Equal-pay campaigner honoured

Equal-pay campaigner honoured
Jeff Atkinson

On the grass outside Trades Hall in Lygon St, Carlton, a bronze statue is about to be installed honouring the Carlton-born equal-pay campaigner Zelda D’Aprano.

Zelda is perhaps best known for having chained herself to the doors of the Commonwealth Building in Melbourne in 1969, in protest against an unsatisfactory decision on equal pay by the Commonwealth Arbitration Court.

Zelda was born in 1928 and grew up in a two-bedroom house in Carlton. The household was Orthodox Jewish, but when Zelda was still a child her mother joined the Communist Party (in later life Zelda did likewise). At 14 she left school and began working in factories to help support her family. At 16 she married Charlie D’Aprano and had a daughter by him when she was 17.

It was when working at these factory jobs that she first started to notice the inequalities that female workers faced, especially the difference in pay between men and women doing the same job. After her marriage ended in 1965, she began working as a clerk in the offices of the Australian Meat Industry Employees Union (AMIEU). Even here, in the offices of a labour union, she found that conditions for women workers were unfair.

At the time, the meat industry was being featured in an equal-pay case in the Commonwealth Arbitration Court. When in October 1969 the case failed, Zelda as a protest chained herself to the doors of the Commonwealth Building in Spring St. She was eventually cut free by the police, but the event drew enormous attention to the Equal Pay Campaign.

Ten days later, she and two other women, Alva Geikie and Thelma Solomon, chained themselves to the doors of the Arbitration Court building, the body that had dismissed the equal-pay case.

The next year, these three women founded the Women’s Action Committee, which aimed to have more women involved in activism. Among other things they travelled on public transport paying only 75 per cent of the fares, because women were only paid 75 per cent of the wage of men at the time. In 1972 the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission finally established the principle of “equal pay for work of equal value”.

In recognition of her work for equal-pay and equal rights for women workers, Zelda was in 2000 awarded an honorary law degree by Macquarie University. The following year she was inducted into the Victorian Honour Role of Women, and in 2004 was awarded the Order of Australia.

In her later years Zelda returned to live in Carlton, including in an aged care facility in Rathdowne St where she died in February 2018 aged 90. •

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