Story: Women’s labour organisations

Page 6. Unions, 1970s to 2000s

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Union organisation, 1970s and 1980s

A long-term effect of women’s increasing workforce participation was an increase in the number of women in unions, and unions’ interest in women’s issues. The clerical workers’ unions, the Distribution Workers’ Union, and the Nurses’ Association were all particularly active. A new union covering early childhood workers was set up in 1982. Individual unionists were also active, and by the end of the 1970s a women’s network was operating within the broader union movement.

Advisory groups

In the 1970s and 1980s women’s advisory groups and positions were set up within trade union organisations. The Wellington Trades Council’s Women’s Sub-committee (1979), and the Federation of Labour (1980), the Combined State Unions (1984) and women’s advisory councils were part of this development. The New Zealand Educational Institute, which represented primary school teachers and workers, set up a new position of women’s officer in 1988.

New Zealand Working Women’s Council, 1975

The New Zealand Working Women’s Council was set up in 1975 by labour activists with the slogan ‘Equality, Education, Action’. It held a working women’s convention in 1977, published a book on working women, and provided support for women working within unions. Promoting the Working Women’s Charter, particularly within the Labour Party and the trade union movement, was an important part of the council’s work.

Housewives Union


In the early 1970s the feminist slogan ‘all women are working women’ was taken to a logical conclusion with the formation of the Housewives Union. The new union’s concerns varied greatly from place to place: in Auckland it was family planning, in Wellington, childcare centres, in Gisborne, open drains. Other groups pushed for wages for housework. The unions had little known predecessors – housewives unions were set up from 1912 to the 1950s.


Working Women’s Charter

The Working Women’s Charter was sometimes called a ‘bill of rights’ for working women. It included the right to work, the elimination of discrimination, equal pay for work of equal value, and equal opportunity. One of the rights claimed was access to sex education, contraception and abortion. This, plus its focus on women as workers, provoked vigorous opposition from some conservative groups, including Feminists for Life, Save our Homes and the Catholic Women’s League.

Auckland Working Women’s Resource Centre, 1984

The Auckland Working Women’s Resource Centre was set up with the support of the Auckland Trades Council and its women’s sub-committee. The centre supported women unionists and workers, running courses in public speaking, showing health and safety videos in pubs, and sending community workers, local councillors and Human Rights Commission staff into workplaces to talk to women. Its staff set up information stalls around the Auckland region, publicising workplace issues.

Labour laws, 1990s

When the government passed the Employment Contracts Act 1991 (ECA) it ended nearly a century in which New Zealand’s labour law had strongly supported unions. Compulsory unionism and national wage agreements ended. Union membership dropped by about 50% in the first year after the act was passed.

Many unions either collapsed or amalgamated. Those with a scattered workforce, such as the clerical workers’ unions, found it particularly difficult. The increased workload that resulted from many single-site or employer agreements, rather than national awards, meant that many unions could no longer prioritise women’s equity issues.

Teachers’ representatives

By the 1990s the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) – the representative organisation for primary school teachers set up in 1883 – had a majority of women members. After the ECA was passed the Education Service Paraprofessional Association, which represented support staff (many of whom were female) joined the NZEI. After the demise of the clerical workers’ unions, school clerical staff joined the NZEI. In 1994 the Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa amalgamated with the NZEI, forming NZEI Te Riu Roa.


The New Zealand Nurses’ Organisation (NZNO) was formed in 1993, when the Nurses’ Association and the private-sector Nurses’ Union (formed in 1973) amalgamated. From 1996 it included medical radiologists, technologists, scientific officers, pharmacists and dietitians. The NZNO continued to have a majority of women members – 94% in 2009.

The 2000s

In the 2006 census, women were 47% of New Zealand’s 1,986,000 paid workers, up from 30% in 1971.

By 2009 union membership was down to 18% of the employed labour force, and women were a little over half of all union members (54%). Occupational segregation had broken down to some extent. Significant numbers of women were working as lawyers, doctors and in senior positions in the public service. But many working women continued to work as nurses, teachers, shop assistants, in light manufacturing and as clerical workers.

How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Women’s labour organisations - Unions, 1970s to 2000s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 October 2022)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 May 2011