Muriel Heagney

Among a range of achievements fighting for wage equality, Muriel Heagney founded the Council of Action for Equal Pay in 1937.

Honour Roll

Muriel Heagney was born on 31 December 1885, in Brisbane into a Labor family. Her father, Patrick, was an early member of the Australian Workers' Union and wrote for the Australian Worker and the Bulletin. He moved his family to Melbourne in the late 1890s. In 1902, he founded the Richmond branch of the Political Labor Council and ran for the Legislative Assembly in the 1907 elections and also in a by-election for Mornington the following year. He was a councillor in Richmond from 1908-11.

Muriel received her education in a convent in Richmond before training as a primary school teacher. From 1906, she was a member of the Richmond branch of the Political Labour Council and was its delegate to the Women's Central Organising Committee in 1909. She attended the first Labor Women's Conference.

During World War I, she worked as a clerk in the Defence Department. As the only woman working there she received equal pay, for they had no provision for female employees. Her eldest brother had gone to war in 1914 and was killed at Gallipoli the following year. Muriel and her mother were active in anti-conscription campaigns despite objections from her employers. She asserted her right to engage in political activities.

Muriel's main endeavour was the struggle for equal pay. In 1919, she began work as an investigator for a Royal Commission established by Prime Minister Hughes to inquire into whether the basic wage was enough for a family to live on. She became the first woman to use official channels to fight for equal pay.

Muriel travelled around Australia gathering evidence and included the costs of fuel, haircuts, newspapers, fares and schooling alongside the basic needs of food, rent and clothing. The Commission recommended increases in the basic wage and child endowment. The findings were rejected by the Federal Arbitration Court and the government.

Muriel wrote a response, 'The Basic Wage Betrayal' which was circulated throughout Australia. In 1921, Muriel helped the unions prepare a case, which resulted in quarterly cost of living adjustments. Beginning in 1923, she travelled around Europe for two years, speaking at women and Labor meetings. On her return in 1926, she helped the Clothing Trades Union prepare evidence for their application for equal wages for both sexes.

She decided to do something for the growing number of unemployed people, especially women. With F.J. Riley from the Women's Trade Union Unemployment Committee, she wrote the Heagney Riley report of June 1930, hoping to jolt the government into action. The result was that with government finance she formed the Unemployed Girls' Relief Movement, a unique organisation based on self-help, co-operation and equality. Over the next two years it helped to assist and restore dignity to more than 10,000 women. Work centres were established where women were paid relief wages to make clothes which were then distributed to the unemployed. While she worked there as organising secretary, Muriel received the same wages as the women who attended. A change of government in 1932 meant the project was abandoned and relief fell back on the charities.

With few jobs to go around there was growing resentment of employment of women. As they were 'cheap labour' some men felt they were taking their jobs, which prompted Muriel to respond with a book, Are Women Taking Men's Jobs? (1935). She argued that all people should have job opportunities and that women should have equal pay.

In 1937, she co-founded the Council of Action for Equal Pay in Sydney. She served as its chair, president, secretary and treasurer at various times during its ten year existence. In 1938, it successfully lobbied the ACTU Congress which finally recognised that women should receive equal pay. In 1937 and again in 1949, she served as a witness in basic wage hearings before the Arbitration Court. In 1941, Muriel attended the International Labor Organisation conference in New York. Throughout this period Muriel actually held a job as a travel organiser with the Queensland Tourist Bureau.

During World War II women were needed to work, particularly in 'male' jobs, and the issue of pay became heated. Ultimately, a tiny percentage of women received the full rate, while others were awarded 75-90% of the male rate. Muriel was bitterly disappointed that women, whose efforts were crucial to the war effort, were once again being treated like second class citizens. From 1943-47 she worked as an organiser for the Amalgamated Engineering Union, Muriel's last job within the labour movement.

In 1949, Muriel argued for an equal basic wage for men and women in the Basic Wage Case however, as women's wages were now at 75% the unions had lost interest in the cause. It would be twenty years before the unions would again put a case forward for equal pay. In 1950, Muriel retired to Melbourne due to ill health. She published Arbitration at the Crossroads (1954), which expressed her belief that the arbitration system was expensive and undemocratic and that it had failed to improve labour conditions.

On 14 May 1974, Muriel died in poverty at St Kilda, a week after the National Wage Case decision granted women an adult minimum wage. Unfortunately, the wider population remained ignorant of her achievements.