Mid morning at No. 4 Jetty Port Kembla, Wollongong workers gathered to think about the devastation that comes for the families and communities of the more than a million workers who are killed at work each year. In Australia, approximately 8 people are killed on the job each week and around 15 serious injuries occur every hour.
Our gathering was reminded that honouring those who died at work is important, but much more important are our efforts to improve workplace safety and the need to always put people before profit.
The next day began the more celebratory May 1 International Workers Day or May Day activities in Wollongong.
A screening of Rocking the foundations, the powerful film about Jack Mundey and the Builders Labourers Federation’s (BLF) efforts to protect the natural and historical heritage of Sydney, was the first of the Illawarra May Day events. The historic Wollongong Regent Theatre, itself the subject of a local green ban, was the venue for the screening and a talk by Jack Mundey.
The dangerous work carried out by the builders labourers and the exploitative practices of the bosses depicted in the film made the previous Day of Mourning all the more poignant. The film showed the development of a grassroots union movement that sought to protect the interests of all people and the environment that supported community life. The influence of the feminist movement and a deep belief in social justice inspired many unionists in the BLF to make personal sacrifices that few of us are ever asked to make.
To quote Patrick White in a letter to the SMH 5 November 1973:
It is a rare thing to find a union with so advanced a social conscience. But how much longer can the citizens of Sydney ask these men to endure the responsibility for protecting a citizen’s right to live comfortably and without anxiety, a responsibility that should be taken by the Government if the Government were in good faith?
It should be noted that there were many women unionists and supporters within or connected to the building industry that were part of these struggles.
Wollongong’s May Day celebrations continued the following day with the ‘May Day Toast’ where old and new friends gathered and those who paved the way for workers rights and community activism were remembered. Current struggles like that of the Tahmoor miners who are trying to negotiate a fair work agreement were explored and support offered.
Finally, on May 1 flags were raised and banners borne through the streets to the sound of the pipe band. The ritual of flying the flag for peace and human rights in health, housing, education and employment, and voicing concerns on the street are valuable traditions. Whether in commemoration or celebration, it continues to be important to think about the workers.