Amongst Equals

Australian Workers Film Guide


Commissioned by the ACTU as a sponsored film, this feature documentary was produced by Film Australia with funds provided by the Australian Bicentennial Authority for the 1988 Bicentennial.  Due to competing perspectives between the ACTU and the filmmaker during editing, the film remains uncompleted, with only poor quality VHS tapes of a work in progress emerging unofficially from the production. 

Deftly combining interviews with stills, archive and re-enactments, the film is a sweeping history of the trade union movement in Australia, contextualising and cataloguing a century of struggle for working class rights.

Opening with the contemporary rag trade and the union movements campaign to improve conditions for outworkers, the film then retraces the early history of unionism, including the gold rush, the 8 hour day movement, the first women’s union called the Tailoresses, the Shearers Strike of 1891, the impact of the 1892 economic bust on the union movement, establishment of arbitration and minimum wages, the rejection of conscription in World War I, followed by the Great Strike of 1917 and the subsequent formation of the ACTU in 1927.

Confronted by the Depression, unemployment soars and Australian workers see their wages and conditions cut, with coal miners on the front line.  This is presented as a prelude to an extended section on the shameful Rothbury confrontation during the 1929-30 Lockout, in which union legend Jim Comerford re-visits the site and recounts how police shot down protesting miners. The impact on workers and their families during the Depression is highlighted by extensive archive depicting extreme poverty and squalor, followed by an evocative section in which Unemployed Workers Union leader Tom Hills talks about the fight to stop evictions of the unemployed, which is underscored by a reenactment of a family being evicted by police and the UWU returning to the house to destroy it as a warning against future evictions. The film ends this section with the humiliating struggle of Port Kembla steel workers in Wollongong to get employment.

Staying in Wollongong, World War II is foreshadowed by the Dalfram Dispute of 1938 when Waterside Workers Federation members refused to load pig iron on to the SS Dalfram for export to Japan, following the invasion of China in 1937. This was the incident in which Attorney General Robert Menzies, later to become the Prime Minister of Australia, earned his nickname Pig Iron Bob.  The war years see the trade union movement take the fight to global fascism and witness the mass employment of women, thus igniting a continuing struggle for equality in pay and conditions. Covering the post war period Jim Comerford returns to talk about the infamous 1949 National Coal Strike, the role of communism in the union movement and splitting of the Labor Party which saw it consigned to opposition for 23 years.

Through the boom years of the 50s and 60s, unions are seen pushing for a fair share of the wealth for workers.  The heartbreaking impact of asbestos mining on workers at Wittenoom is delved into, with a particularly poignant scene in which two survivors point out all their deceased mates in a group photo.  This is followed by the union movement’s support for the 1966 Gurindji Strike or Wave Hill Walk-Off, which would see exploited Aborigines win wages and ultimately lands rights in the Northern Territory.  Shifting gears the film depicts the white collar ghettos dominated by women in the 60s and the fight for equal pay, which culminates in Zelda D’Aprano chaining herself to a Commonwealth building.  The end of the 60s see Clarrie O’Shea, Secretary of the Victorian Tramways Union, controversially imprisoned due to draconian penal clauses, as well the trade union’s opposition to the Vietnam War.

Pushing into the 70s, migrants in the manufacturing sector battle for improved wages and conditions, featuring provocative footage of workers throwing rocks at an assembly plant.  A decade of hope and turmoil, the 70s see a reforming Whitlam Labor Government take office, after a successful ‘It’s Time’ election campaign. Bob Hawke becomes president of the ACTU, Edna Ryan fights for equal pay for women and Jack Mundey’s BLF introduces Green Bans to save the Rocks on Sydney Harbour.  The aftermath of the 1975 Whitlam Government dismissal, sees a Liberal Government attack workers wages and conditions as the nation plunges into recession by the early 1980s.  The campaign to save the Riverland Cannery in 1982 is followed by a Hawke Labor Government in 1983, which leads to agreement between the government and the ACTU called the Prices and Incomes Accord.

The 1980s see the mass introduction of computers into the workforce, triggering repetitive strain injuries and leading to the introduction of health and safety officers in the workplace. There is industrial turmoil in Queensland as right wing politician Joh Bjelke-Petersen attacks unions and introduces anti-strike legislation. The film winds up with the 1986 Robe River dispute in WA where 1100 workers were sacked, the future threatened by computers and technological changes, which features a performance at the Melbourne Workers Theatre, as well as issues surrounding occupational health and safety, casualisation and under employment.

Special Notes/Achievements

Uncompleted film due to content dispute between ACTU and filmmaker.  Work in progress screened at a Festival of International Films with a Working Class Perspective, sponsored by the youth division of the NSW Labor Council. Screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival. [1]

[1] Hughes, J (2018), ‘Tom Zubrycki’s Amongst Equals (1986-1991): A Perennial Work in Progress’, in Senses of Cinema, Issue 88, viewed 20 June 2021 <>

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 93 mins

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Film Writer: Tom Zubrycki, Narration: Graham Pitts,

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