Australian Biography

Zelda D'Aprano - full interview transcript

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… You'd been very involved as an activist in the union movement, and you were now moving into where the unions were organised. Where was the office situated and what sort of a change did this bring in your relationship with union activity?

Well, the union office itself was right in the Trades Hall building in Melbourne, and that meant going there to work. And here I was going there with all my ideals and expectations of all these wonderful knowledgeable people and how I was going to learn so much from them. And it was very, very, strange because I went in there feeling that I — even apart from all the aspects of trade unionism that I had to learn —also had to learn the work that I had to do in the office. Well, I am a very capable person and I very rapidly learnt all the responsibilities that I was given to do in the office and even extended those responsibilities beyond what I was supposed to do. And I had been told by the young woman who had worked in that same office some years previously, I asked her, 'What is the routine in offices?' because I was unaware of this. How long do you have to wait before you seek an increase in salary? What are the procedures you go through, especially in a union office? And she told me, rightly or wrongly that when you've worked in an office for six months, by that stage you should have proved yourself, and if you think you're doing the job capably then you ask for an increase in salary. So I kept that in mind. But what I found was, amongst the staff there was quite a bit of discontent. And the building itself, because it's right in almost the city area, the windows were double-glazed to prevent the noise from coming in. The only fresh air that came into that entire building where the union was situated was from the front door that led [to] the corridor of the building. And so it was pretty stuffy. Also too, they didn't have a cleaner to come in or anything like that. And I went from a dental surgery in all its cleanliness to this. I found it very hard to cope, and so Friday afternoons I'd just stop an hour before knock-off time and clean all around me and clean up, so that when I came in on Monday morning I came into a clean office. And so they used to sort of sling off and call me 'Sadie the Cleaning Lady', and all those sorts of stuff. But the things that you normally expect in any work situation, and the conditions that you're entitled to have, just didn't exist there.

You mean they needed a union?

That's correct. When I had been there for a while and heard the staff complaining to each other about what was wrong and what was needed, I couldn't understand why they just complained to each other and I said, 'Look, why don't you go and tell them what you want?' And they said, 'Oh, it's not as easy as that.' And I said, 'What do you mean, it's not as easy as that? If there's something wrong and it's obviously so wrong, then you have to be able to go and tell George [Seelaf].' He was the secretary. And they said, 'No, you can't.' I said, 'Well, tell the executive.' They said, 'You can't do that either'. And I was saying, 'Well, look, I don't understand what's going on here.' And everyone was quiet, including me. I just didn't know what to do. And I thought, if only the people at the hospital could see me now, the great agitator and fighter, sitting in this union office with so much that's wrong and not doing anything, you know, it just seemed so strange. And when the six months were up and I put in for an increase in salary, I was surprised at the hostility of the staff there towards me, you know, two of whom were my comrades in the Communist Party.

What, they thought that you shouldn't have put in for the increase?

Yeah, that I shouldn't have put in for it.

Because you didn't deserve it?

Probably. They didn't say that but — I mean that goes without saying, doesn't it? The other woman there, who wasn't a communist, said to me in the presence of a communist, 'What makes you think you should get the same salary that we do?' And the tone of voice was terrible. And I was shocked, and I just looked at her and I said, 'I didn't say I should get the same salary that you're getting. All I said is — asked was for an increase.' And then I got sarcastic, and I said, 'But I'm sorry I didn't realise that you were paying my salary' and I walked off. I didn't get the increase.

Why do you think they were so afraid of asking George for what they needed? What was the problem?

George was an extremely capable man who had a background like me. He grew up in poverty. He — I believe — in the meatworks drove a horse and cart, going round picking up the offal or something. That's what he was fit for. That's all he was fit for with this mind that he had. And I feel personally that he so desperately wanted acceptance, recognition, praise, from the people in society who had made it. And he'd been in the union position for so long that, like quite a few union leaders, they ultimately finish up feeling contempt for the working-class because [of] the old saying, 'No-one respects the slave.' And so he chose to hobnob with successful people and some of them were the people who owned the meatworks, and by rubbing shoulders with these sort of people, he felt that he was somebody. And I feel that all that was very sad, because he was a man with tremendous capabilities.

So he was closer to the people who owned the meatworks than the workers whom he represented in the union, you felt?

I felt it had got to that stage, yes. Put it this way, he sought the approval of the owners of the meatworks more than he was interested in what the workers thought or felt.

Was he a communist?

Yes ... and he was still at that stage a member of the state committee of the Communist Party.

So what happened to your work there? Did you develop? How did things go along for you?

Well, I was there, and stayed there under the circumstances. And I felt that there wasn't much else I could do. And what happened then was that because of this — the union being involved in the equal pay case — George would come in with thousands of leaflets and just plonk them on the table and say, I want you to distribute these. And myself and one of the other women, a comrade, would go out and hand out these — in our own time of course, not in George's time — and at that stage handing out leaflets in the city was an offence. So you had to watch out for the police, to see that they weren't around and catch you in the act. And in the main, I went out on my own. I tried to get women working in the other offices of the unions, even in so-called left-wing unions, and I got very little help or support in distributing these leaflets.

What did you know about the equal pay case when you went into the office?

Well, at that stage, I mean, I was all for the equal pay of course. But I hadn't been involved in anything in any depth. And this industry was being used as a test case, and there was a lot of optimism, tremendous amount of optimism. And the organisers were all very optimistic and they spoke as if it was just, you know, definitely going to come in; there wasn't going to be any problem there. But just in case it didn't come off, my god, there was going to be big trouble, big trouble. But everyone was very optimistic and at that stage Bob Hawke was the advocate for the ACTU, and with me handing out leaflets all the time, and being involved, I was asked on the day that the case was being heard, to go into the [then] Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission building, be there, and they were booking off women shop stewards and different women from the meatworks and paying them to come in that day, not only to attend and see what happens, but also to demonstrate outside. And so we did and I was with them in the demonstration outside the Arbitration Commission and then we went in altogether and sat to hear the case presented.

Now this was a first for me. I had never, ever, been to a commission hearing of any sort; I'd never been in the building. And so it was quite an education. What happened was, of course, all the women were sitting there in the body of the commission and then there were all men at the top, all the commissioners were male. All the ones arguing for the increase were male, and all the ones arguing against were male. And Bob Hawke, as I say, presented the case. And I just couldn't believe this, and I thought, here are all the women, here we are, all sitting here as if we haven't got a brain in our bloody heads, as if we're incapable of speaking for ourselves on how much we think we're worth. And here are all these men arguing about how much we're worth and all men are going to make the decision. And I found the whole experience to be humiliating and very demeaning and I came away feeling terribly angry and frustrated about that whole set up. And the result of the case was very disappointing because, I think, there was about six per cent of women already got equal pay for equal work in the plan, and I think only another six per cent got it or so. So, all told, there was 12 per cent of the women in the industry that got equal pay.

And what, at that stage, was the percentage of the male wage that women were earning?

It was about 75 per cent, but of course men got bonuses and over-Award payments and all this sort of thing, which makes it, you know, makes it different. But also they gave equal pay for equal work, but women weren't always doing the same work as men. But the work they were doing was just as valuable, but because it's women doing it, they get less. And so the whole result of the case was extremely disappointing.

So what did you do about it?

Well, I was expecting these big things to happen like the organisers were all saying, you know — if we don't get it, there'll be a big thing — and nothing happened, absolutely nothing happened. And I can't remember exactly how long it took, but I got a phone call from a woman, Dianne Ronberg, who was then the secretary of the Insurance Staffs Federation, and she asked me would I be interested in coming to a meeting of an organisation called VEWOC (Victorian Employed Women's Organisation Council), made up of representatives from all unions who had women members, female members. And they were going to discuss the question of equal pay and what could be done, and all this. So she asked me to come along if I was interested. So I said, yes, sure I will come. And so I went along. And there was only her and I that turned up, only the two of us, no-one else came. And at that stage, of course, the only ones who came to the meetings she told me were the men from these unions anyway. They never sent female representatives. And so we just started discussing things together and there was an election coming up — I think it was an election — and so they wanted some activity happening, you see, around the question of equal pay. And so suggestions were coming out that perhaps VEWOC could have a public meeting at the City Square. Now the City Square in Melbourne is right in the middle of the city and has two tram lines crossing each other beside it, trams, cars, people, everything.

And the idea was to speak there with megaphones on the question of equal pay. And we both decided it was an absolute and utter waste of time and that that wasn't going to do anything, I mean, but what they thought was, you see, they'd get a few politicians or people who were seeking a future in politics to come and speak and do their little act and be satisfied with that. But we weren't satisfied with that. We wanted some action. And Dianne said, what a pity we can't chain ourselves up. And then we just laughed and went on to talk. But in the meantime I thought about it and I thought, well something's got to happen. Someone's got to do something. So I told her I was prepared to chain myself up.

Like the suffragettes?

Like the suffragettes. And she was a bit staggered, wanted to know if I was serious, and I assured her I was. But I said, I would like to do it under the auspices of VEWOC, with their support. And she said, right, I'll ring. And so she rang the secretary of the Garment Workers' Union at the time, who was a man — and put it to him — and he just stammered and stuttered and she told me he almost had a fit. Oh no, no, no. Can't do anything like that, you know. Oh, no. And why not?, she said. But oh no, no. You don't have to do anything like that. That's not necessary. So she realised nothing was going to come of that and she told me what took place. So I just said I will do it without their support, but I want some women to come and give me some moral support. So I approached the Union of Australian Women (UAW) and two of the women from there came along, and one was a woman who worked with me in the union office, and another woman came from the Metal Trades Union office, and we also got a woman, Justice of the Peace, to be on hand there in case I was arrested. And so, I did this in my lunch hour. And I had to go and case the joint out first and see where the handles were on the doors and all that type of thing, and I also had to get the chain. And I was able to get that as a donation from the dockers' union — I forget what they're called now ... [INTERRUPTION]

The [Federated Ship] Painters & Dockers Union. So when you decided to chain yourself to the door, how did you go about it? What were your practical problems? What happened?

Well, I had to go and case the joint and look to see where the handles were on the doors. Then I was able to get the chain donated from the Painters & Dockers Union. And I had to buy the locks myself. And I had it all arranged, and I was very nervous, and the day came and we notified the press and the television stations, and I went ahead and I chained myself across the door of the Commonwealth Building in Melbourne over the injustice done to women over salaries. And I had the women there to give me moral support. And the Commonwealth Police came, and — eventually —cut me off the chains. And so then I just walked back to the union and I had sandwiches there, which I had to eat while I worked, because I'd used up my lunch hour on the chains. And I shook for several hours afterwards. But of course, one of the things I had to remember beforehand, before the chain-up, was that I couldn't eat or drink for several hours because it would have been most embarrassing to be on the chain and find that I had to pay a visit to the toilet. So these were all the things I had to go into before I did it.

And did it get a terrific amount of publicity?

Ah, one television station, Channel 7, took footage of it, which disappeared from Channel 7 very early in the piece. And to my knowledge none of it was ever used. But the press featured it, yes, yes.

And when you were planning to do this, when you said, I think this is what I should do, was it something that you felt you wanted to do out of a feeling of anger about the lack of activity and a statement you wanted to make, or was it calculated to draw public attention to this event? In other words, were you a bit of a marketing genius to have thought of doing this, to get the attention to the matter?

I think it's a bit of both. I was just desperately frustrated with nothing happening, and angry that nothing was happening. But I also realised that — because the media is what the media is —nothing was going to happen, nothing was going to stir, unless drastic action was taken of some sort. And I was prepared to do that to draw attention to the plight of women.

Were there any other activities that you cooked up to draw a bit of attention to things?

Well, following this chain-up, I got a call from a woman I didn't know who wanted to be in one if I was going to do it again. And so she and another woman friend and myself got together, and three weeks later I think it was, or four weeks later, we chained ourselves up across the doors of the Arbitration Commission, because this was the institution that failed to give women justice. And then of course, from there on, we realised that we had to do something. Nothing was going to change unless we developed an organisation that was going to fight and fight hard and not be worrying about a ladylike image. And so that's what we did, and we called it the Women's Action Committee. We went into the press and we got publicity about it. We formed an organisation and we were off on to the trams and paying 75 per cent of the fare, because we only got 75 per cent of the wages. We went into the pubs and did pub crawls, because at that stage, women weren't allowed into public bars. We were forced into lounges. And with seventy-five per cent of the wages, and we had to pay more for drinks in the lounge, which was quite funny because most of us weren't even drinkers, but we did it because of the principle of it. And it's all part of exposing what happens to women.

And we undertook all these different types of activities, and we helped arrange the first pro-abortion rally in Melbourne, and abortion at that stage was a word that was never mentioned. In fact, in the Melbourne Herald, there were three words never mentioned — one was sex, one was abortion and one was contraception. And that was only about 27 years ago. That shows you how things have changed. And so we had the first abortion, pro-abortion rally, and 500 women marched, and we didn't know how many women were going to come out, because this was a very, very, private matter. As I said, even sister never told a sister and mother never told daughter, and daughter never told mother. And here we were expecting women to come out and march. And 500 came out and we were just so delighted. And I think it got three or four lines in a little column in a back page of the paper. I mean, 500 dogs would have attracted more attention.

And what happened to the little group, the women's group, did it grow?

Yes, yes. And what happened after we were, I suppose, about 12 months old — up until that stage, women's liberation didn't mean anything to us, because we saw all this terrible propaganda about them in the press, about the women's liberation, women in America. We didn't know what they were on about anyway, because everything was distorted in our press. And Cathy Gleeson, who ran Amnesty International Bookshop in Melbourne, got some publications, women's liberation publications, from America, which we bought and our minds just blew when we read the material, because we realised we had just so much in common. And we realised what they were really on about. And so from then on we started running what they called 'consciousness raising groups'. And for the first time women were starting to speak to each other in small groups, and very honestly, about things they'd never spoken about to anyone whether it would be abortions, whether it'd be incest, whether it would be experiences in a broken marriage or with lovers or whatever. And it just poured out, because for the first time women had a supportive environment with no-one being judgemental and all being given support. And it just poured out. And the whole thing started to explode to such an extent that two women, Bon Hull and myself, were taking all the phone calls and trying to deal with everyone ringing up and sort of pouring out their hearts hour after hour, night after night. I mean it was just impossible to cope with.

And eventually of course one or two small groups of left-wing women formed groups, but I think they called themselves women's liberationists, I'm not quite sure. But anyway we finished up realising we were women's liberationists. And at that stage we established a centre in the city, we opened up our centre in 1972, I think it was February or March, and the whole thing just went; it became larger and larger and larger, because for the first time, women had somewhere they could come to. I mean, it's hard for women now to understand what it was like, but there wasn't a doctor that you could recommend to talk to, there was no therapists, there was no women there who were supportive. There was just nothing. Psychiatry was all, you know, every woman is a hypochondriac or a depressive and fill her up with Valium or whatever the current tablet was of the time, and there was nowhere, nowhere you could go. And this was the very beginning of it all.

Now meanwhile, back at the office of the union, were conditions improving?

Well, what happened was, after my chain-up — that was, you know, at October — and when Christmas came and the holidays came, the building closed down, I think it was for eight days. Now normally, wherever I worked, whatever circumstances, usually the staff would go and have a drink together or you might have a dinner together or the boss might shout you to a nice lunch or whatever; something would happen even if it's a token gesture. But it [never] happened. And this was an experience I have never, ever, had before. George just disappeared. The organisers just flitted off one after another. The president came out and said, thanks very much girls, and went off. And the three women and one man just stood there — oh no, one woman I think was already on holidays, that's right, she'd gone off. There was only two women and a man there in the staff, three of us were left there, all just feeling like, like old bits that had been cast off and we just looked at each other and said, well, maybe we should go over the pub and have a drink. Yes, fine. So we just went over the road to the hotel and just had a drink, and we each went home. And when I came home, it was just such a terrible anti-climax, terrible. I'd never been treated like this.

So I got down and wrote a letter to George, telling him. I didn't abuse him or anything but just told him how I felt about the way he ignored the efforts of the staff, that in no way did he recognise the work that we did, and that he couldn't bring himself to even, whether hypocritically or not, wish us a Happy New Year or kiss my foot or drop dead, sort of thing. Nothing. And I felt that he was just treating us with sheer and utter contempt. And I didn't know his address because he had a silent phone. He wouldn't be disturbed after hours. So I had to ring the assistant secretary at the time to get his address. And I posted him that letter. Oh, and I did mention that the dentist that I'd worked with, who was a public school boy, and who was so warm and human and kind, and here he is the communist, you know, treating his staff like that. Anyway, when I got back after the Trades Hall opened again and everything was fine, nothing was said as if nothing happened, and so the work just went on and that was okay.

And I was interviewed for an article, by Michael Costigan I think his name was, about this women's movement we were going to start at the time, because this was all at the beginning when we were going to start this Women's Action Committee. And I came back from that interview with Mike Costigan, and went back — this is in the lunch hour I had this thing with him —to work and the [union] executive were meeting and I had to take an urgent message in to Geo. And I knocked on the door and walked in and George was on his feet and he was beside himself emotionally, you know. And he stopped and of course I gave him the message and then left. And when it was all over later on, the assistant secretary called me into his office and he informed me that ... [Zelda crying] ... that I was sacked from that minute.

And it was such a shock that all these years later you still feel the emotion of it?

Oh yes. I mean, I had so much faith in these people, in communism, all that stuff. And when I think of all the fighting that I'd done in the unions, in the hospital for other people — everything that I had done — and he a communist sacked me because I dared criticise him, justifiably I felt, and I still feel, and I was sacked on the spot. And the interesting thing is that no other union would employ me either. All the communists who were in the other unions, no-one would employ me. They made excuses as to why they wouldn't employ me. But they wouldn't employ me. And this was the — I couldn't put it down to anything else because not all the unions were lefties, and yet they still wouldn't employ me. And I think it is — you know there's that song, like male camaraderie thing.

So you lost a lot more, though, than your job and your chance of employment. You lost something that you'd believed in.

Well — I lost — oh yes, that was a real crushing thing, because I knew then that, you know, there was no way I could belong to a Communist Party like that. And he was on the state committee.

As a communist, did you appeal to the Communist Party to look into it for you?

I went to them, of course, and one of the leaders there said I couldn't do anything about it. 'We can't tell the unions what to do,' and everything. I mean, I know that's absolute bullshit because although they don't tell unions what to do, they would put pressure on communist trade unionists to do certain things, which they thought was right. And which may have been right at the time, I don't know. But I knew that they would, at times, exert this pressure on individuals. But they couldn't do anything, oh no, they couldn't do anything. And they wouldn't do anything because I was a woman and I was a nobody. And that's what it amounted to. I was a woman.

Zelda, how do you think they saw you? … [INTERRUPTION]

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