A contest for who owns labour

“the wage system and employment are permanent industrial relations, and within their limits the proletarian must bargain to gain a little here and forego a little there, so that the representative leader becomes the arbitrator or ‘business agent’ of the union… The union leaders have therefore used their working class as a stepping stone by which to lift themselves into a more comfortable and secure position…” – Winspear, Economic warfare.

On a recent visit to the State Library of Queensland (SLQ) I viewed a film Amongst Equals, a history of the trade union movement in Australia by Tom Zubrycki, and was immediately struck by the censorship and unfair criticism directed at the film by Simon Crean (President ACTU) and later by Martin Ferguson (President ACTU).

This critique was in the form of recurrent subtitles throughout SLQ’s copy of the VHS tape on which the film was recorded.

I have also viewed another version of the same film without the caustic commentary by Simon Crean and Martin Ferguson (shown below). I wondered who was responsible for placing the comments (pictured) on the SLQ copy of the film?

Has an alternative view been sought by the curator to these damming comments by two former prominent ACTU officials and later Labor politicians? I have also read an excellent defence of the film cleverly titled Zubrycki’s Point by filmmaker and Canberra academic, John Hughes.

Regardless of who placed the subtitles on the film, I think the comments by Crean and Ferguson (pictured below) should be removed from the film and the unedited version to replace the offending item … there is no place for censorship in a public library.

Frames from Amongst Equals

If libraries and their patrons should think that these comments are truly reflecting the views of the ACTU on the history of the Trade Union movement, they may wish to check with the current ACTU leadership to see if it wishes to be associated with censorship and denigration of one director’s attempt to reflect on our history.

Regardless of the views of the current ACTU leadership, I do not think narrow opinions  held by ACTU officials should be imposed on what is a work of art. Public libraries like the SLQ should dissociate itself from such vindictive commentary.

If public institutions are tempted to allow unsupported and superficial commentary such as that by Simon Crean and Martin Ferguson to stand unchallenged, perhaps it would be wise to acknowledge that the people interviewed in the film are a veritable who’s who of trade union activists in Australia. Plus the filmmaker interviews labour historians of high repute making comment on the period covered by the film.

To name just a few of the people interviewed in Amongst Equals:

Professor Lucy Taksa (historian), Jim Hagan (historian), Jim Commerford (Miner in Rothbury Dispute & later Miners’ Federation official), Sally Bowen, Eileen Powell (trade unionist and women’s activist), Jack Mundey, Tom Hills (author and wharfie), Frank Argondizzo (senior shop steward at Ford car assembly plant at Broadmeadows) and Brian Manning (waterside worker).

Scene from 1929 Rothbury Dispute described by Jim Comerford in which a worker was shot dead by a policeman. Here miners are fleeing police towards the town of Rothbury.

To sweep aside the views of women and men who took part in the actual struggle of workers in Australia is disrespect indeed.

Ian Curr
2 July 2022

Amongst Equals from Tom Zubrycki on Vimeo.

Other films about the labour movement by Tom Zubrycki

Title: Kemira

Subtitle: diary of a strike

Author -individual: Zubrycki, Tom

Date published: 1984

Physical description: 1 DVD (60 min.)

In September 1982 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 Womens Auxiliary took over one of the company buildings and organised a kitchen, while fellow miners, wives and supporters set up an embassy at the pit-top and kept vigil. Local union officials called a one-day general strike. Several hundred miners, steelworkers and their families took a train journey to Canberra, the national capital. On arrival, they stormed Parliament House bringing the issue to the attention of the whole nation. The strike focused the attention on the plight of the people of Wollongong, which was typical of other Australian cities profoundly affected by the economic recession.

The film captures these dramatic events and then proceeds to follow the fortunes of some of the miners and their families and the profound changes they experienced when the strike finally ended. The film refers to wider historical processes and events and touches on the broader these of worker relations in capitalist economies.

Copies: 1


Classification: 331.89809943 ZUB 1988 DVD

Title: Friends and enemies

Author -individual: Zubrycki, Tom

Date published: 1988

Physical description: 1 DVD (87 min., 55 sec.)

“Friends and enemies” is a provocative film about one of the most vicious and protracted labour disputes in Australian history – one which saw the emergence of the New Right as a powerful force on the country’s political landscape.

In February 1985, over a thousand electrical workers went on strike against the introduction of contractors into Queensland’s Electricity Board. The Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, reacted by calling a state of emergency and sacking 1,002 workers. Soon after, he rushed through parliament some of the harshest anti-union legislation seen in Australia for over 50 years. The film’s director, Tom Zubrycki, spent many months following the main protagonists in these events. The resulting film is a chilling portrait of strong, colourful characters locked in a struggle where the stakes are the future of unionism itself.

Location: CD ROM / diskette collection

Copies: 1


Classification: 331.880994 ZUB DVD

Title: Amongst equals

Author -individual: Zubrycki, Tom

Physical description: 1 DVD (88 min.)

A film about the history of the Australian Trade Union movement – starting with the Shearer’s strike of the 1890’s and leading to the present day, featuring interviews with prominent unionists. The film was sponsored by the Australian Council for Trade Unions which eventually withdrew their support for the project after disagreeing with the Filmmaker’s interpretation of history.

Location: CD ROM / diskette collection

Copies: 1

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