Anna Stewart - An Inspiration to Women Unionists
2014 Anna Stewart Officer, Heather Page, explains who Anna Stewart was and why she remains a source of inspiration
2014 Anna Stewart Program
My name is Heather Page. I was fortunate to be chosen as the Anna Stewart Memorial participant this year, which allowed me to spend a week in the AEU ACT office and to learn more about the role of the union and the work they do to support teachers and public education. Thank you to the ACT AEU office for allowing me this opportunity, welcoming me into their office and sharing their knowledge so willingly. I would also like to acknowledge the Directorate for their support of the Program.
During the Anna Stewart week I was able to speak with some inspirational people about the role of unions in social justice, human rights, education policy and funding for public education. I've gone back to my school with a stronger commitment to strengthening our Sub Branch and to promoting collectivism in our school .
Who was Anna Stewart?
Anna Stewart was involved in the Victorian Trade Union movement from 1947 until her death in 1983, aged 35. She campaigned for equal pay for women, the inclusion of maternity leave into awards, the removal of sexist language from industrial awards and for legislation against sexual harassment in the workplace. All these rights are commonplace now and are entrenched in law, but 30 plus years ago, they were controversial and threatening to many people. Anna worked with male dominated unions such as the Vehicle Builders Employee's Federation. She demonstrated the need for childcare by taking her youngest child to the Australian Arbitration Commission, seeking adjournments in order to breastfeed him. She was successful in winning salary increases for workers, award conditions related to sexual harassment and affirmative action policies within the union movement.
She was an incredibly brave woman who stood up for the rights and needs of working women in a male dominated workplace and her work has been recognised through the memorial program which has now been in place for 30 years.
However, and Anna, as any Trade Unionist would agree, she couldn't do this by herself. Anna was able to secure consensus decisions from her unions in support of her claims for working women. I think this is important and it's something that continues today. Anna had the overwhelming support of her union in everything she did. She represented industries which were dominated by male workers but they supported her in every industrial issue which impacted on women. Her claims were controversial in their time. In 1975 many people believed that mothers did not belong in the workforce, they should be at home looking after their children.
This is, I believe the great strength of unions: They will defend your right to a fair go even when it doesn't impact on them. Even if they don't agree with you, they'll defend your right to have a voice. They'll support your claim for maternity leave even though they're male workers in a car factory.
This message has impacted on the way I view my workplace. We have a strong union membership and since my return to school, we’ve had a couple of Sub Branch meetings and we’re strengthening the voice of our collective. Not because of anything I’ve done but because of the information I’ve passed on from my week with the AEU and from meetings like this one. I think we can take inspiration from Anna Stewart and people like her to stand up, even over issues that are not popular.
Our union gives us a voice in the workplace and when you exercise your right to a collective voice, people listen.