GEELONG, AUSTRALIA — JENNIE GEORGE, president-elect of Australia's trade union movement, is about to become the most prominent woman in Australian public life. She remembers well her first meeting as a member of the executive board of the Australian Council of Trade Unions in 1983.
"There were 38 men and me, the first woman ever," said Ms. George in an interview. "The president closed the meeting by saying: 'Gentlemen, we have come to the end of our agenda.'"
"I said: 'Mr. president, I am not a gentleman.'
"He answered: 'Now that you've drawn my attention to it, I'd be hard pressed to name a gentleman in the lot.'"
ACTU secretary Bill Kelty told ACTU delegates at their annual meeting in September: "When Jennie became the first woman on the ACTU executive, it was a pretty old-fashioned male chauvinist show. Jennie changed it."
George's appointment comes at a time when Australian women are making unprecedented gains in education and in the work force, but they are losing ground in the nation's boardrooms and only meagerly represented in top government positions.
"The expanding role and influence of women is the most influential feature of late 20th century Australian society," W. Frank Blount, chief executive officer of Telstra corporation, Australia's telecommunications giant and the nation's largest employer, said in a recent speech.
"Yet it shows up, in the context of business management, as a decrease in the number and seniority of real women. There is something quite evidently wrong here," he added. A recent survey of Australia's largest companies showed the proportion of women senior managers declined from 2.5 percent to 1.3 percent since 1984.
The ACTU's need to regain its competitive edge was clearly on the minds of Australian trade-union leadership in giving George the nod to succeed President Martin Ferguson when he formally quits his post to run for federal office next year. Australian union membership has sharply declined, from 50 percent of the work force in 1990, to 40 percent in '92 and 35 percent in '95.
Australian labor history was written by strong men doing hard work in mines, mills, construction, and transport. The nation's de facto anthem, "Waltzing Matilda," was written during a bitter sheep-shearers strike in 1894.
Today's laborer is more likely to be a service worker, working in the public sector in small businesses employing fewer than 10 people. Over the past 20 years, male employment rose by 23 percent compared with female employment growth of 78 percent, according to Judith Sloan, director of Flinders University's National Institute of Labour Studies, writing in the daily "The Australian."
These are the workers George is targeting in a new recruitment drive that aims to extend the reach of the 2.4 million member ACTU into rural and service industries.
Articulate and straightforward, George gives no hint of being willing to settle for a seat at the margin. On Oct 17, she cut off all interstate air, sea, road, rail, and mail services to western Australia to protest what she called a "vicious and vindictive" anti-union legislation that the state's conservative leadership proposed. "This campaign demonstrates that unions mean business with conservative governments' industrial-relations policies, which are designed to disadvantage ordinary workers," she said in a statement announcing the 24-hour strike action.
George, who was in Geelong in the state of Victoria to launch a recruitment drive in August, insisted the demise of the labor movement was not inevitable. "Union officials need to start wearing down shoe leather, get out of their offices and knock on doors," she said. "We're in this campaign to take unions back to their members."
"We want to recruit 200,000 delegates nationwide," she added. "We want to build up a sense of pride in belonging to unions." As part of its recruitment drive, the ACTU is championing affirmative action for women, family care, a maternity allowance, and equal pay for equal work.
George is also emerging as a spokeswoman on industrial policy for the embattled Labor government, which faces national elections next year. A poll last month for the Bulletin news magazine showed more than a quarter of the party's blue-collar and clerical white-collar base has deserted it since 1983. The opposition conservative Coalition has a 4 percentage point edge over Labor incumbents.
Australian Labor Party (ALP) leaders argue that an opposition victory will undermine wages and working conditions for average workers. They cite Western Australia's proposed labor legislation, including restrictions on the right of union officials to enter the workplace and tough regulations on union political expenditures, as a shadow of national policies to come if Conservatives win next year's vote.
But George says labor's support for the ALP should not be taken for granted. "Workers are going to want assurances from the Labor Party that the protections that we have in the system will continue and that Labor will continue to govern in the interests of working people," she said at the ACTU conference in September.