Something had changed. For years, Wollongong had been a place without hope, without purpose. Empty warehouses, boarded up factories, vacant blocks of land where once had stood thriving plants – these dotted the town’s landscape, a landscape still dominated by the steelworks, the vast caverns of which no longer housed the few thousands within so much as swallowed them. The beating heart of this place had been manufacturing – Wollongong made things. That was its identity and its reason for being. This heart was now almost stopped, the pulse slow and sluggish, the blood withdrawing from the living tissue of the community. Round after round of closures, job losses, and restructures had laid waste here, ingraining a fatalism and learned helplessness in what had been a proud union town. For too long, a once-vigorous working-class had suffered, not in silence, not without struggle, but without hope. A seething, amorphous mass of discontent lurked below the surface, but it never seemed to raise its head above the waves. This time, something was different. For the first time in a long time, something solid had emerged from this roiling sea of bitterness. When the Labour Council had called for a community Day of Action, everyone sensed things had changed irrevocably. They had no reason to think so – there was nothing to suggest this rally would be any more successful than previous failed ventures. Turning points, however, are felt before they are reasoned. The ground at the cliff edge is no different to that which comes before, but the breeze across the face speaks of the precipice below. Everyone understood that this rally was to be different, that this rally was to forge something new, something unlike anything that had come before. The question was – who would come?
Lasse switched the lathe to ‘Off’ after turning out the last of over a hundred metal samples. The products of his hour-long effort were soon to meet their demise in the jaws of the machine designed to test the steel’s tensile strength. An hour’s work, to create a product with a useful lifespan of a few milliseconds. If Lasse ever had any philosophic reflections on this process of becoming and ending, of creation and destruction, they were by now moot in this, his fortieth year at the steelworks.
The morning’s work done, he headed up the same metal staircase to the same tea room, where he had imbibed the same Nescafe Blend 43 for forty years. The tread of his steel-capped boots beat a heavy cadence on the steps, ringing through the hollows of a building once home to many more workers than it was today. There was a time when his department buzzed with the sounds of some sixty men, a far cry from the team of twelve across two shifts that currently made up its complement. At the top of the stairs, without any reason in particular, he turned around to study the long, rectangular building, taking in its sights, its sounds, its smells.
Forty years service had given him a unique, panoramic view of the changes in the place. Despite the fact that the building itself was the same, there was much altered about the department physically. As a first-year apprentice in 1978, he was struck by the raw energy, the whirling, unguarded machinery, the hissing jets of all kinds of chemicals. Certainly, the plant today was a much more salubrious environment – the equipment was carefully guarded, the lockers stacked with safety gear, the walls cleaner and festooned with safety signs.
In a perverse way, however, this cleanliness was oppressive. It served to provide an even starker contrast to the current lot of the workers. In the dirty, dangerous place he had first come to know, the battle lines were clear and they were personal. The power of the company manifested itself in the person of the foremen. Some were honest and decent; others were brutal, comfortable in the knowledge that, low as they were on the totem pole, there was someone still lower they could squash. Their character, however, was really beside the point. The foreman was the personification of the company, its depredations his. Everyone knew the deal – in a union shop the workers were the union, the foreman was the enemy. Daily skirmishes occurred along this frontier, sometimes one side winning, sometimes the other, but the frontier itself and the identity of the people on each side – this was always a constant.
Today things were so different. The big layoffs of the early 1980s had set in train a seemingly endless process of downsizing, outsourcing and rationalising. The plant had once been home to over 22,000 workers. Today, barely 3,000 were left, and over half of those were contractors. The foremen were still the same – the addition of forewomen had changed the appearance but not the nature of their overseers. But somehow they were no longer the real enemy. The genesis of true enmity is power, and the power pressing in and around Lasse and his workmates was no longer in personam. It was diffuse, decentred, seemingly ethereal in the way it floated all around – yet for all that it was crushing. When the department manager put forward ideas for eliminating jobs or working ordinary hours on the weekend, he wasn’t speaking with just the authority of his position – his voice rang with a multitude of tones that went by many names. ‘International competition,’ ‘cost-competitiveness,’ ‘labour-unit costs,’ ‘dumped Chinese steel’ – these were just so many notes in the tenor of this new Power. At once both potent and elusive, this Power had enforced its will in this place for the past thirty years. This was still a union shop, but it was home to a defensive unionism based on fear. Long past were the heady days of his early years in the trade. Solidarity, wildcat strikes, the closed shop, even at one stage an occupation – these were increasingly distant memories of a world that was fading from view. He felt like he belonged to a time now past, a bystander to this new world of work.
Lasse’s thoughts were undisturbed by his passage down the long corridor at the top of the stairs. A muscle memory built of tens of thousands of repetitions of this same path took him to the tea room without any conscious effort. As if by remote control, he reached for the container of Nescafe Blend 43, ladled out a spoonful into an old mug whilst waiting for the water to boil. He absent-mindedly unfolded a copy of the local paper, revealing the banner headline: ‘Unions to hold community Day of Action.’ Something stirred inside. A rubber mallet had struck a tuning fork, its reverberations swelling and intensifying inside him.
The jug clicked. He knew what he must do.
Erica gazed silently out the train window. The thrum of the wheels on the track induced a listlessness, a sense of calm detachment which by right didn’t belong to her. Looking out to the left, she saw the looming, rotting hulk of the old Coalcliff coke works, the bright white and blue graffiti contrasting the deep browns and reds of rusting steel. It cast shadows over the carriage, the dappled light playing across the surface of a bundle of paper sitting in Erica’s lap. She looked down to see what she already knew was there – the angry red characters telling her she had failed the major essay for her creative arts subject. The same characters that had cut her to the quick just yesterday she regarded today with a sense of resign. She was headed up to Sydney to talk to the subject coordinator. If she failed this subject in her last semester of study, she wouldn’t be able to graduate on time. Four years as a student, however, had left her living week to week. She lived out of home, and in any event her parents were in no position to help her – her father had been laid-off from the steelworks in 2015, whilst her mother depended on a paltry disability pension. Her only source of income was as a casual waitress at a local restaurant.
Juggling her studies and work had always been a difficult gig. She worked around twenty hours a week – between that and her mother’s care needs, uni often came a distant third. For the first three years of her degree she managed to make it all work, but the previous twelve months had been hellish. A new manager, Gary, had made it perfectly clear that he expected Erica to be available whenever he deemed necessary. He started calling her in frequently for late night closing shifts, as well as demanding her to cover holes in the weekend roster at the last minute. She tried a few times to voice her concerns, to tell him that her marks were dropping, that her mother needed her support on the weekends. Each time the punishment was the same – a dramatic reduction in her hours for the following fortnight, leaving her on several occasions having to make the choice between paying the rent and buying food. To her belonged the unenviable possession of the precarious worker – a formless anger crying for expression, an anger that fed its own resent precisely because of its impotence.
Last Sunday was no different. Due to work and a particularly difficult patch her mum was going through, she had left the major essay until the eleventh hour. She hadn’t been able to give anywhere near the thought and effort the piece required, but this was hardly the first time it had happened. If she just gave herself a full, uninterrupted day, she would probably be able to scrape a pass or, if she was lucky, a credit. She had just started to write the introduction to a critical assessment of the artwork of Ben Shahn when her mobile rang. An involuntary shudder told her the identity of the caller before she even answered ‘Hello.’ Even before Gary’s haughty, cocksure voice ran down the line, her eyes turned to her uniform, lying over the end of the bed…
‘Attention customers, the next station is Helensburgh.’ The oddly cheerful tones of the guard shook Erica from her reverie. She glanced down again to confirm – 8/30. Gary had left her no choice. Eleven hours of taking orders, serving drinks and putting up with Gary’s petty despotism separated her resuming her essay at midnight. She knew what she submitted the next day was shit. 8/30 had bought tears of hurt, of anger and of despair, but not of surprise.
The train drew even with the platform, the doors opening and admitting a smattering of new passengers. One, a young man probably around his mid-twenties, started moving up the carriage, handing out flyers. He came to Erica, meeting her gaze meaningfully before handing her the brightly coloured sheet. She looked down to be greeted by a closed, red fist. ‘Community Day of Action’ read the banner. All at once, the smouldering ember of her anger leapt into the flame of understanding.
‘I hope to see you there,’ said the stranger.
The resolution hardening her spirit had answered long before she thought to call out after him.
‘Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.’
Amena got no further into Dante’s Inferno, the first work of poetry she had tried to read in English. The words had hit her like a sledgehammer, for truly she had lost her straightforward path. A mere five years before, she had been a respected lecturer in pharmacy at the University of Aleppo. A horror beyond description had then taken hold of her world. A world that had known books, discourse and learning came to know rockets, machine gun fire, barrel bombs and chlorine gas. The dulcet tones of the classroom had been replaced with the roar of collapsing buildings, the wails of mothers holding dead children, the screams of dying men. She was one of the lucky ones who escaped, and by chance was selected from a camp for resettlement in Australia as a refugee.
And now, a five-year lifetime later, she found herself in limbo. She had been placed in Wollongong together with other refugees from war-torn Syria. To her belonged the tortured feelings of Aeneas and his Trojans (Virgil had taken the place of Dante) – lamentation at the homeland in ruins, equal parts guilt and rapturous joy at having survived, and the profound loss of identity that comes from straddling a mother country that was gone and a new one that wouldn’t fully accept you.
Within a few months of arriving in Wollongong, she had tried her best to make a home here. The first time she saw the region, she was astounded by its beauty. A verdant escarpment ran behind a series of immaculate yellow beaches, lapped by a vast, sapphire blue ocean. In between lay the city. The sight of buildings without bullet holes was surprising enough, but just as surprising were the paradoxes of this place. The city centre was dominated by newly-built apartment towers, cafes and stores. Gaudy shop fronts competed for the affections of the consumers. A little outside of this hub, however, Amena discerned a noticeable shift in the landscape. Large industrial estates seemed half empty, home to both rundown looking businesses and skeletonized complexes she assumed had once hummed with the sound of machinery. The skyline was dominated by the enormous structures of the steelworks, but to her the plant seemed like a rusting dreadnought whose best days were long past.
The experience of war had given her a hair-trigger sense for trauma. Beneath the blue waters, the yellow sand and the outwardly cheerful demeanour of the people here, she sensed a trauma, a feeling of a people with a wounded pride and a deep fatalism. This was not the trauma wrought by gun, missile or toxic gas – it was a trauma sparked of corrosive economic laws, laws which, although they didn’t demand outright violence, were almost as compulsive.
Perhaps this trauma was behind the hostility of some of the people she met. She wanted to contribute to this new community of hers, even if the fact her pharmacy qualifications were not recognised meant it couldn’t be by way of her profession. Three months of job applications had produced exactly one interview for a job as a house cleaner with a small company. Four other cleaners worked for the same operator – two were refugees like herself, whilst the other two were local women, who viewed her with suspicion, as if her very presence was a threat to their livelihood. She was fairly certain she had heard one of them whisper ‘terrorist’ under her breath at one meeting. Not only did her boss do nothing to address the difficulties between Amena and her colleagues, he actively seemed to encourage them. She got the sense that he profited by their division, their inability to make common cause.
A quick search of the internet had told Amena that there was an award prescribing a minimum rate of pay for her labour. Although her employer had never given her a pay slip, it required very elementary mathematics to deduce that the $300 a week cash-in-hand she received for thirty-five hours work was far below that figure. Any time she tried to raise it with her boss, she got a confused speech about trainee wages, ‘trouble-makers’ and the gratitude she should have to him for giving her a job in the first place. He fully expected that he had cowed and confused Amena – certainly he felt he had pulled the wool over the eyes of his other refugee workers.
But Amena was different. At the reading and writing centre she quickly developed a mastery of the English language. Language is a means to power, be it ever so humble as knowing who to approach and what to tell them. Some of the instructors at the centre were unionists, telling her stories of the history of the city and its changes over the past decades. Something about those stories, of power won and lost, set a fire inside her. After yet another light envelope of money, she did something she had never done before – she called a trade union office. The next day she found herself in a coffee shop, talking to a man who told her what she already knew – that she was being underpaid, and that it was against the law. He provided, however, a most precious resource – a sense of the big picture, a sense that something could be done to reclaim the straightforward pathway in a new home. She signed her membership form right there and then.
The union organiser stood up, heading to the door, before turning around.
‘We’re having a community rally tomorrow. Lots of people will be there, including some members in the same situation as you.’
Amena didn’t even have to think about her reply. ‘I will be there.’
A blood-red sun dawned on the day of the rally. It sent long rays over the smokestacks of the steelworks, into the dark forests of the escarpment. It found Lasse over his breakfast bar, sipping a cup of Nescafe Blend 43 whilst he added the last touches to a sign. It danced on Erica’s old Suzuki Swift as she went to pick up her parents who, like her, had had enough. Flooding into Amena’s small apartment, it illuminated a dozen or so cleaners, all refugees, most attending a union rally for the very first time. Countless similar scenes took place across the whole Illawarra. Not everyone knew what they wanted. Perhaps they didn’t even necessarily want the same things. But they were united in their understanding of what they didn’t want, and that was enough. What the future held none could see, but the straightforward path was clear.
Jolyon Sykes | Apr 11 1919
Excellent! A well-written and relevant story. I enjoyed it.
Rowan Cahill | Apr 11 1919
Great to see this piece in print.