Sanitising labor movement history

February 18, 1991

Amongst Equals

By Tom Zubrycki

available on illegal video throughout Australia

Reviewed by Barry Healy

Tom Zubrycki has produced a revealing work about the Australian trade union movement. But it reveals more in what is passed over and in the ACTU's ham-fisted attempt at censorship than in what the film actually says.

He has gathered an extraordinary range of film footage of Australia's union history for this television documentary. In three one-hour episodes it manages to graphically cover just about every major event relating to the organised workers movement over the last century.

However, the controversy surrounding this documentary is more interesting than the film itself. In 1987 the Bicentary Authority granted $200,000 for the production of a "critical appraisal of the trade union movement for prime-time television". Unfortunately for Zubrycki, the ACTU holds the purse strings, and the idea of "critical appraisal" does not meet its political agenda.

So the film, which Zubrycki conceived, scripted and crafted, has been subjected to ruthless editing to attempt to satisfy the ACTU heavies. But this was not enough: the ACTU has ensured that the project was shelved for the last two-and-a-half years.

This has resulted in a kind of Keystone Kops situation where, in order to force the ACTU to lift its ban on the film so that he can complete it, Zubrycki and a number of supporters of free speech have begun illegal showings of rough cut versions. One hundred and fifty pirate copies of the video are now circulating underground. Faced with this embarrassment, the ACTU has backed off to the extent that it will allow showings to occur as long as a disclaimer is read in advance.

With all this fuss and bother, expectations have been raised of a firebrand radical history of the unions. This is not the case. To what extent this is due to the editorial changes which the ACTU demanded cannot be known. However, the fact that the leadership of the ACTU still finds this film too much to cope with says more about them than it does about Amongst Equals.

The film's style is rather plodding and pedantic; the narrator's slow, measured tone grates annoyingly. While touching on many of the most dramatic events in Australian history, the film steers clear of ever drawing conclusions.

An example is the treatment of the Queensland SEQEB dispute. Strong footage of the pickets, arrests and mass meetings is overlaid with a boring commentary which avoids any mention of the role played by the ACTU leadership at the time — a role which was controversial, to say the least.

The press statement by ACTU president Martin Ferguson which criticises the film claims that it wallows in sensational footage of strikes and demonstrations while ignoring the "mundane" reality that the majority of union disputes are settled without disruption.

This point sidesteps the fact that the strength of the union movement is ultimately dependent on its preparedness to draw upon its history of struggle to defend workers at crucial moments. A growing criticism of the current leadership of the ACTU is that even the mundane day to day issues are being settled in favour of employers because our ability to struggle is undermined by our leaders.

A glaring reality facing union activists today is that large numbers of workers, especially young ones, see unions as irrelevant to their lives. Deals are seen as being stitched up by the top officials with no input from the ranks. This reality is missing from the film and also missing from the ACTU officials' criticism of it.

Ferguson complains that the film mentions the Accord only once, and then only in passing. He says that it completely ignores Australia Reconstructed, the booklet which provided the ACTU's ideological justification for the Accord and which Ferguson calls a "fundamental document compiled by the union movement providing a vision for Australia's future".

It's true that the film ignores these topics. But what Ferguson wants is for them to be treated uncritically. The aim of the ACTU officials in this controversy has been to stifle debate and to get a glowing propaganda piece produced at public expense.

Tom Zubrycki has found himself in a no-win situation: caught between a ruthless bureaucracy and his role as a maker of historically accurate documentaries. The result is visually exciting but will probably not be satisfying to those on the left with criticisms of the Accord.

The fact that the ACTU has gone to such ridiculous lengths to kill the project is yet another example of where the Accord strategy has taken the officialdom: not only down the path of extinguishing the potential of the trade unions to struggle in defence of workers but now also attempting to sanitise the history of our movement. n

Issue