Brenda Seymour

About this interview

Brenda Seymour reflects on her decades of activism in two unions: the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation and the Police Association New South Wales, and touches on the importance of improving childcare provisions for female workers and union members. 

The source for all images accompanying this interview and transcript is the Teachers’ Federation.

Transcript: Brenda Seymour Interview



Facilitator: Thank you so much Brenda for sitting down with me today. Our conversation today is really about your time being a union activist and an officer as well for your respective unions. So, we can have a conversation about your time with the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation and also the Police Association in New South Wales as well. So, it’s really about capturing your story and your lived experience at the same time.


So, I’m wondering if we can start right at the beginning of what actually piqued your interest or your motivation to get involved initially with the Teachers’ Federation, and what sort of time period was that?


Interviewee: I think probably it started at Teachers’ College. I went to Teacher College in Newcastle, the Conservatorium of Music for three years and a year at the Teachers’ College, although there was a requirement to be at both institutions over those four years. And Newcastle being such a good union town, I was involved with the student union when I was at College.


Facilitator: And when you first became a teacher as well, did you have a local union role, like a Fed Rep role within…?


Interviewee: Yes. A Federation Representative and Association official and Councillor.


Facilitator: Okay, okay.


Interviewee: I also attended special interest groups and, so there was that local involvement, as well as school involvement.


Facilitator: And during that time, sort of being essentially at the grassroots level and the school level, what were the main issues that you were dealing with at that particular time at the school level and then the Association level within your area?


Interviewee: Well, I was a high school teacher, so extras in school was always an issue: the issuing of those. And there were disputes about that at the local level. I can’t really think of any other issues….it’s hard to think back to all of that…


Facilitator: I’m interested as well in what sort of motivated you to get involved in the union as well. Did you have some sort of family history, or were there other factors motivating being involved?


Interviewee: No, there was no family history at all. I was both involved with local issues and issues at the high school. But at the time I was doing a Masters degree in psychology at Sydney Uni, and I decided to do a study of women’s participation in the Teachers’ Federation as a major project for that credential.


So, I had to go into the Teachers’ Federation and look through all of their records to select women to be involved with that, and we published a major research finding in the Journal of Industrial Relations. That got me more involved with the Federation Head Office and prompted me to apply for a Research Officer position which, in the Teachers’ Federation, is by election. So, I stood for a Research Officer position.


Facilitator: I’m interested in hearing a bit more about your work looking at the women’s participation within the Teachers’ Federation and unpacking what sort of issues that you were looking at…?


Interviewee: Because I was doing a degree in psychology, it was more about the personality of women activists and also why women were involved and weren’t involved. So, the major trends as to why women weren’t involved and what sort of personality those women who were involved had.

Also, I was just thinking that there were issues to do with the curriculum that were important at the school level, I can remember particularly.


Facilitator: My sort of understanding of the Teachers’ Federation at that time through my previous research is there seemed to be a fairly male-dominated culture within the Teachers’ Federation as well. And I’m sort of wondering if you can tell me a bit about how your work influenced that sort of space within the Federation?


Interviewee: There were certainly far more men than women at each of the stratas in the Federation. And I think the main issue that women determined they [were or] weren’t involved [with] was no time and child care. The issues that are always there, are for women and their involvement, were certainly expressed as the reasons women weren’t involved in the early 1980s when I stood for office.


Facilitator: Can you tell me Brenda as well about…you mentioned that you stood for that role and were elected for the role of Research and Industrial Officer…what kind of prompted you to then get involved from the grassroots sort of level into an actual officer role within the Federation?


Interviewee: Increasing involvement and wanting to have a greater involvement.


Facilitator: Were you kind of encouraged by anyone, or was there an influencing factor behind that or…?


Interviewee: Ah, yes. Denise Allen who was the…who changed her name after that, and I can’t recall what her name is now, but Denise was an officer with the Federation and she was the Organiser for my area. She certainly strongly influenced me and at the school I was teaching at, which was Cheltenham Girls High, John Kirby certainly encouraged me and he was a Federation Life Member. So yeah, I had those people encouraging me to stand.


Facilitator: And so you held the role of the Research and Industrial Officer….


Interviewee: At that stage it was just a Research Officer…


Facilitator: Just a Research, and then you took on sort of both of those aspects of the role?


Interviewee: I was Research Officer, then I was Research/Media.


Facilitator: Okay.


Interviewee: And I hated that. I wasn’t suited to the media role, and it was all-consuming. Responding to radio stations and television stations at all hours of the day. It didn’t match with my home life. And then I was Research/Industrial, and then Industrial outright.


Facilitator: Yep.


Interviewee: And then Assistant General Secretary.


Facilitator: Okay. Can you tell me as well Brenda, it’s quite a bit of a broad question, but maybe we sort of start at the early stages when you were an officer, if there were some key campaigns or disputes, or what were the major issues that you were first involved with with the Teachers’ Federation?


Interviewee: Oh, the dispute at Dover Heights about the potential sale to a private school. It was a key issue and in fact we had a picket line there which had to be staffed 24 hours a day.


Facilitator: Wow.


Interviewee: So, you know I had to sleep in a car at Dover Heights on the 24-hour picket, often with male officers who snored loudly. That was certainly one of the big early campaigns.


Facilitator: And during your time as the Assistant General Secretary in the Research and Industrial role, were there main campaigns or issues that you had a particular involvement with at that time at that senior level in the union?


Interviewee: For the major part of my time with the Federation [I] was involved with Industrial Relations Commission cases in New South Wales. So, there were hundreds of cases that came before the Commission, both for individuals, if there was an individual dispute. The Federation was very active in utilising the Commission for issues that just involved an individual, or big issues particularly when there was a reduction in funding for some aspect of teaching like reading recovery or those sorts of issues, asbestos, a whole range of issues.


And, of course, then the major salaries campaigns always ended up in the Commission because the Federation was taking industrial action, or because the Federation had made an application for an award. And we had so many awards that needed to be made, maintained and, under the Commission’s own legislature, reviewed. So, it was a constant process.


There’d be at least 20 awards of the different spheres that the Federation covered. For example, Corrective Services, the HSC/School Certificate Markers, we covered the National Arts School, Adult Migrant Service. All of those parts of the Federation each had an employment award that needed to be made, maintained, reviewed in accordance with whatever reviews were being done. That was constant. So that was my role to oversee all of that.


Facilitator: And what was your kind of impression of being involved in what seems to be quite a demanding role, and a very large remit in your role as well? What was your experience, um, like that during that time?


Interviewee: Exhausting. And I can remember when the major salaries case was on there was about 70 affidavits and about 3,000 pages of transcript, and I was in the Federation on Boxing Day when that award was in the Commission. The work was just exhausting for those sorts of big cases. And the attention to detail that you had to give everything was just extraordinary.


Facilitator: I’m interested to hear as well Brenda of what those work demands, or what those pressures were actually like, and obviously you have a…is there capacity to be having other things going on in your life at the same time? Like what was that sort of experience like?


Interviewee: I think it was absolutely too hard on my family.


Facilitator: Hmm, yeah.


Interviewee: For example, I was working for the Teachers’ Federation when my son was born and he was on oxygen for 2.5 years.


Facilitator: Goodness.


Interviewee: Constantly. So, while I took a year off, I didn’t take the time off after that. My husband took a year off as well. But that was just a time when it was almost impossible to continue to work for the Federation because the demands were so great. I think it’s the long hours associated with the job that were pretty taxing.


Facilitator: Hmmm, definitely.


And, so, you mentioned you were involved in the Dover Heights being one of the memorable cases and also being involved in the salaries cases and having oversight of the awards…


Interviewee: Yes


Facilitator: …were there other aspects of your role, or kind of key campaigns or disputes that the Federation was involved in that sort of really resonated with you?


Interviewee: There’s so many.


Facilitator: So many, yeah.


Interviewee: There’s just so many. I can’t un-jumble.


Facilitator: Yeah.


Interviewee: Yeah.


Facilitator: And with respect to some of the challenges and perhaps the barriers that you faced in your work, you talked about the work demands and the long hours. Would you say that that was one of the main challenges you faced, or other aspects within your role as well?


Interviewee: There were always different points of view in the Federation. And it was always difficult to confront those different points of views that were expressed everywhere at Executive and Council and the Senior Officers had a meeting each week, particularly when you had things before the courts where different points of view would affect those matters that were before the court.


I mean I can remember one example – the Federation was trying to follow in the footsteps of the tertiary union and we lodged what was called a non-continuing contract employment award, which was to do with the insecure employment of casual teachers and all of the material had been filed and was before the courts and a member on Executive decided to move up a strike day for some matter not related to this particular matter that was before the court. I can’t even remember what the issue was, he moved up that schools would go on strike, and they did, so that when we came before the court, the court tossed us out.


And I can remember sitting there with dozens of suitcases filled with all of the material you needed to run a case before a Full Bench and just being told ‘leave’. So, you know that was very difficult to deal with, where decisions would affect a mountain of work that you’d done for a particular purpose. But I mean that happened often in the Federation. Different points of view. Because it was such a…such an important union and believed in industrial action.


Facilitator: And I’m interested in this concept of having different points of view. Is that in respect to what particular tactic the Federation is taking in a dispute, or a particular strategy. Can you sort of unpack that a bit?


Interviewee: Yes, tactic.


Facilitator: Okay.


Interviewee: The best outcome. I can recall a big decision for me was, there was an offer by the Department to include a measure of permanency in the award when people had served a certain amount of time as an insecure employee, and I really pushed for that to be included. But it wasn’t, for a whole range of reasons, that were equally admirable reasons to put up, so that there wasn’t a disadvantage to some people who hadn’t managed to get employment but had been waiting a long time. You know those sorts of decisions were always thrashed out and it was often hard to accept a decision that was contrary to the one that you thought was the best decision. But obviously those decisions were just accepted and moved forward.


Facilitator: That’s interesting.


And I wonder if you can talk as well, Brenda, about some of the external conditions at the time and how much the environment the union was operating in kind of shaped what was happening. I know you talked about the role of the Commission. I’m wondering if you can talk about how different Ministers coming or going or what the salaries landscape was like at the time?


Interviewee: Yeah. The Ministers were always interesting. I remember I went to a meeting with Jennie George to Terry Metherell who virtually didn’t speak during the whole meeting. And the Department personnel was always interesting too, when you felt that there was a fairness from Department personnel and when there wasn’t. The personalities always made a very, very big difference.


And the Directors-General too of the Department. Big difference. I can remember Bob Winder for example, a really lovely man, and very, very like reasonable to deal with. So, yes, personalities were a big factor.


Facilitator: That’s very interesting. I mean particularly in that sort of climate, how much one individual can kind of influence…what’s happening.


Interviewee: Yeah.


Interviewee: Yes.


Facilitator: So, were you involved with the Amery case as well Brenda?


Interviewee: Ah, yes. Not initially.


Facilitator: Okay.


Interviewee: When it went to the High Court I assisted the barristers dealing with it in the High Court.


Facilitator: Okay. And that was in the capacity as the Assistant General Secretary was it?


Interviewee: Yes.


Facilitator: Yep, okay. And can you tell me a bit about what sort of involvement you had in that case?


Interviewee: I’m just trying to think. I can recall having to get individual statements from all of the women. I remember there was a class action that followed the Amery dispute and I think it involved getting hundreds of statements from women in sort of a major class action way.


Facilitator: And this was the case about casual female teachers…


Interviewee: Yes.


The Federation worked continuously to try and treat the insecure employment problem. I think we had quite a lot of success by introducing the temporary school teacher category. Although there were women who weren’t happy with that who preferred having a loading on their day’s work, and complained, you know, we don’t want the leave provisions, we don’t want maternity leave, we don’t want long service leave, vacation leave, we just want the loading, you know, for the day’s work.


But I think that the temporary school teacher category and its embedding in the award, I really think that was a significant gain and gained some ground in terms of giving people secure employment. Not as secure as permanent employment, but with the conditions that were attached to that, albeit often on a pro-rata basis.


Facilitator: It’s interesting to hear that perspective from you as well of some of the dissent to, to the union’s work. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?


Interviewee: That’s not uncommon, and in fact I struck it at the National Arts School which, being a tertiary institution, there were very, very few lecturers at the National Arts School who were permanent. And when I tried to persuade them that a way forward was to try and gain permanent part-time employment, or a type of temporary engagement where they got pro-rata conditions, they were all opposed to it. And in fact, they thought it took away from what they wanted which was a balance between being an artist and being a lecturer. I could often not persuade them to look for more secure forms of employment. I don’t know. I think it was more philosophical sort of difference in view.


Facilitator: That’s very interesting.


And, so, the final role you had with the Teachers’ Federation was the Assistant General Secretary, is that right?


Interviewee: Yes. Yes.


Facilitator: Yeah. And where did things kind of go for you after that role?


Interviewee: Are you speaking about after I left the Federation?


Facilitator: Yeah. Was there something that kind of prompted you to say that’s…you know, that’s my time and moving on?


Interviewee: I’d spent 28 years as an officer with the Teachers’ Federation, which is a long time. I decided to retire, but I became pretty bored with retirement. So, I had a conversation with Peter Remfrey who was the General Secretary of the Police Association and asked him if there was any work that I might do for them. And he said ‘oh look, we’ve got young women who are going on maternity leave here, and why don’t you come in and, you know, work here?’ That was the extent of the interview, so-called ‘interview’.


And I ended up working for the Police then for about 5 years, covering maternity leave of the young women industrial officers there.


Facilitator: And what was that experience like transitioning from a union you’d been with for 30-odd years to something quite different?


Interviewee: Well, it was a big learning curve and learning what were the issues with police officers. The issues for police officers were that I became exposed to were often to do with workers compensation where they’d been injured. Definitely to do with their work hours. A lot of issues to do with rosters. Incidents. And giving them legal advice where they were interviewed often. And in fact, I’d take many calls in a day from police officers who were about to be interviewed about certain circumstances. So, the Association’s role was to give them the advice before they went to an interview.


Facilitator: Okay, yeah. Can you tell me about what sort of experience or expertise you then brought into the Police Association?


Interviewee: Well because both the Teachers’ Federation and the Police Association was under the public service and public service Acts, predominantly, and conditions, there was a great deal of similarity in advising about leave conditions. So, there’s that similarity.


I hadn’t done a lot of work in workers compensation because with the Teachers’ Federation that was done by the, at that time, in-house solicitors. Whereas it was done more by the Police Association directly, although in tandem with lawyers. A lot of advice that was given was given just by the Association’s officers.


Facilitator: Okay. Yeah. So, the work that you were doing and the role that you had it wasn’t an elected role?


Interviewee: No.


Facilitator: Yep.


Interviewee: And in fact, with the Police Association I think there’s only probably one elected role, the others were all appointed.


Facilitator: That’s interesting.


Interviewee: Yes.


Facilitator: And is there some sort of comparison you can make between your experiences in different ways that unions kind of work in that way?


Interviewee: I guess the Police Association with the directly-employed people they would advertise for employed people. So that was…that’s quite unusual to the Teachers’ Federation. And you didn’t have to have been a police officer to be appointed, except to their key roles like the President and the General Secretary.


Facilitator: Okay.


Interviewee: And their Organisers. But all of the industrial/research roles were appointed.


Facilitator: Okay.


Interviewee: Without police experience.


Facilitator: So, you worked on workers compensation matters. Were there other things as well attached with that role?


Interviewee: Well, as I said, giving advice to officers who were being called to interview, giving advice about leave and rosters. I used to take a lot of calls from women police officers about their child care arrangements and their working conditions. And I felt really sorry for women who were women police officers. I think it was a very hard job.


Facilitator: Okay, yeah. What sort of gave…


Interviewee: And there were a lot…well, there was often sexist attitudes. And because the women had long shifts, like 12-hour shifts, at different times…quite difficult times of the day, it was very hard for them to manage their child care and their work.


Facilitator: That’s interest…. Yeah, I was going to ask what sort of gave you that impression of women officers being particularly challenged.


Interviewee: Yes. Yeah.


Facilitator: That’s interesting.


And were there, excuse me, key things within those 5 years that sort of stood out to you as being quite difficult or onerous in the role or particular barriers to getting your work done?


Interviewee: Um, no, I really enjoyed the work I did there because I didn’t essentially have a position of responsibility that I’d had at the Federation. I wasn’t an Assistant Secretary. So, my task was just the day-to-day task of advising police officers, and as individuals, whereas with the Federation predominantly I had always dealt with the collective concerns of awards and contracts and Commission court matters. So, with the Police it was much more on an individual basis.


Facilitator: Okay, yeah. And reflecting upon about 35-odd years within the union movement….


Interviewee: Well, it’s probably more, I mean.


Facilitator: Probably more.


Interviewee: I… When I was involved in student activism….


Facilitator: Yeah okay.


Interviewee: …that was in the late 19…well the last half of the 1960s. So, it’s a long time.


Facilitator: Hmm. And can you tell me a little bit about that as well, the experience at that level as well, being an activist student?


Interviewee: Well, it was, it was sort of part of the social life of being a student and being a student in such a union-dominated, what’s now city, like Newcastle. I mean we had officials from the Teachers’ Federation who’d come out to the College and the whole College campus would be called to the Assembly Hall to listen to what they had to say.


Facilitator: How interesting. Yeah.


Interviewee: So, it was certainly promoted that you be part of the union, that you be an active person, involved in unions, that was always promoted, not discouraged.


Facilitator: It’s a very different time as well particularly kind of compared to what things are like now.


Interviewee: Sure.


Facilitator: But actually having that very prominent and very forefront…


Interviewee: Yeah. I mean we had a big issue in Newcastle if you had library books out and you hadn’t returned your library books, or you hadn’t returned your fees, there was some attempt to withhold our scholarship…


Facilitator: Oh, okay.


Interviewee: …money. And that became a point at which you know students would go on strike and decide no look we’re gonna veto all of the lectures and make our opinion sort of heard.


Facilitator: And what…this is probably speaking more to your time with the teachers’ union, but what sort of motivated you or, was there a sort of catalyst to kind of wrapping up your time with the union and kind of moving into the next phase of life.


Interviewee: I can’t think of anything particular, other than that it became pretty tiring. But in retrospect I probably should’ve had a really long holiday and gone back for the time that I spent at the Police. Because I found going from such a n active life and a work life to one that, you know, was devoid of that, very difficult.


Facilitator: Definitely. And I guess that also goes to the question of what sort of drove you to then go back into the union movement to work for a quite different union at the same time.


Interviewee: Yes. Yes. Well, I missed the work, and I missed the stimulation of the work. So, I just looked to see where I could find that. But, not in the same way as I said. Like I didn’t hold a[n] executive position as such, so it was quite comfortable actually. And I …I often wouldn’t say what I thought about the organisation at the Police because I never ever saw it as my role to do that. Not to…like to become as involved as I had at the Federation, but rather to do the job just that was there to do. Although I did raise with Peter Remfrey the matter of how they dealt with matters that to me had lingered.


At the Federation we had…this was to do with individuals, we had a clearing house so that if something for an individual had taken quite a while, to-and-fro, different opinions, there was actually a day that was set down where there’d be a long list of all the people that we had to decide with the Department what was going to happen. And it put a lot of pressure on the Department to come up a solution. And we had to be ready to concede some things, but it was a clearing house. And I think it was a really good aspect of individual matters. And I tried to persuade the Police to adopt the same sort of procedure. But I don’t think they got the same response from the Police Department.


Facilitator: Was that more of a cultural issue with the organisation or…?


Interviewee: Yeah, there were different, different practices both the Federation and the Police. The practice at the Police was to… a lot of correspondence and a lot of correspondence, but that tended to get repeated and there were often individuals who were left without a resolution after months and months which I didn’t agree with and didn’t think was a good outcome for individuals.


Facilitator: And reflecting as well on the very long time that you’ve spent in both unions, is there any sort of one thing, or two key things that really sort of stand out as being very enduring or even something that you’re quite proud of reflecting on your time?


Interviewee: The 2000 Award I’m very proud about because it was…the Federation was reluctant to take the initiative to lodge a full-blown award case. And I think the outcome was pretty spectacular for the times, meaning the increases that, salary increases, that were given. So, I’m particularly proud of that.


And we had had salary campaigns prior to that where the Award could elapse and it would be a year or 18 months before people would receive an increase. And the increase relied on negotiations with the Department and industrial action on Federation members’ part. And what happened with the Award case was the day after the Award expired the Commission awarded a five and a half percent increase just generally to teachers. There were increases of greater magnitude to that depending what position you occupied, but that aspect of getting salary increase immediately when you should get it, that was particularly positive about that particular matter.


Facilitator: And why do you think it’s that case in particular that sort of stands out as being…


Interviewee: Oh, the volume of the work.


Facilitator: Yeah.


Interviewee: Just incredible. The paperwork that went into that, the number of days in court, the preparation that had to be done, and every day after court there’d be preparation for the next day.


Facilitator: One of the final questions I have as well is thinking about the challenges that unions always face, and what did you sort of see as maybe the biggest challenge for the union movement during your time perhaps compared to now leaving?


Interviewee: The biggest challenge I think was the straitjacket that the State Government would put unions in around any pay increases, and that’s what’s happening today, more so. I mean far, far greater cuts to any salary increases. But there were policies adopted across the public sector that really would straitjacket unions into very small pay increases. And, of course, it’s always the number of public servants because there are so many that ended up that very small pay increases were always on offer.


Facilitator: Absolutely. And I suppose you can draw the parallels to what’s happening today as well.


Interviewee: Yes, yes.


Facilitator: And is there anything that I haven’t touched on in our conversation today that’s…that you want to sort of particularly mention, or important to sort of have on the record in terms of your experience?


Interviewee: I think how important child care was. I um…with my Assistant General Secretary role, I took on the role of trying to improve the child care provisions at the Teachers’ Federation. And the Teachers’ Federation had dedicated child care space. I think that is very important to women.


Facilitator: And that was to enable more women to be involved within the union?


Interviewee: Yes, and particularly for Annual Conference where women would come from all around New South Wales to Annual Conference, but what do they do with their children because the Annual Conference was always held in the school holidays. So, there were child care programs that I would put in place where children would go on excursions when they’d come to child care, and their parents could attend the Annual Conference knowing that their children were going to be entertained and well-cared for while they were at the conference.


Facilitator: And what was the reception like to having that sort of initiative within the Federation? Was that sort of well-received by everyone?


Interviewee: Yes, yeah, I think so. Yes. And particularly by the people who utilised it, yeah.


Facilitator: Wonderful. Was there anything finally, or?


Interviewee: No. And I’ve forgotten so much.


Facilitator: Yeah, no. I know we’re going back a, quite a long period of time, so. Wonderful, thank you so much Brenda, it’s been wonderful to sit down with you today.




[Postscript: Brenda said she overlooked to mention Heather Fischer, her Economics teacher at Gosford High School who was a strong federation person and a big influence on her. Also ,the United in Defence of Public Education August 17 1988 rally against the closure of schools and reduction in staffing was “inspiring”.]


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