May Day Films

In celebration of May 1st we are hosting a series of films which document the history of the labour movement in Australia. Recognised worldwide as International Workers’ Day since the Haymarket Affair in 1886, we want to acknowledge the significance of this date as a day in which we can all recognise the struggles of working people to establish fair conditions of labour, accurate political representation, and importantly, dignified lives outside of work. These are struggles that extend from the past up until the present day. While we can’t be together at this time—we can’t demonstrate, hold parades, carry banners, or chant slogans—in watching these films, we hope we can collectively reflect on the significance of this date and on the battles which face us as working people today.

These are hosted here and can be watched until 31 May 2020.

Next week, more films will be available by Pat Fiske and John Hughes.

Amongst Equals, 1991

(Remastered, 2020)
Dir. Tom Zubrycki
90 min.

Amongst Equals is Tom Zubrycki's documentary film on the history of the Australian labour movement, from the 1850's up until the bicentenary of 1988. Originally sponsored by the Australian Council for Trade Unions, produced by Film Australia, and funded by the Australian Bicentennial Authority, the film remained unfinished due to the political climate at the time. 1856 has worked with Zubrycki to remaster the final edits of the film which we see today.

At present, Amongst Equals is the most comprehensive account of the Australian labour movement on film, and many of its closing questions are just as pertinent today as they were in 1991: "What could be the human cost of the future economy based on a small core of full time workers? Could democracy and a decent standard of living survive in such a world of the few job-haves and the many have-nots?" [...] "New challenges are emerging. Perhaps now more than ever, new tactics are evolving—as they must—if the unions and the labour movement are to move with the times. But while the tactics may change, the strategy will always remain the same: to organise, to assert, and to defend the rights of workers."

Kemira: Diary of a Strike, 1984

Dir. Tom Zubrycki
60 min.

"In September 1982, at the height of an economic recession, the Australian steelworks BHP announced its intention to close down some of its coal mines in the Wollongong area just south of Sydney. The worst affected was Kemira colliery where 300 workers were to lose their jobs. 20 days before the closure of the pit a group of 31 miners occupied the pit and established themselves 5 kilometres underground.

The occupation caught the imagination of the whole country. The miners received the backing of other unions, and the people of town of Wollongong swung-in behind them. The wives and supporters of the miners took over one of the company buildings and organised a kitchen, while fellow miners and supporters set up an embassy at the pit-top and kept vigil. A general local strike was organised which culminated in a train journey to Canberra, the national capital. On arrival, several thousand miners and steelworkers stormed Parliament House bringing the issue to the attention of the whole nation."

Film-Work, 1981

Dir. John Hughes
43 min.

"During the 1950's the Waterside Worker's Federation and other left wing trade unions supported a film unit whose work sought to provide images affirming the experience of workers and critical of the dominant media. The WWF Film Unit - Jock Levy, Keith Gow and Norma Disher - made a dozen films between 1953 and 1958 including the Australian documentary classics The Hungry Miles (1954), and Hewers of Coal (1958)."

Is It Working?, 1985

Dir. John Hughes
48 min.

In his position as Arts Officer at the Victorian Trades Hall, George Seelaf became one of the most influential yet subsequently little known figures to leave a lasting impact on Australian culture. After becoming a member of the Australian Communist Party in 1940, Seelaf went on a range of roles in the Australian union movement, including serving as the Secretary of the United Meatworkers' Union, the editor of its journal, and later a member of the ACTU executive. One anecdote recounts the part Seelaf played in publishing Frank Hardy's Power Without Glory, a book critical of the Labor Party of the time, which was illegally printed by Hardy and Seelaf on the Labor Party printing presses. Across all his roles, Seelaf fought for the importance of cultural life for everyday working people. He was hugely influential in shifting national debates on culture towards one that was more inclusive, culturally pluralist and multicultural. The material legacy Seelaf left is vast and includes founding the Footscray Arts Centre, contributing to the Art & Working Life program and conceptualising what would later become known as the 'Community Arts sector'.

John Hughes' film Is it Working? is a portrait of George Seelaf and his lasting impact on the union movement and the Australian cultural landscape.

Friends & Enemies, 1987

Dir. Tom Zubrycki
90 min.

In February 1985, over a thousand workers went on strike when the South East Queensland Electrical Board introduced cheaper, contract labour hire. In response, Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s conservative Queensland government introduced a state of emergency, sacked 1,002 workers, and started on an anti-union crusade which would have effects on workers for decades. Friends & Enemies tells the story of this bitter SEQEB dispute between the Queensland government, the Electrical Trades Union and their allies.

Rocking the Foundations, 1985

Dir. Pat Fiske
92 min.

4pm Saturday 20 June.
Followed by conversation with Pat Fiske, and Dave Kerin (BLF, Victoria; Earthworker)

This film charts the history of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), one of Australia’s most radical trade unions until its deregistration in 1986. Director Pat Fiske focuses on the activism surrounding the N.S.W branch in the 1970s, headed by Jack Mundey (1929-2020) and of which she was a member. This branch of the BLF strategically instituted Green Bans and Black Bans—strikes that halted construction or demolition protecting natural and built environments around Australia. Among the sites which were saved by the BLF, we can count numerous parks in Sydney and Melbourne, City Baths (Melbourne), The Rocks (Sydney), Queen Victoria Market (Melbourne), Princess Theatre (Melbourne), and The Queensland Club (Brisbane)—many of which gained heritage recognition after they were saved from demolition.
In their intersectional approach to environmental issues and labour movement activism, the BLF set strong precedents for the social unionism of today. Notably, German politician Petra Kelly witnessed the Green Bans in the 1970s, and on return to Germany, started the German Green Party—now regarded as the start of the usage of “Green” in European politics. Still today, the BLF is considered as one of Australia’s most radical experiments with worker’s democracy, demonstrating the power of labour to act as a harbinger of social change on all fronts. Their slogan, borrowed from Mao Zedong, speaks to the sentiment of this aim: “Dare to struggle, Dare to win.”

Shown in memory of Jack Mundey, who passed away this May.

Special thanks to Tom Zubrycki, John Hughes, Pat Fiske and the United Workers Union.