Taming the concrete jungle, 1973

10. Taking it on from here

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

In a television interview, Jack Mundey summed up the building and construction industry. “It is,” he said, “a concrete jungle; there is no planning; it is very unsure and uncertain; in each little fluctuation in the economy, it’s hit first”.

“Builders labourers,” he said, “do the most arduous work in the industry, most of the union’s members are migrants, and the nature of the industry and the fact that employers refuse to accord them human dignity gives rise to some of the bitterness that has been seen.”

The industry, in the sacred names of “development” and “progress”, reconstructs cities planlessly, ignoring the lessons from overseas experiences.

Quebec (Canada) MP Harry Blank visited Sydney and warned that in Montreal high-rise living had created “a pollution of the mind”. Utah (USA) state Senator W. Hughes Brockbank came to Australia and said that he was shocked to see Sydney making the mistake of building high-rise residential ghettos. It was, he said, a tremendous social mistake and it would cost multimillions eventually to correct it.

Everything went on as usual, heedlessly and greedily.

Laws protect the greedy

Marjorie Carter (the pen-name used by the late Lorraine Salmon) wrote in Tribune in 1970 about the greed of the system under which we live:

Greed on the local scale, with massive introduction of buildings but lack of amenities to service the people who live in them.

Greed on the urban scale, with buildings going higher and higher, more transport needed to get the workers to their jobs, but little provision for giving them enough clean air to breathe.

Greed on the part of industry, which gives us a so-called prosperity but treats our rivers and seas like cesspools …

Greed on the national scale. We fight to find more oil and minerals, destroying natural features … We fight for higher crop productivity, using ever greater quantities of insecticides and pesticides, which contaminate the crops they produce, the animals which eat them and the humans who use the animal products.

It is to protect the privileges of the greedy that governments such as those of Sir Robert (“Ride over the bastards”) Askin enact ever more repressive laws, to intimidate and outlaw dissent and protest. Arrests and court processes are instituted as a fortress wall around the so-sacred system. In 1972, builders labourers, who had been arrested under Askin’s Summary Offences Act for being on a Sydney construction site when the boss didn’t want them to be there, were required to put up a total bail between them that was almost double the amount of a reward (shown on a placard in the Waverley police station, at which they were charged) for apprehension of a murderer.

Some 130 years ago, Frederick Engels, a founder of Marxism, wrote on the bias of the law:

True, the law is sacred to the bourgeois, for it is his own composition, enacted with his consent, and for his benefit and protection. He knows that, even if an individual law should injure him, the whole fabric protects his interests; and more than all, the sanctity of the law, the sacredness of order as established by the active will of one part of society, and the passive acceptance of the other, is the strongest support of his social position.

Progress throughout history has, in fact, always been achieved not through dutiful compliance with the laws of those in power, but through defiance and challenge. Always, those who have led the movements for radical change have been abused and attacked by the entrenched interests which, for purposes of their own power and wealth, want to keep things unchanged.

But those who — like Canute ordering the tide to halt — try to continue to enforce the old ways, and who would frustrate progress, have been overcome in the past. It will not be different now.

Some 150 years ago, Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s great Sydney dream of a beautiful city was stifled and frustrated by stupidity, small-mindedness and greed.

The stupidity, small-mindedness and greed are still there, but in greater dimensions. Those who challenge these are assailed through parliament and the press.

The Sunday Mirror (one of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper stable) rebuked the builders labourers for their green bans and said haughtily: “It is the job of builders labourers to build the buildings they are paid for.” The Mirror’s big brother in the Murdoch family, the Sunday Australian, scolded the union for having moved in, with bans, over environmental and conservationist issues, and it went on to say: “There are laws governing such matters … Let this law be tried first before unions and others make up their own … ” (in other words, let the demolishers go their hardest, operating within laws whose toothless futility has been so obvious).

The Sydney Morning Herald, in one of its editorial blasts against builders labourers in August 1972, made it plain which nerve was being pinched: it voiced its anxious concern about developers and foreign investors being “discouraged”. Money talks louder than anything else to those who are behind the Sydney Morning Herald.

But these days (unlike in Governor Macquarie’s times), the stupidity, small-mindedness and greed are confronted by an increasingly aware, aroused and militant people. The people’s mood erupts in all sorts of places and on all sorts of issues: for instance, at The Rocks; at Curl Curl (a northern Sydney surfside area) where people, including children plus dogs, held a picnic occupation of a reserve to prevent it from being used for a light aircraft landing site; at Newcastle, where citizens formed a human wall between bulldozers and trees; in episodes in other states too.

People have been compelled to intervene directly on issues because those who are supposed to be in authority, in the people’s name, have failed, or even betrayed, the public and national interest.

Radical new ways

The increasing dead weight of the establishment’s society has forced unions and others to recognise that orthodox and conventional ways of protest are often inadequate and ineffective. New and radical methods have had to be applied.

In the industrial field, one instance was the three-hour sit-in at the NSW Parliament House in August 1972. When Premier Askin refused to see union officials and rank and file to hear their protest about the latest crop of sackings of Public Works Department workers (at a time when housing, school and hospital construction needs were acute), unionists staged the sitdown in the Parliament House vestibule, defying all efforts to persuade them to go. Those from building unions who took part included Messrs Tom McDonald (BWIU), S. Vaughan and L. Boyce (Painters), R. Prendergast (Builders Laborers) and others.

In other instances, workers have moved beyond mere occupation of jobs and have gone on to the stage of protest work-ins. This took place at Harco Steel (Sydney), when boilermakers refused to take the sack and worked on, and at South Clifton colliery (NSW South Coast), when mineworkers refused to acknowledge the official closedown and worked the mine themselves, without any boss, for three days. There have been the cases in the building industry, too — including those already recounted in this booklet — where workers have refused to acknowledge decisions by the boss and have worked on, under their own control. All these actions have common features with resident and union stands for the environment and against mindless destruction for profit.

They demonstrate a refusal any longer to concede that the rich and powerful and entrenched interests have any unchallengeable right to make all the decisions that affect the lives of people on the jobs and in their homes and communities. It is a recognition that, if qualities are to be preserved, responsibility cannot be left to those whose obsession is with profits, amassed by exploitation regardless of the irreparable destruction and the long-term costs to the community.

Trade unions, if they are to fulfill their necessary functions, cannot turn away from the issue and claim that their responsibility is only to attend to the needs of their members on the job. In fact, they cannot defend even those needs unless they move into action on broader and deeper matters.

As London economics lecturer John Purton wrote in the Morning Star in October 1972: “The task of the working class is to defend itself and take the offensive into the camp of monopoly capital.”

Crisis and the unions

A system dictated by those with wealth and power has brought Australia, and other countries, to a crisis of a new and unprecedented character.

It is a crisis not essentially of unemployment and want (although, for all the talk of “affluence,” there remains an appallingly big sector of poverty, including pensioners and numbers even of those who are in work). It is a crisis in which the huge possibilities of science and technology are frustrated, in which society’s resources are misused and squandered, in which distribution of wealth is grossly distorted in favour of the few, and in which the environment and things of quality are sacrificed in vandalistic social irresponsibility.

Here is a view of the situation in Australia and of trade unionism’s necessary functions:

“The Australian ruling class has grown in wealth, power and organisation. It is able to direct changes in our society in its own interests and has largely succeeded in imposing its program and its values on the great majority of the working people.

… The time is overdue to evaluate the role and potential of the trade union movement in our society in present-day conditions … The important struggles for immediate interests (increased wages, working conditions and members’ rights) cannot be allowed to restrict the vision of the working class …

Tendencies to go on as in the past … make it difficult for unions to defend their members’ immediate interests, let alone raise them to higher perspectives of social change …

It is necessary to widen the horizon of trade union work … All matters that concern workers ought to be within the ambit of trade union activities …

The trade unions can play a decisive role in a strategy that aims to fundamentally remake our society into a socialist society of free men and women, controlling their own destiny.

(From Modern Unionism and the Workers’ Movement, a document of the 1970 national congress of the Communist Party of Australia.)

Within the concept of a widening range of trade union action there is ample room for diversity of ideas, for constructive discussion and debate on how best to proceed. In fact, not only is there room for this; there is a necessity for it.

No one has any perfected master plan. Tactics will be worked out and applied, and broad strategy evolved, through a constant pooling of views and testing of how things work in practice.

Nor is this something to be done by some select few at the top. It can succeed only if there is a massive involvement, so that the rank and file takes part fully and decisively in planning as well as in giving effect to plans. The principles of workers’ control are essential in the trade unions themselves; without that, the unions cannot be effective in helping to promote workers’ control on the jobs.

Principles in common

There are within the progressive movement people who are members of different political parties and others who belong to no party. This is not of consequence; principles shared in common transcend any differences of affiliation.

Within the NSW builders labourers, for instance, president Bob Pringle and some others in the leadership are in the ALP, as left activists; Jack Mundey, Joe Owens, Bud Cook and others are in the Communist Party of Australia. But, as Bob Pringle and Joe Owens said in their joint statement about their nominations on the rank-and-file ticket for the 1973 union ballot, their policies and ideologies do not differ; they share the same base.

Jack Mundey told a Workers Control conference in Victoria in 1972 that unions should be political, but this does not require that they be tied to any one political party. All strands of left-wing political thought should be drawn together in advanced forms of action that will test ideological trends in practice.

“The degree of unions’ involvement and the issues around which they struggle now will determine the shape of future society,” Jack Mundey said.

The militant alliances

Recent years have seen the growth of the extent and quality of militant alliances between various trade unions and community groupings. Such alliances are not something that has happened only in the past few years; a number of unions have previously been usefully associated with community issues. What is new is that, especially in the case of the green bans, this mutual involvement of residents and builders labourers in particular (but not only builders labourers) has become a pattern of effective action.

When people of Hunters Hill 1971 turned, as a last resort, to the unions to help them save Kellys Bush, and so provided the occasion for the first of the green bans, a movement of the highest significance was started in motion.

The indignation and will of the people, backed by the organised industrial strength of the trade unions, have together proved a formidable force. Further developed, this can prove more than formidable; it can become irresistible.

It can prevail in saving all those things in our cities and our lives that should be preserved. It can prevail also in determining what should be built, so as to provide enhanced qualities.

Nor will what is built be confined only to the structures of brick and tile, steel and concrete and glass: from people working together, discussing and deciding and acting together, there can be built a new society, shaped to the needs of the people and not (as now) to the greed of exploiters and their political men-on-strings.

Trade unionism’s declared aim is a socialist transformation. The objective of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, for instance, includes: “The socialisation of industry, that is, production, distribution and exchange … ” Again, among the objectives of the Queensland Trades & Labor Council is: “To wrest from the capitalist class the economic powers which it, as a class, possesses and to use them in the interests of the workers.”

The objectives of the Builders Laborers’ Federation itself include “to assist in the movement for the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”

A socialist change means achieving a society that sweeps away exploitation of the work of the many for the private profit of the few. It will establish instead a system built around public ownership and public control, for public benefit. Included in this will be an end to the private monopoly of land, under which land is used for purposes that disregard social, cultural or any other considerations except money.

Transfer of ownership of industry and resources from private hands to public enterprise is essential but by itself would not be enough. With this must go a new blossoming of all forms of democracy, on and off the jobs, so that it is the people who make the decisions, directly and effectively. No longer then will it be that the people are told what it has been decided to do; it is they who will do the deciding.

Then, and only then, can all of us be assured that nothing will be done to the cities and other areas — to Sydney’s Rocks or Woolloomooloo, or anywhere else — other than what the people themselves decide is in their own best interests. The thoughtful and knowledgeable responsibility of the people will replace the blind dictates of hungry profit.

Then, and only then, can all of us be assured, too, that building workers will never again be called on to work on what is destructive; they will instead build what they want to build, what the people need to be built for the fullest enrichment of their lives.

Program in the industry

Unionists in the building industry are active on a variety of demands. Here are some of the needs (not necessarily in order of priority) in the industry:

Permanency of employment (52 weeks’ pay in a year); long-service leave; sick pay to be cumulative and at least equal to that provided in other industries; removal of the limit to the period for which full pay applies when off work through injury.

Wet-weather allowance to accumulate instead of being only on a month-by-month basis; reduced working week without loss of pay.

A building investigations committee to control development, having regard to environmental and other factors and to ensure continuity of work in the industry.

A national award for builders labourers, with wages and conditions at higher levels than apply now; builders labourers to have wage relativities of 100 per cent (for those on the top rate) and 90 per cent (for all others) to tradesmen’s rates.

Election by the workers of leading hands, safety officers, first-aid officers and nippers (with the right to recall any of those elected if they prove unsatisfactory to the workers) and other forms of asserting workers’ authority on jobs.

Establishment of one union for all the building industry, free from past craft or other divisions.

Encouragement to Aborigines to enter the industry and to increase their skills in it. Recognition of women’s right to work in any part of the industry they wish, and assistance to them to develop new skills.

Establishment of a migrant education centre, helping migrants to learn English and to become informed about Australian trade unionism and about all social services, and to help in any social problems; this to take place during working hours, without loss of pay.

Formulation of a charter of union democracy to ensure that the rank and file always maintains the decisive say in union affairs.

Continued and extended union involvement in community affairs, by green bans and in other ways; loss of work by this to be offset by increased activity in the public sector of the industry (schools, hospitals, etc).

These are by no means all the needs in the industry, but they indicate some of the directions on which unionists’ activity can usefully proceed.