About this interview
Jennie George, Australian politician and first woman President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), reflects on her decades of activism and how the support of other women helped her succeed.
Transcript: Jennie George interview.
Interviewee: I got involved with the trainee teachers club, and in those days, you could, for a very nominal fee, join the Teachers Federation as a trainee teacher. We had our own little group that met regularly on campus and got involved with issues affecting scholarships and trainees. From there, I got involved in the protests against the Vietnam War, went to the Teachers Federation conferences, and when I first went out teaching in 1969, I got active as the union rep at Bankstown Girls’ High School, which was my first appointment.
From there, I was involved with a local teachers' organisation—it was regionally based, the Canterbury-Bankstown Teachers' Association, which was quite a militant group of people. And I represented the regional association on the state-wide council of the union. And we had a big campaign at my school about lack of teaching staff, specialist teachers. So, I'd had a bit of marginal activity with the union—I wasn't centrally involved, but I was interested and my friends and networks developed around the teachers' union.
And it also coincided, I think, with a growing involvement of younger women in the union. Despite the fact that teaching was a predominately female occupation, all the union leaders were male barring one or two exceptions. So, it was a very male dominated union that didn't really represent the composition of the teaching force. My friend [Cathy Bloch] was an officer with the union, she was a bit older than me and she was very supportive and instrumental in getting younger women together, as was Barbara Murphy. And it all coincided as well with a rising consciousness about women's liberation and the women's movement in the '70s.
Facilitator: So you saw those as connected, your union activity and your…
Interviewee: Yes, very much, yes. It was really fortunate that it kind of coalesced. So, my interest in the union, my interest in teaching, in the union and in the women's committee the Teachers Federation kind of coalesced in changing the dynamics within a union, which as I say had been very male dominated. Even though in '68 there had been the first strike in the history of the union. It was very professionally focused and kind of lacked new blood coming into the ranks of the organisation.
So, I think all those circumstances coalesced by the time International Women's Year came along, that was what, 1975. By that stage, the union had enough rank and file involvement by women to get a commitment through the council to appoint our first women's officer: a woman by the name of Gail Shelston. By that stage, I had been elected to the position of assistant welfare officer [first elected in 1973] and there were a couple of other women working at the union—Cathy was one of them and a woman called Doris Jobling and Pam Hewish, three or four women. But the hierarchy was pretty much, remained pretty much, male dominated.
So that was the kind of background and then after that we became more involved with the Labor Council. Barbara Murphy in particular represented the teachers on the Labor Council Executive along with Meredith for many years.
From assistant welfare officer, I became - I ran then later for the admin officer of the union, so I was like the right-hand person to the General Secretary, Ivor Lancaster. The Communist Party had been quite influential historically in the Teachers Federation, so you had Sam Lewis who'd been the President and Ivor who were politically progressive men. And Ivor in particular, Ivor Lancaster, was very supportive, and after I worked with him for several years I then took up the position - ran for the position of secretary of the union. [Jennie was NSWTF secretary from 1980–1982 and the first woman to hold this position.]
Got elected to that position and by then we saw substantial change in the composition of council and the executive of the union and the issues of women became much more mainstream. And we were very lucky because historically we'd fought issues like equal pay. We had a major case about the right of women to return at the end of their mat [maternity] leave, which Cathy conducted in the commission. We had a women's officer, we had a very active women's committee, and over a period of half a dozen years, I think, council was very receptive to issues that were coming from the women's committee.
Facilitator: Jennie, just a couple of questions sort of flowing from that initial overview of that first - I think the first year if you like. So, you joined the Teachers Federation at…
Interviewee: At university.
Interviewee: In the trainee teachers' club it was called, yes.
Facilitator: So obviously the era is something to consider but family influence on you…
Interviewee: No, no, no. None at all. Not family, because mum and my father came to Australia in 1950 so they were kind of part of that post-war influx of migrants. Mum had left - well Mum and Dad met up in Italy where I was born, and when we came to Australia we lived at Wallgrove, at the migrant hostel at Wallgrove. Mum and Dad - Mum worked as a nurse's aide at I think it was King George V I think it was called, across from RPA, and Dad worked as a kitchenhand in town.
So, I didn't see my parents every week—I used to see them probably once every second week, and I lived with my grandmother out at Wallgrove. Then we got transferred to the migrant hostel at Burwood, and I started school at Burwood Primary School and went to Burwood Girls’ High. Now it was when we were at Burwood, when I went to high school, I was very close - my best friend then was a woman by the name of Jane Rennie whose parents were associated with the Communist Party.
And I joined the Eureka Youth League, and it was through that that I met Paddy George who was from a communist family, so I kind of had the influence of politics through friendship and his side of - well his family. And so that was the other influence, the kind of political influence through Paddy's family and through Jane really.
Interviewee: So she and I were at uni together, so the EYL—and that was the connection with Jane and Paddy through the EYL—and then Cathy also, who I got to know through the teachers’ and the EYL. But for me, the Eureka Youth League was more of a - to begin with more of a social connection rather than a political connection. But I hadn't grown up in a political household at all. But I'd grown up in a very strongly matriarchal household, I guess, because I had a working mum who did shift work as a kitchenhand and her mother—my grandmother—lived with us too, and she and I shared a room together in the high rise, the Housing Commission at Surry Hills.
So, it was a very - it was a hard life for my mum, and she made a lot of sacrifices so that I could go to uni and study and become a teacher. That's what sh*ts me about all this debate about this bl**dy language test you know. I said to someone, you know, being proficient in English at a university level is just ridiculous. I mean people come to this country with nothing and they've got to work, eke out an existence, where are they going to learn English other than conversational English at work?
Facilitator: Yes, exactly.
Interviewee: People have got no idea of how hard it is. My mum and dad separated when I was quite young, and then my dad died when I was 13, so kind of had a very female-dominated household of strong independent women so that probably had an influence. So, all those influences combined I guess helped to shape what I am.
Facilitator: So, you've spoken about the different positions you've held throughout the time from student to secretary of the union, and you've touched on a couple of the cases. What were the biggest campaigns and cases that you feel you contributed to and drove during your time…
Interviewee: Well there's two periods in my time at the Teachers, I got to be the secretary of the Teachers Federation for - I think I was there for a term, and then Paddy died of cancer. So, my kind of world fell apart a bit at that stage, and I moved to Canberra and went back teaching at Queanbeyan High School. And in the time that I was away, a team of three people, which I've since learnt supported by the Labor Council in the election, they won control of the three senior offices of the union. It was led by a bloke called Ivan Pagett. I don't know if you remember him?
Interviewee: While I was away, there was this great turmoil in the union which had always been - well in my time and before then, I mean controlled by progressive people, be they in the ALP or in the CPA. I was in Canberra, I'd gone back teaching, had a relationship—I don't know if you know Simon Marginson's name, does that ring a bell - no? He was an academic in the education field. So, he was working at the Australian Teachers Union in Canberra, the Australian Teachers Federation as it was then, and I was back teaching as a careers advisor at Queanbeyan High.
And a number of people said, look will you come back and run on a ticket to try and defeat the Pagett team, which I did. I came back and ran as President of the union and our team got a resounding support from the rank and file, and so I ended up being then President of the union for a period of time. [Jennie was NSWTF president from 1986–1989 and was the first woman to hold this position.]
Facilitator: What period are you talking about?
Interviewee: We're talking about early '80s. Yes, so I came back and then president. Then while I was secretary still we had a lot of disputation over salaries for teachers, salaries and working conditions, class sizes, the traditional but important industrial issues.
Facilitator: That was the time when my dad was a fed rep so I…
Interviewee: Oh right. Okay. It was a pretty militant union, very high levels of membership then and now. So, if you had a strike and then people went on strike we didn't have a problem. And we were lucky because the nature of teaching meant that you could have a union presence in every school. Then you had your regional associations, then you had your state council, then you had your executive. So, it was a very much, an organisation very much driven by the rank and file who were well represented.
So, we had a period of quite a lot of industrial action which has set the floor for a lot of really good conditions that the union was able to establish for its members that's continued on. When I came back as president, we had a major drama with the Greiner government –Terry Metherell was the minister.
Facilitator: I remember.
Interviewee: Yes, and that was when Sally tells me that she first got involved when she came to the big rally in the Domain. That was, you know, a huge ongoing drama about the Liberal's threat to cut back the equivalent of about 2000 teaching positions. And that's when I think the links with the community and the parents were very well forged. So that was probably one of the highlights of [MOE]. It's always a very strong union, we expected the members to abide by union policy, not to take extra classes, not to take more kids in a class than the union determined. So, it was a pretty influential union.
Facilitator: Were you on the Labour Council Executive or did you just…
Interviewee: I used to go the Labour Council— I was a Labor Council delegate. Barbara Murphy was our key person at the Labor Council and she had done that historically and she was very good at it. So, she and Meredith were leading the charge there. The first time I ran for a position with the ACTU, I ran on a ticket for the left with I think it was Peter Cook was our number one on the ticket, John Halfpenny and me. [Jennie ran on the ticket with Peter Cook and John Halfpenny at 1981 Congress.]
I remember we all—all the teachers, people that were involved—were laughing because I had to go around and say, now listen, you've got to be very clear, you're not allowed to vote for me. What do you mean we can't vote for you? I said, no, I'm on a ticket, you've got to vote for the person at the head of - this was all very new to teachers. By then I guess through that major drama that we had with the Libs and with Terry Metherell, I'd established a bit of, well, credibility in the broader union movement and I got to know people through Labor Council.
I used to go there as a delegate. At the time, the white-collar unions were still represented on the ACTU through - I think it was called the ACSPA group, the Australian Council Salaried and Professional Associations. So, we had our separate representation on the executive and it was held by someone from the banking sector. So, the white-collar unions hadn't fully integrated into the ACTU. Anyhow, I ran on this ticket only because I think they thought it was probably a good idea to have a woman there.
Facilitator: So you were third on the ticket.
Interviewee: Third on the ticket, yes, so I had to make sure that no one voted for me. Peter ran, I think he ran against John McBean I think, and John McBean was successful, anyhow we gave it a go. What happened after that, how did I get involved? Oh, then, yes, I was involved with the ACTU women's committee and finally ran for the ACTU executive, it would have been late '80s. Got elected there as the first woman that had been elected to the all-male establishment.
Facilitator: Because that's one thing to know, like I knew that, but having a slight insight into the movement, what was that actually like to be there?
Interviewee: Well I'll recount a little story. Cliff Dolan was then the president. So, he's sitting around the table and there were 20 odd guys there and me. I didn't know that many people, but I'd come across Bill Kelty of course through the ACTU women's committee and a couple of other people I knew from New South Wales. But I was kind of very new and a bit nervous about walking into the room for the first time.
I can remember Cliff saying at the end of the meeting, well gentlemen, there's nothing left for me to do other than to declare the meeting closed gentlemen. So, I liked Cliff, an old-school, very decent human being, old school. I said, well Cliff, I have to draw your attention to the fact that it's not just gentlemen around this table anymore.
Well Jennie, now that you've drawn that matter to my attention, he said with a smile in a nice way. So, they were so accustomated to it being a man's world that it was quite a bit of a shock particularly for the older generation like Cliff. But he did it in a very nice way but I just recount that story because the psychology and mentality was such that the hallowed halls of the ACTU were for men only.
Facilitator: Yes, it was so unexpected.
Interviewee: Yes, but of course I had great support from - there were a number of women that were employed at the ACTU on grants to deal with women's issues, and they were incredibly supportive, as was my own union. Now I'm very lucky because the union had already had being supportive around – you know starting from around the times of International Women's Year, having Gail Shelston, the women's officer and a number of women after her. So the union was tremendously supportive.
I had the ACTU women's committee and I had some contact with men, just trying to think, people like George Campbell for example from the Metal Workers Union and Bill, later Tommy McDonald from the CFMEU, was the BWIU in those days. So, I was back at the Teachers Federation, I was on the ACTU executive, Bill was the secretary of the ACTU, and Simon was going into politics. Oh, and Martin Ferguson of course, he was there from the [Miscos] in my time.
So, there were discussions about who was going to succeed Simon when he went into politics, and the talk was about Martin stepping up and becoming the next president. And at that time, we still had our trade union training college, Clyde Cameron College, and the proposition was put to me would I consider taking on being the deputy to Ken Stone of the trade union training organisation, spending time trying to beef up our training based on industry unions, and you know getting all women involved in the training process.
And I thought, well I've been the secretary of the union, I've been the president of the union, it sounded like a good fit for me because it kind of drew on my interest in teaching. I was unattached at that stage, so I could spend as much time as I needed to at the residential college, which I did. So, I took that on. I became the head of TUTA, and then the Liberal Government when it was elected closed the college. By then I had been elected as a vice president of the ACTU, which was not a full-time position, an honorary position. [Jennie was the TUTA (Trade Union Training Authority) Deputy and Director from 1989–1991. She was the first woman elected to ACTU Executive Congress in 1983. She was the ACTU’s first woman Vice President (1987) and the first woman Assistant Secretary elected to Congress (1991). She was also the first woman President of the ACTU holding the position from 1996–2000.]
So, I had become more and more involved with the ACTU through TUTA and being a vice president. Then Martin decided to contest a seat in Victoria to move into politics and that left the opening - oh no, hang on, I've missed a step. Assistant secretary - I went from TUTA to assistant secretary when Laurie Carmichael retired, and there was me and Iain Ross. And then when when Martin went on to contest Batman I then took up the position of acting president in '95 and then was elected at the congress that year until 2000. So that's kind of in potted summary the trajectory. [Jennie became the president elect ACTU Congress in September 1995.]
Facilitator: It was '95 wasn't it?
Facilitator: I didn't realise it was that late. For some reason, I thought it was earlier.
Facilitator: Particularly in your movement from your involvement with TUTA to VP, assistant secretary, and then to be elected at the congress, so I have interviewed Meredith Burgmann, so she mentioned that she was part of the campaign team.
Interviewee: Oh, yes, it was a big deal, yes.
Facilitator: So I wonder if you could tell me what the lead up - particularly because you were acting in the role you said - obviously what the lead up to the election was like and who was around you and how that happened?
Interviewee: I was very hesitant about taking it on. I was quite nervous about the expectation of being the first woman. Could I do the job and could I handle it? And I've got to say I wouldn't have - I would never be in the position if it wasn't for Bill, there was no question about that. He was incredibly personally supportive and understood the importance of the union movement having to broaden its representation to represent, you know, what the workforce was truly like.
I was saying to Sally, one thing I'm really pleased about is that it's only taken two decades to come from a totally male-dominated movement to one where we now have a woman secretary, and that there are now more women than men who are members of the union. Who would have ever believed it? It's like two decades. So, I think Bill in his usual foresight and strategic thinking understood that we just had to come to terms with the fact that numbers of women in the workforce was going to increase. We had to get out there and present an image that was more conducive and supportive of women joining and being active.
And of course, I had tremendous support. We used to call them the Kent Street mafia: there was me, Peter Robson, he was the national secretary of the CPSU, Tom McDonald, BWIU and then CFMEU now, and George Campbell from the Metal Workers. So, they were all gung-ho in their support, come on, you've got to step up, it's time, we'll help you if there's any problems, Bill is there. So, the fact that Bill was there made me feel that, well, if I had any great dramas or problems I could always count on him to be supportive, and he gave me that assurance that of course he'd help out, we'd work together on things, which was always the case.
So, I was very fortunate. I think sometimes you just happen to be in the right place at the right historical time to take advantage of the opportunities that come along.
Facilitator: It's really interesting because that's often what women say.
Interviewee: Do they?
Facilitator: I was there, it was just a question of the right place at the right time, and less often men say it.
Interviewee: Yes, true.
Facilitator: So it's interesting your reflection Jennie because…
Interviewee: A bit like you when you first went into academia.
Interviewee: Am I going to assert myself now or just sit and see. But, of course, by the time the congress came I'd been around the tracks for a long time so people knew me in my own right. I'd had quite a few decades of involvement in the union, by then quite a reasonable profile through the Teachers Federation and the campaigns that we'd waged. And on the day of course – I think I've still got some TV - the late Peter Harvey, he was the Channel 9 reporter of the day. He came up to me and he said, Jennie, I've got this gift for your mother, so she can have a look at this at times down the track. Well mum was there of course on the day, but it was a huge celebration. I had all my lovely friends Anne Summers and Cheryl Kernot, and I'd done a lot of work with Cheryl negotiating changes to the IR laws, so I got to know her pretty well. And of course, Cathy and Meredith and all the old gang, they were all there. Yes, it was quite a day.
Facilitator: I have memories of seeing the TV, like balloons, purple balloons…
Interviewee: Yes, balloons and yes, I am woman, hear me roar, yes and all that.
Facilitator: So following the election what happened then, what did you feel, what did you do…
Interviewee: What was I…
Interviewee: Well we had a division of responsibilities. I looked after the public sector and we were just going into enterprise bargaining. So, I coordinated the negotiations for the enterprise agreements in the public sector. I still had overview of the training program, the work on the women's committee. We had…I had responsibility for the industrial campaigns after Kennett got elected, so we had major dramas in Victoria in privatisation, loss of jobs, big rallies. So, I coordinated with the Labor Council from the ACTU's end.
I did all the political negotiations involved with ALAC, you know, different manifestations of the Accord and its different varieties. [Jennie was a participant involved with the negotiations at ALAC.] Worked on the Aboriginal Reconciliation Council and with the welfare sector. And, of course, then we had the big maritime dispute in '98. So, I did a lot of the TV work and the radio and the community organising for that.
Facilitator: Just before we started the recording we were talking about the - which wasn't really long after you'd taken up the role – the rally at Parliament House in Canberra…
Interviewee: Oh yes, '96, yes.
Facilitator: …after Howard was elected.
Facilitator: Can you recount your experience of the day?
Interviewee: Yes, I can. I will never forget it. Yes, well we'd worked very hard to build up - as I said, I was involved with the Aboriginal Community through the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation with people like Lowitja O'Donoghue and Pat Dodson and others. So, after the election of the Howard Government of course we had great turmoil with cutbacks and changes to the industrial relations laws, and we decided we were going to have this day of protest. That was huge organisational effort, trains organised and buses, and what started off to be a magnificent rally on the lawns of Parliament House ended up in a total…
[Audio cut off]
Interviewee: …answers you know, I'd say, no, we're not going to win and came back. I can remember this distinctly, and I've still got it at home. On the Friday afternoon, I'd just come back from Tasmania, I'd been down in Tassie in one of the seats down there. And Bill said, oh, let's just sit down and go through the list and tell me what you think based on what you've seen and what I'm picking up. Anyhow, we went through the list and I said, you know we've got a reasonable - just a little hope that we can win tomorrow.
And everyone - the ALP – said no, we've got no chance, we've got no chance. He said are you sure? I said, well just my gut feelings just based on talking to people and said, I just wouldn't write off our chances. Well, low and behold that Saturday night when the early results from Tassie came in and I'd spent a bit of time in Tassie, I rang Bill and I said, oh, I think we're going to go all right. I've kept a memento at home signed by Paul, the front page of the Herald Sun which kind of predicted that Labor wasn't going to win, so he signed that.
He came to the ACTU executive after the election and I got him to sign that poster. I spent a lot of my time going out to different disputes and just being involved at the rank and file level, visiting work places with unions, working in marginal seats. I mean it was nothing like the organisation that goes into election campaigns these days. But to the extent that we were involved, I was out there flying the flag about our issues and the concerns we had about the election of the Libs and our chance to break with the past.
So, after Labor got elected in '93, I wasn't involved in the details of the legislation, Iain Ross did all that work and he did it superbly well. But I had ongoing relationships with a number of the ministers in the government and you know regular consultations about the different Accords that we went through in that era. So, I was talking about another low point, so the rally that went wrong was one low point. The other one was unfortunately again things get out of control when you don't predict it. There was a big rally, in fact it was Denis's union I think, it was a big meeting of the shop stewards of the NUW in Melbourne, and I was out in Calare.
I think it was the Westinghouse Factory as I recall at the time. So, I was out in Calare doing what I had to do with the unions locally to try and gee up some support for the election for the Labor candidate. I'm just trying to think of his name. I think he used to work at head office, a nice bloke, he was a teacher. It doesn't matter. Rob, Rob Allen, I think was the candidate, not sure, anyhow it was in Calare.
Anyhow, I get this phone call from Bill and he said, oh how are you? Yes, I'm fine, how did the rally go Bill? He said, oh God, all hell has broken loose here. I said why, what's happened? Anyhow to cut a long story short he said something like I said, oh well if the Libs want to declare war we'll give them the full sympathy, ah, symphony.
Facilitator: Oh, I remember that.
Interviewee: Yes, remember that, yes, the full symphony. And he said, oh, the media has gone absolutely - and he said, I feel terrible that somehow something I've said might harm Paul's chances of re-election. I said, oh, it'll be fine, don't worry. He said, oh, all the media is on to me and Bill was never one for the media. I said, well there's not much I can do Bill, I'm out in Orange, I can't even get to Sydney. Anyhow, I said, look I'll get back to Melbourne as soon as I can but just hang in there.
And of course, I wasn't there and Denis, I think Denis was chairing the meeting, he said it was a great meeting and I can't remember Bill's exact words but it was something like, you know, if they want to take us on well we'll show them, they can have the full symphony. I mean Bill is the least threatening person of any male you could meet. So, so retiring and not aggro at all and to think that - and of course because of his personal friendship with Paul it was just shattering.
So, the next minute I get a phone call, did we have mobile phones then? I don't know, I tracked down, it was Kerry O'Brien from The 7:30 Report. Oh sh*t. Where are you Jennie? I'm in Orange. Well I've been trying to get Bill to come on The 7:30 Report and he said, well can you do it? I said, well how can I do it, I'm in Orange, you can send a TV camera here if you like. I said, but I wasn't there, so how can I comment on something when I wasn't there. Anyhow, he said, oh, we can to pick you up.
Facilitator: Is that right?
Interviewee: Yes. I said, well, on the condition that you give me an absolute full transcript of exactly what was said seeing as I wasn't there and I've spoken to Bill. And of course, you know Bill as well as I do, that would be the furthest thing from his mind to do anything that might be harmful to the chances of a Labor government. So that was another difficult point. The third one was - I had been up to Weipa, there was a big dispute at Weipa, where the people who refused to sign onto individual contracts were hanging out and they'd been on strike for a long time.
So, Doug Cameron who'd then taken over at the Metal Workers because George had gone into parliament, Doug Cameron and I and a few other union officials flew to Weipa. And the case had been before the Commission, and we had called on Bob Hawke to represent the ACTU. Now, I think it was partly Bill wanting to bring Hawke back into the union fold because there'd been a bit of upset that Bill's closeness to Paul might have fractured the relationship with Bob a bit and Bob was getting on. And the last thing Bill would want would be for Bob not to be properly acknowledged and involved. We could have done the case internally, but it was I think partly Bill's way of embracing Bob. Paul had been involved in trying to resolve the dispute with Tim Pallas in the early part of it, and he'd flown off to I think it was Japan and things came adrift. The deal that they thought they had didn't work out so the workers were still on strike. Then Paul heard that Bob had been engaged to do the case before the Commission, and he rang from Japan and was very unimpressed to say the least.
Anyhow, we got down to the court, and Bob presented the case about the breach of equal pay principals and the union movement wasn't going to allow this to happen. And then the condition was that the workers had to go back to work. Well, by this stage they'd been out for quite a while and were quite determined to see victory and they weren't going to go back easily. Anyhow, the long and the short of it was they went back to work and the issue finally got resolved. Of the low times, I mean it comes with any job, you have your highs and the really difficult and challenging times that you've got to get through, and of course, the biggest one was the maritime dispute in '98. So that was really a big one, taking on the force of the State that was setting out to destroy a really strong union. So really a matter of survival. And well MUA here to stay and is still there, so that was great. That was a real - I just wonder if, you know, we'd had to fight that challenge today whether we'd be strong enough to be able to resist that kind of onslaught because it was such a well-orchestrated and well contrived campaign.
And of course, we had the competence of someone like Greg who did all the legal work, Bill's strategic thinking, and my role was mainly to be out talking to community groups and on the picket lines and going to all the different ports keeping morale up. Yes, so that was probably the highlight in terms of the future of the union movement. As I was saying to you earlier, that in the space of those two decades the union movement’s quite a different creature than it was when I first got involved.
We've now got Sally as the secretary with huge enormous challenges. But I guess every generation and every decade throws up its own unique circumstances you've got to try and deal with as best you can. And I guess for Sal, the biggest challenge will be to reverse the inexorable decline, otherwise it's kind of very problematic.
Facilitator: When you talk about the shift in the demographic and the union movement so that it's more women than men that's also been at the expense of…
Interviewee: Full-time male employment.
Facilitator: In the manufacturing…
Interviewee: Yes, I know.
Facilitator: What where…
Interviewee: Of course the growth in the future will be the service sector and jobs like those that will come with NDIS and in the community sector.
Facilitator: Jennie, can I ask you sort of an historical question?
Facilitator: I don't know if you'll feel free to answer it or not, but you were there at the heart of the Accord…
Facilitator: …the Accord era. There's been varying assessments of the Accord looking back as you do with a couple of decade's hindsight.
Facilitator: What's your ongoing or lasting view of the Accord?
Interviewee: Right. Okay, when I was on the ACTU executive representing teachers, our view was we were not very receptive to the Accord, to the parameters of the Accord. We thought it was a bit of a cop out. Why should we be moderating our wage claims in return for legislative improvements in other areas? So, I became quite sceptical about the virtues of the Accord, but having lived through the era that definitely changed and I became quite a passionate advocate of the parameters of the Accord.
Mind you, in that time we had a lot of challenges, particularly for women workers, enterprise bargaining was not good for women, in that they were located in areas of the economy where they had lacked industrial bargaining power. And their capacity to negotiate for wage increases was very constrained. But it was lucky that I was there in that period because I was able to prevail upon people like Bill to recognise that we had a problem, that the union movement had to deal with it.
We saw in that era the award restructuring process and the realignment of women's wages in the non-formal sector like clothing trades with the traditional wage setting through the Metal Trades Award. So, people like Anna Booth were very involved in that as well at the time. So, to the extent that I could, understanding the limitations and its impact on women, I tried as much as I could to redress those. But on balance, when you look at the social wage improvements that have been lasting, they've added significantly to the underpinnings of the social safety net in the country.
So, things like parental leave, superannuation (the biggest achievement of all of them), greater outlays on training and vocational system, and the move to consolidate, you know, the hundreds of smaller unions that existed in an attempt to try and create more effective unions on an industry basis. And we were able to do that because - I think largely because of Bill's authority to be able to meld the union movement together and to see tangible returns for the sacrifices that people made in terms of their wage claims.
But at all times, we saw the importance of moving the minimum award rates so as not to create a huge gap between those predominately women and migrant workers and casuals on the award rates with those more fortunate through industrial muscle to extract better outcomes. So, we instituted the living wage case every year, which still continues today as a means of trying to redress that gap. So, it was by no means a perfect system, but it was a system that acted in the nation's economic interests at a time when we had to change the economic parameters to make the economic future more secure.
We also went from a very sclerotic, centralised wage-fixing system where workers weren't actively involved and just sat and waited for their annual wage increase. And that was kind of seeing the movement atrophy a bit at the workplace level. We thought that enterprise bargaining would be the way of involving more people at the workplace – that was the theory. But we also understood as we went on that there were people that were being left behind and we had to look after them as well.
But I mean without the Accord era, I don't think we would have cemented in place probably the best superannuation system that we could have expected, and some of the social welfare reforms, Medicare, parental leave. So yes, overall, I think it worked well. It wouldn't work like that again. It was a particular instrument of union involvement in a given set of economic parameters at the time. I think on balance it worked well.
Facilitator: I didn't realise that the living wage case was an Accord.
Interviewee: Yes, it was our way of trying to redress the gap between the earnings under enterprise bargaining.
Facilitator: Okay, so that was your legacy that...
Interviewee: Yes, that's still maintained, yes.
Facilitator: A couple of other questions, I know that you've got commitments too today to get to. But I was wondering, you devoted a great amount of your life and energy to the movement, how did that balance with other aspects of your life?
Interviewee: It didn't.
Facilitator: Alright. Short answer.
Interviewee: No, it's pretty - I mean I don't have any regrets about it but, yes, it's very hard. Look, I was fortunate to the extent that without having family responsibilities for - I didn't have children so I was able to be in a job that sometimes you'd wake up in a motel room and you'd forget where you were. So that's what I've said to Sally, you've got to be very careful you don't burn out, which she will do. So, my personal circumstances enabled me to do the kind of things I had to do in the job.
It would be very hard. I mean people say, you should be able to balance your work and your family commitments. I don't know. I'm always amazed at the women politicians with young children that are able to go to Canberra and have their young babies with them as well. But, you know, that's just something you had to accept as part of the process, yes.
Facilitator: Speaking of Canberra, so I can't remember the timing but you….
Interviewee: 2000 I left, yes.
Facilitator: So it wasn't long after the MUA dispute.
Interviewee: Yes, 2000.
Facilitator: So what provoked that decision?
Interviewee: What provoked that decision? Well, I'd spent all my life in the union movement and I thought, oh my goodness what am I going to do? I mean I'd left teaching behind by this stage, the superannuation world where a lot of my colleagues of my era went didn't really attract me. I had thought of - I was living in Melbourne then, I knew I had to come back and look after mum at some stage. And I thought my ideal option would have been to come back and be in the New South Wales Parliament.
I mean that's where my history had been, in New South Wales, but that wasn't to be. And how did, how did Throsby come up? Oh, that's right, Bill had just - yes, I was just trying to get the sequence right. Greg was there. It was decided that Greg was going to Bill's successor. Bill was going to leave in 2000, and I guess because we were a duo in a sense thought it's probably better for Greg to start off with a new president, a new kind of relationship that was going to last beyond the time that I wanted to stay around.
I was getting on and I'd been there for quite a while, and I thought, well I've got probably 10 years left to do something with the rest of my life. And I thought well if Bill is going it's probably a good time for me to go, and Sharan Burrow of course was from the Teachers Federation. So, she and I went back for years. She'd been an organiser when I was the secretary of the union out in Bathurst. So, I knew that if I went I was leaving the ACTU in good hands, even though at the time her succession wasn't assured and she wouldn't have got the job without Bill's support. Greg Sword from the NUW had put his hat in the ring.
Facilitator: I remember that, yes.
Interviewee: So that was a bit of an internal battle. But once I knew that Sharan was going to get it, I felt that it was probably better for Greg to start off with a new combination. Bill and I had been together for all those years and, yes, it was like the odd couple. So, if I was going to go that was a good time to go. Yes, it all worked out. Sharan took over and Greg took over from Bill and they kind of started off together and then Sharan stayed and went on to the International Union Movement.
I had had dealings with the South Coast, particularly through the MUA, and people from the steel works down there, and the left in the ALP in general, in the Illawarra area, when the option came up that that might be considered. I liked the idea partly because of the industrial base, and the working-class base of the electorate was very Labor territory and had a good industrial base that I felt comfortable with, and I knew some of the union leaders like Andy Gillespie at the steel works and Arthur Rorris and the MUA people.
So, when that option looked like it was viable I thought well I've got probably another good 10 years of my working life left, I'll give it a go. That wasn't without its own traumas and headaches in factional terms. So, nothing is ever made easy. So, I moved down and stayed in a shared house arrangement of mine at Dapto, and Denis moved up from Victoria and we settled at Dapto and built a home there and I stayed there for just on 10 years until I retired.
Facilitator: Can I ask, you know I don't need necessarily names or details, but in terms of the factional dynamics because - from when you started to when you retired there was quite a huge change or huge changes in the factional dynamics in the union movement and the broader labour movement
Facilitator: …and I wonder if you have any reflections on what that was like as you went through it. Also, I guess if you felt there were trade-offs that you made between your feminist principles and your political affiliations you know with regards to…
Interviewee: Well, I guess as a young woman I was very rebellious, very progressive you know. At all the demos. Got arrested for running onto the showground when the American military band was there, and Jane and I lay down when—in the famous, ride over the bastards—LBJ was out here. So, I was - yes, I was very - quite militant and a very committed feminist. I was never actively involved in the ALP, I mean I was kind of a - I was very much industrially focused.
When I went to the ACTU, I mean I was always identified with the left, but I think what I really liked about my time at the ACTU was that—apart from one or two individuals on the extreme right—all the decisions we made were never made on a factional basis. That factional considerations didn't seem to be a major issue at the ACTU, except for I think there was a bit of testiness with people like John Maynes from the Clerks Union. But generally speaking politics were not a major consideration - where people stood politically was not a major consideration, people were judged by what they said and what they did.
When I went to Canberra, of course, I was part of the left faction and that was very splintered anyway. And the thing about factional politics I think it revolves too much around personalities and not around policy matters. And the one thing I liked about the ACTU was not factionalised in all that time that I worked there, factional considerations didn't come into play. People had common enemies but they weren’t one another like they are in the party.
I found, I found the political scene quite different. I don't think I adjusted well to it, or it to me. I had been used to speaking my mind, which was not something that I think went over too well in the caucus, particularly when Kevin Rudd was the leader. He didn't like me or what I stood for, and we had a few nasty exchanges at the caucus meeting, particularly on education, that was the big issue. I was the defender of public education and Kevin didn't like to be - Kevin knew everything and didn't like to be challenged.
I learned that standing up and speaking out was a sure block and barrier to any progression in the party. It didn't matter. I used to say to people - they'd say, oh, you're very brave getting up. I'd say, no, I'm just here to do my job to represent the people, and anyway it doesn’t matter to me, my career, I've had my career, I'm making a contribution but I don't expect you to put your future on the line. I'm happy to take up the fights, which I did on several issues.
One of them was the impact of a carbon tax on industries like the steel industry, what impact that would have on workers. So, yes, I mean I was always true to myself and to the people I represented, but the factional stuff was - left me a bit cold quite frankly.
Facilitator: That’s interesting. An interesting explanation from the outside, you know to understand what's going on. Look, I know you've got places to be but I wanted to conclude with this.
Facilitator: If you were - you obviously play a mentoring role and have played a mentoring role with women unions, you're close with Sally…
Facilitator: Have been. I wonder what advice you'd give generally to women engaged in union activity in the current kind of circumstances.
Interviewee: Look, I think it's really hard for someone of my generation to understand what it's like for women today because the issues are quite different and quite challenging. The challenges are quite different, the economy is different. I mean, all I can see is that it's probably going to be historically more difficult to organise in the decades ahead than it was in my time. I was very lucky that it came at a time when - in my union where we could really make substantial advances in a whole range of areas, in staffing and working conditions in the broader community.
I'm loathe to offer any kind of advice other than to say I can appreciate the challenges are there, they're different challenges to the ones that we had. Like my generation the big challenge for women was to change the face of the union movement. The challenges for people like Sally is now how to historically ensure that we don't have an existential crisis. That's going to take new forms of organising, and a better understanding of the changes in the economy than I have.
I mean I read about the gig economy, but it doesn’t mean much to me. And there's nothing worse than an ex-official trying to give advice to a current official.
Facilitator: Well I think - you know, we're hoping that part of our project is that, you know, people can learn from the experiences of those that have come before us. So part of, you know, is trying to capture some of these experiences.
Interviewee: Look, I think the changes have been - I mean they were – things appeared to me to be relatively more understandable when I was coming through the ranks and what the challenges were and how we dealt with them. I think the challenges, looking as an outsider now, are different in nature and substantially harder than they were then.
Facilitator: And just one small follow-up. So that's in terms of the external context, in terms of what you might be able to identify as your internal characteristics or features that allowed you to persist and succeed. Are there aspects of your personality that you could say, well I think that helped me or I developed that or I learnt to behave in a particular or do things in a particular way or approach things?
Interviewee: Look, I always think that - well I always had great support from women so I couldn't have done that. I never saw myself as being apart from them, I was just the one that was there in the situation, in the circumstances that allowed me to, kind of, represent their voice. There's nothing worse than the queen bee syndrome. When you see that in life it makes you shudder. So, I was there as part of that collective, and I have to say I was very fortunate coming from the union I did, white collar, sympathetic to women's issues, great women support.
Then I end up in the broader union movement with terrific blokes that were progressive and supportive and encouraging, and some of whom acted as mentors for me. So, I think mentoring is important and solidarity.
Facilitator: And if there was one characteristic that you would say defined your leadership style how would you describe it?
Interviewee: Yes, I'd like to think I'm a people person, and I'd like to think I look for things that we have in common rather than - I never focus on the things that might divide people but try and look for the common ground, both politically and personally.
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