Cecilia Shelley

Cecilia Moore Shelley (1893-1986), union secretary, was born in Adelaide on 3 January 1893, one of nine children of Honora (born O'Callaghan) and Francis Peter Sheehy, a brewery worker.

The family moved to Boulder on the Western Australian goldfields where Cecilia received a limited convent education. They adopted Shelley as their surname. Cecilia started work at fourteen as a kitchenmaid in a miners' boarding house in Kalgoorlie. The family moved to Perth and she went into 'service'; over the next ten years Shelley worked in a number of different jobs in the hotel and catering industry. Her experience of the appalling working conditions of women in this industry prompted her to take an active role in the Hotel, Club, Caterers, Tearooms and Restaurant Employees Union (HCCT&REU). In 1920 she was elected secretary of this union, becoming one of the first women to be a paid trade union secretary in Australia.

In the 1920s under her stewardship the HCCT&REU became one the largest predominantly female unions in Western Australia. She led the union in a 22-week strike in 1921, which began over the dismissal of a waitress who was collecting union dues and escalated into a major confrontation on the issue of 'preference for unionists'. She led a second strike in 1925 to gain a 5/- wage increase and a working week of 44 hours. The press labelled the striking women 'Shelley's Army' as they marched through the streets, picketed shops and disrupted business. Shelley again failed to secure agreement on preference for unionists but other gains included regulated shifts, paid holiday leave and improved amenities. By vigorous prosecution of employers for non-compliance with the award, she protected her members and increased the membership of the union.

As union secretary Shelley often appeared in the Arbitration Court. Small in stature, with a quick wit and a strong personality she was not easily overawed by the court atmosphere. She disregarded conventional 'niceties' of language, shocking opponents with her vivid descriptions of workers' conditions, couched in terms deliberately chosen for dramatic effect.

A self-declared rebel Shelley was not impressed by officialdom nor by titles. In her pursuit of justice for workers she rejected a conservative approach to industrial relations; she engaged in verbal combat with state premiers, judges, employers and other trade union officials. Her tenacity and determination to 'have her say' earned her the title, among colleagues, of 'The Tigress of Trades Hall'.

Though often impatient with what she perceived as the inadequacies in politicians and party policies, Shelley was an active member of the Australian Labor Party, a member of its Trade Unions Industrial Council and the later Western Australian Trades and Labour Council. Her criticism brought her a period of expulsion from the party but at other times she was a delegate to state and interstate conferences. From the 1920s she campaigned for equal pay and equal opportunities for working women. Her persistent efforts to secure the inclusion in the award of a 'preference for unionists' clause finally met with success in 1963. In 1964 her position as secretary was contested for the first time in 44 years but she won the election and remained secretary until retirement in 1967.

Cecilia Shelley had married briefly but had no children. In retirement she kept in contact with many women with whom she had worked during her union days. She died in Perth on 6 May l986. Wendy Brady

Jan Carter Nothing to Spare 1981 ch 7.