Address by Dr Norman Abjorensen, President, Canberra region branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History and response from DAMTP


‘Gai Brodtmann, Kim Sattler, Ged Kearney, distinguished guests, comrades.

Thank you for the invitation, and it is most gratifying to see this project, long in the planning, at last coming to realisation.

Some 30 ago I took a stand, of sorts, for the miners.

More specifically, it was about who was and who was not a miner.

I was at the time a senior journalist with the ABC in Sydney, and my bone of contention was the increasing use then by finance reporters of the term ‘miner’ to refer to mining companies.

My argument was that these corporate entities, and the people who sat in the boardrooms, were not miners at all; miners were people who dug things out of the ground. It was, to my ear, demeaning to the real miners, the workers.


This, to me, was an arrogation of enormous proportions. Not only were the hirers of labour expropriating the miners’ surplus labour, they were also stealing their identity.

Norman Brown would have been horrified.

I first approached the finance reporters – men and women who dressed like stockbrokers and probably thought like them – but they just laughed.

So, off came the gloves. I took my case upstairs – to a body, as influential as it was unknown to the wider world, called SCOSE – the Standing Committee on Spoken English.

I am not sure if it still exists in the corporatised ABC of today, but back then – when the ABC was still a commission and not a corporation – its word was final and unchallengable.
SCOSE ruled in my favour.

But it was a fleeting victory. I noticed soon after I left the ABC in 1983 or 84, that they were at it again – BHP, CRA, Western Mining were once again glorified as ‘miners’ and, alas, still are. Did SCOSE reverse its ruling? Or was it simply never enforced? I will never know.
But the point, I believe, was a good one.
Why was it a good point?

Our world is shaped by words to a far greater extent than we realise.

We need to be attuned to changes in language because they often prefigure a shift in attitude. Fairfax journalists found this out after their then CEO took to referring to them as “content providers.”

He now heads a major university, and I suspect academics are seen similarly.

Our everyday reality is constructed semantically, as anyone who has read Orwell knows only too well.

If BHP Billiton is a miner, for example, what, then, are the men and women, to gouge out of the earth the raw materials that make the company’s profits?

Are they no longer miners?

Or do they share the moniker of miner with the corporate entity that employs them?

This is either very loose use of language or a subtle attempt at blurring the reality of class difference, the subject of which figures prominently in the area of labour history.

Karl Marx wrote on several occasions that human labour was the foundation of civilisation.

All too often, the people who do the real work are invisible in great projects, and history and its use of language simply assists and perpetuates this.

We are told, for example, that the pharaohs of ancient Egypt built the pyramids when in fact their hands probably never touched a stone.

King This and Emperor That are credited with the great cathedrals of Europe when it is highly unlikely that the royal fingernails were ever dirtied.

Close to home, our history primers speak of Bradfield building the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House being the work of Joern Utzen.
Each of these, of course, was a designing genius, but without those who toiled and laboured on their behalf, their grand designs would merely have remained lines on a piece of paper.

The real work was the work below deck – and that is what labour history concerns itself with and that is why a project such as this is sorely needed to add a long overdue corrective to the national narrative.

It is surely time that we made a place for workers in the national pantheon, just as we have for soldiers, sporting stars, business leaders and entertainers.

It is worth remembering that the great battles did not end with the eight-hour day.

The need for democracy in the workplace – that last bastion of feudalism – is still to be fought, as is the continuing struggle for working conditions and basic safety.

There is a compelling need for vigilance here, and that’s a vital and ongoing role for our unions, so often maligned.

Too many men and women continue to be maimed, injured and even killed on worksites, and the constant fight for appropriate workplace safety is a sober reminder that the class struggle is still very much with us.

I, for one, would hope that one day we might incorporate into our museum a Memorial to the Unknown Worker as a constant and stark reminder that the most fundamental dignity that a society can provide, alongside secure employment and fair remuneration for a worker, is a guarantee that he or she will return home safely after work each day.

If we have to work to live then it is only reasonable that we should expect to live at work.

Perhaps we could incorporate a board with the names of those who have died in the course of selling their labour.

They have, after all, died in service to their country.

My friends, comrades. This a noble project indeed, and I for one want to thank all those who have lent their support, especially Slater & Gordon and most especially, without whose infectious enthusiasm this would not have happened, Kim Sattler of Unions ACT – truly a one-woman powerhouse.

Thank you.’

Support the National Museum of Labour


Response from Karen Karnak DAMTP

Dear Comrade Norman Abjorensen,

We congratulate you and all workers of the world on the occasion of the opening of a museum of labour culture and history. Your question “who is a miner” is indeed pertinent on this occasion. The workers must gain control over all meaning just as much as we must control all space and time.

It is for this reason that we must question whether the museum should be a ‘national’ museum. Our struggle is international. While we agree that the reactionary role of ‘australian’ unions such as the intercolonial trade unions congress needs documenting so that lessons can be learnt, we must now look to go beyond the narrow confines of history into an international proletarian future. We urge the museum to consider the other ‘nations’ that the workers in the local area are part of, such as the Melanesian ‘nation’ – which seems to be currently marginalised, if not excluded.

On the question of ‘who is a miner’ we agree that the bosses constitute a class outside of the
workers. We cannot include them in any definition of miner. However we propose that those workers who are data miners be recognised as such and be allowed to organise as such in soliodarity with workers everywhere – just as they work everywhere. The work of data mining is crucial in that it is the miner him and herself that is being mined – for data. This labour servesd capital in extracting evry last piece of capital – cultural and intellectual from the worker in order to commodify the worker. However the process of unionisation – of proletarianisation does the reverse, because it allows the miner to control data – definition and through that, space and time.

We therefore hereby offer our solidarity and await the instructions of miners, as dataminers, as psychic workers,

In struggle,

Karen Karnak,