Australian Biography

Zelda D'Aprano - full interview transcript

Tape of 10

Tape 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

How did you first get involved with unions, in your very first jobs?

My first experience with a trade union, when seeking help, was when I belonged to the clothing trades union and I was working in a factory in Fitzroy. And this factory was filthy. Huge factory, but it was terribly dirty. And I asked the employers were they going to clean it over the Christmas period and they just laughed. And when I came back to work after the Christmas was over, and the place was just as filthy, I got quite annoyed about it and I approached them about cleaning the place and they just laughed and didn't do anything. So I rang the trade union and explained the situation, and asked could an organiser please come to the factory and see about having toilet paper in the toilet and a receptacle for the sanitary pads, and that the floors were swept and so forth. I don't think those demands were unreasonable. And so I didn't hear a thing. And the next minute, one of the bosses came up to me and he said, 'What do you mean by ringing the union?' And I denied of course that I had rung the union. And he just said straight out, 'Oh, don't give me that bullshit. Mr Bradley is a friend of ours and he came here and saw us. And told us what you complained about.' And then I realised of course there was no point in lying any more to defend myself. So I just went on the attack and told him straight out that the conditions in there were deplorable, they were filthy and they ought to be ashamed to have a factory in such a state, because they laughed and said their great-grandfather or someone had opened the factory and they'd never, ever had a cleaner there. And were sort of proud of it. So anyway, we had quite a blue. And we just agreed to sort of separate and he went one way and I went the other. And so he came back a few hours later and he said, 'We'll supply bum fodder' — that's what he called it, the toilet paper — 'We'll supply bum fodder and we'll have a receptacle for you so the women don't have to throw the pads in the toilet basins any more. We'll have someone sweep up.' He said, 'Does that satisfy you?' And I just looked at him and said, 'Yes, it does, thanks very much.' But this was my first approach to a union and the organiser didn't even come and speak to me and talk about anything. He went and spoke to his friend, the boss. I never, ever, saw that Mr Bradley, ever. And I thought, well that's a lovely set up that is. And this was my first experience with the union.

You've seen enormous changes, both with the unions and with the women's movement and the things that you've fought for and argued for and achieved. How do you feel when you see that all change, where you see the same old arguments coming up and having to be re-fought, the same old battles done?

Well, this is why I feel the whole of society has to change, because what happens with the present set-up is that you do fight and you get some changes and improvements and it's great. And a government comes in, like we've just got at the moment, and they go swish, swish, swish; they cut all the funding off, they close this down, and they can put you right back to base one. And this will continue to happen as long as you've got this type of patriarchal society. So the whole basis of society has to change. It has to become people-caring, people-friendly, and I think the time's going to come very soon, because of the whole world situation, that big changes are going to have to be made. I hope that the changes, big changes, won't be for the worse. I hope that they will see that have to really change the whole way we're heading. Because the pollution, the destruction of our environment, all this comes into it. And this is so we don't have to keep on reinventing the wheel, that these big changes need to be made. People should be discussing more about how this should be done.

I'll ask you to tell again: What made you decide to chain yourself up to the door of the Commonwealth Building?

Well, my involvement with the Meat Industry Union which, during my presence there, was being used as a test case in the equal pay campaign, and big things were mooted. You know, they were very sure that they were going to get this equal pay. Bob Hawke was the advocate at the time for the ACTU and the union, being the test case, I got very involved in distributing leaflets, time and time again, in my time, for equal pay. I used to go into the city and hand them out after work and in my lunch hour and I think I got caught up in the enthusiasm of everyone else in the union about this — what was going to be the achievement of equal pay. Part of that campaign that I got involved in, was being with the women from the meatworks to go to the Arbitration Court and be with them there demonstrating and to go into the Arbitration Commission and sit and listen to the case. And there I was with all the women from the meatworks sitting there. I'd never been in this situation before. And what I saw was men arguing for, men arguing against and men, all the commissioners, sitting up the top, who were going to decide what we were worth. And I found this whole situation very demeaning, and hard, very hard to accept, but nevertheless, the result of the case was devastating, because only 12 per cent of the women in the industry finished up with equal pay. And then there was silence. Nothing happened, absolutely nothing. And I was invited by a woman, Dianne Ronberg, who was secretary of the Insurance Staffs Federation, to come to a meeting, where representatives from the trade union movement that had women membership would be there, to see what we do next. And so I came along and Dianne came along and there was no-one else there. And we got annoyed, the two of us. And we just sort of talked to each other about things and Dianne said, 'Oh, it's terrible. What a pity, you know, we don't chain ourselves up like the suffragettes did' and we both had a giggle. And we went on talking. At the back of my mind I thought about it and I realised something drastic had to happen. We had to do something outlandish and very unladylike. And so I said to Dianne that I was prepared to chain myself up and she was a bit startled. And so we went ahead and tried to get the approval of VEWOC, which was this organisation that represented women trade unionists. And the secretary of the clothing trades union nearly flipped and no way should we do such a thing. And so I went ahead and decided I would do it on my own with no support from anyone (organisational support) but I would want some women to be there to give me some moral support. And so two women came from the UAW, a woman from the engineers' union and we had a woman Justice of the Peace standing by just in case I was arrested. And I managed to get the chain donated through the painters and dockers' union. And so, I bought the chains, I surveyed the place to see where the chains had to go, I bought the locks. And I didn't go to the toilet or eat or drink or anything — I knew I wasn't allowed to go to the toilet because it just couldn't happen. And so I had to be prepared, so I didn't eat or drink for hours beforehand. And I went in my lunch hour and chained myself up across the doors of the Commonwealth Building. And then eventually when I was cut off the chains by the Commonwealth Police, I went back to work, ate my lunch during my work and shook for several hours.

You made a terrific splash in the papers with all of that. It was a terrific photo opportunity for them all to have you chained there and it really did have the effect of drawing a lot of attention to the case. But it also drew attention to you. Do you think that all that publicity that you had, and the notoriety you gained through that, might have something to do with the real resentment that the unions — who'd asked you not to do it and you'd defied them — [had and] might have something to do with their not coming to your aid later when you were in trouble with your boss?

No, I don't think so at all. No, it was the boys' club. It's just a question of the boys' club and your utmost loyalty to the boys' club. The fact that they offered me the opportunity to resign, you see, and I wouldn't take it. And so I was sacked. And the fact I even went and spoke about it, you see. No, the boys' club closed up, you know, that's what it was.

In all those years that you remember of the Communist Party, what were the good things about being a member?

Well, we did have a great social life and we had a lot of parties and music and singing and dancing. And you had a feeling as if you belonged somewhere. It's like people who join up a religious grouping, it's the sense of belonging. It's sort of like the tribal thing. And it did give you that, that sense of belonging. But really speaking, overall, it was a pretty artificial sort of a sense of belonging, because in the 21 years I was there, I can really say, of all the party members, that I only had one close friend, and that was this woman that leant me the money to have one of my abortions, because I just didn't have any at the time. And she was a working-class woman. And I can honestly say she was the only real friend. And for 21 years, I mean, who are you belonging too? You have to ask yourself, what are you belonging to? But, as I said, during those years there were fun times and we did have a lot of fun. I mean, we used to go out pasting up and painting up slogans and things like that. And you'd have to run like billy-o and I know one couple — this is really funny because you have to know the couple involved to realise how funny it was — they were married, but not to each other. And they were in a situation where the police were coming by and so they just sort of hid their paste and got into a clinch. And sort of hugging as if they were cuddling, you know, under the bushes or something. And I think she had her husband's running shoes on and they were dressed in the most incongruous clothing, and there they were having a cuddle. So I mean all these sort of things. And there was a lot of funny incidents that we could laugh about. And it wasn't, certainly wasn't all bad, but I mean, otherwise you wouldn't stay there. There has to be some compensatory factors.

In relation to your abortions, they took a terrific physical toll on you. A lot of people talk about the very bad emotional effect of an abortion. What kind of emotional effect did your abortions have on you?

Well, this is very interesting, because years ago — it was always silent, nothing was said. So people were greatly relieved. You could jump for joy, despite the pain you endured. But since society and the churches, particularly, and the Fred Niles, have made such a big thing and the Right to Lifers, they have made women feel more guilty in recent years, you know. It staggers me to hear about the guilts and everything these women have. And it's only because of all the pressure that's been put on women to feel guilty, because in our day — I mean, you know, the ones of my generation who ultimately revealed their abortions to each other — all spoke of tremendous relief. And so that's the difference between then and now. I mean, now they have their abortions under much better circumstances. But so many women are filled with guilt.

Did you have any sense at all that you were killing your baby?

None whatsoever. None. None of us did. Because we knew it wasn't a baby. It was a little bit of jelly about the size of your thumbnail. I mean if you were talking about babies, then you have to say right, here, take this thumbnail and you rear it. And that's the way I look at it.

So, what would have been your emotional reaction after an abortion?

Joy, absolute joy. Relief, tremendous relief. Absolute, yes. And I mean, to me, the people who claim to be concerned with life are not really concerned with life. They don't care about boys getting killed in the wars, they don't care about any of that killing and taking of life. In my opinion what they are is friends of the foetus.

What are you looking forward to you most for the rest of your life? End camera tape 10

[end of interview]