The insurance industry struggle 1973-75
An earlier version of this chapter appeared as ‘"Everybody Was ‘Girls’ in the Minds of the Management": The Fight for Equal Pay in the Australian Insurance Industry, 1973-75’, Labour History, 73, November 1997.
It is close on twenty-five years since Australia’s first ever national strike by clerical workers. The issue that drove insurance workers, male and female, to this action was equal pay. The fight for it showed how a common class interest could begin to bridge sexist divisions among workers. In the course of the campaign, workers of both sexes attended meetings in their thousands, banned overtime, marched in the streets and demonstrated outside insurance companies. The driving force was the union rank and file. The union, whose members had never struck before, gained hundreds of new members, and the campaign created a new attitude to women workers.
The Australian Insurance Staffs’ Federation (AISF) was founded in 1920 as part of the growth in white collar unionism following World War I. A special meeting of female members in 1927 affirmed the principle of equal pay for the sexes, which was then adopted by the Federal Executive as AISF policy. None of this made much impact on the insurance companies, however, who continued to benefit from low pay for women workers.
Despite its early support for the principle of equal pay, the AISF’s position was by no means unambiguous. The contradictory attitudes displayed did not represent a simple division along gender lines. For instance, in the union’s first decade there was support from some male workers for the displacement of male labour by cheaper female workers. This arose not from any lack of gender loyalty by the men, but from their lack of class-consciousness. Their loyalty to their employers was such that they wished to ensure profitability even at the cost of jobs for their own sex. On the other hand, the 1939 Federal Council meeting of the AISF expressed concern about a repeat of post-World War I experience, where women employed in wartime stayed on into the peace. The union warned against the ‘flooding’ of offices with women.
It was not until the 1960s that the equal pay issue again gathered momentum. In the AISF’s journal, Premium, there was a gradual acceleration in the number and length of articles dealing with equal pay from 1966. Conference motions in 1967, 1969 and 1971 also reflected greater pressure for equal pay.
In 1969 the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) won a case in the Arbitration Commission, resulting in the first national decision granting a form of equal pay to women. Where women did ‘equal work’ with men they would receive equal remuneration. However, the Commission excluded cases ‘where the work in question is essentially or usually performed by females but is work upon which male employees may also be employed’. By the time the ACTU returned to the Commission with further demands in 1972, only 18 per cent of women workers had benefited from the 1969 decision.
The combination of increasing numbers of women in the workforce, and the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Australia at the end of the 1960s, directed unions’ attention to questions concerning women workers. Changes in the employment needs of Australian capitalism had seen growing numbers of females, especially married women, drawn into the paid workforce. By the early 1970s almost a third of Australia’s workers were female. Alongside this went changes in the nature of white-collar work. The process of proletarianisation is vital to understanding the equal pay campaign. In insurance prior to the 1970s, new male entrants had expected well-defined career prospects. Increasingly, however, for the majority of its workers the insurance industry no longer offered a ‘career’. Instead part-time and ‘dead-end’ lower tier jobs, particularly for women, increased. These factors created a workforce that was increasingly female, very young, relatively poorly paid, and with a very high labour turnover. The ‘feeling that they are no longer treated with appreciation and respect by employers’, which could lead not only to unionisation but also to greater militancy, was a further outcome.
AISF officials interviewed in Gerard Griffin’s study of the union especially favoured two factors to explain the changed industrial behaviour of white-collar workers. One was youth; the other was working class background. As white-collar work expanded, the bulk of those entering no longer came from white-collar family backgrounds. Griffin’s survey of insurance union members (conducted in 1979) found a substantial number of respondents from ‘working class backgrounds’. The largest single group (36 per cent) described their father’s occcupation as ‘manual’. Forty-one per cent had at least one parent who was a trade union member.
The second feature influencing the AISF in its fight to win equal pay was the general political and industrial situation. Phil Reilly, federal president of the AISF in this period, remarked:
I’m inclined to think that the activity of our union was part of a reflection of the change in society. Don’t forget, in the 1960s and 1970s there was a great upsurge of activity in society. The Vietnam War was a catalyst to all sorts of shedding of old shackles, particularly among the young people.
The rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement at the end of the 1960s had a direct effect on the struggle for equal pay. With increasing numbers of women in the workplace, wage inequality was an obvious target for the Movement’s attention. Activists joined the picket lines of striking Sportsgirl machinists, and supported Melbourne tram conductresses trying to get jobs as drivers. The movement’s orientation to women as workers affected the unions.
For example in the early 1970s the Victorian Branch of the Clothing and Allied Trades Union participated in some Women’s Liberation committees.
Added to this was the ability of the union movement to win campaigns. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the union movement taking up questions of wages more vigorously than in the past. This led not just to a rising level of industrial action, but also to a series of significant victories. In 1969 a major, semi-spontaneous strike wave had defeated the government’s and Arbitration Commission’s attempt to fine unions (and jail union officials) for taking industrial action. The AISF itself had taken its first overt industrial action in 1970 over a wage claim, and a successful campaign for a pay rise in 1972-1973, involving overtime bans and stopwork meetings, had followed. Victories such as this laid the basis for a greater union confidence to go on the offensive over wages, including equal pay for women. Thus the equal pay fight was part of a more general working class radicalization, reflected also in union action for Aboriginal rights, against a touring South African rugby team, for gay rights, and against destruction of the environment.
A slow start to the campaign
In March 1970 the AISF produced a special equal pay edition of Premium, giving a chronology of the effect of the Arbitration Commission’s ‘equal pay for equal work’ decision. After approaching the insurance employers’ association, the Staffs’ Reference Committee (SRC), in 1969 the AISF had been refused negotiations on equal pay. Following this, the AISF leaders hastened very slowly. It was not until July 1972, more than three years after the Commission’s first equal pay decision, that they could announce: ‘Federation acts on equal pay. Negotiations begin with SRC’. The claim for equal pay required the deletion of the ‘female scale’ of pay and the application of the ‘male scale’ to all workers.
Meanwhile grievances were accumulating in the offices. Women in the insurance industry at 16 years old received 100 per cent of the male rate of pay, at 21 years old they got 82 per cent, and at 34 women received 62 per cent of the male rate. Wages in insurance were more unequal than in many other industries because of increasing divergence between the sexes with increases in seniority. Rather than simply having a junior and an adult rate, the wage scale in insurance was a particularly extended one. For men, there was the possibility of a wage increase for each of the first fourteen years of service. For women in the industry such increases ceased after seven years. At the top of the scale, a woman insurance worker was receiving only 7.63 percentage points better than the 54 per cent of the male rate awarded to women workers by the Arbitration Commission in 1919. Perhaps the inequities rankled more in insurance where women made up half the workforce, compared to 33 per cent of the total Australian workforce at the time.
The insulting attitudes which accompanied unequal pay provided another source of agitation. During World War II insurance employers had used the demeaning practice of issuing ‘incompetency certificates’ to employees who for any reason were not able to perform at a ‘desired level’. This allowed for wages even less than the amount specified in the award to be paid to selected employees. This selection process strongly ‘favoured’ women. By the 1960s it was commonplace for senior women to train young men who were then promoted to pay scales above them. The maximum rate for a woman was less than that for a 21-year-old man.
Kevin Davern, an official of the South Australian and Victorian branches of the AISF during the equal pay campaign, remembered that:
… it would constantly be used that women couldn’t be seen as equal because typewriters at the time were very heavy ... [and what if] somebody had asked me to move their typewriter? ... Everybody was ‘girls’ in the minds of the management.
Women workers sometimes hid the fact that they had children, in order to secure employment in an industry where the expectation was that such responsibilities and full-time employment were incompatible. No wonder bitterness was growing.
Dissatisfied with the narrowness of the 1969 ‘equal pay for equal work’ decision, the unions approached the Arbitration Commission again. In December 1972 the Commission agreed to widen its interpretation of equal pay to ‘equal pay for work of equal value’. Pay increases under this decision were to be phased in by the middle of 1975. The AISF officials lodged a claim for equal pay on these terms in March 1973. Again their demand was to delete the ‘female scale’ from the award and put all workers onto the ‘male scale’. The employers countered this with the claim that any adjustment to women’s wages would have to be contingent upon evaluation and reclassification of all positions in the industry.
After four years of non-cooperation from the employers the AISF leadership at last moved to consider action on equal pay. The final straw was the SRC’s consultants’ report which would have placed women in the lowest classifications, with pay not very much higher than their existing (unequal) rates. The employers saw these arrangements as discharging in full their obligations to provide equal pay. The union refused to accept the plan.
There were important differences between the full-time officials of the union and the rank and file membership, and between female and male members. The AISF leaders’ eyes were firmly fixed on negotiations, which would lead to an arbitrated settlement. They only sought membership action to push the negotiations in a favourable direction or to influence the Arbitration Commission. From this point of view, members’ enthusiasm could even appear as a problem. General Secretary Ken McLeod complained of ‘a view amongst some sections of the membership that equal pay means the removal of all female rates of pay from the award’, leading to ‘expectations which might well be impossible to realise’.
Generally, however, the officials felt members were apathetic or even hostile to the campaign. When interviewed in 1978, McLeod recalled mid-1973 as a time when it was ‘hard to sell the members’ on the issue; in his report to Federal Executive after the meetings he had spoken of ‘wide spread and deep-seated opposition to equal pay both from males and females.’ Similarly, an academic study of the AISF attributes the success of the equal pay campaign to ‘the determination and influence of the leadership and the poor strategy and tactics of the employers.’
Yet other evidence from the union’s records suggests a more complex picture. While there may have been hostility, there was also enthusiasm. A one-sided concern with antagonism to equal pay could mean the union leadership failed to mobilise those who did want to fight. By mid-1973 the subject was likely to come up even at small, local meetings. After one such event, Victorian Branch Secretary Alleyn Best reported:
Sandra [Fenn] and the members there are extremely union minded ... They still regard the negotiations with suspicion and wonder what will happen with equal pay. They are very keen to be involved in the equal pay campaign ... It appears, too, that they are getting good support on this from the men.
But there is little evidence of the concerns of members like these being addressed.
The contradiction between the officials and the ranks was sharpened by a core of activists who based themselves on membership dissatisfaction. The thorn in the side of the AISF officials was a small group of socialists producing a fortnightly leaflet, Clerk and Dagger. This newssheet often ran articles criticizing leaders of the various clerical unions, but by mid-1973 it had begun to turn its attention more specifically to equal pay in insurance. The Clerk and Dagger group spawned an offshoot called Militant Insurance Clerks (MIC), whose newsletter was Miccy Finn. To suggestions of membership apathy, MIC replied:
So far the union has paid little more than lip service towards equal pay ... At the moment, the bureaucrats are saying that they’re doing everything possible because women don’t want equal pay! They think that women are not prepared to act because there has been no rash of wildcat strikes over the issue. The truth is that they have misinterpreted the good faith of women who believe that they can expect the union to lead any necessary campaign.
MIC activists sought to relate to those who were enthusiastic about equal pay, in order to push the campaign forward. In three weeks they were able to gather the signatures of 460 insurance workers in Melbourne (over 10 per cent of the membership) and 50 supporters on a petition demanding an industrial campaign to win equal pay. The AISF leadership’s only response was a suggestion that they might like to get some of the non-members who signed the petition to join the union. In fact, the petitioning process had already resulted in a number of people joining.
There were also divisions between male and female members. Of course there is a considerable temptation to identify the supporters of equal pay as female, and its detractors as male. Griffin attributes apathy over the issue to the fact that it ‘would not have meant a cent more in the pockets of the male members’. So let’s consider who in the membership supported equal pay. There is evidence of young women like Marie O’Donnell and Sandra Fenn at RACV and others who had become radicalized supporting equal pay:
There was a lot of young women who may not have had a principled position on it but were becoming radicalized, and ... they didn’t have the same disciplines as the earlier generation had, and they were prepared to go to marches ¾ they enjoyed it, you know!
But alongside them were young men like Ralph Clark in South Australia:
[at] a meeting at Adelaide Town Hall ... I recall myself and the president being booed by the middle-aged males as we went to the podium ... I recall [Ralph Clark] ... he’s a large fellow, and he was a very young man at the time. We were under absolute stress at the time, and he walked from the back of the hall ... and he said something that wouldn’t be acceptable today but at the time the women, particularly young women, cheered him. He said to these men, ‘All you know about the values of women is what you have tried to learn in the back seat of an FJ Holden.’ And it did something to, I guess, polarize the total meeting.
Phil Griffiths, a 20 year old insurance clerk at the time, recalled that ‘huge numbers of women were drawn into the union because it was fighting for equal pay’, but said there was ‘a moderate majority of men’ at the rallies and mass meetings.
While some men, especially older ones, were extremely hostile, there was also resistance to equal pay from some women. Again, there seems to have been a generational element:
It was my experience in the office that there were more than a few women ... whose attitude was ‘Well, of course it’s reasonable, we’re going to go off and have babies’ ... It’s easy to ridicule it now, but these were quite seriously held attitudes.
Initially [there was] quite a lot of resistance from the men in particular, and I suppose you could relate that very much to age ... Generally speaking, the older the member, the more ... definite they were that this [equal pay] was not a good thing ... Women of course ... were very much in favour of the notion but there were always a number of women in each office who would say that this wasn’t going to come to any good ... that it wasn’t right and that it was going to alter the relationship between men and women in general, in the family, in relationships, and so on, and all those things about, ‘Well, men won’t be opening doors for us any more and … taking us out to dinner’. That would always come up and again generally you’d be looking at ... the older women in the industry … But they were the few.
Because of the importance of seniority-based promotion in the insurance industry, the question of age could intersect with class. Those, overwhelmingly men, who had reached the senior managerial rungs of the promotions ladder were separated from the lower level clerical workers by class position rather than merely by age.
The view that gender determined attitudes could lead to some confusion. Jan Martin, female personnel manager at National Mutual, fought consistently against equal pay, often appearing for the employers in tribunal hearings. One AISF member recalled:
I was amused when I went down to this demonstration [at the Arbitration Commission] someone was holding a banner saying ‘Is Jan Martin a woman?’
The first meetings specifically about equal pay (on 25 September, 1973) were generally small, but this can’t be explained in terms of membership apathy or male hostility. Rather we have to look at the basis on which they were held. The union leadership advertised them as ‘women only’. They were not stopwork meetings but lunchtime ones, further limiting the number who could attend. Finally, they were not general meetings but meetings of ‘representatives of AISF’s female membership’ comprising approximately 10 to 15 per cent of members.
This initial round of meetings did provide evidence of some ‘deep-seated opposition’ — not to equal pay, but to the way the campaign was being conducted. The MIC bulletin said the ‘invitation only’ form of the meeting had ‘already alienated sections of the male and female membership’, while Clerk and Dagger reported that female members in some offices had crossed out the ‘women only’ on official notices. Geelong members wrote to the Victorian Branch Committee of Management, criticizing the exclusion of men and the fact that it was not a stopwork meeting.
It is hardly surprising that activists who opposed the leadership reported such incidents. But the most telling evidence comes from the official minutes of the Melbourne meeting. The Federal Executive’s resolution had been carried unamended by meetings in Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide. But at the best-attended of all the meetings, Sandra Fenn and Marie O’Donnell from RACV Insurance in Melbourne moved a hostile amendment. They objected to the meeting being described as ‘this meeting of representatives of AISF’s female membership’ and deleted the reference to ‘female’. They added a call for the Executive to prepare plans for industrial action and present them to the membership. Finally, they rejected the proposal for ‘similar meetings to this’ to be held throughout the campaign, calling instead for ‘stop-work meetings of the membership’. Their amendment was carried.
In planning the 1973 equal pay campaign the leadership again argued that ‘men should be encouraged to view the introduction of equal pay as a "union issue" rather than exclusively as a "women’s issue"’, and ‘any campaign on equal pay should seek to involve the whole membership’. Yet in practice the campaign began with a women-only meeting of office representatives, followed a month later by mass meetings of women. Only after that, at the end of October 1973, were the first mass meetings of all members to be called. Some of this was argued for on the positive basis of encouraging women to lead and develop campaign activity. The negative side of launching the campaign in this way was that it undercut the idea that equal pay concerned the entire membership. To the extent that the AISF leadership accepted the assumption that the male members would not be interested in equal pay (an assumption which apparently did not apply to male union leaders, whose reports took up most of the limited meeting time) they launched the equal pay campaign on a weaker and more divided footing than necessary.
Interviewed almost two decades later, Ken McLeod unwittingly reinforced this point:
When we started to get the guys involved in it and they could see, on the one hand, that their jobs weren’t threatened and, on the other hand the women could see they weren’t going to be pushed out of the industry ... it started to take off.
Arguments about the importance of equal pay as an issue for all union members regardless of sex continued to get an airing. In July 1973, Premium published an article, ‘Equal pay ¾ Equal to what? One member’s view’. In it Phil Griffiths, a clerk at Royal-Globe Life Insurance and a Clerk and Dagger activist, made a case that far from being irrelevant to male workers, the lack of equal pay was a positive disadvantage to them:
The main reason that men have won a substantial career scale and better wages is that they have always organised themselves more effectively to resist low wages … Because the union has not been seen to defend the wages of women ... it has not been able to organise women into the union to fight for the interests of all insurance staff ... It is a vicious circle and one that has harmed the interests of all insurance workers … [The union] must work to convince the male membership that their future lies in fighting with women for their mutual individual interests.
Griffiths pointed out that while male and female workers were disadvantaged by unequal pay, their employers gained financially and ideologically:
… low wages paid to women continue to give employers a cheap more economical choice when hiring staff ... [and] by dividing men from women workers [through fear of women taking their jobs] employers strengthened their industrial position and enlisted the support of men to keep the wages of women as low as possible, and thus continued to serve their major interest — profit — at the expense of their employees.
The campaign takes off
Word of how employers were using reclassification as a way to avoid equal pay had spread through the clerical workforce by late 1973. An unnamed Melbourne institution was said to have reclassified all its male workers as ‘administrative assistants’ and its females as ‘clerks’. ‘Equal pay’ then meant a small immediate pay rise for women but a shortened career scale. Nation Review claimed insurance companies were already pooling women in clerical departments with a view to classifying the lowest paid jobs as female. Cases such as those of ‘typists’ who spent three days a week on clerical work (supposed to be higher paid than typing) were becoming a talking point.
When the SRC made its equal pay offer in October 1973, such fears about reclassification proved justified. The offer reduced the female scale for adults from seven steps to four, effectively putting a lower ceiling on women’s wages. It also required the union’s agreement to an overall classification scheme before any wage increases were paid. The union leaders called a series of mass meetings and asked how long it would be before companies tried to cut men’s wages in the same way. They quoted the SRC’s own words: ‘The inevitable introduction of equal pay is the reason why classification is highly desirable for all lower level jobs. Classification will allow a reduction in the cost of lower level jobs carried out by older males’.
The following day there was a demonstration outside the National Mutual building in Melbourne while the SRC and the AISF leadership met inside it. Between two and three thousand insurance workers (at a time when their Victorian branch had around 5,000 members) made their anger known. The demonstrators voted to stay out for the rest of the afternoon, and to have another stopwork a week later. Clerk and Dagger activist Phil Griffiths recalled:
The next day [9 November 1973] proved everyone’s hesitations wrong ... I don’t think [the union officials] even had a public address system there, or if they did it was of the megaphone variety. I think they expected 50 people, and there were ... 3,000 ... It was just jam-packed ... and the sense of anger was tremendous ... I remember going back into the office, completely fired up, racing around the office saying ‘That’s it! We’re on strike. Come on, let’s get going.’ ... Some came out, we all had these furious debates and the management came out and said, ‘Look ... if you’re going to go on strike, go on strike, but you’re not allowed to disrupt the office’... The mood was just tumultuous.
The employers still held out for classification of the whole industry as a precondition for equal pay. Their next offer, on 26 November, was accompanied by a propaganda offensive. Companies addressed their workers directly as individuals in an attempt to undermine the collective struggle. Commercial Union’s ‘Memorandum to all staff’ began with special pleading about the insurance industry’s inability to meet the Arbitration Commission’s equal pay deadline of 30 June 1975, due to the complications of a seniority-based pay scale. It went on to argue for job evaluation as part of equal pay: the Commission’s 1972 decision ‘means that male rates must be determined in the same way [i.e. work value comparisons] and necessitates an evaluation of all jobs’.
Such epistles probably did little to placate insurance workers once they saw what had been offered. The SRC’s proposal meant the gap between women’s and men’s wages hardly narrowed (the lowest paid women workers were offered an extra $1.04 a week). No indication was given as to how or when the remaining gap would be closed. But there was a further sting. The extra money was still tied to reclassification. The ceiling placed on salary increases for women under this ‘equal pay’ offer could be used to hold down male salaries as well in future.
This deadlock between employer intransigence and the growing anger of the members prompted the calling of the union’s (and the Australian clerical industry’s) first national strike on 14 December. Less than two months previously, the Federal Executive had worried about ‘widespread and deep-seated opposition’ among members. Now it called on them to engage in unprecedented militancy over equal pay.
It is undoubtedly true that members’ outlook had changed. The actions they themselves had engaged in during the second half of 1973 (and the concessions they had won) showed equal pay was achievable if they kept the pressure on, but also that only such actions were likely to force further improvements. Recognition of this shift obviously encouraged the leadership to propose industrial action in November-December 1973. Still they had not moved far from their original view of the campaign as one centred, in the final analysis, on negotiations and arbitration. The Federal Executive still proposed a national strike in hopes that the ‘threat of such a stoppage ... [would place] the SRC and Arbitration Commission under pressure to settle the dispute in the time between December 7th and December 14th’.
Members were enthusiastic. Again Melbourne was the most active. Two to three thousand members voted to strike and then marched once again to the National Mutual plaza. Despite reported comments by the chair of the SRC, Mr J.L. Greig, that management ‘had made a sincere and genuine offer to help relieve the situation’, AISF members remained unconvinced.
In the week before the strike the employers tried to play on the fears of workers who had never struck before. The union responded:
All members must consider themselves bound by this decision ... Striking is the only responsible action to be taken in support of gaining justice ... If you have never been on strike before, then here are a few hints: — Be proud of the action you are taking … Disregard arguments against striking, particularly people who say there are ‘reasonable’ arguments against striking. After all, are the employers being ‘reasonable’?
Meanwhile the AISF was also trying to reach a settlement in the ArbitrationCommission. After hearings before Justice Elizabeth Evatt on Tuesday 11 and Thursday 13 December, the Federal Executive met the day before the strike. On a motion from delegate Steve Crabb they decided to call it off as long as the General Secretary was satisfied with the day’s final offer. Despite the Executive’s preceding decision to refer any offer back to mass meetings, the strike was cancelled at the eleventh hour.
The wage rate handed down by the Arbitration Commission was identical to the SRC’s last offer, up to step 4. However it lifted the ceiling on women’s wages up to the seventh year of adult service, although it did nothing about parity with the male 14-year scale. While it was not equal pay, it did also remove the threat of downward classification contained in the previous offer.
We cannot know whether the members themselves would have accepted this offer, so little different from that which had prompted them to vote for strike action. Clerk and Dagger concluded that the AISF officials never intended a strike but had simply used the threat as a bargaining device. Allowing members to vote on the offer could have upset this strategy. And in fact the next issue of Premium stated that ‘at that stage a strike could not have had any bearing on the result. Members had already displayed their solidarity, and this was of great help in the negotiations.’
The tone of the union leadership’s explanation for canceling the strike was defensive:
In negotiations where an offer is made which requires acceptance, the Federation makes every effort to consult the membership. However, the agreement was not an offer, it was a dispute settlement formula, put forward by Justice Evatt.
Yet the question raised in Clerk and Dagger remained: if the apparently immovable SRC could be shifted away from the demand for re-classification by the mere threat of a strike, what might more serious industrial action have won?
The proposition was not tested. It took another two years before formal equal pay for insurance workers was granted, but the union took no strike action in that time. The SRC continued, in a series of meetings with the union, to advance its claims for a classification scheme to cover the entire industry. In July 1974, forgoing negotiation, they simply asked the union to accept the classification scheme that the employers had devised. The AISF refused. September 1974 saw the union’s membership begin another round of office reps’ meetings. This sign that industrial action might revive, plus an overall industrial climate where equal pay was being granted across the workforce, produced an interim decision from the Commission awarding a five per cent increase to adult women on 1 November 1974.
A gap still remained between female and male wages. The insurance companies, now organised as the Insurance Employers’ Industrial Association (IEIA), made a further offer towards equal pay on 5 September 1975. The union rejected it and decided to seek arbitration on the long-running dispute. As Griffin points out, both the 1974 and 1975 movements towards equal pay in insurance took place at Arbitration Commission direction, rather than in direct response to the sort of industrial pressure that had been built up in 1973. The motivating force was much more the general industrial and political climate, in which inequality was seen as increasingly intolerable. But the AISF members did provide one last push. The union’s conference adopted a proposal to declare 16 October 1975 ‘National Insurance Industry Equal Pay Day’, with an Australia-wide stopwork from 2pm to 3pm and demonstrations. In Melbourne a thousand members marched from their offices to reach the Arbitration Commission at 2pm.
On 15 November 1975 Commissioner Paine granted equal pay up to the seventh year of adult service. The decision did still leave a loophole through which lower wages for women (and increasingly for junior men) could persist. The union leaders were aware of it, and it was to keep union organisers busy in the coming years. The pay scale still allowed for workers who performed routine duties more than 50 per cent of the time to have their wages frozen at the seventh step.
Outcomes and conclusions
The effects of this campaign were not confined to the extra money women workers now received — fortnightly increases ranging from $6.88 to $79.31. Significant changes had also taken place in the nature of the AISF, and the attitude to women that existed inside it. There was a growing class-consciousness — an ‘us and them’ attitude towards the employers — and the common struggle had begun to break down sexist divisions in the workforce.
The union grew. Writing in 1977, Russell Lansbury argued that among the elements likely to contribute to the growth of white-collar unionism in the future was the fact that:
… given a continuation of the current industrial environment in Australia in which the more assertive unions win higher rewards for their members, white-collar employees are likely to become more militant. Indeed, it may be argued that white-collar workers will not improve their position while they maintain a belief in intelligent and mutually trusting cooperation as the foundation of their relations with employers.
The growth of the AISF at the time of the equal pay campaign (and the wage campaign which preceded it in 1972) bears out Lansbury’s argument. The union gained 1,693 new members in 1972 and 1,127 in 1973, after a small decrease in membership in 1971. To explain this growth (13.3 per cent in 1972 and 7.8 per cent in 1973), Griffin argues that ‘evidence points to increased membership as a direct role of industrial action’.
This is certainly reinforced by the AISF General Secretary’s report on the union’s 1972 salary campaign, its only widespread industrial action prior to that on equal pay. He estimated that 7,500 members attended stopworks in December 1972 ¾ a very high figure. Conversely, he pointed out that where there was no campaign activity, as in the Western Australian branch, ‘membership ... is at its lowest level for the past decade and the morale of the membership probably at a similar level’. Phil Griffiths recalled that one feature of the 3,000-strong equal pay meeting in Melbourne on 5 December 1973 (out of a Victorian branch membership of about 5,000) was the number of non-members present. He went back to his office after the vote to strike and ‘started signing people up because there was going to be a strike’.
A report to the Victorian branch’s 1973 annual general meeting noted unprecedented growth, a 25 per cent increase in collection of union dues, and a 50 per cent reduction in arrears. Where people were actively involved, and the union appeared to be fighting for their rights, commitment of all sorts increased. On the other hand, the reversal of the AISF’s growth coincided with a period (21 December 1973 to August 1975) in which no industrial action whatsoever took place in the insurance industry. In 1974 membership declined by 332, when on the experience of the previous two years it might have been expected to grow by over 1,000.
The AISF began to act much more like a trade union than a professional association. Some writers attribute the changes to the role of specific figures in the leadership. Others who were union officials at the time, such as Kevin Davern, also give some weight to this factor:
There was a period, up until the mid-60s, when the union was a bit of a club. The fellows controlled it, but also they did it on the basis that there had never been an industrial dispute … It was people coming back from the war like Phil Reilly [federal president], who were seen as mad lefties by the establishment, who changed that. Ken McLeod ... had a powerful influence because he succeeded a guy who was federal secretary who was a Liberal.
Much more important, however, was the self-activity of the union members, in what Premium called ‘the most extensive and extended industrial action ever undertaken by the Federation.’ A narrow view of the union as one that ‘just looked after the people who intended to be in insurance until they were 65’ was not able to cope with the upsurge of anger over equal pay. The AISF was no longer a union where strike action was unthinkable.
The extent of the change can be gauged from the alternative industrial strategy proposed by the Militant Insurance Clerks in September 1973, a group regarded by the AISF leadership as extremists whose proposals would derail the campaign. Yet what was the MIC’s proposal, less than three months before the members voted for a national strike? Insurance workers should withdraw their labour from key areas in every company. ‘This recognises that full strike action in insurance is probably not feasible at the moment’.
Workers’ attitudes to each other also changed. Their common class position, as workers fighting the boss, began to bridge the gender divide, as shown by references to action ‘in which men and women joined as equal partners’, or the gratification felt by the Victorian branch president on seeing ‘both males and females demonstrating together outside the Arbitration Court’. It was difficult for male workers to go on seeing women as second-class citizens when they were fighting alongside them (and losing pay) to win equality. Employer attempts to use re-classification to both avoid equal pay and push down male wages merely underlined the common class interest.
Gleghorn, in his commissioned history of the insurance union, wrote that ‘the achievement of equal pay, the union-wide heat it generated and a new attitude it created to women workers, was a million miles from [the] sexist jokes and equality on male terms of the earlier years of the Federation’. In an attempt to get women more involved, a 1968 edition of Premium had portrayed a stereotypical female wandering into a union meeting by accident and finding it wasn’t too bad after all. Young men were not encouraged to join the union in this fashion. Such patronizing appeals to women entirely disappeared from Premium by 1972, as did sexist cartoons.
The AISF’S official structures also showed some signs of change. In May 1968 the Victorian branch had elected the first woman secretary of a white-collar union in Australia, Diana Sonenberg who had worked as an organiser since 1966. However, the article which announced her election also informed the reader that Mrs Sonenberg lived in a flat in Elwood with her two children, that she cooked dinner at night, and that she managed to do her job ‘with the help of two baby-sitters, her parents ¾ and a lot of organization’. Five years later, when a similar article announced the appointment of Ms Marian Miller as Federal Organiser to work in the Victorian Branch, no such personal details were thought necessary. However the improvement was not uniform. At the end of 1973 Marian Miller could still point out that only 10 per cent of office reps were women, despite 60 per cent female employment in the industry.
It is often thought that equal pay came about due to the (somewhat belated) wisdom of the Arbitration Commission in its 1969 and 1972 equal pay decisions, and even that ‘the period of implementation [of the 1972 decision] was remarkably uncontentious’. The AISF experience suggests otherwise: it was union action, not the justice of the case that won gains for insurance workers. Lower pay for women had been no less unjust in 1962 when the AISF leadership had approached the Prime Minister to do something about it. At the time Premium had commented that ‘it is hoped that some announcement may be made during the budget session of Parliament’.
Casting off such illusions in favour of industrial action was an important precondition for winning real gains. Despite tribunal decisions, unionists still had to fight their employers to get equality. Lansbury argues that ‘the failure of arbitration to provide adequate protection for white collar employees’ was a factor causing their unions to adopt more militant tactics. That was certainly true in the insurance industry.
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