Dave Widgery

Under Capricorn

(September 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.91, September 1976, pp.28-30.
Republished in David Widgery, Preserving Disorder, Pluto Press, London 1989, pp.32-39. [1]
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Taming The Concrete Jungle; The Builders Labourers’ Story
Pete Thomas
Published by the Australian Builders Labourers Federation $A1.50.

Black War
Clive Turnbull
Sun Books.

The Builders Labourers Federation organises the Australian building workers responsible for demolition, excavation, scaffolding, rigging and concreting. Until the mid-Sixties the union was right wing, dominated by full time ‘standover men’ in informal liaison with the building employers. But as the Sydney building boom took off, fuelled by the investment capital of the insurance giants, a new BL leadership begun to challenge the site bosses, the old gangsterism and the second best mentality that many BLs themselves had developed. And in this challenge they were aided by changes in building methods. Off-site construction, continuously poured concrete and nailing machines had acted to narrow or make irrelevant the skill differentials between the labourers and the craft unions. And as the trade winds of speculative office building tore through the older parts of central Sydney, it was the BLs who were first on-site and who had to do the developers’ dirty work.

To a Londoner ground down by the grime and corrugated iron of the last four years’ slump in the British building industry, at first sight Sydney’s new architecture is refreshingly elegant. But for all the copper-coloured glass and fancy fountains, it’s still Centrepoint times ten. All the clichés of modern life are there, air conditioned lifts, open plan offices and cloud level viewing platforms. But while the rows of unlet office blocks make money for their owners, they impoverish the city workers threading their way through the sunless, memoryless corridors that once were familiar, living streets. The social effects of speculative office building have been especially clear in Australia because the population is highly urbanised and the quality of public housing, even when the Housing Commission estates are given cheery names like Sunshine and Broadmeadow, is very low. ‘No war declared, No storm has flared, No sudden bomb so cruel. Just a need for land, A greedy hand, And a sign that says "Urban Renewal",’ wrote a store front balladeer.

The earliest BL’s strikes were aimed at ‘civilising the industry’ by direct action to improve on-site amenities and with them, the labourer’s own confidence. Its symbols were a shabby tin changing hut heaved into the foundations of a Bramble’s job at the Cross in Sydney, a dented compressor which ‘fell’ into a Clarence Street excavation where many Mediterranean labourers had no place whatsoever to change or eat, not even a tap, and the Newcastle builders on the Civic Centre site who took a naked shower on City Hall’s steps to dramatise site conditions.

Accident pay for on-site injuries was the next target. Building workers accounted for one in five of recorded work incapacities and averaged 20,000 compensation cases with 40 site deaths a year in New South Wales alone. BL excavators were prone not only to noise injuries but high silicone dust levels from Sydney’s sandstone rock shelf. Of six Queensland union secretaries who signed a ‘Stop the Slaughter’ newspaper appeal in 1970, two were dead within three years. But, as always continuous breaches of lax safety regulations were commonplace until a strongly organised union tackled them with action on the job. As the Australian Financial Review reported an industry executive saying in a moment of truth:

‘To the discredit of the industry, every major safety change has been at the initiative of the union. We have played no part at all.’

A five week wage strike in 1970 was followed by a united building trades stoppage for a flat rate increase and injury payments. And by 1971 the construction trade unions edged the engineers into second place in the strike tables with 1.2 million strike days won in dispute.

During these strikes the Government-dominated Arbitration Courts were simply ignored when necessary and emphasis was placed on the organisation of the rank and file. Mobile ‘de-scabbing’ brigades inspected sites where strike-breaking was suspected. The scabs might disguise themselves by grabbing a broom but their handiwork would be gently demolished. Just as British building workers in 1972 decided there was little point in hanging round the empty shells of solid strikes, so their Australian brothers put the emphasis on applying their picketing strength where it really had effect. Jack Mundey, a BL leader and Australian Communist Party member put it:

‘We did not set out on a wanton destruction rampage but attacked only buildings where the employers were attempting to use scab labour to break the strike. This had a devastating effect on employers, government and police alike. In this dispute it took the class enemy by surprise.’

Further strike action tackled the problem of permanency on the sites and sought to establish union controlled hiring halls to prevent the destructive effect on organisation and morale of short jobs and long waits for work. The Master Builders, who were doing well enough out of the boom, got more and more worried as the BLs attacked them not just for money but to break the features of the industry which put the site workers on such a permanently weak trade union footing.

The famous Green Bans also grew out of the union’s determination to go beyond just bargaining about the price of labour but to consider ‘the worker’s life and not just the worker’s day’. The bans were an extension of the blacking of goods to the blacking of socially undesirable demolition and building work. The building regulations are notoriously lax in Australia and local government weak and easily corrupted. So it was direct to the BLs that the conservationists appealed. And if the BL rank and file, after public discussion and a full vote of members, agreed, a threatened demolition or development would simply not be carried out. The first request came from a rich residential area but Green Bans were soon in force in areas of central Sydney which had traditionally housed low-cost working class housing like The Rocks, Woolloomooloo and Victoria Street. In all these areas residents, local trade unionists and squatters joined the BLs in enforcing the Bans. By 1973 there were 32 sites green banned holding up £1,500 million worth of speculative building. The politics of the action became clearer as the first bite of the depression started to push up unemployment. ‘Yes, we want to build’, said Mundey ‘However, we prefer to build urgently required hospitals, schools, other public utilities, high quality flats, units and houses rather than ugly unimaginative architecturally-bankrupt blocks of concrete and glass offices’. In Melbourne BLs introduced the ‘amber ban’ by refusing to knock down the few remaining ‘watering-holes for workers’, pubs where you could go in working clothes and get a drink at normal prices which were otherwise being ‘renovated’ with high prices and dress rules. So much for the sneers of the Sydney Morning Herald who had crowed:

‘There is something highly comical in the spectacle of building labourers, whose ideas on industrial relations do not rise above strikes, violence, intimidation and the destruction of property, setting themselves up as arbiters of taste and protectors of our national heritage.’

The sustained campaign would not have been possible without an unusually democratic internal structure in the union, an insistence on democracy inside the union which was at least as shocking as the Green Ban concept. The union fulltimers are all elected, earned wages related to site levels and were put off the payroll during strikes. A limit on tenure for full timers was introduced. Full time organisers held office for three years but many rotating temporary organisers are chosen from the rank and file. When Mundey and Pringle went back to the ranks, there were no expensive dinners and insincere speeches but an 18 gallon keg on the bar of the Sussex Hotel and two bunches of roses. This principle of election unionism certainly sent shivers up many of Mundey’s CP comrades safe in permanent niches and may explain the very obvious lack of enthusiasm with which the more powerful CP influenced industrial unions defended the BLs when they were successfully deregistered. The BLs are also one of the first all-male industrial unions to turn their commitment to sexual equality into a limited reality. Working class girls went into the industry, usually as ‘nippers’ (the odd job person who cleans up and takes out the lunch orders) but took the building industry exam for fork lift and hoist work and have worked as catwomen (the female version of dogmen, the crane hook leader). Most of the girls started for the money but got interested in proving the point. They got as one woman said ‘a very quick education as to the rights of women’. There was a definite determination to break down the idea of what ‘women’s work’ was and a handful of women’s movement activists, women BLs and women organisers managed to establish quite a firm base inside the industry.

The first wave of BL activity was eventually systematically crushed by the employers and the wage courts. The union was banned from representing its members on the basis of fabricated charges of on-site violence ... a Down Under Shrewsbury. Police moved in with formidable violence on the Victoria Street squat and several organisers. The Maoist Federal Secretary of the Union hired thugs and armed organisers to systematically smash the NSW branch. For the last two years thinly veiled gang unionism has reigned again and the Master Builders no longer have to worry about where or how they build.

The BLs are regrouping in Victoria and NSW and negotiations are in progress over amalgamation with the Industrial Union for the industry.

Pete Thomas’s account is undermined by his inability to even admit the strength of the forces pitted against the BLs and is open to the general criticism that the CPA was obviously more interested in the electoral potential of the ecology issue than the political potential of the rank and file and union democracy issues. Green Bans were a tactic not the mystique Jack Mundey now seems to make them. Like all tactics they have to be jettisoned without sentiment if the conditions they once fitted alter. But the BL’s struggles must rank as one of the most advanced industrial struggles of the long boom for not only did the rank and file push their industrial power to its political limits but they were genuinely affected by the various currents of the revolutionary left. To harp on the inevitable limitations of the leading militants would be to miss the creativity the BLs showed in this notoriously hard to organise industry.

In a recent enthusiastic survey of Australia, The Economist noted ‘It has to be added, brutally, that Australia has no race problem’.

And that, brutally, is because the settlers in Australia exterminated the black nomads who once wandered over the continent with more ruthlessness and success than was managed in Africa or North America. The aboriginals who now remain on the cattle stations, river banks and reserves or cluster in slum-hut settlements on the fringe of the small towns and the black ghettos of the cities are the memory of a race. Through their militancy stirs and rises, their culture has been pulverised.

Tasmania, the spice island off the NSW shore, is the most extreme example of the successful genocide that established Australia. A French explorer reported in 1802 on the warmth of the aboriginal islands:

‘The gentle confidence of the people in us, these affectionate evidences of benevolences which they have never ceased manifesting towards us, the sincerity of their demonstrations, the frankness of their manners, the touching ingenuousness of their caresses all concurred to excite within us sentiments of the tenderest interest.’

The islanders were naked but without shame, emotionally open, loved talking, singing and especially dancing. But because they had little interest in making or accumulating things they were seen as mental inferiors by the wise explorers who ran up a flag, fired off muskets and unloaded liquor, venereal disease and their fellows in chains. Because they disdained alcohol, did not know how to prostitute themselves and lived with an uncanny closeness to the land and animals of Tasmania, the settlers called them savages. Their occasional acts of self-defence as they were pushed off their tribal lands, dreaming places and water sources became ‘atrocities’ and the first murders began, sometimes for as little as the ‘brutal desire to see a Nigger run’.

Over the next 70 years 5,000 Tasmanian aboriginals were killed in the Black War. As the inefficient military governors sent back to London long winded heroic dispatches in gentlemen’s prose the natives were hunted down. In the townships they were inefficiently strangled in public hangings, brained by musket butts, jailed and starved to death. In the Bush with no-one to call them to account, the pioneers of civilisation shot aboriginals after dinner along with the kangaroos. They castrated men and raped women.

An eyewitness wrote ‘The wounded were brained, the infant cast into the flames; the musket was driven into the quivering flesh; and the social fires, around which the natives gathered to slumber became, before morning, their funeral pyre’. Those few forced into religious settlements where they were strapped into strange ‘civilised’ clothing and forced to sing hymns to a god they didn’t known, died too, only more slowly.

The Colonial Times put the matter quite frankly about ‘the infatuated savages’.

‘We make no pompous display of philanthropy – we say unequivocally – self defence is the first law of nature. The government must remove the natives, if not, they will be hunted down like wild beasts and destroyed.’

By 1869 the Christian gentlemen of Tasmania had succeeded. Killy Billy, the last male aboriginal, a souvenir of a race who had been introduced to HRH Prince Albert at the Hobart Town Regatta as a joke died of drink aged 34. Even his death was brutalised. A surgeon acting for the Royal College of Tasmania entered the dead house, skinned his head and removed the skull, substituting another. Under his coffin draped with Union Jacks and a possum skin, his face was a mound of blood.

In NSW and the spreading mainland settlements where aboriginals’ skills as guides, cattlemen, frontiersmen and domestic servants were useful, they were exploited, once they had been pushed off the best land. Tradesmen were, as in North America, adept at the old sport of selling them booze and stealing their wives and daughters. The race was given an acquaintanceship with white society without any rights in it and were, in the process stripped of their old culture and self respect and introduced to the most corrupt of capitalist values. If the white settlers couldn’t avoid them, they exploited them and when that became a bit glaring, they improved them. Tight control was kept over the movement and supply of alcohol to aboriginals. The law givers then expressed surprise that the nomads were demoralised and that, denied the right to buy alcohol, it became a revered item which made a fortune for white racketeers.

Aboriginals were by and large denied access to permanent employment and housing and then derided for being idle and unclean. In 1938 a manifesto of the Aboriginal Progressive Association wrote:

‘You took our land by force ... You have almost exterminated our people, but there are enough of us remaining to expose the humbug of your claim to be civilised, progressive and humane. We do not wish to be regarded as scientific or anthropological curiosities. We ask you to teach our people to live in the modern age as modern citizens.’

Yet thirty years later the choice is still between being shackled to a reserve or cattle station as a sort of rural slave or to be destroyed in the towns, seeking solace in defiant bout of drinking, another urban ‘problem’ that missionaries ponder, sociologists measure and copper baths. In the new Australian shelves of the Sydney tourist shops, books wax on about the aboriginals mystic culture and knowledge of the bush terrain, of Dreamtime and the Ceremony Places and the herbs they used. On the rims of the cities aboriginal derelicts shelter in tin tanks among the milk cartons and the empty bottles smashed by a society whose final insult is to make coffee table books out of them.

There is still resistance. Ten years ago Vincent Lingiari led 200 of his people of the Wave Hill cattle station through the bush wilderness to a place called Wattie Creek saying simply over and over ‘We want white fella to go away now’. The white fella was Lord Vestey who besides owning 6000 square miles of Australia has ranches in Africa and South America and owns 400 separate companies including Midland Cold Storage, the packing depot which the Pentonville Five London dockers were imprisoned for picketing in 1972. It wasn’t just a strike by the black cattlemen, it was the first land claim, their demand for the land back. When they were told to get off Lord Vestey’s land or pay for it in a white man’s way, the Gurindjii elders pondered and then suggested they buy back the land in the currency that had been used to take it away 70 years ago – flour, sugar and tea. Now there are several stations bring run by blacks, land claims that have worked. But they are still dependent on funds which Whitlam fuelled but Frazer is bound to attack, because the implications of successful land claim terrify the Country Party. Especially when the blacks object, as they did in Nabarlek, to the highly profitable mining of uranium saying ‘uranium rock is a dirty rock and people who muck about with it get dirty hands’. There is also more organisation by blacks of blacks in the cities with co-operatively run Health Centres, Legal Aid organisations which can really fight the loading of the judicial dice and a Black News Service sponsored by the Australian Union of Students. But the condition of the descendants of the first tribes of Australia and the apparent inability of government, religious or charitable institutions to seriously alter it, is a constant reminder of the Dark People who had to be destroyed before white Australia’s paradise could be constructed. ‘Yes, all your dead, friendly helpful thoughtless "couldn’t give a stuff" folk out there; This is Palm Island’ writes a contributor to Smoke Signal a duplicated magazine produced on an aboriginal island.

‘This is where wine is blackmarketed for £20 a flagon. This is where men, black naturally, work for peanuts. This is where poverty is at its lowest ebb. This is where the blacks only release from heartbreak, oppression and the bastardies of life is to get drunk or gamble or to sit and shiver because he does not have enough warm clothes or blankets for the night. This is where the kids have legs, arms and their heads oozing with sores.’

Reading that written two years ago white Australia seems not so much different to South Africa, simply more successful.


1. In Preserving Disorder it is published under the title Green Bans Down Under and the original publication details are given incorrectly as ‘First published in Socialist Review, 1975.’


Last updated on 24.2.2008