Behind the ACTU's latest pay equity 'campaign'

In early March the ACTU announced that pay equity between male and female workers would be “the major union campaign priority for 2010, outside of the federal election”. According to ACTU reports, full-time women workers in 2009, on average, received 82.5% of men’s pay. Although comprising the majority of university graduates, women earn $2000 a year less when commencing work and continue to fall behind in pay and superannuation through the rest of their working life.

According to an ACTU study released on March 1, the average pay of fulltime women workers is 17% less than that of fulltime male workers. In 1985, the average earnings of women in full-time jobs was 82.7% cent of men’s pay, but by last year it had slipped back below the 1985 level to 82.5%. Despite the fact that women are now more likely to have a tertiary qualification than men, female graduates earn $2000 less than male graduates and $7500 less by the fifth year after graduation.

The ACTU announced its equal pay campaign would include industrial and community action and political lobbying, and demand improvements in paid parental leave and increased government regulation of business. The ACTU announced it would call for greater protection from discrimination against workers with family and carer responsibilities and better regulation of flexible work arrangements. The ACTU is also demanding “meaningful” disclosure from employers on pay equity and independent monitoring on “progress towards achieving equal pay”. The centrepiece of the ACTU’s equal pay campaign is a “landmark equal pay case” in the Fair Work Australia industrial commission “to secure equal pay for women that work in the social and community services sector”.

On March 11, the Australian Services Union (ASU) initiated the “Kisses to Julia” online campaign in which supporters are urged to send a postcard to Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who is also the minister for employment and industrial relations. In late November 2009, the Rudd Labor government agreed to support the ASU test case before Fair Work Australia, seeking large pay increases for 200,000 predominantly female workers in the community services sector. The case will be heard later this year. The “Kisses” campaign is designed to lobby Gillard to get the Rudd government to agree to fund equal pay should the test case succeed. The community services sector is largely reliant on government funding. ASU assistant national secretary Linda White said that “we’re asking the deputy prime minister to convince her colleagues to bring community workers’ pay up and put an end to lip service to equal pay”.

Inspired by the lip service metaphor, the “send a kiss postcard to Julia!” online campaign is a gimmicky attempt to lobby a single minister. Its website depicts a svelte female figure blowing kisses, framed by purple lipstick kiss marks. The sexualised imagery reinforces gender stereotypes of women as flirtatious and frivolous, undermining the campaign’s stated aims to end sexist discrimination against women workers.

The lobbying strategy pursued by campaign organisers further undermines any chance of real advances for pay equity. Although the ASU has scheduled a National Day of Action on June 10, it does not envisage any strike action. The union has been negotiating with community services providers to have them allow most of their workers to attend 11am public rallies on June 10 in Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Darwin, Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. If the ACTU were serious about achieving advances toward pay equity it would organise a cross-industry campaign, supported by all unions, centred on mobilising workers in united action through mass rallies and cross-industry strikes.

1937 ACTU appeal for equal pay

The ACTU’s ineffectual strategy reflects its historical token commitment to the pursuit of pay equity. In their 2008 Labour History analysis of the equal pay campaign from 1949-68, “Pragmatic Procrastination: Governments, Unions and Equal Pay, 1949–68” (available online at <>), Tom Sheridan and Pat Stretton observed that “although the ACTU had asked for equal pay in the 1937 Basic Wage Case and again in 1949 the union movement was less than wholehearted about women entering the workforce, let alone equal pay”. In 1937, the Commonwealth Arbitration Court (CAC) had set women’s pay at 54% of the male rate.

Sheridan and Stretton pointed out that “the 1952–53 Basic Wage Case saw [the ACTU] barely fending off employers’ arguments for longer hours and lower wages, including reduction of women’s basic wage to 60 per cent of men’s”. In its 1950 wage decision, the CAC set women’s basic wage at 75% of the male basic wage. Six years later, the ACTU organised a national conference of unions with women members that called for mass petitions for equal pay but, according to Sheridan and Stretton, the response among union officials was “unenthusiastic” as “most unions were more interested in fighting for higher male margins”.

Sheridan and Stretton noted that “the first blow to post-war hopes for equal pay came in 1949 from Ben Chifley’s Labor government. When the Australian Women’s Charter [committee headed by ALP left-wing feminist Jesse Street] asked Chifley to introduce equal pay for Commonwealth public servants, his brief response asserted irrelevantly that the Commonwealth government had no power to fix basic wages. When, next month, the High Court invalidated the [government’s Women’s Employment Board] wartime [pay] rates [which were generally set at 75% of the male rate] Chifley amended the Arbitration Act to allow the CAC to set a basic wage for women, sending a clear signal that women would continue to be paid less” than male workers.

Despite a 1951 recommendation by the UN’s International Labor Organisation for “equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal value … with a view to providing a classification of jobs without regard to sex”, it wasn’t until 1972 that the federal industrial relations court decided that women workers should be paid 100% of the wage. This decision was made in the wake of the rise from the late 1960s of the women’s liberation movement. The commission’s decision automatically applied to women under federal awards but only covered about 40% of women in the workforce.

Pay discrimination serves capitalism

While the pro-capitalist politicians of the ALP pay lip service to equal pay, they are opposed to its actual implementation because they know that truly delivering equal pay would require a fundamental overturning of the system of labour exploitation by the capitalist class. Lowly paid pools of labour, such as women workers, exert a downward pressure on all wages and allow the capitalist class to “divide and rule” by granting privileges to male workers in particular industries. The unpaid domestic labour which most women workers undertake in the home further saves the capitalist class billions of dollars in maintaining and reproducing the workforce. In 1990, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that women’s unpaid work in the home was worth the equivalent of 60% of the GDP.

The women workers’ double burden of unpaid domestic labour means they are more heavily concentrated in casual and part-time employment, risk losing their place on career ladders due to family responsibilities and fall behind in superannuation accumulation. Currently women workers comprise 45% of the workforce, but the overwhelming majority are concentrated in low-paid jobs. In 2004, although comprising 47% of the paid workforce, women made up 65% (1.5 million) of those earning less than $500 per week. While 36% of full-time workers are women, they make up 45% of the full-time workforce earning less than $500 per week. Almost half of women workers are employed in part-time jobs, compared with only 15% of male workers.

On March 2, Fairfax newspapers reported that “Sara Charlesworth, a principal research fellow at RMIT University in Melbourne ... said changes in workplace laws had affected women’s pay, particularly for those in retail and hospitality. Typically their pay was linked to awards or minimum-wage decisions that had failed to keep pace with [unionised] workers in collective bargaining. The shift from centralised wage fixing to enterprise bargaining in the early 1990s and then to individual agreements under the Howard government had weakened the position of many women workers, she said.”

Women workers on individual contracts in 2003 were paid 11% less than women on collective agreements. In 2004-5, women on individual contracts received 70% of the male wage, compared with women on collective agreements who received 83% of the male wage. After the introduction of Work Choices by the Howard government in March 2006, the gender pay gap has widened. Seventy percent of the pay gain for women workers achieved between 1996 and 2006 was erased in the first nine months of Work Choices. Real wages stagnated or declined in industries that employ large numbers of women, such as retail and hospitality.

The problem is therefore not solely the dollar amounts of wages paid to women workers in particular industries. To close the gender-based pay gap, the trade union movement needs to fight for a socio-economic system that prioritises the rights and needs of working people over the profit-making needs of the capitalist class, including free, accessible, quality childcare, socialisation of domestic labour, paid maternity and paternity leave at 100% of employees’ wages, liveable welfare payments, properly-funded rape crisis centres, women’s refuges, abortion clinics and healthcare centres.

Although the Rudd government was elected principally because of mass opposition to Work Choices, it has maintained the Howard industrial relations agenda. Its Fair Work Australia (FWA) industrial legislation reinforces the restrictions on workers’ rights introduced during the Howard years and even goes much further than the Howard government in eroding the award system. Under the euphemism of “award modernisation”, more than 2400 state and federal awards will be stripped back to 10 “national employment standards”. By contrast the Howard government attempted to restrict awards to 20 “allowable matters” when it first implemented the 1996 Workplace Relations Act.

The FWA legislation exempts employers from the obligation to give notice of dismissal in the initial employment period — six months for “regular businesses” and 12 months for “small businesses”, i.e., those with fewer than 15 full-time employees. Not even Work Choices had such an exemption. As with Work Choices, pattern bargaining — the right to take industrial action in pursuit of industry-wide pay and conditions — remains outlawed.

The focus of the ACTU “campaign” for equal pay is limited to political lobbying and verbal support for separate union claims for pay rises in particular industries pursued through the FWA commission, such as the ASU case. As in previous periods, the ACTU speaks the rhetoric of the need for pay equity but its strategy of accommodating to profit-oriented “cost-containment” interests of the bosses has the effect of postponing even modest steps toward its achievement.

The ASU equal pay campaign operates within a similar framework. Last October, Gilliard and White signed a “heads of agreement” under which the ASU has accepted that the “proceedings” in its FWA case “are likely to be complex, lengthy and resource intensive”; that even if it wins its FWA case, implementation of the decision will take account of the “current economic and budgetary environment” of Australia’s federal, state and territory governments. Thus, the ASU leadership has agreed that any increase on “pay equity or work value grounds will not take effect until at least 6 months after the date of any decision”, and would be “phased [in] via instalments over not less than an additional four-and-a-half year period”.