The 8th of March is International Women’s Day. Like much of what is good in the world, this day was bought to you by women who had the courage and conviction to demand fairness and dignity in their community and workplaces. They were, of course, union women. So today, we look back to see just how far we union women have advanced fairness and dignity in our community. We also let you know, we union women have not finished yet!
International Women’s Day honours the struggles of women worldwide, and originated with a strike by garment workers in New York in 1857. The strikers, who were seeking better working conditions and a 10-hour day, were broken up by the police. Fifty-one years later, on 8 March 1908, needles trades workers marched again, honouring the 1857 strikers and calling for an end to sweatshops and child labour.
At the same time New Zealand union women were fighting battles of their own. An early battle New Zealand women won was the right to choose to work. Not everyone was quite as clever as our early union sisters; many thought a woman’s place was exclusively in the home. In 1890 Dr Stenhouse of Dunedin cautioned against women working, even noting that women working led to vice.
“The tendency of overwork is unquestionably to lead to vice. The health is reduced and when the constitution is enfeebled the mind is not so able to resist temptation in any form.”
While women won the right to work, the idiotic view that a woman’s place was primarily in the home kept women’s wages artificially low and locked women out of certain industries entirely. It did this by creating the idea that it was only important that men’s wages could support a family. This devastated women’s wages: up until World War Two New Zealand women earned half of what men did.
But again courageous union women campaigned tirelessly to have their skills fairly remunerated. They won the Government Services Act 1960 and the Equal Pay Act 1972. Their victories have bumped up working women’s pay significantly. But we are not there yet. According to Statistics NZ, for every dollar men aged between 25 and 64 earn today, women made just under 86 cents. Yet here again, unions and union wāhine are fighting to address this inequity.
Aged care worker and hero Kristine Bartlett, backed by her union, E tū, lodged a successful equal pay claim against her employer TerraNova, arguing that aged care bosses were breaching the Equal Pay Act 1972 by not paying her for the skills of her job; rather they were paying her gender. The Government has now set up a working group to develop principles for dealing with claims under the Act, and legal cases filed by E tū and the New Zealand Education Institute are on hold till the end of this month, when the working group is due to present its principles.
The legal acknowledgement that the insultingly low wages in traditional female dominated occupations are unlawful is a huge victory and one that will smash the historic hangover women’s wages have been suffering from. Union wāhine will be leading this work and leading these wins. Which is exactly where we they belong, and have been for the last hundred and fifty years.
So here’s to union wāhine – fighting the good fight since forever!