About this interview
Meredith Burgmann, Australian politician and former President of the New South Wales Legislative council, talks about her activism and how it progressed naturally from her political ideation.
Transcript: Meredith Burgmann interview.
Facilitator: So maybe if you could start at the very beginning as they say and so when did you first get involved with the union movement and why?
Interviewee: I was a classic 1960s radicalised student at university. I'd been radicalised by Vietnam and then as we all did, got totally involved in the Zeitgeist and the worker-student alliance was considered to be very important. It wasn't grounded in much reality but we all certainly believed in it. I then got involved - while I was finishing my Masters in the early 1970s - with the New South Wales Builders' Labourers and their campaign against the destruction of most of Sydney and of course ended up writing my PhD on them and later a book with my sister Verity.
So what I saw there was a very male union but acting in a very correct way about women on the surface. Like they actually got their members to go on strike to get women onto jobs and they had women officials and they had women organisers. So they were very far ahead of their time. They (the officials) actually even used to march in the annual women's march while builders' labourers up on the top of building sites used to wolf whistle them and yahoo them. So on the surface they were absolutely correct. It was that ideology coming out of the CPA (Communist Party of Australia) which had a huge effect.
However what I did notice was the way in which they saw their women workers in the office very differently to the women workers on the site. Somehow the women BLs almost became honorary men. Whereas the women workers in the office weren't treated particularly better than any other union. So when the women had an office strike which was really about very basic things like too much craziness in the office and it was hot and it was noisy and they didn't think they were being properly respected, the men saw them as the enemy and suddenly there was this male, female thing going on that I was very shocked by.
When I wrote about that in my PhD I got quite a lot of blow back from the blokes. They didn't really like the fact. They saw the women's strike as traitorous. You know we're all in this together fighting the boss and they saw me writing about it as not terribly on side.
Later, in 1974 I got a job as an academic and I joined the union because I thought I should. I had no idea that the union would in any way help me. It wasn't about feeling that I was likely to be in trouble in any way. Academics in those days and this is 1974, they were pretty well treated really.
So I thought I should join the union. I then realised that I was being targeted. Not exactly targeted but they were treating me as badly as they could. Not my own personal department or even my school which were very supportive. But I don't think the university liked my union activity. So I was one of a bunch of senior tutors that were continually denied tenure. It became a huge issue.
Facilitator: Can I ask, so you jumped from joining because you thought you should to then targeting or at least being identifiable by your activism. So was there something that happened in between?
Interviewee: I don't think it was just my activism. I was still being active in a lot of other things especially to do with the women's movement. One thing I got into a lot of trouble over was our demonstration against ANZAC Day which you can imagine that went down really well. That was a bit later though and I think I might have even had tenure by then. No, no I still didn't have tenure. But I spent basically 11 years being refused tenure each year and funnily enough it didn't really have a huge effect on me being active in the union. It just sort of reaffirmed to me the fact that that's why you have unions.
At one stage at Macquarie, there were about 300 union members at mass meetings and they voted twice to go on strike to support me and a couple of other senior tutors in my position. The really good thing was that one was a beloved senior tutor in a science faculty which meant that all the science people were on side too. So strategically it was quite good. But also looking back Macquarie was where tutors were being treated the worst. I think it was because they had the most number of female tutors.
We were able to prove to the Industrial Commission that you were six times more likely to be untenured as a female tutor than as a male tutor. It was always because the male tutor was given tenure the minute they arrived because they had a wife and three children to look after. Whereas women tutors didn't. So that was a very sexist thing that we were fighting at Macquarie.
However my main union activity really wasn't at Macquarie. What happened was that in 1977 a paper union was set up in New South Wales and I think it was originally called something else, but it became the University Academic Staff Association, UASA.
It was a state registered union for university academics in New South Wales covering the six universities then. I became very active in UASA. In the last quarter of 1977 we affiliated UASA to Labor Council of New South Wales and we were the first branch of any academic union anywhere (university or college) anywhere in Australia to actually affiliate to their local trades and labour council. So it was quite a big push and in actual fact we were affiliated well before all the other white collar unions that now are affiliated - the only white collar unions there were the Teachers, Clerks and Actors Equity, those very traditional industrially focussed unions.
So we affiliated and that was where most of my activity took place for the next 14 years, from 1977 to 1991.
Facilitator: Can I ask just one question before we go onto that? So I just want to check, so in terms of your union activism you seem to be saying it was a natural progression of the politics that you were expressing at the time? Was there any family history of…
Interviewee: No my mother thought that unions were a bit common I think. Mind you she changed all this after Whitlam. She had been a sort of country party girl but became a huge Whitlam supporter - the anti-apartheid stuff and Vietnam and Whitlam totally changed her. But I was brought up in a sort of country party style on the Main train line. My father was a secret Labor voter but I never knew that because he was a - well he was the Chair of CSIRO. His father had been the Red Bishop who I knew nothing about because I think my mother thought that was a bit common too.
The Bishop was a well-known supporter of the left unions and he was patron of the Australia Russia Friendly Society and all those sorts of things. But I didn't know any of his political activity. I just knew he had confirmed most of my friends so I knew him as the Bishop rather than the political activist. So really it was quite a conservative upbringing because my father was quite a reserved character and didn't say much. So there was no union tradition at all which I think was very interesting because it meant that I always half felt that what I was doing was not quite legitimate. Rather than having that belief that being in the union and voting Labor was fine, I always felt I had to justify it in some way.
Then of course and this is just leaping ahead a bit, that fed into the sort of imposter syndrome I had all the time that I was involved with other unionists. Anyway so I end up at Labor Council and I had pushed the affiliation with Labor Council. By this stage I was never active in the Labor Party. I was in the Labor Party and had been since 1971 but I found them a bit boring and I'd hardly ever get to branch meetings. I still don't know any rules or things, but to me the union movement was where I wanted to be. So affiliating with the Labor Council I thought this is very exciting. This is where all the important stuff is going to happen.
Of course my first Labor Council meeting was just terrible. I mean it was even worse than it is now, because the left at the time had sort of lost its spirit and they just sat there. The Teachers Federation would get up and fight a bit on issues that were important to them as the Teachers Federation but they really weren't fighting on broader issues. The old SPA (Socialist Party of Australia) unions, you know the Maritime Unions and the Building Workers Industrial Union, they really only fought on things that were important to them and sometimes an international issue that they were involved with.
But there was no taking on what was a very, very conservative, very male right wing union leadership. So when I arrived I felt there were three strikes against me. There was the fact that I was a woman and I think there were probably only a dozen women out of 600 delegates. And of the ones that would turn up regularly there was probably only three or four of us when I first joined. My three strikes were that I was a woman; I was a white collar worker and I was an academic. It just meant that I had imposter syndrome the entire time that I was involved.
I remember Barrie Unsworth who was union secretary for quite a lot of that time used to use the word ‘academic’ as a term of abuse “and then some academic said this”. Eventually I had to get up and say look you're talking about our members and you've just got to stop that. He understood that issue suddenly and from then on he'd say “and then some smarty said this”. You know so ‘academic’ equals ‘smarty’. Eventually the other white collar unions started to affiliate and that made a huge difference because there were women delegates there and some of them even started to speak up.
It was very, very hard speaking at Labor Council in those days because there was absolute hostility to whatever we were doing or saying. One of the things I found was that I was automatically wearing trousers for Thursday nights because I recognised I was going to be in a bit of a fight. So you just had to feel a bit more armoured. I made a point of trying to get the other women to speak as they came in. I'd sort of give them little tasks and say ‘well it's childcare, you've got to talk on childcare’, because I recognised that unless you spoke pretty quickly you'd just sit there and be intimidated.
My two main co-delegates, one was a professor at the time and he is still a dear friend. It was Ralph Hall. I said Ralph why won't you ever speak and he said I'm far too frightened. So he'd stand up in front of 500 students but wouldn't stand up at Labor Council - and Braham Dabscheck never spoke either you know. But they were very, very loyal and very good delegates. They just supported us all the way along. Braham's written a piece about Labor Council which we're going to work on and bring out. It should be a funny play really.
So it was very intimidating. They used to yell things like ‘get back to the kitchen’ and things like that when you got up to speak. But also they used the rules against you and of course I never knew the rules. I wasn't going to sit and read the book. But I always used to say the problem they had with the new breed of women at Labor Council was that not only did we not know the rules and that is the rules of the ‘game’, but some of them didn't even know there was a game or that there were rules. I mean Norrie Neumark was wonderful like that. She was from the College Academics - a few years' later the College Academics affiliated.
I knew that I could get up and fight on issues. But I knew I had to wait until the proper time. They were such difficult rules about when you could speak that I just used to sit next to Richard Walsham from the Teachers Federation who knew the rules. I'd say ‘can I do it now? Can I do it now?’ Then he'd say ‘yes you can get up now’. But Norrie used to yell out abuse and you could see Unsworth sort of going pale with ‘who's this woman’. When new unions affiliated he (Unsworth) used to take the delegates or the leaders of the union - into his office and I don't know what went on.
I think he put his arm around them and offered them half of Sydney or something. But he didn’t do that to our union and I suspect it was because he already knew me. But on one occasion he rang up - the secretary and president - well the male leadership at the time weren't the delegates. That was Adrian [Ryan] and Neil Harpley. He rang them and said can you bring this Meredith Burgmann into line. She really is behaving terribly and they wonderfully just said ‘oh no she's our leader. We just do whatever she says’, which was a bit of an exaggeration - and that's something I also need to say is that at the time the male activists within UASA in particular were just terrific.
They were very feminised males who just were very supportive of what we were doing and I never had any trouble with them at all actually. I think they found very amusing the fights we were having at Labor Council.
Facilitator: Could I ask you just to give an example of one of the fights, what would it be about?
Interviewee: There was a huge - then I'll tell you the really famous Barrie Unsworth one which is what started the women's caucus. But a really important fight was when the (NSW) Anti-Discrimination Board was being set up and all the serious men's unions, the Right and quite a lot of the Left, opposed the right of the Discrimination Board to look at discrimination against women in employment. Because their view was that's the role of the union and if a government body does it then why do you have unions? We would say it's because a lot of you are hopeless. But that was a really hard fight and we fought that over two or three years. It was an ongoing battle and it got nasty.
So that was what the fight was and within the left at the time there was - and looking back on it you see it much clearer - there was the old male left unions, the traditional left unions. You know the Maritime unions, the Building Workers, the Miners and then there were some stuck a bit in the middle like water and sewerage. Then there were us, the new white collar unions coming in with demands about women. The old left on the whole did not distinguish itself. There were old blokes like Tom McDonald that I still cannot forgive for some of his stances. Later I'll talk about the really huge fight I had at the ACTU where they behaved shockingly.
So this new bunch of basically white collar unions that had women delegates was a bit of a threat. For instance the left men, the old left men had an agreement with the right wing officials that it was a ‘no knock’ policy which was really we won't stand for your positions if you don't stand for ours. Very comfortable, very - and of course the new white collar unions and the women were saying no, no, we should stand against them and that was a huge battle. Every year we had a huge battle and sometimes we won and sometimes we didn't. I've just been looking at old ‘how to votes’ and I realised that I stood against Ernie Ecob one year. Our view was that we should fly the flag and their view was ‘no we've got an agreement. Let's stick with it’.
The big Barrie Unsworth fight was we'd been trying to get a speaker from - this is 1983. We'd been trying to get a speaker from the Anti-Discrimination Board to come and speak, because there were always guest speakers at Labor Council. Unsworth had been knocking this back over and over again. It was part of the dispute I talked about. Then later on that night he announced that, I think it was the Building Workers contestant in the Miss Australia Quest, would come and speak the following week. We were all – the women just hissed and Barrie got very red in the face and shouted at us quote – ‘well if she did come, she wouldn't get competition from any of you lot’.
How I know all this is, it's all in the papers. So the women and even some of the right wing women got up and walked out. It was just - look you can imagine it.
Facilitator: I can imagine it.
Interviewee: We got up and walked out. Many years later Barrie Unsworth admitted it was the most embarrassing moment of his life. Then we sort of listened with our ears to the door to see what was happening. Because we'd slammed the door for effect and we were listening. Some of our left wing guys got up and kept saying ‘but that's a dreadful thing to say to our women.’ Eventually Barrie apologised and we trouped back in. But I did recognise that our guys hadn't quite got it, that it was about demeaning job delegates. Because a little printer came up to me in the pub afterwards and said ‘never mind dear, I think you're pretty’.
Facilitator: Gosh yes.
Interviewee: They really thought it was…
Facilitator: Yes a personal…
Interviewee: But the good thing about that was we got together, a bunch of us got together and put out a leaflet which I've still got copies of and we had a cartoon and everything. It was a letter to the delegates which we handed out the following week. It was a letter to the delegates saying this is why we were offended. You know we are a third of the union movement. We are hardworking job delegates or union officials. We blah, blah, blah and it was a very, very straight plea to them to understand why we were upset. It was brilliant actually. They all looked a bit shame faced and it was very good. Because as I say his (Unsworth’s) comments had been front page of the paper the next day.
You know ‘union official makes booboo’ - and I think this might have been the time when Barrie was being suggested as the next premier and everything. So he was big news and him having said this was pretty big news too. So what we formed then was a group called Left Women in Unions. But it was basically the left women at Labor Council forming a caucus. Left Women in Unions Caucus I think it was called. That really meant all the women at Labor Council because there was only one or two right wing women. There was Betty Spears and sometimes [Sadie King]. Sadie is still alive but we thought then that she was 100 at least.
So really it meant the women who were coming to Labor Council. We all turned up and we had caucus meetings from then on until I left in 1991 when I became a member of parliament. So we had very enthusiastic times and ‘struggling a bit’ times. It was quite important also for later as we got more involved in the ACTU having this. We liked each other. You know there was Wendy Caird and Bronwyn Ridgway and [Danni Blackman] and if you see the list that signed the letter to the delegates they are still often my close friends. Joan Lemaire and Barbara Murphy from the Teachers Federation.
Also at that time the left unions used to go and have dinner after Labor Council and the Teachers Federation didn't come with us which I always felt was a mistake on their part. But they were so huge they went off and had dinner themselves. So we never really forged those really close ties that we had with the other white collar unions and which held us in good stead. The women were very - I'm not saying there weren't differences but the women in Sydney were pretty supportive of each other. Because there were some pretty awful fights going on. Bronwyn Ridgway was fighting the right wing of the nurses and things like that. She'd just been elected assistant secretary and they were sort of locking her out and everything. So there was a lot of friendship.
Inside my own union - in 1985 Neil Harpley said to me you should be the next president and I'd always said, because I was trying to be a full-time academic and everything and also having a lot of other political activity. I've had this discussion with Neil just in the last few days because we've emailed each other over Carol (Allport) and he has no idea that him saying that to me was very important. I think men sometimes don't realise - like [Albo] still doesn't understand that I would never have stood for parliament except that he came and harassed me about it. You know that sort of, you do have those moments when I suppose it's mentorship and I haven't had mentors really.
But Neil just said you should be the next president and I eventually agreed. So in 1985 I became president but isn't it interesting, in 1986 when I had my baby I resigned as president because you couldn't possibly have a full-time job, try and be a bit active in other things, be a mother and be president of the union. Of course looking back no man resigned when that happened. But to me it was just obvious I couldn't keep going. But when I was president I realised I had to work out a whole lot of different ways to do things because there had only been male role models.
I had never seen a woman - I think Jennie had probably been secretary of the Teachers Fed but I never watched her. I had never seen a woman union official operate. What I realised was I couldn't operate the same way as the men had because I said to Neil once, because I had to do an informal discussion with the then Vice-Chancellor of Sydney Uni Bruce Williams. I had to do an informal discussion with him about superannuation, which really was a ‘scratch my back, I'll scratch yours’ sort of thing. I said how did you do informal negotiations and he said I just used to ring up Bruce and say I'll meet you down at the staff club for a drink.
I thought ‘God Bruce Williams would die of shock if I rang up’ because I was young then. I was 37 or something and he just would have hated it. So I ended up having a morning tea and he had someone with him and I had someone with me and I realised that had to happen because even at an informal discussion you had to have other people there or otherwise he felt too uncomfortable. But all that was really hard working out these things because you didn't have a pattern.
Facilitator: I was going to say - I don't want to interrupt but you mentioned mentorship and you mentioned key moments when men in certain roles had suggested things and that was kind of critical. So there weren't other women in unions in positions. Were there other women outside that mentored you in other ways? I'm just trying to see was there…
Interviewee: I've often thought about mentorship because I've often wondered whether I'm doing it properly. I tend to overdo it or then underdo it - like grab women and say you've got to stand for parliament and then say oh don't it's awful. I've realised it's because I never had been mentored at all. I've listened to other women talk about mentorship and I realise their reaction - I remember once listening to Geraldine Doogue discussing being mentored by older male journalists and then I thought you would mentor Geraldine...she's got that rather soft sort of accepting sort of thing.
Whereas I think I used to cover my absolute inadequacy and confusion by just being quite Bolshie about things. So I think people always thought I was always more sure of myself than I actually was. So even in academia I never had anyone tell me what to do. Like when my sabbatical came up I had no idea how you actually organised a sabbatical because no one ever told me. So Neil would find that the one thing he said to me was important but it was the first time anyone had said to me ‘you should do that’. I think Albo was a bit more clear about what he was doing because he wanted someone who could beat so and so you know that internal thing. So he chose me and that was it.
But I mean Albo is 16 years younger than me and Neil just wanted someone to take over. So it wasn't like there'd ever properly been a mentorship relationship. My bosses at Macquarie especially Don Aitkin was a good boss, but I don't think he ever saw his role as mentoring me or anything. So in the union movement the woman who I saw as being one step ahead of me was Barbara Murphy from the Teachers Federation, because she was already in Labor Council when I arrived. She got elected to the Labor Council executive and I was her alternate. But Barbara would never have seen herself as a mentor of me because I think she thought I knew what I was doing.
She was a great person and I used to watch her but she had a totally different style. Like for instance when we all marched out on Barrie Unsworth she stayed and then got up and she was a primary school head mistress. Got up and did the primary school head mistress thing at him which was brilliant but very different to how I would face things. So I think there was a lot of friendship from the women. Jennie George never really came to Labor Council. She was so busy. But the fact that she was there was important to us. We were always very proud and later when I talk about the ACTU I'll talk about getting her up on the executive which was the crowning moment of our lives.
See I think I was exactly - there weren't actually women ahead of me really when I think about it. There wasn't anyone that you could ask for advice or - I suppose that's the problem with being the first of things. You know I was the first woman president and I really had no one to ask how do you do this? I found later on discussing things with Wendy Caird helped but she wasn't sort of doing stuff ahead of me. She was doing stuff pretty much at the same time and we discussed things a lot. The other thing that I had was that I wasn't a full-time official. I was a volunteer official. They used to call us part-time but we weren't even part-time. We were purely…
Interviewee: Yeah we were honorary and that gave you some advantages but a lot of disadvantages. You weren't paid, so you weren't included in any sort of important meetings and things. But it meant they had no control over you. Barrie Unsworth could not do things that made my working life difficult and that's how they used to control people. It seriously was that they used to control people from the unions that were opposed to them by getting the leadership of those unions to control the people. But the leadership of my union couldn't control me because we were all honorary officials at that stage. But it did contribute to my imposter status and the feeling that I really shouldn't quite be there.
It was also part of why I ended up arguing that women should fight for written rules, because I've always said that if there are only unwritten rules the blokes know them and the women don't. That's how I felt the whole time I was involved because I'd keep thinking am I meant to be here or have I just pushed my way in? Whereas later with the Labor Party there were very written rules and I knew I had the right to be there so you felt much more confident. In 1983 our union UASA affiliated directly to the ACTU because FAUSA wouldn't, the other academic unions wouldn't because they still saw themselves as professionals.
See what we'd been doing in UASA was pushing the industrial agenda hugely. We had the first industrial agreement, the first Industrial Commission case, first to affiliate to Labor Council, first to affiliate to the ACTU, first to have a Christmas Party. You know we acted more like a union than any of the other organisations. So we affiliated directly to ACTU and I went down to Melbourne as one of two delegates from UASA with Neil in 1983. Neil was very happy to just let me run my own race. So it was really good because I was just able to really do what I wanted to do. I'm pretty sure we voted against the Accord. I was the only woman on the ‘left floor committee’ which was an eye opener to me because I first came across the male bullies of Victoria who I think were worse than our male bullies.
I was a part of the campaign team to get Jennie George elected to the ACTU executive to be the first woman in 57 years. Going through my documents I keep coming across all these motions and things we were putting up about how we should have a woman on the ACTU `executive. A lot of it was to do with malapportionment. In those days on the ACTU executive, the CAGEO Group which was the group that most of the white collar unions were in had 157,000 members and the Maritime Group had 3,000 members in it. But the Maritime Group had a person on the ACTU executive and CAGEO Group had one person too.
So Jennie was standing as a representative of the CAGEO Group and that was an exciting moment for feminists. Two people stood against her, two blokes. It was hugely exciting when she got elected and it was announced. Cliff Dolan who was a very nice man announced it and I remember Cathy Bloch who was also a part of our left group and yeah.
Facilitator: Actually I should interview her.
Interviewee: Yeah Cathy Bloch raced down to the stage, raced up onto the stage and pinned a big purple and green rosette on Cliff Dolan. As I always say he sort of sat there looking like a prize bull with this big rosette on as history was taking place in front of us all. It was terrific. Later on, it would be probably the late 80s something happened which was just shocking. I mean we're talking late 80s and Kelty had become secretary and he decided that there would be a left woman, a centre woman and a right woman on the ACTU Executive. You can see how they control these things. So the left went off to choose their woman and of course the majority of women activists were in the left. I mean often when you talk about women activists you're really meaning the left women activists.
I agreed to be the returning officer because I used to teach psephology and stuff and we devised - because all the left women were going to vote. It was quite hard. I had to get a weighting system for all the states and we weighted it in terms of how many unionists there were in each state. Everyone agreed to how it was done and there were three very good candidates. They all agreed to the process and I did it and a lot of women voted. There were hundreds in each state voted and Bernadette Callaghan from Queensland won.
Bernadette had just taken over the Clerks Union in Queensland from the right. It was what Lindsay Tanner did later in Victoria and got rewarded for. But Bernadette had just done this and the left male leadership refused to accept her, because we hadn't chosen the right person. Refused to accept her. For 18 months the left women's position on the ACTU executive was vacant. Their reason was that how can you have a left wing woman from a right wing union. Even though women all around Australia had voted for her. Because Bernadette was fabulous, still is.
Facilitator: That's stunning.
Interviewee: She's still a dear friend. Anyway and I remember…
Facilitator: I just don't want to miss any of this.
Interviewee: I remember Wendy and I - I think my union even paid for - you know this was ‘smell of an oily rag’ stuff we always - but they paid for us. Wendy and I flew down to Melbourne to confront the left leadership. I still remember walking into this room and there were three bald old men. Looking back it was probably Dick Scott. It was definitely Dick Scott from the Metal Workers because I was friends with a lot of the metal workers and we just couldn't shift the leadership. So it was Dick Scott, I think Chris Raper and I think Tom McDonald. They just refused.
So the left position was vacant until the next election came up and the suitable woman was elected.
Facilitator: So you said it was because it was a right wing union. Was it because, was there also a woman that they preferred?
Interviewee: Look the other woman, there were three women, but the other woman who I think they probably would have preferred was Trish Caswell who totally accepted that Bernadette had won. I mean it was a really well organised proper civilised process. We all agreed so there was no white anting or anything. No one was saying it should be Trish. They simply wouldn't accept someone that they saw as not being properly part of the left team. Well I wouldn't even have put it that way, because they knew she was an integral part of the left. Yeah so that was - when people tell me how good the left union men are I go argh.
Then my final one that I always talk about is in 1990 - 1990 you know - a few months before I left the union and went into parliament we had to choose 10 people from NSW to be on the National Left Unions steering committee They chose 10 men. I remember having…
Facilitator: In 1990?
Interviewee: Nineteen ninety and I remember having terrible fights with particularly George Campbell who was running the Metal Workers at the time and arguing that Wendy - Wendy was secretary of one of the biggest unions in New South Wales and they didn't choose her. They chose assistant secretaries of the water and sewerage rather than Wendy. I remember having an unbelievable argument with George. Like it was shouting in a Chinese restaurant of course, like it was serious shouting stuff.
So they were still bad. The left leadership in New South Wales of the non-white collar unions was bad. The male leadership of the white collar unions like ACOA, Barry Cotter and Michael Raper (from the Independent Teachers Union) and people like that were terrific. Of course they were, they'd been beaten up by women in their own union. But the old manual working class unions. Another issue I think was that they resented the white collar unions which is where all the women were really, because they weren't affiliated to the Labor Party. You get that terrible thing where now the unions that are affiliated to the Labor Party actually cover a tiny part of the union movement. But they still have this huge power and they really like to throw that power around. Yes.
Facilitator: So can I ask because you also mentioned that a couple of times in various scenarios that things got nasty and you mentioned the shouting match with George Campbell.
Interviewee: George yeah.
Facilitator: What kind of effect or impact do you think that had on you?
Interviewee: I have always felt that fighting about an issue - it's so much easier to have a fight that's open and out there and you can sort of have a shout and it's with someone that you should traditionally be fighting with anyway. So it's much harder on you if it's an ongoing battle which is never properly released by having a bit of a shouting match and which is with people who you feel should be supporting you. Those sort of internal battles are very distressing and I found them quite wearing. But those fights, like fights with Barrie Unsworth were, let’s face it, we quite enjoyed it.
But fights within the left I found harder and the bullying way in which the traditional left men treated us was quite hard. I think that the fact that I was involved in a lot of other feminist stuff anyway meant that I just coped with it. But I do remember the National Pay Equity Coalition used to meet in this room every two or three weeks for 20 years. I remember at least for 10 years I'd come in and whinge about George Campbell for about five minutes or 10 minutes. Then Philippa would say enough of that, let's get on with it - because he was - it wasn't that he was the worst. He was just the one that I wanted to be better.
He was the one that I was fighting with the most. But the other left - and of course I had a bit of a social connection with George too, because I quite liked him in a way. Whereas the other guys that I saw as just stopping us doing whatever women wanted to do, I just didn't have much to do with, you know the old SPA unionists. Also I had that history of having opposed them during the Builders Labourers time because it was the old SPA unionists that turned against Jack Mundey and his lot and who I still blame for destroying that union. So I had a bit of a bad history with them anyway. So they wouldn't have liked me and still don't.
Facilitator: Well that was one of the questions I was going to ask, which is with the passing of time and progress of sorts, have you - you said that Barrie Unsworth had said he was embarrassed by his behaviour at that time.
Facilitator: Have you had similar…
Interviewee: One of things I do - I remember a little guy from one of those unions saying to me in the Star Hotel ‘you lot, you young people you don't know what you're talking about’. I remember thinking silly old thing. Now I keep thinking I feel like that myself. You know I want to say it to young people now. So I have a lot more - I understand their position. They just didn't understand what was happening. They were resentful about it. They genuinely didn't believe that white collar workers, work. What they used to say to me, one of the Builders Labourers used to say to me was ‘but sitting at a desk isn't work’. Over and over again they'd say that.
Then they'd come and ask me to help them write some article they had to write. I felt like saying oh no this isn't work, why can't you do it? They really genuinely believed that only manual labour was real work. I think that was the hardest of the lot to get over, the fact that the new bunch of women flowing into the trade union movement were not real workers. So there was more sympathy for women from the clothing trades and things like that. Even though of course the officials from those unions were often men and mostly, almost always had never been a clothing worker. But somehow they were still more accepted.
Like I think Anna Booth was more accepted because she was from the clothing trade, than we were because we you know just sitting at a desk. [Unclear].
Facilitator: Yes I can. I mean I suspect that you've given the answer but I want to ask you explicitly what you think your greatest achievement personally in the union movement, but then I guess differentiate that from perhaps what you saw as the most significant thing that occurred during that time? So what was your greatest achievement or contribution and what during that time do you think was the biggest significant change?
Interviewee: To me obviously the moment when Jennie got onto the ACTU executive was wonderful. Probably my best contribution was the fact that I had nothing to lose and so was prepared to take on some of the fights that the other women knew that they'd probably get sacked if they did it. I think just the fact that I was there and fairly gregarious, got on with a lot of people so we really - and I knew how to organise. I was always secretary of whatever group we set up and so in terms of my union involvement I think just the fact that I was there at a very early time. I think the fact that I was active in the broader trade union movement from sort of really 1977 on was just important.
At the actual union level I think the fights we took on about the working conditions of the casual staff, you know the non-tenured staff which funnily enough is still the big issue.
Facilitator: It's the big one.
Interviewee: I know. But it was - I mean some of the fights - the Carol O'Donnell case we had to prove that she was - once we'd proved that you were six times more likely to be untenured as a woman - but then with her case we had to prove that being a senior tutor was not like being an apprentice. Because the Commissioner was saying but this is just like apprentices. They have to move on. It was when they were sacking people and you weren't allowed to apply for your own job. The Commission said but this is just like being an apprentice.
We proved that the average age of a senior tutor was 35 and therefore it wasn't an apprentice. We still lost the case. So those, the sorts of fights we had I think were terribly important.
Facilitator: A couple of things; how do you see your relationship with the union movement now?
Interviewee: I then got very, very - from 1988 onwards I was very involved with pay equity issues. So I was always being asked back to talk to women's conferences and various unions about pay equity. I still had friendships with a lot of the younger women, some of it through the Labor Party and some of through just pay equity stuff. Like I'm pretty excited about Sally McManus being - because I really got friends with her through pay equity stuff I think mainly. So my relationship with the women in the trade union movement is still quite good really. Just late last year I spoke at an AS - I get them confused now all these - I think it was an ASU women's conference and things like that.
The male leaderships, all the guys I used to know are beginning to retire although there's still a lot of them there because they just last forever. So how do I - I just wish them well and I have no advice for what they can do to stop the decline. You know I just read about it every year and go oh. I still see white collar unionism as being in a different position, because in the old days being able to read and write was so important and now it's just not important. So therefore all our skills have been devalued. So we are in a position where we need unionism and to some degree we're still doing better than the manual workers.
I look back on things like the Accord now and think maybe I would even vote for the Accord now. I was very opposed to it at the time, but I do think that if you look at America and here, why Trump won't happen here is that in the last 30 years Australian real minimum wage, real minimum wage has risen 11 per cent. Whereas in America the real minimum wage has fallen 21 per cent, which totally explains Trump as far as I'm concerned. A lot of that was a result of things like the Accord where Labor governments and Labour movements have managed to make arrangements which at the time looked bad.
However you've also then got to look at the fact that the average weekly ordinary time earnings which is what you've got to look at for women and men, the gap is exactly the same as it was in 1977. I don't know what the answers are. I think that they've got to start looking at lower union fees. I think they've just allowed union fees to climb and climb and climb without really offering enough back. I think you've got to look at lower union fees and a slightly different way of organising some…
Facilitator: So just I guess picking up on a bit of that is, what do you think the biggest - that's just sort of suggestions. But what do you think is the biggest challenge faced by unions and unionists now and has that changed significantly from the height of your activism?
Interviewee: One of the issues that I realise when you go back over the cuttings and things is that we were just considered a bunch of communist ratbags who were always out on strike. Well of course that just is not how people see unions now. If they see it in any way in a bad light, they see it as corrupt and all the terrible stuff about the HSU and things like that come up. People tend to talk about corruption now when they didn't in those days. But they don't talk about us being controlled by Moscow or anything which was really the argument against us.
You know you hear this really stupid thing that people say which is oh you know unions were good in the old days but we just don't need them now. Wait until their boss tries to sack them and then they get all surprised that their union really should only act for someone who's in the union and that sort of - look seriously I don't know what the answer is. I just don't.
Facilitator: Can I go back a little bit. We’ve talked a little bit about your experience or there not being logical mentors when you were there. Then you sort of also were talking about your ongoing relationship with the union movement now and I wondered if you could describe - you're obviously a mentor to women.
Interviewee: Yeah I've thought a lot about mentoring and I've thought I've always been a little bit critical of those sort of structured mentoring relationships. I think it's got to be a bit more organic than that. I think it's best to just realise you're talking to someone that you think is really good and you - I think my mentoring because I always feel so overcommitted in every way I think what I do quite well is when I'm talking to some young thing and I realise she needs to talk to so and so. I'm good at putting them in touch with people and sometimes I even do it in terms of organise lunch for them to meet this other person that I think they should meet.
I have done formal structured mentoring which I've always found a bit difficult. Because you might have nothing in common with the person. If they don't think your jokes are funny then.... I've hated the way in which some aspects of the women's movement use it in that they see it as networking and your way up. I've always hated that. Emily's List is quite interesting because they put a sort of an experienced Labor Party person with a new woman standing. I've done that a few times and I've actually found that that was quite valuable, probably more valuable than the tiny amounts of money we're able to give women.
Because if you've got someone that you can just ring up and whinge to, who's totally out of your area and everything I think that's quite valuable. If I was asked by a union to mentor someone I'm not sure I'd be terribly helpful now, because my experience is of 30 years ago. So I probably wouldn't even know what some of the terms they're using are. But I am quite good at - because I do a whole lot of different things, I'm quite good at putting people together. I know in the aid and development area I've managed to put women involved in things in touch with other women and things.
But I find mentoring hard. I suppose it's because I'm so overcommitted that the idea of remembering to ring someone every few days and see how they're going I'm just am not good at that.
Facilitator: Which brings you to a question that I kind of slipped over, is that how did you and do you balance at the time your union activities, the…
Interviewee: We just don't do any academic work and get into trouble for it. But you look at your academic sort of production and well that was why I resigned when Paddy was born. Because then I ended up really being a single parent. So being a single parent and I was still being very active in the union movement I just wasn't president. But my night out used to be Labor Council on the Thursday night because the union paid for my childcare fees. So that'd be my one night out because I was pretty poor at the time and it was really important to me.
When I get the attendance records from Labor Council now - that's another one of the things you keep finding - and my attendance was like 13 out of 13 for the quarter. I remember ringing - this is a terrible story - but when I was in labour and I was up at King George (Hospital) and I was secretary of the education group at the time. I used to use the education group of Labor Council quite strategically. I had to send in to John MacBean who was then secretary (of Labor Council) how many alternates we wanted to attend the education group. Like about as exciting or as.... I remember ringing him from King George on one of the pay phones to say that we wanted an extra alternate delegate to the education group.
Facilitator: That's fantastic.
Facilitator: That's a great story.
Interviewee: I've often wondered did John MacBean who really was also a bully and a sexist, did he have any idea that I was in labour while I was doing that.
Facilitator: Gosh, that's a great story.
Interviewee: So I've always been a really responsible organiser. That probably was also an important thing was I did know how to organise people to get to meetings and do things.
Facilitator: If I could ask you to sort of just expand that a bit, what does that mean? How do you do that? How did you do that?
Interviewee: Well another thing that you don't really realise until you look at the old documents is I was always the person sending out the notices of meetings and things and I'd be the person who'd say look that clashes with that function so we're going to have to change it to this date. We've got another venue blah, blah. Doing all that sort of fairly boring...but if it doesn't get done then organisations fall apart. I also always understood that people had to have fun while they were doing things. So we weren't terribly po-faced about a lot of the things that we got involved with.
It was alright to enjoy yourself while you were fighting the patriarchy. Because I'd found the early women's movement, you know obviously I was involved from really the late 60s on but I'd found aspects of the women's movement very serious and quite frightening. I remember Clare Burton asking me why did I think it was alright to paint my finger nails. I'd go argh I never thought of that, because I had bright blue finger nails. Yeah I have a view that people stay committed if they're also enjoying it along the way and I think that the women's movement in particular needs to keep remembering that.
I think women trade unionists on the whole have been pretty good at that.
Facilitator: On that sort of line, can you describe how The Ernies came about?
Interviewee: Well our great opponent Ernie Ecob who I just discovered I stood against for president in 1984. I stood against him for president of Labor Council, he was eventually sacked as president of Labor Council. By this stage Michael Easson was secretary, who was the first of the half-way decent secretaries of Labor Council. They sacked Ernie for quote – ‘interfering in another union's election’. I said to Michael later on that evening I said oh Michael they should have sacked him for sexually harassing all his staff.
He looked at me and he said “Meredith we did”. So they actually used one thing as a pretext. He'd been famous for saying things like women only want to be - he was secretary of the Shearers Union - women only want to be shearers for the sex. We also hated him and he had been awful. In fact one of the AWU delegates who was a friend and still a friend can I say. Digby Young his name was. He was lovely - and he used to tell us what Ernie was saying about us and Ernie got more and more frenetic about us as time went on about the women.
Facilitator: The women at Labor Council?
Interviewee: Yes. Digby told us that once he found Ernie reading the rule book because Ernie didn't know any rules and saying to Digby, argh I've got to read the rules in case that dreadful girlfriend of yours - and you know I was not Digby's girlfriend. But he just assumed that because Digby was friendly with all of us you know. He said in case that dreadful girlfriend of yours plays up again or something. He also told us that Ernie always used to comment on our clothes and complain about the clothes we wore. Because of course we weren't all wearing pretty frocks probably.
So in 1993 I'm a member of parliament but Vicki Telfer rings me. She was another very active woman who - Vicki rings me up and says Ernie's just announced his retirement from the union movement. We should celebrate. So I organised a lunch for women trade unionists to come and celebrate Ernie retiring and 43 women turned up. We had a great time and I'd bought this dreadful old trophy which later became the gold Ernie. But of course it had a sheep on the top. God knows what it was for you know. So that became the gold Ernie and we gave it that year to Joe de Bruyn who'd said something terrible about childcare. That's really how it started. So it really was about celebrating the fact that Ernie had retired.
Facilitator: It's become an institution.
Interviewee: It has a bit. Every time I try to kill it off people say oh no, no we've got to keep having it. Because it's quite, it's hard work.
Facilitator: Yeah I'm sure.
Facilitator: You just reminded me just going through that story of an earlier comment you made that I noted about you being quite conscious about what you wore to Labor Council.
Interviewee: Yes, it was funnily enough with a lot of these things it's only looking back you can see. As an academic you don't really do it but you sort of have various uniforms and you know like when I went into parliament it took me about three days to realise the uniform was ‘expensive suit’. When I left parliament I had 66 suits and I gave them all away. But it was because I'd bought one each season for 16 years. You know it wasn't like I'd bought a lot of anyway.
I realised that the uniform I adopted for Trades Hall was trousers, because I often used to wear frocky sort of vaguely half hippy stuff. To my own union meetings down at FAUSA (Federal body of the union based in Melbourne) and things like that I wore really whatever I felt like and there are pictures of me and I think oh God I'm at a union meeting. I should have been a little bit better dressed. I had pink hair although that's come back again. But whereas to Trades Hall I always wore pretty straight clothes and mostly trousers. Obviously I felt I was under the gun and I needed to not be worried about anything else.
But a lot of women when you ask them about it realise they've done exactly the same thing. See Penny Sharpe has adopted just a black outfit which is very, very sensible because no one can ever comment on your clothes and she always looks terrific. Hilary Clinton they laughed at her pants suits but it meant that - because she got a lot of horrible, horrible - she was fighting every day that she got up. So I can see why she wore pants suits all the time. It just sort of makes you feel and I used to wear boots too if it was going to be a real fight, I used to wear boots.
Facilitator: It's really fascinating.
Interviewee: Yeah and as I say often you're not terribly aware of it at the time, but looking back.
Facilitator: Certainly an interesting sort of self - not even censorship but a positioning.
Facilitator: You had a long parliamentary career.
Interviewee: Two terms yes, 16 years.
Facilitator: Do you think was there ways in which your unionism shaped what you did?
Interviewee: I'm so glad you asked this, because I'd totally forgotten to say this. I went into the Labour caucus as a - I'd been a union official really for 18 years. I'd been president of my union. I had done a PhD really in industrial relations. My area of expertise at the time was wage fixing systems. You know I was doing a lot about equal pay and wage fixing systems. I would have thought I was seriously qualified to be useful in an industrial relations sense. Not once did they ever ask me to be involved in any industrial relations issue. If they had a question they used to ask Kim Yeadon a bloke who for 18 months had been an organiser for the Miscos.
That was it. He was their union guru. Never once did they ask me. They always used to refer to Andrew Refshauge as Dr Refshauge and I was Miss Burgmann. The entire time I was Miss Burgmann until I left that - they were shits. They were worse - mind you some of the left was bad too. But it was a very, very hostile caucus. They hated me. They hated me because I was a woman, I was a left winger but I was an academic. But worst of all I was an ex-Anglican. Seriously of the caucus of 75, five people in that caucus were not Catholics.
Interviewee: Even the left the majority was Catholic or lapsed Catholic but of a Catholic background. They all took the oath. I was the second person in the legislative council from the Labor Party to affirm rather than take the oath. Even Paul O'Grady took the oath.
Interviewee: Yeah I know. It was unbelievably hostile. After six months I went and saw Albo and said I want to get out of here. I really hate it; I want to get out. He said no sorry you're in there. You've taken up that spot, that's it. Boom, you're in there for the rest of the time. I then just made some decisions which was I would keep my old friends. I would never expect to have a friend inside parliament and I sort of stuck to that. You see I hadn't been active in the Labor Party. So when I went in to caucus there were only two other people that I'd spoken to.
People imagine you go into caucus knowing everyone. But I didn't know all these old guys with brush backs and horn rimmed glasses and you know who…
Interviewee: They were, cardigans, they wore cardigans. They used to go down to the members' bar at 5:00 o'clock for a sherry. You know it was like a different world. I couldn't believe how bad it was. It's very different now, but in the end my great friend was Anne Symonds. But the interesting thing was I worked out that she'd been there for quite a while, but she'd been totally sidelined too. She knew nothing. When I asked her to show me around, she showed me where the printing room was and that was about it. Because she'd been kept out of things, because she was a left wing woman who wanted to know what was going on.
Even in the left caucus there were 20 people who hated me and two people who quite liked me.
Facilitator: So in terms of sort of things you're talking about where you weren't…
Interviewee: Accepted as a…
Facilitator: Accepted and also you weren't consulted on things which would logically - do you think that was a virtue of you're being a woman or you're being a Labor Party outsider or…
Interviewee: Being a woman.
Facilitator: Being a woman.
Interviewee: Being a woman. If I'd come into the caucus with that pedigree as a man I would have been fine. It was very much being a woman. It was exacerbated by the other things. That old right, they were shocking. In a funny way they were worse than the right in the trade union movement, because at least the old guys didn't think they were Christmas. You know the old guys in the trade union movement, whereas these the old guys who were the caucus in 1991 really they thought they were Christmas on top of everything else.
Facilitator: So did you see a change for other women who came through in the time that you were there?
Interviewee: Yes, yes, certainly by the time I left. That was when Linda Burney and Verity and people like that were coming through and a lot of it was critical mass. That makes a huge difference and also we were getting really good women in there and much better men. I mean the younger men were better and the left changed a lot. A lot of good left guys came in. See the old left can I say I'll name the Fergusons. You know Martin Ferguson once referred to the National Pay Equity Coalition as hairy legged femocrats. You know like he did not like us.
A lot of the old left was like that, quite misogynist.
Facilitator: Do you see that you had a role in that change?
Interviewee: In the Labor caucus?
Interviewee: Yes probably more so, probably more so there than even than in - I don't know. It's hard to see it. You sort of have to ask - sometimes women will say to me oh you did such and such and that was really important to me. But unless they say that to you don't know. I have a feeling that sometimes I did things that other women found terrific but I wasn't aware of it at the time really. I wasn't as fearless as I was in the trade union movement where I just felt I could do whatever I wanted to and my lovely guys in UASA would back me up. So I didn't feel at all fearful. I sometimes felt out of place, but I'd never felt fearful.
Whereas they bullied you in caucus. If you stepped out of line they leaked against you to the media and as soon as that stuff started becoming clear to me, you sort of get much more fearful and it's pretty frightening when suddenly you're attacked in the media for something that you thought was private.
Facilitator: So is that a bit about a different set of unwritten rules?
Interviewee: Yes and I knew none of them. Knew none of them and I have to say this, the only person who told me anything was Ian MacDonald who's now in deep trouble you know with the thing. But he used to tell me things. He'd say look they've just sent Bob Carr's press secretary down there in the press gallery briefing against you and I'd race down and there she'd be briefing. Like he actually told me things that no one else ever told me. So although I'm very angry with him I don't have that - I don't know who would have told me anything. I became very - starting with the union movement I was very clear about the need to spread information.
Albo always used to refer to me as radio 2MB but I really, really believed that men used to criticise women for making dopey decisions and for being ignorant. It was because they just kept information from them. So I always used to say that your responsibility was to give out the information, to make certain that women had as much information as the men. When I was in parliament it was really obvious that that was what they were doing... they were refusing information. I had no idea what I was doing for about two years until I started sorting it out for myself. Because I had no one telling me and I suspect that that's exactly what was happening in the trade union movement too.
But to some extent the fact that we didn't know the rules was fine because we just…
Facilitator: Join anyway.
Facilitator: What about the president of the Upper House, what…
Interviewee: Look, looking back I think that what I'd done was I'd been Chair of the committee which had looked into Franca Arena's allegations that all the premiers were paedophiles and things like that. One of her allegations was particularly hurtful to the leadership and I think I handled that extremely well. I knew that the only way that she needed to be shown up for being the person who just believed all this crazy, crazy, crazy stuff like judge A had killed judge B with an axe in Lane Cove National Park in to become the top international Satanist in Australia. You know she believed it and when I asked her that question and she said yes, yes that’s true.
The journos all went out and rang up the court to find out which judge was missing. They (the leadership) felt I'd done that really well. But also they needed - I could have been in the ministry. They needed a senior woman who knew what she was doing and everything and even then I was sensible enough to work out that I'd probably last three weeks in the ministry. That I'd fight with Carr and that it was sensible for me to - if I wanted to have a role doing things that it would be sensible to be president. I was absolutely right. I lasted eight years as president and I enjoyed it and was good at it.
I did some good things. Whereas I really wouldn’t have lasted as a minister.
Facilitator: Alright I'm trying to think if there's anything else. I mean there's so many things that we've put aside.
Interviewee: Can I just have a look and see what I've…
Interviewee: Because I just wrote down some things and - oh I could talk about one thing which - yeah I'll talk about that. That's about the fight against sexual harassment stuff in our union. Yeah just one extra thing. The only time I ever felt within FAUSA that there was a real issue between the actual men and women inside FAUSA was my 11 year fight to get sexual harassment guidelines. Or I wanted a sexual harassment policy. I think in the end we called it guidelines. I worked out it was because most of the blokes seriously thought it was okay to have relationships with students. I'd been very aware of this because at Macquarie for many years you had to share a phone with the person in the next room.
I'd be taking this next door guy's tearful phone calls from all the students and I was really aware of how devastating it could be. I remember bringing it up on a number of occasions and I think I was Chair of the Affirmative Action Committee of FAUSA and we brought it up as a motion. I remember making speeches about it at FAUSA meetings and just there being this sort of log jam. It never quite got to the stage where it could get through. Eventually we watered it down to saying, and I think it's pretty much the same now. We watered it down to that if an academic has a relationship with a student they have to withdraw from any supervision or teaching role and that if there are allegations of harassment or favouritism or whatever, that if they hadn't done that that we would, as a union, not defend them.
Which is pretty mild and I remember having to make this speech and I said look, all 18 year old girls are in love with their tutor or their lecturer - and I said I was in love with mine and what's more he's here today. Suddenly everyone just stopped and looked around and everyone was - and I certainly got their attention.
Facilitator: That's fantastic.
Interviewee: Of course it was true because the guy who was there, it was Ken Macnab who had been my history tutor. Of course Ken was, still is, gorgeous looking. He's 80 probably now and of course we were all in love with him. I just said you've got to understand structural sexism. You know this is a - you think that these beautiful young women fall in love with you because you're wonderful. It's not. It's because you're in a position of power over them which is structural sexism. They didn't understand it. It was the only time I felt that my union was being sexist and wasn't really understanding. We eventually got it through but it took a long time.
Facilitator: Well 11 years is a while.
Facilitator: Was there a change? Was it a personnel change that got it through or is just they got sort of worn down or…
Interviewee: I think times have changed. Times have moved on and yes this was no longer the way you did things. Mind you it's still an issue. But not like in the old days, it was totally acceptable that you had several relationships as well as your wife.
Facilitator: Right. That's a great one. I'm glad you remembered that.
Interviewee: Yeah I'm glad I wrote that one down.
Facilitator: Yeah. I would have loved to have been in that room
Interviewee: Yeah and of course Ken's still terribly embarrassed about it. The other story I tell about him and this is nothing to do with unions - I failed second year history and he was the person I went to see and he said - I remember this speech to this day. I say it's the story of my life. He said ‘Miss Burgmann someone has to be top of the failures and you're it [laughs]’.
Facilitator: That's fantastic. That's really good. Listen what I might do is I'll switch this off and…
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