THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE COMBINED UNIONS CHOIR
During the later years of the Premiership of Bjelke-Petersen, from the mid-1980’s, when Queenslanders were suffering from arrests if they participated in street marches, when Jack-the-Bagman was running rackets (“the Joke”) in the Queensland Police Force for the now disgraced Chief of Police, Terry Lewis, the Trade Union movement and the wider Labour Movement bore the brunt of the National Party Government’s hatred and venom.
The 80s were a time of great conflict in Queensland. Bjelke-Petersen ruled with an iron fist and many Queenslanders tried to demonstrate their anger on issues such as: the Springbok Rugby Tour; Uranium mining; the raids on the fertility clinics; the ban he placed on street marches; no sex education allowed in Queensland schools; the demolition of historic Bellevue Hotel; the raid on the Cedar Bay hippie commune. The worst was his stance against striking unionists in the SEQEB and other strikes.
Around this time, Street Arts Theatre approached the Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union (Missos) to collaborate on writing and performing a show about the cleaning industry which involved the Missos members. Subsequently, Therese Collie, Fiona McLeod, Wendy Turner and Sue Yarrow talked together over dinner at Pauline and Denis Peel’s home about what could be done through the arts to raise awareness about that corrupt government. We clearly understood the importance of using the arts to create a political message reflective of and enjoyable to, working people.
We knew that, at this time, the Australia Council for the Arts was working with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) to deliver a program entitled Art and Working Life. The program’s aim was to assist in developing expressions of art from Australian workers.
In July 1987, the Trades and Labor Council of Queensland, in conjunction with its affiliated unions, developed and submitted a proposal to the Australia Council for the Arts for the appointment of an Art and Working Life Field Officer for Queensland who would assist unions and unionists to develop various arts projects. Strong support was forthcoming from many affiliates including: the AMWU; ATEA; BWIU; FCU; FMWU; MOA; POA; Plumbers and Gasfitters: QTU; TWU; and QNU.
Four weeks before Queensland’s 1988 Labour Day, Dee Martin was appointed to the position and the formation of the Combined Unions Choir (CUC) which sang at that May Day celebration, was one of the remarkably successful projects she commenced. The first conductor of the CUC was Libby Sara who had the task of turning a bunch of “bath-tub singers” into a choir. We met for the first time at the QTU building and the Courier Mail sent a photographer to catch a number of our inaugural members, dressed in the working gear of various union callings: Stan Irvine in his carpenter gear; his wife Flo dressed as a nurse; Wendy Turner and Sue Yarrow wearing uniforms of FMWU members employed in Arnott’s Biscuit factory. Also present were Bill Yarrow from the POA and Laurel Powell and her friend Rosanne – both teachers.
The CUC took as its motto the old International Workers’ of the World (IWW) saying: “A movement that sings, shall never die.” They are living up to that motto, being the longest running “Art in working Life” project in Australia. What a proud thing to say and what happiness they have brought over many years.
13 March 2012