chapter  11
Beating BHP
The Wollongong Jobs for Women Campaign 1980–1991
ByDiana Covell
Pages 19

In 1980, 34 unemployed Wollongong women, led by a few members of the then Socialist Workers Party, began a legal and political campaign in order to win jobs at BHP’s Port Kembla steelworks. Most of these women were migrants from non-English speaking European (especially Macedonian) and South American backgrounds. The campaign’s anti-discrimination test case, Najdovska and Others versus Australian Iron & Steel, was the first class action of its kind in Australia. It brought about changes to employment policies and practices and to occupational health and safety legislation. Following the successful outcome of the test case, negotiations began on behalf of 709 additional complainants in a representative action that was finally settled in 1994. In taking on BHP and its discriminatory hiring practices, the women challenged not only a major employer, but also the gendered division of labour fundamental to capitalist societies and prevailing ideas about femininity and masculinity that reflect and reinforce it. Drawing on oral history interviews with participants, this chapter discusses the non-violent, multicultural, direct participatory nature of political activism associated with this campaign and how Australian companies, unions and co-workers responded to the women’s actions and their presence on the job. Although this campaign came out of a leftwing (Trotskyist) activism, it challenged longstanding labour traditions, practices and attitudes towards women, and traditional assumptions of the industrial worker in the Australian context as a mostly white, English-speaking and muscular male.