Zelda D'Aprano, hero of the Australian union movement

The Point V9 N5


‘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.’

Those are the words of feminist, trade unionist, and wage justice advocate Zelda D’Aprano reminiscing about her militant 1969 protest, a courageous action that paved the way for women in Australia to win equal pay for equal work. As the police cut Zelda free from the
building, they mocked her. ‘Aren’t you embarrassed? It’s just you on your own.’ Zelda snapped back, defiant as ever ‘No. Because soon
there will be three, then there will be five, and then there will be…’

And of course, she was correct. Ten days later she was joined by Alva Geikie and Thelma Solomon protesting at the doors of the  Commonwealth Building. Subsequently the trio formed two women’s committees which jump-started the Women’s Liberation Movement in Melbourne and saw them leading the way on various progressive issues including protesting against a discriminatory law that saw
women barred from drinking in bars. What better way to highlight the idiocy of this law than to stage pub crawls all across Melbourne!

The women’s committees grew as the bold actions they undertook continued to gain attention. Zelda travelled around Melbourne paying only 75% of the required fare. Why? Because women were only given 75% of the wage of men at the time!

By all accounts and measures, Zelda’s upbringing was difficult and might sound unfamiliar to many of us who live with the benefits that activism such as hers provided. She grew up in grinding poverty, left school before she was 14, was married at 16, had a child at 17 and worked in a series of factory jobs around Melbourne, living in a Housing Commission flat, struggling to make ends meet. Yet despite these barriers and the discrimination she experienced as a woman, Zelda was an unstoppable force who refused to ignore the injustice she witnessed all around her, in the workplace and in broader society.

Zelda, like many of us reading these words, was a union rep in her workplace, where she regularly witnessed injustice. And, as everyone who is part of the union knows, she inherently understood that nothing would change without a collective fight. As IEU members and reps, we too can take inspiration from her legacy to shape our workplaces into the best they can be. Zelda might have come from abject
poverty and a society that dismissed women, but it never held her back. We too should never be held back and as unionists we will always fight injustice, in our words and in our deeds.