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ACTU/Community Arts Board 1983

Art and Working Life: Cultural activities in the Australian trade union movement
Ian Milliss and Ian Burn

Strong cultural traditions reflect the capacity of the labour movement to build on its own history.


A union which has lost a sense of its culture loses an essential relation to its own history and the understanding which that gives in current struggles. It is important then that the Art and Working Life programme should develop in ways which not only embody an understanding of labour movement history and its culture but also are able to contribute to the sense of its significance. The traditions are there to be built on, revitalised and transformed in that process. The history of the union movement is an integral part of a history of Australian society. Unionism became an accepted part of Australian life before most countries and workers here were the first in the world to strike successfully for the eight-hour day in the mid-1850s. Pressure from the early labour movement helped put Australia at the forefront of progressive social and work conditions. In this century, the shift from a rural-based radical trade union movement to an urban-centred industrial and service unionism has shaped much of the character of the labour movement today. As well, the waves of migrants who, especially during the post-war period, provided the cheap labour for the rapid expansion of industry have enriched and transformed many of the cultural traditions within working communities.

The history of labour has markedly influenced the character of culture overall in Australia. It might even be argued that the continuing and strong humanist theme within our wider cultural traditions is itself a reflection of the popular acceptance of trade union values.

This historical consciousness is crucial; it is the understanding of labour's achievements and defeats. While labour movement pressure has forced the enactment of much enlightened social and industrial legislation, in many ways the struggles to advance workers' rights and conditions are the same and merely being fought on different ground. This is illustrated in the degree to which struggles around the introduction of new technology have shifted from blue collar into white collar industries.

There are many ways that unions might see in the Art and Working Life programme a direct means of support: e.g. through commissioning cultural activities (plays, photographic documentation, films, banners, etc.) around union events, campaigns and achievements, union workers and leaders. A sense of historical value may be established from the outset, which means that particular actions, ideas and values cannot be forgotten, overlooked or suppressed. The cultural traditions become the vehicle of labour history: the means of reclaiming and building on past history and projecting its lessons into the future.

Some Boards of the Australia Council have been supporting activities among trade unions for several years and important work has emerged. Yet most would probably agree that, at best, success has been limited. Without diminishing the good work which has been achieved, many projects remain marginal to the major and daily work of unions and their members. These projects have received support of unions, but perhaps too often this has been on grounds of wanting to be seen to be supporting cultural activities, rather than making direct use of artistic resources. And while the appointment of arts officers to Trades and Labor Councils has assisted some of these activities, taken overall this has not created much on-going involvement of trade unions in the arts. With few exceptions then, art and working life appear to be as far apart as ever.

The way beyond this impasse is for more initiatives to develop within unions themselves in response to their own and members' needs and values. The projects must be seen to contribute to the activities of unions, not rival or distract from their work. The continuing threat of rising unemployment, the fight to maintain real wage levels and the quality of working conditions, the defence of the industrial rights of working people, the indiscriminate introduction of new technology and its impact on jobs and the economy, the erosion of welfare levels and services . . . these are issues absorbing the energies of trade unionists and the Art and Working Life programme can and should contribute to those struggles.


The culture of the labour movement is about how we fight to create a better working life.


Most practical initiatives in the programme to date have come from "outside" the union movement — from artists, arts administrators and officers. This reinforces the false idea that culture is something brought in from the "outside" and that the labour movement has no culture of its own. It has meant also that these initiatives tend to have been shaped by the traditional practice of middle class art. When, as often happens, the values of those practices are taken as the starting point, the art produced has little relevance to union members' lives. This creates a large gap between the artistic practices and the needs of the labour movement.

Up to this stage, even most discussion of art and working life has approached the problems from the "art" direction. While that encompasses a number of different theories, there have been few attempts to engage the issues from a trade union perspective. The ACTU's policy, which stands as a major landmark, remains an extremely generalised document: it is easy to agree with but identifies few values and is short on suggestions about how to implement it. What then are the practical implications of that policy from the viewpoint of labour organisations and working class cultural traditions?

A simple view indicates three different but often overlapping approaches. First, there are the attempts to bring entertainment and educational programmes into the workplace. Second, there is the direct use of artistic forms of expression in trade union work. And third, there is the development of workers' own cultural skills, expression and appreciation. Each of these entails a different relation between culture and work and has a role to play. But in this publication a priority has been given to the second approach — that is, the direct use of artistic forms of expression by unions in fighting for and actively creating a better working life, and ultimately a better life in all aspects.

This aim marks off trade union culture from the leisure cultures which we use to "re-create" ourselves off the job. The cultural traditions of unions involve a blurring of the usual distinctions between the arts and media, in favour of communication. While a trade union newspaper may carry a campaign simply and directly, a traditionally cultural event (e.g. a factory play) extends and expands the arguments, connecting them more strongly to people's everyday lives, to their experiences, feelings and needs. It can make the argument more widely acceptable or effective, at the same time giving the issues a cultural importance.


Trade union culture serves as a means of communication and organisation.


Today 49% of the Australian workforce belong to trade unions — nearly 2.6 million people. If we include the families of trade union members, the union movement represents the interests of about half of all the people in Australia.

Altogether there are 156 unions affiliated with the ACTU and a great number not affiliated. The average is a few thousand strong, but the largest twenty unions account for about 60% of the total membership.

So trade union cultural traditions emerge through often large and complex structures, respond'ng to quite practical needs of communication and at the same time contributing to the general well-being of their members.

The forms of this communication reflect the many levels and processes of union organisation. These are, for example, the forms in which a union communicates with its members; or a union communicates industrial and social demands to management within an industry; or a union communicates industrial and other issues -to the wider community; or members communicate union issues to their families and the wider community.

These underpin the life of trade union culture. All significant forms of union culture occur within those processes, from the humble campaign pamphlet to the resplendent banners carried in marches.

Even in these days of advanced communications technology, the most traditional of forms, the trade union banner, can be revitalised to retain its practical importance. Television news, regardless of its bias towards the sensational, "instinctively" seeks out the visual image which appears to summarise an event. The banner produced by Redback Graffix (and others) for the South Coast Miners Federation and carried in protest demonstrations in Wollongong and the march on Parliament House in November, has appeared in more news photographs and television news programmes than any other visual symbol as the South Coast miners fight to defend their jobs and stop the closure of mines.

Such a banner serves to identify the union and its members, generally indicates current issues and (perhaps more importantly with today's media) links seemingly separate actions and activities within a wide-ranging campaign or struggle.

So, just as important as restoring the old banners and preserving them in museums is the need for unions to commission new banners, but in forms which reflect their contemporary use. This allows them to be a centre of attention at a mass meeting or demonstration as well as providing an instantaneous statement of the issues to television audiences throughout Australia.

A contemporary banner should "read" quickly and be flexible in its use — and at the same time must still be seen to be asserting an entire history of union organisation and struggle.

Much less resplendent than the banners, yet often more important, is the ordinary pamphlet produced to put the union's view within a campaign. The argument must be given a visual impact through the structure of its journalism and its design as a visual object, and through its various levels as it is unfolded to be read.


Not fitting unions to artists' ideals, but fitting artists to trade union needs …


Traditional romantic concepts of the artist tend to be widely accepted by trade unions as well as funding bodies. Many artists hold a similar view of their role. Few see themselves as workers creating a particular kind of product — a fact reflected in the low level of unionisation in certain cultural areas, especially in the visual arts. This in itself is a source of many difficulties in bringing art and working life together.

Yet artists are trained and work within an industry, whether it is visual art or any other cultural industry. Since the establishment of the Australia Council and other state cultural bodies, these arts industries have received government assistance and sometimes a little protection, as do other industries. So, despite many differences, artists have common grounds with other workers, which give a basis for co-operation from the outset.

Artists often find trade unions difficult to work with — the larger strategies in which unions are involved make them slow to respond to cultural proposals, they often seem to function in bureaucratic ways and demand a lot of patience, effort and flexibility from artists who usually work in much less disciplined ways. Hence many artists do not persevere to uncover ways of participating in the union processes, but instead opt out and satisfy their need for involvement in socially or politically committed activity by contributing to the broader social movements or small activist groups. Without demeaning such work, it often becomes the "easier option". It allows the artist to avoid coming to terms with the wider organisational priorities necessarily underlying much union work. The upshot of this is that issues like the environment, disarmament, Aboriginal land rights, feminism and domestic labour appear as the subject matter of artists far more than issues like the impact of new technology, industrial legislation, industrial health and safety, shorter hours, etc.

Put in this critical light, the "easier option" permits artists to retain their "freedom" in the traditional romantic sense without pressure to evolve or transform their work. On the other hand, trade unionists may also encounter artists who become involved in "trade union" or "community" work as a way of enhancing their art world reputations and so fail to produce work which is of genuine use or interest to unions and their members.


... or letting members develop their own skills, forms of expression and appreciation.


The above emphasis on artists should not allow us to overlook the importance of encouraging working people in developing cultural expression according to their own potential and needs. This is important not just because of the prospect of the shorter working week and increased leisure time.

Too often these activities are dismissed as merely "amateur" or spare-time, not worthy of much attention or support. Moreover, the training of artists encourages a self-interested professionalism, so that what most people encounter as culture reinforces the idea that "real" culture should be left to the experts, the "real" artists.

In reassessing amateur activities, we need to develop ways of appreciating them, not by professional standards, not as simply the "low" end of the scale, but as cultural activities which serve different needs within different groups or communities.

Given such criteria, some of the misuses of these programmes may be avoided. It should be obvious that artistic forms of expression can be used for entirely other purposes by management. If it consists of no more than simple entertainment it can have the effect of distracting attention from poor working conditions. For example, music may be used at some workplaces to govern the speed of work or drown out noise. Or, if the work done is particularly unpleasant, workers may be hostile to anything which may make them look more favourably on their working environment.

On the other hand, these amateur activities can encourage other levels of communication among people in their workplaces. They can also encourage "communities of interest" to develop around particular cultural activities.

From a trade union perspective, this can become a means of political expression around issues of the working environment, industrial democracy and the quality of work itself. Since work occupies such a large portion of our lives, it should contribute to our continuing development. This doesn't only mean that jobs should be less monotonous, but also that it should be possible to regard the end product of one's work as worthwhile. Underlying those demands is the ideal of work being both creative and constructive.

This suggests a few of the ways that "amateur" cultural involvements can contribute both to the individual development of working people and to trade union activities.


If people demand meaningful jobs, won't they begin to demand meaningful art?


Many who are seen as just workers produce cultural work. The trade union banners now being restored at great expense and put into museums were originally commissioned from "mere" commercial firms (e.g. locally, Althouse and Geiger) employing skilled artists and crafts workers. The artists whose labour cartoons are now reproduced in often expensive books were employees of labour media proprietors or were working under commission on a free-lance basis. Many of the historical photographs that we study and value were taken by commercial or daily press photographers, or sometimes by amateurs.

These artists were employed to do a job and used their skills to the best of their ability . . . and in all probability had strong labour sympathies. They were employed under the terms of the Masters and Servants Act and their rates of pay and working conditions were protected by labour organisations. These artists and skilled crafts workers were working within a trade union environment, not as individual artists. (Why are artists thus employed regarded so lowly today?)

Other artists who, on a free-lance basis, were attracted to this field of work approached it by recognising existing (or potential) needs and using their talents to those ends.


If unionists aren't interested in culture, us because culture often isn't very interesting


Since the forties, we have experienced an explosion in communications technology, the commercial basis of which forces products and programmes to appeal to the widest possible audiences. While this tends towards a cultural "standardisation", it is not leading to a single homogeneous culture. Yet, at the same time, the lack of democratic access to the communications technology has undermined our awareness of the diversity of cultures in Australia, to the detriment of our culture as a whole.

These circumstances have weakened the impact of trade union culture in recent decades. During the same period real history has been "rewritten" in the sanitised forms of television soap operas, movies and school history books. Hence it has been increasingly difficult for unions to present a positive image of themselves.

Moreover, mass media representations of unions have intervened and set up conflicts within trade unions themselves. The anti-union crusades of recent years, both political and mass media, have tried to limit the role of unions, effectively denying the reality of their culture. Since working people rarely find their work experiences reflected in the mass media, this also devalues those experiences and the self-esteem achieved through working.

This is not simply an argument for the recognition of diverse cultural traditions. It also implies a demand for cultural democracy — i.e. some equality between the cultural traditions.

This equality cannot be achieved solely by cultural policy but presupposes some political changes, a factor contributing to the political content of much union culture. In order for cultural traditions of different sectors of society to develop freely, they must first have the conditions to develop freely. An aim of the Art and Working Life programme should be to support such conditions within the labour movement.

Contrary to this, arguments for "excellence in the arts" and "raising the level of appreciation of culture" unwittingly become attempts to neutralise any moves towards cultural democracy. But people are not interested in culture which they cannot relate to, cannot participate in and which does not reflect some of their own needs or experiences.


The success of the Art and Working Life programme rests on trade union initiative.


Just as the skills of artists can contribute to trade union processes, so too can union concerns contribute to enriching artistic traditions. The basis of that interaction is of mutual support, a feeling of interdependence.

At the present there is too little understanding of either community by the other. The commitment of many artists exists only on the most idealistic level: they feel the day-to-day work of a union is not worthy of their concern or talents. There is an example of a recent book on community murals in Australia, produced with tax-payers' money and printed in Japan: in other words, artistically it supports the needs of community and neighbourhood groups, but industrially doesn't support the right to jobs of people in these communities. With a stronger sense of mutual support that kind of contradiction cannot occur.

In societies such as ours, trade unions are the sector which takes the hardest look at the long-term direction in which this country is developing, rather than the short-term of next year's profits or election. They provide the most consistent organisational base to lobby and pressure for conditions guaranteeing the social well-being of future generations. That this places them in many situations of conflict should hardly be surprising, since many forces are working to erode democratic rights, especially of people in their working environments. The role of unions has been to resist and bring about changes in attitudes and policies, forcing governments to enact socially progressive legislation.

Seen in this way, trade unions play a vital role as a creative force within the society — in the longer social and political view, perhaps the most creative. Artists have no monopoly on creativity, neither should creativity be relegated to marginal and politically harmless areas of modern life.

Given proper recognition of their creative role, the activities of trade unions provide a natural basis for developing the cultural dimensions of working life, and therefore of all Australian life. But this means that artists must recognise creative forces greater than their own and that unions more fully acknowledge the cultural basis implicit in their organisations. That is the real basis of mutual support. The success of the Art and Working Life programme depends on the trade union movement being in control and the initiatives developing from their activities.