Cliff-hangers preserved: film in union education

Alice Garner

In exciting news for union and cinema history, the National Film and Sound Archive recently digitised a series of mid-1970s training films produced by Film Australia for the Australian Trade Union Training Authority (TUTA). These engaging, realist snapshots of workplaces explore the thorny challenges that faced (and still face) union reps and officials, as well as employers: technological change, family-work conflicts, shifting power relations, communication failures and language barriers.

Workers sit around a table with papers discussing the negotiation of a log of claims with their employer. The photograph is in black and white. Four workers are seated, the others stand around in the background.
Australian Trade Union Training Authority: The Claim, 1977 – Film Australian Collection © National Film and Sound Archive of Australia

The TUTA films were directed by Keith Gow, well known for his earlier work with Norma Disher and Jock Levy in the Waterside Workers’ Federation film unit.

Each film features well-known Australian actors, including Jacki Weaver and the late great Henri Szeps, as well as non-professional casts. The 1970s workplaces and dilemmas offer fascinating glimpses back in time, but many of the same problems face workers and unionists today.

How were the films used in training?

The short films ended abruptly with an unresolved scenario. These cliffhangers encouraged trade union training course participants to discuss what they would do in that situation. The trainers called them ‘trigger films’ because they provoked recognition, debate and reflection.

While most of the films are between 6 and 12 minutes long, one of the titles, The Claim (flyer and still on the left) is a complete feature film in three parts, tracing the progress of taking a log of claims through to a Conciliation and Arbitration Commission hearing.

A short title from the series – Union Communication: Facts – is freely accessible online but the remaining films’ preservation for future audiences is now guaranteed. It will be possible to order copies of these titles through the National Film and Sound Archive.

Upcoming screening and panel discussion

To find out more about the training films produced by Film Australia and how unions are using film-making today in their educational work, tune into our 16-17 November 2021 conference The Trade Union Training Authority: Lessons from A Bold Experiment. Registrations are open now on Eventbrite.

The conference will include an evening screening on Wednesday 17 November of Changes in the Office and A Personal Matter with a discussion on film in union education, past and present. Hear from Lisa Milner, author of Fighting Films: A History of the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit and Victorian Trades Hall digital content producer and documentary maker Suzi Taylor, with contributions by Des Hanlon, a Clyde Cameron College trainer who worked closely with Gow during the making of the films.

For some background, see:

Des Hanlon and Warwick McDonald, ‘TUTA: Early History, Learning Methodology, and Trigger Films‘ in The Hummer, vol. 13(2), 2019.

and Lisa Milner, ‘Fighting through their filmwork: the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit’, The Hummer, vol. 4(2), Winter 2004, link here

The National Film and Sound Archive have one of the training films already up on their Youtube channel. Union Communication: Facts (1976) looks at what can happen when communications break down! Watch it right here: