The Promotion of Working Class Culture: Arts and Working Life in the NSW Railways

Lucy Taksa

The Promotion of Working Class Culture: Arts and Working Life in the NSW Railways The burgeoning recognition of working life as a producer of its own culture has led to numerous projects which have resulted in exhibitions, murals, songs and books on the history of Australian working class culture. The momentum of such developments has been produced by the combined involvement of working people, ‘their families and their representative organisations, as well as by the State. Indeed, the Art and Working Life programme, set up by the Australia Council in 1982, exemplifies the active role played by the latter in the promotion of such activities. The Visual History of South Sydney which culminated in the Pictures for Cities exhibition (reviewed in Hummer in 1984) was one such project which obtained funding from the Australia, Council’s Visual Arts and Crafts Boards. As a result, the project was able to bring together artists, historians and community members to highlight the links which exist between industry, working life and social existence, both in the past as well as the present. Oral history and aural work undertaken by artists and local school children, in turn, reinforced community participation in local culture.

The Art and Working Life programme, which aims to involve artist’s and trade union members, thus fosters the creative force within our culture and simultaneously seeks to revitalize the cultural traditions of the labour movement. Yet, the actual products of this program hark back to periods in which working class people, themselves, sought to establish and protect practices by which they could maintain the standards of their lifestyles at work and at home. The culture that emerged was consequently built upon traditions which were associated with the workplace. And, the significance of such traditions for working People were reflected not only in the actions which workers undertook to protect them. Working people also left a record of their perceptions, experiences and struggles in their poems and songs.

It is this record which provides the foundation for ‘the Railway Unions Cultural Exhibition which was commenced in 1984 by Brian Dunnet, an electrician at the Chullora locomotive workshops of the State Rail Authority (S. R. A.) . Funding for the project was obtained from the Combined Railway Unions Committee, the S.R.A., and the Australia Council. The exhibition is in fact a music, song, poetry and visual history of working on Australian railways. At present it comprises 28 panels of photographs, sketches, cartoons, poems, and explanatory text; 24 of these focus upon the past and two deal with recent developments. Additional panels are planned to cover future prospects for railway workers and to acknowledge the multitude of people who have participated in the project. In addition, railway workers in the country centres of NSW have been inspired by this work and are joining together to produce their own panels.

For example, Lithgow railway workers, together with their local Council, are investigating that centre’s role in railway history. Railway workers in Bathurst have also begun discussions regarding the collection of their own local songs and poems which involve the history of working life.

In addition, Brian Dunnet has invited other railway unions, nationally and internationally, to contribute to the exhibition. He has suggested that this would be of particular significance for Bicentennial Celebrations at the International Trade Onion Conference which is to be held in Melbourne in 1988. We can only hope that the spirit of co-operation which marked the development of this project in the last couple of years will continue to gain momentum and, in turn, foster the emergence of other celebrations of working life which highlight the interaction between the industrial and social spheres of existence.

The exhibition was launched at Central Station in September, 1985. The visual display was supported by a sound track of songs, poems and interviews of Past and present railway workers and historians of the railways and working class culture. A video tape of a recent song-writing project undertaken in the railway workshops was also displayed in conjunction with the exhibition. Thus, for the first time, Sydney commuters encountered an oppositional history of the development of railway transport. The panels included treatments of early rail construction by convict labour, labour struggles for the Eight Hour Day, the introduction of foreign workers from Britain and Germany, the conditions under which the navvies laboured in the construction of the major rail lines, the growth of craft unions in the railway workshops, the patriotism of railway workers during the World War One and their later opposition to Conscription, the General Strike of 1917, welfarism during the 1920s, the replacement of steam by electricity, the effects of the Depression, armaments production at the Eveleigh Workshops during World War Two, post-war migrant labour, railway workers bands and concerts, the employment of Aborigines and women and involvement in the Save Public Transport committees.

The list of subjects continues. Yet, the significance and novelty of the exhibition rests not with the breadth of subjects it covers but rather with the perceptions of workers of their work experiences which are highlighted by the sources it employs. The songs and poems provide insight into the experiences of individual railway workers while the displays exemplify the collective responses of railway workers to their work-place conditions and the lifestyles which were thereby generated. The spirit of co-operation in the face of hardships a theme which emerges throughout the panels, poems and songs. Other recurring themes include the continuing struggle by working people to improve their material working conditions and the efforts made by the States various railway communities to protect and promote their own cultural activities which were integrally linked to work on the railways.

On March 3rd 1987 the sound track which accompanied the exhibition, entitled Railway Voices, was launched in cassette form at the Hyde Park Barracks. The occasion was marked by a showing of the exhibition and speeches which celebrated the emergence of this aspect of Australian cultural history.

The institutions which assisted the project were well represented: Donald Borne and Deb Mills for The Australia Council and Mary-Louise Williams for the NSW Branch of the Museums Association of Australia. Representatives of the MSW Labor Council and the SRA were also present. Donald Borne spoke of his own history which was linked to the railways by a relative who often told him tales about his work life and so played an important part in The Education of Young Donald. Needless to say railway work and railway culture played a role in the lives of many Australians over the last century.

The cassette itself marked a new departure for the history of working life. As was noted by Roger Woodward, one of the key speakers on the occasion, the collection and transmission of railway songs will, no doubt, play an extremely important part for Australian culture generally. Woodward commented that grass-roots music, such as railway songs, provide Australia s up and coming composers with sources for their work. He stated that some of the world s greatest composers, such as Mozart and Chopin, based their works on folk music which they collected on their travels. Certainly, Australia’s European history has been too recent to boast of a folk culture. Nevertheless, Woodward’s comments are an important reminder that cultural formations are not static. And, in the face of contemporary changes in technology and restrictive management practices it needs to be continuously stressed that Art and Working Life needs to be something more than simply a celebration of past traditions of co-operation among railway workers.

In fact, the links between work and social existence have recently been reinforced by yet another Art and Working Life sponsored Project based at the Chullora railway workshops. Group music sessions which were promoted by the musician-in-residence led two fitters, Bay King and Ron Russell, to start writing songs. And, on 1 July 1987, with the financial assistance of the Art and Working life programme and the Credit Union of the BRA, a single on the topic of railway cultural history was launched on to the Australian record market. The title song, 3801 – is named after Australia’s most famous (and recently restored) steam train, and side B of the record, The Zig Zag Railway are only two of eight songs that were written by Chullora workers as part of this programme which was organised by the Chullora Area Shop Stewards Committee, together with the NSW Labor Council. The continuing role of the labour movement in the promotion of and support for working class culture has been particularly evident in the development of such projects.

Projects such as these should not only promote the celebration of workers past struggles nor even cooperation in strictly social terms. More importantly, such undertakings will hopefully provide a basis for solidarity for current and future threats to traditional work practises which are being experienced by most of Australia’s workers.