Academic journal article Hecate

Mothers - and Others - in Union Protest1

Academic journal article Hecate

Mothers - and Others - in Union Protest1

Article excerpt


In 1997, Western Australian unions mounted an unusual campaign against proposed industrial relations legislation. They occupied a portion of land opposite Parliament House for six months as a protest site. Known initially as the 'Workers' Embassy' and later as 'Solidarity Park', the Park today is gazetted and protected by heritage legislation in recognition of the social and historical significance of the campaign.

The Third Wave campaign, of which this site was a significant strategy, eschewed a combative, militant style and, rather, was inclusive, domestic and Ordinary'. It was designed as a comfortable site that was friendly to all, mirroring in many ways the activities of a suburban family home: cooking activities, areas for children, a garden, various rituals and ceremonies. Thus it promoted inclusive involvement of a wide variety of citizens during the campaign. While the legislation was enacted, it can be argued that it was less likely to be enforced as a result of the campaign, and that the strength and vehemence of the campaign led to the eventual repeal of the legislation upon the election of a new government in 2001.

This article explores how gender-related identities, including those around family status, were created and contested during the campaign. In so doing, it illuminates the ways in which unions use identity issues to press their case. The paper shows on the one hand that the union movement - in a limited way - strategically deployed associations with gender and motherhood and, in so doing, attracted media attention and public support. Overall, however, both official strategy and participants' responses to the campaign largely 'buried' gender issues, instead framing the messages around 'family'. This illustrates the strategic need during the campaign to emphasise sameness, rather than difference, in order to maximise solidarity. I would argue, following Maher's recent formulation of mothering as 'activity, not identity', that it suited both campaign strategists and female participants to emphasise the 'family work' that participants did at the site, rather than gendered aspects of that work.2 I would also argue, following the work of various sociologists of union activity, that organisers of the union campaign were strategic in establishing a protest site designed to incorporate protestors' multiple and malleable identities, rather than privileging particular identities.3 This, I would emphasise, is not necessarily a non-progressive or anti-feminist strategy. It is suited to the tenor of the times, in which women are increasingly visible activists in the union movement, and where gender has gone from margin to mainstream in the movement's agenda but, in the process has paradoxically become less visible.

The paper begins with a summary of literature on unions, protest, gender, and motherhood. It examines what is meant by a 'politics of difference', and what that means for the union movement. It then briefly describes the dispute and the campaign. The central section of the paper describes and analyses the construction and contestation of gender, family, and motherhood in the campaign. The strategies used have broader relevance for the union movement, which urgently needs to persuade a broader cross-section of the workforce to join unions and engage in labour activism.4


Unions have been seen as 'masculinist' and indeed 'monocultural' for much of their history. Australian unions created a 'working man's paradise', with the dominant form of masculinity being heterosexual, blue-collar, working-class, and Irish or Scottish in origin.5 In Australian labour history, the mother formed part of the idealised family that clustered around the male worker, who was in 1907 first granted the basic wage - providing for a 'man and his wife and three children living in frugal comfort'. However, in her own right, the working mother (and women generally) did not merit a defined basic wage until 1919, when women's wages were set generally at 54 per cent of a man's wage. …

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