|Issue No 41||26 November 1999|
Interview with Peter Lewis
John Birmingham has lifted the lid on Sydney's shady past - and found trade unions to be at the centre of the sordid tales.
In your biography of Sydney, unions emerge as both the good guys and the bad guys at stages in the book. How did they weave their way into the story?
Well, what happened of course is the industrialisation of Sydney and the development of manufacturing industries and also other industries happened before unions turned up, and so right up until about the 1860s/1870s the idea of working people organising to get better results for themselves was - it wasn't just unheard of it was actually thought to be blasphemous - like the social order with the land owning elite at the top and everybody else basically under their boots, was basically thought to be God given. That was right up until about the 1840s/1850s.
And the working people began to organise around about that time. There was working men's associations, and at first they were just to increase their trade skills and provide some education that perhaps the State or the private school systems weren't providing. But eventually they began to sense that there was a certain amount of power in acting together, and one of the earlier things that they operated in. One of the earlier areas that they operated in was on the question of migration.
There were a lot of British migrants being brought out in the 1860s and 1870s and local workers thought that they were basically flooding the market with their labour, and so I think there was something called the Working Man's Defence Association set up, basically to agitate against migration from the Home Country.
This then morphed into anti Chinese movements in the late 1870s, but the unions were by no means by themselves in opposing Asian immigration at that stage. Basically it was a movement which had support from the top to the bottom of society, and about the only people who were in favour of Chinese immigration in the, say, the late 1870s when all of the riots broke out - a big strike broke out on the waterfront - were the ship owners who wanted to use Chinese seamen as super exploitable labour on their steamers and the Herald, which was an intensely conservative paper and generally sided with business interests against those of the workers.
That campaign was successful. They got the Chinese knocked off that ship and it actually laid the grounds for the White Australia Policy of later on. So, I guess you could say that that was an instance when they didn't cover themselves with glory, but they genuinely were acting in what they considered to be their members' interests and given the way that those Chinese people would have been super exploited they probably were operating in both their interests and in the Chinese.
The next period I looked at was the 1920s or 1930s and that of course was a period - the 1930s in particular - of great social dislocation and it was interesting because that social system I was talking about before, which was thought to be ordained by God, where the elite had their money and their property and it was inherited and it was basically handed down by divine right, that had sort of ... People didn't believe that anymore, but they invented new mythologies for explaining why a few people were very, very wealthy and most people very, very poor, and it had all grown out of the idea of social Darwinism - the fact that some people were just better suited to competition and so the riches went to them. When a lot of the time of course they just inherited the bloody stuff, or stole it or appropriated it or whatever.
Um, the 1930s rolled up and of course with the Depression there was massive, massive social dislocation and the unions once again became a focal point for organising. And this time the thing I was specifically looking at was the anti-eviction organisations of the 1930s. Back then of course, most people - most middle class people as well as most working people didn't own their homes. That was beyond them. They couldn't get the money together so they rented and people might rent the same place for 20 or 30 years. What happened of course was the Depression cracks down, they can't pay their rent no more and they start being evicted.
Actually the city was full of thousands, probably tens of thousands of homeless people and these weren't bums or alcoholics or anything like that, these were working families who because of the Depression couldn't work no more, so they were literally just tossed out onto the streets and they were living in parks and under bridges and in shanty towns out near Botany on golf courses and stuff like that.
The Communist Party and a number of unions - The Australian Labor Army, I think they called them - basically this Left Wing Coalition got together and organised an anti-eviction movement where they would basically squat in the houses and refuse to move and this was successful for about five or six weeks until the real estate agents realised what a threat it was to it - and I guess the State realised what a threat it was to existing power and property relationships and they then detailed the police to crack down on them and they did it quite viciously. There was a battle in Union Street in Newtown in about 1931 which was known as Black Friday, where maybe, I think 18 or 19 workers were sitting inside a house occupying it because the people were going to be evicted, and in the street outside they had about 4 or 5 thousand supporter who were milling around and the police rolled up in a bus and a couple of cars and basically jumped out with their revolvers pulled and started shooting the shit out of the house and charged in and basically beat everybody down into a bloody pulp and that - that didn't destroy the movement, it probably would have increased its strength because the reaction against it was so great, but the Lang Government then brought in some tenancy laws which basically pricked that particular balloon.
The next period of union activism I looked at was almost like a mirror image of that period. This was obviously the Green Bans of the 1960s - and here you weren't looking at residential property issues but massive demolitions in the city core and exploitation of the old architecture and so on, and this time it was the members of the BLF - but there was other unions involved as well because I think at that stage the BLF had some internal problems within the union movement and they weren't actually on the Trades & Labor Council in Sydney at that point, but they had other allies and other unions there who pushed through the Green Bans - first obviously against Kellys Bush in the North Shore and then later spreading to encompass billions of dollars worth of development all over the city.
It was quite a phenomenal time because that was the first time in the history of the city that common people had actually stood against the most powerful interests in the city and had won and the fairly bitter and savage reactions of those interests can be seen from the fact that eventually in Victoria Street in Potts Point at the Teaman Development, people were murdered for standing against it, and there was incredible violence brought to bear, both against the union - the BLF - and I think the Seamen's Union was involved because one of their members was in one of those houses as well - and also the violence obviously which was brought to bear against their supporters in the public.
So, through those different threads in the union history, do you get any clues of how the union movement can survive into the future?
It's a terrible cliche but it has to make itself relevant to the membership. It has to go back to the membership. Like, membership of a union should be something that people aspire to, because they know that it is in their interest to join up because singly they are just completely and utterly powerless.
I'm constantly amazed that workers did not join unions, because as a freelance journalist I know just how completely and utterly bloody powerless you are when it comes time to negotiate with an organisation like News Limited or Fairfax. They will crush you like a bug and this has always been the story all the way through the city's history. So, people have to understand that their strength lies in getting together with other workers, but of course the problems with the unions is that I guess the politics of unionism has become sort of remote and inwardly focussed and an awful lot of the energy which unions could be devoting towards their rank and file membership is actually devoted towards manoeuvring at Council and maintaining and manoeuvring relationships with the ALP when it's the State Government, when it's an Opposition and determining policy and stuff like that.
That's an important role of what unions do, but the very, very core of their existence, what they must go back to, is ensuring that the working lives of their members are improved as the productivity and the profits of the business that they work for are improved. It's not as though the bosses will hand it over voluntarily.
But it's not totally clear cut.Of you look in your book, the period where you could say they were standing up for the interest of their members was in the anti-immigration protests.Where they were looking beyond the interest of their movement to the broader society, with the Green Bans, and arguably that's where they have lost the links with their membership?
I was thinking about this when the Labor Party lost office federally. Why it was that its working class vote went across - or part of its working class vote - went across to Howard, and it was because ... I mean, if you look at, say, you look at forestry which is a perfect example of the problem that the Labor Party got itself into. Not so much the unions in this case, but if we use the Labor Party as an example of an organisation which should be looking after the interests of working people...
Forestry is an industry which employs lots and lots of working class people. There are not many middle class people in it. So it is a core constituency of the ALP and of course of the union movement. But another constituency of the ALP developed over the 80s, after the Franklin Dam, which is the Green constituency - and that's like a very much an urban, middle class and upper middle class vote. And it's arguable that the interest of those two groups are actually incompatible. I mean, maybe it is possible to develop managed forest policies - I honestly don't know because it's not an area I have any expertise in, but on the face of it the interests of working people in say, the forestry industry, and the middle class urban vote which the ALP went after - the Green vote as such - on the face of it they seem to be incompatible, so if the ALP ends up supporting its members in those industries it will then end up obviously alienating its vote in the urban core. That may well be an insoluble problem for them. I don't know. But the conundrum you raise is a very serious one. A very real one.
Finally, this book seems to me to be a bit more than just a history and probably it's going to stand there as more a read about Sydney. What message do you want people who live in Sydney to take away from reading it?
I suppose there are two messages that I have. One for the present and one for the future. There are two Sydneys. Most of the money and most of the power of Sydney is concentrated in the East and the North and the people who live there tend to see their part of Sydney and they think that is Sydney. They look at the harbour and it's beautiful, and they look at the city and it's beautiful and they look at the amazing wealth and just comfort that they have and they think - this city's fantastic. In fact, the vast majority of people who live in this city don't live like that. They live pretty hard and they live tough and they live out on the western and south western reaches and their lives are slightly more comfortable than the lives of poorer and working people in the 19th century, but the gap between rich and poor is growing enormously quickly and it would be good if people would think about that and think about the implications of that 20 or 30 years down the track, because the implications are really bloody grim.
And the other thing that I'd like them to think about is the fact that the resources we have here, like our soil and our water and our air are finite and they will be used up and they will be irreparably damaged if we don't think about what we are doing with them. Once again the city tends to dump an awful lot of its problems out in the west and the south west. There are incredible environmental problems with toxic poisoning and so on out there, but because they are beyond the sidelines of the people who make policy and set agendas in the middle of the city they just tend to forget about them.
'Leviathan - the unauthorised biograpohy of Sydney' by John Birminham is published by Random House and is available in all good bookshops
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John Birmingham has lifted the lid on Sydney’s shady past - and found trade unions to be at the centre of the sordid tales.
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