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Activism and Stewardship

Trade unions have been part of Australia’s political, economic and social life since colonial times.

In the early 20th Century, Sydney Harbour wasn’t the tourist drawcard it was today. Wharves, docks, manufacturing, and industry lined the harbour’s foreshore and provided employment for many workers. Cockatoo Island, with its central location, also developed as a major industrial hub, with a the dockyard that became a training ground for more than 21 trades.

These 21 trades had 21 unions to match, and there were 3000 members among them. Many of these members worked on nationally significant projects, and this is the reason Cockatoo Island’s workforce had such an impact on the development of many major unions and movements across Australia.

The workers and their unions

The workers at Cockatoo Island were united by a fierce working class identity and by family ties: fathers, sons, uncles and brothers would often work side by side.

Within the workforce, there was an obvious class hierarchy. Those at the bottom did noisy, dusty, dangerous work: painters, dockers, welders, ironworkers and shipwrights. At the top were the managers, drawers and technicians, who worked in offices and laboratories. Each of the trades was represented by a different union, and there were struggles within and between unions for influence and power.

In the 1940s, Cockatoo Island was the centre of intense factional and political struggles between Communists and their opponents. Membership of the Communist Party of Australia exceeded 20,000, and communists were dominant in the leadership of unions such as the Federated Ironworkers Association, Sheet Metal Working Industrial Union, and the Seamen’s Union of Australia.

How unions influenced working conditions

One of the most important issues on the island was the need for safer working conditions. There’s no doubt that there was plenty to fight for. Men worked with some of the largest engineering equipment in the country – lathes, band saws, cutting gear, live electricity, and molten metal – but they weren’t provided with safety gear. There was always the possibility of explosions and asbestos dust was an unknown hazard that permeated the workshops and the dockyards.

The struggles over hours, wages, demarcation, and safety at Cockatoo Island were closely watched by the rest of the nation. As a Commonwealth dockyard, improvements on the island set a precedent for all Commonwealth-run workshops across the country.

Unions also fought for awards that ensured basic entitlements such as rates of pay, minimum and maximum working hours, annual leave, redundancy provisions, and penalty rates for overtime, weekend, or night work.

It was through awards that unions secured protection for workers in dangerous occupations. These reforms set minimum standards across the board, and from 1904 to 2006, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission created awards for various industries.

A downturn in work and the end of an era

Over the next 20 years, the union movement in across Australia responded to the pace of microeconomic reform through award restructuring, enterprise bargaining and the amalgamation of some 300 unions into 20 super unions.

In 1987, the Government announced the closure of Cockatoo Island's dockyard. The decision was inevitable given the downturn in naval shipbuilding on the island, and the end of the submarine refit program.

In 1989, in response to the Government’s decision, the island's workforce went on strike for 14 weeks. A fire was lit, large enough to be seen from the mainland, and 1000 workers marched at Parliament House in Canberra. Despite these efforts, the dockyard closed in 1991, and for ten years the island remained unused.

The fight for the island's future

In 1995, the Government was debating what to do with Cockatoo Island, and around this time, Friends of Cockatoo Island was founded by Jack Clark and his wife Mary Shelley Clark. The Friends were deeply opposed to private buyers, and they fought for the preservation of the former defence and naval site.

The group ran its campaign by writing letters to newspapers, holding public meetings, printing newsletters and inviting interested and influential people for tours of the island. They lobbied the state and federal governments, and in the end Government decided not to sell the island.

A new era for Cockatoo Island

Cockatoo Island lay dormant for nearly 10 years, but in 2001, the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust (Harbour Trust) was formed and commenced rehabilitation of the site. The Harbour Trust is now the custodian of the island and is responsible for conserving significant buildings and structures, adaptively reusing historic buildings, and interpreting the island’s remarkable history.

After extensive remediation works, Cockatoo Island was opened to the public in 2007. The Harbour Trust continues its active rehabilitation, and Cockatoo Island is now being re-imagined as one of Sydney’s key cultural precincts.

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