A Centenary of the Queensland BLF (1910-2010)

 Humphrey McQueen

(The Queensland Journal of Labour History, 11 September 2010, pp. 24-31.)

The Queensland branch the Australian Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (ABLF) is unique in keeping the BLF name alive for the Federation’s centenary on 9 September 2010. Queensland has stood out from the six other branches in several ways, though it also shared a number of characteristics. The first builders’ labourers at Moreton Bay were convicts, as at Sydney and Hobart. In as much as building is a seasonal trade, Queensland slowed down during the wet summer as Melbourne did in winter, allowing some transfer of workers.

Early days – to 1915

The sub-tropical climate was an argument for shorter hours, with labourers forming a distinct group in the 1876 eight-hour parade and winning a 44-hour week in 1880s. The unions that covered tradesmen’s assistants usually kept their distance from navvies. Several labourers’ unions emerged during the 1880s, for instance, the European Labourers’ International Protection Association which had 200 members by 1885. Its secretary, C A Murrell, attended the Intercolonial Trades’ and Labor Congress in 1887 and was still around in early 1912 to become acting president of the ABLF branch. A Bricklayers’ Labourers’ Union in 1898 was followed by the Builders’ and Contractors’ Labourers’ Union in 1900. Brisbane officials played a key role in federating the five Eastern States, when secretary Ted Jones went to Melbourne to convince the Victorians to sign on, and became the first federal president.

Queensland presented the new body with its first challenge when the branch struck for ten shillings a day on 16 December 1910, staying out for fourteen weeks. Before the Federal officials arrived in January, 300 BLs had stopped, and 800 tradesmen were stood down. The government imposed a Wages Board on the labourers to force them back on nine shillings and fourpence for experienced men, though with overtime at time-and-a-half and no piece work. Since navvies were left on eight shillings, the motion to accept this compromise ‘almost created a riot at the meeting’. The defeat of the 1912 Brisbane General Strike, followed by the vicious Industrial Peace Act, added weight to the view that BLs needed to approach the Commonwealth Arbitration Court for an Award, which, in December 1913, provided a 20 percent loading for lost time as the prime benefit.

Leftward and onward to 1941

Further improvements came after 1915 with the State Labor government, arguably Australia’s most progressive administration ever, at least until 1923. In 1916, it enforced the licencing of scaffolders, as vital a reform as any for BLs. For those who were injured, compensation came through a Government Insurance Office, the model for other States, followed by an Unemployment Insurance Act, attacked as the ‘Loafers’ Paradise Bill’. After a rewriting of the Arbitration Act in 1916, the branch applied for registration on 16 November 1917, with John William Abbiss as secretary.

In 1919, a State award for BLs included 44-hours, and forbad piece rates. In return for agreeing not to strike, the union gained preference which offered more regular employment to those who usually worked in the industry. Almost at once, enthusiasm for One Big Union saw the branch join seven unions in a local Building Trades Award which took Queensland outside federal coverage. In 1925, the federal secretary praised the Queensland award as being so far in advance of those in other States that he could use it to push for advances everywhere.

The Queenslanders were also in the forefront of creating a single industry union. In 1924, branch secretary George Carleton wanted to bring ‘all workers not otherwise provided for’ into a general labourers union, with tilers and railway navvies. In 1926, Federal Conference gave the branch permission to leave the Federation and join an industrial union. That new body did not get very far before right-wing Federal officials during the 1930s blocked further attempts to leave for what became the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU). Meanwhile, the regime of awards reinforced divisions between types of labourer and between labourers and tradesmen with the arbitration tribunals deciding that a petrol bowser was not a ‘building’ but that a bridge could be very like one.

Meanwhile, workers had battled to maintain their incomes in the turmoil from the Great War. Taking 1911 as the base year at 1,000 units, real wages for a labourer by 1915, when unemployment went above 13 percent, was close to 760 units. During 1919-20, living costs rose by 20 percent before recession from 1921 brought a wage-cut of five shillings. Most unions campaigned until 1925 to restore that loss, when many also won a 44-hour week, against opposition from the Labor cabinet. Because building unions already had a 44-hour week, they moved to secure 40-hours.

That push led the branch into a defeat from which it never entirely recovered. On one hand, the leadership was as close to the IWW as to the Communist Party. This militancy did not erase faith in parliamentary reforms when the branch officials put themselves in the front rank of an ill-prepared strike for the shorter week from January 1927 until mid-March. The unions were no match for a reformed Master Builders Association backed by the Labor premier. The branch was deregistered for a year and in 1929 lost coverage above Mackay to the AWU.

Depression

All unions collapsed under the depression with branch numbers down from 2,375 in 1929 to 859 by 1932, at a time when every one out of job was claiming to be a labourer. The Building Trades journal recalled that, under the more openly anti-labour State government from 1929 to 1932, ‘horrible as it may sound and as disgusting as it may be, it is none the less the truth, that many of our wives had no nightgowns to wear’.

A want of work on the sites spilt over into a scramble for union office, in the course of which a gang of no-hopers gained control for a year from 1934 before the Left reclaimed the leadership with Fred Jackson back as secretary to be succeeded in 1940 by the Communist Dick Surplus. By then, compulsory unionism had helped to lift financial membership to 1,065, but undermined militancy, as Surplus put it: ‘job action would receive scant courtesy’.

The executive voiced its proletarian consciousness in 1934 when they presented the retiring president with a clock in ‘the hope that he would live to hear it chime on the day the workers received the full value of their labour’. In this spirit, the branch co-sponsored the Queensland Building Trades Worker from 11 September 1934 to educate against the ‘obsolete form of craft unionism’. A tradesman confessed in 1936 that ‘experience proves that the Labourers have always been in the forefront of any move to improve conditions. It is an everlasting reproach to the tradesmen, that on numerous occasions, they have failed to give the Labourers the support they so richly deserved’. In line with this reputation, in 1937, the BLs voted 513 to twenty-two to amalgamate with the tradesmen.

War years

To build bases for the US military, the Commonwealth sent thousands of labourers to Queensland in the Civil Construction Corps. To get their union dues, the branch had to fight the NSW and Federal secretary, the gangster Fred Thomas. Although the Corps won a special award, activists complained about ‘bad lighting, vermin-infested huts, wash tubs, clothes lines, banking facilities, tobacco, sandshoes’ in their remote camps.

Right-wing Laborites took control from mid-1940s, though it is not clear how the Left lost since the Reds strengthened their hold on the tradesmen’s unions. It is possible that the gulf between the tradesmen and their assistants contributed to this parting of the ways although, as late as 1945, the branch pushed the Federation to ‘take all necessary steps’ to allow Queensland to merge with the Communist-led BWIU. A shift in the members’ views came in 1949 when they voted 443 to 410 to break with the Communist-led Trades Hall Council, and did not rejoin until 1960. The branch always stayed in the Building Trades Group, relying on the Communist Gerry Dawson for court work.

As the war ended, materials and labour were in such short supply that employers went back to demanding that labourers bring their own picks and shovels. The new leadership won on this one but told members to find work elsewhere rather than black-ban ‘notorious sweaters’. Given this attitude, it is not surprising that secretary Bill Tyrrell complained in 1948 that members would rather play cards than listen to him explain the latest balance sheet. Opposition to the officials flared against an increase of fees in 1947 and when 100 turned out to support strikers in NSW. Members were also insisting on holiday pay because being stood (down) at Christmas meant more hardship than happiness.

Money trails

Like the other branches, Queensland had its quota of alcoholics and thieves. One organiser was not sacked until after he had been arrested for being drunk on licenced premises. In April 1924, the Federal office learned that secretary Joe Brice had taken between £800 and £2,000 from the branch and the BTG. In 1943, the branch threatened legal action against ex-secretary Erroll Greaves unless he made up missing funds. State secretary and Federal president Ted Farrell confessed in late 1962 to stealing ?700 to cover bets on the Rabbitohs. Members’ dues did not always reach the office for a secretary to steal. Between 1941 and 1966, eight job reps around Queensland took between ?24 and ?350. In contrast to such malfeasance was the office manager, Mrs Drew; Vince Dobinson recalled that when he became an organiser, ‘Whatever Mrs Drew said, I did’.

Despite these financial problems, Queensland was the wealthiest branch in 1956 when Tyrrell raised the prospect of its owning its own building, a further step away from the Reds who ran the Trades Hall. At the time, the branch had ?17,000 in the bank, more than the combined debts and assets of the rest of the Federation. When the Buffaloes’ Hall, at 697 Ann St, Fortitude Valley, came up for private sale at ?27,500, the branch borrowed ?10,000 and made the final repayment of ?2,048 in March 1959 – two years early. The executive named the building after Tyrrell as the branch’s longest serving secretary.

During the 1950s, attendance see-sawed between twenty-five and 150 but averaged about thirty. For the 1958 elections, the returning officer posted 1,961 ballots. In the 1960s, attendance was rarely more than twenty. The Left could never get more than three along although there was more opposition around the sites.

Politics

Across its first thirty years, Queensland had been the most consistently Left-wing of the branches. In October 1940, the branch attacked the State Labor government’s Public Safety Act which gave a sub-committee of cabinet – ‘the Grand Fascist Council’ –  the power to decide who could be union officials. The branch declared: ‘We cannot defeat fascism if fascist means are taken against the working class’. The branch helped only parliamentary candidates who supported socialism and, in June 1944, called on the ALP to let the Communist Party affiliate.

Despite these policies, the Right was taking over. In 1940, Communist Dick Surplus held on to the secretaryship with 270 votes against 110 for his nearest rival. Next year, Greaves beat Surplus by 280 to 227, but had to resign in 1943. Tyrrell then defeated Surplus by 300 votes to 180. The right-wing takeover was more secure at the 1946 poll when Tyrrell won by 311 to seventy-one. The new president, Jack Buck, denied that he had been thrown out of the Communist Party for stealing, yet, for the next twenty years, he sided with the Left on political questions.

The officials stomped on rank-and-file action on the jobs, and off. For instance, the executive charged five members with carrying the slogan ‘Unity: You and I can do it” in the 1953 May Day parade. One man defended himself by saying that May Day’s ‘being the workers’ day, he considered he was quite within his rights in carrying a banner’. Next year, the branch won the draw to lead the building trades’ section of the march but, fearing that the BLF would be tarred with the Red slogans behind, the executive wanted a band between them and the rest. No wonder that the size of its contingent fell off. In 1958, Tyrrell was too out of condition to march and resigned shortly afterwards.

The branch had settled into a pattern peculiar to right-wing Labor in Queensland. Its leaders were never at ease among other right-wing unions such as the Ironworkers which competed for coverage. Tyrrell was not a Grouper in the Santamaria mould, rather, he was anti-communist and wary of the AWU. The branch stuck to ‘Doc’ Evatt and the ALP through the splits, although Tyrrell had backed premier Gair until his expulsion in May 1957. Thereafter, the branch accepted left-wing proposals so long as they could be squared with Labor Party policies, for example, Cuban nationalisations and a Nuclear-Free Pacific.

However, the leadership was reluctant to support civil liberties for radical students, partly because of political differences, but also because of the BLs’ experience of university students as scabs and for the refusal of engineering undergraduates to join unions when they took vacation jobs. The officials failed to see that the upsurge in action on campuses was one sign that the social composition of tertiary education had altered to include the children of their members.

When the Left took charge of NSW in 1961, the Queenslanders were generous in lending the new officials funds to help get rid of the crooks and parasites. By 1964, the branch took the lead in making Sydney explain where the money was going. Brisbane donated to the 1970 strike fund and welcomed NSW secretary Mundey to speak on ‘No Ticket, No Start’ later that year. By 1974, secretary Dobinson was the most implacable of NSW’s foes during the intervention, partly because of the political gulf, but also from clashes over what all the branches saw as the arrogance and dishonesty in Sydney. Well before Kelly’s Bush, the branch involved itself in the most significant of environmental battles which saved the Great Barrier Reef in 1970, and later Fraser Island. Queensland imposed few demolition bans but protected the Regent Theatre.

The 1960s

The interplay of local peculiarities and nation-wide features became apparent during the 1960s with the demands for infrastructure in the coal-basin projects at the same time as the building industry was being transformed by concrete-and-steel high-rises. On what became known as the Gold Coast, labourers on the Broadbeach hotel in 1955 demanded thirty shillings extra. Against a union direction to find work elsewhere, the men voted twenty-one to seventeen to continue their stoppage. Concrete also gave rise to conflicts with carpenters over formwork and with plasterers in finishing-off.

Despite a slow start to office blocks in the Brisbane CBD, one of Australia’s early high-rise residentials, the TorbreckTower rose on Highgate Hill to become the site of running disputes. Deaths on other sites sparked stop-works and marches. The end of compulsory unionism in 1966 added to the pressure on officials to win support among labourers by engaging them in struggle. One of the earliest breakings of concrete pours happened in Brisbane during the July 1968 margins campaign; officials expected the tactic to catch on because it had been shown on television.

Many times more disruptive to Tyrrell’s style of organising were the demands from men erecting power stations. Secretary Jim Delaney confessed that when ‘agreements had first been made we had been in our infancy’ on construction projects. The rawness of locations such as Blackwater and Gladstone drew the BLF closer to other building unions to defend job reps, to win site allowances and to ward off the AWU. The branch depended on Gallagher to stop the contractors’ jobs down south. Queensland brought itself under the Federal Award in 1971 as one more move to retake territory from the AWU.

Construction Division

Queensland was one of four branches to avoid de-registration in 1986, perhaps because premier Bjelke-Petersen feared that the Communist-led tradesmen would take coverage. The branch joined the Construction Division of the CFMEU in 1994 but as a separate entity. One reason for sticking apart was that the BLs suspected that tradesmen would do as they always had done, and ‘shit on us’, to quote secretary Greg Simcoe.

State secretary Pat Purcell went into the State parliament in 1992, and then to the Ministry in 2005, but found there was no place for a labourer in the New Labor of Goss and Beattie. The branch takes its organisers off the jobs, not graduates. It maintains a funeral fund and a multi-million dollar training system. BLs make up one of the largest and most vocal contingents in Labor Day marches, taking the fight against the Construction police up to Rudd, to headlining ‘Gillard Must Go’ in its August 2009 journal. The merger of BLF(Q) into the Construction Division is only a question of time. Less certain is the effect that that administrative change will have on the BLs and on the State branch of that Division. The CFMEU as a whole remains skilled at ‘sticking apart’.

Despite the branch’s reverses and failings, the pressure of capital on the livelihood and safety of labourers has repeatedly brought their union back towards an activism which enlivens defence with defiance.

Further reading

This list is confined to material related to the building trades.

Greenland, Hall (1990), Red Hot, The life and times of Nick Origlass, Wellington Lane Press, Sydney, chapter seven.

McQueen, Humphrey (2006), ‘Lessons from defeat: the 1927 claim for a 40-hour week by Queensland building industry unions’, Queensland Journal of Labour History, 3, September 2006, pp. 17-46.

McQueen, Humphrey (2008), ‘Improvising Nomads’, Journal of Australian Colonial History, 10 (2), pp. 223-250.

McQueen, Humphrey (2009), Framework of flesh, builders’ labourers battle for health and safety, Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide.

McQueen, Humphrey (forthcoming), We built this country, Builders’ labourers and their unions, 1780s to the future.

Proctor, S K (1967), ‘The Rise and Decline of the AustralianBuilding Industry Employees Union in Brisbane, 1912-18’, Labour History, 13, pp. 26-32.

Queensland Trades and Labor Council (1969), How Collinsville was won, QT&LC, Brisbane.

Branch records in Fryer Library, University of Queensland, UQFL 166.

Federal ABLF minutes, NoelButlinArchivesCenter, ANU, N130.

Queensland Industrial Gazette, 1916 –

Interviews with three successive branch secretaries, Vince Dobinson, Pat Purcell and Greg Simcoe.