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  Issue No 113 Official Organ of LaborNet 28 September 2001  




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.  Ask Neale

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Creative Alliances

Neale Towart wanders through the archives to look at how unions' have worked with artists to promote progressive casuses.


Unions & Art


They are part of everyday life, as is work and unemployment. They are also about locality ie where you live and where you work. The significance of this was recognised by the Australia Council in its Art and Working Life programs of the 1980s and 1990s.

Humphrey McQueen also made the point about the importance of locale. "Culture is part of a people's -making of themselves as they shape their physical and mental environments, and thus is inescapably regional". More tellingly, in the same article, he relates how he discovered where Balmain was in 1978 when he was part of a "Community Arts Board program of demonstrating endangered crafts, such as writing. I got a grant to sit in a coffee shop window writing for three hours each morning. A few locals stopped to look and one remembered a time when her whole village wrote, before it was literary."

So they are not just the opera, plays, dance, rock concerts, reading, writing, film whatever. These are a part of it but perhaps everyday life is art and culture. The community arts programs were trying address this point. I seem to remember sponsorships of murals, graffiti and arts that all got involved in, in contrast to the public museums and galleries that usually denote ART.

Unions have a long tradition of community involvement through May Day parades, banners, posters, magazines and pamphlets, demonstrations. This was pointed out in Stephen Cassidy's report, Art and Working Life, produced for the Australia Council in 1983.

The sorts of activities that the unions were involved in that he reported on included:

∑ the video unit of the Amalgamated Metal, Foundry and Shipwrights Union who employed two people full time and hade made programs about new technology and work and health and safety issues such as noise. They also toured music groups and produced records of songs about work

∑ the Miscellaneous Workers Union had supported films about trade unions for schools and a film about Aboriginal people and the 1982 Commonwealth Games (held in Joh's Qld)

∑ the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen's Assn had a quarterly union social night where theatre and music groups perform beside singers and poets from the union's membership. The union supported the Festival de Sol

∑ The Printing and Kindred Industries Union ran a photographic competition amongst its members in 1982 on the theme of leisure, as part of its shorter hours campaign

In NSW Cassidy pointed out the role of the Labor Council of NSW who had then had an Arts Officer for 6 years (funded by the Community Arts Board of the Premier's Dept). The officer concentrated on touring craft demonstrations (was McQueen on one of these?), exhibitions, displays and performances of dance bands, bush bands, jazz bands, brass bands, live theatre, puppetry, song and dance teams and an ethnic dance company to many workplaces. Also the focus was on factory-based festivals. Nick Lewocki, now secretary of the RTBU was once Labor Council Arts officer The RTBU has an excellent exhibition about the rail workshops which travelled NSW for sometime.

Workers and others from various cultural backgrounds were seen as significant players in the arts and working life. The Federation of Italian Immigrant Workers and Their Families (FILEF) had a long history of cultural activity amongst workers, with bases in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne. The Greek Democritus League also ran festivals and workshops, and had recently produced a play about the economic crisis.

The use of video in particular for getting the message out on current disputes was seen as very important. recently the Pilbara unions have continued this, with their video about the dispute with BHP, made by talking to and listening to the workers and their families in the Pilbara. It's on IndyMedia. The internet allows workers another space for their viewpoint, as the other public media spaces have narrowed.

Sport, communities and unions have also had long links. The unions role in these cultural activities was largely through the old Eight Hour Day Demonstration and Sports Days and May Day activities as highlighted in"> Workers Online no 71

The links to the broader community were emphasised in the paper given in 1991 at the second national Art and Working Life conference by John Lesses, then secretary of the United Trades and Labour Council of SA.

Lesses made the point that "the Australian people create and identify the various art forms in the image of themselves and to what they aspire."

The UTLC chief emphasised the importance of migrant workers, including the establishment of a Migrant Workers Centre at Trades Hall. The cultural diversity in Australia requires unions to be connected to lots of "communities". Participation by people in community, arts and unions helps create an identity, improves self-esteem and helps establish a sense of dignity and self respect.

The UTLC used ethnic community radio to provide industrial information to migrant communities and to enable migrant groups and individuals to look to unions as a place where they could connect with lots of others without being ignored because of their cultural background.

Sidetrack Theatre was a leader in developing and performing workplace theatre. Don Mamouney spoke at the same conference about his long experience of presenting art and working life shows. He was publicly asking himself why he practiced this marginalised form of theatre. He loved live performance and the specificity of theatre with the intensity of communication.

He also pointed out that theatre could be a useful tool for unions. Alex Bukarica of the BWIU told him that Sidetrack were the most effective means the union had seen for communicating the dangers of the Griener Government's industrial legislation. The union had been working with Sidetrack on developing The Serpent's Contract at the time. Later work with the BWIU by Sidetrack included No Condom No Start presented on construction sites in 1992.

A pamphlet from 1992 written by Kathie Muir emphasised the importance the community union links and the importance of developing and maintaining these. Creative Alliances: Unions and the Arts: Art and Working Life in the 1990s.

She points out that workers in the arts industry (a big employer nationwide) have a great need for trade unions. The industry recognises the importance of the union movement in fighting government cutbacks.

Also through "Art and Working Life projects... a range of models of consultation and collaborative planning [had] been explored. Artists skills and experiences have practical value in devising new approaches to workplace design, to the organization of production processes and to developing research strategies, consultation and active involvement in the planning processes."

The badge collection recently acquired by Labor Council is another example of the creative role of workers and its expression. The Badges of Labour Banners of Pride exhibition and book was a product of the Art and Working Life program. The permanent exhibition in the Banner room in Trades Hall shows the art of these banners and that the banner designers and makers were an example of the connection between art, culture, unions and community.

See for more discussion:

Art and Working Life in Australia: a report prepared for the Australia Council by Stephen Cassidy (North Sydney: Australia Council, 1983)

Industrial Issues Cultural Tools: papers and proceedings of the 2nd national Art and Working Life conference October 1990 - Melbourne. (Redfern: Australia Council, 1991)

Creative Alliances: Unions & the Arts. Art & Working Life in the 1990s/ text by Kathie Muir, developed by Kathie Muir and Ian Burn. (Sydney: Union Media Services, 1992)

Ann Stephen and Andrew Reeves. Badges of Labour Banners of Pride: Aspects of Working Class celebration. (Sydney: Trustees of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences with Allen & Unwin, 1985)

Humphrey McQueen. Gallipoli to Petrov: arguing with Australian history. (Allen & Unwin, 1982) see the bit about Frank Moorhouse


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 113 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: The Custodian
Labor's arts spokesman Bob McMullan on the role government can play in nurturing national culture.
*  Media: Chucking a Wobbly
Veronica Apap meets Dan Buhagiar, the programmer of Labor Council's new online initiative, Wobbly Radio.
*  E-Change: 3.3 Unleashing a Networked Culture
Politics does not occur in a vacuum - it's is as much a product of its culture as it is an influence on it. In the post-Industrial Age how will this relationship change?
*  Unions: Are You a Terrorist?
Away from the talkback noise, Mark Hearn reports on how a Sydney workforce is taking up the cause of racial understanding and tolerance.
*  Organising: STAA Performers
Film industry workers are acting collectively to ensure they don't become Mexicans with Mobiles.
*  Workplace: Making Art Work
The Workers Cultural Action Committee is a community cultural development provider. What is this? And what does it mean for the union movement?
*  History: Creative Alliances
Neale Towart wanders through the archives to look at how unions' have worked with artists to promote progressive casuses.
*  Performance: Tales from the Shop Floor
Peter Murphy profiles Sydney's New Theatre and the role it has played in fostering working culture.
*  Review: Homegroan
In an extract from her new book, The Money Shot, Jane Mills argues that the local film industry needs more than patriotism to get bums on seats.
*  Satire: PM Pleads To Nauru: Take Our Aborigines Too
In the wake of Nauruís acceptance of the Tampa refugees, Australian Prime Minister John Howard has struck a new deal with the small island nation to take our Aborigines as well.

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»  Activists Notebook

»  The Soapbox
»  The Locker Room
»  Trades Hall
»  Tool Shed

Letters to the editor
»  Hamberger on Stellar
»  CHOGM Agenda
»  Ian West on Trades Hall

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