Taming the concrete jungle, 1973

1. Changed ways and ideas

Pete Thomas

Source: Australian Building Construction Employees and Builders Laborers Federation, NSW branch, July 1973
Source: Book, 135pp, July 1973
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter

Technological and scientific changes do not develop separate and apart from people. Men make the changes and, in the process are changed themselves. Their jobs are different (or will be), their needs will be greater, as will their demands, and above all their ideas and thinking will be different.
Jack Mundey, secretary of the NSW branch of the Australian Building Construction Employees and Builders Laborers Federation, in a 1971 issue of a World Federation of Trade Unions journal

What Jack Mundey wrote is borne out by what is happening in the Australian building industry and in the practices of advanced unions, including the builders labourers.

The changes in the industry have been immense.

New and simplified methods of construction have been developed; material and labour is rationalised; new materials appear; more modern machinery and plant and equipment, including power tools, are being used.

Concrete, once used only in foundations, is now used throughout buildings in a variety of ways, including insulating and decorating material. It can be carried, conveyed, chuted, hoisted, pumped or sprayed and can be formed to any shape.

There has been increasing use of components prefabricated elsewhere on a production-line basis. Components arrive on the job, pre-cut and already painted or coloured. The significance of off-site work increases, encroaching on the proportion of work done on the building site itself.

There have been such changes as factory-made truss roofs, increased use of aluminium instead of timber joinery, introduction of plastics, pre-cut concrete, hardboards, ply and particle board, replacement of plaster sheets by gyprock, victorboard etc.

In Brisbane, the Pearl Assurance building — at the time it was constructed, it was the city’s tallest — is one that was factory-made and then assembled into position on the site. Only two workers, in addition to the crane driver and the dogman, fitted all the walls around the Pearl Assurance building.

In Perth, on the AMP’s St George’s Square project, a 28-hour non-stop operation poured 6000 cubic yards of concrete.

Air-conditioning has also brought significant changes. In Brisbane’s new T&G building, air-conditioning installation cost $2 million. In some cases, a whole floor or even two floors are given over entirely to air-conditioning plant. Plant rooms in such buildings as Australia Square in Sydney and MMI in Brisbane produce enough power to supply a town of 20,000 to 30,000 people.

Increasing numbers of metalworkers work side by side with members of the traditional building unions. A substantial workforce from the metal unions is constantly engaged in construction, including the major projects such as power stations, the Gladstone (Queensland) alumina plant, and others.

A Besser advertisement in April 1973 said:

Innovation has been the watchword as builders have moved to new techniques and processes — gang nail trusses; pre-hung doors; prefabrication; panel systems; precast concrete units; even the building of a conventional house in the builder’s yard and transporting it complete to the eventual site.

The Queensland secretary of the Building Workers Industrial Union (Mr Tom Chard) told a seminar that in the USA one company, Arbor Homes, without increasing its workforce but by mechanising its methods, increased its annual production of homes from 400 to 1800 in a few years. Its machines included a travelling nailer, which did the work of 20 men hand-nailing; a stud-nailing machine that automatically nailed frames for 15 houses in an eight-hour shift; and a multinailer that drove 29 sheathing nails at a time and in eight hours handled walls for 15 houses.

Despite the great increase in building and construction, the membership of the US Carpenters Union fell by 150,000 in ten years.

Computers have come to the Australian construction industry. Electronic data processing can be used for estimating and tendering and also to schedule building projects.

Tom Chard quoted the Australian National Building Journal as having said a few years back:

Eyebrows lifted among executives of Mainline Dillingham Haunstrup when the computer told them that the $10 million 27-storey Gold Fields House project (Sydney) could be finished four months ahead of the 110-week schedule … The tenants moved into Gold Fields House on the exact date predicted by the [computerised] critical path.

So the computer’s calculations got workers the sack four months earlier than originally planned.

Under the existing social system, when employers milk increased productivity to provide more profit for themselves, computers and automation can be bad news for workers.

A US automation expert, the late John J. Snyder, told a Melbourne conference in 1966:

When a sales executive sells his automation equipment to the prospective buyer, he boasts that the equipment cuts costs, which means in most cases that it eliminates workers. When he says it increases productivity and profits, he means it eliminates workers, and he means it again when he uses the words update, modernise or system control.

Looking further ahead, an article in the Queensland Master Builder in 1972 said:

If the stage is reached of “all systems go ”; with an interchangeability of components, the confusing hotchpotch of terms system; industrialised or prefabricated may disappear. There will simply be the craft of building, using a range of factory-made compatible standard-dimension items capable of design application in infinite variety by the architect.

Already, productivity in the industry has risen sharply. In 1959-60, the value of work done on new buildings was $1001.6 million, and the number working on jobs carried out by builders of new buildings on June 30, 1960, was 132,628. That gives an average productivity of about $7500 for each person. Ten years later, the value of work was $2556.6 million and the number involved was 172,087, or an average of more than $14,800 for each person — almost double the 1959-60 productivity value.

That’s a point that the Master Builders Association doesn’t mention when it is throwing up its arms in horror at some union claim for improvements.

Organisation in the industry has drastically changed. Instead of the contractor employing the workforce and building the project, the main contractor operates through subcontractors, hungry for a fast buck and each doing one section of the job. On a multimillion-dollar construction project, the main contractor may employ only perhaps a dozen, carrying out supervision, while the entire construction workforce is employed by layers of subcontractors.

Commonwealth statistics on the building industry showed that in December 1972 there was a ratio of almost one subcontractor to every three wage-earners: 39,177 subcontractors, 121,063 wage-earners. Contractors (11,485) made up only about 6.7 per cent of those in the industry, but subcontractors made up 22.8 per cent.

An article by Paul Gardiner in the Financial Review in June 1973 referred to “the quite pernicious practice of subcontracting pieces of a sub-contract. ” He went on:

Its classical form is the third removed subcontractor (the first has tendered for all of the plumbing, the second has tendered for installation of all external plumbing and the third for downpipes or gutters).

Each level employs builders labourers, but the third removed is often working on such slim margins that he traditionally falls apart, often leaving his employees without pay at some stage or another.

The actions of many subcontractors have made the word “subby”; something of a dirty word among workers in the industry. There is a long record of “subby ”; bankruptcies and of subbies who shoot through, robbing workers of wages and other entitlements. The total amount of which workers have been cheated by subbies in this way is beyond calculation.

Bankruptcies in the building industry in 1971-72 alone, including manufacturers and merchants, numbered 374. The published official figures on this do not give an actual figure for subcontractors, but it’s an odds-on bet that they would make up a substantial proportion of the 374.

Appalling toll

New machines, new methods, the increasing involvement of subcontractors, the upward climb of high rise — all these bring with them new hazards, new dangers, new levels of accidents.

NSW compensation figures for incapacities of three days or more, for instance, show that building, construction and maintenance account for almost one compensation case in every five throughout all occupations. The proportions in successive years over the 1968-71 period have been 19.19 per cent, 18.84 per cent and 18.45 per cent.

In three years, an appalling total of more than 61,000 compensation cases — some fatal, others creating permanent disabilities, others lesser but still cruel — have occurred in NSW building, construction and maintenance.

In the year ended April 1973, 44 building workers were killed in NSW.

In Queensland in 1970-71, the building and construction industry, although it made up only 11 per cent of the state’s workforce, accounted for 25 per cent of all fatal job injuries, 19 per cent of all job injuries, and 14 per cent of all permanent disabilities (the walking wounded).

There is an endless number of ways in which accident can happen on the job, especially on big projects.

One morning in April 1972, a carpenter fell into a flooded liftwell in a Sydney city project and drowned in it. It was not till that afternoon that anyone realised that he was missing.

A grim total of dogmen have been killed over the years. One dogman, Lance Shelton, told the Sun-Herald in 1970: “We’re not acrobats, but people with wives and families. ”;

Under the heading, “Stop the Slaughter ”;, the Queensland secretaries of six building trade unions issued a joint statement in Brisbane in April 1970 deploring the fact that four construction workers had been killed in the metropolitan area in the past month and demanding action by the Master Builders’ Association and government departments to enforce effective safety.

The secretaries were Messrs C.J. Bushell (Bricklayers), T.W. Chard (BWIU), L. Allan (Plumbers) E. Dobson (Plasterers), J.A. Delaney (Builders Laborers) and J. Vaggers (Painters). Two of these — Messrs Bushell and Delaney — have since died.

They said that each of the previous month’s four deaths of construction workers could have been prevented by relatively simple safety measures. One death had been because panels had not been securely fastened to a truck, another because fibro roofing regulations had not been policed, another because of overloading on a scaffold, and the fourth because of a floor collapse.

In the same month in 1970, the Queensland Master Builder (a Master Builders’ Association journal in that state) admitted that “there are still too many builders who are … guided in their action by the mistaken belief that rules are made to be broken”.

Always in a hurry to get work pushed on, employers time and again are caught breaching safety standards, in both major and minor ways. On an Artarmon (Sydney) job, for instance, Builders Laborers organiser John McNaughton found that the company had men wheeling barrows of wet ready-mixed concrete over a single plank, instead of providing at least a double-plank width. A company man blamed a subcontractor: “they come out with only enough planks for a single plank width; if we told them they’d have to go back and get more planks, we’d lose another day on the pour”. As John McNaughton pointed out, that was admitting that safety rated lower than production. He made sure that things were put right.

Dusting and deafness

In 1973, the builders labourers in NSW acted on a health hazard that has been accentuated by the increased amount and depth of excavation work. The hazard had shown up in the increase in the number of workers being “dusted” — affected by silicosis.

The union’s NSW industrial officer, “Bud” Cook, pointed out that Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong were built on a sandstone rock shelf, which contained a large percentage of silicon dioxide. Because of that, dust levels were high.

The safe working level for dust is 200 particles per cubic centimetre. Tests carried out on the excavation for the Bank of NSW on the corner of Martin Place and Macquarie Street in Sydney showed that workers were exposed to dust concentrations of up to 3090ppcc.

Workers in recent times have been dusted after as little as nine months, whereas previously an exposure of seven to eight years was needed.

On figures released by the Dust Diseases Board, 235 excavation workers had died since 1948 as a direct result of silicosis. Another 172 who suffered silicosis also had died, although not necessarily as a direct result of the silicosis. Ninety-seven excavation workers who were still living were known to have silicosis.

Excavation workers also face the danger of deafness from the noise amid which they work. The noise level at which damage to hearing begins is a decibel (unit of noise) rating of about 85. But a pneumatic rock pick operates at a decibel level of 100 to 110. Excavation workers, and particularly machine operators, have been found to be continuously exposed to noise levels in excess of 120 decibels.

Faced with this situation, the builders labourers’ union secured discussions with the NSW Master Builders’ Association and the excavation companies. The union went into the talks on a basis of industrial strength and readiness to use it if it had to in the interests of building workers’ health and even lives.

The union’s immediate demands were that all jack picks be fitted with water attachments as an initial measure to alleviate dust, pending the determination of more effective means; and that all jack picks and compressors be fitted with devices for control of noise, again as an initial step only.

The union laid down an ultimatum. It said that it would stop the jobs of employers who were found after May 1, 1973, not to have fitted their equipment with water attachments and noise control devices.

Most employers complied before the deadline. Some did not, so the union acted on the warning that it had given at the time of the ultimatum. Offending employers’ jobs were stopped until their equipment was properly fitted, and the union enforced payment of the workers for the time lost in this way.

One job nailed on this was a Leighton’s project at the back of Grace Bros in Bondi Junction (Sydney). The union’s Eastern Suburbs organiser, Tony Hadfield, went there after local residents had complained to the union about the noise. He found that a drill in use there had neither silencer nor water attachment. The job was stopped. So was another offending job in the same locality. The action got results. “It’s amazing how quickly companies can move when action is taken,” Tony Hadfield said.

Winning a changed place

Articles by Paul Gardiner in the Financial Review in June 1973 acknowledged the changed nature of the builders laborers’ work. In the past, he said, the builders labourer “was essentially a beast of burden”, trying to escape the ever-present danger of torn muscle or other injury and to avoid having to go on unpaid sick leave. But now, he went on, while physical exertion in various situations in the job remained necessary, “the brutishness that, in the past, it implied has tended to disappear”. He attributed the change not only to the economics of the industry but also to union pressure. It has been pressure exerted by the new leadership which, at the end of the 1950s and the early 1960s, was elected when the union members at last rid the union in NSW of the right-wing standover officialdom who had ruled it for so long and who had been responsible for the union being (in Paul Gardiner’s phrase in the Financial Review) “where it had always been — on its anaemic knees”.

Paul Gardiner wrote that most of the changes now have been union-inspired, and he quoted an industry executive as saying: “To the discredit of the industry, every major change has been at the initiative of the union. We played no part at all.”

Amid the union claims for a variety of improvements, and the campaigns on widening social issues, demands for higher pay and better working conditions remain inevitable. They are the traditional forms of the class conflict between employer and worker. This conflict is built into the existing system — a system based on private profit from exploitation. Employers exploit workers by paying them less than the worth of their work. From this difference — the difference between what workers are paid and the worth of their work — comes employers’ profit.

The employers constantly seek to increase their profit by widening the gap between what workers are paid and what they produce. The gap can be widened by paying workers less or, more usually, by increasing their productivity in a variety of ways without a corresponding increase in pay. Workers, on the other hand, resist such devices by employers and try to narrow the gap by getting higher pay or reduced working time or in other ways.

It is a conflict that will continue as long as the present system — capitalism — remains. The conflict can be eliminated only through radical socialist change of the system itself, to bring industries under the ownership and control of the people, to end exploitation and to return to the working people the full worth of their work.

Under the present system, whether exploitation is increased, or the degree to which it is increased, depends on the relative strength that employers and workers can bring to bear. Builders labourers have some cause for gratification at what they have been able to do on this by their strength.

A writer in the Nation-Review on January 26, 1973, said:

Jack Mundey may be blasted and bitched at from many quarters, but the graphs show that since he has been running his union the wages and conditions of his members have risen sharply.

Gains by strikes

Employers in the building industry are not less hard-fisted and tight-handed than any other employers. Workers are forced into direct action to get what employers refuse to concede in negotiation. The NSW employers’ journal Construction glumly noted in a 1972 issue that in 1971 the building and construction industry had outranked the engineering industry in numbers of man-days lost through industrial disputes — more than 1.2 million.

A substantial part of those lost working days would have been from the weeks-long NSW strike by some 38,000 members of all building unions. That strike had two main demands — a $6 rise and, more importantly, full pay to workers when off work through injury instead of having to subsist, and go into debt, on the inadequate workers’ compensation rates set by the Government.

Employers’ resistance to the accident pay claim was encouraged by the NSW government, but the strikers won. They got full accident pay, although the scheme imposed a limit to the period in the case of any worker: a limit the unions are resolved to remove.

In the previous year, builders labourers fought a five-week strike in NSW, with lesser strike action elsewhere, around their own wages claim. The union had asked for a $6 rise. Employers offered only $1.75 to $2.50 — and so precipitated the strike.

This strike, too, was won. Having demanded a $6 all-round rise, the builders labourers actually obtained rises of $5.90 to $6.40, or 98 to 106 per cent of their strike demand: a percentage of achievement with few, if any, precedents.

Builders labourers, in that strike and since, have sought to reduce the gap between the wage rates of tradesmen and those of builders labourers. At the same time, as a leaflet issued by the NSW branch of the builders labourers pointed out during the 1970 strike:

We do not begrudge the tradesmen their money. If anything, in our opinion, they are grossly underpaid for their skill. Tradesmen, as well as labourers, still have to work six days or more a week to make ends meet, and their wives work to meet the extras.

But it also pointed out that the increasing skill of the labourer could not be underestimated.

In 1973, the NSW branch of the Builders Laborers Federation was able to point to vast improvement in wages and conditions from 1970 on. These include substantial wage rises for all, and up to $27 a week for some; elimination of the lowest paid classification (Group 4) and raising those who had been in it to Group 3 instead; paid public holidays; a reduced gap between builders labourers’ pay and that of tradesmen, and improved amenities, as well as the accident pay won by the building unions’ 1971 strike.

Gains have been won by direct bargaining, backed by the union’s militant strength. Results have proved — in hard cash and other gains — the correctness of the union aversion to arbitration, with its protracted, legalistic and costly procedures and its frustrating decisions.

Arbitration has been set up by governments, and is supported by employers, because it serves to draw unions’ teeth and cage them in courtrooms. Governments and employers know that arbitration will give no gains or only such gains as won’t rock the boat.

NSW Liberal Party Premier Robert Askin showed his faith in arbitration when, during the 1970 builders labourers’ strike, he told the Manly-Warringah division of the Master Builders’ Association: “Whispers I hear are that, so long as you stick to arbitration, you will win your battle.” But, in fact, the strikers’ strength won.

Stayed away

The NSW branch of the Builders Laborers Federation has declared that it will attend arbitration proceedings only where it sees a real prospect of some benefit to unionists from this. It has put this into practice on various occasions by voting with its feet and staying away.

One instance was in 1970, during a builders labourers’ strike over Frankipile’s sacking of a delegate in Sydney. Frankipile, trying to put the union on the hot seat, initiated proceedings to open the way to possible penal action.

The case was listed for hearing. The Commonwealth Arbitration Commission solemnly assembled: the employers’ legal men, headed by a QC, were there — but the union wasn’t.

The union’s deliberate absence caused a flurry. Phones ran hot. But it was the employer who backed off. The delegate was reinstated and a bans clause application was abandoned.

Similarly, in that same year, the union stayed away from an Arbitration Commission case in which Dillinghams moved for penal action over strikes on the Qantas project in Sydney. A telegram to Judge Moore, signed by the union’s NSW secretary Jack Mundey, advocated that the company agree to genuine negotiations “and not engage in antiquated penal action proceedings”.

The outcome of the dispute was wage rises — and no penal action.

In 1971, Mr Mundey spoke out to a newly appointed NSW conciliation commissioner, Mr P.J. Johnson, who was formerly assistant state secretary of the Electrical Trades Union and identified with the hard-core political right.

After the union had stayed away from the first day of a compulsory conference, Mr Mundey told Commissioner Johnson: “Our union had little confidence in you when you were a union official. Now that you are openly part of the establishment, we have even less … You have carried over from your union days into this commission a blatant hostility to left-wing militant unionism.” The union, he said, would take part in arbitration proceedings only when it considered this to be in the interests of union members.

In 1971, the union’s NSW leadership issued a leaflet setting out the concept that the workers, and not courts, should determine wage rates in each industry and what relativities should apply. Costly and protracted “work value” cases, it said, could not be tolerated.

It’s little wonder that, in an article in the Australian Liberal in late 1971, Mr Ludeke QC (later appointed by the McMahon government as a judge of the Commonwealth Arbitration Commission) lamented that the compulsory system of conciliation and arbitration “is no longer compulsory and has ceased to be systematic”.

Addressing the Master Builders Federation in May 1973, federal Housing Minister Les Johnson spoke to them with some sharpness about industrial relations. “Good relations”, he said, “are not helped by comments such as those in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 2, when words such as ’industrial anarchy’ were used in relation to the current industrial situation in the Sydney metropolitan area.”

Mr Johnson said that we were moving into a new era, and old-fashioned attitudes towards unions that were evolving radical and novel ideas about the role of unionists would not induce industrial harmony.

They try to defuse it

The overall situation has given employers cause to do some hard thinking and the more responsible among them have come up with some constructive initiatives. The Lend Lease group, for instance, produced a “new deal” package agreement that offered a wide range of benefits to its employees. With characteristic flair, Lend Lease’s Mr G.J. Dusseldorp organised an elaborate christening for the agreement in major cities, bringing in employees from the sites (on pay and with transport arranged) to a beer-and-biscuits get-together.

The Lend Lease agreement was designed to defuse the industrial situation in its own area of operations and to establish greater stability in its workforce. Time will show how it works out.

Others were thinking, too. The January 1, 1972, issue of Rydges Construction, Civil Engineering and Mining Review said the “confrontation” ideas held by some employers had “not worked throughout industrial history” and it looked for moves around what it called “the need to work for mutual survival and prosperity.”

A comment in Tribune (national communist weekly) at the time said:

This noble-sounding phrase of “mutual survival and prosperity” fails to acknowledge some nitty gritty points. For instance, “survival” of workers is not a matter of employers’ sweet-minded humanitarianism; employers don’t show themselves loath to shorten-up their workforce when it suits them, and they are thoroughly alarmed now at workers’ developing movement to refuse to accept sackings.

“Survival” of workers is, in fact, the essential condition for employers’ profits, acquired through exploiting workers.

Similarly, talk of “mutual prosperity” rides over the fact that employers’ prosperity comes from denying rightful prosperity to workers — paying them less than the real worth of their work and pocketing the difference as profit.

So much for “mutual prosperity.”

The Rydges article graciously acknowledged that “construction workers do have brains just as large as other people’s”. It recognised that, as well as wages and actual working conditions, issues go further: “Few men hate work, despite what cynics say; they hate their jobs.”

Rydges had two suggestions on how to smooth things over, so as to keep workers busily producing the employers’ profits. One was “profit sharing” (give workers a crumb so that the boss hangs on to all the rest of the loaf — and a bigger loaf at that). The second was (wait for it) “workers’ control.” The Rydges idea was for a limp form of “workers’ control”: it would give workers a say in a few relatively unimportant things while the employer held more firmly than ever to real control where it counts. It was significant, however, that Rydges had to acknowledge the growing mood for workers’ control.

By contrast with the attempt by Rydges to take over and cool the “worker control” issue, a waspish editorial in the NSW Employers’ Federation’s Employers Review in April 1972 said there was no place for worker control in Australian society. It invoked terms such as “hoodlums” and “standover men” and even said pursuit of worker control “would establish a Mafia-type monopolistic power in Australia.”

Some nightmare!

So let’s have a look at just what sort of demands are being raised by the builders labourers and what sort of tactics they are adopting in their various struggles.