Friday, July 28, 2006

Oral history from below

Trade union activist and researcher Kirsty McCully has a new project - and you're invited to take part in it. Here's the draft outline of Kirsty's research proposal, which she's circulating in the hope of getting comments and contacts. Kirsty's last oral history project was a study of Auckland's Sexual Abuse HELP agency which involved dozens of interviews and resulted in a series of papers and presentations.

You can contact Kirsty at

At this year’s International Oral History Association Conference in Sydney, Australia, long time oral historian and academic Ron Grele spoke to conference participants about the radical past of oral history as a discipline. Grele said that oral history was founded at a time when ‘history from below’ was a new and exciting concept amongst historians and political activists. Oral history was one of the methods for recording the important reality of everyday people’s lives and oral historians were a community of like-minded people committed to an overtly political vision of societal change.

Grele spoke about the shifting paradigms in oral history since the founding of oral history associations in the 1960s. Despite changing ideas about the ability of oral history to tell ‘the truth’ or ‘a truth’ in the 70s and 80s, Grele talked about the need for today’s oral historians to engage with the radical past of the discipline.

Globalisation offers an opportunity to oral historians. That opportunity is to demystify globalisation and to record what is happening to people as a result of capital operating internationally. While as individuals and activists we may condemn globalisation as a way of ordering people's lives, as an international community of oral historians, we have an opportunity is to record global oral histories. Histories that cross boarders and oceans, to show how globalisation and capitalism really impact on people’s lives.

The situation for cleaners, and service workers, worldwide provides us with the perfect example of a workforce whose work cannot be ‘contracted out’ to overseas markets. What happens in the service industry is the opposite - the workers often shift to meet the market. This means that cleaners are a largely immigrant and usually female workforce who move to new countries with the promise of a better future. They clean at night in the office blocks many of us work in, and they are some of the lowest paid and undervalued workers in the western world.

Cleaners and the unions representing them have been getting together, both nationally and internationally, to campaign for improvements to cleaners jobs and lives. In New Zealand, Australia, the USA, the UK and in many other countries, cleaners are taking their struggle to multi-national building owners and to cleaning contractors who have control over the way the industry is structured. Cleaners are trying to take the power back. To do that they are organising.

Talking with activist cleaners to record their experiences as workers, as migrants, as women, as parents, but most of all as campaigners making a difference in their industry, in their jobs and in their lives.

As someone involved as a union organiser in the New Zealand part of the ‘Clean Start: Fair Deal for Cleaners’ campaign, I have seen shy, reserved cleaners become confident union activists - proud of their work, and silent no longer.

I am interested in interviewing cleaners in New Zealand to record their experiences, and I am interested in working with oral historians worldwide to record the stories of other activist-cleaners. This is a change to gain a real understanding of what it’s like to be a cleaner - not just here in New Zealand where the workforce is largely Pacific Island and Maori women, but all around the world.

I’m interested in recording:

-What it’s like to be a cleaner
-What the job involves
-What the problems are with the jobs
-Why they are active in trying to change those jobs
-How they see campaigning as important
-What they’d like their job to be like
-How has the work changed over the time they’ve done it
-What it’s like to be a migrant worker
-Why they came (to NZ, or whichever country)
-What they were told about the country before they made the decision to
-What are the main social issues facing their community
-How they manage their lives around their work - home, family,
balance or lack of this
-Religious, community, political involvement
-Family history - what did their parents do, what are their siblings,
friends, extended family doing - cultural history
- Identity - how do they see themselves
-How do their friends/family back home view them
-Gender issues - domestic labour - who does it, decision making
-Any experiences of stigmatisation/harassment/social exclusion/racism
-Why are they involved in unions and campaigns and what has their
involvement been
-Decision making in their lives
-Connections to home
-Class issues in NZ - do they see themselves as part of a class, or
as a part of their ethnic community
-Hobbies - if they have time for any

Recording these stories across borders could provide an opportunity to bring some global analysis to a movement responding to the impact of globalisation and provide a richness that local recordings may lack. It also offers a chance to have a worldwide record of what cleaners do and how they feel about it. Stories, thoughts, feelings and opinions that otherwise may be missing from history.


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