A FRAMEWORK OF FLESH
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FRAMEWORK OF FLESH
by Humphrey McQueen
Part One – Dangers high and low
Introduction : Scaffolding
Chapter 1 19th century: Free for all
Chapter 2 1900-1950: A hard half-century
Chapter 3 1950-2000: The harder they fall
Chapter 4 21st century: Frameworks for fear
Chapter 5 Hazardous knacks
Part two – Disease, dirt and discontent
Chapter 6 Occupational health
Chapter 7 Amenities
Part three - Helping hands
Chapter 8 Benefits
Chapter 9 Compensation
Part four – Injustice within the law
Chapter 10 “Killing no murder”
Epilogue “High aims and aspirations”
hope of the world
union movement is idealistic in its essential arts by widening the scope
of benefits derived from its ever-expanding usefulness.
betterment of the conditions of the workers has been brought about
through organisation. A union constitutes a school for the working
class, wherein they learn self-reliance, learn their rights, privileges,
opportunities, as well as their possibilities.
union instills thoughtfulness in its membership, and broadens the mental
horizon, thereby bringing hope and cheer to the hopeless and cheerless.
union imbues its members with a longing for a better and brighter future
by increasing wages and diminishing the hours of toil.
union does antagonise, and strives to abolish many things that are, and
advocates and tries to inaugurate changes which should, and will, be
made in the future.
wages mean increased opportunities to live a life in harmony with the
high aims and aspirations of the union movement.
union has made possible progress not only for the working people, but
advancement in many other directions – morally, socially, and
intellectually – and is traceable to the existence of the organisation
of the workers.
object and aims of the union movement and the realisation thereof have
been the dream of the sages and seers, and the prophets of the past
new demand for better physical protection of the workers ensures a great
ideal development for a future generation.
A. (Ben) Mulvogue, Secretary, Victorian Branch of the Builders’
Labourers’ Federation, Builders’
sooner were convicts ashore at Sydney Cove on
perpetuate that injustice by praising “
years earlier, an Australian labourer, Charlie Sullivan, knew the answer
from his fifty years as an activist, having taken out the first ticket
in the Shearers’
one word is written of the thousands of workers who toiled in the heat,
in the cold, and in the rain, who cut through rock and blasted channels,
who reared great walls and buildings, not a word of the lives lost, of
those who toiled with the crushed fingers of their calloused hands,
dripping blood into the concrete, or staining steel. It has been thus
from the time millions of straining naked slaves built that magnificence
The names of kings and warlords are handed down in manuscripts and in books to after generations, but few ever think of the great and humble army whose sweat and blood are mingled in the concrete and bricks as surely as if the walls were built over a framework of human flesh.
They will remain unhonoured and unsung till workers write the histories that are taught in our schools.
The challenge remains to retell our past from the experiences of that majority. This book offers a red armband view of one of their unfolding stories.
The construction trades have their own connection to story-telling and to investigating the past. In the Middle Ages, householders had historical scenes painted or moulded on the fronts of their dwellings. From the Latin word historia for story-telling came our term “storey” for each level of a building. “Historia” itself had been derived from the Classical Greek for learning by inquiry. A framework of flesh brings together narratives about battling for health and safety with an investigation of why resistance by the capitalists has been relentless.
The neglect of Sullivan’s “great and humble army” was repeated in the early 1980s when a history war swirled around the site of the First Government House, demolished in 1846. A 1917 commemorative plaque had not mentioned the convict workers. In 1968, the land became a car park but the space was too valuable to leave empty. Excavations began in 1983 for a 38-storey office block. Work came to a halt after labourers unearthed foundations laid in 1788.
the wake of Green Bans, no politician dared to erase the ruins of a
First Fleet building. By then, convict forebears had become fashionable.
In 1989, the State government accepted designs for a plaza to skirt a
227m. office complex known as the
By contrast, A framework of flesh will put the daily doings of labourers front and center, as often as possible in their own words. Their organisations are further evidence of their creative capacities. The shenanigans of a few officials do not block the light from the hundreds of thousands of Australians who have laboured around construction sites since 1788. As Mary Gilmore wrote in Old Botany Bay:
The book shows working people remaking themselves, individually and collectively, while they built this country.
In this contest, I take the side of the workers as a class. That commitment does not oblige me to defend each labourer, still less to excuse every union representative. When finding fault with labourers or their officials, I am aware of the difference between scrambling up a scaffold and scribbling in my study. A comparison of the premiums for insuring a demolisher and a librarian in 1967 gives one measure of that gap. Covering the risks faced by the labourer cost $2.45 a week against 30 cents for the likes of me.
How, then, are we to judge the labourers?
The criteria applied below are drawn from the proletarian principles set down in 1915 by an early secretary of the Victorian Branch of the BLF, Ben Mulvogue, and reprinted prior to this Foreword. No one can live up to those qualities every hour of every day, which is why Mulvogue stressed the necessity for education. Moreover, every educator is re-educated through the process of educating others within the organs of the working class. Changing our world and interpreting the changes we make are parts of a single activity. A framework of flesh is offered as a contribution to those practices.
I have worked long and hard at this project, and there are two more years’ effort needed before I can complete the plan outlined below in “What Follows”. Yet, I know how much easier my tasks are than those facing any labourer. Ninety years of so-called unskilled labour by my parents paid for the education that allows me to enjoy the privilege broached by Mark Twain:
A framework of flesh is the opening installment from researching builders’ labourers and their unions. This volume takes up matters vital to those workers: their safety, health, amenities, compensation and the class bias of the law. Although the investigations glance back to convict times, the account gathers pace around the 1870s.
Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) concerns are far from the whole story of builders’ labourers. Disputes over scaffolding and asbestos never happen in isolation, but are linked to the struggles to limit hours, to prevent speed-ups and to improve wages. Those demands are as much part of health and safety as is a Portaloo or a scaffolding inspector. Hours and wages will be taken up when writing about the union as an organisation in an account to be called We built this country. A further installment will explore the composition and behaviour of rank-and-file labourers and their officials, titled Weird Mobs and Nomad Tribes.
A framework of flesh is divided into four parts with ten chapters summarised below:
One - Dangers high and low
century: Free fall
2. 1900-50: A hard
3. 1950-2000: The harder
4. 21st Century:
Frameworks for fear
5. Hazardous knacks
Two – Dirt, disease, and discontent
6. Health and diseases
Three - Helping hands
Four – “Killing no murder”
The tenth and final chapter looks beyond the building and construction industry to locate occupational health and safety within the needs of capital as advanced through its legal system. More than buildings rise on “a framework of human flesh”. So too do the profits of Messrs Construction Capital. The first nine chapters carry our understanding of that process to the level of generalisation. The next step is to conceptualise the evidence by asking how the il-logic that compels capital to expand also requires it to feed off human capacities. The persistence of OHS offences makes sense once located within the dynamics and structures of capitalism. The case proceeds through four phases. The first is a reminder that the harms suffered by workers are a microcosm of the violence that has nourished the accumulation of capital around the globe. The second section integrates the prevalence of workplace injuries with the mechanisms on which capital relies to expand. A third section documents the class bias in the operation of OHS laws where offences are restricted, prosecutions rare, convictions even more so, and penalties light. The account concludes by showing why “legal reasoning” premised on “contract”, “intent’, “equality before the law” and “individualism as autonomy” cannot treat OHS violations as “real crimes”, as exemplified in the failure to legislate for industrial manslaughter.
 G. A. Wood, “Convicts”, Royal Australian Historical Society, Journal and Proceedings, VIII (4), 1922, p. 187.
Bertolt Brecht, “Questions from a worker who reads”, Poems
1913-1956, Eyre Methuen,
C. W. Sullivan Papers, ML MSS A2886, p. 57.
 Dinah Dysart (ed.), Edge of the trees, Historic Houses Trust, Sydney, 2000; Hilary du Cros, “Exposing First Government House”, Much More than Stones & Bones, Australian Archaelology in the Late Twentieth Century, MUP, Carlton, 2002, pp. 80-103.
 Jennifer Strauss (ed.), Collected verse of Mary Gilmore, Volume I, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2004, p. 311.
C. P. Mills, Workers’ Compensation (
Extemporised by Frank Anstey from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Commonwealth of
Debates, volume 116,
 See my “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. 16-46.
 See my “Improvising nomads”, Journal of Australian Colonial History, 10 (2), 2008, pp. ?????; both available on this website.