Taming the concrete jungle, 1973

5. Rank and file in command

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

Things were tough in the building industry. Jobs were hard to get. The Sydney Morning Herald and other establishment publicists were trying, by a hypocritical “think of your jobs” line, to get NSW builders labourers to abandon their green bans. But at a Sydney Lower Town Hall mass stop-work meeting in late 1972, when a motion was put for a new ban — on demolition of a favourite old pub, the Newcastle, on the fringe of the Rocks — in the whole attendance only about half a dozen hands went up against the ban; all the rest were for it.

It has been the same story at other mass meetings, in Sydney and elsewhere in NSW. The union’s policy of militant action on environmental issues has been endorsed and re-endorsed, always overwhelmingly and often unanimously. Among the union’s members there is a pride in what the union is doing and in the stature this one-time second-class union has achieved in public esteem.

Early in the piece, after the Mundey letter to the Sydney Morning Herald in January 1972 on “we’ll decide what we build”, a Master Builders Association spokesman wrote to the same paper suggesting that the union’s membership did not support the leadership’s policies.

He got his answer immediately in a letter signed by 23 job delegates of the union. In one part, this letter said: “We believe that the trade union movement’s responsibilities to the working people are not confined to wages and working conditions; they have a duty to ensure that the conditions under which they live are adequate and are maintained to their satisfaction.”

The Master Builders Association spokesman, they said, “belongs to that old school who regard the quality of life as a North Shore garden party. To him we say ‘The times they are a-changing’.”

Far from bypassing the membership, the union in NSW has possibly more direct consultation between rank and file and the leadership than has any other union. Issues of substance are invariably taken to mass stopwork meetings; it is the membership which, by direct vote, makes the big decisions.

A Menmere site boss was one who learned how the leadership sees its position with the rank and file. There was an argument on the site about amenities. A unionist asked the site boss something. The boss said: “I’ll talk about that with your secretary.” To which Jack Mundey, who was there, retorted: “You’ll talk about it to all of them here; I’m just one of their employees.”

The policies of social principle that the union pursues rest on the union’s own democratic character. Without solidarity built on democracy, the union’s policies could not be sustained.

Numbers and quality

The real test of a union’s quality and calibre does not lie in the numbers of its members or the figures in its balance sheets; it is, instead, in the role and authority that the rank and file is able to exercise. In the case of the NSW builders labourers, the membership is growing fast in numbers. The NSW membership is now about 11,000 or 12,000, which is about five times what it was before progressives won the leadership. Factors in the increase have included improved organising and especially the union’s own increasing prestige and its successes. But, more importantly than increased numbers, the rank and file ’ s own strength and initiative are constantly being promoted — and this is what is primary.

Nothing stands still. Democracy, within a union or anywhere else, is not a stationary thing. It must be in a state of constant development to meet the changes in conditions and situations that are all around us. Any lapse into self-satisfaction or self-righteousness about the democratic innovations that have already been introduced in the union’s practices would be disastrous; it would invite a backward slide.

The union can rightly claim that there has been a development of two-way communication between the rank-and-file membership and the leadership, including the meetings of job organisers (delegates) and mass meetings. But what has been done cannot be seen as being more than a good start.

Other unions, too, have established patterns of rank-and-file involvement, such as the Seamen’s Union long-standing system of monthly stopwork meetings in the various ports, attended by the members from all the ships in the ports and without loss of pay.

In Queensland, principles of a democratic style of unionism were expressed a while back by the state president of the Building Workers Industrial Union, Hugh Hamilton (who is a member of the Queensland Trades and Labor Council executive and who, like Jack Mundey, is a member of the national committee of the Communist Party of Australia). He said:

Within the union structure, the real decision-making must be in the hands of the rank-and-file. This means that more energy, more time, more reliance must be put into building job organisation; more stopwork meetings, with pay, to discuss union policy; the development of a job delegate organisation much superior to that at present.

Job organisation, linked with progressive policies and leadership such as ours, can in a short period develop self-acting democratic structures controlled by the rank and file, which would more effectively challenge the building industry bosses and challenge the system that bases itself on making maximum profit, as against the needs of the people.

This is what I think unionism is all about in the 1970s.

Committee keeps going

Rank-and-file committees have been set up in various unions. In many cases, they were initially established to organise the progressive opposition to right-wing officialdom. This was the case in the NSW builders labourers in the 1950s.

In those days, the union in NSW was controlled by a bloody-minded right-wing group, operating by standover practices. To oppose those who were then in charge was to invite a bashing — a violence that failed to interest those such as the Sydney Morning Herald who now profess such horror at any “violence” by unionists to a scab-built brick wall or other property.

To challenge and eventually defeat that brutal leadership took courage and persistence and vigorous rank-and file organisation. The first success was the election of Bert McGill as an organiser; and then Mick McNamara also was elected as an organiser.

With the wall thus breached, the 1960s brought the eviction of the old gang and its replacement by a new and progressive leadership (including, for some years, Mick McNamara as NSW secretary and the late Arch Harding as president) and this style of leadership has continued in the branch ever since.

But, although the initial aim of the rank-and-file committee was thus achieved, the committee did not fade from the scene nor curl up somewhere, hibernating comfortably. Rank-and-file organisation has continued, but now — unlike the situation in the 1950s — in accord with the leadership and its policies and working to strengthen these further.

The rank-and-file committee publishes its own bulletin, Hoist. In the latter part of 1972 the committee, as an experiment, got its own rank-and-file centre: two big cavern-like rooms in The Rocks, in a building that would itself no doubt by now have gone for ever if it had not been for the union ban on demolition in The Rocks.

The place was in a pretty bad state when the rank-and-file committee first rented it. Many of those who saw it for the first time were dismayed and even despairing of ever making it into anything decent. But volunteer teams worked weekend after weekend. Equipment was salvaged from demolitions elsewhere; sponsors were enlisted at $5 each to give a financial base, and by the end of the year it was in good shape, capable of holding up to 200 or more.

The Rocks centre was maintained until mid-1973. Then, at a meeting held there in July, it was decided to seek a more economic place in the city as a centre.

That same meeting elected Peter Barton (who we met earlier, as an elected foreman) as president of the rank-and-file committee and Noel Olive as the committee’s secretary.

Choosing their candidates

One Sunday afternoon in April 1973, about 150 members of the union met at The Rocks centre. There were also visitors from other unions, and wives and friends to see how the rank-and-file does things.

It was a special occasion: the rank-and-file was there to discuss what policy should be put forward in the branch election, due in the latter part of 1973, and who should be the candidates on the rank-and-file ticket.

The meeting had been publicised on the jobs beforehand. Everyone in the union was welcome to attend. There were no qualifications required other than membership; no one was excluded. Nor had there been canvassing or lobbying for any particular nominees; it was put before the members for a free and unpressured vote.

The fact of this rank-and-file meeting being held and selecting a team of candidates does not, of course, preclude any other eligible member from nominating for any position in the branch election. For instance, in 1970 (when there was similar process of rank-and-file selection of a team) some nominated against this team (the rank-and-file team won, handsomely). In 1973, too, if any wish to nominate against the team selected as candidates at the rank-and-file meeting, that is their right, and the ballot will decide.

A main significance of the April rank-and-file meeting is that it gave the rank-and-file a say that goes further than just having the right to cast a vote in the final ballot for or against candidates whose names are on the ballot paper; the meeting extended this to a right to say who they want to be on that ballot paper.

The April meeting lasted about two hours. It discussed and endorsed a rank-and-file policy, proposals on which had been distributed at the start of the meeting. The policy included a continuation of the positive features of existing union policy, including the green bans, and the campaigns for permanency and for one union in the industry. There was emphasis on the need for increased attention to the special problems of migrants.

Selection of candidates came after the discussion on policy. Some were nominated and selected unopposed for various positions. In three cases, a vote by show of hands was needed. In one case, there were two successive ties, so a flip of the coin made the choice.

There was a total absence of pettiness or rancour. It was all done with the greatest of good feeling. There were no electioneering-style speeches extolling the qualifications of any candidate or rubbishing any other candidate. No one was leant on as to how to vote.

The choice of candidates had a special quality because of the fact that, under the branch’s limit of tenure in fulltime office (which we’ll speak of shortly), Jack Mundey was not nominating for re-election as NSW secretary. (Another standing down under the tenure rule was organiser Dick Prendergast.)

In that situation, the meeting selected Joe Owens as its candidate for state secretary.

This choice was made in a way that was in keeping with the spirit of a joint statement issued by Bob Pringle (a vigorous left activist in the Australian Labor Party) and Joe Owens (a member of the Sydney District Committee of the Communist Party of Australia). In this statement, they said:

From the time it was first mooted that Jack Mundey stand down, two names have been widely discussed as likely candidates for the secretary’s position — Bob Pringle, the president, and Joe Owens, a state organiser.

Both have been deeply involved in the torrid era from 1970 onwards. The policies and ideologies of the two do not differ in any respect. There were things that each would have on their lists of priorities which would differ, and they have their differing methods on smaller points, but it was widely recognised that their base is similar.

The statement said that they had discussed the situation with each other, “in an objective sincere atmosphere, completely devoid of hostility”, from which they agreed to leave the selection to the April rank-and-file meeting — and that none of the old numbers games should be attempted”.

Their statement pointed out also that the selection by the meeting of its team of candidates was a genuine choice, and not any power struggle by weight of numbers. It was, they said, totally different from the wheeling and dealing that occurs in some sections of the trade union movement and which, together with favours promised in order to retain or gain power, can make the actual elections and final vote a mockery.

The healthiness of principle expressed in the Pringle-Owens statement was mirrored at the April rank-and-file meeting which, after selecting Joe Owens as candidate for secretary, chose Bob Pringle unopposed as its candidate to stand for re-election as state president. It also chose Jack Mundey as candidate for branch treasurer and federal conference delegate — both of these being rank-and-file positions and not full-time.

As well as the development of continuing rank-and-file organisation, some styles different from the conventional have been tried in the NSW branch office, aimed at bettering conditions for the office staff, identifying them with the union policies and, with this, seeking a high efficiency in the service to the union’s fast-growing membership. Experiments in methods are being tested by experience.

Limit their own tenure

In a bold initiative, the NSW branch of the union has introduced a practice that is unique in present Australian unionism. This is the limit of tenure of full-time office.

By a branch executive decision, made on Jack Mundey’s proposal, no person may hold a full-time position in the branch for more than six years at a time; after the six years, a full-time official must step down and return to the industry for at least a year.

This limit on tenure has aroused some lively controversy. Among some in the trade union movement, there have been honest doubts and a concern whether this innovation will be detrimental by depriving the union in NSW of successive experienced and capable leaders, including now Jack Mundey himself. (To some others — conservatives in positions, some of them comfortable, in trade unions — the branch’s introduction of the tenure principle smacks of heresy: a dangerous departure from orthodoxy and something that, if allowed to catch on and spread, could imperil their own positions.)

The builders labourers NSW branch leaders respect the views of those who have genuine doubts about the tenure principle, but they believe that any detrimental effects from it will be outweighed by the benefits.

The branch does not see the tenure innovation as being any complete answer to problems. But it does believe that it is a positive contribution. It is directed to prevent any development of an encrusted officialdom or an entrenched union aristocracy: a hardening of the arteries in office. It is to check any possibility of empire-building, of long-term officials with a coterie of yes-men dependent on the favour of the high-ups. It is designed to keep union officials identified with the rank and file and to renew their own firsthand rank-and-file experience, to find out again how everything looks when seen from the jobs.

It is an innovation that will be watched with intense interest and (from those who believe in seeking new styles of enhanced union democracy) with sympathetic goodwill.

The branch has applied a practice of having only a few organisers (at present, four) elected for three-year terms. The others that are needed are appointed on a temporary basis, in a rotation. By this means, new organisers — mostly young — are continually getting experience and training. In the 1970-73 period, some 40 members served for varying periods as temporary organisers. This has provided the union with a variety of special individual qualities and given it growing numbers of members who have returned to the job with added experience and maturity to enhance their work in the rank and file.

Under a proposal raised by Bob Pringle, rank and file meetings in future are to guide the branch executive in choosing new temporary organisers.

There is another practice in the union’s NSW branch that also is not common in the trade union movement. In any general stoppage of the union in NSW, all the branch officials go off the union payroll for the period of the stoppage: they put themselves in the same financial position as the rank-and-file strikers. They do this notwithstanding the fact that, in a strike, their activities as officials can become even more intense. The officials’ wages, in any case, are related to the rates applying to workers in the industry. They are below what a great many of the members get on the job.

Pay rises in the industry

Builders labourers’ improved pay levels demonstrate that the union’s social and environmental interventions have not been at the expense of concern for members’ conditions on the job. An article from Sydney in the British weekly Guardian in early 1973 said:

It is doubtful whether most members of the Builders Laborers Federation — many of whom are recent southern European migrants — care much for their union’s interests in either communism or conservation. Wages and conditions come before fig trees. But Jack Mundey takes care of those, too.”

Over the three years to 1973, overall wage rises to builders labourers included $27 a week in one classification and correspondingly big amounts for all others.

The union’s public forays, in fact, strengthen its capacity to achieve gains for its members. This experience is common also to other unions prominent on public issues. To quote again Hugh Hamilton of the BWIU’s Queensland branch:

The union’s activities in the vital matters of racism, peace, pollution, protection of the environment and other matters have in no way detracted from the union’s attention to improving the wages, work conditions and quality of life of the members. One is not subordinated to the other; they are complementary.

In fact, our involvement in these activities has enriched our understanding of the needs of those who work in the building industry and the needs of our society.

Between the BWIU branch’s 1970 and 1972 State Delegate Conventions, he said, members’ wage rates had increased by $1000 a year.

Wives of NSW builders labourers have been encouraged to take part in union activity — and not in pouring the tea or buttering the scones. Wives were invited to attend and speak at the first NSW branch general meeting after the 1970 strike, to say what they thought about the strike or anything else. About a fifth of the attendance at that meeting was wives. Some brought the kids too.

In the 1971 building trades accident pay strike, wives of strikers from various unions went along to a court hearing, with slogans. In that strike, too, some 30 wives of building workers — tradesmen and labourers — invaded the Master Builders Association Sydney offices, and ten of them made up a deputation that fronted MBA executive officers. The MBA men at first were smirkingly condescending, but the women soon changed that. A press report said that, when they finally left, the women “left behind them some shaken association executive officers”.

First women members

In NSW builders labourers’ meetings, there may soon be a further innovation: not only may members be invited to bring their wives; in some cases, they will be invited to bring their husbands. That is because the NSW branch has been recruiting women as members — the first building union in Australia to do so.

The initial case was in Canberra in the 1960s, at a time when Mick McNamara was NSW secretary. About six women there were found to be doing work that was within the union’s scope. The union signed them up as members and then demanded that the employer pay them full rates as builders labourers. When the employer challenged this in an arbitration case, the union won. But when that particular job ended, so did the women’s work as builders labourers.

The matter of enrolling women in the union surfaced again in 1971, on the construction of the Summit high-rise, which dominates the skyline at the top of William Street in Kings Cross. There, builders labourers found four young women employed by a subcontractor doing work that rightly belongs to builders labourers. The workers insisted that they be paid builders labourers— rates, with height money and fares and all other benefits, and welcomed them into the union.

Mick Ross, who was delegate there at the time, wrote in the next issue of the union’s journal:

The subcontractor tried to sell the idea to the girls that they would be better off if they joined another union. This would benefit them no end, he said. He forgot to mention that there would be some benefits in it for him, too. Like having to pay them less money, for instance.”

Despite the subcontractors’ blandishments, the four women chose to join the Builders Laborers. Just as well for them, too; a couple of weeks later, the subcontractor who had professed such concern for their welfare said he couldn’t pay them. The women told the union delegate. The builders labourers went on strike, demanding that the main contractor take responsibility for the women’s wages and ensure that they be re-employed by a new subcontractor. The outcome was that the women got their money and re-employment there too.

The four women were Cathy Valamis (then 19 years old), Karlene Slattery (then 18), Debbie Boxwell (then 18) and Cheri Ashman (then 24).

Karlene Slattery said that one of her earlier jobs had been as a theatre usherette, getting $37 clear. As a builders labourer, she got $83 clear in her first week.

Debbie Boxwell said the union was showing them what their rights were; “nearly every day we learn that the boss is trying to get away with something from us; because of the union, he’s not able to do it”. Other women have since become members. They have proved themselves to be among the front rank of militant and capable unionists. Denise Bishop, for instance.

Denise Bishop, 25-year-old wife of a builders labourer and mother of a three-year-old son, used to be an order clerk in Waltons, on about $60 a week. Then in 1972 she became a builders labourer, as nipper and then as first-aid attendant (she has a St John’s certificate — s he has also been a karate student) on a Cremorne home unit project. For a six-day week, she got more than $100 clear, but she still made the point that not one of the workers who were building those home units would ever be able to afford to buy one of them.

Carol McNaughton, wife of a builders labourer and with a child then one year old, joined the union late in 1972 as a nipper on a Sydney office block project. She had been a cashier at a Kentucky Fried Chicken place on about $60 gross plus whatever overtime was going. As a builders labourer, she went on to $2.95 an hour (so in less than three eight-hour days she’ d catch up with the Kentucky $60) plus overtime. That suited her fine.

Denise Bishop, while she was working as a nipper (which involves getting smoko and lunch orders, cleaning up around the messroom and toilets, and so on), made an emphatic point about women in the industry: “We might be nippers now. But don’t think that this is all we’re ever going to be on jobs. We’re going to graduate.”

It was in this spirit that women in June 1973 enrolled for a hoist drivers course at Sydney Technical College. Denise Bishop was one of them: others were already nippers on construction sites, and some were from the union’s Sydney office.

It was the first time that women had taken the course at the college. When a couple of them had first asked there about it, they were told that a class would be held only if they could get ten enrollments. They set about enlisting others to make up the required ten — and it finished with enough, including some men, to make it necessary to have two classes.

Stops to get them jobs

As well as the Summit strike in 1971 on behalf of the four women there, fellow unionists on various jobs have taken strike action in solidarity with women, either to insist on their being employed and not excluded by an employer because they are women, or else against sacking.

In September 1972, building workers stopped work when 17-year-old Glenys Page was barred from taking a job as nipper on an E.A. Watts job in Milsons Point. The employer ordered her off the site. When she didn’t go, police were called and they took her to North Sydney police station. Unionists on jobs sent representatives there to show solidarity, and after about 90 minutes police let her go without charge.

Workers on the job she had gone to stopped for the rest of the day. After further actions and court proceedings (which her clergyman father attended in support of her) she got the job. “The men backed me all the way,” she said appreciatively.

About a month after that, when 23-year-old Carmen Rose was sacked on a Lend Lease job at Kogarah, her husband was among those on other Lend Lease jobs who stopped work in solidarity — and she got her job back. Carmen Rose, who came to Australia from Malta when she was a child and who has a young family, holds a hoist driver’s certificate. One of the things that led up to her being sacked on the Kogarah job was that she had refused to work with non-unionists who were on the site during a 24-hour general stoppage by the tradesmen’s unions.

Another case, in mid-1973, centred on Janne Reed. (She was one of four women who, a few months earlier, in a protest action over BHP’s long-standing refusal to employ women at its AI&S steelworks in Port Kembla, had dressed up in overalls and helmets and gone, undetected and unchallenged, into the steelworks. They stayed there long enough to make their point, leaving notices “Women’s Lib was here” around the place. Later, it was announced that at least some women were being taken on at the steelworks).

Janne Reed was sent by the Builders Laborers to the North Shore Hospital project in North Sydney to take a vacancy as a nipper with a subcontractor. When the employer refused to take her on, all workers (builders labourers, plumbers and boilermakers) employed by the subcontractor held a stop work meeting and later decided on a work-in, with Janne Reed staying there in defiance of the boss. She did so, and after a couple of days the employer (who had at first threatened to call the police) caved in and employed her. In expressing her appreciation afterwards, Janne Reed gave special thanks to delegates Jim Bell (Plumbers) and Neville Walker (Boilermakers) and others.

Responsibility to migrants

Migrants make up a substantial proportion — perhaps 70 per cent in NSW — of the union’s membership. The union acknowledges a special responsibility to them, to help meet the special problems that they face.

On a big construction job at Homebush, a couple of us talked to a Croatian migrant who spoke English. He said that he had found the union helpful to him.

He had been in Australia for seven years. He had worked as a cook, getting $75 for a six-day week. Then he had gone to the Builders Laborers’ Sydney office, not feeling very hopeful, but had been given a membership ticket straight away. Now he was getting $81 after tax for a five-day week, plus overtime. He intends to stay in the industry; it will do him.

The union publishes material in European languages as well as English. It is pressing for programs to be carried out, paid for by the employers, governments or both, to help migrants to learn English, in the employers’ time and on full pay, and to help them in any problems of social services, etc.

In 1973, the NSW branch had among its executive-appointed temporary organisers a woman, a part-Aboriginal and a migrant. The woman was Denise Bishop, whom we met a few pages ago: almost certainly the first woman official of any building union in Australia. (Her husband, Roy Bishop, also was at the same time a temporary organiser in the union). Denise Bishop was chosen not just because she was a woman but on her merits as a unionist, to deal with the same problems of men and women unionists as other organisers do. After her first month or so in this position, the branch executive unanimously commended her for her work.

The migrant temporary organiser was 26-year-old Portuguese-born Viri Pires. He speaks Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, French and English. Before coming to Australia in 1971, he had worked in Italy, France and Britain and had visited the Soviet Union and other countries. He had been variously office worker, factory worker, barman, waiter and building worker.

Viri Pires has been impressed by the strength of left-led trade union federations in Europe. But, he says, for militant activity and the breadth of social and community concepts, the Builders Laborers Federation can stand up to any union he has known.

The part-Aboriginal temporary organiser was 32-year-old Kevin Cook. He had been in the industry for three or four years, and had been a dogman.

Before that, he was in the Federated Ironworkers Association. And how does the Builders — Laborers Federation compare with the FIA? “Streets ahead, miles ahead,” says Kevin Cook.