Interview: A Life And Death Matter
Unions: Fighting Back
Industrial: What Cowra Means
Environment: Scrambling for Energy Security
Politics: Page Turner
Economics: The State of Labour
International: Workers Blood For Oil
History: Liberty in Spain
Review: Go Roys, Make A Noise
The Locker Room
Tommy is typical of many of the tradesmen I have met throughout my working life as a Fitter and Turner. During my apprenticeship I was to meet and befriend many tradespeople, from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds, who helped shape us young 'rough diamonds' into tradesmen.
This series of stories is set in the early to mid-1990's, a time of political and industrial changes, and the two main characters are Tommy and 'The Boy'. Tommy was preparing for retirement, and the boy was taking his first unsteady steps in an alien world. I met them in an engineering workshop 'down South', when I was a novice tradesmen. I would eavesdrop on their conversations from time to time, mostly during our lunchbreaks, learning along with 'The Boy', laughing or sharing a tear as the old bloke spun another one of his fantastic yarns, from an unceasing supply of stories, and lessons. It was an education for all of us, and I hope Tommy's yarns will continue to delight and educate another generation of young people learning their trades.
As I write this introduction, the Australian Federal Government, under Prime Minister John Howard, has introduced its' new Workplace Industrial Relations changes which have, as of today, become law around the country. What this will mean for future generations of workers, and their apprentices, is yet to be seen. But I rest assured in the knowledge that regardless of the changes to our workplaces, there will be countless people like Tommy out there in our workshops, mine sites, factories and refineries, helping, guiding and nurturing their young charges through the minefields of work and life.
And bloody good on 'em!
March 27, 2006
Tommy and "The Boy"
Welcome to the workshop boy, my name is Tommy, and you'll be with me for the rest of the day. Now, instead of standing there worrying about wether your going to piss yourself or not, how about picking up my tool bag and following me? Stay close behind, and don't talk, I've got a bugger of a headache, and I'm not in the bloody mood for apprentice's today. Got it?
- Well, I er...
I said don't talk boy, just nod your head...that's the way. Now get in behind.
Nearly smoko boy, let's have a spell before we go back to the crib room. Just park your arse on this drum and tell me a bit about yourself.
- Well, my name isn't 'boy' for a start.
Is that right?
- Yes, and while we're about it, I'm here to learn a trade, not to be your slave. My metal work teacher at school said we had to stand up for ourselves in the workplace and not get pushed around by all the cranky old buggers who will be our tradesmen for the next four years.
Did he now?
- Yes he did. I'm going to learn how to be good fitter & turner, and get my trade ticket so I'll have something to fall back on if my career doesn't turn out any good down the track.
Are you now?
- Is that all you're going to say old man?
Well, I'm finding it hard to get a word in edgeways at the moment, so I'll let my hands do the talking eh?
- Hey! You just hit me! You can't do that! Ouch! Stop that will you!
You seem to be very big on what I can and can't do boy. Someone's been filling your head with rubbish and I'm just trying to help empty it out before you get to working with some of the other 'cranky old buggers' in this place. They aren't as tolerant as me.
- You have to be joking! I'm telling the boss about this when we get back to the workshop, he told me this morning that his door was always open, and Tommy old son, I'm going to walk through it and tell him that you just hit me.
Goodo, but pick up all my tools first, wipe the muck off them and store them neatly in the bag and follow me back to the crib room.
- Pick them up yourself you old slave driver, I'm an apprentice not a servant.
Well boy, you're in for a few surprises. I tell you what, I'll pick up the tools myself while you go and tell the boss what an arsehole I am. Ok?
- You don't sound very scared of him.
Not really boy. I'm not scared of too many people in this world, certainly no-one working in this place.
- To hell with this, I'll quit.
No you won't. Now pick up my tools or I'll kick your arse until your nose bleeds...
- Alright, alright keep your shirt on! But as soon as we get back to the workshop, I'm packing it in. I didn't sign up for this shit.
Well boy, life is full of choices. Some you gets to make, others you have to live with. You'll make plenty of choices if you live long enough. Some good, some bad. Right now though, you'd better choose between hurrying up with those tools, or getting left behind while I go for smoko.
Have you finished your sandwich? Good, come with me.
- Where to?
We're going to see the boss.
- What for? Are you going to get me sacked?
What did I say to you about talking this morning?
- You told me not to talk because you had a headache.
Well, at least you were listening. Just keep your mouth shut while we're with the boss. And don't talk unless you're told to...sorry, did you just mutter something?
- No, I was clearing my throat.
Odd sound that boy. Coulda' swore I heard you saying "Get stuffed". My hearings' not what it used to be so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt.
Thanks for what?
- You know. For today, talking to the boss, everything. You're not such a bad bloke after all.
We'll see about that boy. Today was your first day, so I'm taking it easy on you.
- I think I'll be ok.
Like I said boy, we'll see. Now pack up this gear and have a bit of a scout round and pick up all this mess we made, then we'll go home.
- Did you mean what you said this morning?
Look boy, you can't talk and work at the same time. Don't just stand there, you'll make me look bad if someone comes along. That's more like it. And for the record, yes I did mean what I said to the boss.
- So you think I'll turn out alright eh?
I think my exact words were, "He's a cheeky young bastard but with my help he'll be alright." And once I get a few of those woolly ideas smacked out of your head, you should be ok. Not a patch on a real tradesman though, but there aren't too many of us left these days. You young blokes are more like parts fitters. Something breaks, you rip it out and whack in a new one. The way of the world I suppose.
- The boss thinks a lot of you doesn't he. I could tell by the way he was talking to you.
Well, he should boy, I'm the one that helped him get promoted in the first place, and he's married to my daughter.
- How come you never got promoted? Why would you help promote someone else?
Because I'm a carin', and givin' sort of bloke. You'll learn that over the next four years, if I don't strangle you. So are you going to quit now?
- No, I think I'll hang around and find out what you've got in store for me.
What about that bullshit about your career, and havin' a trade to fall back on.
- No bullshit that Tommy, that's what we were told to do at school. Everyone does it these days. OUCH! What was that for?!
I'm only going to smack you on the back of the head when you say something stupid boy. I reckon you're goin' to have one hell of a callous there in a few years time.
- What's so stupid about wantin' to better myself?
Nothin' boy, absolutely nothin'. But if I'm goin' to go through all the heart-ache and trouble to turn you into something resembling a tradesman in four years time, I'd like to think I'm not wastin' me time.
- Why would you be wasting your time?
Listen boy, how many kids applied for this job?
- I dunno. Coupla' hundred.
How many got apprenticeships?
- There was three of us, a boilermaker, an electrician, and me, a fitter.
Do you reckon among the 197 poor little buggers that missed out, that there was someone who would have been happy to spend his life in this place. Learnin' how to be the best bloody fitter in the country?
- I suppose so, but he didn't get the job did he? I did.
That's right boy, you did. And while he's stacking shelves at a supermarket tonight dreaming about becoming an apprentice one day, you'll be at home sleeping soundly thinking about your career, and how you've got a nice little trade to fall back on one day if you need it.
- Well, I never really looked at it that way. Does sound a bit selfish now that I think about it.
Good! I don't know why I bother with you young bastards some times, but every now and then one of you surprises me and actually learns something.
- Thanks Tommy, I hope I don't disappoint you.
You will boy, many times over the next four years, but with a bit of patience and a lot of luck I think you'll be ok. Now you've done an alright sort of job here today, tomorrow, I'll give you a chance to play with some of the tools in that bag, and we'll see how much damage you can do to yourself.
- I can hardly wait to show you. And, Tommy, I'd like you to stop calling me 'boy', I'm nearly seventeen now.
Is that right boy, seventeen eh? Well, I can't make any promises, but we'll see boy, we'll see eh?
copyright Greg Bray 2006
Bio of Greg Bray
Greg Bray was shocked as a boy to discover that his birth in 1966 didn't occur in Innisfail Far North Qld. but in Queanbeyan N.S.W. The news left him scarred for life, and during the State of Origin series he becomes a rugby league schizophrenic.
In 1976 his family moved to the small town of Gladstone in Central Qld. where his father was employed at the worlds' largest alumina refinery, Qld. Alumina Ltd. As a ten year old boy, Greg looked through the gates at the workers in their dirty overalls, and the big machines rumbling about inside the refinery, and all the bells, whistles, stacks and steam and wished that he could work in there. It looked like fun.
After completing school in 1983, he got his chance to work at QAL, as an apprentice Fitter and Turner. During the next four years he was taught not only a trade, but was given first hand experience at the dangers of alcohol abuse, the impact that 17% interest rates had on the working poor, and the dangers of heavy industry. During this time he started dating the girl he would later marry.
Four years and one hernia later, Greg left QAL and Gladstone, deciding never to return. He worked in a variety of contract jobs, in various mines, and small engineering shops, until landing a full time job with a Government Dept. in Brisbane in 1990. It was here he met Tommy, and started to record some of the old mans' yarns. Not long afterwards he married his long-suffering girlfriend and they set about starting a family.
Over the next 5 years Greg was part of a maintenance team at a Brisbane hospital. Like all great jobs the pay was lousy. He became the AMWU delegate during this time and held the position for a few years until in 1995 the workforce was downsized, by approx. 90%, and Greg took a punt on starting his own business.
Before the year was out, a dodgy Gold Coast businessman bought the business venture to an end and Greg dug his tool boxes out of the shed and returned to contract fitting for labour hire companies. He joined the swelling lines of tradesman outside various companies sometimes getting shutdown work, sometimes not. He eventually landed a full time job at the newly built Treasury Casino where he got another education. The things he saw and heard could fill a book that he may someday write, but it was the shock of the conditions of the Casinos' AWA's that caused him to start looking for work elsewhere.
In 1996 Greg and his small family returned to Gladstone, the only place in Qld. at the time where he could get good paying work and afford to buy a house. He found contract work at a local smelter. The smelter employees were on a long term strike against the newly instigated Individual Agreements. The company won, and the union disappeared from the site as nearly every individual either signed the new company contracts or left for greener pastures. Greg left for greener pastures and returned to his old stamping grounds at QAL as a maintenance fitter in the kilns area of the refinery.
In 1998 he made a leap into the Operations stream. Instead of fixing the gear, he was now responsible for running and maintaining it. The other big bonus of this move was the fact that he could now work shift work (two days / two nights, followed by four days off). One of natures night owls, he quickly decided to remain a shiftworker for life. During this time he changed his union affiliation to the AWU, and soon became the delegate within his section.
In 2000 he became involved with a Behavioural Safety Programme. This lead led to a job in the safety dept. for nearly a year, where he quickly discovered that he couldn't solve all the problems of the refinery, and that day work really, really sucked. The job allowed him to travel to other alumina refineries around Australia to talk with workers about safety, and refining issues. It was an eye opening, exhilarating but very trying time.
He returned to shiftwork, and was asked not long afterwards to apply for a job in the refinery's training dept. He applied and got the job, a staff position with all the benefits that came with it. He spent a year and half writing training manuals, doing presentations and inducting new employees into his section until his section was split up. About this time Greg discovered that he wasn't cut out for the corporate life of a middle manager, which included interminable meetings, political manoeuvring, backstabbing, long hours, and lack of contact with his shift work mates. To sum up, Greg discovered he has a very low tolerance for bullshit, and bullshit artists.
When his wife stopped ringing him at night asking him when he was coming home for tea, he realised that he was having an affair with his job. It was time to downshift. Pining for his beloved shiftwork, and he started to apply for jobs back on the shop floor. This proved to be more difficult than he first imagined, but he eventually succeeded in landing a shift job, doing one of the more dangerous jobs in the refinery. He comes home covered in filth, dust and grime, yet in spite of the pain in various parts of his body he is still smiling.
On his days off he likes to play with his three children, take his wife out to lunch, go fishing, visit the library & museum, play guitar, ride his bicycle & motorcycle, help neighbours with their numerous building projects and write. He has written a variety of short stories, the first drafts of several novels, and numerous column articles. Writing is a form of therapy, which he enjoys very much, but probably wouldn't enjoy so much if he was being paid to work to a deadline!
Lately he has been amazed by the audacity of conservative governments using the George Orwell novel "1984" as a blue print for their policies. He is even more amazed that the people of Australia let them get away with it by voting for them again and again.
Greg is slowly turning into an anarchist.
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