Sixty years of Australian trade union songs

This video from Australia is called Unions Across Australia Mobilise to Defend Workplace Rights.

It says about itself ´More than 250,000 workers and their families rallied in capital cities and regional towns across Australia on November 30 [2006] to protest against the “Workchoices” laws which have torn up decades of established rights for workers and trade unions.´

From British daily The Morning Star:

Lessons in song from down under

(Monday 01 October 2007)

BOOK: Sixty years of Australian Union Songs by Mark Gregory

DON’T be put off by the fact that this publication has the format of a masters degree dissertation. It should be read as a call to action, not only in the worldwide trade union movement but also to anyone who presumes to a cultural commitment to a better world.

Music and, to a much lesser extent, poetry has played a small but important role in working-class action in Britain. One thinks immediately of Centre 42, which took its name from the resolution of that number passed by the Trades Union Congress in 1960 calling for greater participation by the trade union movement in the arts.

A British tour was organised under its auspices, which brought Pete Seeger over from the US and provided the first platform for the astonishing Anne Briggs, though she never went on to forge any links with the labour movement, retiring into seclusion from which she has but rarely emerged.

Ewan MacColl [see also here and here] produced a songbook and LP of industrial songs and AL Lloyd the valuable Come All Ye Bold Miners songbook.

Before that date, individual folk performers sang at a few trade union conferences and branches. Sing magazine published a parody of Bless ‘Em All by the veteran communist and prewar unemployed workers’ leader Wal Hannington, while a group of songwriters gathered around that magazine helped organise the music for the first Aldermaston march.

But, in comparison with the narrative revealed by Mark Gregory in his Sixty Years of Australian Union Songs, these rather individualistic efforts pale into insignificance.

Gregory tells the stories of unions which regarded songs not as something entertaining away from the union meeting and the picket line but as direct agitational tools.

Dialectically, of course, this produced the songwriters and the singers who have participated in struggles right up to the present day. Though the book’s subtitle is “the Australian Folk Revival and the Australian Labour Movement since the Second World War,” it includes a song about the 1937 boycott of ships taking pig-iron to Japan to be made into munitions to attack the Chinese people.

Its chorus goes: “We wouldn’t load pig-iron for the fascists in Japan/Despite intimidation, we refused to lift the ban/With democracy at stake, the struggle must be won/We had to beat the menace of the fascist Rising Sun.”

A similar sense of history is in another song, which details active opposition to imperialist wars in Indonesia, Korea and Vietnam, with the rousing chorus: “They’ve been right ev’ry time and they’re right again now/But the strength of one isn’t much of a power/So united they stand against all odds/Fighting for us all against the little tin gods.”

There’s an associated CD of 22 of the songs referred to in the text and a website – – which includes the texts of literally hundreds more. Rich pickings indeed and the whole project has been enthusiastically funded by the Maritime Union of Australia.

But the other side of the story is the equal enthusiasm of the songwriters, some from the Australian folk scene, others actual participants in struggle. If someone were to do a similar documentary job in Britain, it might spark off a resurgence over here of songs to fan the flames of discontent.

The book is available priced AUS$20 from Mark Gregory, PO box 298, Katoomba, NSW 2780, Australia. Email:


Australian folk music in 2007: here.

3 thoughts on “Sixty years of Australian trade union songs

  1. The state of the workplace

    October 2, 2007

    Report: The new industrial laws have accelerated change – making many workers unhappy and fearful.

    THE future of the Australian labour market is one in which employees change jobs frequently and – for those with few formal skills – often risk a pay cut in the process.

    A landmark report, Australia@ Work, finds that since the introduction of the Work Choices changes in March last year, 15 per cent of workers have changed employer, making it more likely they will end up on Australian Workplace Agreements.

    While the drift away from awards has been under way since the Hawke government began deregulating the labour market two decades ago, the report shows that Work Choices is accelerating the trend – making many workers unhappy and fearful.

    “Many employers have been quick to use the new opportunities created by the Work Choices legislation,” the report says. “This has been especially apparent where workers have changed jobs and/or moved on to new industrial instruments or agreements.”

    Of the 1.5 million Australians who changed jobs last year and this year, 60 per cent were hired under a different form of agreement, and 10 per cent went on to an Australian Workplace Agreement. “While the sky has not fallen in on labour standards,” the report says, “the undermining of standards is now well under way.”

    Dr Brigid van Wanrooy, the lead researcher on the study, says that young workers are particularly vulnerable. “These new AWAs made under Work Choices are especially worrying because they are likely to affect those workers without much bargaining strength,” she says. “Under these new AWAs, the pay is more likely to be offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.”

    The retail sector is an obvious case, employing mostly young and part-time workers. In thousands of shops and franchises across Australia – usually employing between 20 and 300 people – non-negotiable AWAs are commonplace, the study finds.

    Many are lifted straight from a template provided by employer groups, law firms or consultants, meaning that for those who shuffle between jobs, the opportunity for a pay rise is limited.

    This restlessness among employees is often the result of a deepening dissatisfaction in workplaces.

    The report finds a majority of workers believe “more and more is expected of me for the same pay”. Almost 57 per cent of employees categorised as professionals, and 55.5 per cent of managers, believe their workload has intensified since March last year.

    But other occupational groups that have been vital elements of John Howard’s “middle Australia” coalition also report increased pressure at work. Fifty-three per cent of technical and trades workers, 53 per cent of community and personal service providers and 51 per cent of clerical and administrative workers say their work has become more intense.

    “The more highly skilled an occupation that an employee is working in, and the longer an employee has been in their job, the more likely they are to feel the pressures of work intensity,” the report concludes.

    Together with the intensity of work, working hours remain a source of angst for much of the labour force. “Many Australians are working long and unsociable hours,” the study says, adding that some employees accept working odd hours if it helps balance professional and family life.

    While 72 per cent are generally happy with the hours they work, 19 per cent of all workers and 26 per cent of full-timers would like to work fewer hours. Twenty per cent of part-timers would like to increase their work hours, suggesting that even in an era of low unemployment and skills shortages underemployment remains a problem.

    Women feel they have more control over their working hours – which the authors say is explained by the large numbers who work part-time – but overall almost a third of employees believe they do not have enough control over the hours they work.

    While the Federal Government points repeatedly to falling union membership, which now stands at just 22 per cent, the report argues union membership has the potential to reach almost a third of the workforce.

    “Substantial minorities of non-union members are predisposed towards union membership: just over one-fifth of former union members indicated they wanted to [join], as did around one in 10 of those who had never been union members,” the report says.

    The study also contains a finding that may explain a phenomenon that is perplexing the Government and its supporters – alleged voter ingratitude for the good economic times.

    “John Howard basically says we’ve never had it so good and that’s what you might expect from the broad economic indicators, such as the unemployment figures,” van Wanrooy says.

    But 14 per cent of Australian workers say they are struggling on their current income, describing it as “difficult” or “very difficult” to get by, while another 37.4 per cent say they are merely “coping”, suggesting a slight majority of Australians are grudging about the Federal Government’s claim to have fostered an economic boom. Only 7.5 per cent report “doing really well”.

    “The population is evenly split between those reporting that they are living comfortably and those just coping,” Australia at Work concludes. “There are clearly pockets and issues around which discontent is smouldering.”


  2. Australia: Red councillors during the Cold War: Communists on Sydney
    City Council, 1953-59

    Recent electoral victories in Australia by socialists at the municipal
    council level — the Socialist Party’s Stephen Jolly in Victoria and
    Socialist Alliance’s Sam Wainwright in Western Australia — have sparked
    renewed interest in the experiences of other socialists who have been
    elected to such bodies. With permission of the Rough Reds Collective,
    Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal is publishing Beverley
    Symons’ paper that examines the example of Communist Party of Australia
    members elected to the Sydney City Council in the 1950s. This article
    first appeared in the 2003 book A Few Rough Reds, published by the
    Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Canberra Region Branch.

    * Read more


  3. Pingback: Australian trade unions say Labor party should keep promises | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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