections, and bring in process workers -- women at that -- which were paid ... a pittance really, to do just sections of the work, and of course the tradesmen, who had to do a four years’ apprenticeship, were objecting strenuously to it. So we joined the union and went out on strike with them, which meant that ... if they sacked us, then the boys were going to give us their support. So anyway, we kept our jobs.

Although the organiser’s initial response of trying to get these women put onto other, unskilled work had all the makings of a serious split in the workforce, the dispute was resolved along lines that reinforced class solidarity and common interests amongst the workers at the expense of their employer. There was "an immediate demand ... that if the female workers were to remain in the section they would have to be paid the full tradesman’s rate". A number of meetings were held on the job. The District Committee endorsed "the decision of our members to cease work immediately" if the dispute was not resolved. Management then agreed that the full tradesman’s rate of $53.20 would be paid to all women workers in the section. In itself, this could still have been used to set women against men, by "pricing women out of the job". To counter this, the union also indicated that if women were moved from the section, "we require the same consideration to be given to them as to tradesmen working in the section", i.e. that they were to be paid at the tradesman’s rate even if working elsewhere in the plant. A general meeting of employees in the area unanimously accepted the offer, meaning a $14 a week wage rise for the women. Like the numerous local disputes about equal pay featured in the industrial reports of the Monthly Journal, the National Instruments case reveals one piece of very concrete evidence of the undermining of sexist attitudes: male workers could be convinced to stop work, and therefore lose money, to gain benefits for their female co-workers from which they themselves did not directly gain.

This kind of common activity came into conflict with at least the worst of the sexist attitudes found in the union. From the outset, there had been "some [work]places [where] there was good support ... some places [where] the blokes wouldn’t go back to work till the women got equal pay". As decisions on industrial action forced workers to confront their prejudices, a more egalitarian spirit began to prevail. Just as sexist attitudes had been reflected in the Monthly Journal, so too were the changes. After 1972, no more of the sexist cartoons appeared, and women started to figure, as a matter of course, in photographs of mass meetings and picket lines from 1974. Between February 1969 and December 1972 the journal published thirteen editorials or major articles on the fight for equal pay. This was more significant coverage than for any issue besides across-the-board wage increases through the metal industry award.

Other changes in ideas about women’s role were reflected in the way the union organised. In September 1969 the Victorian branch of the union held the first working women’s State conference. Twelve members took time off work to attend, and their wages were made up by job collections. The two major issues at the conference were the forthcoming equal pay claim, including "intensive activity outside of the Arbitration Commission in support of any application" with demands also being made on individual employers, and demands for childcare. On the negative side, most of the speakers at the conference were men. In January 1970, Sylvia Bramston, who had been a leading force in winning equal trades rate for some women members at National Instruments, became the first woman to work full-time for the AEU on organising and campaign questions, as she was sent around Victoria to recruit and organise the equal pay campaign for three months. As the union stepped up its industrial action around equal pay, more women were drawn into membership, and into shop steward positions.

As indicated earlier, it was not only male workers who needed to be convinced of the virtues of fighting for equal pay. Sylvia Bramston explained the transformation of the views of many women workers, and the degree to which class conflict played a role in chnaging consciousness:

It was a case of building the women’s confidence ... you’ve been doing this job for x number of years, you’re good at it. Do you think somebody, just because he wears a pair of pants, can come in and do it better than you, with no experience? You’ve got to build your confidence, you’re worth something. Don’t think you’re going to get a huge amount of money, because the job’s not changing. But if they’re going to bring a fellow in to put him on your job ... and pay him $10 extra just because he’s a fellow, why shouldn’t you have the $10 extra? ... If they belonged to the union ... and they decided to sack everybody, then they had the union behind them to fight their battle. So, in lots of cases you’d find a couple who were enthusiastic enough, and you’d get them all equipped up to go and recruit the others, and eventually they’d get themselves organised. Sooner or later, management would do something stupid, which would get everybody’s backs up, and of course they’d all sign up, and away you would go -- because they always did.

Such was the union’s concern about involving women members in this period that it even led them to under-estimate what successes they did have. For example, the 1971 Conference’s having only seven women delegates out of 300 was described as indicative of the problems of women’s representation when in fact it was close to the percentage of women in the union. But as the Monthly Journal recognised when reporting on a one-day school for women shop stewards and active members in April 1973, women still remained seriously under-represented in the union hierarchy. Nonetheless, those changes that did occur seemed to be welcomed. By the time of the appointment of a second woman organiser in Victoria in 1975, the journal could claim that the appointment, while popular with women members, "also met with wide support amongst members of the union generally".

There is a second important factor in explaining the AEU’s relative success in the fight for equal pay. It is the ideas about the role of trade unionism that were not just held by the union’s leaders, but put into practice by its members. The articles and leaflets that the union produced supporting the claim for equal pay included arguments about how male workers would benefit as well as the women. In other words, a conscious attempt was made to look at the issue in class terms. In addition, efforts were made to connect the issue of equal pay with the view that unionism was about broader social issues beyond the workplace. The level of politicisation of the union was allied with its industrial militancy. The AEU in this period supported a series of such campaigns with stopwork action. These ranged from a student-organised march against poverty in 1969, to job meetings, collections and workplace resolutions in support of Aboriginal land rights claims in 1970, or a stoppage at Dunlop’s Port Melbourne tyre and rubber factory because it was a "notorious polluter".

One of the things that we were good at in the AEU and the metalworkers was converting minorities into majorities, like with issues like equal pay, like the Vietnam War, like the whole idea of anti-nuclear testing, support [for] the anti-apartheid movement ... they were leadership-driven. In the workplace there would be dissent, or opposition. We often used to have arguments ... [e.g.] ‘Peace is union business’ ... [On those sort of issues] we would always make a decision...and go to the membership to get endorsement for it...we’d go in there and argue for a decision to stop [work to stop the war] ... in some places we didn’t have to do that because the shop steward was there ... some we won, some we lost ... we got a good response, and I think that was a bit of a turning point [1971].

The AEU’s campaign against the Vietnam War was its most sustained political involvement of this kind. By mid-1970 thousands of factory meetings had been held. The following year about 30 meetings of AEU members in Victoria voted by large margins to strike for the next major anti-war demonstration.

Unions such as the AEU which took an interest in broader social and political questions (and were prepared to take industrial action over them) were an essential component of the success of the movements which developed outside the workplace about these issues. The equal pay campaign itself is an example of this, but similar conclusions can be drawn about the unions’ role in the anti-Vietnam War campaign in Australia, and the boycott of the 1971 Springbok rugby union tour. The actions of the AEU around equal pay cannot finally be understood without reference to the broader political and industrial context. The activities of the union both helped to create this climate, and were in turn affected by it.


Class conflict, rather than either "gender solidarity" between male workers and employers, or a conflict of interest between male and female workers, was the key factor in the fight for equal pay for women working in this industry. The gender-centred approach which pervades the literature on this area is inadequate to explain either the existence or the nature of the metalworkers’ union’s campaign for equal pay.

Claims such as that made by Thornton and Dixson that union officials colluded with employers in reclassifying women workers to keep them on lower pay scales, or Bennett’s suggestion of a common desire by men of both classes to keep equal pay increases small, simply do not fit the metalworkers’ case. Ryan and Rowse’s idea of an alliance of employers and most trade unionists (I assume they mean male trade unionists) to preserve prevailing male images of women’s rights and duties is contradicted by the changes that the equal campaign wrought on the way metalworkers saw these things. Power and O’Donnell’s notion of equal pay as a way to keep women out of men’s jobs was a possible outcome. However, as the National Instruments dispute shows, it was not the only outcome. Where a common class antagonism to the employer prevailed, gains could be won from which workers of both sexes benefited. The equal pay campaign in the metal industry did create the contradictions between sexist ideas and class identity which Ryan and Conlon point out. But there is no reason those conflicts had to be resolved in favour of sexism. Equal pay was an issue that was fought out along class lines. At the most basic level, it was the trade unions that prosecuted the struggle for it, and it was employers that continually resisted it at national, industry and workplace level. The degree to which unions were successful in gaining equal pay for their women members depended on their general level of militancy, and the political views that informed it. Drawing a comparison between the metalworkers’ and the clerks’ unions, John Halfpenny drew the following balance sheet:

The metalworkers, the old AEU, were very committed to and very active in the equal pay struggle. The clerks union ... was under the influence of the National Civic Council, Bob Santamaria and what have you, and they basically had...a very conservative ... view of the world that women shouldn’t be working anyway, they should be home looking after the kids, so don’t give them too much money, it’ll only encourage them to stay at work ... They were not active ... I mean, they weren’t active about much at all, but certainly given that most of their members were women, and this was all about equality for women, then they were remarkably silent.

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