Recollections of a Mad Idea
The Origins of workSite

By Harry Knowles*


It began with a phone call late 1987. Mark Hearn, whom I met a couple of years earlier while we were both honours students in history at Macquarie University, asked me whether I'd like to listen to a ‘mad' idea he'd had about starting a publication. We agreed to meet  in the City Hotel in King Street, Sydney.

I had begun postgraduate studies in history at Macquarie having  recently pulled the plug on a 22 year career as a Commonwealth public servant to pursue an academic career. Casual tutoring positions at Macquarie in my chosen field and elsewhere were practically non existent as a consequence of the recent ‘Dawkinisation' of the universities so, apart from my studies and a small amount of TAFE teaching I welcomed the possibility of another challenge.

Gestation of the idea took place in  the public bar of the City Hotel (public bars often seem to offer the ideal environment for ‘mad' ideas to gestate). As we talked we were both conscious of the flickering TV in the background showing live pictures of  Reagan's US forces bombing Libya. Mark foresaw the need for a forum for trade unions to debate industrial relations issues to counteract the radical changes to NSW workplace laws enacted by the newly elected Greiner Government.

cartoon by Peter Bett
Peter Bett provided a number of sharp cartoons and illustrations for Union Issues and Southland Magazine

Thus Union Issues was born to serve as the platform for the debate. Mark's home-based company Southland Media would publish the magazine. I made a small cash contribution  and the NSW Branch of  Australian Railways Union kindly offered some of its facilities to assist with its production. We begged and borrowed copy for the first few issues. We could not afford to pay contributors but thanks to the generosity of many, particularly from academe, we got the first issue out on time. Regrettably there was little interest as far as written contributions were concerned  from unions themselves however we persevered and got off to a good start.

Union Issues was produced in Mark's lounge room. It took an entire morning to prepare the issues for mail out . My wife would deliver me to Mark's residence on her way to work and then Mark, his wife, Margaret and I would spend the next few hours collating each issue with address labels, sealing each in a plastic envelope then organising them for mail-out in accordance with the somewhat arcane instruction ‘bible' provided by Australia Post. We often sat on the floor, engaged in the production process, ‘helped' by one or more of the Hearn toddlers.

The major challenge we faced with each issue was to pass muster at the York Street Post Office. Far from being just a matter of dropping the issue off, it had to pass a strict inspection from Australian Post officers to ensure it complied to the very letter of the ‘bible'. On occasions we were faced with obtuse officialdom which insisted on compliance with hitherto un-encountered interpretations of the biblical text. Both Mark and I emerged from the York Street Post Office years as much more patient individuals.

Twenty years have gone by since the City Hotel meeting and Union Issues survives as WorkSite Fulfilling my ambition to join the ranks of academe and achieving a doctorate were indeed proud moments for me, however I am equally if not more proud of my part in founding a publication that has endured for so long.

* Harry Knowles, Work and Organisational Studies, School of Business, University of Sydney.

Published 10 September 2008.

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