Taming the concrete jungle, 1973

3. Taking over from the boss

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

An ABC TV Monday Conference interview in 1972, in which Jack Mundey elaborated on some of the ideas of the Builders Laborers Federation brought a flurry of congratulatory phone calls and letters. A lot of these were particularly enthused about the concepts of new forms of strikes; for instance, keeping trains and buses running but not collecting fares, or workers keeping factories producing food and other necessities but distributing the goods to pensioners and others in need. The idea of workers using that sort of radical initiative appealed to people’s imagination.

Later in that year, workers and others were jubilant about actions of workers at South Clifton coalmine (on the NSW southern field). With the US-controlled mineowner pronouncing the mine closed and the workers sacked, some 90 of them worked the mine for three days, producing coal without a boss.

Earlier, at the Harco Steel plant in outer Sydney, boilermakers who had been sacked by the boss continued working there in a defiant four-week work-in.

In the construction industry, too, the idea of taking over rights and authority from the boss has been catching on in recent years. There have been cases of workers electing foremen, leading hands and safety officers; refusal to acknowledge the boss’s right to fire; work-ins and other forms of treading on the bosses’ toes.

All these fit in with the pattern of early stages of what has been rising higher in workers’ priorities in country after country: the movement for workers’ control, on which Britain (for example) has had an Institute for Workers’ Control functioning for many years.

Two of the members of the council of that institute, Ken Coates and Tory Topham, have defined workers’ control as:

A struggle by workers and their organisations to encroach upon the prerogatives of management and to cut back the managerial authority in the enterprise, and the powers of capital in the economy.

It begins with simple trade union demands for control of hiring and firing, tea-breaks, hours, speed of work, allocation of jobs, and so on. It mounts through a whole series of demands (open the books, for example) to a point where, ultimately, over the whole society capitalist authority meets impasse.

At this point, they said, there would be a “dual power”. From this, there are two alternatives: either the old establishment enforces its order, if it can, or the workers move to take over the full powers “on the truly social, political front” and place them entirely within the hands of the workers.

Here in Australia, Building Workers Industrial Union Queensland president Hugh Hamilton told his union’s rank-and-file state convention:

The demand for workers’ control, for the right for a say in industry — indeed, ultimately the final say — on many of the major issues will in the next decade rise to No 1 in any union’s log of claims. It could be to our peril if it doesn’t …

“The “god-given right” of the boss to make all decisions on how you and I and our children are to live must he challenged, and the only effective challenge is by the united strength of the working class and its allies. The trade union movement can and should be the most effective part in that alliance to control our lives.

The fact is, whether it be in the construction industry in Australia or any other industry anywhere, the boss has no sacred rights of authority, even though he always acts as if he had. Growing numbers of workers are coming to recognise this and to assert their own rights.

Elected own foreman

In the NSW construction industry, the first instance of builders labourers electing their own foreman, and taking instructions only from him, took place on an office-block project in Kent Street, Sydney, undertaken by Fletchers from New Zealand.

Fletchers, seemingly anxious to get rid of some militants, had called police to the job over an empty allegation of what it called “industrial sabotage”. The employer’s aim, according to one of the militants was believed to be “to get us scared so that we’d hit the toe and save them from going out on a limb by sacking us”.

It backfired, of course. Not one of the workers left. Instead, the builders labourers (there were about 20) decided that, in the first place, they would put in the next month doing only safety work and no production work (“we thought a month about the right period, because of the seriousness of what the boss had done in calling the police”). More than that, they elected their own foreman (Peter Barton) and a full-time safety officer (Jim Graham) — both of them riggers — and leading hands for the various sections. The management was told that it could map out what it wanted done from day to day but it was the unionists’ elected foreman and leading hands who would decide what would, in fact, be done. As for the safety officer, his work would be exclusively to watch over safety matters and direct crews on anything that needed to be done on this.

The elected foreman, Peter Barton (a 39-year-old ex-Navy man and a member of the union’s NSW executive committee) said later:

It worked very well. Each morning, I’d go to see the site manager. He’d have lists of what he wanted each crew to do. I’d take these to the leading hands; we’d go over them and work out ourselves what would be the production for the day.

Then I’d take the lists back to the site manager and tell him: “Here’s what production for today will be. What we’ve left out from your lists today you can try for tomorrow and we’ll have a look at it then.

And that’s how things went for the remaining months before the project was finished.

How did it all work out? “Fine", said Peter Barton. “We were able to get on with the work in our own way, not having to take orders from any staff men. The workers were all happier in their work. They were saved from exasperations and needling and they knew that, with their own full-time safety officer, everything humanly possible was being done at all times to avoid accidents — and the safety record was first-class, no accidents.”

Production was, if anything, greater than it had been when the management had the say. Not that improving production for the boss was the purpose of it all. “What we were doing,” said Peter Barton, “was proving that workers could run industry and do it better than when a boss was telling us what to do.”

Did he find that any tasks or responsibilities as foreman were beyond his capacity? Peter Barton is a quiet and modest bloke. But his reply was emphatic: “No,” he said.

Tribune, the communist weekly, gave the Fletcher affair prominence from a report by union organiser Joe Owens. Other papers ignored it; they didn’t want to publicise that sort of thing and give ideas to other workers.

Foremen outside looking in

Other workers got ideas just the same. Here’s a story that Tribune ran in February 1972, this time from Tom Hogan, who was at that time an organiser of the union:

Passers-by at the giant Sydney construction job of Concrete Constructions (running through from George to Pitt streets), known as Lanray, were treated to a most unusual sight on Tuesday last week.

Instead of the usual queue of unemployed at the gate seeking work (a sight only too common these days), all the site foremen, resplendent in their specially turned-out shiny white helmets, were looking in, wondering about reinstatement.

The work inside was going along at a merry pace without them.

Only the day before, 50 builders labourers had been sacked for stopping work over a special rates claim. They were notified that all money owing would be posted to save them trouble of ever coming near the site again.

But the blokes had other ideas. They all met on the site the following morning and decided on a reverse whammy. The decision was they were going back to work, but the foremen weren’t.

In less than an hour they elected five foremen from among their own ranks, an extra nipper (which had been needed all along anyhow) and a first-aid attendant. They also decided that the first day could well be taken up with giving the place a good clean-up, which meant shifting a few hundred yards of rubbish from floors over which they had been clambering for months.

Within 20 minutes, a director of the firm (who, no doubt, couldn’t possibly have been found earlier if the workers had wanted him) had arrived on the site. He saw what was happening and promptly rang the union secretary (Jack Mundey).

The upshot of that conversation was an offer by the company to reinstate all the workers immediately, with no loss of pay, and to negotiate the pay claim not later than the following Friday. A condition of re-employment was that the men reinstate the company’s foremen.

At a report-back meeting of the workers, reinstatement of the foremen became a contentious issue, one worker saying “to hell with them, they can’t organise a job as well as we just did.”

A split decision finally decided to reinstate the foremen. Sighs of relief came from under the shiny white helmets as they slowly walked back on the job.

The last decision was to tighten up organisation if negotiations fail. Christ help the white hats if that happens.

Individual sackings have also been defied.

After the sacking of migrant at a Costain’s job at Sydney University, other builders labourers refused to acknowledge the dismissal and kept him on. The employer was told that, if he persisted with the sacking, he would be required to make up the difference between unemployment benefit and the man’s normal pay. He agreed to keep him on.

It has worked in reverse too: unemployed workers establishing themselves on a job. In Newcastle, two builders labourers who couldn’t get a job — Ron Dumbrell (a former organiser of the union) and Peter Mason — went to work anyway on a Lombard project, where workers considered that extra labour was needed. Eventually, after the two had done seven days work, each of them got a $100 cheque and one of them (Peter Mason) was kept on.

Probably the most spectacular example in the construction industry so far was at the Opera House, dubbed — because of its soaring costs and protracted delays under government mishandling — the F111 of the industry.

John Wallace (who had been Amalgamated Metal Workers Union steward on the Opera House’s mechanical stages site) told the story in an article published before the 1973 Easter Workers’ Control Conference, and reprinted in Tribune.

John Wallace, a 6ft lin 35-year-old fitter has had construction experience in both Britain (he came from there) and Australia. Under the leadership of John Wallace and others on the job itself, with unity of workers and backed by union organisers Stewart Maurice (AMWU) and Joe Owens (Builders Laborers), fitters and builders labourers on the Sydney Opera House mechanical stages site in 1972 won 48 hours pay for a regular 35-hour week; the right to elect their foremen and regulate production; big redundancy payments ranging from $1000 to S3000; four weeks annual leave with a 25 per cent loading; and other gains. Wages for builders laborers averaged S124 a week, with $175 for chargehands — for a 35-hour week.

Here’s how it happened, as recalled in John Wallace’s article:

Work on the contract for the installation of the mechanical stages in the opera and drama theatres at the Opera House began early in 1971. The main contractor and supplier of the stages was Wagner Biro, an Australian company, while the construction work was subcontracted to McNamee Industries, an Australian subsidiary of the international Simon Engineering group.

The workforce was composed of Amalgamated Metal Workers Union fitters, and riggers and laborers (members of the Builders Laborers Federation).

With stupid and inefficient management there were from the start many disputes, with traditional (strike) tactics being used for workers’ rights. However, there was little unity of action between the fitters and the builders labourers, little co-operation in strikes and often considerable antagonism.

One Friday in April 1972, however, the engineer decided to cut out Saturday overtime (a six-day week is normal on most construction sites), after three days of non-co-operation by fitters who were claiming an increased wage margin over the riggers.

The fitters then decided to forget their margin claim and seek joint action with the builders labourers to win back Saturday overtime. The workers took the important decision to report for work and to work on the Saturday, regardless of instructions from the engineer.

As they came in the gate the next morning, each worker was told by the engineer to go home, as they would not be paid for any work they did that day. Nevertheless, there was a large turn-out, and at a meeting held then and there, the workers decided to take over the job and not give it back to the management until Saturday work had been restored.

Now the serious work of organising the job began. A foreman was elected to co-ordinate between the two theatres and the different gangs. A safety officer was also elected. This was considered very important as the position in relation to workers’ compensation was unclear and the workers felt they needed a good safety officer.

Enthusiasm was tremendous, as was the solidarity between the different trades — the old antagonism had disappeared. Even menial tasks were performed enthusiastically. The workers were determined to show how the job could be run efficiently without the management’s foremen. The first day of the work-in was a great success.

The work-in continued on the Monday — and was again a big success. Erection materials were, however, becoming scarce, and with no engineers (who had run the technical side) and no drawings (which were locked in the office), it began to become difficult to find enough work to go on with. This didn’t last long, however. It was decided the work done in the work-in period would be dismantled until payment was forthcoming. (To have no work to do and nothing to organise would have been demoralising).

However, these plans proved unnecessary. On the Tuesday afternoon, the management agreed to restore Saturday work and pay for the work done in the work-in. The workers had just before handed back the job to the company, knowing that the company didn’t want it back, that it wanted to pull out of the contract and was only looking for an excuse to do so. The job was given back on condition that the conference with the management was successful.

By this time, McNamee (the subcontractor) had had enough. One week after the work-in, they sacked everyone and withdrew from the contract. In the three weeks before another contractor took over, the workers occupied the job. Meetings were held daily on the site and the workers turned up every day. Hours were spent in debating the tactics. Continual pressure was put on Wagner Biro and the state government to reopen the project. The workers not only demanded to be rehired, but to be paid for the time lost due to the closure after the McNamee walkout.

The workers were receiving enormous backing from other jobs, including financial support. Finally, a new contractor was found and the workers virtually dictated terms: all to be rehired, payment for the whole period of unemployment and an S8 a week increase for everyone …

This was a decisive victory. It was quite clear that nothing now could break the unity of the workers. Meetings from now on were always joint meetings of the 30 to 40 fitters, riggers and labourers on the site.

The contractors also learnt the lesson. Not one hour was lost in dispute from that point on, although very substantial gains were made.

On the first day back, and before work started, there was a lengthy meeting to discuss future tactics. First, the foremen, who had in the main stuck with the workers in the occupation of the site, had been taken on by the management as chargehands. But the workers insisted first of all on a vote as to whether they should be allowed back in that position. The workers voted in favor of them coming on.

Two stewards were elected — one from the AMWU and one from the BLF — by all workers, regardless of union, voting together.

When work started, the stewards, on the decision of the meeting, immediately lodged claims for redundancy payments and a further wage rise (in addition to the S8 a week already won). In a short time, and without any threatened action, these gains were also won.

It is true that the battleground began to shift from the job to the conference room, between the stewards and the top management. But nothing is won by negotiation in isolation. The workers on the job were now in complete control of production, the chargehands had no disciplinary powers, and decisions on questions which were normally the prerogative of management were increasingly being made at meetings.

Spectacular gains were made — the most significant being 48 hours pay for a 35-hour week.

Before this was won, the absentee rate was about 15 per cent. The stewards proposed that in a month this could be dropped to 5 per cent if, as an incentive, the workers were given Friday afternoon off. This was agreed to by the management. Absenteeism fell — although not to 5 per cent.

This meant 36.5 hours’ work for a 40-hour week. The company was worried, but more because of possible state government reaction than anything else. A subsequent conference with the management decided on a 35-hour week, if possible to be hidden within overtime.

The workers accepted this, and decided to incorporate the normal Saturday overtime in a five-day-week — four days of nine hours and one day of seven hours, provided they were paid as though they had worked the Saturday overtime.

However, this was soon seen as not completely satisfactory — a 35-hour week had to mean a five-day week, seven hours a day. The workers had won, in fact, 48 hours’ pay for a 35-hour week. They had to keep the 48 hours pay to maintain their living standards. So the workers decided to go for 48 hours pay for a 35-hour week.

The workers set out to convince the management that, if they could completely organise their job, they would produce as much in a 35-hour week as the engineer had planned in a 48-hour week. Payment for 48 hours for a 35-hour week was not demanded but, if the production schedule was kept, they would expect it.

The engineer, although extremely unhappy with the proposal felt trapped and agreed to pay if the work was done. After the first 35-hour week under their control, the workers produced to schedule and, to the credit of the company, the paypacket was for 48 hours. The second week produced the same results and, although later there was pressure for a return to a 40-hour week, the 35-hour week remained until the job was completed.

There can be little doubt that what workers achieved on the Opera House stage contract was unique for its time. The 35-hour week on 48 hours’ pay was achieved not only as well as, but because of, the gradual takeover of control from the management.

Complete control was not achieved. The management remained in control of the financial aspects of the day-to-day running of the job — wages were also paid by them on the regular pay day. Calls were made to open the books but, with other encroachments being made at the time and the extreme difficulty in getting more than verbal information, this call was held in abeyance, and no further progress was made on it.

Some problems that arose were not resolved. The stewards, because of the continual negotiations with the management made necessary by increasing demands from the workers, were seldom working on production. Although all decisions were made at meetings, alienation between the stewards and other workers did occur, arising from the pattern of events.

The other major problem was discipline on the job. During the work-in, self-discipline did arise out of the need to win.

Once control of the job was won, however, and imposed discipline removed, the problem of maintaining production with an equal contribution from all became difficult. The question was played by ear on a day-to-day basis, with the problem being discussed when necessary at meetings.

The financial carrot of very high wages for a 35-hour week proved successful, but the questions of “working for what?” and “working for whom?” were still there.

Without workers in command of all the financial aspects in the running of a job, the enthusiasm for working on “their” job was unfortunately missing.

Building on experiences

John Wallace concluded his account of the Opera House events by saying:

The construction of the stages was completed in January 1973, with workers leaving with up to $3000 redundancy payments (after two years work or less).

They are scattered now throughout the Sydney work scene. But no doubt they will remember their experiences and hopefully, as demands for workers’ control grow, they will contribute to the solving of these and many other problems that will result from what can only be a big step forward for all workers who undertake such actions.

While the whole thing was going on at the Opera House, during a lunchtime talk it was put by a Tribune reporter to John Wallace and others: these conditions are fine for the workers here, but could it be said that it is things like this that are to blame for some of the enormous cost of the Opera House?

No, they said emphatically. One of them, Mike Caulfield (a fitter), was scornful: “What we might get is nothing to what those on top, the employers, are getting. What must they up there be making for themselves?”

John Wallace said that, on the basis which they had won, productivity had increased. So, while their gains might superficially appear to have increased costs, the workers were only getting some of the benefit of the increased productivity that came from running the job themselves.

While John Wallace, in that lunchtime talk, was telling the facts of the dispute and the outcome, two Lebanese migrant building workers were listening intently. “Good story, eh’ said one.

How did they find working under these conditions? “Very good, fine,” said one. “Best job in Australia,” said the other.

The new styles of workers being in charge can, in initial stages, create new problems. John Wallace said: “There are some workers who find it difficult to adjust after having, all their working lives, been under control of a foreman, whom they have obeyed because he represents authority. Then the foreman is taken away and they find that in his place is a fellow-worker with whom they’ve been on familiar terms, and so they feel that they can do as they like, and this causes problems.

Delegates can’t be expected to be disciplinarians over their fellow unionists in cases like that. It’s only a temporary problem, though it may take time to develop the consciousness of workers’ own collective authority.

But then things can develop quickly, given the right conditions. At the beginning of 1972, the workers here would have laughed at you if you’d suggested working in without the boss and in defiance of the boss. But then in April, that’s just what we did. It shows how ideas grow.

Union organiser Joe Owens said:

Everyone here has learnt important lessons. Their experience can encourage others to do the same sort of thing.

Some people may be apprehensive about ideas of workers moving into control. They might cling to the idea that it is employers and the authorities behind them — and not workers — who know best: they have been in control for so long, is it sensible to talk of drastic change, of removing control from their experienced hands?

Employers and governments certainly have been in control. And what a mess they’ve made of it. A building industry mis-shapen for crudest motives of profit, haphazard and planless; housing shortages that are chronic, and other social needs neglected; city skylines that climb monstrously skyward; the rash of towering buildings that are turning Australian cities into blotchy carbon copies of the ugliness of the worst of big overseas cities. We’ll look at these things in some more detail later.

With this mindless stampede of “development” for the sake of the dollar has gone vandalism on the grossest scale. Considerations of history, beauty and quality; preservation of what is natural, good and healthy in the environment — these have been swept aside by the onslaught of the developers.

Nor have public indignation and the traditional forms of petition and protest been able, by themselves, to secure a halt. But to these worthy public movements there has been added in recent years a decisive new element. This has been the force which trade unionists, including builders labourers in particular but others too, have been able to exert by applying their industrial strength at the nerve points.

It is this intervention by trade unionists that has given the causes of preservation and conservation such an effective reinforcement. It’s time to turn to this part of the story.