Builders Labourers Fight Deregistration 1981-1994 by Liz Ross
Reviewed by David Renton, University of Sunderland, UK
Reviewed in Labour History #87 November 2004 p.281-82
Before the mid-1980s, the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) was one of the most militant trade unions in Australia, if not the world. The BLF was characterised by repeated workplace-by-workplace strikes. For the most part, these were victorious, and the BLF was able to secure for its members a series of improvements in their pay and conditions. The Federation also took up other causes, including migrant, women’s, gay and Aboriginal rights. The union’s most famous actions were the ‘Green Bans’, the refusal to work on socially undesirable demolition or development. But as one of Ross’ many interviewees, former BLF activist Peter O’Dea, recalls, ‘We were far too successful in elevating labourers. We were cheeky’. Precisely because the Federation won so often, it made a series of industrial and political enemies. Liberal governments attempted to crush the BLF and failed. Labor succeeded.
In 1985, a series of laws were passed to derecognise the Federation. Members of the BLF were denied access to negotiated rates of pay and hours of work. State governments were given the powers to ban not just the BLF, but any union which BLF members joined, or any union that might emerge in the future with a substantial ex-BLF minority. Former members of the Federation were forced to sign declarations saying they were not in the union before they could work. Deregistration was not simply a matter of passing a few laws. A press campaign was waged against the BLF leader, Norm Gallagher. The police were instructed to enforce the bans. The Federation’s headquarters were repeatedly raided, including on one occasion in October 1987, by 150 Special Operations police in full riot gear. The government sequestered the union’s funds, and handed them over to an Arbitration Commissioner, paying the princely sum of $1,000 for every day he worked. The Commissioner published 21 reports. The investigation continued for 14 years – long after the BLF had ceased to exist. No financial misdemeanours were found.
Dare to Struggle is a history not of the employers’ offensive but of the Federation’s attempts to fight deregistration. In better times, the favoured tactics of the BLF included go-slows and wildcat strikes. If organisers were barred from talking to union members, they would risk arrest, and then refuse bail, trusting the members to strike until they were released. The same tactics were attempted after 1985, and not without local success. But slowly the impact of deregistration and the press campaign against Gallagher began to tell. Middle-ground trade unionists drifted away. Sydney was lost, long before Melbourne. Former BLF members attempted to organise within other builders’ unions including the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU). The leadership of this union tried to ignore the criticisms of their new members, cancelling meetings and even national elections. Eventually the BWIU was amalgamated into today’s CFMEU. We can see in retrospect that the deregistration of the Federation marked a turning point in labour history, comparable to the defeat of the pilots’ union in North America in 1981-82 or the British miners in 1984-85.
Dare to Struggle is a wonderfully partisan account that takes seriously the challenge of understanding the past through the eyes of the people who realised that strong trade unions of unskilled workers are a rare and precious thing, the men and (very often) women who fought against the bosses and the courts. More than 60 former BLF activists were interviewed for the book, as well as leading employers, members of other unions and the Labor Party. Ross’s history echoes with the backchat and the comradeship of the builders’ yard and the picket line. Even to list the names of some of the second-rank militants – Stiffy Moore, Johnny Rotten, Midget, Dirty Harry and Schoolteacher – gives a sense of the personalities involved.
For most of the past 20 years, the trends within labour history have been away from union or workplace studies. Greater emphasis has been placed on people’s home relationships, rather than their work. Social identities have been subject to rigorous but abstract analysis, and in the process many writers have lost all sense of the experiences of the individual activists whose lives they were supposed to record. Much like Karl von Holdt, in last year’s Transition from Below, Ross restores the trade unionists of the recent past to their proper status, as full human beings, confident in themselves, committed and determined not to lose.
The Vulgar Press thanks the journal, Labour History and David Renton for their permission to reproduce the review here. Labour History is online at www.historycooperative.org. The website for the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History (ASSLH) is www.asslh.com – for matters concerning membership of the Society and journal subscriptions and orders for back issues.