Struggles, Scabs and Schooners: a Labour History Tour with a Pint

Pubs have played an important role in labour history. They are places where workers have met to celebrate victories, to support each other through disasters, to discuss tactics in disputes, and even plot the overthrow of capital. A labour history tour seems incomplete without the pub. So it was only natural that sooner or later someone would come up with the idea of a tour that combined some of labour’s great moments with some of the great labour pubs.

The Beginnings of a Labour History Pub Crawl

In 1997, I organised a weekend in the Hunter Valley for a group of workers from the Finance Sector Union of Australia. Between wineries, the group visited a memorial on the side of the road in the small village of North Rothbury. The memorial is in honour of Norman Brown, a miner who was shot and killed by police during the Rothbury Riots, which occurred in 1929 as miners resisted a wage cut being imposed on them by the Rothbury mine owners.

On the bus on the way to the memorial, the group of organisers (many who were under 30 years old) and clerical staff of the union, learnt about the riots from newspaper clippings and readings from text books. Arriving at the memorial itself was quite a moving experience. Being at the site where this important part of union history took place made it more real, more poignant, and more relevant. The struggle at Rothbury was something this small group of unionists could learn from, draw strength from, and be proud of.

So sitting in a pub (where else) not long after this trip, myself and two comrades, Chris Gambian and Garrett Purtill, came up with the idea of a tour in Sydney focusing on some of the disputes that have shaped labour history in Australia, but also focusing on some of the pubs that have their own history with Australian labour, and with the disputes that the tour was to focus on.

The first consideration for the tour was that it would be a great time. There are not too many workers and unionists who don’t enjoy a good drink or a good pub crawl. But there’s also not too many who don’t want to learn about, and learn from the important disputes past. Unionists are proud of their history, but we don’t know enough about it, particularly if it doesn’t relate to the industry we work in. Many, if not most trade union officials don’t have university degrees and are unlikely to have ever studied text book labour history.

The Tour

And so what is possibly Australia’s first ever labour history pub crawl was organised. The tour (called Struggles, Scabs and Schooners — a labour history tour with a pint) attracted a crowd of over 50 people, with no more publicity than an email invitation. The notable thing about the crowd was that they were primarily young unionists. And they heard some great stories from some great speakers.

Meredith Burgmann, Labor MLC and President of the NSW Upper House, started the tour at Trades Hall Inn, providing a tremendous account of the local pubs, many of which no longer exist, and the stories associated with the various factions, groups and unions that met in each.

No labour history tour would be complete without Jack Mundy. After taking the group past the Garrison Church where the first 8 hour day in the world was won, Jack spoke at the Palisade Hotel in the Rocks, site of the historic Green Bans victory of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF).

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has too rich a history to rely on only one speaker, so the group was spoiled with Harry Black from the retired Wharfies Association and Barry Robson, the MUA’s Central NSW Branch Assistant Secretary. At the Moreton Hotel, just across from the Darling Harbour Wharves, Harry spoke of the terrible times of the Hungry Mile (Sussex Street, Sydney), and Barry reminded us of the much more recent dispute involving the Federal Government and Patricks.Stevedores.

Off to Glebe, and the crowd on the bus was warming to the labour songs on the song sheet that we handed out with the day’s program. Vocal chords were stretched during the trip to the Toxteth Hotel where Diane van den Broek, a Sydney university lecturer and good friend of the labour movement, gave a detailed account of the 1929 Timber Workers Strike. Those present learnt about the critical role that women, mainly the wives of striking workers, played in that strike.

At the Royal Hotel, Lucy Taksa from the University of New South Wales, and who knows more than most about labour history in this country, spoke about the 1917 General Strike, which involved almost 100,000 workers at its peak. In fact, the idea of the labour history pub crawl was lying dormant for many months until the release of Lucy’s book (co-authored with Terry Irving), A Labour Heritage Register, reminding us that we needed to move on the idea. If we didn’t, it wouldn’t be long before Lucy did.

Finally, I spoke at Erskineville about another Green Bans victory to save two small parks, and about the Unemployed Workers Movement anti-eviction battles that took place in Union Street, Erskineville. I’m not an expert on the subject of anti-eviction struggles, but by that time of night I didn’t want to lumber anyone else with the dubious honour of being the last speaker on a pub crawl.

The main thing about the speakers, their speeches and the disputes they spoke about, was that they had to be relevant to the area we were in. Being in the area, it was more real. Jack Mundy could point out the towering skyscrapers which teetered on the border of the Rocks, and which would have destroyed the Rocks if not for the efforts of the BLF. Harry Black and Barry Robson could point to the wharves across the road, and many who listened could remember standing outside the gates only metres away.

The morning of the pub crawl, some of us walked down Union Street in Erskineville where the fiercest of the anti-eviction struggles were fought in the 1930s. We knocked on the door of the house where 18 Unemployed Workers Movement members barricaded themselves in against 40 police who opened fire, while a crowd of over a thousand gathered outside. The current tenant in the house knows the story, and you can identify the parts of the house which are described in the newspaper stories of the time.

Also that morning, I went up to the Green Ban parks to remind myself of some of the details of the campaign. Jim Piotrovski (part of the campaign and now working for ASU) did a great job getting photos of the campaign tiled and put into the brick fence around the park (I think council paid for it). It was important to celebrate the victory and the role of the local residents and the building unions in that victory. Anyway, when I was there, a woman and her two very young children (about 6 and 8) were walking past the parks. The kids were asking why the park was called Green Bans Park (the council have put up a fantastic sign) and they asked what the photos were about. As they walked off into the distance, I could here their mother explaining how the community got active to defend the parks because there wasn’t much open space in the area, and how the unions got involved to say they wouldn’t build on the parks, and how … It drove home to me how important it is to celebrate our victories and to leave something behind which tells the story to others. It was a great way for me to start the day.

This is history you can live. You can touch it. And because you can, it takes on more significance and hopefully stays with you longer. Through oral history, we often learn things that are not easily accessible through other means. The stories Meredith Burgmann relayed would be difficult to find in any text book.

In organising Struggles, Scabs and Schooners, it didn’t matter if it was a pub crawl with a labour history theme (which was how we initially saw it), or whether it was a labour history tour that happened to centre on pubs relevant to the disputes (which is what the pubs were told it was); the important thing was that people enjoyed themselves and learnt something at the same time. In telling us something about the past, all of the speakers pointed to lessons for the present. This was the main point of the day, learning from the great disputes, and also, coming away probably a little bit worse for wear, but proud of the movement of which we are but a part.

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