Nurses and the fight for equal pay

The roll-back of women`s pay under John Howard`s IR laws is particularly galling, given the long and difficult battle for equal pay in which nurses were leaders.

Nurses were active in the early struggles for equal pay for women. In the 1940s, the NSW Nurses’ Association was affiliated to the United Associations (of Women).  The Association participated in the first Women’s Charter conference in 1943, organised by the great Jessie Street, an untiring champion of women’s rights. The Women’s Charter that emerged from this conference called for equal pay for men and women, with the issue of nurses’ pay being specifically mentioned.

The United Associations (of Women) were influential in gaining support for the early fight for equal pay, which culminated when NSW legislated for equal pay for work of the same or like nature.

This legislation was of no assistance to nurses who were excluded because it did not apply to work ‘essentially or usually performed by females’.

Nursing awards in NSW continued to contain male and female rates of pay, with female rates set at 78% of male rates. The disparity in pay continued until 1969 when the federal Arbitration Commission established a new principle of equal pay for work of equal value.

By this time there was an increasing level of resentment in the overwhelmingly female nursing workforce at what they saw as blatant sex discrimination. The NSWNA channelled that resentment into a campaign putting pressure on the State government to give NSW nurses equal pay.

That campaign was successful in 1971 when the Hospitals Commission made an offer to the Association for female nurses’ pay to be increased in two stages to equal the male rate by 1973.