Women Leading the Struggle

The MUA’s Women, Youth and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Conference opened with a Welcome to Country from Uncle Graham Dillon. He told conference delegates that his people, the Kombumerri have been at this conference site in Broadbeach, Queensland for at least 5,000 years. He explained it is also a matriarchal country, where “women run the business.” He kicked off the political tone of the conference: his people say “this government has its ears blocked.” He extended his appreciation to the MUA, both for the work union members do at sea, and the work we do politically. 

Hannah Mathewson, MUA member and Hutchison worker, introduced National Secretary Paddy Crumlin. Paddy explained that Hannah’s whole family was sacked by Hutchison, the biggest stevedoring multinational in the world. “Together we were part of the fight back, and in the end we prevailed.”


Crumlin told delegates that the conference was the most important governance body of the union, taking place every 4 years, and that this was the union’s first conference outside of Sydney. Paddy welcomed the many international guests, saying that it was impossible to undertake a serious fight for workers’ rights without this kind of coordination, just as it was impossible to win campaigns without women, youth or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers.

Crumlin told delegates about the MUA’s current ‘Jobs Embassy’ in front of the federal parliament in Canberra. The Embassy is campaigning for workers’ rights to work, to live a decent life and to retire with dignity. Before setting up the Embassy, the MUA liaised with the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. That relationship is part of our union’s history, of the legacy of Chicka Dixon, a WWF member who was a part of establishing the original Aboriginal Tent embassy in 1972.

“In Australia today, workers are being stripped out of their workplaces, industries destroyed, people being denied a livelihood because they are members of a union,” Crumlin said, adding that we need to get rid of the current federal government. “There is hope - here in Queensland, they got rid of a terrible right wing government after only one term.” 

The next speaker was ALP Member of Parliament Grace Grace, Queensland Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations. Queensland Branch Secretary Bob Carnegie paid tribute to her efforts to remove the 15% bodily injury bar that prevented many injured workers in Queensland from being able to sue their employers for negligence.

Grace spoke about her family’s history as immigrants who struggled to get to Australia and establish themselves, and her father’s disabling industrial accident. She criticised the fact that in some industries women fill a majority of jobs, but men still fill senior positions. There is a glass ceiling we need to smash. She encouraged women to take whatever opportunities come their way, to not be too polite or cautious about offending people.

Longstanding MUA members Karen Wheatland and Sue Virago made a presentation about the history of women in the MUA and the maritime industry. While many women worked as clerks and in other roles around the waterfront, Gisela ‘Gus’ Konow was the first woman to become an Integrated Rating in 1984, and Sandra Elliman in Queensland in 1993 was the first wharfie.

The MUA’s women’s committee adopted the ‘Strong unions need women’ campaign in the 1990s, that was launched globally by the ITF. The women’s committee has since grown and become stronger. The percentage of women in the MUA has grown from five to seven per cent over the past four years. There are now two women elected to National Council: Mich-Elle Myers, the National Women’s Liaison Officer, and Alisha Bull, Tasmanian Assistant Branch Secretary and the first woman elected as an MUA branch official.  MUA member Sarah Maguire is the youngest and first woman appointed as an inspector for the ITF in Australia.


Secretary of Queensland Council of Unions Ros McClennan told delegates that 49% of the union movement were now women, and they were likely to become a majority. “Women workers deal with pay inequality, part time work, time out of work,  early retirement, low super and frequently retiring into poverty,” she said.

McClennan outlined her vision for a just Australia, emphasising that it will be a long road to get there. She was pleased to see paid domestic violence leave taken up as ALP policy, noting that 1.5 million workers now have access to paid domestic violence leave through union agreements. There will also be upcoming campaigns on Paid Parental Leave and women’s retirement incomes. 

Lara Watson from the Queensland Council of Unions addressed the issues of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

Unfortunately, Watson said, most unions don’t map ATSI members or progress. The MUA has a very long history of supporting Aboriginal struggles: from Wave Hill to Palm Island and against the NT intervention and nuclear waste dumps.  

Watson explained that the average wage for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person is $384 per week, a dismal comparison to the national average of $593 per week. However, ATSI households are often multi-family and larger, meaning that wage often has to support more people.  

Fundamentally, Watson said that ATSI women have the same issues as all other women – low pay, part time work, gaps in work. But ATSI women are less likely to join unions because they don’t see themselves reflected in them. ATSI women are more likely to campaign against community closures than for equal pay. It is important for union campaigns to think about about how they can reach out and include ATSI people. Some union campaigns that have done this are the Gonski campaign, the Queensland Not for Sale campaign, and the ACTU ‘Build a better future’ campaign, which features MUA indigenous members.

Unfortunately, many unions don’t participate in the ACTU indigenous committee: only about 8 out of 42 unions consistently participate. The MUA is always there. The only peak body that participates is the Queensland Council of Unions.

She closed by quoting Lilla Watson ‘If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time. If you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine then let us work together.’ This should be the guiding principle of the union movement’s work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Monique Verbeek from the Belgian BTB and the ITF Dockers Section brought international solidarity greetings and told of the work of the ITF dockers section with regards to women's issues

A highlight of the session was the members of the MUA women’s committee introducing themselves and their work in the offshore industry, shipping, wharves, and ferries. They described the struggles they had been through for recognition on the job, and the role of the union in supporting them.

Many described their work as workplace delegates, and the responsibility and trust they had been given when they were elected to that role by their fellow workers. Many had been through and led significant struggles, for example, when the Alexander Spirit was removed from the coast in July 2015, when Hutchison sacked almost 100 workers by text in August 2015, and Svitzer’s recent attacks on its union agreements.