A woman’s place is in her union. Not in the kitchen chopping onions.
Unions (author’s note: it’s not pronounced “onions”) and women (also not pronounced “onion”) seem inseparable forces nowadays, but it wasn’t that long ago that women had to fight to carve a space within the union movement. Just so everyone is aware, we really love unions. One time, Jess got this Ballarat Trades Hall polo from her dad, and even though it wasn’t that cool, I (Caitlin) wanted one too so I made my brother drive and get me one the next day. But back to the point. Women are awesome and the union movement has progressed immensely since they were first allowed to say the word union without a man’s permission (that’s a stretch but you get what we mean).
We will be only scraping the surface of the immense and undoubtedly important contributions women have made in the union movement. We also acknowledge that the history of the women’s labour movement has been predominantly written by white unionists. Women of colour and indigenous women have also been just as, if not more so, active and powerful in the labour movement. Just like men locked out women, white women also locked women of colour and indigenous women out of the fight too. Just like onions, the history of women in unions has many layers. So buckle in for some facts, some myths, potential hearsay, and us mostly just fangirling over women and unions and onions.
The world has always been one big boys club, and once, this was even reflected within the union movement. This isn’t to say the union movement hasn’t been an integral power for women, but in a reflection of the times, even women were had no space within Trades Hall. Men were everywhere (like literally everywhere, gross, like eating a raw onion), and so naturally they dominated another facet of life, unions (and onion farming too).
Focusing closer to home in Melbourne, a second home to many student activists – Trades Hall was once not a home for women activists. It was in the late 1880s that women unionists after a successful Tailoresses strike had built enough power and size to call on the Trades Hall Council to approve construction of a “Female Operatives’ Hall”. At this time, women still hadn’t won the vote, and couldn’t enter a public bar – or even a ladies lounge without a man accompanying her. Although still not granted a space within Trades Hall itself, the Female Operatives Hall was a win for female unionists of the time, and an important step forward for all unionists (and onion eaters).
These women unionists were at the forefront of many important pivotal movements in history. The threats of conscription during WWI, WWII and the Vietnam war, saw women, unionist and unaffiliated alike, come out in numbers to support anti-conscription and anti-war movements. 1916 saw a Women’s No Conscription demo and rally take place, where the 5,000 women marching swelled to a crowd of 80,000. As pro-conscription and war activists came to fight the women (onions may or may not have been thrown, we can’t confirm), male and female unionists alike came to their defence to protect them. Women were making themselves heard in great numbers, and finally, men were hearing them.
As men began coming to the table (potentially bringing onions) on women’s issues and equality, the women’s organising and separate unions amalgamated within men’s unions, and by 1960s the Female Operatives Hall was demolished as we all finally stood under the same roof in solidarity with each other for our shared and separate fights.
By the late 1960’s, two world wars had passed, which saw women finally entering all sorts of fields of employment. Zelda D’Aprano, a Meat Workers Union official within Trades Hall, began to take up the fight for women within Melbourne to take up the fight for equal pay. She chained herself and two other women workers to the Commonwealth building in protest, demanding to pay only two thirds the cost of a train fare since women were only paid two thirds of a man’s wage (approximately worth 4 onions if the conversion rates of the day are applied). Zelda was forefront in the pay dispute campaign, and with her establishment of the Women’s Action Committee, she believed women had to stand up and fight for their own rights because everyone else sure as hell wasn’t going to do it for them.
Just as we were in the 1880s, women are still incredibly active within their unions to this day, especially at their workplaces. In 2011, an ACTU survey found women were making up nearly half of all union membership, and were slowly tipping the scales within leadership roles, with 45 per cent of delegates being women. We’re still fighting to see women in higher levels of leadership within major unions. It’s nevertheless exciting to see amazing women such as Ged Kearney kicking ass as the President of the ACTU, and Sally McManus now punching down gender role walls as Secretary of the ACTU.
In closing, we really love unions, but we really want you to love unions too. The only way change happens is when people stand up for what’s right, when they become involved and have their voice be heard. Join your union, get involved with Trades Hall campaigns, become a delegate, fight for better rights for yourself and for all women to come after you! Add to the layers of history that is the Women’s Unionist Movement.