Power, Brutality, and Poetry:

Violence in the Workplace and at Home

Contributed by Nick Hughes

© copyright Nick Hughes 1994



Introduction: Geoff Goodfellow and "Spanner in the Works"

Geoff Goodfellow's poetry is as powerful and direct as he is. "I'm only a little bloke" he says, "but I can go off if I have to." The sense of that controlled power smoulders in him as he reads his poems; poems which speak eloquently of the realities of working class lives in straightforward, almost brutal ways.

Words have power in them. The simple language that we use everyday, those words have a lot of power.

Geoff is currently Writer in Residence with the Automotive Food Metal and Engineering Union (AFMEU), visiting workplaces in South Australia to read his poems and to discuss the issue of violence; with a particular focus on domestic violence. The residency is entitled: "Spanner in the Works." [In U.S. English, this would be "Wrench in the Works."] Geoff says that:

[Domestic violence] is a big issue for everyone and it's not an issue, I think, that can ever be resolved by women standing up and saying we're not going to cop this. I think men have got to stand up and say we're not going to cop it too.

When he delivers his material, Geoff never weakens its power by deflecting it around his audience: he directs it straight at them. As he puts it: "My style of presentation is confrontive; my delivery is confrontive; my content is confrontive." No one else is better suited (or able) to raise the difficult issue of domestic violence in the male-dominated workplaces which he has been visiting. It's not that people are not aware of the issue; it's just not talked about. As Mick Tumbers (State Secretary of the AFMEU Metals Division) says:

When you see a black eye and bruises, there's only so many doors you can run into. People do think about that in the workplace. They know it's out there. It's a matter of coming to grips with what you do about it; because you can't be a bystander for ever.

The AFMEU decided not to stand by and wanted to raise the issue as a legitimate union concern. This is one of the major aims of the Art and Working Life residency. Mick pointed out that the 24-week residency was the only way the Union could have driven this issue at the speed at which it has. Domestic violence is not the sort of issue that union organizers can be instructed to raise with the membership, and even if they did, you would have to question whether their efforts would achieve much without alienating the membership. Mick reckons that by utilizing Geoff's talents, the residency will have achieved more in 24 weeks than the Union could have done on its own in five years.

A Union Faces Domestic Violence

By identifying domestic violence as a legitimate Union concern, the AFMEU finds itself in an unenviable position. As Mick puts it,

We were not going out demanding $40 a week. We were in fact going out saying: we have reason to believe there are perpetrators and victims amongst our members, what are we going to do about that?

So why is the AFMEU sticking its neck out like this? Surely the role of a Trade Union is limited to improving the wages and conditions of its members, isn't it? Well no, it isn't. In the case of the Metalworkers the answer is an emphatic no.

The Metalworkers Union has always had a wide agenda in terms of equity and social justice. They have always clearly stated their political position which incorporates a whole range of social concerns. It is not surprising therefore that the organization has had a long history of involvement with Art and Working Life programs, for they perceive clearly the benefits that can flow on to their members from involvement in cultural activity, benefits that include skills generation, discussion, networking, new perceptions, relaxation, enjoyment, increased self-esteem, and just occasionally, the opening up of alternative career paths.

For Mick Tumbers, the wider agenda is not only a matter of ideology but also of survival:

Unless Trade Unions are able to again move back to capture the broad base with a broad basket of issues, they will not survive. The strictures are now such that if you try to operate off a simple industrial base, no matter what your politics, you won't survive. Law firms are more and more broadening their base to cater for industrial type advocacy issues [such as bargaining and unfair dismissal]. We will die unless we are able to find a role in which we are more attuned to social needs.

In 1990 a Report entitled "Violence: Directions For Australia" was published. This was produced by the National Committee on Violence which was initiated by Senator Michael Tate when he was Minister of Justice. Recommendation 110 of the Report reads:

Employers should provide a range of counselling and support services to assist employees with personal problems. These should include stress management, drug and alcohol rehabilitation and domestic violence.

A Roving Residency Is Born

The Union began to consider ways in which they could encourage employers to act on this recommendation, and ways in which they themselves might initiate some action. In conjunction with Lilly Fisher (the UTLC [United Trades and Labour Council, a State-level union body] Arts Officer), they began discussing with Geoff the possibility of a literature-based project focused on the issue of violence. Mick had seen Geoff give readings at the UTLC and on building worksites and knew first hand his ability to take difficult issues into male dominated arenas and to transfix his audience.

After a great deal of discussion and the eventual funding of the project by the Australia Council, they agreed that Geoff should have a gypsy-like, roving commission, visiting workplaces that ranged from the predominantly male domain to the all-male domain and included the elitist areas which are so male-dominated that it is very hard to find a way of breaching them from the perspective of women's politics. These are very difficult areas. Geoff Goodfellow is able to work effectively in them. Partly because he has the strength not to be intimidated in them (in fact he feels quite at home in them); but mostly because he talks to people at their own level, not talking down from a height and not preaching, and he gets straight through people's defenses.

The Cycle of Violence

He has been starting his performances in the factories with a poem entitled: "The Violence of Work," which is about the boredom and monotony of work and its effect on people and on their families. This poem, he says, "lets them know I'm on the same tangent; I've got an understanding of what their life is likely to be about." The connections that Geoff makes in "The Violence Of Work" between the nature of work and people's violent feelings reflect his concern to deal with all forms of violence, in and out of the workplace.

Violence is not just domestic violence: I want to talk about basic brutality. I mean man-to-man brutality; front-bar hotel brawls, eye gouging, chewing off people's noses and ears: the sorts of activities that some blokes do get involved in in the front bars of hotels. I want to broach those subjects and talk about violence in a fairly broad sense.

That broad sense includes the violence that occurs in the workplace and that, in turn, includes not only punch-ups between workers but also the injuries that people sustain through doing their work and the way that affects the rest of the workforce and their families. It is a vision that encompasses the individual, economic and political sources of violence and which allows the links between them to be highlighted. It is a vision that includes an awareness of the basic power relations in society and the way they affect people. It is a vision that Mick Tumbers shares:

It's not beyond the realms of possibility that some of the pressures that create the degree and nature of domestic violence are in fact coming from the workplace and not going the other way 'round. It isn't just the problem that the bruises and the black eyes are exhibited in the workplace; it may well be that they are the consequence of something that was taken home the night before.

Mick stresses that the Union can't be certain yet that that is what is happening, nor are they in a position to properly analyze it. It is, however, the breadth of the AFMEU's social and political vision that allows them to do the vital work of exploring such possibilities.

Geoff is personally deeply affected by the savagery of the industrial violence that is done to people in the course of doing their jobs. He is moved to tears in relating the story of a man who came across the body of one of his workmates:

You've got to take some of that stuff home with you. You can't drop that sort of stuff on the spot.

This man had no way of dealing with it and responded by locking himself away from his wife and children and for a long time was unable to touch them, either physically or emotionally. People should not have to pay those sorts of prices, just for doing their job. Geoff takes some of that stuff away with him too:

What I do is I listen to people's stories. I'm a storyteller, and often the stories I tell are other peoples' stories.

He at least is able to write about it and to talk to other people about it, and in the process he performs a great service for the rest of us because he understands people in a human way, without judging, but learns from them and helps other people to learn from them. One of the outcomes of the 'Spanner in the Works' residency will be a book of poems that Geoff is writing based on his experiences during the residency and on the stories he has heard.

Goodfellow's Approach

Geoff's approach to a prospective workplace starts with discussions with the union organizersl, followed by an initial visit to feel out the place and to negotiate with the boss for the session to take place half in the company's time and half in the workers' break.

Many of the sessions have been limited to half an hour, so in a workplace where the usual lunch break is 20 minutes long, the session would occupy 15 minutes of the workers' time and 15 minutes of the boss's time. Sometimes he has had an hour available, but lunch breaks have been tending to get shorter and are often staggered, which has made all union access to workplaces more difficult. By negotiating half the session on the boss's time, Geoff ensures that he hasn't alienated his audience before he starts by taking up all their lunchbreak.

Although the sessions are often only half an hour, he usually spends at least half a day in the workplace, going around and talking individually with people. Sometimes he does this before the performance, sometimes after, sometimes both. These informal discussions are a vital part of Geoff's working process, but it is the performances which shirtfront the audience and force them to confront the issue of domestic violence. As he says,

You don't change things by punching them. You change things by talking about them; and by talking about them you're forcing people to think and come up with new ideas.

What Geoff is doing is opening the door and jamming his foot in it so that it's hard for people to slam it again. He leaves people with plenty to think about while they are back at their boring, monotonous work, after he has left. This thoughtful reflection is the aim of the project. No one is asked to identify themselves (or others) as perpetrators. In fact, the project has steered clear of that. It was judged to be more effective to allow people to maintain their anonymity and to provide everyone in the workplace with a Resource Kit containing information and contacts for agencies and groups (such as Men Against Domestic Violence) who offer advice and assistance to the perpetrators and victims of domestic violence. This way, people can (and do) talk about the issue in terms of "I have a friend...," and the Resource Kit gets taken home where the information can be passed on through networks of families and friends to people who need it.

Poetry as a First Step

"This is the first step." says Mick. "It is a subject that we have to make part of a continuing consciousness in the workplace. We know that can be done if it is done skilfully." Geoff himself identifies another important outcome of the project:

The object too is to show workers that books exist for them; that their experiences are really being recorded. Whilst perhaps a lot of the work they're doing is boring, repetitious work, we try to scrounge up a bit of dignity about it by writing about it.

But by far the most important outcome has been the establishment of domestic violence as a topic that can be talked about in the workplaces visited. As Geoff says, "Perhaps poetry can't change the world, but I believe it can be a catalyst for change."


Nick Hughes has worked in theatre all his life as a stage manager, an actor, a director, an artistic director, a dramaturg, and a writer, mainly in the area of political and professional community theatre. He moved from England to Australia in the mid-70s, and has been based there ever since. You can send e-mail to Nick at nickh@adam.com.au.

This article was first published in Artwork, the magazine of the Community Arts Network of South Australia, Issue No. 23 June 1994

Other articles by Nick Hughes in Webster's World:

¬…       Working Off the Back Foot:
The Importance of Consultation and Negotiation in Working with Communities

¬…       Somewhere Special:
Participatory Arts Residencies at Swallowcliffe Schools

Also see our introduction to Community Arts in Australia
incorporating useful background information about agencies and programs mentioned in this article

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