Page 1: Union issues
Davies, Sonja Margaret Loveday
Nurse, labour activist, women’s rights activist, politician, peace campaigner
This biography, written by Anne Else, first published online in 2010.
Charlie’s serious heart attack in 1969 had meant that at age 45, Sonja Davies needed to re-enter full-time paid work. Unable to find a job in Nelson, she became the first Hawke’s Bay organiser for the Food Processing Union and Clerical Workers Union. By then women made up around 30% of the labour force, but at her first Federation of Labour conference that year, Davies was one of only seven women delegates.
After Charlie’s death in Napier on 2 November 1971, Sonja moved with her son Mark to work for the Public Service Association in Wellington. She then helped Graham Kelly rebuild the moribund Wellington Shop Employees’ Union. Despite a mainly female membership, it had only one woman on its executive. A strike by women meatpackers in support of the Equal Pay Act 1972 proved that women could be strong in industrial conflict.
Mark Davies was working on the Tūrangi hydroelectric tunnel project. Sonja Davies endured the worst blow of her life when he died in an accident there on 18 February 1978, aged 20. Finding the courage to carry on, she became the first woman to win a seat on the Federation of Labour executive, but she was ‘fed up with being the token woman on so many bodies’.1
Working Women’s Charter
That year, Davies’s union introduced the 16-point Working Women’s Charter, instigated by Davies and finalised at the 1977 Working Women’s Convention she had convened. After a nationwide round of discussions, both the Federation of Labour and the Labour Party adopted the charter in 1980, despite attacks and threats by conservatives and anti-abortionists.
Davies also convened a network of union committees to advance and promote the charter’s ideals. However, the fledgling Working Women’s Council, having lost its promised funding when National won the 1975 election, proved unable to survive.