|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: October 4, 2000
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
You had this very ambitious plan for the union: to reform it and change it. Were you well funded to be able to do that? Did the union have plenty of money in its coffers when you guys took over?
No, as a matter of fact the union was in debt. Left ... We were into a union that was completely threadbare and so we had to rely on the workers' goodwill and, in fact, imposed a levy almost as soon as we got in. But such was the understanding of the rank and file ... was that they appreciated a chance of a clean sweep, that they responded and that's why we were able to identify with the workers and win their confidence.
Why do you think they understood so well?
Well, those that had been in the industry for some time had ... could appreciate the different attitude that existed when the new leadership came in, that there was a feeling of confidence, the feeling that the union belonged to them, and that they weren't just there to be bargained with between the old leadership and the ... and the builders. So there was a new found confidence in the leadership.
How did you keep that sort of level of understanding up? Did it have a lot to do with the way in which you communicated with the ... with the workers? How did you organise the communications so that they understood what was going on?
Because the industry was so scattered we had a belief that we should call a lot of delegate meetings, so we put a great faith in the delegates that the workers had elected, and because of the widespread nature of the building industry, this was very positive. It allowed ... [INTERRUPTION - DOOR]
The ... So I wanted to ... I was asking you about the communications and the methods you had?
Yes, because of the scattered nature of the industry we placed a lot of value, a lot of emphasis on the elected delegates on the jobs, and we used to call these delegates together once every month, at least, and come together to discuss the problems and to organise a ... the way in which we would conduct the union in the next stage. So I think it was this consultation with the delegates that gave confidence to the rank and file to see that the union was changing and was addressing their problems. And whereas in the past you'd have officials who would deal directly with the employers and not consult the workers, you had a situation where the new officials first of all consulted the workers and then went to the employers. So it was this feeling that the workers had that the union was doing something for them, that gave us the extra confidence.
When you first took over the union, at the beginning, when Mick MacNamara was secretary, what was your top priority?
Well, the first one would have been to allow the workers, the rank and file, some say in the leadership of the union. I mean, the centrepiece of the rank and file organisation was that the union was their union, was the workers' union, and it wasn't just there as a plaything for political parties or ... or the union officials. And I think that stood us in good stead with the rank and file. Because of the scattered nature of the industry, there was this reliance on the delegates. And also when important issues came up about campaigns, we would call strike meetings - stop work of the whole building area of all Sydney - and so there was this different levels of consultation and involvement of the workers, the rank and file workers, and I think that was really the hallmark of the union during all those years, where the New South Wales leadership stood out in the fact that it always put consultation down as one of the main steps that we should take.
Consultation in some context now has come to mean, you talk to them and you don't take really any notice of them. When you were consulting with the workers, did that seriously influence your policies as a union?
Oh very much so. The ... as I said ... as I said at the time actually that we'd seen a lot of other unions where union officials come in and then with the passage of time they change, or they become complacent, or some become wheeler-dealers with the employers. Often some sell-out and go over to the employers. So I think that our approach was that we should concentrate on involvement of the rank and file in a real way. And I suppose it was later when I became secretary that we strengthened this still further.
Did you, in the course of your time in the union, ever really change your mind as a result of something that came out of those meetings?
Oh there have been many occasions because I ... we never went into a ... we never went into ... [INTERRUPTION - DOG]
Could you give me an example of a case where you ... [INTERRUPTION - DOG] Could you give me an example of a case where the union had decided on a particular course of action and as a result of meeting with the workers changed that ... that style line?
Well, actually would have been many. There was no ... I can't think of an outstanding case but if you had the leadership as we had, that was working close with ... closely with the workers, well then naturally you've got your finger on the pulse and therefore you're ... it's unlikely that you're going to get a shock [DOG BARK] out of a mass meeting decision that comes out and says ... I think that [if] the leadership is close to the workers, well it gets the feeling of what's happening out there anyway and that was our strength because [DOG BARK] later on when I became secretary we strengthened it still further and I think [DOG BARK] things like limited tenure of office and having the workers [DOG BARK] ... the officials on the same wages as workers on the job really cemented the rank and file to the union leadership, and particularly when we introduced limited [DOG BARK] tenure of office, that all officials had to be elected and that after two terms all union officials had to relinquish office and go back to work for a period, so as to identify with the leadership and the rank and file, and not have a wide variation between the ideas of a leadership [DOG BARK], as a stepping stone to political action or power positions and the rank and file. [DOG BARK] And I think that those things in particular gave confidence to the rank and file that the leadership was not just on a [DOG BARK] kick, a selfish kick, but it was really concerned about the union as a whole.
I was struck by your decision making at the time, which was leading up into the '70s collectivism, that whole idea of collectivism, is the problem is that sometimes they are window dressing ... So during this period that you were an organiser you were saying the major priority was the involvement of workers in the union and in the decisions that were being made. What were some of the other issues that you took on where you really wanted to bring about change?
We strongly believe that unions should be political - that's in the sense, in those days particularly, with the arbitration court. There was great discussion about the role of penalty powers of the arbitration court, and often a strike would occur and next thing the employers would take the matter to the court and the court would instruct the union to return to work, or they'd be fined. And so many thousands of pounds ... hundreds of thousands of pounds were paid by all of the unions over these strikes, and there was a strong feeling against the employers overuse of the penalty powers of the arbitration court. And so many of the campaigns were for ... for the abolition of the penal powers. That occurred during the sixties. But also because of other happenings that went wider than wages and conditions - the Vietnam War commenced and immediately Australia, of course, was split down the centre over whether we should be involved or not and the union took a stand that we shouldn't be involved in the war and there was a lot of discussion at the job level on this, and the big protest marches that took place - we always based ourselves on the rights of the workers to determine whether they should be in it or not. At a leadership level and a delegate level we had voted to be in favour of taking action in the moratorium against the war, but it was left to the various jobs to decide whether they would stop work to join those marches, and I think that showed the ... the ... the ... the grassroots decision making process. In the union movement of course was against the penal powers. It was complete opposition by the workers to the penalty powers. But also in the support of our own blacks. When the Gurindji people took action and the stockmen went on strike in Northern Territory we brought down the leaders of the strike and took them around the building sites to talk to the building workers about the actual conditions that existed. And this was an educative process really because it educated the workers that they did have some control over what was happening in far off northern Queensland or Northern Territory. And that ... and that the ... the whole question of land rights was in fact an issue that the union should be involved in. So the union was getting involved in wider ranging things that reflected the change in the leadership - that the leadership was concerned with things beyond wages and conditions. Of course, we felt that unions have a vital role. Their main purpose of the unions is wages and conditions and ... and the dignity of work, but also that there are other issues [which] impinge upon on the workers' rights. We got caught up in many political issues in the sixties and seventies, but the first ones we were caught up in were the blacks and the question of the moratorium and the Vietnam War.
I want to go into each of those in a little bit more detail in a minute, but before you do that, looking at the more traditional issues that unions have always been involved in which were the wages and conditions, those were things that you got involved in reasonably quickly after you came in because they needed attention, didn't they? Could you tell me how you organised tactics and how you managed the dealing with some of the problems of conditions on the sites and the issues of wages? Could you take me through what the problems were on the sites and how you set out about correcting them and also what your main ambition was in terms of wages for the members of the BLF??
Well, the builders ... because the tradesmen had been better organised in a different union ... In that period there was something like eleven unions in the building industry and the Builders' Labourers were really the poor relation. Even though they were labourers, they did some of the most skilled work because the changing ... the changing nature of the building industry meant with higher buildings going up, larger buildings going up, often builders' labourers or people such as riggers, scaffolders, hoist-drivers - they were doing some of the most skilled work on building sites, whereas before they had just been labouring to the tradesmen ... to the craftsmen. So the industry was changing and the role of the builders' labourers were changing. So many of the campaigns we fought along with the other unions. We fought along with them. On the same time we also felt that the gap in wages between the tradesmen and the builders' labourers were too wide and so we worked to narrow the gap between the tradesmen, and putting forward that the most skilled builders' labourers should get 100 per cent of the tradesmen rate and other builders' labourers should get 90 per cent of that. It was called a hundred-ninety ratio. So it was a ... Besides winning the minds and the hearts of the builders' labourers it was also to show that the changing nature of the industry meant that builders' labourers should have a bigger place in the scheme of things and ... and that was right throughout the sixties. That was the sort of action we were taking.
And were you ultimately successful in that campaign for ...
Yes, it took a five week strike actually in 1970 to bring that about and after a ... an all out strike of five weeks, the employers caved in, and we were able to get the arbitration court to formalise a decision that had been reached with the employers and the industry at the time.
How does a union sustain a five week strike? That's a long time to be out.
Yes, and in those days, also, it was a break with the penal powers. I mentioned that the penal powers had been used to curtail action. Well in 1969, when Clarrie O'Shea, the leader of the Tramways Union, at the behest of his union, refused to pay a fine, Clarrie O'Shea was gaoled and spontaneously a million workers throughout Australia went on strike, and really that was the end of the penal powers of the arbitration court. So they couldn't be imposed in the ... in the way they had done before. Well, the year after that ... That was in '69. In 1970, in our five week strike, we weren't shackled with the penalty powers. They were not used, so it meant we could test out the ... the durability of the union. Not that we set about to test it out, but it came to that. And so the workers, through things I had pointed out about the growth in the 'sixties of rank and file activity, of the workers thinking it's their union, they were able to, in that five week strike, sustain themselves because of that knowledge, because of the fact that we raised money everywhere. Other unions came to our support, and we also, as a tactic, split the employers because those employers who were prepared to pay the extra money, we said that they would be released and allowed to work, so we divided the employers. The more progressive of the employers, or the least hostile of the employer organisations, came to the party and so we were able to split the employers by allowing those workers, who had received the money, to return to work.
Didn't the other employers try to use other labour?
Yes, there were many attempts to use scab labour, but having in mind that because of the way in which the union's confidence had grown, at the time of that strike something like 90 per cent of all builders' labourers would be in the union, so it was very difficult for them to try and break the strike. But nevertheless, there were attempts to use scab labour and one of the actions that we took about occupying building sites caused great discussion within the trade union movement. In fact, some of the employer organisations really tried to divide the union by saying, 'Well this was, you know, extremist action', and tried to strip the union off, and some of the more conservative unions also condemned the union for so doing. But we argued that we'd made the democratic decision to take the strike action and that it shouldn't be broken. The workers had made a decision and we expected that decision to be carried out. And where they attempted to use scab labour, we occupied the actual building site and so prevented work from taking place. Now in so doing, some minor damage occurred and of course the union put up an hysterical claim that the ... that the buildings were being destroyed.
The union did?
The employers claimed that the building itself had been, or buildings had been affected by the workers who were stopping the scabs from ... from building. But these weren't too many because the thing was that the strike held up and at five weeks the employers caved in.
What was the attitude of the Government and the media to the union at the time?
Well, the State ... The State Government at the time was the Askin Government, which was very anti union. It's now universally considered one of the most corrupt governments in the history of New South Wales, if not Australia, and they were all behind the builders and the developers of course. But on the other hand we had other unions, who were very supportive of us, and so there was a ... It was a real dichotomy. It was a real ... It did differ greatly from union to union, and also it differed greatly from many in the employing class. [Some] also agreed with the builders' labourers actions. Not all of the employers condemned it.
And what kind of press did you get?
Well, naturally the editorial writers were extremely hostile.
You say naturally, why would they ...
Well, because of history. The whole history of this country and many other countries, but this country, is that in a 160 years of ... of its publication: the Sydney Morning Herald has never supported a strike at all, so that gives you some indication. And because of the militant action in particular, they're opposed to the occupation of sites, etcetera. On the other hand we had many rank and file or ordinary journalists, working journalists, who applauded the builders' labourers action but it was only later when we became involved in other social and Green Ban action that there was even greater division between the owners of newspapers and the ... and the workers - the journalists.
Jack, could you paint a picture of some of the conditions that had to do with safety and also the conditions under which the men had to work, say in the rain and the kind of provision that was made for them on a site. Could you give me an example of maybe one of the first sites you walked on to as a builders' labourer, what the sheds were like, what the washing facilities ... Could you just paint a bit of a picture of the sort of thing you were trying to clean up?
Well, by 1970 and during that strike of course things had changed. In the decade of the sixties we'd come a very long way, but if you go back to where the rank and file had just broken through in the builders' labourers, you'd go on to a building site and often the workers would have get changed in the cement shed and there'd be all building materials and everything else around there. Often the toilet facilities were totally inadequate for the number of workers on the job. Sometimes it didn't exist at all, that the workers had to go to a nearby public toilet, on ... in the ... near the area where they were working. So the ... the amenities were often non-existent. There was often not running water and there was nowhere for the workers to get cleaned up when they'd finished their day's work. They'd hang their clothes up where all the other building materials were and there was no heating in the winter and it was just absolutely deplorable. The workers were treated like chattel and ... and there was no consistency at all. The workers were not respected in any sense of the word.
What happened when it rained? Were they sent home?
No, they, well ... when it's raining they could be rained off, they could just send ... send them off and [they would] not get paid at all, or they could sit them in the shed and not pay them, and wait until it stopped raining. But in the main they would just keep them there until the day's end and send them home and if it's raining the next day, they wouldn't pay them at all. So there was no ... there was no consideration for wet weather entitlement. Later of course we got that - we got wet weather entitlements and all the other provisions but it was ... it was the battle to bring dignity to the building workers. It was the real battle to show that they weren't second class citizens, that played a very big part in the union members supporting us later on when it became much more political - that we had built up trust, that they could trust us on basic human rights considerations, that then when we went into ecological and more political campaigning, those workers, even though they didn't always [have] the same level of political understanding that the union leaders had, went along with the union and in the whole process we were all on a learning curve.
So by the 1970 strike ... [INTERRUPTION] By 1970, when you had that big five day ... five week strike, you had improved the conditions of the workers greatly. At what stage ... And then you brought the wages in line so they were ... How long had that actually taken to do, to get that sort of ... to get to that position?
Well, most of that decade. If you look back on the changes that occurred, seeing we broke through in '61, and Mick MacNamara resigned as secretary in '68, and I became secretary. Mick had ill health and resigned but he still became ... when his health recovered, he became a great supporter of the union. He was still a rank and file and played a prominent role in the union, so there wasn't any change in the leadership's attitude to the question of workers' involvement or worker control, etcetera. But I suppose when I became secretary we became more involved in the social issues. For example, women working in the industry. That came in in the early seventies. But if we look at historically ... If we look at it chronologically, it was that decade. It took most of that decade to bring about a level of consciousness raising and a real belief that the workers control the union. It was their union. And from that time on, well then, we became involved in wider issues. We'd already been involved in the Vietnam War. Myself and other leaders like Joe Owens and Bob Pringle had become involved in many of the demonstrations. We'd been arrested a whole number of times. Again, in support of our blacks, we've come right out and brought the union into a situation where it fully supported the blacks.
Can we go through the issues one by one but before we do that, I'd just to like to ask you, how did you justify a union ... and unions up to that point had exclusively been interested in wages and conditions ... how did you justify to your rank and file and to yourselves getting involved in social and political issues?
Well, really the Australian trade union movement has a long history of involvement in issues beyond wages and conditions. Admittedly it's always been a minority of unions and it's mainly been the Left unions who are involved. But as long ago as the pig iron matter in Port Kembla where the ... where the ... where it was clear the Japanese were on the warpath and the waterside workers refused to load the pig iron for Japan, which later came back in bullets can killed many of our soldiers. That was a political action. When the war in Spain - the revolution in Spain was occurring, again some of the unions took action against that. When ... when action occurred with the Aborigines for example, again the whole number of unions had taken action. So it wasn't ... Really we have got a history as far back as the Depression, for example, when people were being ... were driven out of their homes, some of the more progressive unions took action. So there has been a strand right back, most of the twentieth century, where some of the progressive trade unions have taken some political action. But it was true that in that ... in that volatile period of the sixties where you had the women's movement, the black movement, the anti-apartheid movement, you know, Vietnam and besides the war - it stopped the war in Vietnam - all of those things really were on concurrently and so within the whole union movement - it wasn't only the builders' labourers - within the whole union movement, there were difference of opinions about the role of unions. How far should they be involved? Some of the right wing unions took the attitude that we shouldn't be involved in political issues at all. Others took the action, as we did, by saying that anything that affects the workers we should be concerned about. I remember myself saying that what's the use of winning higher wages and better conditions if we live in cities devoid of parks and denuded of trees, that it should be the totality of a worker's life that counts. It's not just the hours on the building site. Of course that's important, but other issues about where they live, how workers live. The question of transportation, the question of pollution - all of these things impinge upon the quality of life of the worker. And I think that was the sort of revolutionary aspect of what the builders' labourers shot home - besides of course the thing they're most known about: the Green Ban movement, the ecology, the environment movement, came into it.
While we're going through the social issues, in relation to the Vietnam War, could you just fill out what the attitude of the union was in terms of encouraging its members to take a position on the Vietnam War?
Well, right from the start when we considered, as did other progressive unions, that the [way the] Government, without any consultation with the population of this country, embarked us on that war in Vietnam, was completely improper. And so we opposed the way in which twenty year olds were recruited and [INTERRUPTION] sent to fight in a war. [INTERRUPTION]
You were just talking about how twenty year olds were being sent away without ... so just pick that up again.
Well because of the ... because of the Government of the day was blindly following the dictates of the United States, that had worked itself into an impossible position in Indochina, and right throughout the world but in this country and increasingly in the United States of America, there was opposition to the war. And because of that the Australian Government shamefacedly went along and got ourselves involved, and then as we became deeper involved there was a decision then to conscript our youth to that war, and that's when it really got ... reached boiling point. And so right throughout the country there were many demonstrations, and in Melbourne and Sydney in particular, huge demonstrations and all of these ... We took the ... Well, the union officially at state level and at the delegates' level had endorsed the action against the war. When the moratoriums - the big marches through the cities - took place, we left it up to the individual jobs. Overwhelmingly they voted to join the marches and to link up with the students and the other progressive people through the streets of Sydney. But some of the jobs had spirited debates. I remember going to a meeting at the Opera House where ... where about over 250 workers [were] and the voting was very close: would they go on. And finally they decided that those that wanted to go would go. Those didn't so ... That was an example of the democratic way in which we ran the union - that minorities ... minority decisions were respected as well.
And what did you do in relation to the apartheid movement? What was your role there?
Well, in the ... Because we had ... At our meetings of the delegates and rank and file, all of these matters were being discussed and the apartheid issue had come to the fore particularly with the rugby union side coming here in 1971.
The Springboks, the all white Springboks. And the progressive section of the union movement of which the Builders' Labourers was a part decided to oppose it and by that time it was quite a spirited opposition and in Queensland where they ... where you had the Bjelke Government, Bjelke-Petersen Government, there was even violence against the demonstrators. And here in Sydney in the big marches, both in the moratorium and the anti-apartheid, the police, no doubt at the behest of the Askin Government became more and more vigorous, taking off their numbers and whaling into the protesters. So things became very strained between the police and the ... and the union movement. By the time the 1971 tour took place, well already the union had been involved in support for our own blacks, in those campaigns of the mid and late sixties, and in the Vietnam War, through from 1964 - '65, through to 1970. So in '71 you had a union movement that was pretty involved in political action and Bob Pringle, who was the president of the union, was one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in the country, and in fact he organised the cutting down of the goal posts that led to a very sensational action. They had all the police asleep. Some of the police [were] asleep in the stands to look after the cricket ground and Bob Pringle and Johnny Phillips got in with their hacksaws in the middle of the night and started cutting the goal posts down. And of course it awakened the police and they were arrested but it caused a tremendous interest and even a court case against them: malicious damage [to the goal posts].
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