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Saturday, 13 January 2018

A brief springtime of militant unionism that put a brake on unbridled development

In December I reviewed the book Meredith Burgmann wrote with her sister Verity, ‘Green Bans Red Union,’ about the activities of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation in the late-60s and early-70s. The book had come out in a second edition in 2017. But I had some questions arising from my reading of it, so I organised to interview the author, who kindly invited me to her home. This interview also touches on questions deriving from my research into Sydney brutalist buildings, which often relates to the same epoch Meredith Burgmann’s book deals with.

MdS: Ok, [the voice recorder is] running. So just to recap a little bit about the book, you wrote this book as a PhD dissertation but how did you originally get involved with the BLF?

Well I became involved because I’d been very involved with the anti-Vietnam stuff and that had led into the anti-Apartheid activity in the very early 70s and late 60s. So, I already knew Jack [Mundey] and Joe [Owens] and Bob [Pringle] and Tom Hogan and Tony Hatfield and people like that, the leadership of the Builders Labourers. And as you know Glebe was going to be trifurcated, there was going to be two big expressways coming through Glebe and I lived down in Darghan Street, Glebe, which would have been totally in the way of it all. Funnily enough that wasn’t really the main reason I got involved, although I was obviously involved with the anti-expressway campaign with other Glebe residents. And even in the founding of the Glebe Society.

But really my attachment to the Builders Labourers was I could see what they were doing and how important it was. And it wasn’t just their action on the environment, it was their action on women, on the rights of gays and lesbians, very much Aboriginal land rights stuff. And a lot of the left in Sydney sort of moved on naturally to supporting the Builders Labourers because the activity around Vietnam – once Australia had removed the troops and things – that sort of tailed off. So it was sort of a natural fit if you were interested in radical activity, to be supportive of the Builders Labourers. And once I got involved with them, I became interested in what wasn’t at all trendy then, which was preservation of … Environmentalism around buildings and public space.

MdS: Heritage.

Yeah. Well not even just heritage. Around town planning sort of issues, too, and liveability.

MdS: Amenity.

Yeah. Heritage of course was terribly important, but it was a lot about what was happening which was cleaning the working class out of the inner city. (Might I say it was something we failed in, to stop that.) So, I became interested in those issues for the first time. I hadn’t really even thought about [them]. Because in the late 60s we didn’t talk about environmentalism, we talked about “ecology”, and ecology really meant saving forests and rivers, it really meant “nature”. And I remember when I first met Jack [Mundey], him quizzing me about, “Oh, do you support the nature people?” or something, because he already saw that important distinction between [on the one hand] what would be a traditional Greens point of view and [on the other hand] the idea of defending public space and defending liveable lifestyles and things, which is now very much the fight in the inner city, [where] it’s all about overdevelopment and things [like that]. So I just became very interested in that and I ended up with all the Builders Labourers archives in my house.

MdS: Yes, how did that happen?

Well, they were given 24 hours to vacate the premises.

MdS: At Trades Hall?

[They were in Trades Hall room 33. Federal BLF secretary Norm] Gallagher was coming in and he was going to take over all their records and everything, and would have totally rewritten history. So they really had 24 hours. So half of the records ended up in my front room, which was quite a little front room, smaller than this [pointing to the room in which we sat for the interview]. And I had boxes of them in my front room for some years. And the other half ended up in the basement of the Sussex Hotel and the publican there was a lovely woman called Stella, who said that was alright. So when I did eventually go and retrieve the other half of the archives they had sort of beer and stuff [on them], they weren’t in very good condition. So eventually I ended up with all the archives.

I was originally doing my PhD in a foreign policy area, it was on Indonesian-Australian relations, because my masters had been in foreign policy. And it was my boss, Don Aitken, who suggested to me I really should do the Builders Labourers. It had never occurred to me to do the Builders Labourers. But he said, “Look, you’ve got all the archives, you knew what they were about and everything,” and so that was when I changed and started to do the Builders Labourers. And I’m very glad he advised me to change.

MdS: It was very foresightful.

Yes. And I think I’d not done it simply because it was all too emotionally raw for me, I was still so angry with the fact that the Stalinists and the Maoists had combined to do over the independent Communist Party grouping in the Builders Labourers. And yeah, so that’s how it happened. And after I finished with the archives, most of them I gave to the Noel Butlin Archives [Centre at ANU] in Canberra, which is – I think its proper name is the Labour and Industry Archives, or something. It’s the appropriate place for them to be, although Joe Owens’ papers I think are in [the] Mitchell [Library in Sydney]. I don’t know where Jack’s putting his. But I’ve still got a lot of the important stuff, which I will eventually properly catalogue and get down to Noel Butlin, because as you know no archives are useful now unless they’re properly catalogued because the archives have not enough money to do it themselves.

So that’s the story of how I ended up doing the PhD, and I have remained friends with all the leadership of the Builders Labourers, except they just keep dying. It wasn’t an industry where guys looked after themselves. So that’s the story of how I became interested in buildings and [things].

MdS: So the book sort of charts the course of the BLF from about 1969 when the leadership of the BLF was revitalised with Jack Mundey and Joe Owens and Bob Pringle coming in until the middle of 1975 when the BLF was deregeistered.

Yes. Well, no. Not when they were deregistered, because deregistration doesn’t stop anything. It’s only a problem if the other unions in the building industry don’t support them, and the fact that the BWIU basically tied themselves up with the bosses and said that they would walk in on builders labourers’ work. So I still blame the BWIU as well as Gallagher, for what happened.

MdS: So they weren’t deregistered in 1975?

Well they were deregistered but that in itself wouldn’t have been a problem because deregistered unions can keep operating as long as long as the other unions in the industry respect their work. But the other unions in the industry were too quick, they just moved in on them. And so it was the federal takeover in 1975 that we sort of finish at.

MdS: And then of course after that Askin in the same year lost the election … Was it 1975 or 76.

I think it was 76.

MdS: And then Wran came in. And so Wran implemented all these new laws to protect heritage and to make sure that development was responsibly done. So the legacy of the BLF was very much alive still in those early pieces of legislation.

Absolutely. And what has only become clear to me quite recently is how close the relationship between Jack Mundey and Neville Wran was. They actually really liked each other and sought out each other’s company. It was quite clear that those early environmental laws – which were so important – were the direct result of the Builders Labourers’ activity. And the building of the Sirius [building] was the direct result of an agreement between Jack [Mundey] and Neville [Wran].

MdS: So Neville Wran built the Sirius building?

Yes. It was an agreement that purpose-built public housing would be built by the Wran government in The Rocks area because what Jack was always talking about – and what the Builders Labourers were on about – was the community. He kept saying, “Yes, it’s important to save the beautiful old buildings, but if you’re without a working class community in Millers Point and The Rocks you’ve changed that area forever.”

MdS: And Woolloomooloo as well.

Very much so. And the Glebe. You see, you have Whitlam coming in in 72 with a very advanced minister for urban and regional development, with Tom Uren – because it’s Tom who buys all this area [in Glebe], this was all the church estate except for just a few houses like this one [pointing at the room] that had been sold by the church – but the 900 houses around here were all bought by the Commonwealth Government and made into a commonwealth public housing scheme. Which I think it was the only one in Australia. And eventually when Neville Wran gets in in 76 they handed over to the Wran government, so it becomes more or less normal Housing Department. But if you look at Woolloomooloo and The Rocks and Glebe, it’s very much about keeping the working class in the inner city, and it’s an arrangement between Labor governments and the Builders Labourers.

MdS: Not only that but there was also the Eastern Suburbs Expressway that was going to go to Bondi Junction, too, wasn’t there?

Yes. The thing that really got the eastern suburbs people involved was the encroachment on Centennial Park, because that was going to be a big sporting facility.

MdS: With a carpark and a swimming pool.

Yes. And that was when Patrick White and people like that got involved. The eastern expressway … I can’t even remember where it was going to go.

MdS: It’s sort of hard to visualise because all of those suburbs would have been impacted, Darlinghurst and Paddington.

That’s right, yeah. I think it was a bit of a thought bubble rather than [a plan].

MdS: There seems to have been at that time in the 70s … As I’ve been looking into the records of individual buildings I keep on coming across instances where they’ve been thinking about city planning more generally and there seems to have been some sort of idea about facilitating access of motor vehicles into the city, and putting up big carparks around the place. They were going to turn the QVB into a carpark at one stage.

No, they were going to pull it down! Which was even worse.

MdS: it’s crazy, right? But there seems to have been this … They were caught up in modernity in a way which they couldn’t think clearly about the priorities and how people really should be using the city. And public transport didn’t seem to be really important to them.

I agree with that, that they weren’t. But also the late 60s, early 70s is when so-called “hot money” was just pouring into Australia. It was something to do with our interest rates and their interest rates in America. So a huge amount of American investment came into Australia and so every man and their dog was trying to put up a multi-storey building with this money. It comes first of all to Sydney. So you get the Sydney building boom starting five to seven years earlier than the Melbourne building boom, which is why you have what happened to the Builders Labourers here, this huge increase in membership and everything from the late 60s on.

But then you have the weakening in the building industry in 75 at exactly the time when the Builders Labourers were coming under pressure. And at that time, the Melbourne building boom is taking off, so you’ve got a strong and growing federal union under Gallagher – because they’re based down in Melbourne – he’s the Melbourne secretary but also the federal secretary. And that’s one of the reasons they were able to come in and take over in NSW, because there was a huge downturn in the industry in 75.

MdS: In Sydney?

Yes.

MdS: The other thing that struck me is that in 1959 there was a change to the maximum height that buildings could be constructed in Sydney, from 100 feet to another height. I’ve read a history of city planning in Sydney and there was always this conflict between the state government and town hall over who should be in control of planning.

What’s new?

MdS: It’s the same today. But people who wanted to put up office buildings in the time that we’re talking about, in the early 70s, had to not only talk to the city council but they also had to talk to the state planning department, as well. And there was this thing called the Height of Buildings [Advisory Committee] which …

Well that changes in the mid-60s, at one stage. Because that’s why you get the height of the buildings down at [Circular] Quay suddenly going up. I think it’s the AMP building which is the first tall building.

MdS: Which is heritage listed now.

Yeah! But it was the first of the multi-storey buildings. The importance of the coming of the multi-storey buildings is that feeds into the strength of the BLF.

MdS: Because it was their types of trades which benefited from that type of construction.

It’s their type of trades, less tradesmen and more labourers. But also just having a big bunch of people on a building site is good for all unionism. It means instead of going out to Oatley and picking up one member in one street, you’ve got 400 blokes on … like the [former] Qantas [International] building was a hugely important site. And they just picked up X-number of members in no time at all.

MdS: I’ll be writing about the Qantas building. It’s owned by someone else now but it’s a beautiful building on George Street.

So do you see that as brutalist?

MdS: Yes.

As I say, I’m not an architect, [but] I wouldn’t have thought of it as brutalist. I’ve always liked the Qantas building.

MdS: It’s just amazing.

But it was a very, very active union site and very important in that early-70s period.

MdS: So what was it about the technology that came in in the 60s and 70s that was different to what happened before. Why were they suddenly able to build these buildings much taller?

I really know how it affected the unions, in that previously you built a reasonably-sized building and you had a brickie and you had a carpenter and you had an electrician and all that sort of thing. With the new height levels and the new technology, a lot of it was prefabbed offsite and a lot of it was about prestressed concrete and things like that. A lot of the work is Builders Labourers’ work. And if you’re prefabbing stuff offsite and bringing it in that’s all Builders Labourers work, because dogmen – a huge increase in the number of dogmen needed …

MdS: They go up on the crane.

Well, they used to go up on the crane but then they managed to stop that because there were huge numbers of deaths. So the nature of the work with the new building styles just meant that there were more labourers and that they were massed in certain buildings.

MdS: So that gave them more influence.

It allowed the union to organise easily and therefore gave them more strength. And it actually caused issues with the BWIU, the tradesmen’s union, because the BWIU saw itself as losing influence. And if you look at the 1971 – which [year] was the margins strike? There was the accident pay strike in 70 and the margins strike was 71. The margins strike was very important in the whole story because the BWIU hated it.

MdS: Because they thought they were better, they didn’t want to be paid the same amount as the Builders Labourers.

If you actually look at the margins in the building industry … I once did a fanciful piece where I took it back 500 years to the journeymen and then the masters and everything in the 1500s, and it was pretty much the same margin as what you had in 1970. So for the Builders Labourers to flex their muscle and make that difference and end up reducing the [pay] margin [between skilled and unskilled trades] was very distressing for the BWIU. And they behaved terribly. And can I say, that’s one of the reasons I get so angry with Lee Rhiannon because she supported them and she was in the party that was the support base for the BWIU. And they opposed every single green ban. And now she pretends she’s the mistress of the green bans. She opposed every one! That’s just rewriting of history. So the BWIU was very, very pee’d off by what happened.

MdS: Over the margins strike.

And also of course the fight within the Communist Party [of Australia] was important.

MdS: Yes, you touched on it briefly in the book, but can you talk a little bit more about what happened to the Communist Party at that point in time, in the late-60s?

Well the Maoists had sort of broken off in about 1961, and [were] very weak in Sydney, hardly existed, [but] strong in Melbourne. So there you have Ted Hill, the leader of the Maoists and Norm Gallagher and people around him who all became Maoists. And interestingly the student movement down there was also quite Maoist, you know you have the Monash Maoists who are still talked about. So Maoism is quite important in Melbourne, I can’t even remember any Maoist characters in Sydney.

So then you have the Communist Party coming up through the 60s. You have the party moving more and more into – it’s almost like Trump calls them “identity politics” – you have them becoming interested in gay rights, women’s rights, very much Aboriginal rights, the anti-Apartheid stuff. They’re moving into that sort of area and you have some of the old – particularly, mainly older blokes – saying, “No, no, it’s about Russia and socialism” and all this sort of thing. So you have tensions happening.

And in 1968 with the invasion of Czechoslovakia you have the party declaring – [the CPA was] the first Communist Party in the world to oppose the invasion of Czechoslovakia – and I in fact was lucky to be part of history, I was at a demo against the invasion and a group of about three or four were elected to go down to Communist Party headquarters and sit outside in the little room to find out what CPA’s position on Czechoslovakia was. And I can even remember Laurie Aarons and some of the others – you could hear them talking loudly on the phone and everything – I thought he was probably talking to Russia but it turns out later he was talking to the other state branches, because NSW basically led the position to oppose the invasion. So then of course you’ve got all mayhem.

So from 68 to 71 you have the Communist Party in the middle of a split where the old Stalinists break off, and by 71 they form the Socialist Party of Australia.

MdS: So the old Stalinists are the ones who support the invasion of Czechoslovakia?

Yes, of course. You know, mother Russia’s always right. And of course the BIWU officials are all SPA and the BLF officials are all Communist Party of Australia (but I always think of them as the independent Communist Party).

MdS: So the CPA got involved in the counterculture issues of the 60s and 70s and moved off in that direction whereas the SPA was more sort of mired in the past and was aligned with the BWIU. So that fed later tensions between the two unions?

Very much so. There was a deadly fight going on within the Communist Party – would they forsake Mother Russia? It was all about Russia. It was also almost a bit generational. The old guys were sticking to Mother Russia and the class struggle. They opposed all the green bans for being “Left adventurism”, and not part of the class struggle. Which of course, a lot of the green bans were about class, they were about keeping working class communities and making it about lifestyle.

And I remember some of the green bans that were actually opposed in the end … There was a proposed green ban on I think Diamond Bay swimming pool, it was a swimming pool in the eastern suburbs, and I remember all the old guys in the Builders Labourers going, “Oh, let the ruling class look after themselves.” So there was still very much a class view of what we were doing.

MdS: In the book you quickly proceed through all that, you don’t spell it out in too much detail so I really wanted to ask you about that. What I’m really interested in is the way that the industry changed and how the BLF just for a sudden springtime of activism was able to really exert an influence on the broader society that had never really happened before. And it only happened for a few years, didn’t it?

Well part of it we’ve talked about, which was the technological changes that gave them a lot more power within the industry. Second was that there was a building boom, and you have so much more power in a building boom because you know that if you make a demand and the boss says “No” you can go out and get another job. So they worked women in on sites and demanded better amenities and all sorts of things. The third this was, what I call the zeitgeist. You know, in the late-60s and early-70s – I’m writing a book on it at the moment actually – generally people believed that the women’s movement, it’s time had come and that Aboriginal [issues had too] – you know, we started talking about Aboriginal rights for the first time ever! No one ever cared! And you’ve got to keep remembering that in 67 they were still taking kids away because, “You have to breed out the colour.”

It was the New Left. I’ve always thought of the Builders Labourers as being a New Left union. They really [were]. And all the stuff that the New Left was on about in terms of democracy like limited tenure of office, very much a New Left view, but of course made very famous by Jack Mundey, participatory democracy, you know, letting everyone have a say, no distinction between officials and workers, so the officials were paid the same as the workers, they were on a leading-hand, foreman’s rate or something. They didn’t get paid when there was an industry strike. Big differences between them and other unions.

And at the actual general meetings where – like, a green ban had to be ok’d by a general meeting, so there were endless general meetings and they were very boring because they were translated into sometimes up to elevens languages, because it was even more multicultural than it would be now, and they insisted on having non-English-speaking-background officials, they had women officials, they have a couple of Aboriginal officials. They really worked hard on carrying out what they were saying should happen.

MdS: And the other thing that really intrigues me was the technology. So the employers really hated the BLF’s ability to interrupt concrete pours. Why was a concrete pour so critical for the employers?

Because you can’t do it again. If a concrete pour gets interrupted you have to have someone come in and jackhammer all the stuff out.

MdS: So you have to remove that whole floor of the building?

Or if you’re doing a post or something. If you’re doing a big concrete post it has to all happen at the same time.

MdS: So it’s really time-critical?

Absolutely time-critical.

MdS: A the beginning of the day and the end of the day you’ve got the get all that pour completed in one day for each floor.

Yes. If you stop a concrete pour in the middle you have cost your boss a huge amount of money.

MdS: And they have to jackhammer the whole thing up?

Yes. You can’t just [say], “Oh, we’ll do the rest tomorrow.” So that was crucial. So one of the funny things was when the women making sweets at Darrell Lea or something came and talked – because everyone used to come to the Builders Labourers and ask for advice about stuff – and when the chocolate people discovered about the concrete pour they thought, “Oh, I wonder if we could stop a chocolate pour?” Chocolates don’t have to hold up buildings! Holding up a concrete pour was one of the most crucial weapons they had, but also the bosses knew that if the Builders Labourers said, “Ok, all out!” that was what happened. And that was why the breaking of the green bans – when you look at what happened up in Victoria street – that’s why there were kidnappings and murder happened, because only by bringing in the criminal elements could they actually break those bans. I mean Victoria Street’s a whole story in itself.

MdS: I bought ‘The Prince and the Premier’ and I started to read it, it was published in 1984 I think.

Is that the one about Thieman?

MdS: No, it’s about Galea and Askin. It’s just badly written. I think there’s a bit of an appetite about that period now because especially the younger generation, a lot of them are very politically activated and they really are curious about the roots and origins of all these things.

I have people coming … [The] week before [this] a woman came round who was writing something about Juanita [Nielsen]. Every couple of weeks someone wants to talk about that period, which is really good. And that’s why the book [‘Green Bans Red Union,’ written with sister Verity Burgmann] came out again, and it’s obviously selling all right.

By the way, a guy has digitised my thesis and it’s now available online. And it’s a lot more detailed about some of the stuff you’re asking about, especially there’s a very long bit which is – I put it in as the appendix within the thesis – but it’s really about leading up to 1968 and Jack taking over the union. So it’s a discussion about what happened in the unions in the building industry in the early-60s. So if you want that that’s on the Libertarian Communist website, www.libcom

MdS: And these days who does the BLF’s job. Is it the CFMEU?

Yes. It’s all CFMEU now. The CEPU, the plumbers, and some of the other trades, stayed out of the CFMEU, but all the labourers work there.

MdS: Is the BWIU still around?

No, it’s all part of the CFMEU. Some work which was always a bit of a demark, is still with the AWU. Often there were demarks between the AWU – like construction of a bridge or something – the AWU would say it was theirs and the Builders Labourers would say, “Well, some of it’s ours.” I remember one very funny demark which was about trees, who planted trees and these things. And if it was a tree up to there [indicating with her hand] it was AWU, if it was a tree bigger than that it was the BLF. But on the whole the AWU behaved very well in the strikes, and they did recognise BLF bans and things.

MdS: You mention this term, “body snatching”? Is that where a union comes in and takes members from other unions?

Yes. Body-snatching is basically when there’s a demark and one union … Mind you, each union calls it body-snatching if the other unions does it. But the other union will say, “No, no, we have coverage!” Because there’s so many unclear areas. But the body-snatching that I probably was referring to was when one union’s deregistered and other unions come in and take those members, that’s really body-snatching.

MdS: Also some of the roles you talk about on building sites. You talk about dogmen and nippers, what are some of the other typical Builders Labourers jobs on building sites?

Well, excavators.

MdS: On jackhammers?

Yeah. Steel-fixers. They’re the people for reinforced concrete. There was a separate union for the crane drivers, for the lofty crane drivers. The back-hoes was all Builders Labourers work.

MdS: What’s a “hoist”?

Hoist is when you’re sitting there and machinery is taking material up. Hoist driving was definitely a Builders Labourers thing. The women tended to go into hoist driving, they went and got their hoist drivers’ certificates and therefore were accredited Builders Labourers. Women liked doing that work and they were good at it. The big cranes were all a tiny little union called the FEDFA did that, but they were very involved with the Builders Labourers and totally supported them. But a lot of the other machinery was all Builders Labourers work.

MdS: There were a couple of interesting stories I came across in my researches. There was one building, 1 Oxford Street, on the corner of Wentworth Avenue, which is a brutalist building, it’s an office building now. And when it was being developed by Hooker they originally wanted to make a hotel and then they changed their mind – this was in 1973 – and decided to go with an office building. Then halfway through the negotiations the city council comes in and says to the developer, “We want you to put residences on floors 13 to 26,” and Hookers did everything they could to stop that happening. And it’s such a striking change from nowadays.

Because it was believed that people didn’t want to live in the city.

MdS: Only poor people lived in the city.

Certainly only poor people lived in towers. That’s a huge change. And if you look at the figures now I think apartment living has overtaken detached houses, yes. I’m not surprised.

MdS: There was another case on the T&G building at Hyde Park on the corner of Park Street and Elizabeth Street, there’s a big tower there, that’s a brutalist building. The city council always put in restrictions on the hours that workmen could actually operate equipment. Next door to that is the Park Regis, which was already there. And there was a woman who complained to the city council about noise on the construction site of the T&G building. And the city council inspector came to the T&G building site and found that there were a couple of what he called “new Australians” working on jackhammers and he complained to the site operator and apparently those workers were fired. A lot of those jobs …  People who didn’t speak English did the worst jobs, is that true?

Oh yeah. The guys on the jackhammers were almost always from non-English-speaking backgrounds. But that’s why the Builders Labourers had such huge emotional support, because they really were the first union to reach out to their migrant members, and really worked on it, and really – as I say – they had Yugoslav officials, Portuguese officials, a couple of Italian officials. They really tried hard and all this translation. And so at the big final meeting it was the migrant guys that were most upset and crying and everything, because their union had gone out of business.

MdS: They identified with it.

Very much. And probably the people on the lowest rung had gained the most from the various strikes and things. They were the ones that were getting better working conditions and better wages from it all. There was a lot of stratification. The Greeks did excavation, the Finns did steel-fixing, the Italians did all the cementing and all that sort of work, the Pommy migrants were all the dogmen. And it was a bit sort of mythology, but also a lot of it was true. I mean, people did sort of congregate in those sorts of areas.

MdS: Yeah, I think it’s a fascinating story. There’s so much that would have been destroyed. We really owe a debt of gratitude to people like Jack Mundey. I was talking to a woman whose husband was the architect who built the St Andrews House and she was saying that on Hunter Street there was a place called the Union Club which was torn down to build the Wentworth Sofitel. And she was saying that her husband was up on stage with Jack Mundey addressing the crowd because they wanted to preserve the old buildings. But the developer wanted to build this new thing.

One of the disgraces at the time – it was after the Builders Labourers had folded – was pulling down those old buildings in Martin Place to put up those rather ugly bank buildings there.

MdS: Now they’re doing the same thing with the 70s buildings. They’re pulling them down and putting up new buildings.

The other brutalist building that had a huge part in the Builders Labourers story was the UTS [Main] Building because that was being built – it was probably the biggest building that was going up in Sydney – at the time of the takeover in 75. And so the Builders Labourers did a crane sit-in from the top there and we used to go down each evening and the guys up in the crane – because they were up there for weeks – they’d swing the crane across – probably against all the occupational health and safety stuff – and they dropped the box down right from the top of [the building].

And they dropped the box down to Broadway and we’d pile all the food and everything in for them and then they’d go [up] again. And then we’d all go into the pub and drink and then a bit later the box’d come down again and some bloke’d come down because he had to go home and see his wife. It was terribly funny. But it was sort of the last holdout of the people who were loyal to the NSW Builders Labourers.

MdS: Why was the Qantas building so important?

Particular buildings became sort of hotspots of activity. Often it was to do with what individuals ended up there. Noel Olive was working there for most of the time and he was a very active unionist. He wasn’t an official, he was on the executive or something, but he wasn’t a full-time official. If you had someone who’d been thrown off another building site for militant behaviour, they’d all end up down at the Qantas building.

And you had a number of buildings that became sort of hotspots and sometimes it was because there was a bad boss and sometimes it was because it was a good boss. But it was through clumping of militants together. One of the other ones where there were a lot of militants was the towers in Redfern, the two [buildings].

MdS: The Endeavour Estate?

They called it TGI Towers or something when they were built. They’re not very tall towers.

MdS: Next to the station?

Yes. Those towers were also, they had a lot of militants on them. And in the early days, the AMP building down at the Quay had a lot of militants. And the UTS [Main] Building. It just seemed to be clumping. And of course the more militant activity they’d take the more people want to work there.

MdS: It generated a sort of esprit do corps, didn’t it? They rewarded people but they also got something back from them. It was a mutual relationship between the leadership and the membership, wasn’t it?

Very much so. The BLs liked to think of themselves as all the same thing and they wanted to reduce the membership and leadership [hierarchy]. And that’s where the going back on the tools when you finished – like Jack went back on the tools for a shortish time. So things like that were very important to them. Symbolically, and also in practice. Like they dressed exactly like builders labourers.

We forget, but union officials in those days all wore suits and ties. And even they had a bit of trouble going down to the [Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission] and having their mode of dress accepted by the commission. But they were very lucky because the member that had the building industry was Elizabeth [Andreas] Evatt [AO], who of course was about the most remarkable commissioner they could have had and she just totally accepted that they turned up in shorts and sneakers when the other people all turned up in suits and ties.


Above: Former NSW BLF Secretary Jack Mundey (left) shakes hands with City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore on 3 November 2016 on the day it was announced that crowd-funded legal action would be launched against the NSW government’s decision not to list the brutalist Sirius building on the State Heritage Register. From the book ‘Sirius’ written by John Dunn, Ben Peake and Amiera Piscopo. I wrote about the Sirius building on this blog in December.

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