||Year End 2006|
Interview: The Terminator
Industrial: Vive La Resistance
Unions: Breaking News
History: Seven Deadly Sins
Economics: Back to the Future
Politics: Organising and Organisations
International: Web Retrospective
Review: Shock Therapy
All the Best
Organising and Organisations
Unions are rediscovering the crucial ways organising links into various social issues and industrial campaigns. Unions themselves have to be re-organised to focus on the wider community as a way of involving members and potential in social action and of getting to join and be involved in the union.
The BLF in NSW from the 1960s to the late 1970s was the world leader in community and union interaction. Jack Mundey was one of the key officials through the dramatic role that the union played in shaping Sydney and in awakening society to the importance of the natural and built environment. The battles the reformers of the BLF (before Jack Mundey) went through to even get the union to act on the appalling conditions on building sites were huge and dangerous. Those battles could have left them exhausted once they gained union office but thankfully for the environment and the people it was merely the beginnings of their actions that rocked the foundations of power in the construction industry and politics.
Paul True is the best historian of the building unions and his short, very readable "Tales of the BLF..." is based on interviews with many union members and officials as well as news reports of the time.
From the 1940s through the 1950s Fred Thomas ran the BLF. He was big strong man and his physical strength was used mainly against unionists rather than bosses. Ron Monaghan a Building Workers Industrial Union organiser of the time commented to True that Thomas used to say 'Should we have the fight first or should we have the meeting first?'
Thomas was a keen organiser according to Monaghan. The Snowy Mountains Scheme was gearing up then and Thomas charged up and organised the workers, an area that the AWU though they covered. The trouble was that Thomas then returned to Sydney and lost all the dues in a two-up game.
Curiously Thomas accession to the top of the BLF in NSW came in the same way Jack Mundey, Joe Owens and others were removed from the BLF - by federal intervention. The union was in a bad way from the 1930s Depression and in 1940 federal officials changed the locks on the NSW office and removed the old officials. Thomas gained control after this. Keith Jessop who joined the BLF in 1941 described conditions and abuse of the award:
"The industry was in a very bad way in relation to amenities, conditions and awards. There was little or no mechanization...Brickies and Plasterers were looked after by hod carriers, and all steel reinforcement was bent on site... There was no payment for public holidays, there was no wet weather pay, no annual leave or no sick leave..."
Thomas consolidated his leadership after the war by emphasising division between workers, not unity. He argued for BLF workers rights against those of skilled tradesmen by claiming tradesmen were doing labourers jobs and that tradesmen looked down on labourers. He also pointed to the facts of labourers being conscripts during the war whilst often tradesmen were exempted. In division lay his strength.
That was fine for building up membership and his personal support but when it came to conditions for members he let them down. He did not actively join the 40 hour week campaign as the BWIU did and urged shop stewards to refrain from active participation on the issue.
Communism and Militancy
The politics of it was the core problem for Thomas. He was vehemently anti-communist and the BWIU was a communist led union. He was trotted out by the mainstream press when they needed an anti-communist quote. The Master Builders were actively seeking to deregister communist-affiliated unions at the time. This was at the onset of cold war politics and the CPA membership had risen to record levels during the war. The threat seemed real to the bosses.
Despite all this Thomas had to maintain militancy (as opposed to radicalism) because there was much social turmoil in Australia. He was involved in disputes over pay and conditions at the same time as he sought to uproot communist influence in the BLF around Australia.
Communist Party members did not succumb to his threats and intimidation and the organizing tactics developed by unionists and the CPA were crucial to maintaining a core rank and file opposed to the leadership.
Thomas did not help his own cause by the way that he expressed annoyance with all members through the pages of the union journal. He told them not to pull stoppages and them expect the union officials to come on site and to "not ask organisers silly questions" when they appeared on a job. Racism was also evident. Many migrant workers arrived in Australia following the war (many of whom Thomas would have signed up on the Snowy) but in the union journal he would use sub-headings such as "No Not 'Onnerstan'" and "New Australians...want everything for nothing."
The Rank and File lift their Heads
Rank and file activism had its origins in the early 1950s. Joe Ferguson was working on the Holdsworthy Barracks. He noticed the difference between the way the BWIU operated on site. The BLF organiser was a rare site whilst the BWIU had people at least once a fortnight and often more. He saw the CPA seeking to change this. The CPA found Ferguson, Ray O'Shannassy and Tommy Quinn willing and able to set up small groups. Thomas sought to stop them. The work was slow. They took 18 months before they held the first rank and file meeting with about 15 people turning up. Harry Connell came along through the CPA and later on Jack Mundey.
A key incident that gave some momentum to the group was a joint action at Goodyear's when the BLF and the BWIU sought wet weather pay. They succeeded but Thomas did not like the joint approach.
The impact of the rank and file militancy was seen through the abuse that was heaped upon them in the union journal.
The rank and filers did not seek to contest union elections until 1958, an illustration of the legal, physical and bureaucratic opposition they faced in the union and an example to those who today demand general strikes before the key task of educating, agitating and organising have been done.
The 1955 strike in the City as construction companies sought to get going after the lull in activity caused by the war and the Depression was a moment that caused a great deal of dissent from Thomas. Workers demanded wet weather pay, weekly hiring and public holiday pay. The boom times gave workers a strong position because of skill shortages. The results of various stoppages did win improvements but Thomas did the deal that benefited workers not at all. Thomas was seen to betray workers by agreeing without a written agreement with the Master Builders who refused to pay for a few years.
61% of workers were in unions in NSW in 1956 and strikes rocked many industries with or without communist influence. Industrial Groupers (fiercely anti-Communist) were just as likely to control militant unions as were the CPA.
Joe Ferguson saw the rank and file becoming really established at a site in St Marys in 1956. Jack Mundey turned up on this job and joined the rank and filers. He saw Joe Ferguson and Harry Connell as crucial to getting an active union. Conditions were appalling on sites and Mundey saw the drive for improvements in these as a base for the rank and filers to roll the right.
"You would come on the job and you were lucky if you fond a nail to hang your clothes on. There would be one tap outside the dressing shed, practically no soap, and the first fight was to get hot water. There were no tables and no chairs to sit on in the breaks. The toilets would be old pans, often in filthy condition. The sheds were filled with cement. Nobody was detailed to look after hygiene or other amenities. If workers raised their voices on behalf of those basic decencies, they would be sacked that same day."
The union approach to this tended to be to bash up the militant workers who sought to help members.
Thomas had the "assistance" of some gents from the Jimmy Sharman Boxing Shows who backed his leadership in their spare time. However he was on the way out. He took 6 months leave of absence in 1957 and never returned. He apparently was later an employer industrial officer.
The official union elections were not due for 18 months but Thomas had vacated office halfway through a term. Organiser "Banjo" Patterson won the temporary job by a three to one margin. He wasn't a part of the rank and file group but was seen as a good bloke. He also saw the way the wind was blowing and had to decide to go with it or against it. He went with it.
The union ran a safety campaign in the Sydney area and the Master Builders did not like the new approach of the BLF. They started using the penal clauses in the arbitration system. Their abuse of the new attitude had a ear in the union still as although the right had lost key posts they had not disappeared. They sought to dismiss the new officials (unsuccessfully) but complained about job losses caused by the increased industrial action. At the same time Mundey was promoted within the union by Harry Connell as part of the rank and file push.
Things to Come
An important foretaste of hat was to come occurred in December 1957. 30 BLF members answered a summons to a woman's flat in East Sydney and chased off a dozen people who had begun demolishing it. They were angry that the dwellings were to be demolished to make room for a car yard. The core of the green bans is in that action.
The 1958 union election was thus a blow to the rank and filers. The unions conducted their own elections at the time and thus whoever appointed the returning officer was in a strong position. Unfortunately for the rank and filers, the right got their man, an SP bookie into the job and the right won the ballot by a 2-1 majority. It was known that the ballot was rigged but the left was opposed to court controlled ballots so did not seek to overturn the result. This it was back to square one.
But not quite. The groundwork begun by Ferguson and others in the early 1950s did not disappear under the new secretary Bill Bodkin who was a racehorse owner and who never worked in the industry. The power behind the throne lay with Jack Wishart, an ex-Trotskyite and connected with many on the shadier side of Sydney life.
He was even more contemptuous of the members than Thomas because of his close connections with owners, managers and politicians. The unrest lead to the formation of a breakaway union for a brief period until it failed its registration because the BLF argued they had coverage of the occupations the breakaway sough to cover. It had about 500 members which was fairly sizable considering that it was estimated that BLF membership had shrunk to only 2500 by 1959.
Jack Mundey says he survived this period with work on small sites which did not allow him time to engage in rank and file work. It did save him from attacks by the union heavies though.
The right itself began to split in 1959 which paved the way for reform. Bodkin and co never had much skill in organising workers, only organising ballots. Mundey later saw the period of their leadership as a blessing in disguise for the CPA and the rank and file as the Cold War atmosphere at the time would have been used against a communist leadership in a very heavy handed way. By the time they gained control of the BLF social change was underway and their approach was at the head of the new social consciousness.
Technological Change and the BLs
The industry changed a lot from the early 1960s too. The height limit on city buildings was lifted, an construction techniques changed. This meant the jobs of BLs changed too and the skills base was altered in a way that impacted on skilled trades as well as labourers. This gave workers a new confidence and control.. The right continued to campaign against the communists but it was the end in sight for them. Winter was opposed to Bodkin and had the Groupers support. But the ALP and the CPA ran joint tickets in the 1960s that were aimed squarely at such links and with the right divided amongst themselves a new era was arriving.
The rank and file ticket in 1961 thus had the rank and file group, a group around Terry Foster and the Bodkin group. News Weekly (The Groupers mouthpiece) railed against the rank and filers aiming at the name Jack Mundey on the ticket, clearly seeing the CPA link as a weakness. Mick McNamara was chosen to stand for secretary on the rank and file ticket. The results saw him elected over Bodkin by 720 votes to 187 for Bodkin. He was 22. The union was broke and the industry undergoing massive upheaval. The new team was inheriting a mess and what was practically a new industry with new skills. The rise of this team which maintained its rank and file base until the federal BLF intervened in the 1970s remains an inspiration to all union officials, organisers and activists.
Tragically the CPA, which had been a key player in helping unionists gain confidence and organising ability then tore itself apart and the splits within the declining party were a factor in the demise of the progressive role of the union and a decline in progressive politics in Australia.
Environment, unions, citizens, humanity
The BLs became the toast of the workers movement throughout the world. They civilized the industry and reunited trade unions with the community from whence they came. The aim was to "prevent the plunder" of workers time for quick profits at the expense of the social needs of the community. Environmentalists and unions should reacquaint themselves with these actions as the Right of today seek to divide workers around the issue of coal mining and greenhouse gases whilst diverting them from the key role workers need to play in saving humanity from the destruction the sorts of gases coal produces. The few seek to maintain and gain more power at the expense of our humanity. As Jack Mundey has written:
"the task of achieving a sustainable society, with a human face, an ecological heart and an egalitarian body requires a massive joint effort by environmentalists and the organized working classes."
Paul True (1995). Tales of the BLF...Rolling the Right! The battle of the Builders Labourers Rank and File in NSW 1951-1964 (Parramatta: Militant Publications)
Jack Mundey (1981) Green Bans and Beyond (Sydney: Angus and Robertson)
Jack Mundey (1988). Preventing the Plunder in Staining the Wattle: A Peoples History of Australia since 1788 (Fitzroy, Vic: McPhee Gribble)
Meredith and Verity Burgmann (1998). Green Bans Red Union (UNSW Press)
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