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Spears, Betty Monica (1926–2012)

by Malcolm Brown

With Ged Kearney now president of the ACTU, the third woman to hold such a position, it might be said that the time of women in the trade union movement has well and truly come.

But it did not come easily, and the career of Betty Spears was one of perseverance in a long campaign to promote women, not only in the union movement but in the entire workforce, where they might have equal opportunity and equal pay.

The NSW Opposition Leader, John Robertson, said: ''Betty Spears was an icon and a trailblazer. Her contribution spanned the decades — including leadership roles within the Federated Clerks Union and the Labor Council of NSW to her relentless advocacy. When the women of NSW needed a fighter, Betty Spears never let them down.''

Betty Monica Spears was born in Sydney on March 14, 1926, the daughter of a railway guard, Jack Spears, and his wife, Mary (nee White). Educated at St Brigid's, Marrickville, she went to work in 1942 as a junior typist in the NSW Department of Labour and Industry. Unionism appealed to her. ''My father was a railway man who believed everyone had to join a union, and we always talked unionism at home,'' she said.

In 1952, she joined the Federated Clerks Union and became a clerical worker with the Bread Carters Union. In 1954, she joined the Dulwich Hill branch of the ALP and switched her employment to the Vehicle Builders Union, rising to the position of office manager. In 1956, Spears represented the FCU on the NSW Labor Council equal pay committee.

In 1958, she stood on the labour right-wing unity ticket in the FCU elections during the time of the great Labor split and was expelled from the party. She became a member of the FCU executive in 1959, then vice-president, and became a delegate to the NSW Labor Council. In 1968, she became a delegate to the FCU state council and to the ACTU congress. In November 1968, during National Equal Pay Week, she addressed public meetings. She spoke anywhere, including the park outside Central Station, and weathered the abuse of passers-by.

In 1972, she met delegates from the Shop Assistants Union in a ladies room and there they decided to push the national case for equal pay with the ALP. It was also decided that a working women's charter committee be started to work for equal pay, equal opportunity, child care, maternity leave, shift-work rights and the elimination of sexual harassment.

The movement for women attracted attention. In the five years from 1970, there was more than a 50 per cent rise in women's membership of unions. In 1974, Spears rejoined the ALP, became a member of its Clovelly branch and in 1975 a foundation member of the Women's Trade Union Commission. By now a delegate to the ACTU congress, Spears said the commission had an excellent chance of improving the status of women in the union movement. The commission was ''the best thing that's happened in the trade union movement because it has made men realise that they don't know enough about women's problems'', she said.

Interviewed by the Herald in 1976, Spears said that as far as becoming a member of the ACTU executive, ''I wouldn't stand the ghost of a chance of being chosen — even by my own union — as a candidate because, although I'm well liked and get on well with everyone, I still think they would think a woman couldn't represent them or that I couldn't win the ballot.''

Having a woman on the ACTU executive would be an advantage, she said, but it was important that a woman in that position be ''a unionist first and woman second … You've got to be in there and you've got to fight your way in and be part of the whole group. I would push women as much as I can but I believe that women should be in there to look after all issues.''

Made an OAM in 1979 and given a Labor Council Scroll of Honour, Spears was instrumental in 1984 in the charter committee's achievement of securing a grant from the federal and state governments to establish a long-day childcare centre for bus employees. That led to the establishment of the Betty Spears Child Care Centre at Tempe.

Betty Spears is survived by a nephew and several cousins.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 February 2012

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Spears, Betty Monica (1926–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/spears-betty-monica-14594/text25717, accessed 26 August 2019.

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