No Easy Victory: Towards Equal Pay for Women in the Government Service 1890-1960
CHAPTER 4. The Parker Case
CHAPTER 4. The Parker Case
In August 1956 the test case of Jean Parker aroused a high level of public interest and involvement in the issue of equal pay. It proved to be a great success in drawing national attention to the position of women in the clerical division of the public service and was a turning point in the movement for equal pay.
The first important factor leading up to the Parker case arose out of a PSA Executive decision to take the Moss case to the Supreme Court in 1955. This action had been recommended by Jack Turnbull in his report on PSA action on equal pay prepared for the executive meeting of November 1954. The Moss case failed but the exercise had been a worthwhile one for the PSA, as the judge advised that the PSA had the legal right to use the Appeal Board in its claims for equal pay; this discovery opened up a whole new channel for protest activity. To understand the full nature of the Parker case, the Moss case must be examined.
In the clerical division of the public service male clerks rose automatically in the Class VI salary scale by one step each year until they reached the maximum of the class, which was £735. Women clerks, however, could not rise automatically beyond their 'initial maximum' of £600; to pass this figure they had to be 'promoted'. Seniority was measured not by actual salary but by the maximum salary which could be reached automatically. A woman was therefore junior to the most junior male in the grade because males had a higher automatic maximum, a fact which put women at a disadvantage when applying for jobs. According to Joyce McBeath, 'All these cadets of 18 and 19 were coming in and rising above women who had worked for years and given all their loyalty to the service. It was all wrong. To get promotion you had to be so much better than the men.'1 Also, if two applicants for a position were considered equal, then seniority was the deciding factor. All women in the basic grade below the automatic maximum were thus disadvantaged. Jack Turnbull felt the PSC should grant seniority to women on the basis of their date of entry into Class VI without reference to the 'initial maximum'.
In October 1955 Turnbull took a case for the PSA, in the name of Jo Moss, to the Supreme Court, challenging the right of the PSC to determine women's seniority by their 'initial maximum'. This was an attempt to put women public servants on the same seniority basis as men. By this stage Turnbull was no longer pushing for increased family allowances: 'I felt from a social point of view that greater weight ought to be given to the family benefit. But of course that was not my job. My job was to represent the women in the public service and any other people in the public service. ... I supported the campaign page 50 although I was not a personal enthusiast for it. I was particularly keen on getting rid of Class VI position whereby women were junior to men most recently appointed. I thought that was just ridiculous.'2
The Supreme Court action between Jo Moss and the PSC took place on 18 October 1955. The PSA lost the case as the Supreme Court declared the PSC had acted within its powers in determining seniority. The judge, Justice Gresson, pointed out that Jo Moss could have exercised her right of appeal in 1951 when her regrading took place. The court had clarified a point that was previously in doubt — a woman on less than the full basic grade maximum had a right of appeal against her own maximum at the last general regrading. She would therefore have had a right of appeal against persons appointed to the clerical division with a maximum higher than her own. This important avenue had never been closely examined before and it appears that the PSA for the first time became aware of its right to lodge demands for equal pay through the Appeal Board. This discovery was made at the time the classification list of April 1955 was issued.
Anxious to seize this opportunity, on 27 January 1956, the PSA issued a pamphlet to Class VI women entitled Your Rights of Appeal and How to Exercise Them. This was widely circulated.
It was through taking advantage of this opportunity that 70 women, including Jean Parker, lodged appeals against male appointees, mainly cadets. As a result they received letters from the PSC stating that 'the Commission is advised that an appellant cannot expect to be placed in a better position than that of the person against whom the appeal was lodged.' The PSC also suggested that women may have overlooked the fact that a cadet was receiving a lower salary.3 As a result of this Jack Turnbull and Jim Delahunty of the PSA spoke about the legality of the issue with the Association's solicitor, Alfred Mazengarb, on 6 March 1956. They realised that successful women appellants could be risking a reduction in salary, and they discussed the possibility of reaching a solution through taking a test case. After talking the question over with the PSC, Mazengarb sent the PSA a report, on 22 March, confirming their fears. The Commission could legally appoint a successful appellant to the position of cadet with the maximum salary of Class VI but with the commencing salary of the cadet. This was implied in the words of the secretary of the PSC who stated: 'Supposing the appointee was on a salary of £340 and a maximum of £705, and the successful appellant was on a salary of £575, maximum £575, she would be appointed at a salary of £340 and a maximum of £705.'4
This interpretation was based on Section 2 of the 1927 Amendment which provided that, 'Whenever a vacancy occurs in any position ... or where a new position is created ... the Commission may ... transfer to that position from any other position an officer then in the Public Service.'5 Mazengarb claimed, however, that he was 'unable to read into the meaning of the words what I consider to be the justice of the question'.6 He advised that an answer to the question could be obtained only by bringing an appeal. He warned that the officer appealing against the appointment of a cadet should be prepared to resign if the commission fixed her salary at the commencing salary of a cadet.7
The PSA issued an eight-page pamphlet to background the notorious Parker case. The graph on page 5 provides striking evidence of salary inequality at the highest level.
On 12 June 1956 Jack Turnbull presented his opening submission on Jean Parker's behalf. The PSC defended itself mainly on the grounds of women's unsuitability for careers and controlling positions in the service. The Appeal Board, however, allowed Jean Parker's appeal against one of the cadets.
The Evening Post of 24 August 1956 covers the Commission's annual report which, unsurprisingly, pointed out the 'danger' and 'injustice' to men involved in introducing equal pay.
Firstly, on 23 August 1956, the PSC delivered its annual report to the House of Representatives. Among other things the Commission argued that equal pay for women would be an injustice for the majority of men as family living standards would suffer. This was in relation to the social wage in which men received additional income for the support of dependants.
In August 1956 Jim Ferguson succeeded Mike Mitchell as PSA President and his election at this critical stage in the campaign was most welcome. As well as supporting equal pay as part of the PSA platform, he was a personally dedicated supporter of the 'rate for the job' philosophy. In response to the PSC annual report he accused the commission of doing a 'first class job of confusing the page 54 issue. ... The Commission talks of "the man's responsibility for dependents" [sic] as though all male wage earners had dependents and no women wage earners had any. The truth is that many thousands of adult male wage earners have never had and never will have dependents while quite a number of women wage earners have children and other dependents to support. The Commission can ignore facts like these, but surely the Government cannot. ... Both the Commission and the Government are, however, out of line with the United Nations Charter in that they have consistently failed to make any real effort to put the principle into practice.'8 That same day the PSA sent a telegram to Attorney-General John Marshall, seeking an interview on the Parker appeal case.
Jim Ferguson's answer to the Public Service Commission is reported in the Evening Post of 28 August 1956.
The next day, 29 August, Margaret Brand, PSA women's representative and member of the Equal Pay Committee, argued that equal pay 'is a man's safeguard. ... Men in their own interests cannot support lower rates of pay for women engaged on the same work. When jobs become scarce employers will naturally engage the cheapest workers.' Referring to the 'social' element in men's wages, she said the wage in New Zealand was generally for the job and that the Arbitration Court had refused to accept any other interpretation two years ago; and that women wished to preserve the principle of equal opportunity, compete on an equal basis with men for promotion and be judged on ability rather than sex.9 These attitudes toward the granting of equal pay were a reflection of those held more generally in society.
On 29 August a major turning point in the campaign for equal pay was reached when the PSC announced its decision on the Parker case. The Inland Revenue Department was instructed to reduce Jean Parker's salary from £695 to the salary of the cadet, £460 per annum, and to transfer her from her previous responsible duties, where she had control of a section of eight, to the junior duties of the cadet.10
The reaction to this move was immediate and resulted in a large-scale nationwide protest. On that same day, Jim Ferguson stated publicly, 'This page 55 action of the Public Service Commission will be deeply resented by all public servants — men and women alike — and by everyone who objects to people being intimidated out of exercising their legal rights. My association is determined to fight the Commission on this. It does not want women, however capable, for careers.'11 A special urgent meeting of the Women's Sub-Committee of the Wellington section was held, at which 'feeling was running fairly high'. A telegram was sent to Jean Parker stating that the sub-committee was fully behind her and determined to fight. The women decided to hold a public meeting six days later.
That evening a 'crowded general meeting' of public servants took place in Dunedin, Jean Parker's home town. A motion expressing the general dissatisfaction of women members and recommending protest action against the PSC was passed unanimously.12 Also on the same day, another very influential protest came from another quarter. The National Council of Women which was holding its biennial conference, discussed the issue and acted spontaneously. Immediately, telegrams strongly disapproving of the PSC action were sent from the 42 branches and nationally organised societies of the NCW to Sidney Holland, Walter Nash and other MPs.
The fact that this combined protest placed the government in an awkward position was open to facetious interpretation, as demonstrated by Whim Wham:page 57
Also of major significance is the fact that Parliament was in session at this time; the whole issue could be debated immediately. The PSC had obviously underestimated the strength of national feeling and the PSA's ability to capitalise on opportunities, when it made its announcement at this time in history. Jean Parker, writing to Margaret Brand, expressed her feelings about the reaction:15page 58
NO PEACE IN THE SCHOOL HOLIDAYS
Minhinnick's response to the fight for equal pay was typical of male humour at the time. This cartoon appeared in the New Zealand Herald of 29 August 1956. © NZ Herald
Florence Doe, an Auckland PSA member, also wrote to Margaret Brand: 'Although previously warned of the possibility I was astounded at the Commission's attitude, or rather action, in Mrs Parker's case. The case has been featured quite prominently in our Auckland newspapers and I have, twice at least, seen reports of remarks made by yourself. Don't you think the Commission chose the moment to take action in appointing Mrs Parker to the £460 p.a. job. The National Council of Women took prompt action in voicing their disapproval to Parliament.'16
The day after the PSC announced its decision, the issue became the subject of a heated debate in Parliament. The Leader of the Opposition, Walter Nash, had asked for an adjournment of the House in order to discuss a matter of 'urgent public importance relating to the reduction in salary of a public servant'.17 He raised the matter under a standing order, which provides that a subject may be discussed if it is of urgent public importance, if it relates to a particular case and if it involves the administrative responsibility of the government. Although John Marshall and Keith Holyoake challenged Nash's view that the government had an administrative responsibility for this particular case, the Speaker felt there was sufficient administrative responsibility on the government to bring the case within the standing order.18
As the Dominion reported on 31 August 1956, the Parker case caused 'lively exchanges' in Parliament.
Some dozen PSA equal pay enthusiasts went to the House in the late afternoon of 30 August to give information to Labour members for use in the debate. Many of them were invited to Bellamys to continue their discussions with members. Margaret Long recalls that she and Dan Long (whom she was to marry in February 1960) dined with Arnold Nordmeyer, covering the finer points with ease. Others, such as Cath Eichelbaum, had more difficult jobs. The women MPs had already been well informed, one example of what Margaret Long calls the 'ever-ready' nature of the equal pay campaign.19
That evening the Women Public Servants' Salary Adjournment took place. This, of course, stimulated advantageous nationwide publicity which was to develop and penetrate the ranks of many New Zealand organisations.
The Labour Party came out more strongly in favour of equal pay, mainly through criticising the injustices of the system which discriminated against women. National tended to support the PSC's action while at the same time stating that it was not the responsibility of the government to interfere in the fixing of public service salaries. National also accused the opposition of taking political advantage of the opportunity to discredit the government.
The debate was introduced by Walter Nash who outlined the details of the situation, claiming that Jean Parker's transfer to the lower position of the cadet was 'contrary to every sense of equity and justice. ... The Commission penalised a responsible officer for exercising a legal right which was recognised by the Supreme Court, the Commission and the PSA.'20 The Prime Minister, Sidney Holland, after referring to the numerous telegrams he had received from women's organisations expressing concern about the Parker case, proceeded to defend the PSC and the Board of Appeal from Nash's charges. He accused the opposition of seizing the opportunity to achieve a political advantage by bringing the matter up in Parliament and frightening the public. He pointed out that Jean Parker had received a warning from the PSC.
The Evening Post, too, gave eye catching headlines to its report on the parliamentary debate over the Parker case. The editorial of that Friday (31 August 1956) was also devoted to the issue.
The Commission's action regarding Mrs Parker's salary is bitterly resented by all women's organisations in the country and is obviously resented by the Public Service. It is a class discrimination of the worst kind to say that a woman who can do the job as well as a man should receive less than a man. ... I would say that in all forms of employment over the centuries women have been discriminated against by being paid less than men for equal work. It would seem that the PSC had decided to show that it does not pay to appeal and it will protect the Government from the menace of equal pay for equal work.21
As the debate progressed Nash and Holland received the support of respective party members. From within the Labour Party Edward Keating expressed his support for Nash in his assertion that the PSC was trying to make Jean Parker regret she had appealed and to frighten other public service women. This, he claimed, was evidence of 'victimisation and intimidation'.22 Mabel Howard, another Labour member, spoke out strongly in favour of the cause of women: 'Nowhere in the Public Service Act is there provision for any discrimination on the grounds of race, religion or sex and yet the women were discriminated against when it comes to the question of promotion. ... The whole question the women in the public service are fighting for is a question of status.'23 She said the PSC did not want women to win appeals and she thought it was the responsibility of the government to take positive action — 'It's not the Commission that is going to be kicked out of the country. It is the government.'24
Ethel McMillan, another Labour member, expressed her support for the principles involved in the Parker case: 'Had a Labour Government been in office such a situation as we are now discussing could never have arisen, because Labour's platform in the last election was that a progressive reduction would be encouraged in the margins of pay between men and women until the ideal of equal pay for equal work was attained. Labour would have been in step with other countries such as Great Britain, Canada, and the USA, which are all working progressively towards that goal.'25
Although a government member. Dame Hilda Ross, the minister responsible for the welfare of women and children, came out more strongly on the side of Labour, possibly because the Equal Pay Sub-Committee had kept in touch with all women MPs; hers was an individual rather than a party view. The fact that she was a minister without portfolio must have had an inhibiting effect upon her performance: 'Any woman who stands for a position in public life knows there is a great deal of prejudice against her just because she is a woman.'26
Holland received support from his party, mostly along the lines he himself had introduced. Keith Holyoake claimed that the National government had done more for women than any other administration, with social security benefits and superannuation.
Despite Holland's defence of the PSC during the parliamentary debate on the Parker case, he later expressed reservations. He thought maybe 'there was page 62 something wrong' with the maximum salary as between men and women public servants in the basic grade and consequently a case for investigation into seniority. So, early on the morning of the 31st, Holland met George Bolt. The latter assured the Prime Minister that Jean Parker had been written to by the PSC informing her that she was eligible to resume her former post and salary rate. Bolt said she had always had this option but that there was some doubt as to whether she was aware of her right. Holland concluded with what was later to be seen as an erroneous statement: 'I feel yesterday's debate has cleared the air on a matter which has undoubtedly been causing concern to women public servants. The simple facts of Mrs Parker's case are that she acted on what I think was bad advice in applying for a £460 job when she already had one at £695, at the same time expecting, if she were successful, to be paid £695 for the £460 worth of work.'
The following day, Margaret Brand, women's representative on the Executive Committee of the PSA, referred to Holland's statement. Although it had been denied that Jean Parker, on a salary of £695, appealed for a job at £460, it was clear that the Prime Minister was 'still under this misapprehension'. She described the impossibility of appealing for a position at £460 per annum as no such position existed in the public service.28 The position to which the cadet was appointed was a full Class VI position — with a maximum salary of £735 pa. She pointed out that the word 'position' covered the whole of Class VI scale from £270 to £735 and the fact that within that class all jobs were interchangeable. Not only was the Prime Minister confused about the issues of the Parker case, but the Public Service Commissioner had no wish to enlighten him.
That this meeting of Public Service women strongly protests at the Public Service Commission's action in attempting firstly to negate an Appeal Board decision in the case of Mrs Parker, and secondly, to intimidate other women public servants from exercising their rights of appeal and we call upon the Government to take action to remedy this grave injustice to women. Finally, this meeting congratulates the President and Executive Officers of the Association on their prompt and forthright statement in defence of fair play and equality for women.29
Right: Printed on striking burnt orange paper, this notice called women public servants to a lunchtime protest meeting about the 'case of Mrs Parker'.
This meeting congratulates the President and Executive Officers of the Association on their prompt and forthright statement in defence of fair play and equality for women. We resolve to support any arguments which will restore to Mrs Parker the essential rights we believe the Appeal Board conferred on her, and set up immediately a consultative committee to negotiate ways of attaining equal opportunity and status for women in the Public Service. ... Unless negotiations reach a satisfactory stage within a short time, we consider that the Association should go to the Government on the general question.31
At the same time, in Auckland, 120 members of the Auckland branch of the PSA passed a resolution protesting 'at the apparent effect of the Commission's decision as an intimidation of other women public servants who may consider exercising their rights in the same manner as Mrs Parker.'32
The next day, in response to these protests, George Bolt, referring to the principle of 'fair relativity', claimed that equal pay for women could not be introduced into the public service until it became general in the national economy. Stating that the PSC's responsibility was the economic and efficient functioning of the service, he asked, 'Is it economic for the Public Service to pay more than the market value of the labour engaged?' He estimated that the cost of equal pay in the public service would be £2,000,000 and the cost outside the service to be £25,000,000, making a total of £27,000,000. He felt this would be inflation at its worst — all that additional money would go into spending, without a scrap of increased production.33
This was the first time the PSC had publicly opposed the introduction of equal pay on economic grounds. The 1955 and 1956 PSC reports to the House of Representatives referred to the fact that men's wages contained a social element for the support of a wife and children, and the PSC sought justification for its opposition to equal pay by using both this and the 'fair relativity' argument. In view of Bolt's statement quoted above, one wonders whether economic factors were the basic source of the PSC's opposition to equal pay at this time and whether reference to social factors were a convenient excuse. Margaret Brand responded by attacking Bolt's economic argument and accusing him of producing 'yet another eternal delay formula for equal pay for women'.34
Although a temporary solution had been reached for this particular case, the issue of equal pay did not subside. The whole Parker question had strongly motivated a variety of pressure groups to become involved in the cause of women's equality as part of a national movement. Looking back on the period, Margaret Long says, 'It was a brilliant stroke, absolutely brilliant... This was one of the times when the Public Service Commission couldn't have promoted our cause better. ... this was one of the occasions when everyone in the service worked together. It was remarkably, wonderfully unjust.'36 As Jack Turnbull says, 'It was a perfect case. It had everything.'37
In the general furore concerning women's rights, on 31 August, the Prime Minister announced his intention to meet representatives of women's national organisations to discuss general wage problems and other matters of specific page 66 interest to women.38 The meeting, which was held on 3 October 1956, was to prove very significant in bringing a wide cross section of women's organisations together to discuss the equal pay issue and other matters of interest.
The Parker case had succeeded in drawing national attention to the cause of equal pay for women and as the activity surrounding the case died down, the whole question continued to receive significant attention and interest in government circles, throughout the public service, in many women's organisations and in some trade unions.
The Parker case ends happily. The Evening Post of 5 September 1956 describes a relieved Jean Parker as having a 'lilt in her voice and a sparkle in her eyes'.
'I did speak to her and all she said was, if she can't get equal pay she's going to do the same work as men.'
Nevile Lodge comments on equal pay in the Public Service Journal of July 1957.