Impetus for struggles for equal pay came from within the working class
There’s a quite widespread prejudice among the liberal left that male workers, especially blue-collar male workers, are socially reactionary. That they are sexist, anti-gay, anti-immigrant and generally backward. The liberal left, however, never examines its own class viewpoint – the liberal wing of the middle class – and its own prejudices against workers, especially blue-collar workers. In the past few decades, as class has been rather shunted aside as the key force for social transformation, there has also been a certain type of feminist rewriting of history.
A good example of this was the film Made in Dagenham, where the producers decided it would be more acceptable – and more profitable – to view the 1968 struggle of women workers at Dagenham for equal pay through a feminist lens than through class. They even created a fake character to introduce cross-class female solidarity that never existed in that struggle.
There has also been a tendency to see struggles for equal pay through a feminist lens, even though second-wave feminism had very little to do with battling for the rights of working class women in the workplace – in New Zealand, for instance, the dominant feminist magazine (Broadsheet) was far more well-disposed towards fur-coated middle class women agitating against militant unions and strikes than they were to working class women’s struggles and movements like the Housewives Boycott Movement. But here, as in most countries, the impetus for campaigns for equal pay come from within the working class movement, not the feminist movement. These campaigns were certainly affected by the new political breeze of the 1960s and early 1970s, of which the women’s liberation movement was an important part, however the campaigning drive still came predominantly from within the working class not from within the women’s movement. The article below deals with the case of the Australian metal industry nearly half-a-century ago. Its author is a longtime Australian Marxist activist.
by Diane Fieldes (1999)
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