How we got equal pay in the public service

During the forties the battle was to get women on the permanent staff and appointed at equal rates with men. Women like Mary Boyd, Rona Bailey and Kate Ross played a prominent part during this decade. Under the leadership of Jack Lewin, chairman of the Wellington section, and later president of the PSA, permanent status and equal starting rates were achieved. Equal pay existed above the basic grade but most women were herded in the basic (lowest) grade. While every male went automatically up the eleven steps, all women had an “initial maximum” at the eighth step and had to be “recommended” over the eighth, ninth and tenth bars. “Bar” was a very emotional word in the fifties. , Equal pay was always the PSA’s policy but the campaigns tended to go in waves.

The fifties’ wave lasted for six years. Jim Winchester (a long-time defender of women’s rights) moved a motion in the Wellington section in 1954 calling on the PSA to mount a full-scale campaign for equal pay. At a later lunch-time meeting a committee of 12 women was elected to plan and pursue the campaign at Welling ton section level. The women activists of this period included the late Letty Allen, Margaret Long (Brand), Maureen Dench, Margot Rodden (Jenkins), Joyce McBeath," Jo Moss, Beverley Hurrelle (Riley), Grace de Faur and I was active then too.

 In 1955 a representative conference of PSA women was called together to plan moves in the campaign. The conference was addressed by George Bolt, chairman of the Public Service Commission (now the State Services Commission), the employing body for all public servants. Although the PSC had endorsed the principle of equal pay as far back as 1945, they strenuously opposed its introduction, and continued their opposition right to the death knock. Bolt’s comment: “Why should we pay ten bob  for an article when we can get it for five?” expressed the true attitude of the employers and became something of a battle cry and a spur for the equal pay movement.

The PSA had to show that women’s labour could not be bought at a discount price any longer. An important contribution to that conference was a report written by the late Bill Sutch, then economist to the Department of Trade and Industry. It dealt with the arguments of the day for and against equal pay and provided statistical material which was to be of great assistance through the campaign. The Sutch Report had been “confidential” to the women’s conference; someone (still unknown) leaked it to the newspaper Truth, which headlined the contents. The Public Service Commission called in all copies, and the report instantly acquired a rarity value.

The incident illustrated the obsessive nature of the commission’s opposition. One set of arguments we used involved international comparisons. New Zealand was behind many countries of similar economic structure in introducing equal pay — Britain, USA, Canada. Equal pay was enshrined in the United Nations Charter and in ILO Conventions on Equal Remuneration and Discrimination in Employment, which successive governments have refused to become a party to.
 The other set of arguments was mainly around the question of a man’s family responsibilities. Here the material from Sutch’s report was used widely. The 1951 census had shown that, taking married men and widowers as a group, 46% had no dependent children, and a further 20% had one only. And this did not take account of single men "or of whether men’s wives were working or not.” His figures really destroyed dependents to mythical children. The “social wage” concept was partly met anyway through the child benefit (then at a more realistic level than now) and tax exemptions for dependents.

Nor was the “social” element recognised by the Arbitration Court in fixing pay rates. Many women also had support, often elderly parents, on their low wages, although it was less common in those days to have women supporting young children on their own. The cost to the government and to the country were also examined and exaggerated at length — and against this we put the importance of the principle of equality and the fact that its introduction would be a gradual process, spreading over a number of years.

As it turned out, the “flow on” effect into private industry was much slower than we had ever thought, so slow that in 1972, twelve years later, the Equal Pay Act had to be introduced to cover the private sector. We campaigned in a variety of ways — with women’s meetings up and down the country in departments and local sections, with deputations to Parliament, questions in the House, approaches to other organisations, press and radio coverage, court cases and lobbying. The aim was to keep the pressure going at all times. We used the “extended lunch-hour meeting”, a tactic stopped by the commission on the grounds that we were diverting its intended “educational” nature into an instrument of propaganda!  It depended on what you meant by “educational”.

Looking back I see the “buffet tea” as the strangest kind of campaign instrument. We would, especially in Wellington, hire a hall and a caterer, and at a cost of 2/6 (25c) a head, women and men turned up to drink tea, eat and listen to a speaker or a debate.

One action which brought the injustices of women’s pay to the public notice in a particularly sharp way was the “Mrs Parker Case”. Because of the way discrimination worked in the public service, any male clerical cadet was, from the day of appointment, senior to most women clerks; he could rise automatically to a higher maximum and was better placed when it came to promotion.

A particularly efficient and experienced clerk in the Inland Revenue Department in Dunedin, called J .A. Parker, took an appeal as a test case against the appointment of a young male clerk to the higher salary maximum. She won her appeal and her salary was reduced to his, a decrease from £695 to £460 for winning an appeal! And she was transferred to his junior duties. Public reaction was immediate. The press was full of the case; the absurdity and injustice of women’s position in, the public service was exposed for all to see; A “full debate on ‘The Parker Case’” was held in Parliament: the National Government under Holland  upheld the unequal position of women (while giving lip service to the “principle”); the Labour opposition were on the attack, supporting equal pay for equal work.

The Parker case gave new impetus to the whole campaign for equal pay. The National Council of Women, meeting at that time, sent telegrams of protest to the Prime Minister from its full conference. Shortly afterwards the Prime Minister, Sid Holland, had a “morning tea” (always referred to afterwards as the Prime Minister’s tea party) which included representatives from the main women’s organisations as well as the PSA, to hear what the “ladies” had to say about equal pay and equal opportunity for women.

It was a lengthy and sometimes virulent affair and — the Prime Minister, supported by Hilda Ross, (then Minister for Women and Children), looked a little shaken at the end of what must have been the longest parliamentary  working tea very held.
Among many able contributions, Mira Szaszy’s (Petricovich) very moving plea for equality for Maori women is the most memorable. One of the spin-offs from the Parker case was the interest and support from women’s organisations. Later in the year the PSA ‘called together a meeting of interested organisations and the Council for Equal Pay and Opportunity was formed. The first chairperson was Challis Hooper from the Federation of Business and Professional Women’s clubs, a cool and dignified woman and a deadly opponent of discrimination.

The council was supported by the Local Bodies Officers’ Union, the Electrical Workers’ Union and the Storemen and Packers’ Unions, It gave continuous public support to the Association’s campaign for equal pay. As a result of the strong campaigning  by the PSA around equal pay, and particularly of the great impact made by the Parker case, the Labour Party included a promise to introduce equal pay in the public service in its election policy in 1957.

It was elected to government in that year, and the task of the PSA then became to get this policy carried out. It turned out to be a three-year non-stop task of pressure politics, with tension building up as the last weeks of the last session grew close. It seemed that the last day might pass and the Bill be postponed until the final session, and it was not until one week before Parlia- ment closed before the 1960 general election (when the Nash government was defeated) that the Government Services Equal Pay Bill came before the House.

Late at night, when Parliament had gone off the air, the message went round that the Equal Pay Bill was being debated. We leapt up, sprang into taxis, and converged on Parliament, in time for the final vote. The National opposition finally supported the Bill, having opposed it all along the way, and the vote was unanimous. In the government services the principle had been won — and women’s labour could no longer be bought at a bargain price!

I have outlined here only the political side of things, the campaign that brought the Act into being. There were endless hours spent too in determining the technical details of introduction and implementation, in the clerical and other scales. The work to be done on non-clerical scales was in some cases more complex — where did typists’ scales fit in, for instance, when it was an occupation almost entirely of women. There were committees of inquiry, implementation committees, working parties, detailed submissions and reports, and correspondence.

Women who played the most prominent parts during the 1950s are mentioned above. To this must be added some of the men so active in the campaign — the late Dan Long, Jim Ferguson and Jack Turnbull. One of the features of the whole campaign was that, while women themselves organised and battled for equal pay, it was never just a “women’s” campaign; it was supported by local PSA sections and by the national executive, men and women, and was won through the strength and unity of the PSA. Men who wished to attend were welcome at the meetings called by women’s committees, and many men worked hard to achieve equal pay.

The campaign had a unifying effect too between the more progressive elements and the more right-wing ones, as members from both camps worked together on it. It was seen as a matter of trade union principle — that women and men had equal rights and that those had to be recognised in practice, and that it was a danger to all, that “cheap labour” should be available to undermine the rate for the job.


THis article first appeared in the PSA Journal in March 1982

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