The NSW BLF: The battle to tame the concrete jungle

by Mick Armstrong • Published 25 July 2020

This article is dedicated to the memory of my comrade Dave Shaw – a BLF militant and revolutionary socialist – who gave his life in the battle to tame the concrete jungle. The title is inspired by Pete Thomas’s 1973 booklet.

In a series of spectacular industrial battles the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) dramatically improved the wages and working conditions of a group of workers who had long been at the very bottom of the pile in the construction industry. Workers who had previously been too embarrassed to admit what job they did now proudly proclaimed themselves BLs. This growing self-confidence and assertiveness led them to directly confront the bosses for control over the construction industry. The BLs demanded that they have a decisive say over what was built or not built in the interests of the working class as a whole and the mass of the oppressed. This was most famously expressed in the form of the Green Bans which shut down a massive array of environmentally destructive projects. The BLF’s flamboyant leader, the recently deceased Jack Mundey, became far and away Australia’s most notorious Communist.

At its high point in the early 1970s the NSW BLF was easily the most radical union – in terms of industrial militancy, democratic rank and file control and determined action around a broad sweep of political causes – in the post-war period in Australia. You would have to go right back to the Marxist and revolutionary syndicalist-led Amalgamated Miners’ Association (AMA) in Broken Hill during the First World War, or even earlier to the syndicalist Sydney Rockchoppers’ Union, to see a comparable union.[1]

The BLs’ path-breaking role was not just confined to Green Bans. With their militant democratic approach they forthrightly challenged the entrenched bureaucratic apparatuses that dominated the union movement, both left and right. They campaigned with concerted industrial action around all the political issues confronting working-class people and the oppressed – racism, the Vietnam War, poverty, women’s rights, health services, decent housing, adequate pensions and public services. They sought to act as the tribune of the people.

This class struggle approach made them an incredible array of enemies – most obviously the building bosses, the capitalist media, the cops and governments of all political hues. However their most insidious enemies proved to be the bureaucrats who ran the rest of the union movement. Indeed the agent of their destruction was Norm Gallagher, the supposedly left-wing Maoist Federal BLF Secretary, funded by and acting at the behest of the building bosses. Gallagher’s thuggery was cheered on by the head of the ACTU, Bob Hawke. Meanwhile the other main left union in the industry, the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU), led by the pro-Moscow Socialist Party of Australia, sat on its hands, happy to see its militant rival obliterated. Key unions led by Mundey’s fellow Communist Party of Australia (CPA) members also refused to come to the aid of the NSW BLF, as they too looked askance at its strident radicalism and commitment to rank and file union democracy.

As a result, NSW BLF was eventually defeated, crushed by superior forces. But it left a shining example of what working-class people are capable of. It is an example, with both enormous strengths and some significant weaknesses, which deserves to be studied in detail by socialists today as they fight for a revolutionary, class struggle orientation in the union movement.

Long dedicated work[2]

This radical union had its origins in a tiny rank and file group established by a handful of CPA members in 1951. The NSW BLF was at that point a right-wing, gangster-run affair in the pocket of the bosses. One prominent militant, Ralph Kelly, maintains that BLF organisers picked up a five pound note from the boss on each job they visited and never worried about the safety conditions “or anything else”.[3]

Workers who made a stand were bashed on the job or at union meetings by thugs at times armed with revolvers, or sacked after been fingered as a “trouble maker” by an official. After World War II Communists had been expelled from the BLF, and for a period in the 1950s they were barred from holding official positions. The hallmark of a militant in these years was a list of repeated sackings. Jack Mundey only survived in the industry in the 1950s by working on small suburban jobs which BLF organisers rarely visited. “One year I had as many as seventeen jobs; as soon as I started work one of the organisers would arrive and point me out to the boss.”[4]

Builders’ labourers were the lowest of the low in the construction industry; subject to poor pay, punishing, unsafe work and treated with utter contempt by their employers. Accidents and deaths on the job were rife. Amenities, such as eating sheds and toilets, were worse than non-existent. They often had to provide their own pick and shovel. As one militant Keith Jessop stated:

The industry was in a very bad way… There was little or no mechanisation… Brickies and plasterers were looked after by hod carriers and all the steel reinforcement was bent on the site, which was extremely hard work. There was no payment for public holidays; there was no wet weather pay, no annual leave and no sick leave. In all, it was a very hard, arduous, dusty and dirty and thankless job.[5]

It took long years of dedicated work by a determined group of rank and file Communists to start turning that around. After 18 months of activity they held their first open meeting, which attracted 15 workers, five of whom were CPers. They began to produce a roneoed newssheet, Hoist, dealing with job issues initially every two or three months. As they became more established Hoist went monthly.

They received organisational support from the CPA and some assistance from the Communist-led BWIU, which covered carpenters and bricklayers. However as Joe Ferguson, one of the founders of the Rank and File Committee, explained:

The main thing was to get the Hoist round the jobs. Also we used to go and see a lot of blokes on the weekend. The BWIU used to give us the names of delegates who weren’t bad blokes, and we used to go round and see them…have a yarn with them. We built up the organisation that way. It was just a lot of patient work.[6]

Hoist played a vital organisational role. They cohered a network of supporters by raising money for it on the job via the likes of raffles, and establishing a machine to distribute it. Through this work they gradually established a broader rank and file movement that, though largely led by CPers, included left-wing ALP members and other militants. They sought to build shop steward organisation on the job to give workers the confidence to fight back. In 1956 a huge construction project – a munitions complex – started at St Marys in Western Sydney, employing 4,000 workers. Joe Ferguson stated:

There was a thousand builders labourers on it. There would have been about 20 builders labourers delegates on the job, we had about 15 of them supporting the Rank and File.[7]

Jack Mundey joined the BLF in March 1957 and became chair of the shop stewards’ committee at the Clyde Oil Refinery. Mundey had previously joined the CPA in 1955:

I joined the Communist Party as a militant worker who judged communists…as the most consistent fighters for better wages and working conditions on the factory floor and as people who wanted to make life better for ordinary workers. The communists put forward positive ideas about a more even distribution of wealth of the country and that suited my egalitarian ideas.[8]

Another prominent militant, Tom Hogan, added:

The thing that made me join the CP…was the fact of the hard work…the hours that fellows were prepared to put into it. They were giving the real leadership on those jobs…the people I had been warned against were the people I felt closest to – Jack, Bert McGill, Joe Ferguson, Kevin Gledhill and Harry Connell.[9]

According to Mundey, when he joined the Rank and File Committee: “The intellectual person in the builders labourers in my opinion was Joe Ferguson, the best orator was Harry Connell who was the secretary of the Rank and File, and it consisted of about 8 or 10 people at that stage”.[10]

Ferguson and Connell were both Communists and the role of the politically trained Communist militants was vital. Many of the new activists were politically unformed. As long term militant Darcy Duggan put it, “they had union consciousness but no political consciousness…the only thing they had in common was a tendency to get sacked”.[11] As the Rank and File Committee’s influence grew they were able to mobilise more union members to branch meetings. They were in Jack Mundey’s words “sincere, not necessarily militant, workers opposed to the corrupt Thomas leadership”.[12]

Things began to change with the building boom of the 1950s and 1960s. A plethora of inner city high rise construction projects led to a rapidly expanding workforce with greater skills on larger sites, and consequently greater potential industrial power for labourers. As buildings became higher the accident rate soared and safety became a fundamental issue. Militants began to establish a strong camaraderie and organise together after work in the pubs around Sydney’s Circular Quay, where a number of key projects, such as the Opera House, the AMP building, British Tobacco, Goldfields and the huge State Office Block, were concentrated.

From 1957 onwards hundreds of BLs attended union branch meetings and the Rank and File began to control them. On that basis they had high hopes for the three-yearly union elections in 1958 – the first they contested. But the elections were thoroughly rigged by the right-wing machine. In the aftermath there was significant demoralisation and a group of about 500 riggers and scaffolders – the more militant and more skilled section of the labourers – broke away to form their own union. This significant minority of the membership were fed up with the BLF and were hostile to both the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and the Ironworkers Union (FIA), the other right-wing unions that covered them on some jobs. The breakaway survived for a couple of years before fading away.

Nonetheless the Rank and File managed to weather the storm and further build support. As Joe Ferguson put it: “Basically we built up a network… It came to a position where we started to run the jobs with the workers on the job, not the union”.[13] Activists like Jack Mundey and Bert McGill were paid from collections on the job “for weeks at a time to go round Newcastle, Wollongong and city jobs, delivering Hoist, getting to know workers and getting them along to meetings… We controlled every monthly meeting in that period”.[14]

They managed to have McGill and Mick McNamara, a young raw “cleanskin”, elected as temporary organisers at a branch meeting. When the executive moved McNamara out of the city to isolate him, “eight or nine big jobs stopped and marched to the office”.[15] They caught the officials in the pub and forced them to back down.

The corrupt right-wing leadership was defeated in the 1961 elections by a coalition of the Rank and File Committee and more moderate forces. The Rank and File did a deal with some centre ALPers not to contest a few positions. The majority of the Rank and File backed the inexperienced ALP left-winger McNamara for state secretary in order to get the pro-Labor vote. A few militants, who were later to back the Maoist Communist Party of Australia (Marxist Leninist), argued to back Jack Mundey for Secretary. Mundey himself subsequently claimed that it would have been “adventurist” for him, as a known communist, to take the secretary position at that time.[16] So essentially they ran a “Broad Left” team that won 17 out of 21 positions.

Mundey failed to win an organiser’s position in 1961. “It was an anti-communist vote.”[17] But Mundey, who was playing an increasingly central role, was elected temporary city organiser in 1962 and state secretary in 1968.

The new leadership was virtually starting from scratch and spent a great deal of effort in its first few years essentially creating a union out of the disastrous wreck that the old corrupt leadership had left behind. It was deep in debt, had no proper administrative apparatus, and the old right had even burnt the minutes books to cover their crimes.

The new leadership built up a network of job delegates from 29 at the end of 1961 to over 130 by December 1963. They went on to comfortably win elections in 1964 and again in 1967. Industrially they initially took a reasonably cautious approach. They did not defy court orders or the anti-union Penal Powers, something they would do in later years. They were strongly supportive of the ALP and of then ALP leader Arthur Calwell. In February 1964 Mundey moved that the union “call upon the entire membership to mount the best possible campaign to help defeat the Menzies Government, and elect a Federal Labor Government”.[18] A delicate balance was maintained on the executive between CPers and ALP members. However there were not major ideological differences, reflected in the fact that ALPer Mick McNamara visited Russia in 1967, as did Mundey in 1969, and a number of the ALP activists were later to join the CPA.

The main difference with other left unions was that the new leadership adopted a much more democratic approach. As Mundey explained: “Because of the way in which the crime element [had] controlled our union it meant that we had to develop a highly democratic alternative”.[19] Lively branch meetings decided union policy. Job delegate conferences were established and began to play an important role in directing activities. In order to keep close to the rank and file, BLF organisers rejected a move to increase their own wages.

One important overhead of having the new leadership in office was that the Rank and File Committee became less active, with meetings held irregularly. Workers instead looked to the democratic structures of the union and to the new officials to do the job for them. This is a recurring problem and underlines the importance of building strong, workplace-based organisation to help maintain rank and file involvement and day-to-day democratic control.

Hoist tended to be more commonly produced in election years. And after the 1964 elections when the Rank and File team won complete control, the Rank and File Committee was put into abeyance. Its main function in subsequent years was the pre-selection of election candidates, though it did continue to play a social role with large fundraising BBQs attracting up to 500 members.

Mundey described the leadership elected in 1964 as “still orthodox militant but further to the left than we’d been before”.[20] It mainly fought around basic bread and butter issues of wages and conditions on the job, but as it became more assertive this laid the basis for a more radical stand. The leadership also took up political issues such as Aboriginal rights and nuclear disarmament, but at this stage its approach was not markedly different from that of other left-wing unions of the period, such as the Waterside Workers, the Miners or the Seamen. The BLs did not, as they were to do later, take industrial action around political issues.

Not long after the 1967 elections, in which the Rank and File team was re-elected unopposed, Mick McNamara stood down as secretary and Mundey was appointed temporarily in his place and then convincingly won a rank and file ballot. His acceptance speech concentrated on improved administrative, organisational and financial issues. As Meredith Burgmann comments: “There is little in the above to forecast the radical changes that were to take place”.[21]

By the late sixties the mood across the working class was shifting dramatically.[22] There was a surge in strike action, particularly in the metal trades, with many localised strikes outside the framework of the arbitration system. Shop steward organisation strengthened markedly. The upsurge came to a head in the “Absorption” battle of 1968 when shop committees in the metal trades co-ordinated a wave of strikes which smashed employers’ attempts to absorb a wage increase granted by the Arbitration Commission. The “Absorption” victory fuelled confidence to take on the hated Penal Powers – the anti-union laws of the day – that were increasingly being used to fine unions for strike action. The crunch came in May 1969 with the jailing of Tramways union secretary Clarrie O’Shea.[23] Concerted nationwide strikes forced O’Shea’s release and turned the Penal Powers into a dead letter. The floodgates opened for a prolonged working-class offensive that won massive gains.

The upsurge in strikes and working-class confidence intersected with and reinforced a growing society-wide political radicalisation, sparked at first by young people on university campuses, notably around opposition to the Vietnam War. The NSW BLF was to be swept up in and transformed by these developments, becoming one of its most radical components.

The Communist Party and the BLF

Communist Party Secretary Laurie Aarons maintains that the CPA’s struggle against the corrupt BLF leadership had been “more or less continuous” from the forties onwards and that “it was the Party and virtually only the Party involved”.[24] These claims seem accurate. Moreover, while the Rank and File-backed leadership elected in 1961 contained a significant ALP component, by 1969 CPers dominated the leadership. Consequently it is impossible to understand developments in the BLF without an overview of the CPA’s political approach, particularly its trade union strategy. The CPA also had long had a strong ideological influence on the ALP left, which was commonly Stalinist in the post-war years.

In its pre-Stalinist years in the 1920s the CPA, after the split from the party of the Trades Hall Reds – a group of left officials around NSW Labor Council Secretary Jock Garden – began to develop a rank and file strategy based on the experience of the Minority Movement in Britain.[25] This revolutionary strategy sought to organise rank and file workers independently of the union bureaucracy and to pursue the class struggle aggressively when the officials would not lead.

This approach emphasised the importance of building strong shop steward organisation, shop committees uniting rank and file delegates of all the unions on the job, area committees of shop stewards and union-wide rank and file committees based on a militant class struggle policy. The rank and file strategy was predicated on a Marxist analysis that saw the union bureaucracy as an inherently conservative social layer that was loyal to capitalism. The union bureaucracy’s social interests were seen as counterposed to those of the mass of the working class, and it would need to be taken on and defeated if workers were to overthrow capitalism. This revolutionary approach was and still is sharply counterposed to the standard left-reformist orientation of establishing electoral coalitions or reform groups to capture the leadership of unions and change them from the top down.

The ability of the early CP to build a Minority Movement was limited by a series of factors: the party’s small size (only a few hundred members in the mid-1920s), continuing theoretical confusion on the question and the fact that the Communist International in Russia opportunistically sought to maintain an alliance with Garden’s Trades Hall Reds and vetoed attempts to form Minority Movement groups in Labor Council affiliates. This essentially limited the CPA to a Minority Movement group in the powerful miners’ union, which was not a Labor Council affiliate.[26]

All this abruptly changed in the early 1930s with the Stalinisation of the CPA and the enforcement on Moscow’s orders of the sectarian Third Period policy. Union officials of all stripes were now denounced as social-fascists – more dangerous than the actual fascists – and an aggressive attempt was made to form Minority Movement groups across the board. Given the utter bankruptcy of the union bureaucracy’s response to the employers’ onslaught in the Great Depression, the Minority Movement’s denunciation of officials and strident militancy struck a chord in militant sections, such as the coal miners who had been deeply embittered after a 15-month lockout. So despite the absurd rhetorical flourishes and substantial tactical errors flowing from the international line, the CP managed to grow to a few thousand members by the mid-1930s.

This all changed when Moscow imposed the class-collaborationist Popular Front strategy in the mid-1930s. Suddenly the CPA’s approach to union work shifted markedly to the right and became increasingly bureaucratic. This bureaucratic degeneration was compounded by the CPA’s success in winning more and more official positions. Rank and file opposition groups were still encouraged in right-wing-controlled unions but soon fell into abeyance once Communists or their supporters won control. Union officials came to dominate CPA union work, and rank and file Communists, let alone the mass of workers, had little democratic control over them.

In notorious cases like the Ironworkers’ union, Communists built hard line bureaucratic machines that bashed and purged left-wing dissidents. In unions with stronger democratic traditions, such as the Amalgamated Engineering Union, where Communists shared power with other forces, the CPA’s approach to industrial questions often differed little from that of ALP officials.

During World War II the CPA adopted an ultra-patriotic pro-war line and stridently opposed strikes, going as far as organising strike breakers. After the war, in the context of a huge working-class upsurge, the party gradually moved left, a trend that accelerated as the Cold War heated up in the late 1940s. But it was a top down, bureaucratic militancy which undermined the party’s capacity to successfully lead struggles and contributed to the disastrous defeat of the 1949 coal strike.

In the early 1950s under the conservatising pressures of Cold War isolation and Russia’s new line, the CPA moved to a more right-wing stance. As historian Ian Turner notes, the right-wing Grouper-led unions “concerned to establish their industrial legitimacy, were now just as likely to be involved in more limited industrial actions as were the communist-led unions”.[27] In union elections the CPA pursued a policy of “unity tickets” with ALP members on a lowest common denominator basis.

As late as 1965 CPA leader Laurie Aarons stated that communists wanted cooperation with both the right and left of the ALP and that the CPA did not want to dominate the unions.[28] Aarons had a track record as a hard-line Stalinist, who had very much led the charge against anti-Stalinist dissidents in the aftermath of the 1956 Russian invasion of Hungary and wrote a ferocious defence of the traditional Stalinist line in a pamphlet called Party of the Working Class.[29] Yet installed as new CPA secretary, he began to edge the party, at first tentatively, in a more liberal direction.

Initially the move away from hard-core Stalinism did not represent a shift to the left. However a radical wave was beginning to emerge in Australia and internationally that was considerably less enthused by the bureaucratic Russian model of supposed socialism. As this radicalisation deepened in 1968 and 1969, new political forces emerged, particularly on campus, which began to challenge the CPA’s overwhelming dominance of the left. The Aarons leadership, fearful that the CPA’s dull, conservative, bureaucratic practice meant that it was missing the bus, began to shift further left in an attempt to co-opt the young radicals. In January 1969 the CPA national committee urged a “bolder confrontation with the penal powers”.[30]

The edging away from Stalinism and the adoption of a more radical approach was strongly resisted by entrenched forces in the party, in particular established union bureaucrats such as the BWIU’s Pat Clancy. As early as the 1967 CPA Congress Clancy had crossed swords with Aarons and defended a parliamentary-oriented reformist policy and a top-down bureaucratic approach in the unions. In the lead up to the 1970 CPA Congress the divisions became increasingly open, with Aarons arguing:

A key issue will remain that between the two differing concepts of unionism: either a democratic movement based upon active participation of its members in workshop or organisation, its methods always based upon mass action, or a movement run from the top, committed to arbitration and legalism and thus absorbed into the system.[31]

Aarons deplored CPA union officials’ hostility to criticism: “When youth are solemnly warned not to criticise union officials lest this be destructive, then revolutionary spirit has been lost”.[32] This opened up more space for genuine militants in the party, such as those in the NSW BLF, to have their heads.

But though shifting left, the approach of the Aarons leadership was far from being Marxist. It was a liberal humanist approach that did not see the working class as the decisive force in the struggle for socialism. The CPA still viewed Russia and Eastern Europe as a form of socialism. The Stalinist states just needed liberal democracy tacked onto them. Consequently the Aarons leadership enthusiastically supported Dubček’s liberal reforming Stalinist regime in Czechoslovakia that was overthrown by Russian tanks in August 1968. The Russian invasion, according to BLF leader Joe Owens, hit the Sydney building industry “like a time bomb”.[33] There were physical clashes on building sites between hard-line pro-Russian Stalinists and supporters of the CPA’s criticism of the Russian invasion.

Leading BLF CPA members such as Jack Mundey, Harry Hatfield and Tom and Brian Hogan played a prominent role in the fight against the conservative forces around Pat Clancy. Clancy resigned from the CPA in October 1971 and became chairman of the pro-Moscow Socialist Party of Australia (SPA) on its foundation in December 1971. He accused the CPA of being overtaken by “ultra radicals” and of failing to form an alliance with the ALP.[34] The SPA repeatedly denounced supposed “Trotskyite” influence in the party.

The CPA’s jag to the left deepened with the massive upsurge of struggle at the beginning of the seventies. Ever since the Popular Front days of the 1930s the CPA had argued for a nationalist alliance with supposedly progressive Australian capitalists against “foreign” capitalists. Now, reflecting the more left-wing mood, the CPA began to downplay nationalism, just as Maoists such as Norm Gallagher embraced increasingly reactionary nationalist politics. In 1973 Aarons attacked as a “retreat” the Maoists’ “old concept of the ‘national bourgeoisie’ with whom workers can supposedly unite against foreign capital”.[35]

In the early 1970s the CPA talked a lot about workers’ control and a “new concept of unionism”. Though generally pretty vague and woolly, this rhetoric significantly impacted the BLF, who seriously tried to put the idea of workers’ control into effect. It did so much more seriously than any other union the CPA influenced. This reflected the changing nature of the construction industry, the history of the BLF militants and the fact that the prominent CPers had taken over the leadership of the union at a time of soaring militancy. They had not settled into becoming entrenched bureaucrats. The BLF became the symbol of the CPA’s more radical, less Stalinist face. The increasingly militant stance of the NSW BLF led many of the best activists to join the CPA. Something like 100 BLs became party members.

The main political document for the 1974 CPA Congress described the party as “an independent revolutionary party working for socialist revolution”. Indeed the document used the word “revolution” or “revolutionary” 54 times in nine pages. “Yet”, as Tom O’Lincoln writes, “within a few years all the radical rhetoric was being disavowed, and the party was on its way to a new right wing consensus”.[36]

In 1970 CPA activist Joyce Slater had written in a letter to the party paper Tribune:

The extreme Rightwing Stalinists have taken a beating, but what of the stay-putters, don’t rock-the-boat elements in the middle? We have only just begun the fight for radical change in the party.[37]

The reality was that fight was never pursued to a conclusion. The shift to the left was thinly based. Although the NSW CPA used the radical prestige of the BLF to recruit young activists, and Jack Mundey was installed as CPA president, the party did not fundamentally change. It was in no sense a revolutionary organisation. By the mid-seventies the CPA leaders were moving relentlessly in an explicitly reformist direction, becoming key architects of the wage-cutting Prices and Incomes Accord of the 1980s.

The CPA in the 1970s became a loose amalgam of disparate forces. An entrenched right wing dominant in Victoria did little to sell Tribune which it considered too radical. It was not just the likes of Pat Clancy, who had left to join the SPA, who decried the BLF’s “adventurism”. Many CPA union bureaucrats felt threatened by the BLF’s militancy and championing of rank and file democracy.

So while the BLF sharply radicalised, the powerful Metalworkers Union, easily the most important union at the time with 180,000 members, in which leading Communists such as Laurie Carmichael and John Halfpenny were prominent, hardly altered course. When Gallagher intervened in 1974 to crush the NSW BLF, the Metalworkers, which had members in important sections of the construction industry, did not lift a finger to support them.

The BLF in its heroic period

A series of militant strikes by BLs in the early 1970s won path-breaking wage increases and much improved conditions. The BLF used a whole range of militant tactics – crane occupations, the breaking or interrupting of concrete pours, flying pickets and the use of organised vigilante squads – to physically destroy work done by scab labour.

The lengthy 1970 “Margins strike”, which won very important wage gains, was a key turning point. The strike was democratically controlled by an elected strike committee which included significant migrant representation. The strike committee adopted a new tactic of organised vigilante groups of strikers who visited work sites where scabbing was taking place. In most cases that simply involved talking to workers and convincing them to join the strike. There were, however, some confrontations with bosses, security guards and the cops. A few work sites were occupied by the vigilantes. More controversial, and widely denounced in the media, was the vigilante squads’ destruction of work done by scabs. This was a tactic that the NSW BLF became famous for.

After five weeks on strike they had a slashing victory that significantly reduced the pay differential between BLs and carpenters and other trades. This dramatically raised the confidence of the workers involved, as labourers expressed their pride in being part of the union, a BL. A 16-day strike in 1971 won further decisive gains. The NSW BLF managed to keep winning very substantial pay rises right up until the time of Gallagher’s federal intervention in October 1974, which brought the victories to an end.

But it was not just these major industry-wide struggles that won improvements. Militancy exploded at the local job level as worker confidence soared. Almost daily battles occurred on individual workplaces to win site allowances and over-award payments. Some jobs, such as Dillingham Constructions’ huge Qantas site in Clarence Street, became legendary for militancy under the leadership of a team of experienced activists. An almost four-month-long strike on the Qantas site in 1970 won a substantial site allowance.

Numerous bold, irreverent but effective tactics were tried. On one site, where management failed to provide anything like adequate amenity facilities, workers dumped the pathetic shed they had been given into a deep excavation. They soon got what they were demanding. Breaking concrete pours became a favoured tactic. Dave Shaw recounted:

You wait till they are about to pour concrete, then you tell the boss you may be holding a meeting, so they stop. They stop the pour, and of course you don’t hold a meeting. You do this every day. Once we had the company pouring a yard of concrete in three weeks. They paid $200,000 in wages and got $180 in progress payments.

A very defiant attitude emerged. Workers were no longer intimidated by company managers or the bosses’ standover merchants. On some jobs they struck over “the general attitude of the company”. Foremen were specifically targeted. Dave Shaw described how “we trapped the general foreman in a large cardboard box, then stacked more boxes around it and on top, up to the ceiling. He was caught for two hours, screaming and shouting”.[38]

The BLF went on to win every major battle with the bosses from the 1970 strike until Gallagher’s federal intervention. The rising militancy, the path-breaking wage gains and the boom in the construction industry fuelled a major increase in union membership to a peak of about 11,000 in 1973-4. The union leadership was also radicalising. In 1970 Mundey criticised the approach of mainstream union officialdom: “There was too much readiness to settle rather than to set out to win disputes”. He explicitly criticised left-wing officials:

Most militant workers have been critical for years of the general passivity displayed in strikes, and the failure of communists and others on the left to really force the issues… These workers found it difficult to differentiate who was who, who was left, right or centre when all urged return to work when it came to the prospect of a longer strike.[39]

From 1971 the BLF increasingly pursued an approach that seriously encroached on managerial prerogatives, including resistance to sackings, a form of de-facto union hire and work-ins. In most cases in Australia and internationally, work-ins were employed as a defensive tactic to fight job losses, whereas the BLF repeatedly used work-ins as an aggressive strategy to challenge management’s right to hire and fire at will and gain greater control over the workplace, including the election of foremen and safety officers and control over the allocation of specific jobs.

A key factor underpinning radicalism was the highly democratic nature of the union. Key policies were not imposed by officials but were thoroughly debated out and decided at mass members’ meetings. The BLF militants took measures to limit the development of an entrenched union bureaucracy. Organisers regularly returned to work on the job for prolonged periods, and Mundey himself stood down as secretary.

It was the heightened confidence BLs gained from their industrial victories, combined with the political arguments made by socialists in the union, that led builders’ labourers to play a prominent role in fighting around a series of political issues – Aboriginal rights, the Vietnam War, opposition to apartheid in South Africa, women’s liberation (they championed getting women jobs in a previously all-male industry) and gay rights. Mundey argued that “for a union to be meaningful it must speak up on all issues affecting the life of not only the members of a union but all Australian people”.[40]

The BLF did not just endorse left-wing causes in words. It backed them up with serious action and gave us a glimpse of how a broader movement of militant workers could seriously challenge capitalist exploitation and defend the rights of the oppressed. When draft resisters sought refuge at the Sydney University Student Union, BLs built barricades to keep the police out. In 1971 the BLF strongly backed protests against apartheid in South Africa when the all-white South African rugby league team toured Australia. Jack Mundey declared:

We think it is not good enough to just demonstrate and protest. We feel at least some of the games must be physically stopped. We consider we will go down in the eyes of the world as a racist country unless some of the games are stopped.

NSW BLF President Bob Pringle and another worker were arrested for sawing through the goal posts at the Sydney Cricket Ground. And Mundey was charged with contempt of court after declaring that “the two men would have been jailed if we hadn’t demonstrated and considered a national strike”.[41]

In 1972-73 the BLF waged a long campaign against property developers in Redfern to secure low-cost housing for the local Aboriginal community. In July 1972 Mundey was arrested in the course of campaigning against the Vietnam War on a charge of “intent to incite” people not to register for National Service. In the middle of 1973 the BLF banned construction work at Macquarie University in protest at the expulsion of Jeremy Fisher from a residential college because he was gay. The authorities were forced to reinstate him. This was a path-breaking action for gay rights in a period when homophobia was still incredibly intense and by a workforce that was often portrayed as yobbo “poofter bashers”. Then in June 1973, when the Professorial Board at Sydney University blocked a proposal for a women’s studies course, students approached the BLF which announced a ban on all further construction work on the campus. Yet again they won.

The Green Bans to save working-class housing, heritage buildings and parkland, for which the BLF became most famous, did not then come from nowhere. They flowed from growing industrial confidence and an assertion that workers are not robots toiling at the whim of profit-driven developers. The workers believed that they should have a clear say over what they built in the interests of the broader working class. They sought to tame the concrete jungle. As one young labourer, Dave Shaw – who had been on the CPA Sydney District Committee before resigning because of the CPA’s rightward drift to join the International Socialists – wrote:

The BLF leadership cultivated a remarkable militancy among the workers, smashing down scab work, work-ins, occupations like the occupation of the Hilton site in George Street. We saw the results they got with these tactics, and the way they encouraged the workers to take their own initiatives.

It was easy for me to support the green bans. The spectacular events that accompanied them, the occupations, the arrests, the demonstrations, all of this captured my imagination and I’m sure they captured the imagination of a lot of other workers.

At that time a majority of the membership supported the green bans, there’s no doubt about that. Not just because they supported the principle, but also because at that time the industry was booming, and you could ban jobs left, right and centre, because you could always go and get a job somewhere down the road.

Another thing that impressed me was that the CPA made an attempt to bring women into the industry. There can be no doubt that on many jobs some of the workers voted in favour of it for sexist reasons: that it would be “great to have a sheila on the job”, but nevertheless I think that it did a lot to break down the myth that women can’t do hard physical work.[42]

In NSW there were about 60 women BLs. In Victoria under Gallagher there was only one, Sandra Zurbo, a supporter of the rank and file opposition to the Maoist leadership that published a broadsheet, On Site. Zurbo pointed out that Gallagher’s officials “refused to use the tactic that was used in NSW, of getting women to go on the job, talk to the workers there, and have a struggle on the job”.[43] The Maoists, and in particular Gallagher’s cohorts, were renowned for gross homophobia and sexism. Their starkly different attitude to women’s rights compared to that of the NSW BLF was reflected in the actions of Gallagher’s ally, Queensland BLF Secretary Vince Dobinson. Dobinson notoriously gave the order: “OK boys, rip it down” when a Women’s Liberation banner was raised at the 1975 Brisbane May Day march.[44]

The Green Ban movement really got underway in June 1971 when a Hunter’s Hill resident action group approached the BLF to save Kelly’s Bush as open public space. The union wholeheartedly backed them. When developer AV Jennings threatened to use scab labour on the site, workers on another Jennings site sent this message: “If you attempt to build on Kelly’s Bush, even if there is the loss of one tree, this half-completed building will remain so forever, as a monument to Kelly’s Bush”.[45] Kelly’s Bush was saved!

In 1972 Jack Mundey declared:

Yes, we want to build. However, we prefer to build urgently needed hospitals, schools, other public utilities, high-quality flats, units and houses, provided they are designed with adequate concern for the environment, than to build ugly unimaginative architecturally bankrupt blocks of concrete and glass offices… Though we want all our members employed, we will not just become robots directed by developer-builders who value the dollar at the expense of the environment. More and more, we are going to determine which buildings we will build.[46]

Major Green Ban battles included The Rocks, where a bitterly fought ban that included many arrests of protesting residents and workers saved the oldest European-built buildings in Australia and housing for low-income workers. In Woolloomooloo working-class housing was again saved. Another flashpoint was Victoria St, Kings Cross, where the Green Ban on an important area of working-class housing was lifted after federal intervention by Gallagher, who was in cahoots with, and very likely funded by, gangster developer Frank Theeman.

By 1975 the bans had stalled development worth $5 billion at mid-1970s prices.[47] The Master Builders Association (MBA), which well before the Green Ban period was out to get the NSW BLF, piled the pressure on Gallagher’s federal leadership to destroy them. NSW Liberal Premier Robert Askin, who was close to the developers, adopted a very hard-line approach. The NSW Summary Offences Act was consistently used by bosses in industrial disputes and specifically targeted the BLF, with police arresting organisers, and on building sites physical attacks by bosses on organisers accelerated.

The BLs and the BWIU

The BWIU had adopted a militant stance in the late 1940s and was deregistered in 1948 for striking in defiance of arbitration. In 1952 right-wing Groupers organised a split to form the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners (ASC&J) which weakened the BWIU’s industrial position. The impact was to help push the BWIU into a more conservative mould. According to Jack Mundey the BWIU had to undertake not to engage in militant action in order to regain registration, which was not obtained until September 1962. It placed an emphasis on alliances with various right-wing unions in the industry. Indeed a deal was done between the left- and right-wing unions in NSW construction that they would not interfere in each other’s affairs.

The BWIU operated in a very top-down way, with a strong bureaucratic machine dominated by its secretary Pat Clancy, a leading CPA and subsequently SPA member. Clancy did not hold a mass meeting of construction workers for 14 years. Jack Mundey explained that in his early years “I was in the same party as Clancy and went along with the thinking of that period…which was ideologically Stalinist”. He believed that “for the first years [the BLF] tended to be a pretty much BWIU-advised show”.[48]

In the 1950s and ’60s the CPA building branch, which brought together 40-50 CPA members across the various unions in the industry, was dominated by the BWIU. Clancy was the key figure, backed up by other BWIU officials and Sid Vaughan from the Painters Union. According to BLF leader Joe Owens Clancy was for a whole period respected by the “junior militants” in the BLF and regarded as “almost a father figure”.[49] Initially there was a broad consensus in the building branch, and after the defeat of the old right-wing BLF leadership the BWIU provided the BLF with facilities and office space. However as the BLF became more militant, relations sharply deteriorated. The BWIU detested the organised vigilante groups that were used to destroy scab building work. As Mundey commented, “conservative tradesmen’s leaders threw up their hands in horror at the ‘terrible crime’ of a few scab-built walls being pushed over”.[50]

Mundey explained:

Our style was to encourage rank and filers to show their initiative while at the same time remembering that unity was important. We didn’t pose one argument against the other. You want unity at the top but more importantly you want action by workers down below… We were allowing shop committees and area strike committees to be set up…to make decisions affecting their own area. The BWIU saw anything like this as a challenge to their own centralised leadership.[51]

Reflecting the growing tensions in April 1971 the BLF was kicked out of the offices they shared in the BWIU’s Vine House. The BWIU went on to play a crucial role in isolating the BLF and allowing Norm Gallagher and the bosses to crush it.

Gallagher and the Maoists

A section of the CPA’s hard-core Stalinist leadership had never liked Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciations of Stalin and the embrace of peaceful coexistence with the West. In the late 1950s Victorian CPA leader Ted Hill, the epitome of a ruthless and paranoid Stalinist bureaucrat, rallied support for the Chinese CP “on a platform of greater militancy, hostility to reformism and a more ‘balanced’ appraisal of Stalin”.[52]

The Maoists split in 1963 to form the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist Leninist) – CPA (ML). They managed to take out a number of prominent union leaders. However, despite the CPA (ML)’s radical rhetoric, the practice of Maoist union officials such as Clarrie O’Shea of the Tramways Union and Paddy Malone of the BLF proved to be no more militant than that of the CPA union bureaucrats. Malone, a CPA (ML) Central Committee member, had been Victorian BLF secretary since 1941 and remained in office for almost 30 years. Under Malone’s leadership the BLF was a fairly conventional bureaucratic affair, though not the worst of the Stalinist-controlled unions. It remained moderately militant, though far from outstandingly so.

Malone had some influence among BLs in the Sydney Rank and File Committee and the Maoists managed to build a small presence there. According to Les Robinson, who was installed by Gallagher as NSW BLF secretary at the time of intervention, the split of the “China-liners” from the NSW leadership in 1961-63 was caused mainly by objections to Mick McNamara’s secretaryship: “we didn’t oppose Jack [Mundey], my argument was that Jack should take over the leadership”.[53]

The thoroughly unscrupulous Norm Gallagher, also a leading figure in the CPA (ML), took over as secretary from Malone in 1970. Under Gallagher the Victorian BLF became increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of dissent. Gallagher was pretty much a lifelong union bureaucrat, having become a full-time organiser as early as 1952. Gallagher was prepared to engage in militant tactics when it suited his empire-building ambitions, but was also notorious for cutting deals with favoured bosses.

Confronting the question of union bureaucracy

The NSW BLF made a concerted attempt to confront the question of union bureaucracy and the political conservatism that went with it. As Mundey put it:

Quite unlike many bureaucratic union leaderships…[t]he [BLF] leadership aims for “total involvement” in decision making by the membership. We are opposed to “top” decision making without reference to the membership.

He declared himself “very critical of the union movement as a whole for its tendency for people in top positions to become entrenched” and to use union positions “as stepping stones to some political position”.[54] This was a significant step forward and a starkly different approach to every other section of the union movement.

From 1968 onwards they introduced major changes to democratise the union, including the frequent use of mass stop-work meetings, the tying of officials’ wages to the BLF award, limited tenure of office for officials, temporary organisers with a considerable number of members rotating through these positions, an emphasis on job autonomy, the opening of union executive meetings to all members, and the non-payment of officials during industry-wide strikes. Leaving aside the specific value of some of these reforms, the overall orientation was an enormously positive one that challenged the rest of the union movement. These democratic reforms served to empower the rank and file and limit the ability of the union leadership to flout the wishes of members. Nonetheless they did not resolve the fundamental question of the inherent limitations of trade unions under capitalism when it came to the struggle for socialism.

Unions are institutions that bargain about the rate of exploitation of the working class within the bounds of capitalism. They fight for a larger slice of the pie, not the whole bakery. Moreover, overwhelmingly they organise and bargain on behalf of specific sectional groups of workers, not the class as a whole. They are not and cannot be revolutionary organisations that can unite the mass of workers and the oppressed and potential allies from intermediary social layers, such as students, in the struggle to overthrow capitalism. To be effective unions need to organise the bulk of workers in any specific industry; the passive and conservative as well as the committed activists and everyone in between. Unions are inevitably forced to make concessions to the lowest common denominator. This severely undermines the ability of unions to play a genuinely revolutionary role. As Jack Mundey noted, even in the case of a radical union like the NSW BLF, most of its members were straightforward Labor voters, not revolutionaries.[55] Various attempts by syndicalists to transform unions into revolutionary instruments to lead the struggle to overthrow capitalism have always failed. Only a revolutionary socialist party that organises the most class-conscious workers into a cohered fighting force can effectively play that leadership role.

The NSW BLF essentially adopted a quasi-syndicalist approach, epitomised by the arguments of its most dynamic leader Jack Mundey, who downplayed the importance of a revolutionary party: “this craziness about vanguard parties having all the knowledge… Union struggles can play the biggest part”.[56] This undoubtedly was in part a reaction against the political weaknesses of the CPA, the party Mundey was to remain a member of until its dismal end, despite his own strongly held anti-Stalinist views. It also reflected an understandable negative reaction on his part against the super-heated rhetoric of various tiny sectarian groups that ridiculously posed as already being “the vanguard” of the working class.

The other limitation was that the leading BLF militants did not develop a thorough-going analysis of the social role of the union bureaucracy as a mediating layer between capital and labour. They fought for rank and file democracy and opposed the conservative bureaucratic role that union officials generally played. However they did not fully recognise that in advanced capitalist societies the trade union bureaucracy was a thoroughly counter-revolutionary social layer which would act as a bulwark in the defence of capitalist rule in the face of any concerted working class offensive. One consequence of this was that they underestimated the enemy that they were up against. They did not fully appreciate that they had thrown down a decisive challenge to the rest of the union bureaucracy which would inevitably move to crush them. The only road forward was for the BLF leadership to initiate the building of a rank and file movement across the whole of industry to lead the class struggle independently of the union bureaucracy. They were held back from implementing such a revolutionary orientation in part because of the continuing influence of the Communist Party’s reformist politics. Only a sharp break by the BLF militants from the CPA and an attempt to rally the radical forces outside its ranks in a new revolutionary party offered any hope of a road forward.

Gallagher’s intervention

With the full weight of the building bosses behind him, Gallagher arrived in Sydney on 12 October 1974 and ensconced himself on a whole floor of the Hyde Park Plaza Hotel. Determined to crush his arch-rival, Gallagher brought with him a legion of armed thugs funded by the bosses to act as organisers, including Scotch College-educated student Maoist and future Tasmanian Labor premier Jim Bacon.

Gallagher set up a new federal BLF branch to replace the NSW BLF. On 18 October leading builder EA Watts sacked BLs who refused to take out the federal union ticket. Dillinghams and other bosses soon followed suit.[57] Knowing that under Gallagher the bosses would have open slather, an MBA circular to its members declared that the MBA “actively encourages commencement of work on projects subject to illegal bans”.[58] A long list of NSW officials and prominent militants were summarily expelled for life from the BLF.

The NSW branch was a serious danger to Gallagher’s control over the BLF nationally. Because of the scale of the Sydney building boom, by 1974 the NSW BLF made up nearly half the union’s national membership. Jack Mundey, thanks to the intense media coverage of the BLF’s exploits, was massively better known around the country than Gallagher and posed a real threat in any election for federal secretary. The NSW BLF was also a major impediment to Gallagher in his empire-building attempts to take on the BWIU and become the dominant force among building industry unions. There was also a sharp ideological divide between the radical democratic class-struggle politics of the NSW BLF and Gallagher’s top-down Stalinist approach and strident Australian nationalism.

As well, Gallagher was under growing pressure from bosses outraged at the impact the ongoing militancy in NSW was having on their profits. The bosses may not have loved Gallagher – though he was close to some of them such as Bruno Grollo and EA Watts – but they very much saw him as a lesser evil to Mundey and co. As early as 1972 there were concerted calls by the NSW MBA for the deregistration of the BLF, but at that point Gallagher held off moving against the NSW branch, concerned that the boom in the industry and the confidence that gave the rank and file would mean he would face a difficult, drawn-out fight.

In October 1973 the NSW BLF leadership forces had a convincing election victory, with Joe Owens replacing Mundey, who stood down under the limited tenure rule, as secretary and Bob Pringle elected president. By a margin of two to one they defeated a Maoist pro-Gallagher opposition (John McNamara, Ron Donoghue and Joe Ferguson) whose platform criticised many of the Green Bans.

In June 1974 the bosses had the courts deregister the BLF federally in an attempt to force Gallagher’s hand. This was the tipping point. The bosses made it clear to Gallagher that if he disposed of the NSW branch and rolled back the Green Bans, the BLF would be re-registered federally without any fuss. That is precisely what happened in October 1976.

There was concerted opposition to Gallagher’s intervention. As Dave Shaw explained, Gallagher had no support from the rank and file in Sydney. There were virtual riots when his organisers arrived:

On one of the Concrete Constructions jobs 35 BLs got arrested when they occupied the site in protest at the Gallagher forces. On Qantas, there was a riot in Jamison Street.

At the Martin Place Eastern Suburbs Railway site, a couple of Gallagher’s new organisers were in the sheds talking to the boss. All the workers marched up from Qantas and joined the workers at Martin Place. They surrounded the shed, and the organisers could not get out. In the end they had to back a paddy wagon up to the shed to get them out.[59]

A mass meeting of 1,500 BLs voted unanimously to reject Gallagher’s takeover. Gallagher was invited to address the meeting but refused, saying it was stacked with “residents and poofters”.[60] Intervention was timed to coincide with the annual dues renewal period, but in the first three weeks the NSW BLF signed up 7,000 members while Gallagher netted less than 1,000. But despite this defiance and in the face of intimidation – arrests and police attacks combined with widespread victimisation and sackings by the bosses – the BLs were defeated. On Monday 24 March 1975, on the recommendation of the Owens and Pringle leadership, a mass meeting of BLs voted to join Gallagher’s federal branch and continue the fight from within. Opinion is divided among the militants about whether this was the correct approach, but many felt that by this stage defeat was inevitable. There were numerous resignations from the CPA over its failure to fully mobilise to defend the BLF.

The defeat led to the severe demoralisation of good militants, with many denied union tickets by Gallagher or victimised by the bosses and driven out of the industry. A number of serious militants adopted an anti-political standpoint or retreated into a narrow syndicalism or dropped out of activity disillusioned.

Gallagher claimed, of course, to support “the principle” of Green Bans. But the Gallagher-installed leadership immediately lifted a number of bans without any endorsement by the rank and file. Notoriously, one of the first Green Bans lifted was in Victoria Street at the bidding of Gallagher’s thug mate Theeman, who was helping fund Gallagher’s operation. In order to further shore up support from building industry bosses, Gallagher stabbed the Victorian union movement in the back by breaking ranks to lift the ban on construction of the highly polluting Newport power station.[61]

But it was not just over Green Bans that Gallagher aided the bosses. Gallagher pushed through a new award that undermined conditions on the job, including forcing workers to work in the rain with umbrellas. Body hire proliferated. Unsurprisingly, union membership fell sharply after intervention. Workers were less well placed to resist technological change and speed-up. Accidents increased and more building workers lost their lives. Dave Shaw, who was active in the ongoing rank and file resistance to Gallagher, was one of those eventually killed on the job.

With the recession in the construction industry deepening, the bosses went on the rampage. Fify-seven thousand construction workers – 30 percent of the national total – lost their jobs between 1973 and 1979. By 1979 there were fewer building workers than at any time in the previous 15 years.[62] Inner city construction jobs, which had been the mainstay of militancy and where thousands of workers had been gathered, were particularly badly hit.[63]

Nonetheless concerted opposition continued to the Gallagher-imposed leadership. One reflection of that was that no BLF branch meetings or mass meetings were allowed in Sydney for two years after intervention. The first open branch meeting in 1977 saw two-thirds of members present in outright opposition to the officials. The officials refused to accept any resolutions, and walked out when a motion of no confidence was moved in their leadership.[64]

The Builders Labourers for Democratic Control – the rank and file opposition group – had widespread support. Several major building sites backed it, and delegates sympathetic to it led numerous important strike campaigns on their jobs, which placed in stark relief the tame-cat leadership of the Gallagher forces. Despite continuing victimisation by the bosses and the Gallagher forces, the BLs for Democratic Control were holding meetings of 60-80 activists in 1977.

In 1978,

after a long campaign for a democratic ballot…the BLs for Democratic Control finally went to the courts to secure an election. Their activists placed all their hopes on winning the ballot, and when Gallagher’s men out-organised them, they were thoroughly demoralised.

Their failure to use the election to spread their organisation, and to build any campaign other than a campaign for votes, meant that they had nothing left to fall back upon once they had lost. Within a few months, the group had effectively collapsed.[65]

Groups of militants did regroup, for example at the Johns and Waygood ICI site in Sydney where a number of former BLF militants were concentrated together holding FIA cards. However as Dave Shaw wrote:

In the Johns and Waygood dispute the company sacked the whole workforce. The J. & W. workers had fought the boss from the start of the job and won significant gains. But in the process we became isolated and were defeated.[66]

The crushing of the NSW BLF was a defeat for the whole of the then sizeable radical left. Its path-breaking achievements had been an inspiration for revolutionaries. This was strongly the case for the student movement which was still under strong far left influence. The Battler reported that at the 1975 Australian Union of Students (AUS) conference:

After a fiery debate and in the face of threats and intimidation from Gallagher’s supporters, AUS…came out in support of the NSW branch of the Builders Labourers’ Federation in their struggle… Delegates voted decisively against a policy of non-involvement in the dispute.[67]

This actually understates the scale of the violent confrontation that occurred at the conference, which I attended as a delegate from La Trobe University. For hour after hour Maoist students rioted in an attempt to prevent socialist delegates from speaking and voting. The conference was particularly polarised as one of the Maoists, AUS office bearer Peter Galvin, was working as a Gallagher organiser on Sydney’s North Shore.

Why the defeat?

As The Battler declared at the time: “The defeat of the NSW branch of the BLs is a victory for violence, intimidation and thuggery which has no place in the labour movement”.[68]

The downturn in the construction industry had put the NSW militants in a weaker position to resist Gallagher’s assault. They were overwhelmed by the combined forces arrayed against them. Gallagher’s thugs had the backing, not just of the employers, the government and the cops, but also Bob Hawke, then head of the ACTU, and most other union officials. The other main supposedly left-wing union in the construction industry, the Clancy-led BWIU, stood on the sidelines, effectively supporting Gallagher. Clancy and his SPA supporters spent more time denouncing the “adventurism” and “ultra-militancy” of the NSW BLF than the thuggery of the Gallagher forces.[69] However Clancy and the other SPA-aligned officials were simply more open in expressing a common sentiment among the left wing of the union bureaucracy, including many CPA officials. The reality was that the NSW BLF’s democratic culture and aggressive militancy posed a challenge to their bureaucratic empires.

The NSW Federated Engine Drivers and Firemens Association of Australasia (FEDFA), led by Jack Cambourn, was the only CPA-led union to offer meaningful industrial support to the NSW BLF. FEDFA crane drivers refused to work with Gallagher ticket holders and struck for six weeks after the bosses responded by cutting their wages. But Gallagher flew in scabs from Melbourne to break their strike. Verbal support came from the NSW Teachers Federation and the Australian Telecommunications Employees’ Association. However, the powerful Metalworkers Union, whose leadership included the prominent Communists Laurie Carmichael and John Halfpenny, and which had members in key sections of the construction industry, did nothing to defend their fellow party members. The right-wing Victorian CPA branch, which was far from enamoured with Mundey’s militancy, did little to mobilise to defend the BLs. Indeed Victorian CPA Secretary Bernie Taft criticised the NSW BLF for “a tendency to counterpose the rank and file movement to the trade union officials”.[70]

This does not mean that the NSW leadership made no mistakes. Jack Mundey stated that he “did feel at the time that the union was travelling too quickly” and that “we made an error in taking up too many social issues at the final stages…we took on too much, I think we failed to consolidate at a certain period”. Tom O’Lincoln noted:

There had been a prolonged boom, and workers were prepared to take all sorts of advanced…actions, secure in the knowledge that labour was tight. It was possible for members and leaders to get a bit giddy, and to find themselves suddenly vulnerable when the boom came to an end in 1974.[71]

According to Dave Shaw the NSW leadership was

overwhelmed by superior force, but there had also been a neglect of organisation on the job level. Only two or three jobs in Sydney had site committees, linking BLs to the other unions… If more jobs had had them, we’d have had a better show of beating Gallagher. On the jobs that did have site committees, they pretty successfully resisted him, and have maintained their conditions.[72]

At the Qantas and Bondi Plaza sites conditions were defended and Gallagher’s agents were kept at arm’s length. The Bondi Plaza site committee included a delegate from each trade. Mass meetings were held weekly and they did not restrict themselves to bread-and-butter issues. Political discussions were organised every week. And when anti-migrant racism broke out, they knew how to handle it. Delegates took a solid stand against racism and for unity of all the workers. The offenders were instructed to apologise by an overwhelming vote at a mass meeting.

There had also been a longstanding failure to make a priority of building rank and file opposition groups in the other construction unions. This reflected a certain sectionalism among the BLs and a mistaken political approach coming from the CPA for a whole period, that you did not interfere in the affairs of other unions. And at the time of intervention there was a failure to make a concerted attempt to use the already mobilised rank and file BLs to go out to other workplaces and unions to argue their case and mobilise support. Nonetheless with all that said and done, Jack Mundey was entirely correct when he argued: “Yes, mistakes, but always keep in mind that had other unions displayed working class solidarity with the democratically elected NSW leadership…the ‘invasion’ would have certainly failed”.[73] As for the charges of ultraleftism and adventurism, Pete Cockcroft put it well in a letter to Tribune in reply to an attack on the BLs for being too militant and not relying instead on “patient work”:

Cde. Alf Watt’s “patient work” is all very well, but in no situation can that work alone lead to that qualitative leap which was at the core of the BLF’s achievement.

The history of the working class movement is in large part the history of groups of workers who were prepared to go out on a limb. Of course it is an error to ignore the present consciousness of workers. But it is a far more dangerous error to regard that consciousness (or rather the consciousness of the bureaucrats that exploit it), as a constant barrier which we must never transcend.[74]


There is a small chance that if the BLs had pulled back considerably, lifted many of the Green Bans and become a mediocre tame-cat union, then they could have survived. But what would have been the point of that? It is much better to give battle and be defeated than demean yourself by crawling on your belly to the powers-that-be. It is only by fighting that the working class movement has ever achieved anything. Socialist militants obviously should attempt to employ the most effective tactics. But the standard rhetoric of left officials of “boxing clever” is just code for never even putting on your gloves and getting into the ring.

One smallish union in one state, no matter how militant and how skilful its tactics, was never going to be capable on its own of indefinitely taking on and defeating the hostile array of class forces that rallied to crush the NSW BLF. It needed active support and solidarity from a much broader section of the working class. The potential for such solidarity definitely existed in the early 1970s. It was a period of an enormous upsurge in working-class struggle and a flowering in a number of industries of shop floor organisation to a considerable extent independent of the dead weight of the union bureaucracy. There was no shortage of militancy. The tragedy was that there was no socialist political force able and willing to cohere the many tens of thousands of rank and file militants, most of whom identified as socialists, in the factories, the mines, the wharves and the schools as well as the building sites, into an organised fighting force.

The Communist Party, which many of the best BLF militants joined, was singularly incapable of that task. The CPA, easily the largest force on the left at the time, had jettisoned some of its worst Stalinist baggage and briefly shifted leftwards. However, it was anything but a coherent, interventionist revolutionary party. It still contained a layer of entrenched union bureaucrats wedded to reformism and a cohort of middle-class and student members who were little more than radical liberals. There was no way it could mobilise a fighting cross-industry rank and file movement to defend the BLF and advance the broader class struggle. The new revolutionary socialist groups that had emerged out of the late sixties radical upsurge simply lacked the forces to fill the breach. We can’t afford to let that happen next time round.

So the inspiring militants of the NSW BLF went down to defeat; but they left a powerful legacy. They showed what workers are capable of when they organise and stand up for their class interests and reach out in solidarity to all the oppressed. That approach can lay the basis for a very different world. And as I wrote in Red Flag at the time of Jack Mundey’s death:

The fighting spirit of the BLF in Jack Mundey’s heyday is something desperately needed in today’s economic crisis with the bosses going for the jugular to destroy wages and conditions. Decades of union bureaucrats falling over backwards to compromise with the bosses and suck up to the ALP have got us nowhere. We need to organise to turn the tide.[75]


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Stone, Janey 1975, “It’s MY bloody union card and I want the job!”, interview with Sandra Zurbo, The Battler, 15 February.

Taft, Bernie 1975, “On the Defeat of the NSW Builders’ Laborers [sic]”,

The Battler, 1975, “Students Oppose Scab Intervention” (no author), 15 February.

Thomas, Pete 1973, Taming the concrete jungle. The Builders Labourers’ story, NSW branch of the Australian Building Construction Employees & Builders Labourers’ Federation.

True, Paul 1995, Tales of the BLF…Rolling the Right!, Militant International Publications.

Turner, Ian 1978, In Union is Strength. A history of trade unions in Australia 1788-1978, second edition, Nelson.

Wood, Katie 2013, “Fighting anti-union laws: the Clarrie O’Shea strikes”, Marxist Left Review, 5, Summer.

Woodhouse, Michael and Brian Pearce 1975, Essays on the History of Communism in Britain, New Park.

[1] For the AMA see Kennedy 1978 and Adams 2010. For the Rockchoppers’ Union see Sheldon 1988.

[2] The most detailed accounts of the development of the Rank and File Committee are Burgmann 1981 and True 1995.

[3] Burgmann 1981, pvii.

[4] True 1995, p37.

[5] Mallory 2005, pp94-95.

[6] True 1995, pp16-17.

[7] True 1995, p22.

[8] Mundey 1981, p23.

[9] Burgmann 1981, pix.

[10] True 1995, p24.

[11] Burgmann 1981, pvii.

[12] Burgmann 1981, piv.

[13] True 1995, p39.

[14] Burgmann 1981, pv.

[15] Burgmann 1981, pxi.

[16] Burgmann 1981, pxiv.

[17] Burgmann 1981, pxvi.

[18] Burgmann 1981, pxxvi.

[19] Burgmann 1981, pxxxiii.

[20] Burgmann 1981, pxlvi.

[21] Burgmann 1981, pl.

[22] For this period see Bramble 2008.

[23] For the Clarrie O’Shea strike see Wood 2013.

[24] Burgmann 1981, piii.

[25] For the Minority Movement see Cliff and Gluckstein 1986, Martin 1969 and Woodhouse and Pearce 1975.

[26] See Armstrong 2013 for this period.

[27] Turner 1978, pp112-113.

[28] Davidson 1969, pp156-159.

[29] O’Lincoln 1985, p108.

[30] Bramble 2008, p45.

[31] Mallory 2005, p84.

[32] O’Lincoln 1985, p145.

[33] Burgmann 1981, p338.

[34] Mallory 2005, p90.

[35] O’Lincoln 1985, p163.

[36] O’Lincoln 1985, pp145-146.

[37] O’Lincoln 1985, p153.

[38] Shaw 1976, p9.

[39] Burgmann and Burgmann 1999, p51.

[40] Burgmann and Burgmann 1999, p52.

[41] Burgmann and Burgmann 1999, p53.

[42] Shaw 1976, p9.

[43] Stone 1975, p3.

[44] Slater 1975, p6.

[45] Burgmann and Burgmann 2011.

[46] Thomas 1973, pp56-57.

[47] Burgmann and Burgmann, 2011.

[48] Burgmann 1981, pxxiv.

[49] Burgmann 1981, piv.

[50] Burgmann and Burgmann, 1999, p51.

[51] Burgmann and Burgmann, 1998, p255.

[52] O’Lincoln 1985, p101.

[53] Burgmann 1981, pxiv.

[54] Burgmann and Burgmann 1999, pp49-50.

[55] O’Lincoln 1985, p198.

[56] Burgmann and Burgmann 1999, p56.

[57] Boyd 1991, p11.

[58] Burgmann and Burgmann 1998, p269.

[59] Shaw 1976, p9.

[60] Burgmann and Burgmann 1998, p269.

[61] Griffiths 1974, p8.

[62] Shaw 1979, p13.

[63] For the subsequent history of the BLF and how the bosses were to turn on Gallagher see Ross 2004.

[64] Owens 1977.

[65] Kahn 1981, p11.

[66] Shaw 1979, p13.

[67] The Battler, 15 February 1975, p3.

[68] Griffiths 1975, p3.

[69] See Building Industry Branch of the Socialist Party of Australia, n.d., for an outline of the SPA line.

[70] Taft 1975.

[71] O’Lincoln 1985, p151.

[72] Shaw 1976, p9.

[73] O’Lincoln 1985, p152.

[74] Cockcroft 1975, p11.

[75] Armstrong 2020.

Our unions in crisis: how did it come to this?

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Socialist trade union strategy in the Bolshevik era

In the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the newly formed Communist International  attempted to develop a revolutionary approach to union work in the West. Mick Armstrong looks at the application of that strategy in Australia and Britain.

Does the Australian working class have the power to change society?

Tom Bramble, using a wealth of data, refutes arguments which claim that the Australian working class no longer has the power to challenge capitalist rule.