How a union survives

“There are plenty of examples of socialists who are not Marxists; but to be a Marxist, you have to be a socialist” — H. McQueen

Contents

Introduction by Humphrey McQueen

1991 Victorian Branch Report [Builders Labourers Federation] by John Cummins

FINANCES

B.W.I.U.’s INTERNAL POSITION

OTHER BUSINESS

BRANCH OFFICIALS & STAFF

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Introduction

This document (John Cummins report to the Australian Builders Labourers Federation,

The man who carries the hod would be better if he shook off the man who lives by his wits

Federal Council, November 1991 – Victorian Branch Report) deserves to be pondered by every activist. That the particulars from twenty years ago are beside the point.

What matters is the analytical power John Cummins looked the realities of 1991 straight in the eye. He identified his own mistakes and misunderstandings. He laid out the options. He then pointed out how hard it was going to be to carry through the most demanding of those alternatives.

The virtue in this document today is as a test: how capable is each of us in making so insightful an appraisal of where we are individually, as a grouplet and as the aggregated Left.

It is worth adding that no sooner had Cummins delivered this report than everything got several times worse, thanks to the self-destruction of Federal/Victorian Secretary, Norm Gallagher. However, within six months, the Branch had pulled through and the stalwarts were taking its steps towards revival.

Would that have been possible without the tough mindedness of what follows?

Humphrey McQueen
November 2009

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Federal Council, November 1991

Victorian Branch Report

Source: ABLF Records, Australian National University, Noel Butlin Archives Centre, Z398/39

”]”]The end of 1991 brings down the curtain on a most difficult year for the Branch. Whilst it promised some difficulties, nobody foresaw the real dimensions when the new year ended.

Anticipated difficulties from the employer/Government extension of our de-registration were pre-empted by the ‘shotgun weddings’ of the State-Registered Branches and the B.W.I.U. fashioned under Government pressure in the January/February period.

From the outset this Branch was wrong-footed. We went from having to see the last Federal Council’s policy change that considered the limited future of the Federation in its traditional form to aiming for some B.W.I.U. connection on the proviso that all Branches were accommodated with the identity of builders labourers protected.

Now we were pitched into a potentially dire situation, the detail and background of which we were uncertain. Whilst members of the Branch felt abandoned we were forced to make the best of a bad situation and sought to rationalise the merger ‘agreement’ – stress its positives – for the good of the Federation.

Our efforts to re-group then dovetailed into our High Court challenge and subsequent rebuff which legalised legislative de-registration for unions in Australia.

Morale in the Branch, which was low out of this ‘shotgun wedding’ announcement suffered further out of the High Court exercise. The accompanying promotion of the myth that there could still be an independent BLF was an unfortunate yet unavoidable by-product of the High Court challenge. Whilst it’s easy to be wise after the event, the challenge to the extension of our de-registration was necessary in that (as Steve Black said) ‘you’d hate to die, not knowing’.

Well, now we know, and in 1991 it can fairly conclusively be said that as far as the courts of this land are concerned – there is no justice for the BLF.

Of immense impact on the Branch was the bottom falling out of the industry. A predictable expected bust, that followed the building boom, has turned into a unprecedented scale of industry unemployment.

An absence of any union efforts to curb excessive overtime and pressure the government(s) for construction initiatives has meant the full impact of the bust has been sorely felt. More so for builders labourers in that the resultant scramble for jobs has been exacerbated by the employers/Government(s)/ACTU and B.W.I.U. strategy to restructure and multi-skill the trades to do the traditional work of builders labourers.

Reflecting the success of the blacklist that targets particularly members of the Branch has meant that a disastrous job situation has been doubly bad for the backbone of the Branch. So much so, that half to two-thirds of the Branch’s monthly meeting attendance has been out of work, unemployed for some time and with little prospect of working in the foreseeable future.

It’s against this background that the Branch took stock. With varying degrees of appreciation and commitment we sought to open up the internal front of the B.W.I.U. A strategy was adopted that sought to target the B.W.I.U. rules’ lack of democracy, derail their self-described ‘convoy of amalgamations’ and lock them into their scheduled 1991 elections.

With varying degrees of success, efforts were made to mobilise members to participate in the getting of a petition demanding a referendum of B.W.I.U. members around the issues of getting a say in union amalgamations and having their scheduled elections.

Ironically, amongst many of the Branch’s stalwarts, the importance of the petition was not appreciated, reflecting the problems members have had of appreciating the changed and limited future of the BLF and the need to open up the B.W.I.U.’s internal front.

The N.S.W. Branch participated and appreciated the strategy. Yet our mobilisation of limited numbers meant that the “6,000 Plus” petition extended over six (6) months. Notably, the petition demonstrated a widespread disenchantment and dislike by long-time B.W.I.U. trades members of the current leadership and its policies.

Nonetheless, it needs to be clearly acknowledged that an obstacle to opening up the internal B.W.I.U. front comes from many of the Branch’s ablest and best members; reflecting the magnitude of the task at hand in analysing current reality.

No longer do we have the luxury of simply playing out time, just keeping the ship afloat, and running the distance. The message from the High Court was loud and clear. 1996 may not even be the end of de-registration! And given the pace of other events (i.e. the climate of union amalgamations; B.W.I.U.’s success in extending its base in the industry; restructuring) we have an obligation to be relevant and see the world as it is and not as we’d like it to be.

Recently, the now ACTU employed (ex-B.W.I.U. Industrial Officer) Merrit made no bones about the pace of industry change as it is being currently orchestrated. He told a meeting of contract scaffolders that they had better get ‘other tickets and skills’. ‘Contract scaffolding will never be the same’, he prophesied. ‘Already’, he add, ‘steel-fixers were a thing of the past’.

Making some allowance for Merrit’s wishful thinking, it should nevertheless not be under-estimated that changes of significant magnitude that affect builders’ labourers are underway. Sadly, neither we as a Branch, nor as a group of any other form, are having any influence on the situation.

Relevance and reality are the key requirements for us to work. Whilst it took us some time to appreciate it, this is what builders’ labourers have been saying to us for some time.

Builders’ labourers generally, as distinct from BLF members – have been saying that the BLF light on the hill has dimmed. We have become too demanding an issue for them to continue fighting for. Even being too visibly associated with the BLF has become a ‘no, No’ for the bulk of builders’ labourers still in work. [Note: Whelans {the wreckers) recently issued a circular advising their workers of immediate dismissal if caught talking to BLF officials or wearing BLF insignia/regalia.]

The point is that many – too many good blokes have got the stitch because, whilst they perceive the future as inextricably tied to the BLF, they reckon it involves an endless, aimless, hopeless battle.

Whilst we can have reservations about such a view, we ignore it at our peril.

For those who may need convincing (because for a while we sure did) facts speak for themselves. The recent and current state of membership renewals, declining attendance at Branch Meetings and at Scaffolders meetings reflect this.

A basic requirement that flows from this is a need to be honest and (as hard and all as it is) we need to stop flogging a dead horse.

What happened in fact, and to a degree still happens, is that we’re needlessly off-siding blokes, many of whom have given above and beyond the call; can’t give any more, or can’t see light at the end of tunnel.

Finding and focusing on a level upon which blokes are prepared and willing to fight is the challenge that confronts the Branch.

It was appreciating some of this that we embarked on our second petition.

After the B.W.I.U. won their challenge against the High Court stay on them declaring their amalgamation with Timber Workers, we decided to hit them under their new rules.

The manpower taking around the petition was far more enthusiastic and the reception just as good. Inside a week and a bit we got the required numbers (i.e. 1000) and more (i.e. 1420).

Builders’ labourers and others are more comfortable at this lower level and BLF members seem to be – all-be-it reluctantly – getting more receptive to accepting this limited future of the Branch.

All of this may not be pleasant to the ears of Council members. Unfortunately, it is the brutal fact. More and more, we have to taper our efforts at this level.

Certainly, 1991 draws to a close with the Branch bloodied but older and definitely wiser. Our strategy of targeting the B.W.I.U. to flush out an accommodation, or lock them into a contest, proceeds.

The meeting with Sharkey underlined this and whilst it hasn’t eventuated to much it has certainly opened up another front, put the ball in his court and given him notice that whatever happens we are not going to go away.

FINANCES

Without Federal assistance money, the Branch could not go on. For the money this year, we’ve been grateful.

For our part, we’ve streamlined things to such a stage that there is now no meat on the bone.

B.W.I.U.’s INTERNAL POSITION

Ironically, in the face of this overall general strengthening of the B.W.I.U.’s industry bloc, their position in Victoria (on the ground) is more vulnerable.

Amongst their rank-and file, they are very much on the nose. As said earlier, this is especially the case with their long-term trades members who have seen conditions go down the drain. The job is still before us with the non-trades builders labourers (as district form BLF members), many of whom disproportionately dominate labourers’ numbers because of the success of the blacklist.

If the job is done – though undoubtedly a battle – the prospect of an electoral contest gives rise for optimism. Ballot rigging, all the anticipated forces ranged against us – still I think, there is a chance to deliver them an electoral reverse.

Time, given the pace of events, is not on our side and it seems to me that that is all the more reason to maximise the current pressures.

One of the more immediate threats on the horizon comes in the form of the Custodian. Given the traditional lull that occurs round the Christmas/New Year period it seems to me there is every reason to be suspicious of the currently scheduled mid-January expiry of the Custodian’s appointment.

Talk about our assets that recently surfaced from Cook’s Department and the B.W.I.U. give every cause for vigilance. As the saying goes: ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire’. I hope I am wrong but we need to be prepared.

OTHER BUSINESS

I take the opportunity of formally thanking the registered States for their general and specific assistance. Wage claims, fines etc have all been met in circumstances where they’d otherwise not have been collected without such help.

Tas (Hansen & Yuncken), W.A. (Hollands etc), Qld (Civil & Civic) and S.A. (Bauldestone’s) are recent examples.

This has occurred not without problems. In the post ‘shotgun wedding’ era, things have certainly changed; and it has taken us sometime to appreciate your new situations.

Leightons, I still think, owe heaps.

BRANCH OFFICIALS & STAFF

Economics have forced us to cut back to a minimum. Fewer doing more is the name of the game. John Setka, Mick Lewis (currently on compo) and Dominic Amato (honorary) have given unstintingly. No amount of harassment and intimidation has daunted them. More court cases, fines and jailing may have continued but they’ve continued to do themselves a treat.

Office staff – Sharon – and the recently terminated Dot Lewis – have been magnificent back-up in an otherwise unheralded area. The Executive, most of whom are unemployed, have soldiered on regardless and made invaluable contributions.

All of this has occurred in a bit of leadership void given the enforced absence through ill-health of the Secretary. In his absence, we’ve been forced to adapt and improvise. Our petition/election/amalgamation strategy is a case in point.

I don’t know if it’ll be successful. It’s an effort at searching for a basis upon which builders’ labourers etc. are prepared to fight. It’s an effort grounded on Federal Council and FMC decisions. Any critics of these strategies are welcomed and invited to suggest other alternative strategies.

In retrospect, I do think the Branch lost the plot a bit during the year. Ambivalence characterised us. One moment, we peddled the line that perpetuated the myth of maintaining the BLF come what may. In the next breath, we’d periodically lurch into pursuit of a B.W.I.U. connection for the remaining Branches.

No wonder the membership was confused by our quasi-schizophrenia! With the benefit of hindsight, I think it reflected us not having come to grips with the issues thrown up out of the shotgun mergers and the High Court rebuff.

I feel we are starting to get it right and have to keep applying it – working at it and striving to find the correct pitch for builders’ labourers.

In closing, I take the opportunity to thank our Tasmanian hosts. We only wish we could reciprocate in like manner.

John Cummins

Acting Secretary

November 1991

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References:

Noel Butlin Archives  about the record Z398 —  “Australian Building Construction Employees and Builders Labourers Federation (1911-1986)

One response to “How a union survives

  1. Facing up to old wounds

    Facing up to Old wounds


    by Ian Curr

    Nearly 20 years ago John Cummins took over the BLF in Victoria from Norm Gallagher who had weathered many attacks from government and boss. In the end, Gallagher’s mates could no longer support him — ‘the light of the hill had grown dim’.

    In the words of John Cummins:

    “The point is that many – too many good blokes have got the stitch because, whilst they perceive the future as inextricably tied to the BLF, they reckon it involves an endless, aimless, hopeless battle.”

    The builders labourers (BLs) managed to carve out a future for the union under the leadership of John Cummins. In 1994 the BLs merged with the Construction Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU)

    I remember with some regret the moves in my own workplace to amalgamate the clerks [Administrative Clerical Officers Association (ACOA)] with the clerical assistants (Australian Public Service Association APSA).

    I voted against it together with a handful of others at a mass meeting in the basement of the old tax building on the corner of Wharf and Adelaide Streets (a building with the asbestos that had been brought in by BLs in 1957 under orders from the developer. No Occupational Health and Safety for the BLs and none the tax office clerks in the years that followed).

    Amalgamation proved to be a mistake that lost many conditions for the clerical assistants and for the clerks as well.

    Management used one group against the other to reduce the power of the union it produced – the PSU, and later the CPSU when it amalgamated with the ABC staff union and some community workers.

    Loss of identity and loss of a voice for the minority Clerical Assistants (CAs) affected lives in a very personal way, it may have ruined some. In the years that followed union stalwarts were still there trying to pick up the pieces, but the architects of the amalgamation had moved on – into industry, the private sector, and into parliament. Union activists know the story.

    Ian Curr
    November 2009

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