Interview: No Ifs, No Butts
Unions: National Focus
Industrial: Fools Gold
Bad Boss: Bones of Contention
History: The Gong Show
Politics: The Hawke Legacy
International: Sick Nation
Economics: Closed Minds
Review: Mixing Pop and Politics
Poetry: One Size Fits All
The Locker Room
The Monk Off Our Back
The Gong Show
Celebrations spanned a week and included a fund raising dinner, the release of a video/DVD based on the Council‚s history, an exhibition of trade union banners, posters and badges in the Wollongong Art Gallery, the unveiling of a Board displaying the names of all SCLC Presidents, Secretaries and Life Members, and a BBQ lunch for old SCLC comrades.
Publication by the Illawarra Mercury (Saturday, September 20) of a five-page history of the region‚s trade unionism brought the week to an end, a testament to the way the trade union movement is regarded as an integral part of the region‚s social and political fabric.
The BBQ function captured the essence of the SCLC for me. It was a warm Spring day and some seventy former trade unionists, most of them in their seventies and eighties, gathered in the courtyard outside the small two-storey building that headquarters the SCLC, opposite the Wollongong railway station. They had come to witness the unveiling of the foyer Honour Board.
That done, it was lunchtime, the spread cooked by members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). Enjoying my paper plate of sausages and coleslaw, I listened to the old-timers at the tables around me. A raconteur in his eighties recalled his mid-adolescence and the ban by Port Kembla waterside workers on the loading of pig-iron bound for Japan on the steamer Dalfram (November 1938-January 1939).
Despite heavy handed political thuggery by Federal Attorney-General Robert Menzies, and urgings from Sydney based Communist Party leaders to back down, the Port Kembla men and their local communist leaders stood firm, backed by the region‚s Labour Council.
Much was at stake. So far as the Port Kembla workers were concerned, Australian pig-iron was destined to feed Japanese militarism, then callously chewing its way through China. Australia could well be on Japan‚s invasion schedule in the near future, and Australian pig-iron served up in the process.
Eventually a compromise was reached and workers loaded the Dalfram under pressure; but the full contract for continuing shipments was aborted. The Port Kembla workers became national heroes to those Australians struggling to alert the nation to the dangers posed by European fascism and Japan‚s geo-political aspirations.
Another old-timer recalled the fifteen week steel strike of 1945-1946, involving some 13,000 steelworkers. She remembered the elaborate community work organised by the regional Labour Council to support workers variously on strike or laid off. Committees were formed to hunt and gather food, particularly fish and rabbits; collect wood for those families dependent on wood-fuel technologies; bulk purchase food staples; make children‚s toys for what would otherwise have been a joyless 1945 Christmas.
Other people remembered the Labour Council‚s first paid secretary-organiser (beginning 1928). Steve Best was an ex-miner who had championed peak unionism for years; quietly authoritative, charming, militant, a bowls player, an ALP member but not a party hack, he was able to work with labour movement radicals of all persuasions.
Best died in 1940 in a car accident; his hearse was escorted through Wollongong by 500 unionists, and followed to the cemetery by a mile of buses and cars.
I heard another old-timer reflect on the ways the region‚s Labour Council had, since the 1930s, engaged in an approach to unionism that was not limited to bread-and-butter industrial issues. Trade unionism was about Life itself and over the years Labour Council had been involved in a wide range of issues; war and peace, unemployment, housing, health, education, welfare, the environment, Aboriginal rights.
As we ate, other things were happening. Upstairs in the small SCLC office area, school-age children were happily drawing, colouring in, reading, playing on computers; it was the day of strike action by state school teachers in NSW. In Sydney SCLC President Peter Wilson, also an organiser with the NSW Teachers‚ Federation, was among those marching on State Parliament.
To the left of the BBQ gathering, local MUA officials were giving a television interview about news just-to-hand concerning the sell-off by BHP of the Australian crewed Iron Chieftain to overseas anti-union interests and the possibility the Australian crew would be replaced by cheap foreign labour. The officials made clear that this latest episode of coastal corporate skullduggery was heading for stormy seas.
Later as I reflected on the day, I figured my BBQ experience captured the essence of the SCLC. This regional Labour Council is an ongoing industrial/political outfit that has managed over the years to establish itself as a major social agent in the region. Currently representing some 30 affiliated unions and 50,000 members, the Council‚s relevance and significance draws not only from its unionised base, but also from its long tradition of engaging in community issues beyond narrow industrial concerns.
And there is the past. For the SCLC the past is ever present; in a sense it is part of the organisation, a past that is remembered, often recounted, and mulled over. It is a living relationship with the past that strengthens the present, giving the SCLC roots and an identity that are deeply and regionally earthed.
|Search All Issues | Latest Issue | Previous Issues | Print Latest Issue|
© 1999-2002 Workers Online