|Issue No 50||14 April 2000|
Internal Democracy and the BLF
Extracted from 'Green Bans, Red Bans' by Meredith and Verity Burgman
How the rank and file team that took over the BLF in the early sixties attempted to devolve power to the grassroots.
Following Robert Michels and other elite theorists, who insist that large organisations will inevitably be controlled by a tiny minority, most academic commentators have emphasised the many constraints which thwart democratic aspirations within trade union structures. However, it is important not to loose sight also of those features which enable democratic aspirations to be realised: the way in which, as Alvin Gouldner has observed, an 'iron law of democracy' operates as effectively as Michels' ''iron law of oligarchy'. Trade unions are among the most democratic organisations in our society, certainly more democratic in general than corporations, parliamentary parties and government.
However, the democratically elected leadership of the NSWBLF was nonetheless unusual in its determination to expand and enhance internal union democracy, and to reduce the distinction between leaders and led, effectively transferring power away from itself and back to the rank and file who had elected it. When in power the NSWBLF leadership practised the democratic principles normally only preached in opposition. In its organisaitonal principles and practices it anticipated the social-movement unionism of the 1990s, which also emphasises internal democracy and rank-and-file participation in reaction to the increasingly hierarchical forms of traditional unions. An anarcho-syndicalist bricklayer and member of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians in Britain, was so intrigued by the innovative style of the NSWBLF he wrote about it in order to publicise its organisational achievements among British trade unionists, because the contrast with British unions was so striking: compared with his union, 'it sounds like a dream'.
The major structural changes initiated by the NSWBLF were: the introduction of limited tenure of office for union officials; the use of temporary organisers; the emphasis on job-site autonomy; the opening of executive meetings to all members; the frequent use of mass stop-work meetings; the tying of officials' wages to the BLF award; and the non-payment of officials during industry strikes. In the country, area committees were established to improve links between members in these more remote areas and the organisers.
In recognition that it was often not formal constraints which most inhibited participation and democracy, the union leadership encouraged members to 'drop in' to the union's office at Room 28 at Sydney's Trades Hall and to participate in informal discussion on union matters with officials. This increased the leadership's accessibility, and rank-and-file perceptions of its accessibility: the ordinary member felt able to criticise and advise the leadership in a way unusual in Australian trade unionism. The leadership also facilitated rank-and-file participation by reducing the formality of the large meetings (while nonetheless retaining enough to avoid the problems identified around this time as 'the tyranny of structurelessness'). For instance, non-English speaking immigrants were encouraged to participate by alteration of the traditional format for meetings. Accordingly, these immigrants, much less intimidated than before, often spoke at union meetings, sometimes with interpreters and sometimes without. The difficulty most members, not just those with language problems, had previously experienced speaking in a large meeting was reduced by a simple change in mass meeting procedure, whereby members queued at microphones and spoke in turn rather than having to depend on catching the chairman's eye.
The spoken rather than the written word was the medium of NSWBLF democracy. Its members were unskilled workers, mostly uneducated, occasionally illiterate and often unable to read or speak English. The written word was simply an inappropriate tool in the circumstances. Not only were the members unaccustomed to the written word but the leaders themselves felt uncomfortable expressing themselves in print. The union operated nonetheless on the principle that all organising work, including the production of pamphlets and the editing of the sporadic union journal, be carried out by builders labourers and not appointed research officers as in most unions. (This brought about a situation where written work was largely neglected.) However, in a membership of 11,000, concentrated predominantly in the CBD, the lack of written material was not a serious failing. Rather it contributed to the internal democracy of the union in that it created less differentiation between leaders and the led: it was easier for a rank-and-file member to refute an official's argument at a job-site meeting than to write a criticism of it.
The NSWBLF was moving against the trend of increasing bureaucratic and oligarchic practices in trade unions throughout the industrialised world. Moreover, this was a tendency being exacerbated in the Australian situation by the arbitration system, which as many commentators have suggested promoted centralism in unions and a tendency to rely on specialist advocates or outside experts to negotiate wage agreements. Thus, in sharp contrast to most union bureaucracies in Australia in the 1970s, the NSWBLF leadership encouraged rank-and-file initiative and expressed faith in the membership's ability to make 'correct' decisions. This trust was reciprocated: the leadership was highly regarded by the rank and file for its hard work on wages and working conditions, its honesty, its accessibility, and its solidarity. The unusual consensus-style decision making was widely known about and commented upon among the members. Viri Pries noted: 'The media always talked about Jack Mundey deciding this or saying that but we knew that it had been a collective decision'.
By tying officials' pay to BLF award rates, the leadership avoided the isolating effect of higher salaries, for as union leaders secure higher financial rewards for their jobs their sense of identification with the workers and the urgency of their problems inevitably suffers. Nor did they seek the higher social status that is an integral part of the incorporation of union leaders. The officials of the NSWBLF believed that any deviation from their previous lifestyle would be frowned upon by the rank and file and, as union president Bob Pringle put it, they would be quickly 'pulled into line'. The leadership continued to conform to working-class norms. Their response to their own position was unstated but nevertheless definite: their lifestyle changed not at all. They remained drinking in the same places, with the same people. They did not change addresses, nor their eating and dressing habits. Unlike other trade union officials who rarely started work before 8.30a.m., they kept normal working-class hours by starting work at 7.00 or 7.30a.m., which encouraged continuing interaction with rank-and-file members. The caretaker of Trades Hall complained to Pringle: 'Not only do I have to open the joint an hour earlier now that you're here but nine out of ten blokes that come through the door are headed for Room 28'.
Most of the officials had worked in the industry for long periods, and relatively recently, by comparison with union officials generally. Not only were the habits and practices of the industry still second-nature to them, they were also well known among the members. The union's policy on such matters was firm: all officials, even industrial officers and publications editors, had to come from the shop floor. Only one NSWBLF official, Bill Holley, had more than an elementary education-a situation which again distinguished the leadership from those of other unions in the building industry, and from the federal and Victorian bodies of their own union.
The distance between membership and leadership was decreased even further by the way in which the central core of full-time elected officials was supplemented by temporary organisers brought on to service specific areas such as Newcastle and Wollongong for particular events. The practice of appointing temporary organisers, whose appointment had to be endorsed at branch meetings, was formally adopted as branch policy at the August 1970 branch meeting. During 1970, Bob Pringle, Joe Owens, Brian Hogan, Tom Hogan, Don Forskitt and Bud Cook were all appointed as temporary organisers; and Owens and Tom Hogan in particular went back into labouring work for long periods between terms as organisers. Between 1973 and 1974, 39 organisers 'have come on and gone back to the job'.
However, the most startling innovation was the move towards a limited tenure of office: the insistence that officials, after six years at the most, return to the job. By the time of the 1973 branch elections, the New South Wales branch had embraced limited tenure as a matter of principle. It was a structural negation of the 'iron law of oligarchy', and it received a cool reception within the wider union movement of the time. The idea for this departure from traditional union practice developed out of the fertile mind of Jack Mundey. "the driving force that made me suggest limited tenure', Mundey explains, 'was my own experience of seeing modern, contemporary unionism and seeing the need for some inbuilt guarantee for limiting power and having inbuilt renewal'. During a television interview in September 1971, he suggested such a practice would be a beneficial one for the entire union movement: 'To avoid development of union bureaucrats (and unfortunately not all are right-wing either) ... there needed to be greater movement of people between leadership and rank and file'. The barb at 'left bureaucrats', the intimation that this phenomenon ought to be a political contradiction in terms, positioned the NSWBLF apart from other left unions. Union officials watching the programme were probably as appalled by this section of the interview as the executive members of the MBA (who had hired a television set to watch it during a meeting) were by Mundey's comments about the need for workers to undertake militant industrial action.
Nor did Mundey fail to apply the principle to himself. Indeed he chose to apply the limited tenure rule retrospectively by announcing that his six years were already up. Described by many as 'the most foolish move Mundey ever made', he did not seek re-election in 1973 and, at the beginning of 1974, he returned to the building industry to work as a pick-and-shovel labourer. (Bert McGill and Dick Prendergast also stepped down after six years as organisers and returned to work as labourers.) Maintaining he was 'just another builders' labourer', Mundey commenced work on the new annex to St Vincent's Hospital, which he was fortunately able to describe as 'socially beneficial'. The daily papers featured photos of Mundey busy shovelling, wheeling and jackhammering. Though he was frequently absent from this job to fulfil the many speaking engagements attendant upon his notoriety, his standing as a CPA candidate in the 1974 Senate election, his appointment to the Whitlam Government's Cities Commission and his election to the executive of the ACF, he was still employed on this site when Gallagher, in the course of Intervention, urged the manager to sack him. The loss of his union ticket after Intervention made further employment as a labourer impossible to find. Besides, by then he was in his forties and without a classified skill, an unusual predicament for a union official, for most labourers who had been in the industry long enough to become officials had classified skills of some sort. With a formidable reputation as well, Mundey was virtually unemployable. He worked in manual jobs after Intervention, but never again as a builders labourer. Mundey always replied to critics that the limited tenure rule was designed to benefit the institution, not the individual.
Within the union itself both the SPA group and the Maoists opposed limited tenure. The SPA ideal of union leadership was embodied in the desk-bound and grey-suited figure of Pat Clancy, and this group criticised Mundey for not remaining in office: 'Anarchistic opposition of union leadership in general led to imposition of a rigid rule automatically removing union leaders from office just as they were becoming experienced and capable representatives of the union and the working class'.
Writing with the benefit of hindsight, after Intervention had eliminated the New South Wales branch, Owens conceded that both he and Jack agreed with the criticism of limited tenure of office in that particular instance, yet insisted nonetheless: 'But that isn't a criticism of the idea. I also agree with Jack when he says "I should have knocked back some of the almost daily speaking invitations and spent more time on the job, but the important thing was the release of power".
Interview: The Gospel According To ...
Green Bans legend Jack Mundey looks back on his days in the BLF and the lessons that can be drawn from that experience today,
Unions: Spinning at the Casino
In the lead-up to this weekend's historic strike, active LHMU members at Sydney’s Star City Casino have been making their own news.
East Timor: Rebuilding From the Nightmare
NSW Attorney General Jeff Shaw travelled to Dili to get a first-hand perspective on the reconstruction work required.
History: Internal Democracy and the BLF
How the rank and file team that took over the BLF in the early sixties attempted to devolve power to the grassroots.
International: Towards Liberation
Zimbabwe trade unions are at the centre of the democratic struggle going on within the African Nation
Republic: The Referendum We Had To Have
Paul Norton finds some hope in last year's resounding defeat of the republic proposition.
Work/Time/Life: @work in the e-century
Marian Baird takes stock of how far we’ve come, or not come, in terms of our working life.
Review: Rocking the Foundations
Pat Fiske's wonderful documentary on the BLF should be compulsory viewing for anyone in the union movement talking about shifting to an Organising Model.
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