Loving Christmas?

Posted: December 22, 2015 in Uncategorized


Regular readers of Revolts Now will know that I occasionally write about the use of love in advertising. In my post Advertising Love I discuss how every year we see debates about the meaning of Christmas and its increasing commercialisation. For many people Christmas is less about celebrating the birth of Jesus, or giving and receiving presents, and more about love actually (and Love Actually). Yet, many of us feel the tensions of the festive season, when we try to enjoy some time with family, friends and loved ones, only to find ourselves stressed and unhappy. Christmas is both touted and appreciated as a time of celebration, joy, sharing, communing, caring, happiness and hope. It’s also understood and experienced as a time of mourning, over-consumption, grief, loneliness, sadness and regret.

I’m interested in love as an economic, social and political power and how advertising demonstrates both the importance of love to people and to capital; how commercials express, subvert, co-opt, harness and exploit love. Today many commodities are marketed as a way of giving or gaining love, or of showing that we care. The purchase of some product, we are told, will make us loved or demonstrate our love for others.

Love can be deployed as a constructive tool and utilised in destructive ways. Last month, following the attacks in Paris, I wrote about the importance of love in countering terror and war. A few weeks later, as much of the world again focused on Paris, to see how bad the outcome of the United Nations Climate Change Conference would be, those seeking to thwart a more progressive environmental agenda demonstrated how limited perceptions of love, and general anxieties about people’s commitment to each other, can be harnessed to sell romantic corporate illusions of a green future.


This year, for the first time, my youngest daughter is spending Christmas away from home, in the UK. As she prepares for a Christmas of festive knitted jumpers and the possibility of snow (even though December temperatures in London have been warmer than July’s), she may have seen this popular British Christmas ad, for the John Lewis department stores, highlighting the distance many people feel between them, especially at Christmas. It also speaks to more widespread concerns about the planet/society and our desire to reach out to others.

And perhaps this year’s most popular UK Christmas commercial is ‘Mog’s Christmas Calamity’.

When such disasters befall people, this scenario is fairly common – their friends, family, neighbours and communities step-in to care and share. To a certain extent the ‘Mogs’ ad is a light-hearted expression of common concerns about the level of poverty in austerity Britain – with its message that ‘Christmas is for sharing’, as part of Sainsbury’s ‘Live Well For Less’ campaign. The company’s ‘Live Well for Less’ website begins by stating; “These are tough times for family budgets, no question about it.” The site also asks – “Do you love sharing stories?” – encouraging customers to upload videos of themselves reading from the book ‘Mog’s Christmas Calamity’ (in order to assist Sainsbury’s marketing campaign) while explaining that; “Telling stories can ignite imaginations and build bonds between parents and children.”

As indicated at the end of the ‘Mogs’ advert, as well as promoting themselves as supporting family and community ties,  Sainsbury’s is also sponsoring the charity ‘Save the Children’, reminding us that among the most prominent advertisers at this time of year are the major charities addressing poverty, homelessness, family breakdown, etc. The traditional economic exchange associated with the purchase of a commodity has increasingly moved into a wider range of spheres through the promotion of ‘ethical consumption’, solidarity, care and love. Attempts by apparently socially concerned or social justice-oriented businesses to reconfigure purchasing as a communal act, and positioning consumer choice as a site of responsibility, are becoming more common in today’s marketplace, as states promote ‘self-reliance’ and corporations seek to position themselves as interested in, and committed to, love.

Sainsbury’s 2014 Christmas ad won a ‘Marketing New Thinking Award’ for ‘Creative Excellence’. The message of this advertisment was “It’s not just about the gifts, it’s about who you share them with.” The commercial re-told the story of Christmas Day 1914 (on its one hundred year anniversary) when British and German soldiers laid down their arms and gathered between the trenches to share greetings and treats, exchange mementos and even play a game of football. Sales of the chocolate bar that featured in the commercial, combined with shopper donations, raised seven million pound for the Royal British Legion charity (supporting military veterans) and helped Sainsbury’s climb into second position in the British grocery sector. I wonder if they would have considered running a similar advert this year, appealing to widespread desires for peace, after the recent decision by the British Parliament to begin bombing Syria?

In the past few weeks, it’s been interesting to see popular use of the nativity story to highlight the plight of refugees and the need to shelter and support them. This grass roots social media campaign stands in stark contrast to the annual flurry of ‘we can’t celebrate Christmas anymore because of Muslims’ urban myths. Meanwhile, the deceptively self-depreciating and self-aware advert below instead uses the nativity story to portray the commercialisation of Christmas and the love/worship of commodities.

Clearly it’s not “just a bag” – it’s a powerful symbol. And who doesn’t love a beautiful bag? Even if it only promises short-term gratification and increased status, rather than eternal salvation. Of course, the commercial is humorous because it speaks a certain truth – that Christmas is no longer centred on Jesus, or on each other, but on what we buy.

Michael Hill jewelers are consistent users of love to sell their products, as commodities centred on relationship, displays of wealth, and gift giving. In this advert, from their long-term ‘We’re for Love’ campaign, they declare their commitment to a socially progressive view of love, where ‘everyone gets their fair share’. The commercial stresses that the company’s pieces of jewellery are much more than precious metal and jewels – they are declarations and symbols of love. Here the advertisers disguise the quest for profits with an appreciation of the value of love – highlighting the importance of moving beyond an appeal to individualistic yearnings for economic wealth and status towards collective desires for a diversity of deeper and richer social connections.

One of the world’s major advertisers, Apple corporation, spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year and employs some of the leading marketeers, psychologists and sociologists just to promote their phones. Consider the sophistication of this Apple Christmas ad, and how it positions the iPhone at the heart of the family.

The commercial centres on familial love – playing on common concerns about family breakdown, generation gaps and alienated youth, while countering the widespread criticism that smart phones are socially isolating, alienating and debilitating. It achieves its aims by demonstrating how this is may not be the case and in fact the opposite can be true. Having one of the largest advertising budgets in the world, Apple knows that associating itself with creative and positive social relations is their optimum strategy – love sells.

And what would Christmas be without a special song about hope, peace and love? So, this is Apple’s offering for Christmas 2015.

Clever advertising reflects and mobilises our emotions, our dreams, our fears, and our wishes. The products of Apple’s sweatshop labour can help us create a heart-warming Christmas tune, bring friends and families together, and communicate our common hopes for peace and love. But we are meant to ignore the immense exploitation and destruction of people and the environment involved in the manufacture of the corporation’s merchandise, and who benefits most.

During Christmas we are often faced with important questions about being together, how we spend our time, how we value each other, as well as the nature of the things we consume; their purpose, their fate, their potential, their ability to be something more than profitable commodities, waste, or a means to address fleeting desires. For many people, Christmas is as disappointing as seeking meaning and fulfillment in the accumulation of things. Yet, while the importance of caring  relationships can be contrasted to consumerism, they need not be opposed to consumption. People’s love for each other can be facilitated by caring for and about things. These things are not necessarily superficial distractions. But what does it mean to think of the things in our world as more than objects for us to profit from, use and consume – to have deeper encounters with them and to value them in more profound ways?

The distortions imposed on love by the capitalist system shouldn’t prevent us from proclaiming its importance. Loving social relations make our lives worth living despite, against, and beyond capitalism. A communal culture of sharing and caring can rebuild fragile relationships, communities and environments, weaving supportive networks and movements. These networks and movements are produced out of recognition that the widespread hunger and search for love, for meaningful connections to ourselves, to each other, to life, cannot be met by capitalism. Rather than buying into the failed system so widely promoted at Christmas, we can instead find joy, as we share the gift of love.

Nick Southall


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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.  (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)

The city of Wollongong has an Indigenous name, the meaning of which is contested. For tens of thousands of years before white invasion, the people who lived here cared for and helped to shape country. Today, Wollongong is a city of contrasts and contradictions; a beautiful city nestled between the mountains and the sea and blighted by the ugliness of heavy industry and pollution; a city of wealth and poverty; of over-work and mass unemployment. During the past century Wollongong has been a steel and coal city and a progressive city with a rich multicultural history.  For much of this period, Australia’s biggest company, Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP), was the major employer, wielding significant political and economic power. Its steelworks and mines marked the landscape and its rhythms of industrial society were central to the Illawarra region. The predominance of an industrial workforce, many of whom were employed by a single employer, also helped to create a strong class consciousness. As well, the region has a long history of social activism, the most powerful and influential collective expression of which has been the labour movement.

The Bloodhouse

The depression of the 1930’s saw a massive program of industrial expansion at the Port Kembla steelworks and unemployed people made homes out of the discarded packing cases in which the new equipment had arrived from England. A large shanty town grew up in the shadow of the works. Hungry men would gather around the gates desperate for work, waiting for the whistle to blow. The sounding of the whistle meant that somebody inside the plant had been injured, or perhaps killed. So there would be a new job available. By the time the victim’s blood had been washed away, the replacement would be on the job. Consequently, the steelworks became known as ‘the Bloodhouse’.

The maiming and killing of steelworkers was still a regular occurrence when a short film about the steelworks, The Bloodhouse, was released in 1976. The film highlights how the steelwork’s management sacrificed workers bodies and lives while pumping out pollution and propaganda “designed to get more for nothing out of the pockets of Australia’s working people.” While detailing the exploitation and environmental damage caused by BHP, the film also focuses on the treatment of migrant labour, and includes criticism of the steel industry’s ‘tamed’ right wing ‘grouper trade unions’.

During the 1940s, the Federated Ironworkers’ Association FIA (the largest steel union and now part of the Australian Workers Union) was organised by the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) under the leadership of Ernie Thorton. In 1950, CPA member, Jack McPhillips, was elected national secretary of the Union. After being jailed twice for his union activities, Jack was defeated in his position by the anti-communist ‘industrial groupers’ in 1952. In these ‘red scare’ years, anti-communists took control of many unions. During the 1960s, the CPA and other communists played key roles in establishing FIA Rank & File organisations to oppose the right-wing Short/Hurrell leadership. In 1972, the ‘Rank & File’ ticket won the FIA Port Kembla branch elections with Nando Lelli, an Italian migrant steelworker and a ‘friend of the CPA’, becoming the branch secretary. This broke the national dominance of the hard right in the FIA. However, the Port Kembla branch remained an isolated ‘red’ branch for many years and had to constantly struggle against being sabotaged by the national leadership.

By the later part of the 1970s, after years of determined and often bitter struggle, the workforce in the Illawarra steel industry was increasingly militant and had gained relatively advanced wages and conditions. None-the-less, the steelworks continued to damage workers, the environment, and the community. For example, during the recent past, there has been a great deal of attention given to cancer clusters among workers and nearby residents. The steelworks is Australia’s number one producer of the highly toxic chemical dioxin. Dioxin is a carcinogenic by-product of steel making that affects body organs, the immune system and the reproductive system. The most minute exposure to dioxin during the gestation period can leave unborn children with a reduced immune system. The house I lived in during the 1980s was just down the street from the steelworks. So when the south-easterly winds blew, my family and I were right in the path of its pollution, regularly exposing us to dioxin and a range of other chemicals. After my eldest daughter was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of nine, we wondered – Are these chemicals responsible for her malfunctioning immune system? Is it because of them she couldn’t open a door, brush her hair, dress herself, or walk upstairs without pain?

Learning to Labour

Come all students of High,
Hail to the black and the green,
Proudly shall our flag fly,
Flag of the emerald sheen,
Black for the coal that gives life to our mills,
Green for the meadows that slope to our hills,
Let your voice ring as we joyfully sing,
Wollongong High School are we!

(Wollongong High School Song)

In 1978, at the age of sixteen, I fled Wollongong High school and went on the dole. I joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and became a full-time cadre, working at the Party’s bookshop in Lowden Square, operating the Party’s offset press, and becoming active in a range of local organisations and campaigns.

During this time, the Illawarra had elected left-wing ALP Members to both State and Federal Parliament and the most powerful and influential local unions were led by ALP members committed to their party’s ‘socialist objective’ and/or by CPA members committed to a not dissimilar reformist party program. The Communist Party was well respected among broad sections of workers, giving it significant influence beyond the size of its membership. CPA members and sympathisers were in leading positions in the coal, steel, waterside, and other unions. Party member Merv Nixon was the long-standing secretary of the South Coast Labour Council, the peak regional trade union body and hence also a member of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) executive.

After working for ‘the Party’ for a year, some senior comrades encouraged me to apply for a job in the steelworks or the pits. CPA cadre on the shop floor were highly respected and the Party was keen to replenish its number of rank-and-file activists. Although it was difficult to get work in either industry, as ‘the company books’ were now closed and the era of mass sackings was about to begin, strings could be pulled and a position would be found for me. This was considered a generous offer and a sign of respect for my work. However, I was a young punk and my favourite band’s lyrics were ringing in my ear.

Face front you got the future shining,
Like a piece of gold,
But I swear as we get closer,
It looks more like a lump of coal,
But it’s better than some factory,
Now that’s no place to waste your youth,
I worked there for a week once,
I luckily got the boot.

(All the Young Punks, The Clash)

Instead, I became active in the unemployed people’s movement via various local attempts to create a union of the unemployed. This was a decision I was able to make thanks to the support of my comrades, friends and family. At the same time, many others were fighting for jobs in the steel industry (e.g. Jobs for Women campaign) and soon mass retrenchments began in both the coal and steel industries.

Through the 1980’s, the Illawarra felt the impact of major economic and technological change, as capital relentlessly attacked organised labour and deliberately targeted areas of worker’s militancy for ‘restructuring’. Mass sackings, unemployment, poverty and social crisis gripped the region. At the start of the 1980s, twenty five thousand people worked for BHP Steel and thousands more worked in the local mines. The sackings of the 1980s would see the closure of three quarters of the pits and the destruction of thousands of steelworker’s jobs. Over a number of years the steelworks’ workforce was slashed to five thousand.

Wollongong’s unemployment crisis brought out a collective response as the city’s people turned outwards in anger and protest. This included the infamous Kemira stay-in strike, the storming of Federal Prtw marcharliament by Wollongong workers, the Right to Work march from Wollongong to Sydney and the formation of the Wollongong out of Workers’ Union.  The militant actions of Wollongong workers played an important part in bringing down the Fraser Government and in the election of the Hawke Government in 1983 (for more on this period see Working for the Class).

 ALP/ACTU Accord

Leading up to the 1983 Federal Election, it was argued by BHP and its supporters that if the Government and workers weren’t willing to make significant sacrifices the Port Kembla steelworks faced imminent closure. When the ALP Government was elected it had secured an Accord with the ACTU. In Wollongong, the nature of the Accord process was made evident with the implementation of the Government’s Steel Industry Plan. Here the ALP and the ACTU accepted BHP’s long-term strategy and supported the provision of hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars to the company to invest in job-displacing technology. The Steel Industry Plan was rejected by local unions when they were told what it entailed. They argued that BHP was using the ‘steel crisis’ to achieve long-standing objectives of rationalisation and restructure. But as the steelworks’ general manager pointed out at the time – “there is nothing like the contemplation of the hangman in the morning to get people to co-operate.”

During the Hawke government years, the left ALP/CPA alliance was cemented through the Accord process. The CPA worked very closely with the ALP, promoting and policing the Accord, and had soon liquidated itself. The deepening of the Accord process, and the Hawke government’s implementation of neoliberalism, led to increasing tension  between those involved in unemployed people’s unions and many of the labour organisations backing us. Unemployed people were excluded from the Accord yet we were expected to support a strategy that would result in cuts in real wages, attacks on the social wage, and continuing sackings.

As unemployed unions continued to resist the Accord’s corporatist strategy, they were increasingly deserted by sections of their previous support base. At the same time, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) decided to classify people trying to help organise the unemployed, as subversives. As trade union power and support for the organised unemployed receded, the federal government intensified its crackdown on unemployed unions. In 1987, the government introduced an activities test which was then used to cut the benefits of jobless people attending protests and those active in ‘political’ organisations, since they were deemed not to be ‘actively looking for work’. Faced with growing attacks from the state and withering support from the labour movement, most unemployed unions disbanded.

Today, unemployment in Wollongong is higher than the national average, and nearly one in every two young people are out of work. The average income of Wollongong workers is now significantly less than the NSW average and the lack of local jobs sees twenty five percent of the workforce commute to Sydney each day for work. Many of Wollongong’s unemployed remain economically and socially marginalised, condemned to a life of poverty and insecurity, consigned to the worst public housing estates and subjected to police and Centrelink harassment.


In 2002/2003, BHP demerged its steel operations and renamed them BlueScope Steel. Since then job losses have continued, wages have been cut, and production has been increased. Today, the steelwork’s workforce produces around 500,000 tonnes of steel more than the Australian market needs. With the imminent closure of the domestic vehicle production industry, this excess will rise. At the same time, China’s steel production and exports are rapidly increasing. The current global oversupply of steel has already led to thousands of job losses at steelmakers around the world.

In July this year, BlueScope’s Port Kembla management were negotiating a new enterprise agreement with local steel union representatives. The company initially said it wanted $12 million in savings. After three months of negotiating, the company’s head office delivered an ultimatum, they now wanted $200m in cost savings, of which $60m had to come from workers, or the steelworks would be shut down. The unions and the NSW and federal governments were told, ‘it’s up to you to save the plant’ — and were given until mid-October to do it. If they didn’t, five thousand people’s direct and ten thousand people’s indirect jobs would go, $3.3 billion would be lost from the region’s economy, and the official unemployment rate would rise from an estimated 8.2% to 17%. (Since the regional unemployment rate is probably closer to 15% the estimate should be 24%)

The local union response was to brand the announcement ‘‘corporate blackmail’’ and ‘‘an example of corporate greed and arrogance,’’ explaining that; “We are being set up to fail” and; “The bosses’ Plan A and Plan B are not a plan for saving our industry, they are self-serving strategies to shut it down.”

However, since BlueScope was now demanding a full restructure of the workforce and the way work is done at Port Kembla, the steel unions’ national leadership got involved, with the Australian Workers’ Union’s (AWU) national steel officer, Daniel Walton, dealing directly with BlueScope’s ‘head of people and performance’, Ian Cummin. According to media reports, the two of them agreed that this would not be a normal union/company negotiation: they would instead treat it like mediation – a ‘problem-solving’ exercise. They also went to see the President of the Fair Work Commission (FWC), Iain Ross, to ask for a mediator, and Ross asked his deputy Adam Hatcher to do it. Before his appointment to the FWC (by Bill Shorten, the then Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations), Hatcher’s career had been spent as a lawyer representing unions, so he was regarded as ‘a union man’.

The negotiations got underway in late August at the NSW Industrial Relations Commission’s offices in Wollongong. According to media reports; “Early on in the negotiations, the local union reps still thought they were in a negotiation.” So, according to BlueScope sources, the AWU’s “Daniel Walton took them aside and convinced them to look at it differently, that it was life or death. The BlueScope people in the room say they can’t speak too highly of him.” Later in the process, when local union representatives again attempted to bargain with the Company, it was ‘union man’ Hatcher from the FWC who intervened, to give them “a lecture on the importance of seeing the process through.”

At the end of the talks, an agreement had been reached to get rid of five hundred people’s jobs, to freeze wages for three years, to suspend the remaining workers’ bonus scheme, and to include an ‘affordability’ clause if it was reintroduced. However, the company reportedly believes the most important union concession is the removal of the ‘status quo’ clause from the enterprise agreement. Since the Steel Plan in 1983, awards and enterprise bargaining agreements at Port Kembla have always contained a clause that said – if the company and unions could not agree the status quo would prevail. The new agreement says that if the parties don’t agree, a senior member of the Fair Work Commission will be asked to mediate and/or arbitrate. BlueScope management believes this “will allow them to regain control of the plant, and in particular allow ongoing change.”

Save Our Steel’ – ‘Defend Aussie Jobs’

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During the ‘mediation’ with BlueScope, the local union movement launched a ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign involving petitions, rallies, etc., gathering support for the continuation of steel production at Port Kembla and lobbying State and Federal politicians to protect the steel industry. As a result, there has been a growing chorus of voices calling for taxpayers’ dollars to be spent on supporting steel jobs in Australia. Steelworkers, the union movement, the ALP and the Greens have demanded a legislated requirement for Australian-made steel to be used in all state and federal government infrastructure.

Another suggestion by steel unions has been that Port Kembla be used to help build the new $40 billion navy ship fleet. Joining the call to arms, the AWU’s Port Kembla branch secretary Wayne Phillips hailed as a great success the securing of the Navy fleet construction on Australian soil and said the next obvious step was to make sure the ships were built with Australian steel. “This is an opportunity for the federal government and in particular the Prime Minister to show his credentials on promoting and defending Australian industry,” he said.

Sacrificing Workers

The union concessions to BlueScope are worth $40 million. The New South Wales government has also deferred $60 million in payroll tax payments over the next three years and the company intends to save a further $100 million through “worker flexibility”. Taken together, these savings provide the $200 million that BlueScope said would be necessary to keep the steelworks open.

In early October, a mass meeting of steelworkers endorsed the new agreement. But if anyone thought that, after decades of struggle, the Port Kembla workers were now totally cowed and broken, they needed to think again. According to reports from the meeting, it appeared the steelworkers were going to reject the agreement and there was anger directed at union officials. It was a concern that saw local AWU branch secretary Wayne Phillips beg those in attendance not to vote against the proposal. “Don’t vote no, please don’t,” he said. “It’ll be ‘see you in the dole queue’ if the no vote gets up.”

Of course, the threat of the dole queue is especially effective in areas of high unemployment, like Wollongong. Welfare benefits have been deliberately kept at poverty levels by both Coalition and ALP governments to help discipline the unemployed and to force workers into accepting worse conditions and poorly paid jobs. After being introduced by the Hawke government, ‘Work for the Dole’ schemes are now being widely expanded and the current Government has introduced the ‘Welfare Debit Card’ to further attack and punish the poor.

At the October steelworker’s meeting, Wayne Phillips admitted the steelworkers were being asked to eat a “shit sandwich”. “But think about if it shuts – what will happen? Where are you going to get jobs paying $60-$70,000?” He also said former ACTU secretary Greg Combet had gone through BlueScope’s books and confirmed the financial straits the company was in were real. Following the meeting, the South Coast Labour Council’s Arthur Rorris praised the sacrifice of the workers. “They’ve taken a decision to swallow a very bitter pill and to shoulder an unfair responsibility for the rest of us,” he said.

A couple of weeks later the BlueScope board announced the steelworks would be saved from closure. At the same time, they announced a six month profit of $180 million and the acquisition of the remaining 50 per cent of US-based North Star Steel for $1 billion. According to BlueScope, the move to full ownership of North Star “delivers on our strategy … North Star is the most profitable steel mill in North America; it’s cost-competitive and its employees are incredibly productive.” Importantly, North Star’s workers are completely non-union and the company has never had to contend with collective labour contracts nor work stoppages. According to BlueScope, the Ohio plant is 15 years ahead of Port Kembla in “alignment” between workers and the company “but what we’ve seen in the last eight weeks is you can make progress very quickly”.

Pointing out the national implications of this ‘progress’, in his weekly newspaper column, Wollongong’s Lord Mayor, Gordon Bradbery, took “the opportunity to congratulate the employees, management and unions for the remarkable efforts and foresight towards collaborative industrial reform in an effort to save Port Kembla steelworks. This type of collaboration sets a benchmark for industrial relations in Australia and forms the basis of reform which is required to secure manufacturing jobs in our country. Gone are the days of adversarial opposing ideological views at six paces. Everyone has to work together to achieve a successful economy and in the common interest of the whole community.” Similarly, Professor John Buchanan from the University of Sydney Business School suggested the Illawarra was now lighting a new way for the nation.

However, the deal was still contingent on the new enterprise agreement being formally ratified. This was due to happen at another mass meeting of steelworkers in early November. But this vote was deferred due to concerns a large number of workers would vote against it. Instead, the Fair Work Commission directed the company and unions to conduct a secret ballot of employees, while they set out to convince the workers to vote ‘yes’.

Many steelworkers were angry that company managers were already enacting conditions in the as-yet-unratified agreement, that they had added extra conditions into the agreement, and were starting to bring in outside labour. They were especially bitter about the purchase of North Star and a proposed $8 million bonus to be paid to BlueScope CEO Paul O’Malley “for achieving his targets, the specifics of which the Board won’t disclose.” The South Coast Labour Council has also pointed out the “incredible coincidence” that a large number of union delegates and workplace representatives had been targeted for redundancy.

Workers at both the main steel plant and the Spring Hill site had to vote on whether to accept their respective enterprise agreements. BlueScope said if either site voted ‘no’ – the steelworks would close. At the Spring Hill site, the agreement was accepted by a margin of just seven votes. After the vote, South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris told local media; “What this close vote tells us all is that the workers are at the limits of how much they can give back in.”

While local unions, politicians and the media hailed the steelworkers as “heroes” who had saved the steel industry by sacrificing themselves, The Australian newspaper instead highlighted ‘The man who saved the Australian steel industry’ – with leading business commentator Alan Kohler saying – “if one man can be said to have saved the Australian steel industry, it’s Daniel Walton, the 32-year-old assistant national secretary of the AWU. Walton ran the union side of the negotiations . . . which culminated in this week’s announcement that it would continue making steel in Australia. BlueScope says the credit for that announcement should go to Daniel Walton.” Still, regardless of who ‘saved the steelworks’, according to BlueScope’s major shareholder, Perpetual Investments, the decision to keep Port Kembla open is only an “interim measure”, before eventual closure in the next few years.

Poisoning Unions and Policing Workers


Those in the local union movement genuinely seeking to defend workers have little power and remain under the domination of the ALP and its influence within the labour movement. This influence is widely distrusted for fairly obvious reasons. For instance, the AWU, which covers more than 95 per cent of the shop floor workers at Port Kembla, has been front and centre of recent revelations about the corrupt relationship between the ALP, the union movement and employers. Former union leader Dean Mighell has described the AWU as “a dying union with a woeful history of employer compliance and ALP treachery.” According to Mighell; “The ALP was always the main game for many at the AWU and like so many unions, ALP affiliation was the reason for their existence.”

In 1998, within four years of joining the AWU, current ALP leader Bill Shorten became Victorian state secretary of the union. In 2001 he became national secretary, a position he held until 2007 when he was elected to federal parliament in a very safe Labor seat. In 2006, Shorten came to national attention when his friend, multi-millionaire businessman Richard Pratt, flew the AWU leader on his private plane from the United States to attend the Beaconsfield mine disaster. When asked why he took such a prominent role during the rescue at Beaconsfield Shorten said: “Perhaps it was a bit of company strategy, it was a bit easier for them if the hard questions they might get asked you know the ‘Whys’ of this, we weren’t going to get asked.”

Shorten has admitted that under his leadership the AWU negotiated agreements with bosses that would leave workers much worse off, while the Union received hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments during the negotiations. Just one of these deals lost 5000 workers more than $400 million over 10 years. Shorten has also admitted to receiving more than $40,000 in political donations from a labour hire company that paid the wages of his ALP campaign director for the 2007 election.

Various companies also paid for AWU membership tickets to help boost Shorten’s factional power within the ALP. A deal between Cleanevent and the AWU’s Victorian branch meant the union received $75,000 for not enforcing penalty rates for casual workers. The deal saved the company an estimated $2 million a year and employee names were supplied to artificially inflate union membership numbers. The majority of those signed up to the AWU were unaware they were members. After phantom members were culled and automatic sign-ups abolished, just 15 Cleanevent workers remained as members of the AWU — compared with the several thousand claimed to exist under Shorten’s stewardship. Yet, despite Shorten’s use of such members to boost his power within the ALP, the union lost more than 34,000 members while he was national secretary.

As the Port Kembla steelworkers were considering their future, in one of Wollongong’s more affluent suburbs, Wombarra, another prominent union leader, sitting in her $1.3 million dollar home, fronted the cameras of the ABC’s Four Corners program. Kathy Jackson, the former union official once lauded by the Liberal Party as a “lion of the union movement” for blowing the whistle on corruption, appeared on the show to defend her theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Health Services Union (HSU). Her partner, Michael Lawler, Vice President of the Fair Work Commission, also outlined how he had spent the past nine months on sick leave, working on Jackson’s defence, as he collected his $430,000 per year salary.

In August, the Federal Court ordered Jackson to pay $1.4 million in compensation to the HSU for misappropriating funds. She had funneled the money into a lavish lifestyle, including significant cash withdrawals, luxury goods, valuable artwork, fine wine and dining. Her union salary at the time was $287,000 a year. The serious financial fraud that surfaced in the HSU, including fraud convictions for another two former officials, Michael Williamson and former ALP Federal MP Craig Thomson, provided the Abbott government with a handy excuse to establish the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. When asked at the Royal Commission about her theft of funds, Jackson made the incredible claim that all of the cash she received was no longer union  members’ money once it had been deposited into her bank account. Jackson also siphoned off hundreds of thousands of dollars of HSU member’s money into a “slush fund” to help support the political and factional campaigns of her ALP allies, which included officials from the Australian Workers Union.

Coupled with the diminishing social power of unions due to changing class composition, low membership, job losses, strict industrial laws and co-option by corporate states, it is not surprising that revelations like these see union membership again falling sharply. Today, under fourteen per cent of employed people hold a union ticket. In the private sector, only one in ten is a member. Membership among young workers is down to one in every twenty.

Responding to the latest fall in unionisation figures, former ACTU assistant secretary, Tim Lyons has described the official ACTU response as “pathetic . . . quibbling over whether catastrophe is immediate or merely imminent.” He also pointed to “those with an interest in unionism continuing to decline” which includes former ACTU president and ALP Federal Minister Martin Ferguson, “loyally mouthing the views of his industry clients.” Yet, indicating the lack of understanding by those supposedly supporting unions, Lyons also argued that; “Unions have one, unchanged, membership model. It delivers terrific outcomes in large factories, and still works brilliantly in places like hospitals.” Clearly he has little understanding of how those in the auto or steel factories feel about their “terrific outcomes”, or any inkling of what HSU members have to say about their union’s ‘brilliant work’.

The relationship between the ALP and the union movement is poisonous for workers. The ALP polices workers on behalf of capital and channels workers struggles into electoral politics. The previous Labor government was elected following the ACTU’s Your Rights at Work (YRW) campaign which mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers against the Howard Government’s ‘WorkChoices’ industrial laws. The YRW campaign revolved around the strategic necessity for an ALP election victory and is widely regarded as having played a central role in the election of the Rudd ALP Government. Yet when the ALP returned to power in 2007, it did so on a platform almost as draconian as WorkChoices, but now with the support of the trade union movement.

A New City


The ‘realism’ of capitalism tells us to resign ourselves to ruthless competition, exploitation, social insecurity, poverty and joblessness, while fighting a never ending war against other people and the planet. Many people believe there is no alternative to moulding the population of Wollongong to the contours and needs of powerful corporations. But even if we accept the ‘laws of capital’ and live with growing poverty, insecurity and unemployment, it appears the local coal and steel industries have no future.

Capitalist managers utilise crisis, new technology and restructuring to increase exploitation and erode workers’ power. Yet, the hope and promise of new technology is to reduce the need to work for a boss. The potential now exists for a materially abundant and more leisurely era and I have always been more interested in social transformation – how to liberate our lives from domination – rather than defending people’s position within the capitalist system. Importantly, those who want to build a different world are already constructing a new city here in Wollongong, with alternative forms of production, distribution, and consumption.

An immediate and growing concern is how to organise production to meet people’s needs and desires without worsening the ecological crisis. In his recent article BlueScope blindsides Port Kembla workers, John Rainford explains that because of Wollongong’s continued dependence on the steelworks, the local economy is likely to be devastated by its closure. But “given that it is probably more likely than not, it is time for the unions and the community to come together and draft an alternative industry policy for the region. Time is running out.” In 2009, John was actually involved in preparing an alternative strategy for the local steel industry when he worked as a Project Officer for the Green Jobs Illawarra Action Plan. This detailed plan for ecological job generation and industry development aimed to protect and restore ecosystems and biodiversity, reduce energy consumption, decarbonise the economy, and avoid the generation of waste through ecology/closed-loop production methods. However, since there was a lack of commitment from big business, State and Federal Governments and both major parties – the plan was left floundering.

Now, we have a situation where an abundance of something as useful as steel is considered a serious problem. We’re unable to use it to improve our lives, unless a rich and powerful minority can gain enough profit for themselves. Instead of transforming industry, work and production, building life-exalting technologies and improving society, we must waste our productive potential to help maintain a system in its death throes.

BlueScope’s industry isn’t ‘our steel’ and this multinational corporation will continue to shop around – seeking the most cooperative governments and workers – in a ‘race to the bottom’.

Meanwhile, given a choice between a ‘green new deal’ and a massive military expansion both the current Government and the previous Labor Government have chosen the latter. When Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his defence Minister visited Port Kembla in 2009, the main response they offered to rising regional unemployment was a contract to supply steel for the Navy’s new destroyers and major expansion of the local naval base. The current Coalition government is continuing with the largest military expansion since World War Two.

As global war and regional tensions grow, competition with China has become an important component of corporate strategy. However, we needn’t worry too much ‘because we have a fleet of Navy destroyers to keep China at bay’. More realistically, there will be no naval battles with China, as both nation’s economies and futures are so closely intertwined. Instead, global class war involves pitting Chinese workers against Australian workers and vice versa. As well, the Australian military has been intervening in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria while playing a major role in policing the South Pacific. Australian armed forces are deployed to impose capitalist ‘restructuring’, law and order measures, and the removal of barriers for business.

Another major role for naval forces is the ‘defence’ of Australia’s borders from refugees (who are often fleeing the  military action Australian forces participate in). While capital and the wealthy are free to move wherever they wish and receive massive assistance from governments, workers/the poor face increasingly authoritarian restrictions imposed by a growing militarised state, supported by nationalistic forces, including sections of the union movement and the ALP. At the same time, increased military funding means less money available for socially useful production and development – cuts to social security, education, health, environmental measures, etc.


When we consider better ways of living, on-going debates about workers’ organisations and the nature of work are clearly important. These debates often highlight the lack of clear demarcation lines between ‘workplaces’ and ‘non-workplaces’, between ‘work times’ and ‘non-work times’, and between ‘workers’ and ‘non-workers’. Many of those in waged work are working longer hours and for more years of their lives, as part of an increasingly flexible, mobile and casual workforce. The imposition of widespread overwork and vulnerability is creating growing psychological, physical and social problems. Meanwhile, worker’s desires for a better life are expressed in their recognition that waged work is undermining social relationships and in their concerns about the ‘quality of life’ and struggles over ‘family and work time’. The uneven distribution of paid work means that while large numbers of people are ‘underemployed’ and the increase in casual work is creating a generation of working poor, a significant proportion of waged workers want less waged work, even if this involves a loss of income. Environmentalists also point out that using productivity improvements for shorter work hours, rather than more output, could mean that technological advancements go towards reducing ecological impacts.

It is also important to remember that despite the continuing poverty and degradation imposed on unemployed people, most continue to live worthwhile and valuable lives. They are not just powerless victims to be pitied and feared. Throughout Wollongong the poor are making positive social contributions in their homes, streets, neighbourhoods, and throughout the community. They are often involved in effective activities that create progressive individual and social change. None-the-less, there is a desperate need for greater solidarity and more support for the self-organisation of unemployed people, precarious workers, and all workers, here in Wollongong and across the globe, to increase our social power and to ensure we’re not a threat to other workers.

While the idea of shared interests between corporations, like BlueScope, and the people of cities like Wollongong, continues to restrict worker’s power and imaginations, unionists are still engaged in important struggles within their workplaces and outside them. Recently, there has been a proliferation of struggles around re/production – involving the creation of new organisational forms, alternative ways of being and different social relations. In Wollongong, unions remain an important part of these struggles. Still, traditional unionism is increasingly outdated and unable to represent a variety of domestic workers, students, unemployed people, cash-in-hand workers, the poor, mobile and flexible workers on short-term contracts, all of whom actively participate in social production and wealth creation.

There is clearly a need for democratic and powerful worker’s self-organisation to strive for better jobs, wages, working conditions and shorter work hours. A range of contemporary social movements are engendered by the bureaucratisation, corruption, conservatism and internal immobility within the union movement. These new forms of ‘social movement unionism’ are an organised expression of people doing something for themselves across the entire realm of social labour. They reflect changing ideas and practices of work and new strategies that seek to empower the individual and the collective.

Today, in Wollongong important struggles include;

Mutual aid and solidarity networks supporting individuals and collectives – most obviously young people, women, queers, refugees, indigenous communities, disabled, unemployed and poor people – via a wide range of activities and initiatives. From the micro to the macro level, social movements are countering patriarchy and transforming gender relations, challenging racism and constructing anti-racist community action. 

                                               stop forced closuresWollongong march against forced closure of Aboriginal communities. (May 1st 2015)

Many people are experimenting with different ways to address issues of personal and collective safety, around issues of peace, terrorism, domestic violence, mental health, well-being, etc. helping to create alternative forms of relating, communicating, cooperating and re/producing. 


                                       reclaim the night 2015Wollongong ‘Reclaim the Night’ (October 2015)

illawarra people for peace

There has also been a growth of consciousness raising, radical education, media and cultural production – including alternative news & analysis, gigs, performances, blogs, reading groups, radical history production and dissemination, films, videos, online debates, discussion, publication, etc.

fem soc

University of Wollongong Feminist Society – Free School.

radical Wollong Premiere

Premiere of the film ‘Radical Wollongong’ (2014)


Here in ‘the Gong’ powerful environmental movements range from those opposing coal seam gas and other fossil fuel production, right through to a growing network of alternative food production, distribution and exchange experiments.


Green connect

Current ‘work’/‘workplace’ struggles and contemporary class power is more diffuse, fluid, mobile, diverse and informal than traditionally understood. Many people are seeking to develop new ways to survive without capitalist work, to thrive in opposition to capitalist institutions, to unleash people’s power and potential, to build more democratic relationships, so we can better organise our own lives. Confronting capitalism involves much more widespread and complex considerations of wealth, the value of wages/money and consumerism. In Wollongong, a wide range of contemporary social movements involve a deep questioning of the purpose of work and production. They also remind us that the future tale of this city is yet to be written.

Nick Southall

As Walter Benjamin explains; “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” The current ‘war with no frontlines’ involves us all in “a form of civil war cutting across the social body.” In this war, the enemy includes all of the competitive, regimented, authoritarian and violent subjectivities which capitalism produces and reproduces within people. Thankfully, it is widely understood that a ‘war against humanity’ cannot be won by an escalation of violence. Instead we defend ourselves by organising global peace movements and networks capable of powerfully confronting terror and war, deploying our most effective weapons – solidarity, communication, encounter, assembly, creativity, democracy, hope, peace and love.

Responding to the latest attacks in Paris many people have highlighted the lack of attention to, and concern for, those attacked in other parts of the world. Others have pointed to France’s long history of repression, colonialism and imperialism. None-the-less, France and Paris have a range of alternative people’s histories, at the heart of which is love. Paris is widely known as the ‘city of love’; for some this conjures up romantic thoughts of ‘amour’ and for others revolutionary ideas about fraternity, the Paris commune, or the revolts of 1968. For me, it’s a combination of these and many other notions and practices of love.

A couple of years ago, I visited Paris with my partner and youngest daughter. One day, Sharon and I purchased a padlock from a little stall on the left bank of the Seine and crossed the Pont des Arts. The bridge was festooned with thousands of ‘love locks’ and we found a place for our little lock near the centre before throwing the keys in the river and embracing. Then in June this year, the Paris council removed all forty five tonnes of padlocks from the bridge, due to ‘safety concerns’. At the time I posted this picture on Facebook

love blog

declaring “They may dismantle the artefacts of our love, in the spaces of revolution we adore. But these are mere symbols, of a power which cannot be tamed.”

I have previously written about Paris during ‘the Summer of Love’ and how the youth of the city sought to overcome the tension between subjectivities of pleasure-seeking and social revolution. In Paris in 1967, Raoul Vaneigem explained that “those who speak of revolution and class struggle without changing everyday life and without understanding what is subversive about love . . . have a corpse in their mouth”. In 1968, as revolt swept across France, many of those on the streets opened their hearts and proclaimed; “Embrace your love without dropping your guard”; “Revolution, I love you”, and “The more I make love, the more I want to make revolution. The more I make revolution, the more I want to make love.” Forty years later, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made clear that the legacy of revolutionary love was well and truly alive in France, when he insisted the goal of his government’s conservative renewal process was to do away with 1968 “once and for all”.

The response of many governments, authorities and people to the recent attacks in Paris has been to stoke fear, foster hate, deepen despair, and unleash more violence. Yet love will not be tamed or done away with. While the attacks add to unending sadness and heartache, what I have mainly been struck by is the ability of people to be brave, hopeful, peaceful, and loving. The intent and the result of terrorism is that it wounds us all and those who use violence to increase fear and hatred can be found everywhere. Some have been appearing on my Facebook feed. Yet, my friends have also made sure I see messages and examples of courage, hope, peace, and love. This has included the circulation of information, statements, the discussion of opinions, the creation of blog posts, memes, songs, poems, etc. Importantly it has included a widespread defence of Muslims & refugees – from the French city of Lille, where anti-Islamists were forced off the streets just hours after the Paris attacks,

to peace songs and ‘Muslim hugs’ on the streets of Paris,


to the Illawarra People for Peace BBQ (mainly organised by the local Christian, Muslim, Catholic & Buddhist communities) I attended last week.

illawarra people for peace

Across the world, once again, we see powerful creative action to help deal with war/crisis/terror, with countless gatherings, engagements and events building bridges across borders and demonstrating that hope, peace and love can be, and is, embedded in our practice.


Along with every horror, the reality of common hope remains. A few months ago I blogged about the importance of hope and how fears and anxieties are transmitted between people – leading to widespread hopelessness. I also discussed how hope effects the way people think about and perceive events, the way we behave, and how it motivates our activity. Hope involves the expectation of something good, and we tend to use the past and present as the best indicators of the future. If we view the past as a long series of disasters and defeats, the present and the future are likely to appear grim. Instead of looking back with a sense of disappointment and regret, we can keep alive the experiences, lessons, and experiments that offer us some hope. Our optimism can be based on the reality that, despite the level of current suffering, what we want has already and does already exist in some ways; or at least parts of what we desire are already present. This can provide evidence of what is possible. Every day, around the world, there are many wonderful things happening and these should give us confidence that when we try to create a better world it is possible to succeed.

PEACE paris peace

The shock and awe of terror and war shrouds our love, dims our hope, makes us angry, scared, and want to fight. Yet, despite obvious setbacks and obstacles to peace, the desire and struggle to end violence is widespread. A common response to the attacks in Paris was an outpouring of creativity and the most popular artwork was this peace symbol. Still, I don’t underestimate the power of those creating, maintaining, and profiting from war and terror and have recently written about these threats. The question of when/if violence is a legitimate defence from attack is a complex issue which I’ve discussed at length elsewhere. Faced with a global war of terror, feelings of powerlessness are understandable. Yet, despite the impact of military propaganda, in word and deed, the reality of hope, peace and love are evident; illuminated by a multitude of brave, powerful, and peaceful acts.


Today, there is a renewed interest in love and an upsurge of experiments to unleash our positive desires for connection, for more constructive and profound relationships. Here love is a desire for collective development and fulfillment, a social process that satisfies the need for love at the same time as satisfying the desire to love. This love isn’t spontaneous; it requires organisation, education and training. It is a gift produced for shared use through a variety of forms that help to coordinate this sharing.

All over the world people can and do resist isolation and estrangement, building togetherness and caring communities by confronting violence and repression. Yet, love is under constant attack and our ability to defend it depends on people’s capacities to act in affectionate ways, to share knowledge and power, to look after each other, and to construct alternative social relations by building love in families, among friends, throughout social networks and movements.

From below, the most popular global response to war and terror is to turn to each other for support, to reach out to others, to seek safety in the embrace of those who care for us and who we care for – from those right in front of us, through to those we cannot see or hear due to the noise, smoke, and destruction created by bullets, bombs, and deception. In the face of tragedy, most people demonstrate the desire to help others; to aid recovery and healing, to share and care, and to make life better, inspiring a vast amount of affective social action.


Still, people are often paralysed by despair and hopelessness. In the face of unending horror we ask ourselves ‘what can I do?’ For me, it is the reality of hope and the existence of love that demonstrates what we can do here and now. Finding better ways of living with and remedying violence, hatred, and fear involves concentrating on our treatment of each other. Many people and movements have understood and articulated their struggles as forms of love, and learning to love has countered their isolation and connected them globally to others involved in struggle. Yet when we touch the hearts of others, we also touch their sorrows. Love can be scary, because it makes us vulnerable, puts us in touch with each other’s pain, and is what most of us desire more than anything else. Because loving involves vulnerability it’s often seen as a form of weakness. However, love is a form of power; a power which produces more love.

A little while ago I wrote a post about global war, terrorism, and the widespread defiance of attempts to frighten us.  Most people are tired of fear and the more we share our fears, the more we make connections with others who share these fears, and the more we take courageous action based on our common concerns, the more likely it is we can declare – ‘We are not afraid!’ Even though we are afraid, we declare that we are not – to defy terrorism, to defy fascism, to stand in solidarity, to be brave, and to encourage others to be brave.

Most of us know only too well the stresses of putting our families, friendships, and other relationships under strain as we dedicate ourselves to various causes. Yet today there’s a growing understanding that these relationships are vital to progressive social transformations. Many contemporary social movements generate different types of interpersonal relationships through the creation of caring spaces, openness to diversity and the organisation of communal activity. They bring people together in supportive groups and joyful activities, realising a desire to locate ourselves in community, to make our struggles a shared effort, to experience the value of our connections with each other and the tangible power of love.

Why is it that a short statement on the Paris attacks delivered on a low rating ‘current affairs’ show has now been viewed by more than one hundred million people across the globe? Is it because Waleed Aly’s argument that ISIS is weak resonates? Or because it gives people hope? Or is it because his call to come together and counter hate with love speaks to people’s common understandings and desires?


And why the widespread popularity of this Parisian father and son video? Is it just that  such care and love is beautiful and reassuring? Or is it also because love actually is more powerful –  and this is the weapon most people use to defend themselves and others?


Nick Southall


The Workhouse

Posted: October 19, 2015 in Uncategorized

I was born in Walsall’s Manor Hospital, which was formerly the Walsall Workhouse, and where my maternal Grandmother worked. She was employed in the sewing room altering nurse’s uniforms and mending sheets and then became an auxiliary nurse. Walsall is a deprived English working class town in the heart of the ‘black country’, so called because of the effects of industrial pollution. The Black Country gained its name in the nineteenth century from the abundance of coal in the region and the smoke from the many thousands of ironworking foundries and forges. The region was described as ‘Black by day and red by night’ by Elihu Burritt, the American Consul to Birmingham in 1862. While Charles Dickens described it as a “cheerless region” in which “tall chimneys, crowding on each other and presenting that endless repetition of the same, dull, ugly form poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air.”

Much of this area of England has been plagued by poverty for centuries. In the fourteen hundreds, a medieval Poor Law,  the ‘Ordinance of Labourers’ was issued by King Edward III. The Law was introduced in an attempt to address the labour shortage caused by the Black Death, which killed about one-third of England’s population. The Law fixed wages and restricted the movement of labourers, as it was anticipated that if they were allowed to leave their parishes for higher-paid work elsewhere then wages would inevitably rise. Later ‘Poor Laws’ against vagrancy were the origins of state-funded ‘poverty relief’ and from the sixteenth century onward a distinction was legally enshrined between those who were able to work but couldn’t, and those who were able to work but wouldn’t: between “the genuinely unemployed and the idler.” While, the Poor Relief Act of 1576 established the principle that if the able-bodied poor needed support, they had to work for it.

The Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1601 classified the poor into one of three groups. It proposed that the able-bodied be offered work in a house of correction (the precursor of the workhouse), where the “persistent idler” was to be punished. It also proposed the construction of housing for the ‘impotent poor’, the old and the infirm, although most assistance was granted through a form of poor relief known as ‘outdoor relief’ – money, food, or other necessities given to those living in their own homes.The workhouse system evolved during the seventeenth century, allowing parishes to reduce the cost of providing poor relief, by establishing ‘Corporations of the poor’ to ‘rid the poor of the idleness and sloth’ which the ruling class claimed were the root of their condition. If the poor could be made to work harder, they argued, poverty could be overcome. Here the parish Corporations were expected to make a profit from the cheap labour of the poor and increased incomes for the rich were among the expected ‘positive outcomes’ of the workhouse regime.

Among the first workhouses established, Bishopgate Workhouse was built soon after, and in response to, the ‘weaver’s disturbances’ of 1675. These ‘disturbances’ were militant workers’ struggles that were suppressed by the Army. In Walsall, during the seventeen hundreds, there were many similar ‘disturbances’ by large crowds, demonstrating against political parties, the church, the crown, unemployment, and high food prices.

workhouse 3

Walsall Union Workhouse

As Peter Linebaugh explains in The London Hanged; “A new morality became triumphant among the capitalist class at the end of the seventeenth century.” Poverty was now evidence of wickedness, and idleness meant the refusal of discipline, subordination, or obedience. “The workhouses were institutions of incarceration and places for punishment. The purpose of the punishment was both to scare people on the outside and to produce docility on the inside.”

The early years of the eighteenth century saw the adoption of new repressive legislation – the Riot Act, the Transportation Act, the Combination Act and the Workhouse Act.

Under the Riot Act – if twelve or more people were assembled and a proclamation of a riot was read by a magistrate then any person who didn’t disperse was guilty of a felony.

The Transportation Act – authorised a sentence of fourteen years transportation to the colonies for those pardoned of capital offences and seven years transportation for those guilty of a felony such as ‘riot’.

The Combination Act made it illegal to enter into combination to improve wages ‘to unreasonable prices, and lessen usual hours of work’.

Finally, the Workhouse Act was introduced authorising parishes to set up their own workhouses. The Act stated that anyone wanting to receive poor relief had to enter a workhouse and undertake a set amount of work. Here they became the experimental subjects for a variety of work-schemes. By 1750, there were 600 parish workhouses and a government survey in 1776 put the number at more than 1800, with a total capacity of more than 90,000 places. The growth in the number of workhouses was bolstered by the Relief of the Poor Act 1782, which allowed parishes to share the cost of ‘poor relief’ by forming unions to build and maintain even larger workhouses to accommodate the elderly and infirm. So keen were some Poor Law authorities to cut costs wherever possible that cases were reported of husbands being forced to sell their wives, to avoid them becoming a financial burden on the parish. In one such case in 1814 the wife and child of Henry Cook, who were living in Effingham workhouse, were sold at Croydon market for one shilling.

As Peter Linebaugh outlines, the new repressive legislation of the eighteenth century combined criminal policy and labour policy to enforce labour both at home and abroad, while suppressing worker’s self-organisation by prohibiting public assembly and the formation of unions. Poor Laws and workhouses were counter-revolutionary weapons. The ‘idle’ were seen as a serious threat to the established order and the workhouse was an important innovation in social control.

Also looking at the early development of capitalism in Western Europe, Silvia Federici has explored the importance of the enclosures, the witch hunts, and the imprisonment and torture of the poor in prisons and workhouses. These crucial aspects of capitalist ‘progress’ intensified the fight for survival and undermined rebellion by disrupting the care and solidarity relationships which provide the basis for collective struggle. As Silvia explains, “the tendency of the capitalist class, during the first three centuries of its existence, was to impose slavery and other forms of coerced labour as the dominant work relation, a tendency limited only by the workers’ resistance and the danger of the exhaustion of the work-force.”

We Want More!

Growing up with communist parents during the 1960s I attended a wide range of protests and demonstrations. In 1968, as a six year old, we went to see the recently released movie Oliver. The film had a profound impact on me and led to a continuing love of Charles Dickens’ work. Oliver Twist was Dickens’ first major novel. It tells the story of the orphan Oliver who endures a miserable time at the workhouse and during his parish apprenticeship with an undertaker, before running away and being taken in by a gang of juvenile pickpockets.

Dickens had some experience of poverty and incarceration. When he was eleven, his father lost his job and was imprisoned in a debtors’ prison. So, young Charles was sent to work in a blacking factory, pasting labels on bottles of shoe polish. When he was growing-up, in the early eighteen hundreds, Dickens lived only a few doors down from the feared Cleveland Street Workhouse, which inspired Oliver Twist. ‘He would have seen girls and boys of only six years old — just a year older than him — bundled into carts and transported like cattle, often hundreds of miles away, to work in the factories and mills of Britain’s industrial heartlands, where they would be beaten as they laboured 16 hours a day in exchange for a few spoonful’s of gruel. And he would have shuddered as he saw the thin pauper-coffins arrive to bury the dead in the graveyard behind the poorhouse. He never forgot the sight, sounds and smells of that workhouse. And when he grew up he drew on those memories to reveal to Victorian Britain the inhumanity that went on under their noses in the name of progress.’

For me, as a six year old, Oliver was an eye-opening history lesson and incredibly thought provoking. The most famous and pivotal scene in the film is when Oliver asks for more food for the starving children in the Workhouse. This is the song leading up to Oliver asking for more.

Returning to school after seeing the film, I was struck by some similarities between the condition of the children in the workhouse and the children at my school. It didn’t help that the workhouse depicted in the film was made from stone and constructed in a comparable style to my school. Nor that my school proclaimed that ‘God is Love’, while displaying many of the contradictions and hypocrisy of Christian judgement and charity. As well, there was too much of the same type of regimentation, compulsion, and enforced work as a disciplinary tool for my liking. Obviously things were much better for us kids in 1968. However, it occurred to me that what many of us wanted was not more food, but more playtime. So, I gathered together my friends and organised a playground protest. When the bell went, we refused to go back to class, encouraged the rest of the school to join in, and marched around the playground in defiance of the teacher’s attempts to force us back inside.

The Walsall Workhouse

The former workhouse I was born in, Walsall Union Workhouse, was built in 1838. It replaced an older workhouse and could accommodate three hundred and fifty inmates. Many workhouses were constructed with the central buildings surrounded by work and exercise yards enclosed behind stone walls. A common layout resembled Jeremy Bentham’s prison panopticon, a radial design with four three-storey buildings at its centre set within a rectangular courtyard, the perimeter of which was defined by a three-storey entrance block and single-storey outbuildings, all enclosed by a wall. Entering the workhouse was a humiliating experience. People were stripped, scrubbed and made to wear uniforms of coarse fabric to avoid infestation. Unmarried mothers were put on a starvation diet to deter them from having any more children. Families were broken up: children were separated from their parents and husbands from wives. It was the children who often suffered the most. Pain was used to improve productivity: children were flogged with belts, their teeth were filed and their ears were put in vices to make them work harder. Some died, others were maimed for life. In one workhouse in Hampshire, the supervisor — a former sergeant major — was given to whipping children as young as two if they cried. Workhouse apprentices were often treated like animals and fed on scraps. Many died of malnutrition.

All inmates deemed fit enough would be given tasks such as breaking stones, or ripping apart old rope to separate the strands so that it might be recycled, or to produce ‘caulking’, a substance used to waterproof barges. Some inmates were allocated tasks in the workhouse such as scrubbing, kitchen duties, or caring for the sick. Others picked oakum using a large metal nail known as a ‘spike’, which is probably the source of the workhouse’s nickname. Bone-crushing, useful in the creation of fertiliser, was a common task, until a government inquiry into conditions in the Andover workhouse found that starving inmates were reduced to fighting over the rotting bones they were supposed to be grinding, to suck out the marrow.

In 1867, a sanitary commission from The Lancet medical journal paid a visit to the Walsall Workhouse. The Lancet’s report revealed that whole wards of inmates lacked a toilet and shared just one towel for a week. The ‘tramp wards’ accommodated up to twenty seven people, although they were designed for only seven. These wards were described as being like a dog kennel, only less clean and comfortable.

In 1896, the Walsall Workhouse was enlarged to include an infirmary. Further additions took place in 1903, taking the capacity to four hundred and seventy inmates. The eight infirmary wards had a total of two hundred beds and catered for patients who were admitted under the conditions of the Poor Laws. In 1926, more additions were made to the Workhouse, including a nursing home. In 1929, the infirmary was renamed Manor Hospital and the Workhouse was renamed Beacon Lodge. On April 1st 1930, the workhouse system was abolished in the UK, but many workhouses, renamed Public Assistance Institutions, continued under the control of local county councils.

When the Second World War began in 1939, there were still around one hundred thousand people accommodated in the former workhouses. During the War, the ‘infirm’ patients of Walsall’s Manor Hospital were moved into Beacon Lodge, so the Hospital could cater solely for wartime casualties. The former Workhouse buildings were also used as air raid shelters. As the troops went off to fight, including both of my Granddads, my father’s mum, Olive Southall, who lived in Birmingham, not far from Walsall, took the opportunity to support her young family by working the night shift as a capstan lathe operator at the Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) factory producing rifles and machine guns. This, of course, made the BSA a major target for Nazi bombers and the factory was repeatedly attacked by the Luftwaffe.

Despite the extreme danger, Olive and her workmates continued working through the raids, boosting production in the hope of assisting the men at the front. On November 19 1940, Luftwaffe bombing killed fifty three BSA workers, injured another eighty nine, thirty of them seriously, and trapped hundreds. On that night, stuck beside her lathe, the factory a chaos of smoke, fire, shattered machines, the dead, dying and injured, Olive was found and saved by a fellow worker. He smothered her burning hair and clothing with his coat and dragged her out of the inferno. Nearby another woman was trapped beneath her machine, crying out for help, begging to be saved for her children’s sake. Sadly, the machine was too big for them to move, and they had to leave her there to die.

After recovering from her physical injuries, Olive returned to work, this time as a brass grinder in another factory, across the road from her old school. Due to the bombing raids, my dad and his brother Brian were sent away, although not far enough that they couldn’t see Birmingham burning at night.

Although suffering from post-traumatic stresses and despite the constant threat posed by the bombing raids during the war, Olive’s work in the factories had given her a social worth, social life, social power and social mobility that post-war was again denied to most women. Olive was now back at home as a housewife, with no labour saving devices, little money, a baby, two older boys, ill health and a war-weary husband. She spent most of her days as a hardworking, but poorly rewarded, housewife. Her only paid work was as a low waged domestic cleaner for a more well-off family. In 1953, she committed suicide by drinking a bottle of cleaning fluid.

My maternal Grandmother, Gladys Grainger, was born in 1918. She grew up in a very impoverished household and overcame many obstacles to win a scholarship to a selective school. However, her parents couldn’t afford to buy her shoes, so she was given some boy’s boots by a charity to attend school in. When she appeared in the school’s play wearing her boots people in the audience laughed at her. As soon as she could, at the age of fourteen, Gladys left school and went to work in a factory. After the war, she went to work at the former Workhouse – what was now the Manor Hospital. Into her sixties, until she was forced to retire, Gran would ride her pushbike to work, up hills, through the rain and the snow. On returning home she would do most of the housework, cook the meals and look after my Mum, her brother Ken and sister Debbie. During these years, Gran became an active unionist and outspoken campaigner around workplace issues, community campaigns, anti-war struggles and many more. She joined the Communist Party in the early 1960s and as she aged became active in the pensioner’s movement.

workhouse 2

Walsall Manor Hospital

When, in 1957, the Walsall Workhouse officially merged with the Manor Hospital, some of the old Workhouse inmates were kept in after it had closed. This is one reason that, for many of the old people in Walsall, the continued existence of the Workhouse haunted their final years. My Mum vividly remembers how, when she was young, her maternal Grandmother would beg “you won’t let them take me to the Workhouse will you?” This was a common fear amongst her generation, with many Walsall residents reporting similar experiences. The aged poor were terrified of ending up in the ‘Spike’, scared of going to the Manor Hospital, and often experienced humiliation and shame when they ended-up in the Hospital’s geriatric wards, which had previously been part of the Workhouse.

Work for the Dole

For a long time, I’ve been writing about the use of work, poverty, and joblessness as tools for social control. Part of the motivation for this writing were the many years I spent being unemployed. Having also been an activist in the Wollongong Out of Workers’ Union (WOW) I leared a great deal about how joblessness is organised to discipline the poor. During the 1980s, WOW and other unemployed people’s unions were a thorn in the side of the Federal Labor Government, powerfully opposing their neoliberal work and ‘training’ policies. In 1986, the Hawke Government introduced ‘Work for the Dole’ as part of a strategy designed to increase the effectiveness of the unemployed as a ‘reserve army’ of labour and to re-impose work on better terms for capital. Then in 1987, as part of a concerted attack on the organised unemployed, the Government introduced an ‘activities’ test’ to proscribe political activity by the unemployed. The test imposed a wide range of activities on, and increasingly strict requirements to be met by, unemployed people to avoid losing their social security benefits. Soon after its implementation, the test was used to harass and cut the benefits of unemployed people attending protests and those active in ‘political’ organisations, such as unemployed unions, as they were deemed not to be ‘actively looking for work’.

Under the ‘activities test’ I was persistently harassed by Centrelink and the Commonwealth Employment Service and forced into attending ‘job clubs’, applying for crap jobs, and signing an ‘activities agreement’. This ‘agreement’ gave government agencies more control over what I did with my time and a new means to deal with my ‘recalcitrance’. Around the turn of the millennium, I was given an ultimatum, ‘if you want to continue receiving welfare benefits you must undertake work for the dole, or enrol in an educational institution’. After some deliberation, I chose to enrol at Wollongong University. Since then, I have continued to interrogate the use of work and unemployment. Recently, I was asked by the Australian Unemployment Union (now Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union) to give a talk about WOW. The part of my talk that received the most positive response was when I spoke about how being unemployed and active in the Out of Workers’ Union seemed to me much more important than any other type of work I could have been doing.

The Struggles Continue

For hundreds of years the workhouses were powerful weapons used to scare and punish the poor and it took many years of intense struggle by millions of people to dismantle the workhouse regime. Today, wide-ranging and powerful struggles continue, seeking to improve working conditions, to reduce work, to redefine it, to change how it is valued, to democratise it, to share it, and to eliminate all capitalist work. Yet, the more people challenge and refuse the imposition of work that benefits a few, the more the bosses try to force us to labour for them. In contemporary Australia, ‘Work for the Dole’ schemes are being widely expanded and the Government has introduced the ‘Welfare Debit Card’ to further attack and punish the poor. Under the $5 billion Jobactive system, not only do privately-owned employment service providers have the unprecedented power to effectively fine job seekers for missing their ‘job search appointments’, but unemployed people under 30 are forced to work 25 hours per week, for six months, in order to receive the dole. Many of those taking advantage of this enforced labour are authoritarian and conservative religious ‘charities’, like the Salvos. The Government and those they serve continue to benefit from the cheap labour of the poor, seeing multi-billion dollar corporate profits from the ‘Job Services’ industry as a positive outcome of the current work regime. Successive governments, both Labor and Coalition, have increased the harassment, intimidation and poverty of the poorest, enacting and enforcing a wide range of new ‘Poor Laws’, whilst amplifying the lies of their wealthy sponsors and agenda setters, claiming the unemployed, sole parents, the sick, the aged and the disabled are leaners, bludgers, cheats, scammers and idlers.

Meanwhile, groups like the AUWU are exposing the modern ‘Corporations of the poor’ which seek to make us all work harder for less. For those seeking help with the new Work for the Dole/Jobactive system, the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union has now launched a National Advocacy Hotline to help unemployed workers deal with Employment Service Providers. You can call between Monday-Wednesday, 10am-3pm, on 03 83945266. They also offer a call-back service, just email them – advocacy@unemployedworkersunion.com – with your concerns and they will get back to you.

You can also find out more here: https://www.facebook.com/unemployedworkersunion?fref=ts

Nick Southall

AUU forum

On Saturday August 1st, 2015, the Australian Unemployment Union (AUU – Sydney) held a public forum in Granville, western Sydney. The forum was facilitated by Jacquie Carovski from the AUU and addressed by Victor Quirk, a research associate with the Centre of Full Employment and Equity, University of Newcastle, Warren Smith, Assistant National Secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and myself. Victor outlined a history of employment and unemployment in Australia, how unemployment statistics are constructed, and why unemployment and underemployment are preserved. Warren spoke about the importance of unionism, unemployment and class, organising the unemployed, the importance of links and alliances with unions, non-sectarianism and independence. I spoke about the history of the Wollongong Out of Workers’ Union (WOW). Our presentations were followed by an interesting, informative and constructive discussion.

Here’s a recording of my contribution to the forum. Thanks to Mark Gawne for the recording and many thanks to Jacquie Carovski and all of the AUU comrades for the effort they put into making the forum a success, including the wonderful selection of food and drinks.


The Oxford Hotel ‘Riot’

Posted: August 7, 2015 in Uncategorized

Some say ‘nostalgia isn’t what it used to be’. None-the-less, there are still times when I feel the need to revisit the past and record some of Wollongong’s hidden history. For a while I’ve wanted to write about the Oxford Hotel ‘Riot’, which occurred on New Year’s Eve 1981. Due to the passage of time, and for reasons that will become clearer below, I cannot vouch for the total accuracy of the recollections in this post. While writing it, I’ve conferred with other people who witnessed the events covered, as well as conducting further research. Some of those present on the night in question remember the events with greater fondness than I do. It’s also important to point out that, in the past, there was a tradition of local youth confronting the police on Crown Street, Wollongong, on New Year’s Eve and some of those consulted about this post found it difficult to distinguish between the events of various years.

New Year’s Eve 1981

For my former partner and I the evening began, as did most evenings, with a session at our flat. A group of our friends sat around the lounge room smoking cones, catching-up on news and making plans for the night ahead. Fresh out of the parental home, I lived with my girlfriend in a small flat conveniently located at the top of Crown Street, just above the city centre. When our friends were on their way into town, they could be fairly certain that if they called into our place there would be a session going on, sometimes with the whole lounge room ringed by people, and bongs moving around the circle in both directions. Punks, mods, trendies, yobbos, bikies, and those not so easily labelled, could all be found sharing space and ‘substance abuse’. If you lived at home with your oldies and wanted to get stoned before a night out, were on acid, or abusing prescription drugs, or just looking for interesting and eclectic company, engaging conversations, and the chance to hear some of the latest alternative music, our place offered a warm welcome.

On New Year’s Eve 1981, one of those who called-in on us was a young man named ‘Stephen’. Only staying briefly, he headed off into town to meet some of his mates. Eventually, we all ambled down Crown Street to the Oxford Hotel. The Oxford, or ‘The Pox’, as we called it, was the underage pub, where kids could go and get drunk without being hassled about their age. It was also a place where drugs were easily accessible, it had an outlaw culture, and at times they’d be alternative bands performing. Many of those at ‘The Pox’ that night were on acid. The potency of this particular batch was indicated by a group of local bikies, possibly the source of that night’s ‘trips’, who were huddled together in the centre of the pub, clearly ‘off their faces’ and feeling unusually vulnerable.

The Oxford had a licence to stay open till 3 a.m. and as midnight approached many of the patrons spilled-out onto Crown Street to celebrate the New Year. Shortly after, they were joined by many others coming from nearby local venues, forced out by the more general 12 o’clock closing time. Soon, any cars attempting to drive along the main street were being slowed, rocked to-and-fro, and occasionally kicked or hit. As the crowd grew, it took over the whole street. With Crown Street now a New Year’s Eve party venue in full-swing, a young man in the middle of the crowd decided to sit crossed legged on the road. A short time later, a car attempted to push through the sea of bodies, initially bobbing from side-to-side and then being more aggressively rocked. The driver, feeling in danger, revved his engine and lurched forward, parting the crowd before him. Carving through the melee, his car struck the young man sitting on the road. The car hurtled on, as the young bloke on the road began having convulsions, violently thrashing about, while the crowd re-took the street around him.

Most of those on the street were very pissed and unable to see the young man’s plight amongst the wild commotion, continued their revelry and street occupation. However, someone called an ambulance. Soon it arrived at the top of the block with its lights flashing. Attempting to get to the accident site, it encountered an unmoving wall of excited people. Unable and unwilling to enter the fray without some protection, the ambos were quickly joined by a couple of police paddy wagons.

By now the crowd numbered in the hundreds and the sight of the approaching police was met by jeers, taunts, and a couple of beer cans thrown in their direction. Rapidly there were more cop cars and paddy wagons on the scene. Determined to advance, the cops inched forward, as the crowd grew and consolidated. While the ambos managed to reach the injured man, there was no avoiding a confrontation between the massing force of police and the increasingly agitated crowd. A sense of expectation grew amongst most of those present, as the face-off intensified.

This was a scene reminiscent of, and popularised by, the Star Hotel riot in Newcastle, which had erupted two years earlier. The Star Hotel riot occurred on the night of that pub’s closure and involved around 4,000 people who fought the police for two hours. Newcastle was in many ways a mirror image of Wollongong, a coal and steel town on the New South Wales coast not far from Sydney. In both cities youth unemployment was growing rapidly, along with the resultant desperation and anger. The young people of Wollongong who had missed TV news, or documentary footage, of the Star Hotel riot, were likely to be familiar with Cold Chisel’s immortalisation of the confrontation in their song ‘Star Hotel’, released in 1981, and had probably seen the song’s film clip featuring scenes of that night’s clashes, including the torching of a police car and paddy wagon.

Star Hotel – Cold Chisel

All last night we were learning
Drank our cheques by the bar
Somewhere bridges were burning
As the walls came down at the Star
Squad cars fanned the insanity
Newsman fought through the crowd
Spent last night under custody
And the sun found me on the road

At the Star Hotel
They better listen cause we’re ringin’ a bell
Ain’t no deals, we got nothing to sell
Just a taste of things to come, at the Star Hotel

Those in charge are getting crazier
Job queues grow through the land
An uncontrolled youth in Asia
Gonna make those fools understand

According to local media reports, at its height the crowd outside the Oxford on New Year’s Eve 1981 numbered 1500. As this was occurring just around the corner from the city’s main police station, and now involved a large number of cops, one of the local police commanders was soon on the scene overseeing operations. He was, no doubt, determined to avoid any replay of the events in Newcastle. Taking charge of his troops, he waved-in the assembled paddy wagons and began advising and organising his men. As he did, a chant of “Pigs! Pigs! Pigs!” grew into a crescendo. We all knew it was about to get ugly.

As the crowd’s chanting, taunting, pushing and shoving grew in intensity, and those at the front became more brazen in their confrontation with the ‘boys in blue’, one of the cops pulled out his pistol and aimed it at the crowd. Holding the gun at arm’s length, he slowly walked across the road in front of the line of police, pointing his revolver at the heads of those in the front lines of the disobedient mob. While his gun held the crowd at bay, the snatch squads began lunging into the throng. Under direction from their boss, small groups of cops targeted the biggest, angriest and most defiant.

Known local ‘toughs’ and ‘trouble makers’ were amongst those snatched. They were quickly bundled into the waiting paddy wagons. But the cops didn’t just throw them in and shut the door. During the Star Hotel riot, many people had escaped and were rescued from the paddy wagons. The Wollongong police weren’t going to let this happen. As they threw those arrested into the wagons, a number of cops got in behind them. It soon became clear that those unfortunate enough to find themselves inside these mobile metal cells were being beaten with fists and weapons. Most of the prisoners offered little resistance, but some, including a young man with a reputation for being ‘Wollongong’s hardest’, refused to be cowed, resulting in more police joining-in to subdue him.

The people arrested were eventually ferried away to the Wollongong police station. Yet, if you were amongst those who the police thought hadn’t been punished enough for that night’s, or past ‘offences’, it was to be a long night. There was to be no replay of the Star Hotel riot outside the Oxford and the police eventually managed to clear the road, close the pub, and herd everyone in different directions, until the centre of town was deserted.

We made our way back up Crown Street and returned to our flat. A little while later ‘Stephen’ was at the door; he had come straight from Wollongong Hospital, a few yards up the road, and his head was terribly swollen and bandaged. He’d been outside the Oxford at midnight, was grabbed by the cops, and had been bludgeoned with a large police torch. To make matters worse he was still tripping on acid.

Two days later, the Illawarra Mercury ran a story headlined 30 New Year’s ‘revellers’ arrested. In the accompanying article they reported that those detained were charged with resisting arrest, assaulting police and malicious injury. The article also quoted the Oxford’s publican who said she “was pleased there were no fights inside the hotel.” Not surprisingly, there was no mention of the police violence or the injuries of those arrested. Nor was there any coverage of reports that one of those taken into custody, and later transported to Wollongong Hospital by the police, had their fingers deliberately broken in the emergency waiting room, after loudly complaining about being bashed by the cops. Soon afterwards, a New South Wales Nurse’s Association meeting at Wollongong Hospital resolved not to accept police violence, to question any police account of incidents they were involved in, and to report any suspicious incidents to the South Coast Labour Council.

Nick Southall

* I consider this post a work in progress. If you witnessed the events covered, or have any information about them that you wish to share, please let me know.

oxford 2

Pirates – At World’s End

Posted: July 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

johnnyAhoy me hearties! Recently I was reading Fiona Jeffries’ book Nothing to Lose but Our Fear, a series of interviews with contemporary theorists and activists discussing fear, dignity, courage, and hope, when a news story about Johnny Depp visiting sick kids in a Queensland hospital dressed as pirate Captain Jack Sparrow came on the TV. I’d just finished the first interview in Fiona’s book, with Marcus Rediker, a historian of the sea, pirates, slavery and rebellion. In 2005, I had the good fortune to meet Marcus and participated in a workshop with him. After reading his interview, I decided to use it to help flesh out this post on the film Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

At World’s End is very much about the end of the world, or better, the end of worlds; the end of the pirate brethren, the end of business, the end of life, the end of love, and the end of slavery. The movie begins with what is probably the most powerful opening scene in a Hollywood family film (and a Disney film at that). It starts with a shot of a hangman’s noose, surrounded by soldiers, and then the flag of the East India Company.

When watching this scene it’s important to remember that the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are in many ways aimed at children and that they romanticise pirates and portray them as heroes. It’s also important to fathom that during 2007, the year the film was released, a ‘state of emergency’ was being promoted in many parts of the world, involving the suspension of legal, civic, and human rights.

As Marcus Rediker explains, during the historical period in which At World’s End is set – “Public hangings were big spectacles meant to teach lessons about private property, about power, about class, staying in one’s place. The same was true on-board a ship, especially a slave ship, where a captain would pick out a ‘troublemaker’ among the crew or among the enslaved, then use him or her as a medium through which to enact power through violence. The captain multiplied the power by calling everyone up on deck to make them witness its gruesome, bloody effects.”

“The regime of violence aboard the ship was central to the work experience of sailors and to their reasons of resistance. And it was certainly crucial to the decisions of pirates to set up alternative societies in which the cat-o’-nine-tails would not govern.” At public hangings, there was also “a long and powerful tradition of cursing the authorities, of ‘dying game’, refusing to give in, declining to show fear.” And many of those who turned up to watch public hangings did so to show solidarity with those who were going to be hanged.

The deep-sea sailing ship “was one of the most sophisticated technologies in the world in its day, and piracy showed what might happen when a group of working people took it over. The takeover of ships resembled the factory seizures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sailors, as pirates, seized their workplaces and organised them in new ways. They elected their captain, they changed the system of discipline, and they feasted on food and drink. This was the antithesis of the shipboard life that they had known on merchant and naval vessels. They took control of a powerful machine, which made them dangerous to the powers of the day.” One of the reasons why authorities wanted to hang pirates was because they used these powerful vessels to help create societies that subverted the typical social order. It wasn’t simply that they were attacking private property; their mutinies were also showing how things could be run in a different way.

The two main themes of At World’s End are – the struggle between the global brethren and the East India Company – and the struggle over Davy Jones’ heart, around the question “what do you want most?”

Marcus Rediker argues that pirates often saw themselves as part of a ‘global brethren’. “Pirates were called the ‘villains of all nations’. That is a big, international proposition. And they were indeed made up of all nations. They were out there on the seas enacting dramas of global interest, and I do think they were often conscious of this.”

In At World’s End the struggle between the global brethren and the East India Company is clearly a struggle between capital and labour and pivots around the question “whose side are you on?”

The East India Company was the forerunner of today’s multinational corporations. During its heyday, the Company was not only a worldwide trading power, but effectively became a sovereign power, ruling large territories and creating its own colonies. For example, Singapore, where the second scene of At World’s End takes place, was purchased for the Company by Sir Stamford Raffles to create what eventually became one of the world’s greatest trans-shipment ports. For one hundred years, the Company pillaged large areas of India, exercising military power and assuming administrative control, with its own system of taxation and its own private armies. The Company had up to 280,000 armed men at its disposal and used its power to monopolise much of the subcontinent’s trade and development.

In At World’s End, Company man Lord Beckett declares that the power of the East India Company means that “the immaterial has become immaterial.” Yet, in the film, the Company’s destructive might is reliant on Davy Jones’ captured heart. Throughout At World’s End, the struggles over this captured heart concern the different values of the pirates and the Company, and most crucially involve love.

It is the two main female characters around whom all of the film’s struggles pivot. From the beginning of the movie, pirate collaborator Elizabeth Swann plays an active role in the combat. Rejecting hegemonic masculinity in her first scene, she asks “what makes you think I need protecting?” Elizabeth’s fighting ability eventually leads to her becoming King of the pirates. And as King she inspires the pirate brethren to fight against the Company. When all seems lost she explains “it’s not over” and asks “what shall we die for?”

The pirates hoist their colours, predominantly black and red flags, and fight for freedom, “by the sweat of their brows, the strength of their backs, the courage of their hearts” and with the power of nature on their side.

In Nothing to Lose but Our Fear, Marcus Rediker outlines some of the history behind pirate symbols and the importance of ‘the colours’ – “Pirates adorned a black flag with symbols of death: a skull and crossbones, or, more commonly, an entire skeleton, which was often holding a knife, a sword, a dart, or an hourglass. Frequently the weapon strikes a heart, from which drops of blood drip down . . . The black flag has two basic meanings. One was straightforward and unmistakable . . . surrender or die. A second set of meanings associated with the Jolly Roger grew from the labour history of the sailors who became pirates. The flag represents a commentary on the lives common sailors were forced to lead. The symbolic skull and crossbones originated among merchant captains, who drew it in the ship’s log to record the death of a sailor. Pirates used the same symbol to make an ironic commentary: ‘we’re trapped in a deadly employment, so we’ll take this symbol of death and put it on our flag. We will fight under it and we will find life under it. We will live differently, in a new kind of society of our own making’.”

“The other symbols fit the same pattern because weapons, the striking of the heart, the hourglass, death, violence, and limited time, were all part of the experience of the common sailor, who felt that he could escape that world only by becoming a pirate . . . Pirates also used a blood-red flag, which was a traditional naval symbol: a ship would run up a red flag to indicate that they would not surrender, nor would they accept the surrender of the other side.” In his book The Slave Ship, Marcus Rediker has written about the Liverpool sailor’s strike of 1775, where sailors marched on City Hall under the red flag. Later, the red flag became a symbol of workers’ and communist movements.

And why, in At World’s End, do the pirates commit themselves to a clash with the might of the East India Company? As Jack Sparrow explains at the Brethren Court – “we must fight to run away.” The need to fight, so we can run away, is a widespread understanding of anti-capitalist movements. Alternative worlds can only be constructed by running away from the world of  the Company. However, even if the Company’s world is ending, it wont let you escape in peace. Instead, it continuously attacks, forcing those who seek freedom to defend themselves, and to protect the alternative worlds they’re trying to create.

Marcus Rediker also examines the importance of ‘running away’ for the global brethren, pointing out that; “Rulers contrived all kinds of extraordinary measures to keep sailors on the ship, slaves on the plantation, and workers in the factory. But in all three settings, workers continued to escape: as deserters, in the case of sailors (often done in groups); as runaway slaves who would form Maroon communities (resistant communities established by escaped slaves in the Caribbean); and as workers who would slip away and go to the next factory town to find a better situation.”

When At World’s End sets sail for its final confrontation, it is the escape of the film’s wisest character, and most powerful female protagonist, that decides the fate of the pirates. Here Tia Dalma, a black witch, is revealed as the heathen goddess Calypso. We also discover that it’s Davy Jones’ denial of his love for Calypso which has corrupted him. It was Jones who told the brethren how to bind Calypso into a human form, so they could tame the ocean. But the pain of his betrayal was too much for him to live with. His guilt became so great he carved out his own heart; making him heartless and brutal. When Lord Beckett came into possession of Jones’ still-beating heart, he and his crew were forced to do the Company’s bidding. As Tia Dalma and Jones continue to struggle with their love for each other, she promises to give him her heart, once she is free. And Jones eventually admits that his heart will always belong to her.

In mythology Calypso was a Greek goddess. In At World’s End she is the ‘goddess of the sea’. Yet, in a Caribbean context, calypso is the music of slaves and workers. Often forbidden to talk to each other, and robbed of their links to family and home, slaves used calypso as a means of communication and a way to secretly mock the slave masters. Calypso was used to spread news (this is what happens in the opening scene of the movie with the song ‘Hoist the Colours’ calling to the global brethren, which then continues to the second scene on the other side of the world where Elizabeth is singing the song in Singapore). Many Caribbean islanders considered calypso songs to be the most reliable source of news and these songs were used to speak out against political corruption and oppression.

In At Worlds End, Tia Dalma/Calypso represents black women, slaves, witches, and the power of nature. As pirate Captain Barbosa explains to the Brethren Court, it is their capture of Calypso that has “opened the door to Lord Beckett and his ilk” and she must be released so that labour (“the sweat of our brows and the strength of our backs”), rather than business, can again master the seas. It is Tia/Calypso who provides Jack Sparrow with a compass that can point to what he truly desires – “what do you want most?” And it is she who suggests, facilitates, and directs, the pirate’s journey to Davy Jones locker, to the Brethren Court, to the final battle, and to her eventual release from captivity.

When looking back at history, those like Marcus Rediker and Fiona Jeffries recognise the importance of slavery, witch trials, misogynist violence, and the destruction of matriarchal societies, values, and practices, to the early development of capitalism. And they, like the pirates in At World’s End, have learned to deeply appreciate the need for the liberation of black women, the need for an end to slavery, to ‘states of emergency’, to the violence of the Company.

In order to release Calypso from her bonds, the brethren discover they must speak to her “as if speaking to a lover.”

Working together, assisted by the liberated power and anger of Calypso, the pirate hands of the Black Pearl and the newly freed crew of the Flying Dutchman defeat Lord Beckett and the East India Company. In the final conflict, assured of his dominance, Lord Beckett, thinking that Jack “expects us to honour our agreement”, readies the Company’s cannons and declares “it’s nothing personal Jack. It’s just good business.” Moments later he repeats these as his dying words, with his ship disintegrating around him. He dies in the flag of the East India Company. The pirates have successfully fought, so they can run away.

Nick Southall