Taming the concrete jungle, 1973


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

Appalling safety, lack of amenities, inferior working conditions, the highest rate of bankruptcies, with “fly-by-night” subcontractors fleecing workers and the public alike, the highest accident rate of all industries, the most unstable industry, where only one hour’s notice is needed to dump workers on the unemployment market …

That is how a leaflet in 1972 summed up the building industry in Australia. The leaflet was issued by some who really know about the industry: the members of the federal management committee[1] of the Builders Laborers Federation (now named the Australian Building Construction Employees and Builders Laborers Federation).

Others have said very much the same thing. For instance, a construction executive told a seminar held by the Queensland branch of the Building Workers Industrial Union a few years ago that the building industry had 10 per cent of Australian industrial accidents; about 40 per cent of bankrupts were builders; and it was a stop-start industry, being the first to suffer in the slightest economic slump and the last to recover.

A statement by the NSW branch of the Builders Laborers Federation to an arbitration commissioner spoke of “the unplanned, environment-destroying, unstable, chaotic conditions in the industry”.

These elements are not new to the building industry. But changes in the industry’s nature and direction have immensely magnified the dimensions of the industry and the effects of what it does. From most of those who direct the course of the industry, operating from boardrooms or executive suites, comes a mindless irresponsibility to public interest.

People are desperate for homes, caught by a housing shortage that has been chronic, and the NSW Housing Commission chairman has confessed himself to be “sick with worry” about the housing plight of low-income people. Yet, while this crying human need persists, “developers” have under way or in planning more than $600 million worth of Sydney city office, retail and other commercial construction projects to add to an existing glut of empty office space.

What homes are built are only too often in projects that will create the slums of tomorrow and which are even, in environmental and social aspects, already slums.

Mr G.J. Dusseldorp, chairman of the huge Lend Lease group, told housing industry leaders at a convention in 1968:

The housing industry as a whole knows little about the desires of the people and cares less … As a production unit it is hard to imagine how the housing industry could be more fragmented and stagnated than it is at present.

The building trade vies with used-car dealing as main source of unethical and illegal practices, according to the annual report of the South Australian Commissioner for Prices and Consumer Affairs, released in early 1973.

Like housing, other social human needs — as against business needs — are shoved down in the scale of priorities. For want of sufficient schools, our children are crowded into congested classes, with all their disadvantages and even dangers. For want of sufficient public hospitals, treatment of the sick falls far short of desirable standards. Various governments — so ready with money for other purposes that suit their own aims — whimper that they can’t afford the all-out construction programs necessary to remedy these inadequacies in desperate community needs.

The city vandals

Meanwhile, to provide city sites for towering new office-retail structures, developers have engaged in a rampage of destruction. In order to profit from construction, they destroy.

Gracious old buildings, buildings rich in history, have been shattered into rubble; they are gone for ever. In their place rise characterless monstrosities of concrete and glass, creating a jagged skyline like some giant creature’s fanged jaw. The canyons rise sheer from the narrow, choked city streets, where traffic rumbles and pedestrians jostle in the shadows, robbed of sunlight except for the brief period of high noon.

Authorities which, in righteous zeal, prosecute the absent-minded jaywalker or hound the tinkling Hare Krishna on the footpaths, at the same time encourage, help and even bestow rewards and honours on those who create the grossest environmental pollutions. To build their monuments to deformed concepts of progress, the companies commandeer footpaths and barricade them with their hoardings, swing their craneloads over pedestrian heads, and fill the air with dust and the shattering racket of machines. From this, like some beast emerging from the slime, comes high-rise.

The unsightly high-rise sprawl engulfs places where, until lately, families have made their lives, in some cases for generation after generation. Already, for instance, and despite the challenge to it, the government-approved Sydney Cove Redevelopment Scheme has succeeded in driving many people from their homes in the historic Rocks area of pioneer colonising settlement.

As buildings go higher, so does the toll of human life. Construction of Brisbane’s State Government Insurance Office block, just a little way down Turbot Street from the Trades Hall, took the lives of four building workers. In all the cities, dogmen spectacularly riding the hooks of the giant cranes, rode to their deaths. For many other building workers, too, to go to work has meant going to death. Others suffer injury, in some cases permanent incapacity, to be forever one of the walking wounded. Employers express regrets — and go on opposing union campaigns to elevate safety above profit in the industry’s priorities.

While facing the risks, workers are on pay levels that are short of needs. As a result, overtime has come to be seen in most cases as a built-in part of their normal routine; the victory of the five-day 40-hour week back in the 1940s has been subverted by a need for building workers, like so many others, to work a sixth day so as to supplement the pay for the week.

Widening union horizons

In all this, the building trades unions have important responsibilities.

Union obligations have, from the beginning of trade unionism, been seen as being towards their own members, to defend and, whenever possible, improve their wages and working conditions. Going beyond this, progressive unions in recent years have been recognising and accepting broader and deeper responsibilities. They see the need to direct their constructive attention to all things that go to make up the life of workers and their families.

With this, there is a growing — or, at least, a dawning — recognition of unions’ obligation on wider community issues. These include the counter-offensive to resist the countless forms of pollution (which, if not checked, could swamp us all) and to protect an environment for the people, before it is too late. It takes generations, or even centuries, to create something historic or of natural beauty but, failing a resolute defence, its destruction can be brought about in days, even hours.

In the bleak terms of dollars, there is profit to be made from destroying the old and replacing it with unsightliness. And where there is profit, there is pressure.

Those who exert the pressure for profit can count on the support and help of those in high and influential places. All of them join in a concerted chorus to attack any who stand in their way and who dare to champion social principles in defiance of the power of big business to do whatever things offer prospects of profit. When those who stand in the way have and use the means to make their resistance effective — as is the case with some trade unions — the fury against them rises to a crescendo.

Employers and the whole establishment — those who have for so long manipulated society to their own ideas and requirements — are well aware of the character of such a threat to their control. Intervention by unions into the areas of real authority is a fundamental challenge to the power of big business to determine the affairs of industry and of society generally. While merely economic demands by unions can be absorbed and contained by employers more or less painlessly, employers savagely resist any demands that go to issues of power and authority because these demands contain within them seeds of radical change in the system itself.

The Builders Laborers Federation is acknowledged to have played a role in this new style of unionism, in recognising community and social responsibilities and putting this recognition into militant effect. In this, the focus has been especially on NSW, but the tide of action on such issues has been running, and with effect, in Victoria and other states also.

Frenzy and fury

For what they do in acting on these responsibilities to the community, to the environment and to the future, builders labourers and their leaders — and the NSW leadership in particular — have come under frenzied attack from those who measure everything by money. This fury has been vented through the NSW parliament and through the various forms of apparatus controlled by the NSW Askin government, including use of police.

In the attempts to discredit the union and its policies, sections of the mass media act as amplifiers for establishment propaganda, spreading it in print, over the radio and on the TV screens.

The unions, on the other hand, have only limited means to make known the justifications of their attitudes and actions. Their channels of information — even to many among their own memberships, let alone to other unionists and other sections of the community — are limited. This puts the unions at severe disadvantage and allows the distortions, mis-statements and outright falsities peddled in the propaganda against them to seep into people’s minds.

This booklet is published in the hope of being able to do something towards remedying this: to give people an insight into the industry and what goes on in it, and to show the viewpoint of progressive trade unionism.


1. The federal management committee (federal executive) of the Australian Building Construction Employees and Builders Laborers Federation consists of Les Robinson (South Australia), president; Ron Davies (Western Australia), vice-president; Norm Gallagher (Victoria), secretary; Jack Mundey (New South Wales), treasurer; and Vince Dobinson (Queensland), W.L. "Speed" Morgan (Tasmania) and John Masterson (Victoria), trustees. The first six of these are the secretaries of the union’s branches in the various states.

The NSW branch executive consists of Bob Pringle (president), Ron Donoghue (vice-president), Jack Mundey (secretary), Morris Lynch (treasurer), Dick Prendergast and Bud Cook (trustees), Alan Luthy (guardian) and Tom Hogan, Don Crotty, Peter Barton and Joe Owens (delegates).

Organisers in NSW (including temporary organisers) are: Joe Owens, Dick Prendergast, Ian Makin, Roy Bishop, Denise Bishop, Kevin Cook, Tony Hadfield, Viri Pires, John McNaughton, Noel Gleeson, Tony O’Beirne (based in Newcastle), Don Forskitt (based in Wollongong) and Bud Cook (also industrial officer).