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At home with the working class – temporarily

ARRIVING HOME one afternoon, there was Yvonne with a silly smirk on her face. It was clear that she had been up to something that amused her. What could it be, I asked silently?

“We wrote to the Post Office mail exchange in Redfern today”, she said about herself and another of the women who lived at 168—Mazz, I think. “…and we asked how we could go about exchanging our males”.

I don’t recall how I responded but she stood with that smirk across her face, her head tilted back as if in challenge or boldness (probably both) and her hands clasped behind her back, the sort of pose she struck when she thought she had been rather clever about something.

The mail exchange didn’t exchange partners for adventurous females, but what it did was serve as a representation of the industrial thinking inherited from the 1950s and 60s. A monolithic building in the worse of the modernist industrial cheapskate style, what it and those who managed what went on in it succeeded in doing was bringing together an eclectic collection of people to work there… the wayward, the accepting-of-their-lot-in-life, the refugee, the immigrant, the money hungry, those who couldn’t care less about money, the regular drunkard, the trade unionist, assorted leftists, the wild and the calm, the traditional Australian working class and assorted youth culturists of the era. I guess I was one of the latter.

If the work was uninteresting and boring, which it was, then the people you worked with were the saving grace of the place. But like so much else in Australian society at the time, the exchange and its shifting inhabitants stood close, though not yet at, the doors of change, for in the coming decade and more social and economic change would rip through that culture as surely as it ripped through other parts of society.

The mail exchange was a five-day a week reality in my life at the time. Only seldom would I work Saturdays—they were too valuable to me and I was anything but a workaholic. I had planned only a brief stopover that day I answered the job ad and sat in the room with a few dozen others to be told that, yes, there were jobs for all of us. Six months, I told myself… six months here then out and on to something else. What that something else was I had no idea, I just know it would be there. Life at that time was an open-ended affair and there was always something new to go on to. A couple weeks of training followed our recruitment then we were given shifts to work.

My planned short stopover was to turn into a rather longer one spanning several years. Looking back I shouldn’t have been surprised. Life was then in drift mode as the 60s moved forward to give way to the 70s. I had nowhere else in mind that I should be and I was content living in the big share house with my friends.

Rob Dummett, who also lived at 168 Cathedral Street, joined the exchange around the time I did and worked in another section on another floor of the establishment. Paul Schubeck, another resident who spent time as 168 before spending time in a different type of institution, worked there too.

Working class immersion

Working at the Redfern mail exchange was immersion in Australian working class culture. It was a unionised workplace and industrial disputes big and small had accompanied the establishment from its opening not all that long before.

There were hundreds employed to process the mail on its three floors, a clerical workforce and another workforce of technicians who maintained the electromechanical machinery. It was a 24-hours a day operation with the overnight shift receiving higher pay to compensate their odd hours. For the inhabitants of that shift, that was the attraction.

Stratified roles, variable but repetitious work

The mail processing staff was stratified. There was the bulk of the staff who did the actual work of sorting. They were divided into sections organised by a supervisor — let’s call them ‘gangs’ though that term was never used. The supervisors did little apart from standing around, moving the gangs to new tasks and spending a lot of time talking with the workers or other supervisors. You could tell the supervisors for virtually all of them wore white shirts and ties. Inside a small office on the fourth floor on which I worked was what I would describe as a manager. He, too, was of the tie-wearing class and spent his time doing what looked like filling in lots of forms. Somewhere, secreted in an office on another floor, was the man who managed this rather busy enterprise. He was rarely seen. This was not the era of management-by-walking-about.

The job was varied. There might be a period on the loading docks accepting and checking in the big, canvas bags of mail from the vans whose drivers collected it from post boxes and post offices around the city. The drivers would take the bags from their vans and swing them onto the loading dock. Here, they would be checked off and the number and origin counted and listed. The checking job was easiest—all you did was stand there with a clipboard marking off the mail bags as someone else called out their origin. A basic literacy was the only qualification for this job.

The bags were stockpiled, then placed on conveyors that delivered them to the fourth floor. Handling the bags was generally a two man affair unless they were light. Time might also be spent at the other end of this conveyor, where the bags came off and slid down a chute. There, a man would cut open the string that sealed the bay and upend its contents into a bay. The man on the other side would remove some of the mail and sort that held together by a rubber band and identified by a label—which signified it was all going to a common destination— into bags hanging from a steel frame. When filled, these bags would be taken away. The rest—the loose mail—was left to fall through the opening base of the bay onto a conveyor, from where it went for sorting.

Time was also spend sitting on a bench and taking letters from a narrow conveyor belt and sorting it, according to destination, into pigeonholes whose bottom would open to pass it onto another conveyor for further final sorting elsewhere in the building.

But the worst job, the job despised by all, was the thankfully infrequent assignment to the bag room. Whenever a supervisor mentioned that we were off there his announcement would be greeted with a collective moan. The bag room was an enclosed, dusty room in which mail bags were folded and stacked. Today, it would probably be classified as a hazardous workplace on account of the poor ventilation and dust-laden atmosphere. It was understandable that all hated it.

On the fourth floor were rows of sorting machines fed by letters sorted and placed upright. Though not a demanding task, the so-called ‘face-up table’ where this was done was not a particularly popular place. The letters fed into the banks of sorting machines crewed by an all-female workforce. Each letter would land in a little window in the machine and the operator would consign it somewhere on the basis of its postcode.

The pace of work was leisurely. Nobody hurried. The reason for this, I was told, was because it was process work. It was continuous and did not have the satisfaction of having a start and a finish to the job. This was considered to be discouraging.

What a social mix the staff were. There were the payday moneylenders, those who had migrated to Australia and ended up here in the exchange, the odd industrial communist, avid unionists and those less avid, people who had drifted in here in search of employment and settled, quiet people and the boisterous… a real mix of humanity from a real mix of backgrounds.

I finally settled on the 6am to 2.30pm shift as I lived nearby, first in a room on Goulburn Street in the city, then later at 168 Cathedral Street in Woolloomooloo. It wasn’t far to walk to work and get there for the early start. Finishing in the early afternoon left plenty of the day for myself.

It was a cold trek on winter mornings. I would pull on my brown corduroy jacket with its fleecy collar and walk through the still quiet streets in the crisp morning air… down George street to Central, along the lane beside the Dental Hospital which was then separated from Central by a corrugated iron fence, then along past Prince Alfred Park to the exchange at its other end. It was an enjoyable walk winter or summer because then city had that empty-of-people feel to it… and streets were devoid of all but the occasional car. Arriving at work, like everybody else I would leave my stuff I my locker then head out onto the floor when it was time to start. There, the Bundy would make a loud CLICK! as we inserted our cards to record our presence for the day.

A complex mix of people

By sticking to the one shift you soon got to know the people who populated it. There would be a core of regulars who, like me, had chosen that particular shift because it suited them. Then there would be a shifting population who would come and go.

One of the regulars was Max. He was maybe in his late 40s or early 50s, of stocky build, thick black short-cropped hair and trim black beard. A pot belly made it plain the Max liked a beer or two or three or even more a day. He was ex-Navy and boasted that he had once had sex with a woman on the Cahill Expressway where it passes over Circular Quay when it was still a construction site. A western suburbs resident, on his annual holidays he would hitch the caravan to his big car and head off on the traditional Australian road trip holiday along the east coast.

Brian was a quiet, thoughtful man of around 50, tall, slim and bald. Like James, he was gay at a time when that sort of thing was not what you made known. We all knew, of course, though I didn’t suspect it and Max pointed it out to me. Nonetheless, both Brian and James were accepted by all and not a word of condemnation was heard. This might have been robust working class culture, however it was also an accepting culture.

James was of average height and of slim build with an olive complexion. He also had had an interesting past. At one time he lived in Hollywood where he appeared in some movies, musicals I think he told me. He certainly knew about that scene though his quiet nature made it necessary to ask him about it—he wasn’t the sort to divulge personal information unasked.

Peter, who lived in Manly, was a tall man in middle age whose son was an opponent of the war in Vietnam that was then raging. He liked a few beers or glasses of wine and had led an interesting life. Of English origin, before World War Two he lived with his family in the British colony in Shanghai and could speak some Chinese, something we learned when a group of us ate at Chinese restaurants. He was a quietly outspoken but kind man, the type you always get a straight answer from. He was fully supportive of his son and considered the war a waste of life.

Charlie seldom worked our early morning shift. A man perhaps in his mid to late forties, Charlie was an elected union representative. He was also a communist who had a great deal of credibility among the workforce and was respected. When dealing with worker’s complaints, his was a considered, negotiating approach to management. Charlie and another staffer were studying electronics and would later join the technical branch of the Post Office. I was led to suspect that his wife had enough of his willingness to repair broken electionic equipment. One day he suggested I take my malfunctioning reel-to-reel tape recorder around to his house. When I arrived, though, his wife firmly informed me that if I had brought the device around for repairing, then Charlie was not doing it. He suggested I leave it when departing and he later returned it repaired.

Ron was a young man recently returned from a tour of Vietnam. His weapon there was the M60, a weighty, medium machine gun. I recall his telling me one day how he had virtually cut a Vietnamese in two with it. How he coped with the prevalent anti-Vientam was sentiment at the exchange I don’t know. He was non-political and had probably been made somewhat cynical by his experiences.

Speaking of the war, on occasions a few of the staff would take time off to attend the big Vietnam Moratorium marches in the city. These were massive affairs that would fill the streets and attracted thousands. The Moratorium brought the message home to the federal government that people had tired of the Vietnam adventure. It would all be over by 1972.

These people made up the core of the 6am shift. In culture and outlook they were traditional Australian working class. Most were married with families (James had a male partner in his Potts Point apartment) and it’s probably true to say that most lived in the western suburbs. These were not the distant western suburbs of today—they were for the most part what are today’s middle ring of suburbs. This, the late-1960s and on into the start of the new decade, were a time of growth for Sydney’s west, a time of suburbanisation and urban sprawl.

Christmastime was different. To cope with the increased volume of mail, the Post Office employed what were called the ‘Christmas casuals’ many of whom were female, unlike the permanent workforce. The comparative visual qualities of these females was sometimes the focus of discussion among we permanent staff.

Eye candy values aside, one year I did get friendly with Christmas casual Robyn, a slim western suburbs girl with long brown hair cut into a fringe across the front. Her life, however, proved just a little too complicated with past relationships and a young child, so the whatever potential there theoretically was soon dissipated. We went our respective way without really getting started.

Fortunately for some of the workers but less so for the management, the mail exchange had been built within a couple minutes walk of the Woolpack Hotel, and it was not uncommon for staff to disappear there during working hours when they were rostered onto the receiving dock. True to their working class culture, Max and some of the others were avid drinkers famed for their ‘liquid lunches’. They would go to lunch and disappear until later in the day, having spent the intervening time in the Woolpack or further afield at the courthouse Hotel. On occasion, a large group would go to a restaurant in Chinatown for a lunch accompanied by a plentiful supply of wine.

Not being yet used consumption wine in quantity and being plied with it by the others—I remember that it was red wine that day—I must have surprised them all by being sick there on the restaurant’s table. Of the rest of the day I remember nothing. I woke up sometime later on my bed at home and learned later that Max had dented his car getting me there or getting home himself. I think I backed off after that.

A double life

For many working there, the job was perhaps a job-for-life. It was secure and the pay was reasonable. It seemed they had settled to stay. For that cohort on the early morning shift, however, it was a dissipative sort of lifestyle for which escapes to the Woolpack, drinking at the Courthouse Hotel and lunches in Chinatown provided high points in a continuum of otherwise uninteresting, repetitive work.

It was something of a double life for me. To walk out of the exchange in the early afternoon and walk home to Goulburn Street or, later, to drive home to Cathedral Street was to leave working class culture and to reenter the youth culture of the time. In the course of that walk working class culture was exchanged for the different ambience of our shared house.

Today, this sort of working class culture is seldom found. Too much has changed—the economy, working life, ideas, lifestyles and a generation. But, for just those short few years, having experienced it provided one of those episodes in life where you learn of another way of living that was so different to what you led before or afterwards.

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