Gallery

Workers Vocabulary

by Humphrey McQueen

“I cannot understand this language. I cannot make it out. This language, which is half slang, I cannot understand at all.”

Justice Higgins, 1913, ABLF Award Transcript.

“banjo” – a navvy wrapped his pick and shovel in a sugar bag, and strung them across his shoulder, like a banjo.

“bodgie” – a false name, derived from bogus, to avoid the tax man, the police or the missus; derives from ‘bodge’, meaning o patch up.

“boom” was applied to commerce from the 1870s.

“brother” or “comrade” were the forms of address at Branch meetings.

NSW suggested at the 1973 Federal Council that “brother” had a “hand-me-down” aspect from the craft unions. Its origins were more complicated. “Comrade” had been used until it became associated with Communists. “Brother” took over as part of the anti-Communist purge.

Builder’s labourer – in the 19th century, a labourer who assisted a building tradesman; from around 1910, any labourer employed by a builder or contractor, including navvies.

Apostrophe man?

The inclusion of apostrophes after Builders’ and Labourers’ was academic until the early 1970s. The NSW Branch then got excited about grammar. Its activists objected to an apostrophe after Builders’. Its presence meant that the following word – labourers – were owned by the builders. In Marxist terms, that usage was close to the truth. The labourers had sold their capacity to add value to the capitalist. In a system of wage-slavery, the labourers’ creative powers belonged to the employer for a number of hours. The reality of class relations cannot be wiped away by playing with punctuation marks.

Every permutation of apostrophes appeared in BLF documents. The NSW application for registration by the Builders Labourers Union in 1901 had no apostrophes. Later that year, its letter-head added an apostrophe to Builders’. The 1904 Rules and Regulations put apostrophes after both Builders’ and Labourers’.

The 1910 correspondence to the Commonwealth Court was on behalf of the Builders Labourers’ Federation. The 1928 rules also had an apostrophe after only Labourers. NSW Between 1947 and 1957, the NSW Branch published the Builders’ Laborers’
Journal.

‘a clean site”, one with no non-unionists or unfinancial members.

“a clear card” meant that a member was not behind in dues, or having scabbed.

see also “OK card”.

“dirt money” – extra pay for unpleasant or unhealthy workplace.

“dropping in” starting in the industry.

in durance vile having been in prison used in Victorian minutes of the 1920s;

Rabbie Burns (1794) used it for being in the workhouse.

“field ranger” a contractor who built all over the place. (Henry Hannah, 1913 Award Transcript, p. 193)

Green ban

As a turn of phrase, “Green Bans” was a public relations triumph. Its appeal drew on the working-class expression black ban. “Green Bans” also invoked the Green Belt for a ring of bush land around cities. The MBA failed in its attempt to re-brand the actions as “Red Bans”.

Who coined “Green Ban”? Expressions circulate in speech before they are written down. Hence, the earliest appearance of “Green Ban” in print is no proof to its origin.

By May 1973, the phrase had become a journalist’s commonplace.
Writing at that time, Mundey’s ally, Pete Thomas, attributed the “happy phrase” to “a unionist” – unnamed. The first mention in the NSW BLF’s Journal came in June. The article noted that members
had “made international history in their modest way with their ‘Green Bans’.” By 1981, Mundey was claiming to have minted the phrase himself. He referred to an interview with Malcolm Colless in the Australian during the winter of 1973: ‘I now said: “in future we’d be talking about Green Bans”.’ The interview had been in February.

“gulletting” digging into a steep face by layering trenches.

Hod – V-shaped boards carried on a pole and used to move bricks or mortar

“A portable trough for carrying mortar, bricks, fixed crosswise on top of a pole and carried on the shoulder.” (Macquarie Dictionary)

Hoddie – after the hod had disappeared from most building sites by the 1950s, the word remained for the brickie’s labourer, wheeling bricks, mixing mortar and setting out the job.

“inclement” – weather too wet, too hot or too windy, or just too dangerous to work.

“jump-up” where the labourer wheeling a barrow full of bricks or mortar had to take a run at an inclined plank to have the momentum to reach the top. (Henry Hannah,1913 Award Transcript, p. 180)

‘Jumped-up” a labourer working as a tradesman.

“kangarooing”, squatting on the toilet seat because it was filthy.

“knocking up” preparing a site for a tradesmen, putting up the scaffolding or mixing mortar.

Labourer/laborer – usually taken to be the English and North American spellings

But often here with Labor Party and labour for the movement or the human activity

Commonwealth Arbitration Reports included the “u”, as did the South Australian Industrial Report.

Builders’ Laborers’ Journal and Federation NSW 1947- 1957 without the “u” in labourer.

But the NSW application to register in 1901 had “Builders Labourers Union”, with a “u”. The Letter Head later took away the “u”; that spelling continued in the Rules and Regulations of 1904 and onto the Federation rules in 1928. Meanwhile, the 1910 correspondence to the Court had also spoken on behalf of the Labourers’ Federation.

“our lads” as a term for BLs in action, used by Loughnan. (BLN, 24.12.15, and 15.9.16)

“larrie” “a hoe-shaped tool with two (or more) holes in it for turning over mortar”. Dick Loughnan, 1913 Award Transcript, p. 354).

“ledger” –a horizontal timber fastened to scaffolds to support the putlogs.

“lost time” hours for which labourers were not paid, either because they were stood down or were looking for work. Estimated to be one-fifth of the working week in 1907 and 1913, but subsequently reduced.

“mud” – mortar.

“navvy” derives from “navigator”. The term was used first for labourers who dug canals. It was later applied to all those who worked in the wet, and from there, to all forms of excavation on railways and sewers. Hence, it became identified with pick-and-shovel men and finally to concreters.

“nipper” got the meals and boiled the billy etc; often, though not necessarily, a youngster. The job could be kept for an injured or aging labourer; In some States, the nipper was known as “billy boy”, famous in the William Dobell portrait from his wartime series of the Civil Construction Corps. Nippers carried news and rumours between management and the men.

“OK card” see “clear card” above.

“piece-work” had two overlapping meanings:

1. being paid by the piece, that is, how by the area of bricks laid.

2. sub-contracting, that is, taking a piece of the contract, often for all of the brickwork. Labourers could paid either by time or by the piece as in 1.

“pink-eyes” – workers favoured by the boss.

“purlin” a cross horizontal piece in a scaffold.

“rained off” – stood down because of wet weather; later, any inclemency.

“rainy day” a day when the labourers could not work in the open and did not get paid. Hence, labourers put money aside “for a rainy day”.

“shellback” – a seaman who came ashore as a rigger on buildings.

“topping” – carrying the hod up a ladder to the top of a building.

“trade” as in “the building trade”, for instance, a labourer “returns to the trade”, that is, to the industry, not to a “craft”.

“under-below” the call for fellow workers or passers-by to watch out for falling objects or loads being lowered. The cry was never effective; it became useless as buildings went higher.

“visiting the works” – a Union official called on the members.

“yo-ho” – the call to knock-off.

“zambucked” – to drive out scabs. Zambuck was a proprietary ointment that cleared up scabs.

On being told in 1982 that a “snipe” was a how-to-vote card, Mr Justice Dunphy remarked:

“Our vocabulary is increasing every day.”

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