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Film Review: Women of Steel

Written by: Humphrey McQueen on December 2020


Women of Steel is little more than talking heads, but what heads and what talk! One of the women who struggled for work in BHP at Wollongong, Robynne Murphy directed the hour-long documentary.

She had been to Film School but, disappointed by its commercial bent, took her feminist and socialist principles down to the Gong. 

The struggle went through three phases between 1980 and 1997. The first was to get a job with BHP. The second was to have their years of discrimination admitted. The third was to be paid compensation. BHP appealed all the way to the High Court. And lost.

The victories confirm Norm Gallagher’s working principle: "You won’t get from the courts what you can’t hold at the gate".

Yet, how right Engels had been to point out that in a class society everything – eventually – must pass through one or other state apparatus.

How the women made use of state apparatuses proved significant in their wins. Yes, the state exists to organise capital and to disorganise labour. But in doing so, the state becomes yet one more site for those conflicts. 

Outcomes always depend on the relative strengths of the contending classes.

When this struggle opened, the organised labour movement across the country was in a fighting mood to push back against the Fraser government with its attacks on Medibank, use of the Trade Practices Act against secondary boycotts, and to export uranium.

Our class was particularly strong on the South Coast. Its Labour Council had Communist leadership. In 1980, militants knocked the Groupers off their perch in the local Federated Ironworkers. 

Unlike the women car-workers depicted in Made in Dagenham, the Wollongong women did not have to overcome a wall of opposition from male union officials. Women organisers in the clothing trades advised on how best to present the case for equal treatment at a time when BHP was sacking thousands of male workers.  

Despite the solidarity on the South Coast, the campaigners still needed a way to leverage BHP into negotiations.

Out of pressure from the women’s movement since 1970, the NSW Labor government under Wran set up the Anti-Discrimination Board in 1977. 

Another concession recently wrung out of the state was Legal Aid. Once again, the women had a long battle to get any.

Women of Steel is funded entirely out of donations from local organisations and more than 500 supporters. That was how they had kept the fight going for nearly 20 years. They extended the range of contacts at every opportunity. To win, the women knew they had to broaden and deepen their links throughout the local community.

Their organising strategy reminded me of White Riot, the 2019 documentary on Rock Against Racism (RAR) in Britain also in 1980. 

In their case, there was no state apparatus to turn to. On the contrary, the police at every level were on the side of the National Front. 

RAR won by sheer weight of the numbers who turned up at concerts throughout the UK.

The RAR organisers recognised that few if any of the teenagers following the National Front were dyed-n-the-wool fascists. Rather, they were resentful at how the economy had thrown their families on the scrap heap. They were looking for someone to blame. RAR used Punk to prize them away.

That approach culminated in a 100,000-plus march and open-air concert, headlined by a Black band, ‘Steel Pulse,’ supported by ‘The Clash.’

It’s far too easy to wrap up by saying there are lessons to learned from these films and out of the three struggles they portray.

The deforms inflicted on our class by successive Anti-labour Party governments have had a measure of success at disorganising our class. 

Only around 15 % of the total workforce are union members. Today, the average union member is a middle-aged woman in the service sector, often in government employ. 

The manufacturing sector now employs barely 7 percent of the workforce compared with some 30 percent in 1980. 

BHP is bigger than ever in BHP-Billiton, but is even less Australian than when it was owned locally. 

We can’t wish those conditions out of existence. 

The 50th anniversary of the O’Shea dispute in May 1969 brought out how much preparation over several years had gone into the spontaneous walk-outs once John Kerr sent Clarrie to prison. 

Women of Steel and White Riot affirm that we can win against the odds when we get beyond our comfort zones.


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