The Guardian: Say Goodbye to the Burly Blue-Collar Face of Unions: They're Now Feminist

By Van Badham

The most memorable visual of last week’s Australian Council of Trade Unions’ triennial congress was the assembly on stage of all the union men, led by former seafarer Mick Doleman, a 31-year veteran of the Maritime Union of Australia. For all the stereotypes of Australian unionism associated with burly, blue-collar men, this was no tableau of macho. 

Doleman was rallying his male comrades en masse to take the White Ribbon pledge. The activity on stage was exclusively male, but the sentiment was explicitly feminist.

“Domestic violence is not a women’s issue,” Doleman called, “It’s a men’s issue.Women are the victims. Men are the perpetrators.”


Doleman’s line here is unadorned fact that many others in public life aren’t always willing to acknowledge. In recent media, writers Tanveer Ahmed and Sallee McLaren have respectively suggested feminists and victims themselves are somehow to blame for the male violence that’s already killed more than 40 Australian women this year.

But Doleman’s words and the throng of male union officials trying to squeeze into frame for female delegates snapping them with cameras weren’t refreshing just because they were direct. Nor was this one action significant because the participating delegates and officials represent a movement which, containing more than 1.8 million Australian people, is the largest membership organisation in the country.

Their action was significant because it did not occur in isolation. Amid the 20 new policies and 200 resolutions adopted by the ACTU congress last week were campaigns to demand family-violence leave provisions for women in the workplace, a commitment to fight government attacks on paid parental leave, and – in response to an internal Women in Unions report – to improve the current40% representation rate of women in union leadership positions to meet a 50% quota.

If there are any remaining doubts that women’s rights are union business, the guest speaker at the congress was anti-violence campaigner, Rosie Batty, Australian of the Year.

As the participation of women in the workplace has increased, so has their membership of unions and activism within them. While men are still the Australian membership’s slight majority as well as presently holding 62% of ACTU delegates and 60% of the union leadership, last week’s congress made clear that decades of feminist activism has proven its legitimacy with the organised working class.

Of course, it wasn’t always so. Unionism in Australia was born at a time when society either prevented women’s participation in certain workforces, or ignored the ones they were in. Unions campaigned bitterly against retaining women in the Australian workforce after the second world war. The tram union’s ban on women drivers was only overturned after a 19-year battle and the famous cry, “I don’t need a penis to drive a bloody tram!” from activist Joyce Barry before she was finally allowed to grasp her own controls in 1975.

And while the Australian Workers Union may have allowed radical writer and feminist Dame Mary Gilmore to become its first female member and write for its paper in the 1920s, by the 1980s it had spawned notorious sexist Ernie Ecob as a secretary, whose gendered disparagements were so legendary there are annual awards for sexism named after him.

In a 2007 ABC debate, former ACTU president Sharan Burrow, now the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, made the point that women workers “fought the ACTU and the unions” for three decades to recognise equal pay. It was the “magnificent victories fought by women in the courts” that is responsible for unions recognising equal pay as a principle cause, even if it is not yet a universal practice.

It’s Burrow’s point that perhaps explains how the feminist message gained union traction. Whether it’s the right to drive a tram, get equal pay or live without discrimination, violence or harassment, doggedly pursuing a cause for decades before a “magnificent” victory accumulates political legitimacy and moral authority. For a union movement engaged in the ongoing battle to equalise power relations for the underdog, the visible achievements of organised women are inspiring. The last three ACTU presidents – Jennie George, Burrow and current president Ged Kearney – started their careers in teaching and nursing industries with traditions of female organising.

Australian feminists have spent decades fighting systems of gender inequality that allow men to justify, excuse or ignore harms against women, the worst extreme of which is murder. The campaign against male violence is raging and the male-dominated movement of Australian unionism is now a powerful ally to the feminist cause.

The question must then be asked of those who insist that modern feminists are ineffective, or insular, or doing feminism wrong: can you not see what’s being achieved because of some privilege? Is it a class occlusion or a gender bias that’s making you so blind?

Original story published in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian.