Story: Women’s labour organisations

Page 7. Women and unions, 1970s–2020s

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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 in unions’ interest in women’s issues. In the 1970s and 1980s, the clerical workers’ unions, the Distribution Workers’ Union and the Nurses’ Association were 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.

Labour laws and union membership

After the government passed the Employment Contracts Act 1991 (ECA), unions lost many members and some collapsed or merged. Those with a scattered workforce, such as the clerical workers’ unions, found it particularly difficult. The increased workload that resulted when single-site or employer agreements replaced national awards meant that many unions could no longer prioritise women’s equity issues.

In 2021, 17% of employees belonged to a union. Women were just over 60% of all union members.

Advisory groups

In the 1970s and 1980s, women’s advisory groups and positions were set up within trade unions. The Wellington Trades Council’s Women’s Sub-committee (1979) and the Federation of Labour (1976) and Combined State Unions (1984) women’s advisory committees were part of this development. Some unions created ‘women’s officer’ positions.

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. The Labour Party and the Federation of Labour adopted the Working Women’s Charter as policy in 1980, and the Council stopped operating soon after.

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. Discussed in New Zealand from the mid 1970s, it was drafted and adopted by the Working Women’s Convention in 1977 and adopted by the New Zealand Federation of Labour (FoL) in 1980. 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 and Human Rights Commission staff into workplaces to talk to women. Its staff set up information stalls publicising workplace issues around the Auckland region. The Centre was still in existence in 2022.

Te Kauae Kaimahi Women’s Council, 1987

The FoL and CSU women’s committees became Te Kauae Kaimahi Women’s Council when their parent organisations merged to become the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions in 1987. Te Kauae Kaimahi had a twofold focus: it worked to strengthen unions and to improve working women’s terms and conditions of employment. Pay and employment equity, work-life balance, working hours and leave (including parental leave), and health and safety (including action against sexual harassment) were major concerns. In the 21st century, the Council continued this work, and added new key issues: bringing the reality of paid employment for Māori and Pacific women to public attention, the position of women within unions, and the need for domestic violence leave.

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 the NZNO included medical radiologists, technologists, scientific officers, pharmacists and dietitians. The NZNO continued to have an overwhelming majority of women members – 94% in 2009.

How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Women’s labour organisations - Women and unions, 1970s–2020s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 20 Dec 2022