Australian Biography

Zelda D'Aprano - full interview transcript

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Your involvement in the trade union movement, and also in the Communist Party, was that part of an attitude you had to society and to the position of working people? Did that reflect a general value that you had about the world? And what did you feel you were doing by being involved in these workers' movements?

I was aware that under the capitalist system the owners of the means of production — and it was the owners of business and wealth — exploit the working people. We actually produce everything and yet we are the poorest on the ladder. They cannot do without us. And yet, we suffer through poor wages and lack of hospitals and everything else. And so, I was aware that this system is unjust. And I was convinced by everything I heard that socialism was going to produce a better society where there was more equity and shared with the people. And added to that, because of this sense of justice that I felt, and that people weren't getting what they should to live a life of quality, that one had to be active in the trade union movement and it was through the trade unions that our interests would be, not only safeguarded, but improved and that life would improve for working people— the ones who were making everything — and I genuinely believed that. And that's why I got so involved.

And do you still believe it?

I still believe that it's up to the people to be involved, to change things. And without participation by the people, nothing will alter. And I still believe that whilst we have the system that we have, then it's vitally important for the trade unions to be there to safeguard the interests of the underdog. And of course, now even the middle class are affected, and so they're going to have to start fighting for their own interests, too.

What do you think of collective bargaining as a means of [negotiating], and enterprise agreements in the workplace?

Well, due to the current situation, it's here. And in view of the fact that it is here and we've got to deal with it, I feel that the unions must have the right to be involved in all enterprise bargaining. I think the whole single one-to-one contract is very dangerous. It's all very well to say that people don't have to draw up a contract and they can be in the union. Today, employers want to know if you're in the union and if you say yes they don't employ you. And this is turning the clock back. We're not talking about reform — to reform anything is to improve it. They're twisting the meaning of words. They keep referring to these new things that they're introducing as reforms. But they're — in fact they're turning the clock back. And women are in the worst situation for enterprise bargaining because far from this attitude that Reith and the present Federal Government adopt — it's just up to the employee to negotiate with the employer. This is assuming that they're equal. I mean, here you've got women who have never been in a situation where they've had to negotiate. There are skills that are required to do this. And besides that, there are others outside the door to be used against you. In other words, if you say you're entitled to an increase of 10 dollars a week, you might put up all the arguments in the world, in trying to negotiate. But if the employer knows he can get someone from outside for less, then you've lost your job. And this is exactly what is happening today. It's only in the big industries where you've got great numbers of people employed, that enterprise bargaining can actually bring results to them. Because not only do they have the numbers, but they have the strong unions there with them as well. And women, in the main, don't work in big industries. They work in more isolated and small industries.

During all the years that you worked in different industries, as a worker who was involved in union activity, and there in the workplace, did you feel that the union addressed itself to the real problems of the workers?

Well, as I said previously …

… I'll ask that question again. Did you feel, as a member of the unions, that the unions addressed themselves to the real problems of the workers?

Not in every case, no. And I feel a lot of them are learning these deep lessons today, a bit late, but they are learning. But in my experience, I unfortunately was involved in unions that were predominantly female. So therefore they were never strong unions. And in fact, they were very weak unions and in the main they rode on the backs of the bigger unions; the big unions fought for the increases, cost of living adjustments, because that's the way the system worked then and the smaller unions and less militant just rode on their backs. And I couldn't say that in the union that I was involved in, in the psych hospital, that they did any great things. I mean, they had to be pushed nearly all the way, nearly all the way.

And they were pushed from the membership?

Yes, yes.

Now, when you were working in the psychiatric hospital, people used to come and talk to you about their problems, didn't they? The union seemed to be focusing very much on material things like the uniforms, the wages and so on. But a lot of people brought to you problems that were more personal. Was there any way in which a union could ever deal with those sorts of things?

Not within the present structures, no. Because they were only interested in conditions and wages within that — within the hours that the person was on the job. And I have always felt that this was a very narrow view for the trade unions to adopt because you're not only selling your labour, you're selling your whole self in my opinion. Because you're there, you're nowhere else, you're forced to be there. So as well as giving them the labour, you're giving them your self. And all sorts of things are happening to you as a human being that need to be addressed. For example, I would go off in my lunch hour to the doctor to have a contraceptive device inserted, called the Grafenberg Ring. I couldn't take time off work and say, 'Look, I have to have whatever time necessary to go to the doctor's to have a contraceptive device inserted.' Why shouldn't I? I mean, everyone's doing these things. But you couldn't, so I'd have to go in my lunch hour, or if I took time off, I'd have to say I had a cold or I had a migraine head or I had a pain in the back or god knows what not. So, if you wanted contraceptive advice, if you wanted any sort of thing that affected you as a human being, you couldn't say that was what you wanted. Your whole being is denied. And to me that's not good enough. It really isn't good enough. And so everything that affects human beings has to be taken into consideration. I mean, why do we have industries? Why do we have these things? I mean, what comes first, us or money? And if we are what is important, then industries have to take that into consideration, and work in with people. They have to be people-friendly. Every work situation has to be worker-friendly, has to be people-friendly.

What were some of the problems that the women you worked with brought to you that you really couldn't help them with?

Well, one of course was that problem. They would never say why they really had to have time off. And they'd tell lies to cover up, lies that were acceptable by the management. With the hierarchies, one of the problems when I was working in the hospital was the shortage of staff. And in my opinion, much of this shortage of staff was due to the attitude of those in control, those in power. They used to make the life of the women on the staff unendurable. Now these women, in the main, who came to work in psychiatric hospitals, were married women because it's not the sort of a job that young women would be attracted to. And so here are these married women being spoken to as if they were total idiots or trash. And they wouldn't endure that. They'd come to me, distressed, and tell me about what happened. And when I used to say, 'Look I'll go and speak to the matron about it.' 'Oh no, no, no, no, no. Oh no, I don't want any trouble.' They didn't want any trouble. And this is the woman, the peacemaker, wanting peace all the time, won't fight, terrified of upsetting and causing any ripples. And so they'd leave. They'd constantly leave. And this could go on, this attitude could go on, because of the power that some people hold. And they could get away with it, get away with it. And this happens all through our type of structures because of the pyramid structure.

Do you think that the women's movement gave you some answers to these sorts of problems, that communism and the trade union movement hadn't been able to provide you with when you were dealing with it? Do you think that might have been one of the reasons why you were so attracted to the women's movement, that these difficulties were part of what it was trying to deal with?

Oh, I think it was — the women's movement, it wasn't only the Communist Party, which I'd already given away. What the women's movement gave us was a feeling of a total appreciation of ourself. And that we as women were worthy beings. And we were alive, we were vital and we were important. And it gave you a reason for living. And this is why these thousands of young women who had come to the women's liberation movement were so inspired, it gave them the confidence to do what they wanted to do. And they went out into the world and they did it. And that's why in so many places today you have women doing things they never did before. Just like yourself.

Could I ask you to look back on the history of your life as a communist, the whole period of your life in which you were a communist, and with hindsight sum up why you became a communist and why you stopped being one?

I became a communist because of — not what I was told, even by my mother — my own observations of the injustice around me. And I think this is what all people have to do, not worry about what they read in the paper or what they are told. But look and see for themselves and see what's happening around them. And I did that. And so it was an inevitable progression that I went into the Communist Party because I genuinely believed that they were going to rectify all the injustices. And in doing so, I learnt to read, I learnt to discuss issues in far more depth, I started to learn about all sorts of aspects of society that I had no knowledge. And so it forced me to use my mind in many areas. And for this I can be grateful. However, on the other hand, had I not gone to work for the butchers' union and stayed in suburbia, I may have remained an ignorant idealist. But by going and working in the butchers' union office, and experiencing first-hand what happens in a structure at the top, and the way I was dealt with by the communist secretary, and the Communist Party following this incident, I had to then question everything, absolutely everything. Because the disappointment was so severe, because my whole life was based on it. And I anguished, I anguished …

What really disillusioned you with the Communist Party?

What disillusioned me with the Communist Party was many things. One, being in the women's movement and the vitality of it was so great and we discussed everything in depth. And in the Communist Party branch meetings that I went to, it became an insult to your intelligence to even be there. And everything was skimmed over and someone would give a report on what was happening in Timbuktu or whatever, and oh yes, and the end of that, and the finance report, and the end of that. And it was just ludicrous, it really was. I mean, the fact that people would feel threatened by this is just a joke. And that I even had to spend time there when my time was becoming so precious. And so I stopped going. And also, with this whole business of being dismissed and the party attitude towards it, and blaming me. And in other words I was responsible for my behaviour on the job, you know, [and this] warranted being dismissed and they were prepared to sacrifice me. And the attitude of communists themselves because one of the things in the women's movement, we realised that we are responsible for our actions. And here in the party people could do anything they liked as human beings as long as you adhered to the party philosophy and gave donations and said the right things, that was fine. And all these things became so wrong, so terribly wrong. And then the fact that they were prepared to sacrifice me for George Seelaf, when in my estimation he had become corrupt and didn't deserve the recognition of anything, or the position that he even held. But they stood by him. And this was in … [INTERRUPTION]

What disillusioned you with the Communist Party?

Oh, I think everything about it, the whole structure of it, the way it worked. The branch meetings were an insult to your intelligence. And this came after my involvement with the women in the women's liberation movement because we really discussed things in real depth, because we had to learn, we had to know, we had to understand. And in the Communist Party there was none of that. And I think there was a terrible lot of ego tripping in the Communist Party. And the women's movement gave me strength. And I think one of the last branch meetings I ever went to, a fellow spoke to me in what I considered to be a very rude manner. And one time I wouldn't have said anything. And I just asked him why he spoke to me like that. And put it right on him, and he was a bit shocked. And his reply was, 'Oh, I thought you could take it.' So I just told him straight out I was sick and tired of taking it. And there was even a patronising attitude to working-class people. And even though a lot of the professionals had dropped out by this time, there was still middle class people there who still looked down upon working-class people. And I was beginning to realise that I did have intelligence now because of this strength that I was developing from the women's movement. And I thought, I can't put up with this, and then in view of [how], you know, the Party dealt with the whole business of George and my dismissal, and then foisting all the blame onto me … After, I was told, that at an executive meeting of the Communist Party he had stood on his feet and roared that they weren't going to get rid of him, and he would stay there until he retired. And so they let him stay there. And all this happening and I was the sacrificial bunny. And this is in a capitalist country. And I thought, my god, what would have happened to me if I was in Russia. I mean I would have been in Siberia. I mean I knew this. And I thought how could I couldn't possibly stay in a party like that. No way. And so I left, but it was such a traumatic experience because it wasn't just like leaving a club. I believed in it and I lived it and I did my utmost to help people and I did my utmost to fight injustice. And so it wasn't just a hobby. And so my whole philosophy of life was involved with that.

It sounds very much like some people feel when they decide to leave their religion, where they find the gap between the belief and the practice has just got too much for them. In that case, though, sometimes they keep the belief system even though they reject entirely the structure. Did you keep the belief system that you'd had?

I did for some time cling to it, because I still thought socialism was the answer. And I tried to marry socialism and feminism, and even more than feminism — women's liberationism. I tried to marry the two. And I tried desperately to do that. And in the end I had to come to the conclusion it couldn't be — they couldn't be wed, because it was patriarchy that was the problem; as long as socialism was going to be controlled by men who are ego tripping, who want power, who want centralised control, who want all these things, then it's not going to work for anyone, men or women. And so I realised that this patriarchy had to go. And that was the end of the wedding, the marriage. I just couldn't combine the two. Things have to change and there has to be real, real, changes, but not the way that the communists and, in my opinion, the socialists envisage. They can possibly make some improvements, but basically it'll go on the way it's going now. One parliament will come in and destroy everything that a previous government has built and you struggle on for years and improve and another one comes in destroys it all, and it'll go up and down. To me, this is patriarchy.

And what's your view of the ideal society now?

Well, I think you can only surmise and try and experiment, but fundamentally it all comes back to the people have to have control in their industries and everywhere else. They have to be involved, it's their say what happens. They have to decide how the money is distributed, where it goes. And there are people experimenting with these situations today, bringing this about in a small way. And I feel that economically this is the way things are going to have to be. I also feel that people do things because they want to, and not solely for the remuneration. I mean no-one can tell me that a man who's a brain surgeon is not going to be a brain surgeon if he doesn't get paid any more than a carpenter. If he really wants to be a brain surgeon, then he's going to be a brain surgeon, even if he gets the same salary as a carpenter. And it's because you've got the ability and it's a challenge to you, that you want to do it. And I know this sounds like pie in the sky. But ultimately I think these sort of changes are what's going to have to come if we want to preserve the planet and everything around us, and life.

Now, switching a little bit and going back. When you worked for 15 years at the psychiatric hospital, when you left and you'd decided to move on to something different, were they very sorry to see you go?

[laughs] Oh, that's quite funny. I can laugh about it now. Because this is very interesting, because I was a fighter there all these years in the union, as my book explains [Zelda, Spinifex Press, 1995]. And I had clashes with those in power at the hospital as well as the union. And even though the State Government, which was my employer, wouldn't make me a permanent employee of the state service (even though I was the only qualified dental nurse in the department) others who weren't qualified were permanent, but they would not make me permanent.

Was that because they saw you as a troublemaker?

Oh yes, yes. But they wouldn't sack me. I think underneath it all they admired my guts and pluck, that I stood up for what I believed in. And there were many socials held at the hospital over 15 years, and also farewells when members of staff went and resigned. And I always went to the farewells. I mean I love socialising, I love dancing and I love being at parties and I love being with people, and enjoying myself. So I always went and had a lot of fun. And always contributed to their farewell gifts. And when I resigned after 15 years— there was no farewell. And I think I was the only one at that stage who never had a farewell. And I was amused because I thought these men were unable to be hypocrites because every time you go to a farewell, you know, they always come out with these speeches and with great regret, you know, that you're leaving and da, da, da. And we hope, you know, that you'll be happy in your next employment, or whatever it is. But they couldn't bring themselves to say how they regretted my departure. And I thought, well I admire them for that, because at least they weren't going to stand up and make hypocrites of themselves. And I think I was the only one, certainly the only one who put so much, so many years in, 15 years, and didn't get a farewell. I think that should be history at the hospital, at Larundel Hospital.

You've really made some quite formidable enemies in your life, haven't you? And that's unusual for women. Women usually avoid very much, and dislike, being disliked. Why do you think it didn't bother you?

I suppose because I also had a lot of wonderful friends and relationships with people. And a lot of fun, and a lot of pleasure. And I suppose this balanced it all. It didn't worry me, didn't worry me. And I was always very uninhibited and I could dance and gleefully perform if necessary and, for example, at a social at the hospital I was sitting in a situation where they had these long tables and long benches to sit on and my back was against the wall. And I was asked to dance. And it meant everyone, either side of me, would have had to get up and breathe in and all that business, so I could get out and get around the table to go with my partner. So what I did, I said oh well, I just stepped up, climbed on to the table, got across and stepped down and on to the floor, wearing my very dignified clothes and everything else of course. And off I went. And this is the sort of thing I would do. And I just loved life. And although I've gone through life and had some very traumatic experiences, I think the fact that I could also enjoy it compensated and balanced it out.

After you left the trade union movement and the Communist Party, did you continue to go back to the pub where you'd drunk opposite the Trades Hall and socialise with the people that you knew there?

Oh yes, yes I did. I went there until I finished working at the Mail Exchange. When I stopped working there I never went back there. I just didn't feel — well I felt sort of that they'd all betrayed me. They'd all betrayed me.

But even though they'd done that, you did keep going there, didn't you, for a while afterward … [INTERRUPTION] … Could you explain that to me, that the trade union leaders that hadn't given you work, you continued to go and drink with them and meet with them for a period after that?

Well, it wasn't so much with them, because I'd introduced women to that hotel. I was the first woman that ever walked into that hotel, to the public bar. Mind you, it was because I'd never been in hotels in my life and I didn't know that women weren't supposed to be there. See, this is the sort of thing that happened to me. In fact, at a conference once, a union conference, when the men all retired to the pub for lunch, for counter lunch, and they asked me what I wanted to drink, I said white tea. And they all rolled around in laughter. I didn't even know that you were supposed to drink the beer there, and that's why they put the counter lunches on. And so all these years after, when I started to go to the John Curtin Hotel, I didn't know women weren't allowed to go to public bars. And although no-one told me I wasn't allowed to go there, when I was told that you don't drink in a public bar, I made it my business to invite other women there. And so women started to congregate there and we'd always meet at that pub. And of course, it was handy too to find out things I wanted to know, what was going on.

Where do you think you got this confidence and fighting spirit from?

I don't really know. I think basically it's just because I can't bear to see injustice. It really, really, does something to me. And I'm not a whinger. I mean, I know people who'll talk for hours and hours and days and nights and weeks and months and years about everything that's wrong. But they'll never do a thing, not even write a letter. And that's not me. If I see something's wrong then I have to do something, try to do something about it. Where it comes from? I don't know. I don't know how this sense of feeling for humanity — because basically that's what it's all about — you know, because I care, I care. [INTERRUPTION]

[end of tape]

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