Precarious printers : labour, technology & material culture at the NSW Government Printing Office 1959-1989

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From 1959 to 1989 the NSW Government Printing Office (hereafter ‘the Gov’) was a government-run printing establishment that operated from a centralised factory in Ultimo, Sydney. Over a 30-year period marked by dramatic technological change and political transitions, the Gov was pulled in conflicting directions by traditionalists, unionists, economic rationalists and those somewhere in between. It was also one of the first Australian factories to open printing apprenticeships to women. This combination – technological change, the rising influence of neo-liberal economics and gender-labour tensions – made for an unsettled institution. In mid-1989 the state government abruptly closed down the Gov and 700 people lost their jobs. This thesis operates on two levels: it offers both an historical and a methodological contribution to knowledge. At an historical level Precarious Printers is an exploration of how the Gov’s workers – from labourers to managers – coped with technological, social and political change. This has brought to light many aspects of the Gov’s culture of working life (everyday practices and unofficial stories) and it indicates the important presence of objects, technologies and spaces as they exist in memories of working life. Two central coping practices are identified: building alliances and unofficial creative production. Firstly, the Gov’s employees came to grips with their circumstances by developing alliances with people and/or technologies. This involved staking out territories spatially or by developing their skills. Some workers clung to their skills, traditional tools and collective practices. Others enthusiastically embraced new technologies with an individualistic drive for self-improvement. Secondly, many of the Gov’s employees enacted their own narratives – of resilience, belonging and of industrial decline – through unsanctioned creative practices. This came in the form of photographs, film, pranks and the unofficial production of printed materials (foreign orders). The key theoretical and methodological contribution of this dissertation is a demonstration of how labour history can be effectively drawn together with considerations of material culture. As a case study, the Gov reveals how the politics of work is intertwined with the physical and designed world. This dissertation provides a method for analysing labour, technology and industrial history that retains the voices of the workers and adds a relevant consideration of spaces, objects and embodied experience. Correspondingly, this research draws upon a number of disciplines: labour history, sociology, the history of technology and studies of material culture and design. Primary source materials include oral history, photographs and archives. Rather than simply aestheticising past technologies and industrial spaces, Precarious Printers finds that material culture, technology and spatial dynamics are significant elements in an analysis of working life and in developing an understanding of people’s adaptive responses to technological change and workplace upheaval.
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