Taming the concrete jungle, 1973

2. Civilising the industry

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

A lot of the Australian factories, and working conditions in factories, can only be exceeded for their sheer misery by the English ones
Peter Akers, MEPC Properties managing director, August 1972

Mr Akers is managing director of MEPC Properties, a big-time developer in Britain, which has an offshoot in Australia. So, as well as talking about conditions in factories, he could well have had something to say about conditions here on construction sites too.

So bad have these been that one of the declared top priority aims of the Builders Laborers Federation has been to “civilise the industry”.

Amenities on building sites have been notoriously primitive — sometimes non-existent. Tom Hogan, then a union organiser, used to say: “Get out of sight of the Sydney Town Hall, and amenities are invisible too.” The union decided that it was time for some action about it all — and, if employers wouldn’t listen to reason, it would have to take tough action.

A Brambles job at Sydney—s Kings Cross was an early target, around October 1970. Fed up with the employer’s failure to respond to complaints about the small tin shed that was supposed to be the change room for 14 men, and after a week’s final ultimatum had expired, unionists up- ended the shabby shed and tipped it down the foundations excavation. That got results.

After this, a group formed themselves into a vigilantes patrol to check amenities at other projects. On a Clarence Street job in Sydney’s city area, it was found that workers (mostly migrants) had no amenities — no place to change or eat, no washing facilities, no tap, no toilet. The employer was given a warning but ignored it. So a compressor landed, upside down, at the bottom of the excavations. Nothing else had made the employer take notice — but this did.

Some people raised doubts about doing such a thing. They seemed to think that employers’ property was somehow sacrosant and untouchable (except, of course, to be worked for the boss). They acknowledged that various employers had taken no notice of all other efforts to make them do the right thing about amenities. But just the same …?

Builders laborers were impenitent. To them, workers𕲁 conditions, their rights to some dignity on the job, were more important than dents to any machines of stubborn employers.

In some cases, strike action was needed.

On the Holder (Canberra) primary school site, where up to 30 would be working at a time, builders labourers went on strike in March 1971 against conditions in which they had no running water, no washing facilities, and only two small sheds to be used as both change-rooms and lunchrooms. For the first three weeks, there had been no toilet pans. Union organiser Joe Owens said that the conditions were a breach not only of the award but of the moral code of decency. Other jobs of the same contractor stopped work in solidarity. The employer gave in.

Appalling, said commissioner

Arbitration Commissioner J.B. Holmes acknowledged in 1971 that he had seen "appalling" amenities on some Canberra building sites. The Canberra News said:

The Department of Labour and National Service has the power to prosecute employers who breach awards, although no prosecution has ever been taken out in Canberra.

Under the McMahon government[1], the department — at that time so zealous in rounding up young Australians for the national service draft — was blind to the blatant breaches of awards by employers.

In Newcastle in 1972, unions had to battle Dillinghams around amenities and other conditions at the big Civic Centre project. Months after Dillingham (the main contractor) had agreed to provide proper amenities on the site, building workers had no showers — even though, working with jackhammers in an excavation, they were covered with dust in fine weather and in wet weather they worked in mud a foot deep.

Fed up, some of them rigged up a big hose as an improvised shower arrangement on the City Hall steps and had a shower on the steps there at the end of the day’s work. Their tactic worked; four days later, showers were established on the site. The Lord Mayor, Alderman McDougall, far from congratulating the workers, said he would not tolerate any more foolish actions by them.

On the same project, workers refused to work under an unsafe wall. They were criticised for doing so. But an inspection by a Department of Labour and Industry officer vindicated their stand. It was one of the countless instances in the industry where employers’ neglect of safety has been remedied only after workers’ direct action.

One way and another, the union campaign has gradually paid off by lifting amenity standards generally. But there’s a lot yet to be done on this.

They want it steady

In the latter part of 1972, also, the union decided to beef up the pressure to remedy one of the major ills in the industry: its casual basis, with all the insecurity and loss involved to workers.

As things are, workers can be sacked on an hour’s notice. Also, the increasing speed of construction means that projects take shorter periods to complete, and a worker may be forced to change his job six or seven times a year, with consequent unemployment and loss of income in between jobs. This state of affairs, said the NSW branch executive of the union in 1972, "cannot be tolerated any longer".

Hence the union demand nationally for permanency — the right of workers in this industry, as in others, to 52 weeks pay in a year. As an outcome of the fierce industrial clash that erupted, especially in Sydney, around this in May 1973, the commonwealth government has instituted a national inquiry before Judge Aird on terms of reference that include "the practicability and implications of introducing into the building industry a form or forms of permanent employment …

Establishment of the inquiry has been welcomed by the unions, including the Builders Laborers, whose federal executive has put its weight behind the campaign and set up a special sub-committee to prepare for it. This sub-committee is made up of the federal president (Les Robinson, of SA), secretary (Norm Gallagher, of Victoria), treasurer (Jack Mundey, of NSW), with Bud Cook (NSW) and Pete Thomas co-opted to it.

The Builders Laborers Federation has put forward a series of initial propositions for a draft permanency scheme. These envision the establishment of employment centres for the industry in the various cities. These would register workers who are out of jobs, advise them of suitable jobs as they become available, and ensure that they are paid between jobs.

Under the union’s proposals, all employers would have to register, pay a levy (according to the number of workers employed by them) to finance the centres and to provide payments to workers waiting there for jobs, and obtain all labour through the centres.

The union has put forward the idea of the centres being administered, preferably, by the unions or, alternatively, by direct representatives of all the building unions and representatives of employers and the Commonwealth Employment Service.

Within this framework, the union contends, a practical scheme of permanency can be applied in the industry for the benefit of the workers in it, the stability of the industry itself and (through the planning that would be an inevitable accompaniment to permanent employment) the social needs of the community.

Others also see the importance of a system of employment permanency. Federal Minister for Housing Les Johnson told the Master Builders’ Federation in early May 1973:

Agreement on a more stable system of employment in NSW would bring great benefits to both sides of the industry, as well as the community generally.

There would be problems involved, he said, “but the rewards are worth every effort”.

Disregarding such responsible advice, the NSW Master Builders Association set out to explode the issue into a major industrial conflict. For the purposes of this, it embarked on an expensive campaign of propaganda trying to make out that “workers’ control”, and not permanency, was the immediate issue involved. Behind this smokescreen, it imposed a lockout, affecting thousands of building workers, on those Sydney jobs where employers were willing to take this direction from the Master Builders Association.

For long-service leave, too

All this put the permanency issue right on the agenda. But, against this, suggestions were made by some that the campaign on union hire and permanency could impede or even jeopardise the building unions’ long-standing efforts to win a scheme of long-service leave in the industry, on the basis of time worked, regardless of the number of different jobs and employers.

Builders labourers replied that, firstly, they fully supported the campaign for long-service leave and, secondly, permanency would mean that more workers would qualify for long-service leave and would qualify sooner.

At present, instability and irregularity of employment cause high turnover in the industry, especially among builders labourers. When jobs are scarce, many are forced to look for work outside the industry. Records at the union’s Sydney office show that a couple of years ago the annual turnover of membership was about 90 per cent. Improvements since then have led to some fall in this rate of turnover, but it still runs at about 50 to 60 per cent in a year.

In such circumstances, without a scheme for permanency of employment, long-service leave would for many just not be on.

At the same time, while playing its special role in the permanency campaign, the Builders Laborers Federation maintained its place also in the continuing efforts for long-service leave. Builders labourers were, for instance, prominent in July 1973 NSW stopwork meetings in the industry, called by the Building Trades Group to discuss propositions that offered a prospect of a long-service leave scheme.

Meanwhile, the NSW Master Builders Association, by the May lockout in an attempt to break the permanency campaign, blundered badly.

Instead of frightening people with the “workers control” bogey, the Master Builders Association’s actions and the union responses, in fact stirred public interest in the situation in the industry, with its insecurity, sackings at an hour’s notice and other shoddy aspects, which employers would prefer to be kept out of public sight.

Job-hunting begins at 1.30am

An interview with 42-year-old unemployed builders labourer Jim Williams, written by Hamish McDonald in the Sydney Morning Herald in mid-1973, was eloquent about what it’s like for builders labourers.

Jim Williams, who lives in Glebe, in inner Sydney, said he spent about ten weeks in a year out of work, looking for jobs. In those times, he gets up at 1.30am, looks at the positions vacant columns in an early edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, picks one of them and goes out to the site, then sleeps in his car waiting for the foreman to arrive.

There might be 20 others waiting too — and then it might turn out that only one or two are wanted, or even that the foreman has a friend or relative already lined up for the job. In one case, the man picked for the job had come in the same car as the foreman.

Asked about the demand for permanency and union hire, Jim Williams said:

This permanency is the best thing I’ve heard of in my 20 years in the industry. If I have to stay out for six months to get permanency, I’ll do it. It’ll be worth it in the long run. So that we can do what everyone else does.

A rank-and-filer put it to a Sydney builders labourers’ strike meeting in May 1973:

Who enjoys getting out in the early morning with the Sydney Morning Herald’s job advertisements, trying to get to a job early enough to beat some other union member to it?

Another said:

The Master Builders Association wants us to be cannibals, eating each other.

A third said that he’d had to spend as much as $10 a week in fares chasing jobs. One of those who spoke at that meeting was sceptical about assertions made in union statements that a builders labourer might have to go looking for a new job as often as eight times in a year. To make his point, he asked:

Is there one person in this hall who has ever had to do that eight times in the one year? If there is, then let him put up his hand.

The answer came: dozens of hands went up. One of those said: “Eight times? Some years it’s seemed more like eighty-eight.”

Through lost time between jobs cutting out and new ones being found, builders labourers have gone short on pay year after year. Irish-born Mick Curtin, for instance, in Sydney in one year was out of work looking for a new job for 16 weeks in one single stretch and again for a fortnight later in the year. With a fortnight’s strike taking place in that same year, for the whole year he had no more than 32 weeks pay. Others have similar stories to tell.

Cutbacks by the Askin government in the NSW Public Works Department workforce — carried out in spite of the urgent need for greater public construction programs — have added another element of insecurity.

Bank’s no to a migrant

A migrant from Hungary who spoke at a Sydney job organisers’ meeting during the permanency campaign gave a personal story to show one way in which a builders labourer is discriminated against because he is a casual worker.

Martin Megyimorecz, now 50 years old, was an agronomist in Hungary before he left there in 1956. In Australia, he worked as a gardener. When he saw a bank manager about a loan for a home, he was told that it would be all right. He changed his job and became a builders labourer. Then, when he went back to the bank to finalise arrangements for the loan, the manager knocked him back because he was no longer in a regular job as a gardener but was a builders labourer, and so a casual.

Asked after the meeting how — apart from the matter of the loan — being a builders labourer compared with being a gardener, he said: “Being a gardener is quieter, not the noise and dust. But the money is much better as a builders labourer.” He added: “Getting permanency is the most important thing for us now.”

Among those in NSW who supported the building unions’ claims — including permanency and union hire, as well as long-service leave — has been the state branch of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union.

This union’s state president, Mr Frank Bollins, addressed the May 1973 builders labourers’ strike meeting. He said that his union supported all those claims by the building unions; it was, he said, for the rank and file in the building industry to determine the priorities that should apply.

He said permanency had been a long-time objective of the trade union movement, and the demand for 52 weeks wages a year was an achievable objective.

Answering propaganda by the NSW Master Builders Association, a big meeting of builders labourers job organisers in mid-1973 declared:

It is complete misrepresentation for the MBA to suggest that our demands [for permanency and union hiring] are contrary to democratic principle. Our demands would, in fact, introduce entirely new qualities of democracy into the industry. They would enable workers to ensure that their abilities and labour are devoted to useful purposes and in conditions of safety and effectiveness, in place of the existing mismanagement and misdirection, which inflate costs to the community and deform the industry.

An organisation which proceeds in the way in which the MBA does has forfeited any right to preach of democracy. The MBA strives to maintain a position in which it takes for itself the right to dictate all matters affecting workers on the job, including a right to dictate even if they are to have a job at all. This is what they proclaim to be freedom of choice, but by which they really mean an unfettered licence for them to do as they please with the industry and all who depend on it.

This is an intolerable situation, and we are resolved to change it for the better.

It is in that mood that the builders laborers face the continuing campaign — including the case at the commonwealth-established inquiry before Judge Aird — to break through for permanency. It is an issue not only for builders labourers, although they have a special stake in it, but for all workers in the industry. All the building trades unions, together with the Australian Council of Trade Unions, were represented at the Aird inquiry when it opened.

The vigilantes

The May 1973 NSW clash over permanency brought a further use of a style of action that had been applied in the 1970 NSW builders labourers’ strike, then in the 1971 NSW building unions’ accident pay strike and again in the 1972 NSW plumbers’ strike: that is, vigilante teams.

The purpose of the vigilantes in those 1970-72 strikes was to stop scabbing. In some previous building strikes, employers had been able to use scab labour to keep themselves in operation, making profits, instead of being shut down for the period of the strike. The scattered and fragmented nature of the building industry has made it vulnerable to scabbery; the traditional forms of picketing have been impracticable on an industry scale, and applicable generally only to some major sites. Hence the development of the vigilante style.

With the co-operation of fellow unionists and other sympathetic people generally who would phone in to report sites where work had gone on, the various vigilante teams would be given lists of such places each day and would go out on descabbing patrols. They would order scabs off sites and warn against any attempt to renew scab work there.

Later, perhaps the next day, the vigilantes would return to the site. If they found that the warning had been ignored and that scabbing was going on again, they would carry out their warnings: they would move on to work that had been done by the scabs and demolish it. The effect was that scab-herding employers were deprived of construction work that they had done in defiance of the strike; they were not being allowed to benefit from scab work, and the job was put back to where it should have been.

In some cases, where an initial visit was made and scabs were ordered off, vigilantes suspected that scabs intended to return as soon as the vigilantes had moved on to the next site. So the vigilantes would stay and occupy the site for long enough to dissuade any return. In one case, when they occupied the site manager’s office, they ate his lunch while they were there.

In the 1970 builders labourers’ strike, all others had every right to go on working, provided they did no builders labourers’ work. It was easy to tell whether any such work had been done and, if so, to act on it. Similarly in the 1972 plumbers’ strike, as vigilantes came to a site, there were cases of people grabbing a broom or saw and protesting that they were labourers or carpenters, anything except a plumber. Again, it was easy to see if there was any newly done plumbers’ work.

Vigilantes in the suburbs focussed their attention on major projects, such as flats and home units. In sympathy with home-seekers, they were prepared to be a bit indulgent towards cottage building.

A BWIU veteran told a strike meeting during the accident-pay strike:

For 25 years, the boss has been telling me what to do. Now I’m going out in these teams and I’m telling him what to do. And he doesn’t like it.

The tactic of the flying picket has been used effectively in other places, too; for instance, in Fremantle (Western Australia) during a strike in 1972 by 700 metal workers and in the British building workers’ strike in that same year.

The vigilante tactic in the NSW building industry was a variant on the “occupation by workers”, which has had a sharp impact in disputes in some other industries. As Jack Mundey pointed out in a celebrated Australian Left Review interview (August-September 1970), in the building industry there would be little point in the occupation of empty shells and there would be still less in continuing building activity — a work-in — during the strike.

The destruction of scab-built property, he said, “struck fear to the very hearts of the employing class”. He added:

If a relatively small union could successfully mount such an attack, what could be achieved by the more powerful unions with more resources, if they acted in a similar way!

Elaborating on the tactic, Jack Mundey said in the Australian Left Review interview:

We did not set out on a wanton destruction rampage but attacked only buildings where 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.

So powerful was the tactic of smashing what scabs had built that it brought a frenzied reaction from employers and the Askin government. There were lurid tales of vigilante “violence”, with the implication or even assertion — totally false — that violence was being used against scabs or employers. So often was this baseless accusation made that — in the technique of the oft-repeated big lie — it did delude a lot of people, including some trade unionists. It is even still being dug out and resurrected from time to time by Askin & Co. We’ll have more to say on it later.

In that 1970 Australian Left Review interview, Jack Mundey said there was need for a complete reorientation of the left in the movement towards direct confrontation on a wider scale and with wider horizons. Among the things he saw as a must was direct intervention in the control of industries and in social problems.

“Control of industries”: that comes back to what the NSW Master Builders’ Association was so stridently clamouring against — “workers’ control”. So what has been happening there?


1. The short-lived Liberal-Country Party government of William McMahon took over after Prime Minister John Gorton resigned over a sexual scandal in March 1971. It was defeated in December 1972 by the Labor Party, led by Gough Whitlam, ending 23 years of conservative rule.