Labour History and the Visual Medium: ‘Strikebound’ and’ Kemira’

Lucy Taksa

In this age of ‘consensus’, when workers are being retrenched in the private sector and reorganised (a euphemism for reductions in employees) in the public sector, the technological advances which facilitate this process have made a strong impact on the field of History. The study, teaching and research thereof have increasingly been influenced by the so called ‘visual medium’. Indeed, it has been stated by researchers in the area of popular culture that book sales have been dminishing on a global scale. Meanwhile, the glowing approach of our Bicentennial has increased the legitimacy of and interest in Australian History outside of academia. This is certainly a pleasing development, but it is one that presents some problems for labour historians.

It may be noted that most of the celluloid representations of Australian History avoid the area of Labour History. Some of these are apolitical dramas set in the past. These ‘period films’ pay great attention to contemporary fashions in clothing and architecture, and to creating romance. Generally, such films glorify age-old myths which were and are generated by conservatives. Hence, we seem to have been inundated by ANZACS, ANZACS and more ANZACS on the big and small screens.

This notwithstanding, some notable celluloid representations of working class history have emerged, despite the monopolies which exist in the film industry. However, because of these monopolies, ‘public exposure has been limited, one might way, to the converted. For example, HummerNo.3 mentioned ‘Lousy Little Sixpence’ and ‘For Love or Money: A History of Women and Work in Australia’. To these may be added’ Bread and Dripping’ (a film based upon interviews of a number of women, of different class background, who experienced the Depression in eastern N.S.W.). ‘Strikebound’, and ‘Kemira: Diary of a Strike’. Although this article is ostensibly a review of the latter two films, so many good reviews have been written by various sections of the Left and the Labour Movement, that I propose simply to place them in the context of Labour History. and the Visual Medium.

As stated in HummerNo.7, after some controversy, oral history is now accepted as a legitimate source for historians to use. Another innovation which should gain such recognition is ‘visual history’. Hummerhas illustrated its interest in this field already (see review of South Sydney Visual History Project, HummerNo.5). In fact, oral history can provide the basis of visual history presentations. For example, ‘Strikebound’ was adapted from interviews collected by oral historian Wendy Lowenstein and filmed and taped interviews gathered by the film-maker Richard Lowenstein.

Sources, such as pictures and films, like oral reminiscences, assist in giving an insight into the material and intellectual culture of the people and therefore also into the events under scrutiny. The historical documentary-and/or the ‘docu-drama’ iscapable of this, but also much more. This medium, of necessity, must illustrate the effects of work and history on social existence. For example, ‘Strikebound’ through its protagonists – the Doigs, portrays the hardship which was endured by the miners and their families in the Gippsland coalfields during The Great Depression. It illustrates the struggles of a small group of men and women who organised the first ‘Stay-In’ strike in Australian history. It is the story of solidarity and cohesion in Wonthaggi’s working class community. As soon as the miners went on strike in 1934 the rest of this community, both in Wonthaggi and elsewhere in Victoria, mobilised in support. One example of this was the women’s organisation for the collection of food from the local shopkeepers. The integrated involvement of women in such struggles is vividly depicted in this film, as well as in ‘Kemira’ a refreshing development in the annals of Labour History.

The film medium-is also capable of recreating the past experiences, practices and beliefs of the working class for the benefit of working people. Further, the anger and frustration felt by workers in response to their socio-economic situation may be projected much easier from the screen than from a page in a book. In this regard, ‘Kemira’ is extremely effective. This film deals with the decision of Australian Iron and Steel, a subsiduary of B.H.P., to retrench 400 miners from 6 coal pits in the Wollongong area and the consequent decision by miners at the Kemira pit to stage a ‘Stay-In’ in September 1982. The film focuses upon the attempts of a group of workers to challenge the actions of their employers. However, in so doing it has captured and projected much more about a working class community caught in the webb of recession. It illustrates how the whole community, not only the male workers, but also their spouses and children mobilised in response to the emergence of industrial and political factors which they perceived as a threat to the conditions of their existence. That is, their social life outside of and including work. For example, when the mining unions took the company to arbitration before the Coal Industry Tribunal they claimed that the sackings were simply an excuse to facilitate the installation of labour-saving technology.

The mobilisation of the community which resulted prov1ded the basis for the unity required for these people of Wollongong to protest. This included the ‘Stay-In’ of 31 rank-and-file workers at the Kemira pit, the establishment of the picket or ‘Embassy’ at the pit top and the organisation of one of the most sensational demonstrations in Australian Labour History ‘the storming of Parliament House’.

The highlight of both these films, in my opinion, lies in their success in capturing the social drama of these events. Unlike some films which have focused upon the Trade Union Movement, such as ‘Waterfront’ neither of these two films romanticise it nor represent it as a hapless and impotent fighting force. Indeed, by demonstrating the responses of the families involved in their struggles these films have been able to illustrate the high degree of class and community cohesion in action. In addition, they both point to the basis for the transitory nature of this phenomena and the relationship between the continuing deterioration in economic conditions and the eventual fragmentation of the community.

Finally, and most importantly, taken together, these films show that class was and still is an integral element in the culture of Australian working people, despite the long term effects of the McCarthy and Menzies era on overt class rhetoric and the intrusion of such institutions as Macdonalds and ‘plastic money’. The film medium should be recognised and employed by labour historians in an attempt to overcome the influence of the above factors and in order to reach out to the contemporary subjects of Australian Labour History. Technological advances and acceptance of innovations such as oral and pictorial history now make such an endeavour not only a possibility but also a responsibility.