Womens' struggles against pay discrimination

On June 30 around 40 unionists gathered at the steps of Parliament to mark one year since the Government’s disestablishment of the Pay Equity Unit within the Department of Labour. The unionists were seeking to highlight the continued pay gap between men and women which stands at 12.35%. They brought with them five fake stones to highlight Pansy Wong’s vow to "to leave no stone unturned in trying to close the pay gap" and to present the five unturned stones they want the Government to act on.

These five solutions to the pay equity problem are,

  • Pay Equity legislation
  • Increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour
  • Guaranteed access to high quality early childhood education
  • Practical support for employers and unions to implement pay and employment equity
  • Implement pay and employment equity reviews and remove the ban on pay investigations

The Pay Equity Campaign has a host of facts and figures to prove their point that women get paid less than men. The Government’s Pay Equity Unit when it was still around found that, “Of the 38 core public service departments, 21 reported that women and men do not receive equal pay for the same work. A number of reviews specifically found gender gap in starting salaries for the same jobs.”

The Coalition spokesperson told the NZPA during the protest, "We want legislation, the Equal Pay Act of 1972 is ineffective, and it was made ineffective with the Employment Contracts Act." Yet a quick review of the history shows that legislation and the Government’s pay equity unit can only go so far to eliminate the pay gap.

In 1972 New Zealand passed the Equal Pay Act to ensure that women workers received the same pay as men for doing the same jobs. Most workers and women probably thought the problem had been solved but as unionists quickly found out passing a law didn’t do a lot of good.

Back in ‘72 time pioneering union activist and feminist Sonja Davies was a union organiser for the Wellington Shop Employee’s Union representing retail workers. In her autobiography Bread and Roses, Sonja recalls the first strike she was involved in for equal pay for women in New Zealand.

Supermarket meatpackers, of which there were no male ones, were paid 11 per cent less than men in jobs substantially similar in skill, experience and responsibility, so the women decided to go on strike in 1974 to win an equal wage.

The strike didn’t come out of the blue, but were part of a 14 month struggle led by a meatpacker called Sally, “absolutely dedicated, fearless and strong and co-ordinated a convinced and equally determined group of women workers from meat units in the supermarkets in Wellington, and the Hutt Valley and Porirua”.

The women struck twice without success and returned to meet the employers at the bargaining table. However this time the unionists went with representatives of the main transport unions who had offered support to the women’s struggle.

As Sonja recalls, “The employers were still inclined to be intransigent, so we gave them a deadline to come to an agreement or supplies would be cut. The transport unions went off to advise their members of the deadline, some by telegram, some by radio telephone. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, some of the members jumped the gun a little and this resulted in some very odd happenings. Truck drivers passing by large supermarkets and seeing goods delivered would stop and shout, “Hey this place is black, haven’t you heard?” And the goods would be returned to their place of origin. The railway unions got into the act and shunted goods onto sidings and the seamen let it be known that there was no way that they could single out Wellington employers’ goods, so they would have to black all groceries. It took a little time for us to discover what was happening. The employers were understandably outraged because they believed they had another two days before any action would be taken. We assured them it was just a case of enthusiasm on the part of our fellow trade unionists.”

“However it must have convinced them that we were in earnest because they capitulated and the notional male rate of $80 per week for meat packers in Wellington, Hutt Valley and Porirua was agreed to.”

“It was an historic strike, the first ever of its kind in this country. It ended for all time the fallacy that women are not strong in times of industrial conflict. If they believe in and understand the issue, women will leave the men for dead in terms of strength and dedication. It also made the union realise that if that sort of action was needed to implement the provisions of the Equal Pay Act, a massive task lay ahead.”

Thirty six years ago women were taking direct action in their workplaces to win equal pay and their male comrades driving trucks, trains and working the docks were prepared to take illegal solidarity strikes to help them win. Today with industrial action at historic lows the CTU’s campaign for pay equity is reduced to street theatre at Parliament.

But direct action and worker solidarity are just as effective ways to get rid of pay discrimination than legislation or Government departments. Just ask the 300 tailoresses at the Kaiapoi Woollen Company who went out on strike in 1889 for three weeks to force their employer to lift their wages. Or the 35 tailoresses who struck in Auckland at a tailoring establishment for three months to win a living wage in 1890. Or the 50 Dunedin tailoresses who were locked out in 1906 for refusing to take a pay cut. These women workers risked their incomes and their jobs in uncertain economic times in their struggle against home grown sweatshops at the turn of the century. Although the passing of laws like the Factories Acts and the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act had improved their work hours, health and safety conditions and created a minimum wage for women, these laws did not keep wages rising in pace with prices or stop employer victimisation of union activists; two important issues for unionists during the industrial revolution (and now).

Putting pressure on politicians to change legislation is important but equally important is the need for unions to lead their members in audacious (and successful) industrial action against pay discrimination. Currently that appears to be absent from the CTU strategy and without direct action the pay gap is likely to keep growing, despite Pansy Wong’s protestations.

As Maryan Street wrote in her trailblazing The Scarlet Runners; Women and Industrial Action, 1889-1913, for women struggling to improve their wages and conditions,

“There were times when organisation was imperative; there were times when only the law could adequately address the injustices perpetrated in the workplace in the name of economic efficiency. Even when the law did assist, the need for collective organisation remained and women struggled to maintain their achievements.”

Further reading:

Sonja Davies, Bread and Roses; Sonja Davies, Her Story, Masterton, 1984.

Maryan Street, The Scarlet Runners; Women and Industrial Action, 1889-1911, Wellington, 1993.


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