|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 were telling me that they ... that a couple of your colleagues cut down the goal posts during the Springbok tour and I was thinking that that was an appropriate role for builders' labourers, to do a bit of demolition. And what happened with the court case? Did they get off?
Well, actually of course, we now know that through the action of people like that and Meredith Burgmann and others, who invaded the game and stopped the game being played and all the other protests that took place ... I remember being at the Sydney Cricket Ground and having the whole ground with first of all with barbed wire around the top of the pickets and then with policemen shoulder to shoulder all around the ground, to try and keep the demonstrators from coming on. Many games were stopped and I think the great success of it was that there was to be an all white cricket team come here the following summer, and that was abandoned. So the great success of the people's action in ... I think that played a very big part in highlighting the people's hostility to the terrible apartheid character of South Africa at the time. And Mandela, when he came to Australia, of course paid credit to all of the protesters who took action in that period, so it was a very positive example of demonstration being for the good. But, yes, it was an interesting case because Pringle and Phillips looked like going to gaol and in a television interview ... They were fined heavily, and in a television interview I had said that if hadn't been for builders' labourers crowding the court that the, quote, 'racist judge would have sent those men to gaol'. That afternoon a conservative member of parliament got up and said, had they seen Mundey make this statement? And I was sued for contempt of court, and it was the first time ever that they used oral evidence because the only evidence they had was myself talking to ... to ... to a Channel Ten or Channel Seven correspondent, so that's all they had to go on. And they ruled that that was oral contempt, and ... and ... and I was fined. But they were let off very lightly and I reckon because of the fact that we crowded the court and the judge found them guilty but didn't gaol them. But it led, later on, to me being put up for contempt of court.
What was the first time you were arrested?
That's a hard one. First time I was arrested was Vietnam War. It was the first demonstration against the Vietnam War and it was say '64 or '65, and three people were arrested. One was Bill Brown, a journalist for the ... for the Tribune, myself as secretary of the Builders' Labourers and a ... a printer, Bruce Steel. We were the first three arrested outside the Commonwealth Bank building where the ... where they had the Commonwealth Members of Parliament, when in Sydney, used to meet, and that was the first time I was arrested. But over the years, of course, in all of those demonstrations I was arrested many times.
How many times? Did you stop counting?
I think ... I'd have to look up my security file from ASIO to get that, but it would be a dozen times, but over many things: over the Vietnam War, over apartheid, in support of our blacks. There were many demonstrations. Some of them were the union demonstrations when the union ... later on, when there was divisions within the union and the union federal body moved in, again I was arrested. So ...
The first time that you were arrested, honestly how did you feel? Did you feel a bit excited that you were being arrested? Do you remember how you felt?
Well, probably in the rough and tumble of the building industry and having the big fight we had to win control of that union, because we were involved in many tussles there because the ... the people who had control of the union before we won through also were ... worked hand in glove with criminal elements and so there was, you know, strong arm tactics used against us in the early stages of the rank and file movement in the late fifties and early sixties. So we were ... we weren't strangers to physical violence being used against us and in fact as early as 1960, when the turning point of the union came, one of the reasons we won control of that union, [was] we stopped the corrupt union officials from leaving a meeting. We held them prisoner at a meeting because they wouldn't carry out the democratic rules of the union, and they in fact called the police. They had a spectacle where the police were surrounding the Trades Hall and we were saying [that] we had the majority, over a hundred and fifty builders' labourers [were] saying no, they're going to sit there until they carry out the rules of the union, and we kept them there for the full two hours of the meeting. And that really was a turning point, because that led the rank and file to say, 'Well, we can take them on. We can take the corrupt union on'. So we were ... It was a pretty rugged industry, as you can imagine, and so we weren't averse to taking on the opposition.
So what tactics did you use over the years when the police came to arrest you? What did you do?
Oh non-violent action. We never engaged in ... in fighting the police but we took action that made it very difficult for them to ... to move in.
What was that?
Oh well we stood solid and all together and so the police were reluctant to ... to take us on. Individually, in big protest rallies, there would often be individual policeman who would throw their weight around but there was always, in all of those exciting times, there was a lot of feeling about things like the Vietnam War in particular, but also on the other issues. There was a lot of feeling about it.
We've all seen on television people getting really quite badly hurt when they were arrested or took on the police in some way. Were you ever hurt in the demonstration?
Well, no, not ... I don't think hurt to the extent ... I suppose I played football a bit, didn't I, so [it was] good training - rugby league. But, no I don't think I was ever, you know, bashed up in that way. A bit of pushing and shoving and that sort of stuff but never, never bashed up. No.
Now, we've been through Vietnam and the black issues. Now the other big issue, as you said earlier, the other big issue was the women's issues and what was the relationship of the Builders' Labourers under you to women and the whole emerging women's movement?
Well, I think as in ... with all men generally in that period there was room for improvement as there is probably now, but particularly then, and I think that the women's movement, the strength of the women's movement in the early seventies - late sixties and early seventies - took a lot of men by surprise, having in mind that ours was an all male enclave really. When women's social liberation came in, it affected us in many ways, but it was rather strange the manner in which we first got involved. Elizabeth Jacka and Ann Curthoys - sorry Jean Curthoys ... Jean Curthoys and Elizabeth Jacka had launched a campaign at the Sydney University for a course on women's social liberation, and it was opposed by the university authorities. The Builders' Labourers were approached by the women [who] said, seeing that there was a lot of building taking place on the Sydney University campus, would the Builders' Labourers consider giving support to the cause, because the university workers, meaning the staff and students had voted that the course should be conducted but the university authorities stopped it. And we had a meeting at the Sydney University, at which Jean Curthoys and Elizabeth Jacka and other women came along and spoke to the workers, and having in mind that the Builders' Labourers always ... had already been through a lot of political action, they responded to the request and decided they would stop work to support them. And this of course was taken up in the newspapers as a ... as a big issue because here is an all male, union ... an all male union that has never been involved in women's issues taking action to support the rights of women to conduct their own course, and in fact was successful in forcing the university authority to change their position.
So you stopped work on university buildings?
Stopped work on all the campus sites and within days, three or four days, they'd caved in and so the course came on ... on stream. But it's interesting to note that it was the Builders' Labourers taking that action. And so it was a sense of explanation to the workers and I think this showed ... showed just how far the union was moving because almost at the same time, on another university, at Macquarie University, a twenty-year-old student, Jeremy Fisher, had been kicked out of the Robert Menzies College at the university because he was a homosexual. And again the emerging homosexual movement had come to the Builders' Labourers and said, you're against the idea of workers not having a right, well, students ... and because of these students and workers had been together against the Vietnam War and anti-apartheid, it was taken that there was a relationship there, between the progressive students and the ... and the workers, the progressive trade unionists. And again as a repeat of what happened at Sydney University, Bob Pringle, the president, went out to that university. Again there was substantial building taking place because Macquarie University was expanding. The workers came together and they, like [at] Sydney University, took action and said, they'll go on strike until Fisher is reinstated. And so the workers stopped work and forced the university authorities to reinstate Jeremy Fisher. And so both the women's movement at Sydney University and the gay movement at Macquarie University are two examples of the union coming in behind other progressive causes. And of course, this was the spirit of the times because after going through that sixties that I spoke about, of the union developing rank and file - really a sense of workers' control, that the workers themselves had a degree - I'm not saying complete control, but a degree of workers' control and how open-minded they were, that the union was broken away from the narrow confines of wages and conditions to broader issues, to involve the women's moment and then the gay movement. And of course, at the same time there'd be a struggle for women to work in the union itself because ... Led by a number of spirited women, who had applied for work on a building site in North Sydney and the workers on that job had endorsed them coming on the job, there was a six week strike, and they forced the employer to employ two women, and that was the starting point of women coming into the Builders' Labourers, that they had the right to work in the union. When they first came in they came in as nippers, or people who look after the sheds and get the lunches, etcetera, but with the passage of time they became more skilled. They did hoist-driving and other work. It was argued by the employers, well women couldn't do other work. Well, of course, as one of the women pointed out in Rocking the Foundations, well, then some of the men didn't like jackhammer work, either, but there were plenty of other things in a changing industry that they could do. And so the Builders' Labourers was the first all male building union to win the right of women to work in what was then, up to then, an all male enclave and that was a very significant step forward.
Wasn't there resentment of them from the ordinary workers on the job, though, that they were taking jobs? Maybe if they were given work that was less ... if they were given work that was less demanding, didn't that displace, say, older workers, or whatever from doing that ... those jobs?
No, well, the thing about it was that at the time the industry was pretty strong. There was still work available. Had it been in a period of real downturn, it would have been more difficult to sustain. But once the union had won the right of women to work on the site, when it came to the question of tightening up or losing jobs, they were treated the same way as the men on the jobs, so it was a breakthrough in more ways than one that they were given equal stature with the men on the job. [INTERRUPTION]
It's really hard to believe that builders' labourers - male builders' labourers in the sixties and seventies were prepared to take this kind of action on behalf of women, gays and blacks. How did you persuade them?
If you look at the ... at the whole picture of that period, of that fifteen year period really, the exciting early sixties through to [the] mid seventies, it was ... as I said, it was volatile. It was very volatile and there were so many changes occurring, like of course women's social liberation was one of the main changes and it just so happened that the building industry at the time was going through one of the periods where it took on workers and so we were able to take advantage of that situation, and one thing led to another. I mean ...
But did they understand? How did you communicate to them why? I mean, was there a lot of talking done? Did you have a journal? How did you go about changing attitudes because these are deep attitudes?
Look there are so many facets to that. I was saying early about, as a communist there were changes occurring too because we had broken with the blind adherence to the Soviet Union or to China and so we condemned the cult of the individual, the terrible Stalinist crimes and the glorification of the cult of the individual with Mao Zedong that led to, again, so many errors being made. And so we were fighting for each country finding its own way to socialism, based on the history, culture, [and] tradition of that country. But of course the albatross was too heavy. You could be the most independent Communist Party in Australia but you're still tarred with the brush of the Soviet Union or China, or what happened there, let alone Cambodia and Romania and other tragedies as well. But here in Australia from the sixties on, the Communist Party was one of the most independent communist parties in the world. And for example, women's social liberation, well I think there would be no party in the country that was so much at the forefront as the Communist Party. Likewise with the struggle in Vietnam. It was the communist influenced, if not led unions that led the way there in the big moratoriums that linked up with Labor. And unlike now, where the Labor Left hardly exists, the Labor Left then was very much influenced by the Communist Party, and, looking back, I think we acted as a ginger group for the left wing of the Labor Party and gave them some direction at the time, which you haven't go now. And so I think that the Communist Party of Australia in the sixties 'til it wound up in the nineties was very influential in Labor politics in that period. I think that can't be denied. It played a big part. And ... and because the Builders' Labourers were at the forefront of that and I suppose we're best known now, because of the Green Ban movement and environmentalism and ecology, which were really very revolutionary for a union to take up, all of those other things that we discussed, the union was deeply involved and took the membership along with it. Now, it's true that not every builders' labourer was a galloping conservationist or women's libber or even supporter of the rights of gays, but at least we broke down the hostility of the more extreme element and let the more progressive element carry resolutions that took the union movement into a more mature position, as is shown by the fact that the union still continued to look after wages and conditions and do the fundamental thing that a union's there for, but also argued cogently that the union, to fulfil a role, has a right and not only the right but the responsibility to do other things, and particularly round the environment, we could address such things as how people live, the question of what the next generation is going to have, what are we going to leave them and the whole issue of ...
I can understand that. I can understand how it was done with the environment. I suppose the reason that I'm asking ... The reason that I'm asking pressingly about how you persuaded the union on blacks, women and gays, is that I really actually like to know how? I mean, when you had to get a majority to vote in favour of those resolutions, how did you do it? I'm talking nitty gritty here. How did you go about it?
I think it's precisely because of the manner in which the union leadership had won the confidence of the rank and file about basic union requirements that gave them a certain dignity. I remember Tom Hogan, one of our organisers, saying succinctly in that film Rocking the Foundation, when he was saying ... when we went into the strike if you asked him what he was doing, he would say, he'd mutter, 'I'm a BL, you know, a builders' labourer'. If after the strike you said, 'What are doing?' he said, 'I'm a bloody BL'. So the confidence was there, the workers' confidence was built up and their dignity was definitely increased. They weren't second class citizens and I think it was that more than anything else, that those workers could see that the union leadership was really out to assist them. And then through our journal and through our meetings we were able to explain to the rank and file and brought people along there - the blacks, brought them along. When the strike was up at the Gurindji people, we brought down Vincent Lingiari and Dexter Daniels and took them round the building sites and addressed the workers, and for the first time white workers ... and having in mind that something 60 to 70 per cent of their membership at the time were foreign workers. They were mainly southern Europeans: Greeks, Italians, Spanish, Yugoslav. They were ... At that period, they were the ones that came into the country in large numbers and often at meetings we'd have eight to ten translations. So at mass meetings we always translated to the rank and file in their own language, so we'd involve them. It was involvement. We had migrant organisers coming on the jobs. We had women organisers after they were elected. And in all of these issues such as, you know, the issue around Macquarie University, again we had people from the gay movement go out and talk about the way they were being ... the way they were being ignored or the way that they were being downgraded and insulted. And so it was this winning of the workers over ... winning, as I said, the hearts and the minds of the workers by direct consultation, by talking to them, that they moved along and went with the union, and they had confidence in the union. The same thing happened with ... with the environment movement. When ... when we were fighting around ... Before the Green Ban period there was a tendency to look upon the environment as being nature conservation or being only about lakes and rivers and forests, etcetera. Well we shot home that who lives in the worst parts of the city? Who's put up with the most noise in the cities? The working class. So the whole question of where you live, of all the transportation problems, of all the pollution problems, they're a concern of the people. They're not just, quote, 'a middle class issue'. They're everyday, they're everybody's issue and I think it was actually explaining that they had the right and the responsibility to become involved, won them over, that they could see that they ... so there was no three card trick. There was no clever manoeuvre on our part. It was an open discussion with those workers about it.
Yes, a lot seemed to happen on the sites. I have an image of Paul Robeson singing on the Opera House site. Could you tell me how that came about?
Yeah, well he was of course a great peace advocate and actually the Building Workers' Union, who covered tradesmen, were the main union who were involved in getting him out here, and one of his actions was to ... one of his first actions was to go down and talk to the ... and sing to the workers on the Opera House and it was a magical moment when the first person to ever sing at the Opera House was Paul Robeson. And ... and that was another example. That was the early sixties, [and that was] another example of the involvement of workers at the time. [INTERRUPTION]
There was a time when Paul Robeson visited the Opera House site. Could you tell me how that came about?
Yeah, well the Opera House commenced in 1959 and was completed in '73. Early in the sixties Paul Robeson was out in Australia on the basis of the peace movement of which he was a great advocate, and because of his background with workers he was invited down to the Opera House and he thrilled the workers at the Opera House with its first ever performance, so the Sydney Opera House workers were honoured when in 1962 or '63 the great Paul Robeson sang a song. And of course that's recorded: Old Man River. He sang a couple of songs and the workers really loved it.
During that period, one of the reasons why you were so effective was because of the sheer volume of work that needed to be done which gave you, as a union, a great deal of clout. Could you just remind us of some of the building sites, apart from the Opera House, that were happening in the city?
Well, having in ... I think the best example of that would be that ... that the tallest building in Sydney when I commenced in the late fifties, was a thirteen storey building, that's still there on the corner of Castlereagh Street and King Street. It's a thirteen storey building and the highest structure was the AWA tower in Clarence Street, and people used to go to ... in the ... on the bridge of the Opera House ... sorry, on the bridge of the harbour bridge, to look out over Sydney and when the first AMP building was built at Circular Quay, twenty-six storeys, they used to charge six shillings for people to go up and look over Sydney. And so now when you've got the MLC building sixty storeys, when you've got a whole range of buildings forty to fifty storeys, you can just imagine from that, from that Circular Quay really up to Chinatown, that whole area of the central business district, has been transformed and so all of those buildings: Australia Square, the round building that went up in '64, '65 and then the MLC building went up after that. So all of those buildings went up in that period, through to ... that twenty year period really, from '60 to '80. That was the enormous change that occurred within the Central Business District.
You managed to get considerable solidarity among the workers in the union. Was there similar solidarity on the part of the Master Builders' Association? Did they all stick together or was there a lot of variation in the employers you had to deal with?
The building industry changed considerably during that period. When I commenced in the building industry, the Master Builders were the same people. The Eastman's, the concrete constructions - there were six or eight large builders, and if, for example, a firm like David Jones wanted to expand their building, they would use the same builder that they've used before, or Max Cooper would be working for Fairfax and so on. But then with the advent of the large buildings, well it changed from just being the ordinary builder to being a developer. So you had the finance capital coming in together with the building industry and so you had a new ... shall we say a new extension to it. You didn't just have the builder, you also had a developer, so finance capital tied up with the building industry, brought in the property developer and the property developer changed the nature of the industry, from just the old orthodox builder. And so it was in that period that the union changed also. And so the Master Builders were a very conservative organisation that, of course, were able to use the union before us for their own purpose but then with the property developers coming in, some of them were just as reactionary as the orthodox builder. But then occasionally you had one like ... some like Dick Dusseldorf of Civil and Civic or Lend Lease, who was very open-minded and had a respect for workers as well as shareholders. And whereas they were of course concerned with ... with profit-making but they also had concern for the rights of the workers, and we were able to utilise that, and we had a better relationship with people like Dusseldorf than we had with the orthodox ... with the ordinary builders. So we were able to play differences between them, but in the main the developers stuck together and were very much opposed to our type of unionism.
Once you'd got some of the fundamentals that you sorted out in the sixties right, were there any other issues to do with the workers' conditions that you tried to pursue? I'm thinking here of permanency.
Of course. Yeah, well, the weakness of the building industry is that it fluctuates according to economic circumstances, and I guess with all work now, with the changing nature, it is ... it is evident that everybody is in the same boat. But in that period there was some consistency and workers did expect, or could expect, to have continuity of work over years or decades for that matter. But the building industry wasn't like the metal industry, for example, where you had ... you could work at the same factory for many years. The building industry was always temporary and so, I mean, the Opera House was a rarity because it lasted fourteen years. But most of the other buildings ... you could put up buildings in a very quick time: eighteen months, even the large buildings in Sydney, so there was a lot of movement.
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