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May Day: Vintage Union Films

In the spirit of May Day, EngageMedia is taking a moment to take a look back at films made by the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit (WWFFU) from 1953 to 1988 that showed that the unions were all for union rights, work safety, welfare, housing for the people, information and history. The films were in black-and-white, colours, static colour drawings and celluloid moveable frames.

Jamie McMechan has been publishing 38 videos on EngageMedia, most of them are videos produced by himself for the Maratime Union of Australia (MUA), but recently Jamie has been publishing some vintage videos on the old dock workers, seafarers, the unions, and unionists. Most of the films were produced by the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit.

In Land of Australia (1956), the film describes how the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit made films that brought perspectives to the intense period of conservatism and anti-communist feeling in 1953 to 1958.

In My Old Black Billy (1956), Jock Levy and Ces Grivas sang Dick Diamond’s classic Aussie bush musical Reedy River with celebrates the birth of the trade union movement.

Work safety was all along a union priority, showed in Think Twice (1957) which features an occupational safety film for metalworkers, highlighting three main sources of injury – heat, rays and fumes. The same goes with pensions in Pensions for Veteran (1953) where the WWF Film unit depicts the hardships that many workers have faced and highlights some of the health and safety concerns raised in a 1945 report on the conditions of waterside workers.

The unions though did not only focus their attention to just union members. In the Australian Council of Trade Unions sponsored film Not Only the Need (1957), the filmmaker proposes a Commonwealth solution to the housing problems facing families living in inner-city slums. It contrasts crowded and dilapidated city tenements with better homes in the suburbs, illustrates the financial considerations of families deciding to build a home and features highlights from the 1957 NSW People’s Housing Conference.

In 1956, while Australian commercial newsreels depicted the Royal visit, the Redex Car Trial, and ran stories such as “New Guinea: Fuzzy Wuzzies Produce Timber For The World”, the WWFFU made an episode of their own newsreel WWF Film News No.1 (1956) on the Margins Dispute. It was “a campaign to put the real facts before the people”, as the narration suggested.

There was also Click Goes The Shears, it was the second and last made episode in the Link – “Land of Australia” series. The film was simple with very little animation. The Sydney University Film Group screened it in 1958 as did a group from within the Melbourne Film Society.

And finally, there is Wharfies (1988), a fifty-two minute chronological film history of the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia from its formation in 1902 in the primitive days of hard, physical, exploited labour, to the mechanised, computerised present.