In 1950s Australia, building workers were typical of many casual workers, their trades divided amongst different migrant nationalities speaking different languages and their union run by gangsters in the pockets of the bosses. Yet in just over a decade, the Building Workers Federation in Australia, particularly around Sydney, showed us all how to organise both at work and in the wider movements.
Their story is an inspiration to any trade unionist frustrated by their leadership or the pretend divide between economic and political issues. Their achievements in the course of a few years have rightly become the stuff of legend – as well as books, a film and even a rap song.
A Democratic Union
Building up rank & file organisation
In the early 1950s, a few members of the Communist Party launched a strategy of winning the union away from the control of what were little more than gangsters in the pockets of the bosses. They built up rank and file organisation slowly – after 18 months they organised their first public meeting. Joe Ferguson, one of the organisers remembers “I think we had 15 people there, about 5 of them Party members, 10 rank and file members.” It was another 6 years before they were able to stand for union positions.
“The Hoist” A Rank & File paper
The union had no paper, but the rank and file group produced their own paper. “The Hoist” every few weeks. They had to keep production & distribution secret from management and the union! Such a paper was vital to bringing information, ideas, and militants together. “We started to build up organisation where we had delegates on the job, blokes giving out the Hoist… we were self-sufficient……..The main thing was to get the Hoist round the jobs. Also we used to go and see a lot of blokes on the weekend. The BWIU used to give us the names of delegates who weren’t bad blokes, and we used to go round and see them on the weekend, have a yarn with them. We built up the organisation that way. It was just a lot of patient work”
Election of all officers, for no more than two 3 years terms
The officials of other unions, who were fearful of losing their comfortable sinecures if such ideas were allowed to take root, had real trouble with this. There’s a hilarious moment in the film below where a long standing union official explains why the working class’s “experts” should essentially have jobs for life.
Officers paid the average building labourers wage, or just strike pay in a strike
Again, unimaginable for trade union officials globally, even amongst British left union leaders, yet an essential feature of democratic representative trade unions often seen at high points in working class struggle.
No matey relationship with the bosses
The BLF recognised that various pressures pulled union organisers away from the members, including the lifestyle. As well as keeping the same pay and hours as their members, they ensured the union-hall always had an open-door policy, with officials on hand to give help and advice. As for the bosses lifestyle, one organiser said after a sit-in “The only time I eat the boss’s lunch is when I steal it”. As Jack Mundey, New South Wales BLF secretary explains, these policies were vital to ensuring mass-participation because they “broke down the barrier between officials and workers”. As well as insisting on hiring union workers, essentially removing the bosses from the hiring and firing process; and deciding what would and wouldn’t be built, on some sites workers even started electing their own foremen.
Mass meetings to debate and decide all actions
With 11,000 members in Sydney, meetings of two or three thousand would debate then decide branch policy on industrial issues such as spreading strikes to more political issues detailed below
Levies of members across the state to support workers in any local strike
Each workplace was entitled to decide to strike themselves. They didn’t ask officials if they could; they told them to build support. Which they did! Each local dispute could afford to resist bosses attempts to starve the labourers back to work as members at other sites supported financial levies knowing it could be their turn next. This helped ensure a series of sectional victories around Sydney, showing everyone the effectiveness of militant trade unionism.
“Vigilantes” to enforce the decisions of the majority against scabs
With the bosses prepared to use the police, security guards and scab labour, the builders organised their own muscle when necessary – much to the outrage of polite opinion in Sydney
Translators at mass meetings to ensure full participation of non-English speakers
Many jobs were divided according to the nationality of different more recent migrants – mainly Greeks, Italians, Yugoslavs and Portuguese. By the 1960s up to 70% of building labourers were foreign born. Often not speaking good English they were potentially easy prey for bullying bosses attempting divide and rule tactics. The union understood this danger and did its best to have translators at all meetings and to encourage non-English speakers to make their voice heard.
Political Trade Unionism : Workers and the Movements
Perhaps even more inspiring than the rank & file activity central to union life was the willingness of the New South Wales BLF to take effective action over issues generally seen as “political”, either not relevant to the direct interests of union members. In the 1970s, building labourers, even Austalian ones, were not generally seen as the vanguard of fighting for women’s rights, never mind gay rights and aboriginal rights. But that’s what the BLF did, and not by top-down political correctness. Each political issue was discussed and voted on at mass meetings.
Fighting for womens right to work in a male dominated industry
The BLF are possibly the only union in history that fought for women workers to have the right to do the same job as the men, for the same pay, and for women to get involved in the union. Denise Bishop was elected to the union and executive and became possibly the first female organiser of a construction union in the world.And Pat Fiske, a woman BLF activist, went on to make the moving film about the BLF linked below. As well as BLF women getting together to oppose sexism, the BLF used “Green Bans” to against Sydney University in support of the campaign for a Womens’ Studies course
Defending the Environment with Strike Action
The BLF membership were won over to the idea of fighting not just for better conditions at work but a better living environment for everybody once they’d left work. This is what made the BLF famous. When local people campaigned to save an old building, a park, a local beauty spot, or working class communities they would ask the builders who were due to do the demolition and “regeneration” to refuse to work. This “blacking”, or “black bans” eventually became known as “green bans”. At one point there were over 40 such Green Bans across Sydney, on projects worth £5Billion. And people in Sydney 40 years on can still enjoy parks and buildings once threatened with destruction.
Saving Working Class Communities
As Central Sydney’s planners hoped for more and more motorways and glass & concrete office blocks. Often this meant the total destruction of working class communities, or at the least its vandalism by motorways. Part of the motivation for Green Bans here was keeping low cost housing, for low paid, immigrant and Aboriginal people. Sometimes, residents and builders would battle with police and scabs for weeks.
After a student was expelled from Maquarie University, despite the homophobic culture widespread in 1970s Australia, the BLF “blackbanned” work on a Maquarie University hall of residence until the university backed down and lifted the expulsion. Which they did!
While the strike is one form of direct action, the BLF were happy to let members’ imagination give union organising a bit of flair. Something today’s Unite Community Branches seem to be keen to emulate. For example, when one group of workers wanted to make a point about the crappy showers provided by management, they built their own showers on the Town Hall steps and had their showers there! And when Apartheid Rugby arrived in Australia to mass opposition and pitch invasions, one BLF official ended up named as Australia’s “most unpatriotic person” after using his hacksaw to try and saw down the Springboks goal post!
Despite the eventual defeat of the union in the mid 1970s, the impact of their actions and ideas are still with us. Australian unions are still at the forefront of taking action to defend the planet – such as stopping uranium “yellowcake” exports, stopping an oil pipeline through environmentally sensitive areas, and banning imports of rainforest wood.
Whether they were movementist, or just following the natural course of political trade unionism during an upturn in class struggle I will leave for others to debate. But their legacy in the form of the film, rap song and articles below deserves to be spread even more widely.
Film “Rocking the Foundations”
Hopefully, this summary will have whetted your appetite for more inspiring stories. The best place to go for this is Pat Fiske‘s award winning documentary of the whole story. Inspiring and unforgettable, it combines interviews with all the major participants with news footage, cartoons and narrative. It must have done the lefty/union film showings when it was made in 1985, but it deserves much wider viewing.
If just a fraction of this blog’s readers give up 80 minutes to watch it, then writing this piece will have been worth it.
It looks like these rappers are young Trotskyists. Not quite Immortal Technique but its got to be seen!
Finally, unlike with my blog post on the North sea Oil Workers Union OILC, there’s penty of material out there on the BLF, much of it on line.
Former International Socialist Tendency’s Tom O’Lincoln’s history of the Communist Party of Australia contains a chapter with good details. (Jack Mundey and others were members of the CPA. Bizarrely part of their problem was that the other unions were run by other Communist Parties – either more pro-Soviet or Maoist. As Joe Owens, BLF organiser commented, “With the Sino-Soviet dispute, every time the tanks moved up to the border, you could rely on a demarcation dispute in Pitt Street or Flinders Street”
The Socialist Party Australian co-thinkers have produced this detailed history of how the BLF built up rank and file organisation in the 50s and 60s.
And Solfed give a good detailed account of the BLF’s main battles for green space and housing here.
Thanks to Jack of Brighton Solfed, who’s facebook posting of the film started me off on this journey.