Australian Biography

Zelda D'Aprano - full interview transcript

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After you lost your job at the union, what did you do for work?

Well, what I did initially, I went and worked in several industries and undertook with Mike Costigan to publish them if I wrote about them and they would take photographs as well of the industries where I worked. So I selected numerous industries and went to work in them and wrote quite extensively on them. However ...

Do you mean you wrote first-person accounts of what it was like? Could you tell me that, because it wasn't clear? So there was a series of articles and things. I'll ask you that question again. [Zelda coughing] ... When you left the union, what kind of work did you find?

Well, what I did originally — I mean after trying unsuccessfully to get a job in other unions — I undertook with Michael Costigan to write a series of articles of what it was like working in different industries for a woman. So I went into several different industries, one in a small meatworks, another in a factory where they made ladies' sweaters. And I went into another factory where they — goodness, it was terribly boring — put fuses together, industrial fuses. And there were others too that I can't quite recall at the moment. But I wrote articles on each one — what it was like doing the work, what the relationships between the women there were like, and I went into it fairly extensively. Even the difference in the canteens where people who did the work had to sit as distinct from the administration section. And they had much nicer tables and chairs and salt and pepper shakers and everything and the workers had laminated tops and benches to sit on. And after having written all this, they decided to reduce the articles and then put them all into a double spread page, and I was paid for that ... [INTERRUPTION]

Did any of the other union bosses give you a job after you lost your job with the union?

No, and it's not for the want of trying, but they wouldn't employ me. And so I didn't know what to do. And I approached Michael Costigan and we came to an agreement that he would publish — in I think it was the Weekend Observer — articles, if I would write, go to work in different industries and write of my impressions in those industries. And so I did. I went into several different industries and worked there with the women. And observed what was happening and the relationships between staff and employers, etc, and the conditions. And I wrote extensively of my impressions in those various places.

What kinds of industries?

Well, one was a factory where they made sweaters, ladies' clothing. Another was a little meatworks, and another was a — oh terrible — it was a terrible job. I think it was the worst job I'd ever undertaken in my life. And that was assembling these fuses and there were seven movements I had to make with my hands and feet. And this is what I had to do all day. And it wasn't the sort of job that you could turn your mind on to other things. Otherwise you put the wrong thing in the wrong place. So it's not as if you could do something automatically and think your own thoughts, because it wasn't possible. It was the most mind-numbing job that I've ever undertaken. And I couldn't imagine that anyone would have to do something like that for all their lives. I think it would drive you out — off your head.

How long were you in each one of these places?

As long as I could tolerate it.

Which was about how long?

Oh, I suppose usually around about two weeks. And in the meatworks it was terrible because it was a real grotty little place, and they were putting stuff together for supermarkets. And I was thinking, you know, oh, oh yuck. But having worked in the union, I knew what the laws and rules were as far as the employment was concerned. And this fellow was just employing casual labour and sacking you at a price that he was paying you. And when he put myself and another woman off, because he didn't need us any more — and paid us — I knew he was underpaying us. So I immediately went and complained. So that created quite a to-do and both of us had to get backpay. But we had to go to the Arbitration Commission and everything before it was settled. And having written extensively about it, they went and took photographs of the places. They had a bit of trouble on one of the places. But eventually they decided to reduce the articles and put them all into the one paper in a double spread. And I got paid for that. And then I had nothing again. And I went to an employment agency and they weren't able to do anything for me. And I was getting really worried. I really was.

And what kept me going was I was successful in selling my house, so I was able to buy the unit. And I borrowed money and that was another story, because women couldn't borrow money to purchase a house or flat at the time [in 1971]. So that was another fight that I had to go through, together with the Women's Action Committee. And I eventually got the loan and it was — I applied for a little more than I actually needed, and so there was this excess loan money that was keeping me while I was unemployed. And I never dreamt of going on the dole because I felt sure that I would get something. And then I was interviewed by a woman for a job, and she had it all lined up for me to start in three weeks' time, because the end of the financial year came into it. So she wanted me to start at the beginning of the following financial year. And in the meantime, a huge article appeared in the Herald with me on the chains I think it was, or in the trams refusing to pay full fare. And so I was sacked before I started. And I never started on that job. And ultimately I got a job in the Mail Exchange in Melbourne as a mail sorter.

So how long were you unemployed?

I was unemployed for nine months. And of course with the difficulty of getting jobs I was really worried because I had bought this flat and I had to pay the loan back and I didn't have a job.

What year was this?

This would have been, I think, 1971.

It was a big crossover year for you, wasn't it? Your marriage was over, you had been rejected by the union movement and the Communist Party, and you'd found yourself unemployed, moving back into the city; lots happened. What was it that sustained you through that year?

I don't know, to be quite honest. At that stage, of course, we were just kicking off with the Women's Action Committee, and I suppose that's what sustained me. Because all the injustices that I had experienced were all coming out for the first time, women had somewhere to go when they were treated badly. And so these women, apart from sustaining me, you know, we were all active together in trying to change the situation. And added to that of course, my daughter was a tremendous support to me, tremendous support.

So this was a year in which you lost your affiliations that you'd had before, but discovered new ones. I have a sort of feeling that possibly the women's liberation movement came along at just the right time for you. It gave you a direction at a time when a lot of other things that you'd had before that were lost, and it gave a whole meaning to everything that was happening to you. And I wonder if I ask you a question, whether you can sort of put that together for me ... I see a pattern that it sort of came in just at the right moment for you. So I'd like to ask you that question again. That year in which you lost your job, you were unemployed and there were huge changes in your personal life, must have been a bit of a crossover year for you, wasn't it? What was it that you think saved you at that time?

I think it was the early development of the women's movement saved me. Because this was the only place, the only space, where women who were suffering injustices could go to, who would listen, who would be supportive and who would act on those injustices. And I'm quite convinced that the Women's Action Committee went from being the action committee into being the women's liberation movement. And I know that it was this movement that saved my life.

Literally saved your life?

I feel so, yes, I feel so. Because it wasn't only the [women] being supportive of me at the time, but through being involved in the women's movement and reading the women's liberation material that was coming through, and questioning all those things that I had believed in the past, and wondering why it all went wrong, I started to understand why these things happened, and what led to these things happening. And what do we have to do to change it all so that people don't have to suffer this way. And the movement brought all this to me. And this is very important to me because someone once said, 'Zelda, I would have expected you to be very bitter about these things that happened to you.' And it was the women's movement, the knowledge that I gained from there, that prevented me from being bitter, because for the first time I came to understand why these things happen to people. It's not only me, it's happening to people all the time.

And what did you understand about what had happened to you in your rejection by the leaders of the Communist Party and the communist unions?

Well, I felt first that there was the hierarchies that you're up against, the structures. And they're all patriarchal structures. I mean you've got the trade unions and you've got business, you've got the whole society. Everything. The trade unions as a structure are no different to all the other structures in society. And they are led from the top. And as you come down, like a pyramid, you've got the mass of people underneath that are the ones that are oppressed, the most helpless, the ones who have no voice, and it doesn't matter what the ones up top do to the ones down below, there's no-one there to care. And whilst the trade union movement is there to concern itself with the interests of the working people, as a structure in itself, I discovered that it's no different to any of the others. And this was all by being in the women's movement. And the one thing we were determined, [to do] in the women's movement, [was] that we would have no hierarchy. We didn't even have a committee. There was no such thing as secretaries, and when people would ask us what is our membership, we'd just say thousands, you know. But how many have you got on the books? We didn't have books. We just didn't want to repeat that pattern. And I think that's what it's all about. I don't think that a healthy society can develop at all if we retain these structures.

So when you got a job in the post office, what kind of a job was it?

I was a mail sorter, m-a-i-l. And this was a fascinating part of my life. I enjoyed the job. To me, at that stage, it was very, very, vital. We had to go to school, I think it was six weeks, to learn all the main places in Victoria and southern New South Wales, which was for sorting. And you went through a school with men and women. In fact, it was an industry, I think there were about 800 men and about 400 women. And the nature of the job was that depending on the volume of mail given in any certain direction which needed attention, then they'd have all these groups moving from one task to another, depending on where the pressure was. And so when you moved from one job to another, you might be sitting with someone totally different. Well, you got to know the different people, so if you felt like having a laugh then you'd sit next to the person you knew you could have a laugh with. If you felt like a serious conversation, then you'd go and sit next to someone who you could have a serious conversation [with]. But at the same time it was a job that as long as your hands were moving, they didn't object to you talking or relating to people around you. And because it was the sort of job, as long as your hands were moving you were right, in other words you were sorting, that was at the beginning of the women's movement and I needed my brain, I needed to think a lot about what was happening, what needed to be done, how we were going to do it. And it gave me that mental space to think and contemplate and work at what was required.

And being shiftwork it also enabled me to attend the numerous occasions where we had to send speakers out, and I'd have to go out and speak all over Melbourne. And then be able to come back to work, or do it after work — sort of move the shifts around to accommodate these needs. And it was just a wonderful job for that time. And it was equal pay.

And it is possible to sort mail and chat at the same time, is it?

Oh yes, I can assure you it was, yes.

And what about your union activity? Did you hesitate to join the union, or did you find yourself involved in the union at the post office?

Oh, I would always join the union. I think it's of the utmost importance. I mean, as far as I'm concerned, the union is the organisation that gets the increase in pay, it gets the conditions and people were fighting there — I mean, I was enjoying the benefits that others had fought for and so it was up to me to improve, do my bit, not only for myself, but for the next generation. And so, I think it's absolutely vital to belong to your union. The women's movement had my first priority and my energy, but even so I still went along to the union meetings. I was not going to get involved in the workplace, because I wasn't interested in doing that any more. And so I didn't. But it was all very interesting. I had people on the job urging me to stand, but I resisted that, I wouldn't do it. For the first four months I was there, I was terribly worried, I didn't want them to know anything about me, because I was so desperate and I was so happy to have this job. And then of course the newspapers featured me on the trams paying my 75 per cent of the fare. And there I was again. And it happened in a weekend paper, and when I came into work on the Monday, I looked around and I thought, 'Oh dear, what's going to happen?' And nobody said anything, but they all knew. Only one person eventually commented, but they all knew then who I was. And then I was on television, and then The Mike Walsh Show, and Bob Hawke was there and Gerald Lyons, and so everyone knew who I was. And I had people going and telling tales to the bosses there about me that weren't true.

Now, were the conditions there so good that you didn't get involved in leading any kind of protest or complaint, Zelda?

The conditions were appalling. [laughs] As a matter of fact, I had to go out and speak at Glenn College, I think it was, at La Trobe University, one of my speaking engagements. And I went out there and there was the lush carpet on the floor and the beautiful seats and the beautiful tables and chairs; everything was just so sweet and lovely. And after speaking there I thought, isn't it amazing, the students who haven't done, as yet, a thing for society, and in fact are being subsidised by society, have all this luxurious atmosphere, and here I am, working in this condition. This is after I returned back to work with no air-conditioning and the windows that — I mean it was an enormous place — and the few windows that were open, you couldn't have them all open because the wind would blow in and the letters would blow all over the place. So here we were, the people who were doing everything and making society work, working in such appalling conditions.

So were you able to refrain from agitating?

I would bring these things up at the union meetings, but I wouldn't push or insist. We had a shop steward who, in my opinion, was just absolutely hopeless. One thing the union did agree is when the temperatures rose, I think it was to a hundred ...

… on the old scale?

… on the old scale, that we stopped work. And for several days we'd gone over it, and he had done nothing. And I approached him and I asked him, why is this, why are we still here? 'Oh,' he'd say, 'Zelda, you wouldn't believe it. The union wouldn't even buy me a thermometer.' I mean, you could buy them in Coles for 20 cents, and he used that as an excuse, because he didn't want to do anything. And I can recall, I was in a particular job where the supervisors couldn't see me. I can remember getting a dish of water and putting it on the floor and standing in it while I worked. And on another occasion both myself and another woman — because we had uniforms provided by the job — went and tipped water all over ourselves and went back in and worked. I mean these were the conditions.

And how long did you work at the post office?

I was there four years.

Did they ever try to promote you?

They tried to promote me out of existence, but I only found that out after coming back from a holiday. I had three months off without pay, and also I used some of my own holiday. And I found out that while I was away an ASIO document had been leaked about me and it was all in the press. And what it said in that document, when it referred to me, was did the department know I who I was, that I could cause a lot of damage at the Mail Exchange, and to consider promotion, even if it meant, you know, to somewhere else. And I could just imagine, you know, promotion and I'd been sent out to Woop-Woop North in some little post office where they could get rid of me. And so that was the only promotion they had in mind.

Did you get a tremendous shock to come back from holidays and discover that your ASIO file had been leaked and was all over the newspapers?

Well I did. I got a terrible shock. I wasn't the only person on the document. There were several others. I was the only woman. But the reference to me was, in my opinion, why that document was leaked. One, because they had other names on it, but they just sort of said, you know, Joe Blow, he's still in the Party or he's Jack Smith, a member, question mark. And what do you know about Freddie Smith or something. And when it came to me it had this entire paragraph. What was happening at the time was, there was a big dispute about the role of ASIO and it was said that ASIO is interfering in people's job situations. I mean, they were there, supposed to be looking after spies, and it was ASIO was accused of interfering in people's job situations, which they had no right to do.

This was during the Whitlam Government, wasn't it, that this dispute arose?

And because there and then this document's leaked, which indicated they were interfering in my job situation, and I thought there must have been many people whose job situations were being interfered with, but why would they pick on me? And I came to the conclusion it was because I was a woman, I was at the lowest level of the rung, I wasn't in any senior position in the service, and so I was an easy bunny. And that's why it was done. And I realised how vulnerable I was, because I knew the union wouldn't do a thing to protect me.

But, presumably in that climate of criticism of ASIO, there wasn't any reason why they would get rid of you. I mean, did they get rid of you?

No, well, actually at that particular time I was having some health problems and I think all that added to it of course. I was — I felt, I felt, terribly depressed, because I knew no-one would help me, and even if they wanted to promote me and decided to promote me, the union wouldn't have raised a finger. And I thought of all the fighting I had done for other people and everything that I had done all my life, and they wouldn't do a thing to help me. I knew of incidents where they helped blokes who were drunk and god knows what, but I was a female and they just wouldn't bother. But at the same time I was having some women's problems, health-wise, and I'm sure, as I said, that this even helped to make it worse. And then I finished up, I had to go into hospital, have an operation and there were complications after that. And I went to one doctor and he wanted me to sue ASIO. And, there were two actually that wanted me to sue ASIO, and I just couldn't. I couldn't undertake — I mean I'd fought all my life and I knew that I was so vulnerable, and I thought why should I be the one to go and sue ASIO. And I told the doctor, I don't feel well enough, you know.

What did ASIO think that you would be able to do, as a mail sorter, to subvert the work of the post office?

I don't know. I really don't know. I think I stood for a position once, because everyone was pushing me, but this — I think — I can't remember what position it was. I knew they wouldn't let me go in anyway. And of course, they didn't.

It was a position on the union?

Ah, I'm not sure now whether it was the executive or whether it was in the branch itself or what, but I did, because I knew they wouldn't accept me. And they didn't. For example, there was a women's conference within the union. I must say this union had another great left-wing leader. And — George Slater I think his name was, yeah — oh, he was a great, great, leftie revolutionary. And there was some conference on for women. And all this only happened because of women's liberation. And a woman was sent, selected and sent. I didn't even know about it. Knew nothing about it. I wasn't even told. So they were so frightened of me. Don't ask me why, but they were terrified.

Haven't you got any clue at all why they were frightened of you?

The only thing I can put it down to is that I'm a maverick. After my experience in the Communist Party there's no way that I'd feel any allegiance to anything or anyone unless I was convinced that they were doing the right thing. Just because they were in the same club or the same football team or the same political party, or the same institution, that didn't mean anything to me. I wasn't going to stand by and see anyone do anything that I considered to be dishonest or fraudulent or betraying the people who trust them, or anything — this code of behaviour. And so they couldn't fully — how can I say — depend on me to do the right thing by them. I think that's the crux of it. I'm not sure, but this is the only thing that I could come up with.

So you're a sort of classic whistleblower, as they call them these days, ahead of your time?

I suppose you could say that, yes.

And you didn't feel there was anybody who was going to protect you?

No, the only thing [was] a few women at that stage, and women had no power, no power.

So what did you do for a living?

Well, I finished up after the operation, you know, a few months. There was all sorts of complications and I was really ill. And at one stage I nearly died. And I gradually came together again. But I was very depressed. I felt that I couldn't go back to the Mail Exchange. There were some people there, certain nationalities, that — what can I say — were anti-woman, were anti-Jew ... [INTERRUPTION]

[end of tape]

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