Wollongong Workers’ Research Centre: An interview with Mike Donaldson

Posted: October 22, 2014 in Uncategorized

scan0001During the 1980s the Wollongong Workers’ Research Centre (WRC) produced about twenty five reports for various local unions and community organisations. The WRC was established to help workers investigate their own firm, the area in which they lived and worked, and the particular economic, political and social problems faced by working people in the Illawarra. It attempted to assist activists within the labour movement to understand capitalist crisis so they could better formulate demands, programmes and strategies around which to organise and mobilise in defending their living standards, jobs and rights.

Mike Donaldson was the founding Secretary of the WRC and wrote a number of the WRC’s reports. During this time Mike was also a sociologist at the University of Wollongong, a trade union activist and a prominent member of the Communist Party of Australia. I interviewed Mike in 2013 about the Centre’s establishment and activities.

When was the Workers’ Research Centre established?

It was established in 1979, initially as the Wollongong Transnational Cooperative (TNC). It came about with the help of Colin Hollis (then the Secretary of the Workers’ Education Association and later the ALP Member of Parliament for Macarthur/Throsby). We discussed it in the Communist Party that we would set something like this up. Then we talked about who we would get to help launch it. At that time I was teaching a Marxism course at the Workers’ Education Association and Colin was the Regional Secretary of the WEA. So his name went on the bottom of the letter that announced the meeting – to establish the Wollongong TNC. Someone came down from Sydney to the Wollongong Workers’ Club to talk about the Sydney TNC. They wanted us to be a branch of the Sydney TNC, but once we were established we changed the name to the Wollongong Workers’ Research Centre.

Why didn’t you want to be a branch of the TNC?

We set up the WRC because regional unions are deprived of the means to establish their own research, education, media and training capacities. All the resources get concentrated in the capital cities. All of the research, media and the legal staff and the people you need help from when you’re trying to effect social change are based in the metropolitan centres. So we wanted the WRC to be about delivering some of that expertise and knowledge to local unionists.

We went to a meeting at Dixon Street, the CPA national headquarters in Sydney, and talked to communists involved in the Sydney TNC and other research initiatives. I met Rod Noble there and he was doing something similar in Newcastle with the Hunter Research Co-operative. We talked about the idea of it. The idea was to assist workers more locally and to give control of the WRC to the workers. It was going to be run by local trade unionists themselves. And then we just went off and did it.

The other possibility for the WRC, well it was certainly in Merv’s (Merv Nixon South Coast Labour Council Secretary) mind, was that the WRC would be a research arm of the Labour Council under the direction of its Secretary. We wanted to be part of the trade union movement, or the labour movement, but not an adjunct of the Labour Council, or of the Sydney TNC. So that’s a reason why we made it an autonomous organisation within the labour movement.

Also, we wanted local workers to become involved, so they would learn how to do research, write, and make plans. So that when activists came to us who were engaged in campaigns, they might like to learn to do these things with us. Also, we wanted to be horizontally connected. ‘Red and expert’ is what we wanted to be. We wanted to be good at social research, social and economic analysis, to provide accurate and useful information. We didn’t want it to be biased. Telling people what they think they want to hear is not a good basis for action. We wanted to tell the truth as best we could.

We also wanted to be ‘read and expert’. We tried to keep the WRC reports smallish (not always successfully) and intelligible. We wanted to get beyond an academic research report and produce something people were able to read. The reports had interesting effects. They didn’t always encourage struggle. For instance, John Bourne from the Council workers’ union came to us to do research into the use of Gleniffer Brae by a private company, Pan-Pacific Music Camps. They were concerned that this public asset was being taken over by a multinational corporation. They wanted the WRC to find out all we could about it, which we did. It was actually a not-for-profit musical enterprise that was going to train young musicians. The council workers were prepared to make a big campaign around what they feared would be a privatisation. The report put an end to that.

How did the relationship with the Labour Council work, since the WRC wanted to remain autonomous? (The WRC’s self-description was “an independent and autonomous organisation working within the labour movement on the South Coast”.)

Trade unions were encouraged to affiliate to the WRC which gave them a position on the Committee of Management. As an affiliate, the Labour Council had one vote, just like everybody else. Merv’s relationship with the WRC and with me as its Secretary in particular was very interesting. When he wanted an academic and someone with professional qualifications by his side, I was his mate. The trade unions, the Labour Council affiliates, used to stick him in some impossible positions. South Clifton colliery was a good example. They were closing down the pit because they had run out of coal and Merv was supposed to try and keep it open and save their jobs. What was he to do? Well, he went to the WRC and brought me along to meetings, with the miners’ Lodge. We were then the support provided by the Labour Council to the South Clifton miners. But on other occasions he would use the WRC at our expense. So he would talk us down in public, “they’re not in touch with the real world that we live in” and play that old tune, which at that time was rife in the labour movement, that people with degrees were the class enemy or class traitors. He used to do both of those contradictory things, but he couldn’t control us because of our simple democratic structure.

So you had the initial meeting and established the Committee of Management from that meeting. Who was on the Committee?

It was small. A good sized meeting was about a dozen and a normal meeting about half a dozen. The main people were me, Bob Williams, Ken Williams, Graham Larcombe, Romaine Rutnam, Arnie Olbrich, Lenny Arber and Ken Kirby. Bob was the key – he was the WRC President and an organiser with the Metalworkers’ Union (AMWU). They were very interested in the idea of industry plans. The influence of Laurie Carmichael (Assistant National Secretary of the AMWU) was very strong on him and on Steve Quinn who was the AMWU organiser responsible for the steel industry. Steve was a big supporter of the WRC because he was in touch with the way that Laurie was thinking, which was about how the organised working class could intervene directly in industry and then the economy and that we should try to use the state as a lever to develop and achieve industry plans. But in order to develop workers’ plans we had to have some idea of what workers wanted and what they could achieve. The point of it was to work with rank and file workers, people working in the industry, to develop a picture of where an industry or company could go. And, at the time of tripartism, which was popular then, it was a possibility. The Federated Ironworkers Association were also supporters of the WRC and we had an office in the Ironworkers’ Building on Crown Street. The other big supporters were the wharfies. They were three key unions in terms of radical action in the Illawarra and they were involved, along with the Labour Council, the miners and the Council Workers.

How was the WRC funded?

The unions and other organisations paid a very small annual affiliation fee and there was individual membership as well. We also sold the reports cheaply and received donations. But basically the WRC didn’t need a lot of money because the labour, and there was a lot of it, was provided free. A lot of work went into writing the reports. The unions would pay for the printing costs of the reports and Gregor Cullen from Redback Graphix designed the covers. The Ironworkers’ provided the office, access to a phone, a photocopier and some filing cabinets, which was all we needed. The office was used mainly for the clipping of newspapers and we had substantial files on the various industries we were researching. We used to read and clip the Financial Review, Business Review Weekly, the Sydney Morning Herald, Illawarra Mercury, the Australian, and file everything. So, when someone rang up and wanted to know stuff, you could go straight-away to the file and find what was in the public record, which was a good resource.

Was the work of Mike Cooley and Mike Cooney a major influence on the work of the WRC?

Yes indeed. Mike Cooley was an engineer and Mike Cooney a fitter. Together they were the leaders of the British Lucas Aerospace Combined Shop Stewards’ Committee (Nominated in 1979 for a Nobel Peace Prize for their Alternative Corporate Plan to replace Lucas Aerospace’s weapons manufacture with ‘socially responsible production’). Mike Cooney came to Wollongong to speak and was well received, particularly when he mentioned that their inspiration had come from Jack Mundey, the BLF and the green bans.

He talked about what they were doing over there and the idea of workers’ plans. The Lucas Aerospace workers across several unions had developed concrete and careful plans on how to change the direction of their enterprise and save jobs. So this was a big influence on us and we thought why not? What impressed us about them, as well as the fact that they were expert, was that they had real plans, and that the plans were developed from information collected from the workforce. So, the workers would often provide the knowledge, not only ideas about what to do, but facts about what they were doing and how they were doing it. And then that knowledge that they had was put together and turned into a plan. So, their planning wasn’t top-down, it was more bottom-up, or horizontal.

What were some of the other influences on the work of the WRC?

Politics within the labour movement then revolved around questions about industry development, industry planning, and economic intervention. The late seventies was also a time of struggle around Australian political economy and this was another influence on what we were doing, as regional political economy. The people involved in that struggle, Ted Wilshire, Ted Wheelwright, Frank Stilwell and others, were in touch with us and we were informally connected in a milieu that was interested in similar ideas. We were trying to relate political economic analysis to what was happening locally, to how it was connected nationally and internationally. It was clear from what was happening overseas that what we were experiencing in Wollongong was not isolated.

As well as being influenced by the Hunter Research Co-operative, we also worked with Ben Bartlett and comrades in the Workers’ Health Centre at Lidcombe. They had a set up similar to ours, doing similar things but in the area of occupational health and safety. They were also heavily involved in our study of the coke ovens in the steelworks. We were very impressed by what they were doing and the things they were achieving.

What were the backgrounds of those involved in the research? Was it mainly academics and unionists?

Lots of unionists, I was the only academic. The other researchers were Graham Larcombe who was a consultant economist, Romaine Rutnam and Stewart Carter who were research officers at the University’s Centre for Technology and Social Change. The people working in that Centre were interested in what we were doing because it connected with their work. There was interest in technological change as a global process and we were focused on what was going on locally in the coal mines, the steelworks, the waterfront, offices, there was a maelstrom of technological change.

How did you decide what to write reports about?

We were always asked. We responded to requests from affiliates. So, if a union or community group wanted a report done, it affiliated with the WRC. That was a way of growing our affiliations and getting some money. The reports were always written for and with someone.

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How involved were union delegates and rank and file workers in the research process?

A good example of that was the South Clifton Lodge of the Miners’ Federation. They were in a situation where they obviously wanted to keep their jobs, but they were being told by the company ‘there’s no coal left’ and were looking at mass sackings. This must have been before the Kemira stay-in, I think. We all got into a couple of cars and went to Sydney to the Department of Mining and Energy, or whatever it was called, and we got maps of the coal deposits and leases and we sat down in this office and we looked at it and worked out the situation. This was a good moment because the miners were securing information themselves and we were helping them get there. So, they were then equipped with at least some idea and a much better idea than they’d had, of what was at stake. Then with their own knowledge about what was happening at the coal face, combined with this new information, they were able to put together a clear picture of the future of the pit. This helped them to make better decisions about how they were going to respond to the situation they were in, which in the end was ‘we’re fucked’. But, at least they didn’t take a course of action which they could never have won. In that way it was good, although not what they were hoping.

Probably the three most significant reports that I was involved in were on the transportation of coal, the steel industry and the waterfront. The one on the transportation of coal was for the Labour Council. It was a huge issue about the expansion of the coal loader and the acceleration of coal extraction and how to get the coal from the mines to the coal loader at Port Kembla. A little earlier, a coal company had unsuccessfully proposed rebuilding the old coal-loading jetty at Coal Cliff. The coal companies now wanted to put many more coal trucks on the road, so that was the issue. We had to work out what the options were and offer some sort of assessment of the costs, the effect on noise, the effect on the community, and the capacity of the roads and railway lines. That was a very big report, because of its political sensitivity. There was a real possibility that the mining unions would get into a blue with the environmentalists, the residents and with the rail unions. We had to cover every angle very carefully. In the end what we wanted prevailed and that was that the trade union movement came out in support of putting the coal on the railway lines. But in order to make that happen we had to cover all of the bases and involve all the relevant unions.

The report on the steel industry for the FIA (Federated Ironworkers’ Association) was the other significant one, because that was connected to the big campaign against mass sackings. What the steel unions (the FIA and the AMWU) wanted to know was what was causing the so-called ‘downturn’ in the steel industry. There was a lot of data from the Industries Assistance Commission, who had done a big study on the steel industry, and we had access to a lot of information from our own files, and the company (BHP) itself used to publish monthly input/output statistics. So, from all of that stuff we were able to get a pretty good picture of what we thought was going on.

The company’s argument was that they were suffering because of reasons external to its own operations and therefore the Government should provide it with assistance. They threatened that if they didn’t get help from the Government they would close the steelworks down. What the company used to do was sell whatever it could on the local market, and they geared production towards the local market, then anything above that they used to dump on the international markets, under-cutting the other steel suppliers, because they had the security of being Australia’s monopoly supplier of steel. We needed to find out the reality.

After our analysis, our position was that the ‘downturn’ was a product of technological change and wasn’t actually an effect of a recession. We were able to show that what they were doing was reducing the workforce because, with the introduction of new technology, they could produce more steel with fewer workers. This meant that jobs cut would never return ‘when the economy recovered’ because the crisis was not caused by a downturn but by the introduction of new technologies which were job destroying whether the economy recovered or not.

One of the ideas behind the WRC was stated as ‘involving the shop floor and community in the research process, but also to arm them with research to help in their struggles’. How well do you think that worked?

We set-up what we called Industry Groups within the WRC. We had a steel one, a coal one, a waterfront one, where we would meet with job activists and talk about the industries and the workplace. That was good for those of us in the CPA, as the Party on the South Coast included a coal branch, a steel branch and a waterfront branch, these overlapped with the groups in the WRC. We did work with rank and file groups, like the Rank and File steelworkers group, the lodges of the Miners’ Federation and the Merger Committee of the BHP mines that brought together miners from the seven Australian Iron and Steel pits.

In terms of engaging with the community the most successful one would have been the Port Kembla Harbour report. The report was commissioned by the Port Kembla Branch of the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF) and Peter Murphy and I wrote it. Peter was a ship steward and an activist in the Seaman’s Union at the time. Our report described how the Port was in a shambles and the objective of the Government was to turn it into coal and steel only. All of the general cargo ships were by-passing the Port because they were getting too big. The more they by-passed the Port the more the Port fell into disrepair. So it was a vicious downward spiral. We documented this and explained that once again it was technological change that was the problem, the fact that ships were too big for the Port and what we needed to do was upgrade the Port not downgrade it, and to do that we needed to secure more cargoes. That report was launched at a public meeting in the Town Hall which was pretty well attended and at that meeting the Port Kembla Harbour Task Force was established. And much to my annoyance I wasn’t on it, after all the work I’d put in for free. Although, in the end it was better that I wasn’t on the Task Force, because the Professor of Economics from the University, Ken Blakey, came onto the Task Force and he gave it more muscle. The setting up of the Task Force was pivotal in turning the Port around. That was a really big campaign involving the WWF, the Seaman’s Union, the Port Kembla Chamber of Commerce and the City Council. After a lot of work by a lot of people, we won the Grain Terminal, got an expanded coal loader and increased the ship repair capacity.

The glossy Kemira publication was quite different from the other reports and was meant to be used in a different way. Why was that?

It was an attempt to write something that people would read. The reports themselves weren’t really for a mass audience. They were usually for a committee of management or a small group of people. The Kemira Stay-In Strike publication was an attempt to do something different. Mark Cole had just arrived in Wollongong and he had been laying out Chain Reaction, a left ecological magazine. He got involved in the WRC and was keen to do layout and graphics. There was a lot of nice material around: pictures and things the Stay-in strikers had written for a newsletter the Kemira Stay-in News or something like that, Graham Larcombe and I had been putting together for them for circulation in the pubs and clubs. We had been impressed by the Metal Workers’ publications like Australia Uprooted and we liked that style of presenting information simply, clearly, accessibly, to the point. So, we produced a lot of copies of the Kemira publication, they were widely distributed to those involved in the strike, local activists, people supporting the strike, there were hundreds of people involved in it.

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You mentioned the Industries Assistance Commission and they actually requested a submission from the WRC. So what was the WRC’s relationship with them?

The Government set-up a Commission of Inquiry into the effects of the downturn in the steel industry and we made a submission to that after they requested it. I can’t remember a lot about it. Arnie Olbrich worked on that one, he was a good example of a rank and file worker that got involved in the WRC. He was a coalminer who got retrenched and then went to University on a retraining scheme and became involved in our research. We tried to make the case that Illawarra needed some Government assistance because of the huge effect the redundancies were having on the city and the region. BHP was pressuring the unions and terrifying the city with ‘we’re going to close the steelworks down’ and the steel workers and miners were storming Parliament. It ended up with a situation where the unions and BHP were asking for the same thing. That’s how the Steel Plan came about. BHP got Federal assistance in the form of massive depreciation allowances to quickly write off the cost of their new technology and they stopped the mass sackings. But there was still natural attrition. They stopped replacing people, so the workforce was still shrinking. What we wanted was an expansion of the steel industry, for the steelworks to diversify, more jobs. But capitalists don’t have any vision.

What was the WRC’s relationship with capital, with BHP, the coal companies?

They were in a tight spot, BHP, because we always used their own information. They were the only people who had information on the steel industry. So, they could hardly argue that we got the figures wrong. They seldom would take us on in any sort of direct way. Although, they used to try to undermine us to the union officials. But at least on the union side they had facts, information, analysis, arguments to fight back with.

What about the WRC’s relationship to governments?

Well it was the time of the Community Employment Program (CEP) and the WRC went into that and we employed a few people. They took over writing the reports and eventually got involved in the South Coast Employment Development Project (SCEDP). When they left to do more work for SCEDP, which was better funded, the WRC had been hollowed out and soon collapsed. (The trade-union initiated South Coast Employment Development Project aimed to “harness the combined resources and energies of government, unions, employer organisations and corporations … to expand in a dynamic way the economic base of the region” (South Coast Employment Development Project, 1986: 1)).

One of the criticisms at the time, from groups like the Wollongong Out of Workers’ Union, of the South Coast Employment Development project was that there was a danger that it was assisting capital to restructure, becoming an arm of capital, targeting jobs/skills that were deemed obsolete, increasing productivity and efficiency. So, in the WRC was there much discussion about the danger of assisting capital to restructure in its own interests?

None, because none of us were going to do that. We weren’t interested in doing that. We were there to help rank and file activists and unions and co-option was never talked about as a possibility. Part of the reason we called ourselves the Workers’ Research Centre was because there weren’t going to be any bosses organisations that were going to want to collude with a workers’ research organisation. But, we were interested in broad alliances which have always included small business people. The Port Kembla Chamber of Commerce was pretty crucial in the campaign for the Port expansion.

This was the time of the ACTU/ALP Accord when people like Laurie Carmichael, the Metalworkers’ union leader and prominent CPA member, and the Labor Party were very keen on tripartism, cooperation between unions, governments and business. While there was a left critique of tripartism – that it was a con, harnessing the working class to capitalist restructuring processes. So was tripartism embraced or critiqued by the WRC?

The position of the Labour Council and the CPA was critical support for the Accord. There were things that I think we got out of it, like superannuation and union amalgamation. But the rhetoric began to shift away from ‘intervention’, which was the buzz word initially. The Accord started out as something like the Swedish model of co-determination and then went more the German way. It went from an ‘equal’ partnership of unions, capital, the state, to being more like collusion with capital. We never sat down as the WRC and had a discussion about the Accord. We were responsive to our affiliates. We were critical of tripartism because it excluded all of those many people not in employment or in business or government. This missing fourth leg was the community sector. If we did have any sense of tripartism it was more about forming the broad alliance, which meant bringing together working class community and union organisations, the local state, left Laborites, communists, and small business people, and peak organisations of them, as well as individuals. We thought that together we could have an effect in the regional economy. That’s what we thought we were a part of.

Do you think the demise of the WRC in some way reflects the change from intervention to collaboration?

I don’t know. When I left it was still going okay. I thought the SCEDP was collaboration. It wasn’t asserting anything, except we want to make jobs. That’s good, but, it wasn’t doing a lot more than that.

What mistakes do you think the WRC made?

Getting into being an employer was a big mistake. It became part of the machine then. You had to have an employee/employer relationship and all of the stuff, and there’s a great deal of it, that goes along with that, consumes too much of an organisation’s energies.

How successful do you think the Centre was? Did it fulfil its aims?

Well my personal aim was fulfilled, because in those days it wasn’t common to see academics as workers. Now, of course, it’s quite normal to think of academics as part of the working class and many are active in the labour movement. The idea that you could be an academic and a worker was a foreign idea then. So, the political problem for me was, if you’re in the situation of not being a worker, and if you’re a communist, how do you connect to the working class? So, from my point of view the WRC was a good way of doing that. You could be in-touch with the working class through the WRC, as well as through your trade union and through the Party. I felt connected, I did useful work, I learnt a lot and I made some good friends, friends that I still have.

The WRC never had any high aspirations. It just wanted to help people in struggle to help themselves. And it did that. So, yes it was a success. The people that we helped were very happy that we were there. So, that’s a sign of some success that we were able to give union activists what they wanted rather than what we thought they needed. It could have been more successful at encouraging people into the research process itself. But, it did encourage a lot of people to get involved.

Some WRC Reports

The Hospitals Corporation of Australia: What it is, Why It’s Here And What It Will Do. With particular reference to the Wollongong region. July 1979.

The Coal Loader and Transportation of Coal on the South Coast. The crisis in coal; foreign ownership and coal loader users. Problems of transportation, environment and the state government position. For the South Coast Labour Council. November 1979.

The Industries Assistance Commission Report on the Steel Industry Products and Implications to Port Kembla Steelworks. Steelworks competitiveness – tariff reductions and BHP’s possible response. For the Rank and File Groups of the FIA Port Kembla Branch. June 1980.

The Bypassing of Port Kembla and Implications for the Regional Economy. Decline of non-bulk general cargo to Port Kembla; reasons for reduction in cargoes; the effects of under-development. For the Waterside Workers’ Federation. May 1981.

Kembla Coal and Coke. Ownership, pricing, reserves and future production. For the Coalcliff Lodge of the Miners’ Federation. May 1981.

The Boom Town Cuts. Wollongong City Council policy on income, expenditure, and the need for increased income and changes within Council. For the Municipal Shire Employees Union, Wollongong. September 1981.

Resources and Regions. An analysis of the implications of rapid expansion of coal mining in the Southern Coalfields. September 1981.

Is There a Crisis in the Steel Industry? An analysis the downturn in steel production and the problems facing the steelworkers of the Illawarra. For the FIA, Port Kembla Branch. November 1981.

Job Destruction in the Steelworks. The Fraser government position, 1979 IAC report, BHP propaganda, figures on steel production, exports, imports, market, employment and technological change. For the FIA, Port Kembla branch. June 1982.

Unemployment and Productivity. Two reports submitted to the Industries Assistance Commission to explain the situation facing the steel industry and steelworkers. September 1982.

Metal Fabrication and Engineering Shops Study. The corporate structure of several fabrication and engineering companies in the Illawarra. For the Metal Workers’ Union – South Coast District. December 1982.

Kemira Stay-In Strike. A pictorial document told by those involved in the Strike and the fight for jobs. October 1982.

Shell Moves In. A report on the ownership, operation and profitability of the South Bulli and Bellambi Coal Association joint venture. For the South Bulli Combined Mining Unions. April 1983.

1983 Labour and Community Conference Report. Proceedings of the 2nd Labour and Community Conference convened by the South Coast Labour Council and organised by the WRC. November 1983.

Elcom’s Financial Crisis – the Rising Cost of Electricity in the Illawarra. A report on the massive increases in the price of electricity, the impact on pensioners, unemployed and low income groups, NSW government policy and the mismanagement of Elcom. For the South Coast Committee of the Combined Pensioners Association, Retired Members Association of the Port Kembla Branch of the FIA and the Wollongong Out of Workers’ Union (WOW). January 1984.

The Kern Development: Viability or Liability? On Kern Development’s plans for the Central Business District and its implications for the community. For the Municipal and Shire Employees Union. April 1984.

The Nursing Home Bed . . . You May Be Lucky! An outline of the problems facing the Illawarra community’s aged people, an overview of the ALP policy on the aged, and what needs to be done. For the Retired Mineworkers’ Association. March 1984.

New Technology in Wollongong: a Labour Movement Viewpoint. The report covers aspects of new technology from a labour point of view, as well as local concerns, overseas experience including the Greater London Enterprise Board. March 1984.

Diesel Fuel Emissions. A report on the hazards of diesel fumes in confined spaces, with overseas standards of maintenance precautions. For the Metalworkers’ Union, September 1984.

Sell Us This Day our Daily Bread. An analysis of the New South Wales bread industry. 1984.

Australian Industry: the Future. Conference Proceedings, 1985.

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