The fight for WA’s radical labour heritage

The Midland railway workshops opened in 1905.

A Natural Battleground: The Fight to Establish a Rail Heritage Centre at Western Australia's Midway Railway Workshops

By Bobbie Oliver
Interventions, Melbourne
2019, 132 pages

The 90-year-old Western Australian Government Railways (WAGR) Workshops, based in the Perth suburb of Midland, were closed in 1994 by Richard Court’s Liberal-National coalition state government.

For many years, WAGR had been the biggest employer in the state, employing up to 3000 people, including more than 500 apprentices at its peak in the 1950s. With this closure, the state lost a major employer of skilled tradespeople and much of its heavy industry.

In A Natural Battleground, Bobbie Oliver, historian and author of the award-winning The Workshops — A history of the Midland Government Workshops, documents the ongoing attempts to preserve the WAGR workshops site.

The Perth branch of the Labour History Society has sought to preserve the site and establish a rail heritage centre.

The Australia ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) Charter of Places of Cultural Significance (1979), otherwise known as the Burra Charter, states: “Many places are important to us because they tell us about who we are and the past that formed our community and our environment.”

Oliver uses A Natural Battleground to argue that the WAGR is a significant site to WA’s industrial and social heritage. Oliver locates the workshops as an important place not only to Western Australia, but also the British diaspora, as large numbers of British migrants worked there as skilled tradespeople.

Probably the most important aspect of the WAGR’s history was as a site of industrial and political struggles, in which the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) played a huge role despite its small size. Although the CPA had started to organise inside the WAGR in the 1930s, it wasn’t until after World War II that their influence began to grow.

Among prominent Communist union officials at the WAGR workshops were Jack Marks and Jack Coleman. Marks was renowned for his clashes with management and speeches to lunchtime crowds gathered outside at the worksite flagpole in an area known as Red Square. This was right outside the Chief Mechanical Officer’s offices, popularly known as “Bullshit Castle”.

CPA activists and officials were respected by their fellow workers for their ability to gain significant improvements. These activities were often tolerated by the WAGR management, who allowed CPA members to distribute its worksite publication Unity, despite regulations that only allowed political meetings during election campaigns.

Oliver considers the decision by management to allow the use of Red Square for these meetings as a way to relieve pressure. This meant that throughout its 90 year history, there were only three strikes — most notably a six-month-long strike in 1952.

In a notable incident, in late 1960 African-American civil rights activist and legendary singer Paul Robeson visited Perth and management refused to allow him to give a concert on the WAGR premises. Robeson ended up singing on the back of a truck outside the premises.

The pettiness of the workshop management was displayed when the Mayor of Midland welcomed Robeson at a civic reception.

Over time, the role of the WAGR workshops declined due to the increase of mechanisation. But more important was the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s with its push to privatise public assets, leading to layoffs, dismissals and a deterioration in working conditions.

Despite promises to upgrade the WAGR, the newly elected Court government announced in 1993 that the WAGR would close the next year. For the workers employed there, this was a devastating blow. One worker, Sindy Hunter, said she “felt angry for years because the government stole my whole choice of life off me”. This announcement and subsequent closure caused lingering bitterness that persists to this day.

Since 1998, Oliver has been active in the campaign to save the site from demolition and create a railway heritage centre to tell the story of the workers employed at the Midland WAGR. In 2004, the government of Labor Premier Geoff Gallop, whose uncle had worked as a boiler maker in the workshops, declared the WAGR buildings a significant heritage site, thus saving the buildings.

The former timekeepers office hosted an interpretive centre, which housed historical artefacts and screened a documentary history of the workshops told by former employees. Nonetheless, hopes to turn the site into a Heritage centre remain elusive.

The first title in The Intervention publishing firm’s Red Swan series, of Western Australian radical history and politics, Oliver’s A Natural Battleground has provided an important account of the history of the Midland WAGR Workshops. It has highlighted the need to preserve important historic buildings but an important chapter in WA’s industrial and working-class history, which was best stated by musician Peter Carney in a 2000 song composed for the workshop’s history project: “It’s more than just the buildings; it’s what they did inside.”

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