On 11 December 2023, our SEARCH comrade Fran Hayes died in a tragic accident, cutting short her remarkable life just a few weeks after her 70th birthday. Family, friends and comrades farewelled her on December 22nd, in a moving celebration of her “rich life of love, activism and fabulous clothes”. She leaves behind her partner of over fifty years, Dan O’Brien, her daughter Ellie, her sister Dorothy and brothers Matt and Peter, along with literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, whose lives she has touched in some way.
Born 8th November 1953, Fran grew up in the Sydney suburb of Rockdale, from where she went to Sydney University in the early 1970s to study social work. The mainstream social work profession was coming under sustained attack at this time from young radicals who thought that social workers should stop trying to teach people to accommodate themselves to an unjust system. Instead of trying to help individual clients with middle class advice on how to live better, they needed to be organising – among the unemployed, the homeless, and the dispossessed; but also organising themselves, not as a middle-class profession, but as members of the organised working class. In 1977, these contradictions led to a social work student strike at the uni, and Fran was one of a new generation of radical social workers, most but not all women, who emerged from this experience committed to what was then called socialist social welfare work. Working through a national network called Inside Welfare, these young socialists resolved to build a radical national union to unite all workers in the welfare industry, abandoning distinctions between university qualified professionals and the rapidly growing band of un-organised para-professional workers in youth work, aged care, disability support and work with the unemployed. The Australian Social Welfare Union (ASWU) became the vehicle for this struggle, and in 1977, Fran became its first – and for many years, its only – paid organiser at the national level.
From that position, and from later stints as its Federal President, then Vice President, Fran organised with a collective of rank and file union activists to get a national industrial award, something which had never before been attempted. These young radicals – all in their 20s – had almost no prior training in union organising , let alone in the arcane workings of Australians industrial relations system at that time, which included a body of industrial case law going back to the 1900s which held that national industrial awards were for people (mainly men!) who worked in “industry.” Remarkably, this David & Goliath battle ended in victory, after going all the way to the High Court, which in June 1983 overturned its previous decisions and ruled that the workers in this ‘industry’ were entitled to Federal award coverage. An industrial relations revolution, the Financial Review called it at the time. And so our friend and comrade, Fran Hayes, entered into history, and the story of the campaign she led is now taught in industrial relations courses and at trade union training workshops across the country. Fran herself wrote a great account of this struggle, which you can find on the website of the Australian Services Union, which eventually the ASWU became part of after a series of amalgamations in subsequent years.
There’s a small ‘back story’ to this, not taught in those industrial relations courses. Several members of the award committee were CPA members, and some of our more experienced trade union comrades agreed to help. The AMWU in particular saw the ASWU’s potential for building a community-union alliance on welfare issues and the social wage. Laurie Carmichael referred us to another party member, Jack Hutson, a retired industrial officer living in Melbourne who had written union textbooks on the industrial relations system. Jack gave Fran and the ASWU activists a crash course in IR, then became the award campaign’s unofficial and unpaid adviser. Though Fran herself did not join the CPA at this time, she has always said that Jack’s advice, both technical and political was essential, and that without that left wing support and solidarity, the ASWU ‘revolution’ might never have happened. In 2018, the ASU recognised Fran’s historic contribution, making her an honorary life member.
As a result of her ASWU experience, Fran had become not only an experienced organiser but also a skilled union educator, and she went from the ASWU into the Trade Union Training Authority (TUTA), to become the first full-time woman trainer at the Clyde Cameron Residential College in Albury. Here, as they say, the struggle continued. Not just against the bosses, and not just against the right-wing union bureaucracies; but against her own male comrades who appeared to have missed the memos from Women’s Liberation, and still thought patriarchy was ok, so long as it was unionised. Women delegates in particular remember her stalwart stance at this time against sexual harassment in the movement. From here on, Fran became an even more militant advocate for the rights of women unionists to a workplace and a union movement which respected them as equals. She continued this work in other capacities and roles at TUTA, and then as a consultant when the Howard government closed TUTA down in 1996. One of her later jobs, returning the AMWU’s solidarity, was to help that union develop sexual harassment awareness modules for its own education programme, to ensure that the union’s trainers and delegate educators could run sessions and courses on the prevention and handling of sexual harassment as an industrial issue.
Others have written about Fran’s ongoing work in subsequent decades, as a consultant to unions and governments, and a vital member of the National Pay Equity Coalition (NPEC), an Australian feminist advocacy and policy group set up after a Socialist Feminist Conference in Sydney in the 80s. NPEC, which operated from 1987 until 2011, helped redefine the gender pay equity problem and campaigned for policies to remedy it. Fran took part in actions against recalcitrant employers, and appeared before the many tribunals and Senate hearings where NPEC put its case.
In 2014, Fran was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Being Fran, she chose to approach this as an organising challenge, joining the inner west Parkinson Support group in Sydney, becoming the groups co-ordinator for three years. She also joined the Dance for Parkinsons group. As if this wasn’t enough, she took on a project with her old NPEC comrades to archive the records of their work, so women activists campaigning for pay equity today could learn from that experience and not have to “reinvent the wheel’. Then when SEARCH established the Voice Treaty Truth Working Group in 2019, Fran joined immediately and, despite her illness, took on responsibilities for all sorts of tasks, drafting leaflets and information sheets, keeping minutes, and as the referendum campaign hotted up in 2023, phone banking hundreds of voters. As it turned out, this was sadly her ‘last battle.’ We will miss her greatly.
Vale, Fran. Rest in Power. You will always be an inspiration to us all.