By Sarah Kaine
In February 2016, a colleague of mine and I sat drinking tea during a break in the annual AIRAANZ (Association of Industrial Relations Academics, Australia and New Zealand) Conference and began talking about the types of research projects we would ideally like to undertake. It didn’t take us very long to narrow it down, we were both interested in labour history, union renewal, the experience of women at work and voice at work.
We were also concerned that the rich and valuable contributions made by women in the labour movement were rarely acknowledged in contrast to the more frequently chronicled contributions of men. Part of this concern was that the activism and achievements of women in the movement were/are often invisible due to the historical legacy of fewer women holding official leadership positions in union structures. So – we landed on a project which we hoped would be part of efforts to address this - an oral history project to collect the stories of women activists – in their own words and in their own voices.
We received some initial support from a handful of unions (thank you to UWU [then United Voice], ASU, NTEU and PSA) and ran a very uplifting crowd-funding campaign that showed how many others shared our concern for preserving women’s stories. Our project generated some media coverage for our efforts to highlight the role of women in building Australia’s union movement.
The overall project has been a slower process than we had hoped: building a website, sourcing interviews, transcribing, editing and posting. Keeping the project alive has been a priority despite the most recent obstacles: virtual working and the freezing of research funds. But with our partnership with the Carmichael Centre we are producing and posting new interviews with more women unionists – and more are to come.
Nurturing and celebrating women’s activism and leadership within Australian unions is a crucial dimension of building a more representative, authentic, and ultimately powerful workers’ movement. After all, women now make up a majority of union members, and the pioneers who are profiled in our interviews have been followed by many other outstanding women activists who now lead our whole movement. We think the Carmichael Centre – with its emphasis on the links between trade unions and broader issues of social and economic justice – is a fitting partner for the further development of the Women in Unions project. With this partnership and other initiatives, the Carmichael Centre intends to put women’s issues, and women’s participation, at the core of its work to help build a modern and inclusive union movement.
This new phase of the project will allow for momentum to build with the collection of the stories of the increasing numbers of women in prominent positions in the labour movement. It will also facilitate the documentation (for posterity) of the stories of the countless women who have not achieved formal recognition or held senior positions but have doggedly pursued better workplaces, have engaged in everyday acts of bravery and in doing so have positively impacted on the lives of so many.
My sincere thanks to the Carmichael Centre and the Centre for Future Work for taking stewardship of what is a small but important project to collect, share and preserve the stories and voices of women in unions.