Inside Story

Nothing inspires like success

Cinema | A new documentary highlights a milestone in the fight for women’s rights

Julie Rigg 18 June 2020 1003 words

A story for the times: Roza Klujaricek, Slobodanka Joncevska and Fotini Voulgaris leaving work at the Port Kembla steelworks.

Women of Steel, a documentary produced and directed by Robynne Murphy, tells the story of a group of women’s fourteen-year struggle for the right to work in the Port Kembla steelworks. It’s a celebration rather than a forensic examination of a significant victory, but all the more important at a time when the right to work is again an issue for women. Workers in the childcare sector, mainly women, have been the first to lose their JobKeeper allowances, and low-paid workers, predominantly women, the first to lose free childcare.

In the early 1980s, the Jobs for Women group took on industrial giant BHP (now Bluescope Steel), whose subsidiary Australian Iron and Steel methodically discriminated against women workers. The group won twice over, and along the way prevailed in the first class action in Australian law.

Robynne Murphy was one of the first intake of students at the Australian Film and Television School in Sydney in the 1970s. She was also one of a group of socialists who moved to Wollongong in 1980 and applied for jobs in the steelworks. The socialist men were taken on within months; the women joined a list of over 2000 the company kept waiting for “women’s jobs.” Any job for women attracted huge queues, so some resorted to getting up at 4am and taking a bus — a rickety, leaky bus — to Sydney to work in the rag trade or on a chicken-processing line.

Under the recent NSW anti-discrimination legislation, women were entitled to equal consideration for jobs. Inspired by the Aboriginal tent embassy, Jobs for Women set up a tent and distributed leaflets pointing out that BHP was breaking the law. They got union backing; they called a meeting; they received an enthusiastic response. Migrant women wanted these jobs. Some came from countries where women where already doing jobs like these.

In those days, Port Kembla was poor. When Slobodanka Joncevska came there from Macedonia in 1972 the place “was looking more poor than my poor country. Like a wooden house, built-up fibro house, no modern life for the young generation.” She was young and, she recalls, wore a short skirt and had great legs. She had broken hearts in her own country but came to join her brother for a different life. She was among those who joined Jobs for Women.

Aided by the forced discovery of a trove of company documents detailing ridiculous arguments against hiring women, and having brought in its own health and safety experts to counter the company’s views, Jobs for Women won its case before the state’s anti-discrimination tribunal.

For me, the startling thing about the language in the company’s documents was its similarity to memos unearthed at around the same time by an ABC board–authorised inquiry — never made public — into sex-segregated jobs at Aunty. With no federal sex discrimination legislation until 1984, the managers were able to get away with it.

After Jobs for Women won its case before the NSW board, Robynne was one of those to apply for work and be employed at the steelworks. (She wound up working for the steelworks for thirty years, and became a union organiser.) But the victory was short-lived. When Australian Iron and Steel began restructuring after a worldwide plunge in steel prices (provoked, among other things, by the OPEC oil crisis), the women were laid off in line with “last hired, first fired” practice.

Was this just? Well this, as they say, is where the story really gets going. The women argued that their firing was a legacy of years of systemic discrimination. They contended that they had a case for lost wages.

And so began what would become Australia’s first great class action. In industrial law, it’s been compared to the Harvester judgement, which established a basic wage (for men) in 1907. And it opened the door for many women otherwise denied justice.

Some of the background to this campaign is barely touched in Women of Steel. The late seventies were a time in which the women’s movement began agitating for equality within powerful organisations, including the trade unions. The first Women and Labour Conference, held in Sydney in 1978, was a landmark in this push to change the culture within the union movement.

Women of Steel presents an optimistic picture of how the Jobs for Women campaign made early alliances with the male-dominated union movement, in particular the Federated Ironworkers, led locally by the formidable Nando Lelli. I would have liked to know more about this aspect of the group’s work.

Some things stand out from that period. One is the sheer doggedness of the campaigners. Patience and persistence are often underestimated qualities in any campaign. The strength to persist comes both from a strong sense of justice and from the emotional support of a group. How did Jobs for Women hold together and keep going for so long? Its members persisted because their cause was more than theoretical — it came from their own experiences and desire for justice.

The second thing, unremarked in this documentary, is the significance of the early decision to limit the group to those actually seeking work. Also unexplored are the difficulties of finding the translators needed to enable decisions to be made across the language groups involved.

The third thing is the sheer daring of the campaigners. At different times, the women used every imaginable tactic — from conventional marches and leaflets to street theatre, chaining themselves to the steelworks fences, breaking down the doors of parliament, and ambushing state premier Neville Wran to demand access to legal aid. Along the way, there was endless fundraising, and the support of many outside the group.

The Jobs for Women campaign is well worth celebrating, and this fine documentary does that very well indeed. Nothing inspires like success. But the lessons for those trying to achieve justice may need rethinking before the age of “iso” turns us all into outworkers. •

Women of Steel is available on demand at the Sydney Film Festival.