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The Jobs for Women Campaign -- how women took on BHP and won

Jobs For Women campaign 'a landmark'

by Jim McIlroy

BRISBANE -- "We knew we had to have the support of migrant women, of the union, and of the community or we couldn't win," Robynne Murphy, an active participant in the Jobs For Women Campaign, launched in Wollongong in the early 1980s to win employment for women in the BHP steelworks, told a public forum organised by Green Left Weekly and Socialist Alliance here on September 11. The JFWC broke through the men-only employment policy of the "Big Australian," and set an important precedent for jobs for women in traditional heavy industrial areas of the workforce.

The campaign, which was initiated by women members of the Socialist Workers Party (now Democratic Socialist Perspective), began in April 1980 with a claim before the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board. By July that year there were 50-60 women involved in the claim.

The campaign went through many ups and downs, with a final court settlement only being won in 1995. During that time, especially in the early years, the women organised pickets, a tent embassy outside the Port Kembla steelworks gates, circulated leaflets in six migrant languages and gained the support of the Federated Ironworkers Union and the majority of the male workers in the plant.

"It was an incredible experience, being applauded by so many men workers as they entered or left the site. We received 2000 signatures on our petition in one day during the campaign," Murphy told the forum.

In 1986, 34 women won $1 million in an initial settlement. "We were reported on the front page of many of the newspaper around the country," Murphy said. The JFWC then launched a class action suit for 800 women who had been unfairly denied jobs at BHP.

During the course of the campaign, the JFWC gained broad support from the union and labour movements, locally and internationally and from women's organisations around Australia. "The campaign is now studied in a number of university history and law courses," she added.

"The lesson is that you must organise, whether within a union, or elsewhere, if you are going to win," Murphy said. The JFWC was a landmark case in the history of both the women's liberation and trade union movements, she pointed out. "We need to learn its lessons for many of the struggles faced by women and workers today."

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This is a recording of another talk on the same topic delivered by Robynne Murphy to the Brisbane branch of Resistance, two days later, on September 13th.

Some related reading available online:
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