University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
The making and breaking of port kembla
Locality and society are interlinked with worker communities as new labor is inducted in areas which are industrializing. The interaction between workers and communities is thus not constant and remains dynamic. As industrialization took place in the early 20th Century in Australia, workers communities grew around a predominantly agricultural hinterland. These got bigger each day and in turn threatened to displace local communities particularly the indigenous people who were unable to adapt to the changing environment.
The emerging conflict led to creation of social institutions by workers in the form of unions to collectively bargain from a position of strength with the community. While this empowered worker communities as a whole, it had varying influences on the lives of workers within the community as well as at the work place. The post industrialization phase where production has been automated and has become far less labor intensive has added a new dimension to this relationship.
By drawing upon the example of Port Kembla, the Australian steel township, Erik Eklund has successfully weaved together the historical narrative of interaction of the diverse forces which create a modern industrial society and how social forces enable some organizations to survive while others perish for lack of adaptability. Eklund’s social history of workers in Port Kembla very aptly describes the manner in which the working class fits into the community, the social institutions that the workers create to survive and flourish and the control that the workers gain over their own lives at work and in the community in the process.
Port Kembla – The Social Environment Port Kembla is a classic case of emergence of an industrial society amidst the tectonic shifts that take place due to influence of many factors, global, local, war, peace and a depressed economy. Steel represents the primary agent of change in the industrial World. Port Kembla was the principal steel making area in Australia, where prominent steel makers had established their factories which had grown into large behemoths.
But steel making is much more than just technology or organization of labor. It has many other facets such as creation of social classes, assimilation of outside forces, suppression of indigenous forces and resistance between these. The steel industry in Port Kembla underwent a number of changes over the years which in turn impacted the development of the community. Till the 1930’s the worker community relationship was mixed with a balanced influence of the informal non market economy and workers communities.
However thereafter with the emergence of an industrial society the influence of class politics defined by the powerful role played by the unions which attempted to gain control of both the communities and the workers dominated the socio political panorama of Port Kembla. Global events such as the Depression, the World Wars, the global Depression and post War industrialization also had a powerful influence on community politics in Port Kembla. The creation of localities and their structures set the stage for discussion of class, locality and politics.
The struggle waged by the indigenous people, the Kooris to survive the onslaught of industrialization in their native land is illustrative of the large scale social changes in Port Kembla which led to emergence of the supremacy of the Industrial Society in the post Second World War milieu. The final stage is the post industrial society; a process could lead to emergence of new social structures. The model of the workers in Port Kembla provides a successful portray of the social history of industrial society in Australia emerged over the years. Working Class and Overall Community Life
The working class has emerged as a result of industrialization which has led to a large congregation of people working together in factories. There has been no other human activity which has brought together so many people in one location as production of goods through a machine economy. A study of the bureaucratic structure, the technology and external factors which influences work in factories and the interaction of the new work society which is formed due to redesigned occupational activity with the community provide an innate social perspective of this phenomenon in the industrial age.
The working class emerges as a separate locality within the larger community; it gives them a sense of distinct identity. The co relationship between the working class and the community denoted is thus that of interdependency. However this relationship takes a long time to develop and cannot emerge merely by the artificial process of creating jobs. Jobs are just one part of the exercise of industrialization; it is the manner in which the working class and the community homogenize with each other that marks the holistic growth of an industry.
This lesson stands out quite clearly through lucid portrayals of worker communities in Port Kembla. From the dirty, sooty, black image of steel furnaces which marked the early stages of industrialization in Port Kembla, it is seen that as the community grew so did the industry as well as the commercial establishments in the city. The social changes which brought about these linkages enabled a whole, “locality” of workers to emerge within the community. In turn the impact of local life and tenor on the emergence of the industrial society provides a fascinating perspective.
The various waves that brought about change in the industry and concomitantly with the society also need to be well understood. Whether it is migration, gender awareness, a class struggle or redefining the identities of the locals, the working class fits into a local community’s life by creation of institutions for their own well being in the form of unions. Workers Social Institutions The workers needed to create support establishments to survive varied types of pressures, from capitalists, the depression in the economy and loss of jobs.
They succeeded in creating adequate safety mechanisms to support themselves as a community. Port Kembla did not have many social institutions in the initial stages when industry was set up in the township. Thus there was a mixed culture with the establishment of Electrolytic Refining and Smelting (ER&S) and Metal Manufacturers which carried on with the pre industrial age non formal institutions based on agriculture, fishery and hunting. But the growth of the steel industry under the leadership of BHP which established the Australian Iron and Steel led to creation of an industrial society.
The congregation of labor in large numbers was implicit in creation of institutions by them for sustaining their rights and obtaining fair treatment. Unions were a natural corollary to industrialization in Port Kembla. The creation of unions was a safety mechanism that provided the labor working in the large steel factories a sense of security. This was the initial period of localism which soon came under threat from regionalism with the expansion of the steel industry linking Kembla with Wollongong.
These forces attempted to displace gradually the locals who had focused on their own borough in the city and tried to create all encompassing institutions. On the social side, workers safety systems were also seen to be based on their kinship affiliation. This was more than evident in the early stages of migration of communities post Second World War as a large number of people from Eastern Europe, Greece and Italy as well as Vietnam and the Middle East came in to feed the expanded need of labor.
These however remained a sub text within the larger text provided by the industrial associations of labor unions, which were the primary institutions for support created by workers in Kembla. Control of Workers Within and in the Community While the workers seem to have developed reasonable order in their working lives due to creation of unions, their influence within the community was relatively weaker.
Thus while there was unity amongst the workers themselves due to unionized structure of their organization which was to provide a safety network, within the society there were many pressures. Firstly the worker community itself was divided into a large number of unions such as the AWU, the Federated Ironworkers, the South Coast Labor Council and also political parties as the Communist party which had a strong presence in Port Kembla. This division perhaps led to weakening the position of the unions as a whole in the community.