Magazine article Metro Magazine

Showing Some Fight: Kemira's Challenge to Industrial Relations

Magazine article Metro Magazine

Showing Some Fight: Kemira's Challenge to Industrial Relations

Article excerpt


   Join together our forces, put
   B.H.P. on the rack,
   We must take some action,
   and jobs we all need,
   And stop this big company
   raping Australia for greed.
   So workers of Wollongong,
   we must all unite,
   Back up thirty-one miners for
   showing some fight. (1)

THIS POEM extract was written by a miner who appears in Tom Zubrycki's 1984 documentary Kemira: Diary of a Strike (henceforth Kemira). The lines are quoted while workers and their families travel to Canberra to protest the shutdown of a coalmine in Wollongong, south of Sydney. This paper presents a case study of Zubrycki's film that documented the 1982 sacking of 400 miners and the sixteen-day occupation of the Kemira (2) pit by thirty-one miners. The event represents a specific moment of workplace upheaval in the 1980s but, twenty years later and in the context of current industrial relations laws, we explore Zubrycki's documentary within a framework of films associated with industrial relations.

Film derives from wider historical processes and events, and this is evident in Kemira not just in terms of a literal representation of events (as suggested by the diarised narrative approach), but also in the documentary's broader theme of worker relations in capitalist societies. Besides documenting the day-by-day organization of the strike, Kemira follows the fortunes of the families involved and the profound personal changes they experienced. The strike focused attention on the plight of the people of Wollongong, which was typical of other small Australian cities profoundly affected by the economic recession in the 1980s. Representations of work, its daily operations, and its laws, organization, celebrations and disputes, are essential to our culture, past and present.

In their 2005 book, Australian Cinema After Mabo, that deals with cinema as public sphere, Felicity Collins and Therese Davis are particularly concerned with representational relations between settler and Indigenous peoples, but this can apply to relations between working groups. If, as Collins and Davis argue, the 1992 High Court decision overturning the founding doctrine of terra nullius destabilized Australians' relation to the land and was a turning point in shaping Australian cinema, then to what extent can specific moments in industrial relations be mapped through filmic representations, such as Zubrycki's Kemira documentary? And to what extent can (and should) documentary per se be an advocate for change? Before addressing these broader issues, the Kemira storyline must be outlined.

The Kemira story: context and content

In 1982, following two consecutive losses by its steel division, the Broken Hill Propriety Limited corporation (BHP), then Australia's monopoly steel producer, restructured its steel operations. It closed its steel-related Hunter Valley and Illawarra coalmines and a blast furnace at Kwinana in Western Australia, adopted new technology in its remaining plants and threatened further steelwork closures. At Australian Iron and Steel (AIS), BHP's Wollongong steelworks, the workforce was cut from over 20,000 in 1981 to just under 15,000 in 1983. (3) The Kemira strike began when BHP announced that, despite a profit of $300 million the previous year, it would sack 400 miners. The union sought to prevent the sackings by taking BHP to court, but many miners did not believe that arbitration would achieve their desired outcomes and so resorted to their own action.

Kemira opens with a reenactment of the descent into the mine where thirty-one miners staged their strike twenty days before the sackings were due to take effect. Their daily vigil is heard through excerpts of Union Lodge Secretary Jim Roach's diary entries and seen in underground recordings (4), plus to-camera interviews with wives and children, with miners who stayed above ground in the pit-top strike centre, and Sally Bowen who ran the Women's Auxiliary providing meals for the strikers. …

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