MASTERMAN-SMITH, Helen & COTTLE, Drew
University of Western Sydney
“Nobody Knew She Was There”: 1Everyday life in Campbelltown and the Political Struggles of Working Class
The mundane experiences of daily life are not often thought of in terms of social resistance. Homes,
neighbourhoods and communities rarely figure as sites of political importance. For many working class
women these are the central stages upon which they struggle for independent and dignified livelihoods and the
creation of a just and equal society. Though Marxist theory positions ‘the working class’ as the historical
agents for achieving these social outcomes, Australian political research has been preoccupied with the
activities of organised labour and parliamentarism. This over-emphasis has contributed to the invisibility of
working class women’s everyday political struggles and their broader significance. The growth in ‘community
unionism’ reflects resistance strategies that bridge the artificial divisions between the formal and informal
political struggles of diverse sections of the working class and its allies. These developments are considered
through current research involving case studies with working class women from Campbelltown on Sydney’s
outer south-western fringe.
The lack of spectacle and stridency in the struggles of everyday working class life have contributed to the scholarly
neglect of working class women’s politics, as have assumptions of their general apathy, passivity and conservatism.
These stereotypes have stemmed from a very narrow political definition and focus that revolves around the activities
of the better resourced, organised and structured political actors and institutions. Viewed through the eyes of
women who have not benefited from the triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy, the arenas and nature of their
struggles encompass a much wider political terrain. This study is a political view ‘from below’, drawing on the oral
testimonies of working class women from contemporary Campbelltown, also the home and workplace of the
In many ways Campbelltown has been a dumping ground for capitalism’s human waste – out of sight, out of
mind. Many working class families found their way to Campbelltown because of the relatively cheaper cost of
living compared to other parts of Sydney. However, the lower costs come at a price – high unemployment,
inadequate local employment, longer distances to work, inadequate public transport facilities, poorer educational
and health resources, higher reported levels of pollution, crime and violence (for example Moroz and Weber, 1999,
31-33; Weber, 1999, 1-2). Understandably none of the women discussed below like living in Campbelltown very
much, still they resent stereotypical views of the area and its residents, which they largely attribute to the class
snobbery of outsiders who see poverty and hardship as the hallmarks of the ignorant and the uncivilised. Some are
interested in portraying Campbelltown as a city that has left its social baggage behind, a secure place to invest and
live in (Webber, 1999a, 1-2). There are certainly the middle classes - professionals and executives who have
mainly confined themselves to the district’s heights in the premier suburbs of Glen Alpine, Denham Court and, most
recently, the area’s first gated community at Macquarie Links (ABS, 1991, 62). Though as one woman interviewee
remarked, “I don’t ever seem to see them when I’m doing the shopping.” Nor is she likely to, given that the
increasingly upmarket Macarthur Square and the highway exits are accessible from those suburbs without ever
passing through a housing commission district. The view from the ground suggests a worsening crisis being
suppressed by increased expenditure on private security, state surveillance and police (Chronicle, 1999, 23).
Indeed, at a time when national employment figures have been officially improving, the jobless rate in
Campbelltown has worsened (Hutchings, 1999, 14). The women presented here, are not celebrating the increased
class diversity of the area, they are too busy battling financial and personal insecurity in an increasingly hostile and
desperate social environment, splintered and often turning in on itself as a consequence (Webber, 1999b, 1-2).
What kind of politics are we likely to see emanating from such a place? These kinds of conditions might for
many signal a fear, or a hope, of social upheaval and transformation. The local conditions of existence for a
sizeable section of the population would certainly suggest that many have an objective interest in altering the
economic and political systems, yet there is scant mention of industrial disputes, battles with police, demonstrations
or the like. On any evening of the week from a Minto backyard, it is possible to pick out the police helicopter from
its beaming spotlights as it does the housing commission rounds. In Airds, the Reiby Juvenile Justice Centre, with
its high barbed wire fencing, sits directly opposite the public high school in the middle of the suburb, so that it is
impossible to leave or enter by one of only two access roads, without passing it. Campbelltown’s main street has
recently been completely ‘upgraded’ because local businesses were living in fear of a crime wave. Public spaces
where young people used to congregate are being progressively closed off. All highway overpasses between
Liverpool and Campbelltown are now boxed in with wire cages to prevent rocks being thrown on the passing traffic
below. Far from leading to a unified uprising of the unwashed masses, poverty has had the opposite effect of
tearing the working class community apart as they fight over the scraps that the welfare state graciously bestows
upon them. Meanwhile special squads of motorcycle police blitz the area to prevent too crackdown on the
skyrocketing crime rates (Moroz, 1999a, 1; Moroz, 1999b, 1, 8; Macarthur Advertiser, 1999a, 11; 1999b, 9-10).
The aim here is not to portray an unnecessarily bleak view of the Campbelltown social landscape, but to convey
some sense of the conditions of existence for local working class women in striking contrast to more affluent
suburbs. Campbell drew similar conclusions following the 1980s depression in England:
Now, as then [the 1930s], the compass of consensus quivers and makes a dash
for the Right. Economic and political crisis, the attacks on the working class
and its expulsion from the political stage, incites inquiry. Its absence from
politics excites ruling-class fears of riotous rebellion and confounds its allies’
belief that suffering is the agent of revolution. Then, as now, the obvious
lesson is that socialist will in England is ignited not by misery but by buoyancy,
not pessimism but optimism (1984, 2).
The working class in Campbelltown have been largely left to their own devices by the organisations that have
purported to defend them in the past. Getting through everyday life dominates the thoughts and energies of most,
while they feign deference or complicity with the state agencies or bosses on whom they depend for their daily
bread. The working class in Campbelltown are not simply victims, they are active agents struggling without much
outside assistance to overcome enormous adversity. The politics of everyday life then, is too a large extent, a
politics of personal and class resistance and survival.
Case Studies of Working Class Women
The following section looks at the lives of four very different women who have struggled to make the best of life
within this suburban landscape; a married mother in her forties from Chile, a gay Anglo-Saxon couple in their early
forties, and a single Anglo-Saxon student in her mid-twenties. Despite the worlds of difference between these
women in terms of age, ethnicity, sexuality and marital status, much of their material and social suffering relates to
their shared class position (Bourdieu, 1999, 4). Following Thompson, class is understood here as a structured
process and relationship grounded in life experiences and, as such, draws upon both objective and subjective
standpoints (Wood, 1995, 93-100). The sketches presented here do not pretend to speak for all working class
women. They are examples of the unrelenting determination with which women, on the lower rungs of the social
ladder, wage a hidden daily battle against inequality and injustice at a personal and social level.
Throughout her life Gina’s political battles have revolved around her dream of achieving independence - to break
free from the will of others.2 Simple matters such as clothing herself and children, having freedom of movement
and association have time and again hinged upon the graces of her economic patrons, be they parents, in-laws or her
husband. In Chile, Gina put herself and children through much hardship in order to get through night school to
become a computer operator, but just as she was about to graduate her husband decided he wanted to migrate to
Australia. Her own parents had been unable to aid her during the, often frustrating and miserable, early years of her
marriage, so she was faced with the choice of supporting her four children alone in Chile or risking a new life in
Australia where there was at least government help if things went badly. Gina was introduced to Australian society
in the late 1970s through the Villawood reception centre, yet another place of regimentation and physical
discomfort, but also of camaraderie and a break from domestic duties. While they searched for housing and work,
Gina clung tightly to her vision of an autonomous future in her new country.
Gina and her family were eventually accommodated in public housing in the Campbelltown suburb of
Airds, which they chose over the Mt Druitt alternative because of access to Catholic schools. Gina’s family was
one of over 600 South American families to arrive in Campbelltown before 1985, the majority coming from the
politically turbulent Chile (ABS, 1996, X06). Their early years in Airds were among Gina’s happiest times due to
the strong neighbourhood ties amongst the pioneering families, the increased cooperation with her husband and,
most importantly, her first opportunity since being married to earn an independent living and gain some control over
her own affairs.
Gina has grown to despise politics from her experiences of the turmoil in Chile where her husband was
involved with right-wing liberals. Though she had no time for the right, she had even less for what she saw as the
dictatorial ways of the communists:
…the left worry more about controlling the country, the people … they’re the
bosses and you do whatever they want … they try to keep everybody the same,
but there were no choices …
For Gina, politics is not really about the left or the right, but about creating a more just world where poverty and
domination have no place. When they moved to Campbelltown she was disappointed that her husband became
involved in local council politics. Much as Gina had feared, it was not long before they found themselves being
used for their connections to the South American community. She remembers hosting regular barbecues at their
family home on behalf of the mayor who
…asked them to invite South American people from Campbelltown … to get
the votes … [the politicians] hang around, they’re drinking …then you see them
in the street and they don’t know you … [the mayor] used to get angry because
we had too many Australian people … he wanted to brainwash the South
Americans who new nothing about it…
Gina’s has refused to enrol to vote in protest at the manipulative tactics of politicians generally and their universal
failure to act in the interests of working people. As she said, you don’t have the option of voting for a party that
really stands for a democratic society where “everybody’s equal … a party that would work more for the poor.”
Gina’s critical evaluation of the political process in capitalist democracies is as much concerned with the
pragmatism and misguided priorities as the lack of social vision. In her opinion, “the more important things in your
home, should be the more important things in your country,” by which she means the social system requires
changing, especially in the areas of education and health, so that future generations will not have to face the same
kind of hardships that working class people currently endure. In reality then, her anti-political stance is highly
political and complex; her disdain for, and abstinence from, organised political arenas represents an act of
intentional resistance to the farce of democracy where no genuine choice actually exists.
In Gina’s vision of a democratic society, economic and political freedoms are intricately connected, in that
she believes everyone should be able to live decently and with dignity without having to rely on anyone, husband or
government, for their survival. Though Gina worked in a fairly menial blue-collar job and had occasion to strike
against management while she was there, the social fraternity and relative personal freedom it offered her, were
invaluable to her self-esteem, not to mention the family’s financial position. Thus, when Gina was forced to resign
from her clothes packing job after developing a repetitive strain injury (RSI), her subsequent confinement to the
home and return to economic dependency seemed more debilitating than the pain she continues to endure:
…It’s like I lost everything ... I lost my job, I lost my independence, I lost my
work, I lost my car … I’m nothing again … I lost contact with people … I
didn’t want to visit anybody … have friends … see anybody. I was very, very
In addition, the insurance company had subjected her to intense video surveillance for several years and a
demeaning and frustrating round of visits to doctors and psychologists miles from her home. She recalled:
I used to go to all these so-called doctors. I hate doctors so much! … I’d go to
work and the letter they sent said ‘there’s nothing wrong with this lady, just put
her on normal duties’ … that went on for years … [One] even apologised, ‘ I’m
sorry I had to do this … I can’t go on your side … I’m working for the
insurance’ … it was just unbelievable.
Gina eventually succumbed to the insurance company’s tactics of intimidation and personal denigration and settled
for a very small compensation payout. Even though colleagues and representatives from the Storemen and Packers
Union encouraged her to fight on, most of her energies were absorbed in copying with the restraints of the physical
and emotional pain directly resulting from her injury and loss of livelihood. Unlike previous obstacles that she
could gradually chip away at, the breakdown of her body at such a young age, impaired her ability to control even
her own labour so that housework, gardening, shopping, driving and personal care became incredibly difficult.
That Gina refused to be defeated by the heartache and anger that weighed her down for many ensuing years, testifies
to the underlying strength of her conviction to contribute to a better world.
Ever propelled by her desire for autonomy, Gina eventually sought to break her domestic economic shackles
and began exploring options to get back into the workforce. She experienced great frustration with the bureaucratic
insensitivities of the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service after retraining for various working class jobs that her
disability prevented her from physically performing. In the end she found her own way into a subsidised TAFE
welfare course that posed no physical barriers to her while also providing an arena to explore many of her own
experiences within a broader social framework. While the course has been very rewarding on a personal level, her
studies have not led to paid employment, a prospect made even harder as an increasing proportion of local welfare
services are carried out by non-profit, charitable and religiously affiliated agencies. Instead, Gina has been caught
up in the growing voluntary economy which has subsidised that privatisation process. She works one day a week
for a St Vincent de Paul service in the hope that her volunteer work will increase her skills and the prospects of a
paid job in the future. Gina has confronted the agency management over its manipulation of the large pools of
locally unemployed people to get free labour, in the belief that if it is work worth doing, it should be duly
recompensed. For now, Gina holds on to her dreams of independence, though as a result of her harrowing
experiences, she has the added vision of working with the poor and unemployed to help them make do and achieve
independent lives, as she has tried to do herself all her life.
Gina’s story, in many senses, is about a life of resistance - against being told what to do, being forced into
limited choices and actions, being paid less than her labours are worth, being brainwashed by people with access to
official knowledge without any real understanding, being manipulated by the vested interests of middle class
professionals and career politicians. Far from the stereotypes of being conservative or apathetic, Gina’s experiences
of everyday life have involved an ongoing battle against the coercive elements that reproduce the class structure
pinning her down and standing in the way of her personal and social dreams. The fact that she has been given little
alternative but to wage these struggles alone should not be seen as a poor reflection on Gina’s political
consciousness or activism, but on the continuing failure of working class organisations to reach out to working class
women in any meaningful way.
Heather and Jackie
As a gay couple, Heather and Jackie’s childless lives have permitted them more time, energy and resources to
pursue interests beyond the home front, than most working class women have been able to enjoy.3 Still, their
working class educational and cultural backgrounds have made it difficult for them to escape economic
vulnerability, which has in turn continually regulated the extent of their wider social commitments. Like all of the
women interviewed for the broader research project, they have demonstrated a thirst for new knowledge, particularly
of the social world, as an integral aspect of their bid for greater financial security and control over their own
destinies. Though both women have completed university degrees that have enabled them to enter white-collar
social service employment, constant engagement with the social sufferings of impoverished communities wreaks its
own toll on the human spirit, and all the while working conditions grow more demanding and precarious. Heather
and Jackie have not bought into the patronising and authoritarian models of welfare delivery partly because they
have at numerous times been on the receiving end of this highly degrading system. They seek instead to work with,
rather than against or for, those paying the highest price so that a few may enjoy a life of affluence. To that end,
they share in the small practices of working class resistance such as buying clothes at local op-shops, recycling
furniture and buying bulk goods with friends, growing vegies where they find the space, and boycotting genetically
engineered food. Heather and Jackie are motivated by the hope of an alternative, more humane and ecologically
sound society; this is a goal they consciously work towards on a daily basis in the belief that social change is not
only about structures, systems and parties, but also about doing things differently in everyday life.
Heather and Jackie’s decision to rent a house in the Campbelltown suburb of Minto in the mid-1990s was
in part a practical decision to be closer to work and reduce their living expenses, but it also enabled them to become
active in the formal and informal worlds of local politics. They quickly found themselves involved in electoral
campaigns for the ALP and the Greens as well as the formation of a local sub-branch of the Australian Services
Union in the wake of deteriorating industrial conditions resulting from casualisation and privatisation. Their
increasingly peripheral and informal contact with these political organisations over time, reflect their awareness of
the limited support hierarchical structures could offer economically marginalised communities. From their various
positions within the state welfare apparatus and their own dealings with unions and parties, Heather and Jackie have
grown wary of the cronyism, complacency and abuse of power those kinds of organisations often breed, with the
various effects of ignoring, hindering or co-opting social initiatives stemming from below.
In their experience, Heather and Jackie found the Campbelltown welfare and community sector to be
comparatively conservative and unorganised. When they attended a local working class feminist forum with high
hopes of building activist networks with women from the community, the predominance of professionals in
attendance confirmed their concerns about the lack of grass-roots political organisation and education in the area.
With several others, they arranged an informal women’s group with the intention of providing an arena for working
class women to meet and discuss social and political issues of concern to them. The meetings quickly grew in size
through word of mouth and some women were keen to organise small-scale community campaigns around issues
such as inadequate public transport and unemployment. Heather and Jackie used their networks of associations to
plan small-scale neighbourhood schemes. They introduced strategies for collective self-sufficiency through
community gardening, permaculture farms and food cooperatives, ideas they had personally explored as methods to
cope with poverty and insecurity themselves at various times. Similar to Campbell’s observations of working
class women in England, Heather and Jackie were acting in “the working-class tradition of militant self-help …
[incorporating] new skills, new control and a new way of life with each other” (Campbell, 1984, 203). A major
difficulty with this kind of autonomous community activity was that the practical organisation of venues,
transportation, resources, times and notifications, tended to fall heavily to those with the least family burdens,
women like Heather and Jackie. When those coordinators inevitably encountered personal hardships, the entire
operation was jeopardised. Heather and Jackie’s efforts to build fortifying links between the various arenas of
struggle they were involved in were to no avail as the narrow social agendas of the formal organisations did not
extend to the support of, or democratic alliance with, grass-roots groups and their initiatives. Consequently, when
they were compelled to leave the resources of paid employment, the community-based projects began to crumble for
lack of any structure to ensure their continuity beyond the capacities of key participants.
During this time both women experienced serious deterioration in their physical health, partly from the
emotional stress of work as well as the resurfacing of struggles around their own histories of childhood abuse. As
the situation snowballed, Heather felt pushed to quit her job because of obstructive management policies and
harassment over sick leave, which she felt were ruses for their homophobia. Jackie had been unemployed during
this time and was putting herself through expensive re-training in remedial massage, so that she could get out of the
welfare sector. On resigning, Heather decided to do the same through a TAFE course in commercial cooking, and
the couple hoped they might eventually leave wage labour, the rent trap and their urban allergies behind, for a life of
rural self-sufficiency and occasional self-employment. While leaving the workforce was a necessary aspect of their
escape route to long term personal well-being, it also meant severing access to many personal and organisational
resources and support networks they had developed. Despite their fluctuating economic fortunes, the social
revolution they practice in their everyday lives remains a constant fall back position from which they can muster
their resources to begin anew under better circumstances.
Now in her mid-twenties, Robyn has lived most of her life close to family in the Campbelltown area. 4 She
remembers feelings of intimidation, insecurity and displacement as a child in the public housing neighbourhoods of
Airds. No doubt influenced by her early exposure to the attitudes and struggles of rank and file unionists within her
family, Robyn aspired to a job where she could help create a society that did not compel people to live in such alien
environments. From a young age she planned to get a university education, though she did not anticipate the effects
that class background would have on her experience of it:
… it just was so hard to grasp the concepts … I had a very short concentration
span … found it difficult to write an essay, to research anything … I didn’t
know how to use a computer … it really scared me. …people my own age …
seemed to have been in contact with the types of books that I’d never been in
contact with before, like the classics … that was never really part of my life
growing up … it was a whole new culture. … my parents could only afford
something between ten and twenty dollars a week and I was having difficulty
with the train fare let alone textbooks… The woman that I was living with
taught me how to shop with that money. You buy a lot of mince … a lot of
vegies and you make stews … before she taught me how to do that - weetbix,
water, milk, coffee … I’d drink a lot of coffee to stem the hunger…
In an area already saturated with young job seekers, Robyn found it difficult to obtain part-time work to alleviate her
situation, and so the material and emotional support of family and friends were vital in her struggles to overcome the
many economic and cultural barriers she encountered while trying to complete her arts degree. Nonetheless she
discovered new ideas and ways of seeing the world and the position of herself and family within it, particularly
through studies in history and politics that enabled her to articulate her instinctive contempt for injustice. Her
outrage at the abuse of power by people in positions of authority within the university system and society generally
prompted Robyn to run for the student council, which eventually led her into the National Union of Students as a
full time public education activist. Though student politics enabled Robyn to greatly expanded her political
knowledge, develop many practical skills and experience the vitality of political solidarity, it also left her extremely
burnt out and somewhat disenchanted with the hierarchies, pragmatism, factionalism, elitism and sexism of
institutionalised politics. For Robyn the ultimate measure lay in the organisation’s failure to improve the prospects
for social equality by enhancing the access and quality of the higher education system for working class people.
When Robyn left university and tried to enter the ‘real world’ of paid employment she found that, as the
child of mere rank and file union members and party supporters from the politically remote suburbs of
Campbelltown, she was not well enough connected to secure work in any of her areas of interests:
…it was devastating … I thought, what was all that uni for, why can’t I get a
job, why aren’t people employing me … with the unions it was … the whole
factional type stuff, not what you know, who you know … and with the
government welfare type areas … I didn’t have a social work or social welfare
Though she could not find a position among the ranks of the organised labour movement, there were plenty who
were more than willing to use her time, energy and networks for nothing.
Robyn took up the voluntary ‘job’ of campaign director for a local Labor candidate in the 1998 federal
election, in the hope of gaining the experience and connections to secure employment in the future. She did not
expect the huge demands that would be placed on her unpaid labour and the prejudices she would encounter. She
recalls being worked into the ground for six months with responsibilities for
… campaign strategy to promotional materials … mail outs and door-knocking
… I got in and did everything … I was inexperienced in that role and I was a
young woman … [it was] really hard for me to get my ideas heard and for me to
be taken seriously … [the hours were] dreadful, I don’t think there were any
hours, just always … it would’ve been a twenty-four hour thing …early
mornings, late nights…
That Robyn was approached at all to manage the campaign of a relatively unknown left-wing candidate against a
strong Liberal opponent, indicated the ALPs relative disinterest in the electorate. She called upon her own network
of friends, relatives and colleagues to help with direct party work including information distribution, fundraisers and
media stunts. Robyn’s ‘availability’ for this work also hinged upon the help of predominantly female family and
friends in the provision of housing, food, transport, and emotional support. Robyn’s participation served as a nexus
around which the resources of local people without any direct connection to the Party could be harnessed, and the
efforts of these invisible women and men contributed to an unexpected swing of over five percent to Labor, one of
the largest in the state. Robyn and her personal associates sought to challenge the Liberal Party’s antipathy and
antagonism towards working class people and the dismissive attitude of the central organisation that was supposed
to represent them in the form of the ALP. Their collective efforts to those ends point to a submerged world of
informal political resistance motivated by a desire to improve life of working class communities.
For Robyn’s six months service to the Party she was “rewarded” with a six month clerical/campaign job, as
if she was being done the favour. Typically, this did not lead on to further political work but to very tedious and
demeaning clerical work with Colonial Mutual. Within six months Robyn decided full-time wages were not worth
her sanity or self-respect and she instead re-entered university to complete a Diploma of Education and qualify as a
high school teacher. This was also a political decision in that she saw it as a path back into the education system as
an arena of struggle. To Robyn teaching is just “another form of activism” through which to pursue social justice,
though importantly and unlike her previous political involvement, it will enable her to be active at a grass roots
level, “to get involved in a local community somewhere…” It was the lack of any genuine connection to local
struggles within working class communities that had been missing from her student politics days and that had been
neglected by the ALP hierarchy. Despite her years of education and activism, Robyn had witnessed and experienced
the difficulty of penetrating the structures of the organised labour movement and of being taken seriously as a young
woman of the left within it. How much harder would it be for those without the opportunities and minimal familial
responsibilities she had?
The Politics of Resistance in Everyday Life
These brief portraits convey just a glimpse of the many strategies working class women employ in their unending
struggle to survive on a daily basis. Irrespective of whether their more mundane efforts find common expression or
manage to connect with organised political structures, their commonplace resistance to poverty and subordination
carries on eternal. Where the possibility to openly challenge oppressive conditions are not forthcoming or too risky
there is a sense of living to fight another day. Gina’s acceptance of a low compensation payment, Heather’s
resignation from work, Robyn’s return to university, were all about regrouping and recuperating from arduous
experiences, so that they might strengthen their position for future struggles. Scott’s observations of ‘normal’
resistance within peasant societies carries equal weight in this contemporary suburban context: “the goal of the great
bulk … of resistance is not directly to overthrow or transform a system of domination but rather to survive – today,
this week, this season – within it” (1985, 301). In this sense, looking after yourself and kin is integral to the
life-long process of resistance, though when equipped with very limited material and emotional resources this often
amounts, as Hobsbawm noted, to simply “working the system to their minimum disadvantage” (cited in Scott, 1985,
Few working class women have access to the means of organising collective political resistance on their own
terms. The collapse of Heather and Jackie’s various grass roots activities testified to the difficulty of maintaining
such projects when they rely solely on personal resources. Robyn had similar regrets about several small initiatives
in which she was involved with a local women’s group and a youth club that were respectively uninterested in, or
unable to gain, local government support: “…I can’t even remember how [they] ended, but they all seem to end…”
Nevertheless, many women are limited to struggling within the largely unorganised arenas of the home and
community because of their exclusion from unionised sections of the labour market and the demands of domestic
life upon their time and energy. Women employees in Campbelltown are concentrated in unorganised sectors of
the workforce; they are focussed in small to medium sized private businesses, often in casual or part-time retail and
clerical positions, or in similar roles in the health and community services industries (ABS, 1996, X20, X23, X24).
Indeed many of the poorest groups in Australian society are disproportionately represented in Campbelltown
because of the massive public housing developments in the area and the relatively cheaper private housing costs.
While most traditional working class political organisations have been reluctant to expand their agendas or share
their resources to any significant extent with the unorganised, they have displayed a parasitic tendency at times to
manipulate and exploit the networks and skills working class women depend upon for material and emotional
survival, as all three women’s stories demonstrate.
Australian history is littered with examples of working class women’s political activism though, with few
exceptions, these studies have tended to centre around industry or the electoral process more than any other arena of
struggle (for example Bevege, James and Shute, 1982; Bryson and Wearing, 1985; Bloodworth and O’Lincoln,
1998). This focus has precluded extensive investigation of the political experiences of perhaps the majority of
working class women isolated from formal employment and institutional politics by unemployment, age, geography,
disability or illness, family status, educational disadvantage or discrimination. The Union of Australian Women
was one of the rare organisations explicitly concerned with the welfare of working class women in all facets of their
lives. The UAW had strong support from the Communist Party of Australia and several left wing unions which was
crucial to its survival in terms of the skills and resources communist and unionist women brought to the organisation
(Curthoys and McDonald, 1996). Nevertheless, its overall membership and activities extended far beyond these
political fronts into suburban neighbourhoods and communities, where they campaigned on many issues including:
equal pay, inflation, unemployment, peace issues, indigenous rights, environmental issues, housing and transport,
aged care and children’s rights. The UAW was unique in its ability to organise working women and housewives
into a fighting union, an achievement largely attributable to its ability to connect personal and social struggles within
industry and the community, and at local, national and international levels.
For some time an artificial, and in many ways gendered, division between working class labour and
community politics has existed, to their mutual disadvantage at a time when union membership is declining and
communities are being fragmented and starved of the resources for collective action on local issues. Fortunately,
increasing efforts are being directed towards approaches which explicitly emphasise the interconnection between the
two spheres involving the acknowledgement of the home, neighbourhood and community as equally important sites
of class struggle. Often referred to as “community unionism”, this type of working class political coalition building
is not without precedence as the history of the Builders Labourers Federation and the recent experiences of the
Maritime Union of Australia, for example, demonstrate. In Western Australia, for example, the
…unions and the Trades and Labour Council have fought three waves of State
anti-union laws. They have developed what they call “community unionism”
with training programs on how to conduct peaceful actions, handle police
methods and avoid unnecessary violence” (Pha, 1998).
In the United States, about a quarter of the Central Labor Councils (CLC) of the AFL-CIO have been “…actively
engaged in organizing, not just at work sites but in communities as well … [they are creating] the local structure for
building a social justice movement” (Gapasin and Yates, 1998, 80-81). As Gapasin and Yates point out, however,
these efforts are still very much a “revolution from above”, and the AFL-CIO has been long on praise for militant
local organisations such as Jobs for Justice and Black Workers for Justice, but rather short of financial or material
support (1998, 82). It remains to be seen whether these ideas get beyond mere lip service by eroding the old
antagonisms, the sexism, racism and exclusionary practices many working class organisations have perpetuated in
The potential strength of a more coordinated approach to forging alliances between unions and community
groups, students and workers, the employed and the unemployed, black and white, working class women and men
has been highlighted by recent labour history research. Faue, for example, stresses the significance of enabling
working class women to participate in the political process:
Collectively, these local studies argue for the important role of working class
women in creating and sustaining the material and affective bonds of
community and the evolution of class and community solidarities. How well
working class women were incorporated into the class politics of these small
communities had an important impact on the success or failure of class politics
and the possibility of sustaining working class interests in the wider community.
… Where women were excluded, the politics of class suffered … where women
were incorporated in labour organisation, however they often succeeded where
men failed… (2000).
Though the case studies presented above are set within a contemporary urban location, similar conclusions can be
drawn about the importance of working class women everyday struggles. Organised labour will continue to limp
along while ever working class women and other marginalised groups remain semi-starved of the resources to
organise. In the meantime they struggle to sustain themselves and intensify their resistance whenever an
opportunity presents itself, and look forward to a time when organised sections of the working class are prepared to
enter into an equal alliance with them to end oppressive social relations and create a better future for their children.
An important aspect of working class politics today concerns the division that has opened up between different
forms of resistance, particularly between labour and community based struggles – an unnecessary antagonism that
continues to denigrate the value of localised and everyday activities and, in so doing, undermines the political
strength and possibilities of the working class as a whole. As Scott noted, everyday resistances are “the stubborn
bedrock upon which other forms of resistance may grow” (1985, 273).
Taken from the title of a Ewan McColl folk song about the invisible labours of a working class woman.
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