Published: 21/10/2022
Category: Women To The Front
Published: 21/10/2022
Category: Women To The Front

There are many ways workers spend their lunch break. Some tuck into food in the breakroom. Others leave the desk or worksite and go for a stroll.

One woman headed down to a busy building in Melbourne’s CBD and chained herself to the front door of a busy building.

Zelda chained to double doors

It was 1969 and unionist Zelda D’Aprano was not backing down: equal pay was still not a reality for working women.

No more waiting on the sidelines

The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union – of which D’Aprano was a member – was one of many unions that took a case of equal pay to the Arbitration Commission in 1969.

The case resulted in a small step forward: ‘equal pay for equal work’ was legislated. But it didn’t take into consideration fields that were women-dominated and so only covered around 18 per cent of the women workforce.

Speaking with On The Job, Australian Council of Trade Unions historian Dr Liam Byrne described the sexism underpinning the case, despite the small win.

“Sitting in this Commission, day in and day out, and you would hear four male judges running events…sitting there debating the rights of working women while working women were sitting in the stands, silently,” Dr Byrne said.

It was a situation that would be familiar to many working women even now. And so too was D’Aprano’s reaction.

“I found the need to sit there silent almost beyond my control and was incensed with the entire set up,” D’Aprano explained in her memoirs.

When she chained herself to the door of the Commonwealth Building on 21 October 1969 as other women activists marched nearby with placards, she showed the Commission decision was not nearly good enough for working women.

D’Aprano’s actions defied the sexism present in Australian workplaces as well as the union movement itself.

“It was highly confronting for many men in the [union] movement who didn’t like the idea that their historic claims and control over the issues of the movement were being challenged,” Dr Byrne said.

“It challenged those structure of power and forced people to question their own assumptions. And that’s never a comfortable process but it’s a necessary one if we’re going to demonstrate our principles of solidarity and action.”

“Her rights are workers’ rights”

Fast forward to 2022 and the majority of union members are working women – and you can tell.

The workers across the Australian union movement have come out in support of women’s rights both inside and outside of workplaces.

Speaking to crowds at a rally protesting anti-abortion laws, Victorian Trades Hall Council assistant secretary Wil Stracke described the strength of working women in unions.

“The average trade unionist today is a woman. She works in a caring profession. She works supporting or educating others. Or she works in retail and hospitality. And her rights are workers’ rights. And workers’ rights are union business,” Stracke said.

Some of the most feminised industries in Australia have been the site of huge actions where union members have come together to demand better wages and conditions.

Teachersearly childhood educatorsnurses and midwives alike have shown the country the power of standing up for one another in just this year alone.

The gender pay gap may still be significant but it is shrinking and it is even smaller within unionised workplaces.

And just like D’Aprano, union members refuse to allow the issues affecting working women to remain hypothetical.

Know what you’re worth

Have you had to put up with men making the decisions for working women? You should meet Zelda

Have you had to put up with men making the decisions for working women? You should meet Zelda