BLF - OHS - CHAPTER TWO - 1900 - 1950: A HARD HALF-CENTURY
- 1950: A
From 1926, the Sydney-based Labor Monthly published company profits alongside the deaths and injuries inflicted on workers. This catalogue of harms was headed “The Month in Capitalism – the Monthly Slaughter”. Typical incidents were a half-ton concrete shute crushing the life out of an Adelaide labourer, or labourers’ falling to their deaths from Sydney hotels and theatres. Could it be an accident that to “make a real killing” meant to pocket a pile of money?
1910, three States had at least the appearance of scaffolding regulation
by departmental officers. New South Wales got a Lifts and Scaffolding Act,
with an inspectorate, from 1903.
South Australia had done so by 1907, followed by the Commonwealth in 1912
for the Capital Territory and on its public works elsewhere. Best of all,
from 1916, Queensland’s Labor administration required scaffolders to be
licensed. In States with
Scaffolding Acts, the Australian Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (ABLF)
paid out far less in benefits to injured members. The NSW Branch had spent
£46 in the first half of 1915 whereas Victoria distributed £764.
had impeded the passage of the scaffolding laws. The NSW MBA drew support
from the Victorian Employers Federation (VEF) “to prevent undue
legislative interference with trade, to preserve the rights of every man
to the fruits of his individual labour … [and] to stem the tide of
socialistically inclined legislation.” The VEF busied itself with “the
education of the people to a proper understanding of the liberty of the
Victoria became the last mainland State to enact central direction over
scaffolding. Its Legislative Council scorned all such “interference with
the right of the poor to earn their bread in their own way.”
the success of Melbourne’s building unions in the protracted wage
dispute over the summer of 1906-7, they pressed the government to keep its
election promise to introduce an inspectorate of scaffolding.
Between 1900 and 1920, the State Parliament failed to pass twenty-two
Bills to require some central inspection of scaffolding.
Only the debates to allow marriage between a widower and his deceased
wife’s sister dragged on longer.
Victoria’s House of Landlords, yet another Bill to regulate scaffolding
made its way from the Assembly in 1915. One Labor Councillor asked the
majority to open their eyes as they walked around the city: “When coming
along to the House to-day, I saw some scaffolding which a cat should not
be asked to walk on, let alone men laden with building material.”
Although the financier Arthur Robinson resisted central control, he could
Robinson suggested no way of protecting the workers from the rapacity of the Masters. Still less did he probe the necessities that drove the workers to chance their arms.
Councillors condescended to be alternatively facile and vicious. Their
common denominator was a want of regard for the options open to those not
born to the purple. On hearing that several men had been injured by
falling off planks, one of the Clarke brothers thought it amusing to
interject: “Does that indicate that it was the fault of the planks?”
Tory Councillors opposed inspection by officials from the Department of
Industry. Municipal authorities, they said, had a lot of under-employed
staff who could become scaffolding inspectors. The Masters blamed workers
for their harms by calling them “incompetent”. To the extent that
“there is any truth in that assertion”, organiser Loughnan shot back,
“how would an incompetent inspector improve matters?”
In the Assembly, a Labor member spelt out what every worker knew: “Our
factory legislation is very good, but the administration is bad, and has
always been bad”.
union wanted permanent inspectors in the Department of Labour to be drawn
from the ranks of labourers who had at least four years experience at
scaffolding. This prospect incensed the Bill’s opponents. The prize for
pettiness went to R. B. Rees who reported on his visits to the office of
the South Australian labourers anointed as scaffolding inspectors, where
he found conditions even grimier than at the Melbourne Trades Hall. In
Adelaide, he had seen “lots of working men hanging about” who “spent
most of their time smoking and spitting on the floor.” Should it come to
pass that comparable appointments were made in Melbourne, he “hoped the
room would not be carpeted” so that it could “be a place where men
would foregather to smoke and spit.”
amendments to the 1915 Scaffolding Inspection Bill rendered it useless,
causing Loughnan to proclaim:
One of the Bill’s champions linked its de-gutting to the antagonism rising among workers against recruitment campaigns, and accused the Tories of having “the impudence to ask the men to go to Gallipoli to fight for them.” Another Labor man praised the Councillors for punishing the workers who would therefore become more determined to toss out the lot of them. On those grounds, he regretted that the Councillors did not punish the workers more: “I know they would do so if they could.” Noting that the Bill had been sunk two weeks before Christmas, he wished peace and goodwill to everyone “except the Germans, the Austrians, the Turks, and the members of the Legislative Council.”
had seen “some awful mantraps in the suburbs, mostly because the
employer will not provide sufficient material.” He called on his
comrades to take the matter into their own hands by refusing to work on
any site where the boss failed to supply the necessary timbers; union
organisers with scaffolding know-how ought to inspect all jobs and close
down those that the men knew were not safe.
By 1916, Hannah had been battling for a Scaffolding Act for 20 years.
harms continued to mount, the Victorians backed its calls for central
inspection with activism around the sites. In March 1916, the Victorian
Branch adjusted the masthead on its journal to include a photograph of the
Mail Exchange being erected on the corner of Spencer and Bourke Streets.
Not one serious accident had happened on that multi-storey building in two
years because the Commonwealth Labor government protected the workers it
employed as day labourers. The Branch made scaffolding the theme for its
400-strong contingent in the 1916 Eight-Hour Day procession.
scaffolds were recognised as more dangerous than those built from the
even the best constructed outrigger scaffolding posed maximum danger,
Victoria’s 1922 Scaffolding Act stipulated that they required special
approval and had to meet higher ratios of support. However, the maximum
fine for breaching those regulations was ₤10.
to inspect scaffolding limped through both houses in 1922 only after its
advocates surrendered on the key question of enforcement. The regulations
did not come under Inspectors from the Department of Labour. Instead,
control passed to whichever municipality had issued the building permit. A
Labor Councillor exclaimed: “Municipal control means no control.”
In addition, the Act operated only in the metropolitan zone, with a
possible extension to larger centres such as Geelong. The provisions
excluded engineering works, mines and bridges. Furthermore, the Act
applied only to structures over 4.5m. high, and only if they were no more
than a single-storey. That limit kept St Paul’s cathedral safe from
inspectors, though, not from fatal falls. Country Party Councilors feared
that inspectors would range from Melbourne condemning haystacks.
support of the original Bill, the ABLF supplied case studies of the
dangers and damage. At Dunlop’s Rubber Factory, in September, a labourer
named Patterson had been killed:
union had complained, though Loughnan had failed to stop that job. Another
case recorded how the contractor on a Swanston-street site had tried to
strengthen perished poles and ledgers with “a lining board 6 inches by
½ inch perpendicularly between the too long a span of upright poles.”
of inspection never ceased to proclaim that the worker had no greater
friend than themselves. Typical of these hypocrites was Councillor H. H.
Smith who admitted that his amendments had been handed to him by the
Master Builders’ Association. He was adamant that the Council “will
never accept” government inspectors. Indeed, he thought the whole Bill
unnecessary: “All the accidents … are due to the fact that risks are
Another Councillor had deplored the habit of being “hard on the small
man. Our legislation seemed to try to keep down men who were endeavouring
to advance.” He swerved from his concern for the self-employed into a
denunciation of working people who resisted speed-ups:
Go-Slow was a self-defence against the absence of a Scaffolding Inspection
May 1924, an organiser found scaffolding at Camberwell that had been
erected without a permit. The culprit was an incompetent who attacked the
foreman with a shovel. The union rectified several weak spots there,
ordering “transoms to be erected in place of blockings.”
Next month, an organiser corrected the scaffolding on two jobs at
Richmond. At the close of the year, the union reported more cases of
“very bad” scaffolding to municipal authorities, an organiser branding
one city job “the worst of its kind he had come across.”
He informed the Executive in January 1926 of a job where “the poles were
not butted – one pole was raised on braces with 3x3 and 4x2 putlogs.”
Despite these defects, a Council inspector had passed it as safe. The
union reported him and the dangerous work to the Town Hall.
Organisers condemned a job in March 1926, but did not order the removal of
its “faulty” structure until April when Bro. Murphy had both legs
broken and Bro. Roxborough had one fractured. More vigilant in July,
Loughnan ordered that scaffolding in Little Bourke Street be “demolished
In February 1927, the union resolved that scaffolding in South Yarra be
taken down and the labourers who put it up fined:
then, one labourer had been injured. The contractor was not insured.
big builders were no more attentive to the safety of their labourers than
was the smallest operator. The scaffolds at Foy and Gibson had to be
rectified in December 1924 while those at Victoria Brewery were very
“dangerous”. In March 1926, the prominent building firm, Cockram and
Cooper, was in charge of the Town Hall Hotel in Fitzroy where Bro.
O’Neill reported “the most disgraceful scaffolding – the poles were
butted on putlogs – the blockings on bricks were stuck on the lintels to
carry the putlogs.”
Cockram and Cooper sacked Bro. Osborne in June for refusing to do
“dangerous” work on the Vacuum Oil plant.
After months of complaining about the Myers site in Lonsdale street,
organisers began photographing its faults in July 1926.
Australians were not erecting skyscrapers, the State Electricity
Commission (SEC) in the LaTrobe Valley started work in 1923 on a 99m.
concrete chimney, which was twice as high as Melbourne’s tallest
building. Making that structure conform to regulations conceived for
office blocks a tenth of its height presented difficulties to the
engineers and the unions. By mid-January 1924, the dispute had held up
work for six weeks while the Yallourn workers went after 10s a day as
Late in 1930, organisers reported that the SEC scaffolding was in a
“deplorable state”. Bro. J. Reid had suffered a broken pelvis and leg
contractors and prominent architects had failed in their duties on one of
the largest projects in a metropolis. Because the Coroner concluded that
the collapse had resulted from criminal negligence by the architect, the
contractor and the clerk of works, he committed them to trial for
manslaughter. Each was released on his own surety of ₤50. When the
Crown Law Office withdrew the prosecution late in September, the union
spoke of “strings pulled”. Branch Secretary Percy Smith feared that
Cochram and Cooper would prove to be another “house of straw” to
escape financial liability to the families of the men it had murdered or
maimed. The union secured ₤250 for one of the injured and some money
for a widow.
months, the Victorian government set up a Concrete Building Board. This
flurry contrasted with its tardiness in legislating for the inspection of
scaffolds. The impetus was not the four deaths, which the trade journal Civil
Engineering considered no worse than “a regrettable feature”.
The urgency arose because the future of reinforced concrete was in
jeopardy. The Herald declared:
“If concrete buildings are liable to collapse in this manner through no
human fault, then there must be no concrete buildings.”
Moreover, such incidents increased the costs of contractors, and
threatened damages or prison terms against professionals, while their
clients lost money from the delays.
complained that not all architects were registered, and it called for
building inspectors and clerks of works to be trained: “Ordinary workmen
cannot be expected to take more than a passing interest in the mixing and
placing of concrete and consequently the supervision must be exacting.”
Four years later, another trade publication put the blame where most of it
belonged, alleging that “shoddy” and “sinister” behaviour was
commonplace because firms under-estimated their costs to secure contracts.
Builders continued to skimp. ‘Pop’ Shillabeer was “renowned for
waving a cement bag in front of a concrete mixer.” When Whelans
demolished his additions to Scott’s Hotel they found that the
“concrete was so light-on that the building practically knocked itself
men, including two labourers, were killed at Brooklyn in April 1924. When
Loughnan gathered evidence from the survivors, he found that “quite a
number had signified their willingness to join” the union. The Coroner
recorded an “accident” and refused to hear evidence of “defects”,
though he, too, supported extending the regulations to the Shires.
In September that year, Bro Sweeney lost a leg after a cage fell on him at
the YMCA building; he had a wife and two kids. After the Branch discussed
safeguards such as a wooden block to act as a brake when a winch was out
of gear, the meeting voted to mail out a summary of the case with notices
to renew membership.
union sought payment according to the Compensation Act after Bro,
McMonagle was killed at Concrete Construction Co. in February 1926. Next
month, Secretary Smith reported the death of Bro. Kennedy to the plain
God must have been watching the sparrows fall in May 1926 when Bro.
Wiltshire tumbled at St Paul’s Cathedral where the stair case had no
handrail. Two weeks later at that place of worship, Brother Torgenson was
working the jib-crane when he put out his hand to steady one of the skips,
overbalanced, and fell 20m. to his death. Because the Cathedral was only
one storey high, it was exempt from certain provisions of the Act.
T. Berry was in “bad way” after a wall fell on him in Elizabeth
Street; Bro. Crockett plunged from a chimney at Geelong in May 1926, and
Bro. W. Worley died when he stumbled into an uncovered well at Mordialloc
in July. In February 1927, Bro. Larkin fell to his death at a Hansen &
Yuncken site, leaving five children and a sick wife. That month, a man
suffered injuries as a result of “disgraceful scaffolding” at South
Yarra: “It was a miracle that, at least, two of the men were not killed
as one had been catapulted right over the wall.” Their employer was not
insured, as was “common practice.”
Bro. Ryan died after falling from the T&G Building in July 1928, Bro.
Cozen was killed in February 1929 at the Flemington Rd tramsheds, and Bro
O’Connor lost his life in July. When Bro. Fletcher fell 20m. from the
Myer’s site in November, Secretary Smith reported that Hansen &
Yuncken had not met their legal requirements for scaffolding. Another
labourer on that job was badly hurt in July 1931 by the collapse of a wall
which had not been shored up.
extensions to the Melbourne Trades Hall highlighted the difficulty in
enforcing safety. In January 1926, the ABLF Executive dealt with the
leading hand who had failed to “judiciously make use of his position and
erect the scaffold according to the Regulations, Customs and Usages of the
trade.” His breaches had occurred within half-a-brick’s throw of the
union office. The member admitted guilt but pleaded that his scaffolder
had been away sick; the Executive let him off a ₤1 fine.
on a 1926 job in Flinders Lane acknowledged that they had “deliberately
put up the faulty scaffolding contrary to instructions from the
The Branch had decided to fine any members “working not in conformity
with the Act.”
Loughnan noted that “in nine out of ten cases good material was
crucified by incompetent men, and as a rule the contractor left it in the
hands of a scaffolder to put it up in a safe manner.”
A job in South Yarra in February 1927 illustrated the problem. The day
after the inspector from the Prahran council had called to enforce the
regulations, the site was as bad as ever. None of the labourers had any
experience at scaffolding. The Executive fined them.
From 1928 on, the trade slump increased the dangers from blow-ins. Late in 1929, the Branch meeting heard that
danger came from drifters who
belonged to no union, and had nothing to sell but physical strength.
Contractors big and small welcomed such men because they could be set a
cracking pace for a few extra pence. The employers relied on them to knock
down anyone who hinted that they join the union, or abide by Award
conditions and safety regulations.
The ABLF debated whether to punish members who did bad work. Resorting to fines pointed to a failure of leadership. The union had gone some way towards civilising the workplace. Those improvements curtailed the every-man-for-himself attitude fuelled by the ethos of capitalism. Yet, the labourers required a political outlook if they were to create “a school for the working-class, wherein they learn self-reliance” and “instill thoughtfulness”. That advance could come only if workers educated each other by putting their mutual responsibilities into practice.
Town Hall - 1929
ABLF pointed out that the Scaffolding Act forbade iron-shod put-logs as
too heavy and for masking bad timber. A Branch meeting determined to stop
the job until the matter was fixed. When organiser Marriner visited the
site, he got into a brawl with Bro. Moore who had erected the scaffold.
The Executive therefore had to deal with the misbehaviour both of its
official and of a member, as well as with the scaffolding. Marriner
alleged that Moore had refused to show his ticket, became abusive, even
going so far as to use bad language, before lunging at him with a shovel.
Moore said the boot had been on the other foot. Marriner had started the
slanging match. After considering the evidence, the Executive decided to
take no action against Moore on the charge of “insulting or unbecoming
behaviour” since there had been “faults on both sides”.
of this investigation came the question of whether either Moore or his
witness, Bro. Greenwood, was financial. Moore admitted that he was not,
but would become so again “when his daughter got paid”. We cannot know
why Moore depended on her earnings, however, his situation underscored the
miseries in the household of many a labourer. Greenwood also admitted to
being behind in his payments but he blamed Marriner, whom he had not seen
around the job for a month. Pressed on this defence, Greenwood thought it
improbable that Marriner had called without their noticing each other.
Greenwood said he always kept his dues wrapped up in his pocket and had
asked his “mates” to tell him when an organiser appeared.
Greenwood’s testimony is a reminder of the measures that labourers had
to take to keep themselves financial and the effort that the organisers
devoted to collecting the dues.
Greenwood also shed light on the put-logs. He said that he, and not Bro.
Moore, had been responsible for using them on a small scaffold. They had
done the work under instructions from their employer, a Mr Titchiner.
Moore reported that Titchiner had responded to the union’s instruction
by telling Moore that if he did its bidding, he would have to “go off
the job”. Given the trade depression, Moore’s reluctance to join the
jobless by following the union directive was understandable. Nonetheless,
he and Greenwood pledged that they would stick to the Executive ruling if
the Federation “supported them”. Halfway through the meeting,
Secretary Smith telephoned Titchener at home. At first, the builder
continued threatening to dismiss Moore if he did not do as instructed.
Smith asked Titchener whether he was prepared “to throw down the
gauntlet”. Their conversation ended with an agreement to meet on the
site in the morning.
This incident reveals several strands of working-class organisation. Yet again, enforcement of the Scaffolding Act had been left to the union. Where was the municipal dog-catcher? Secondly, the right of a union to summon, judge and fine its members was accepted. Smith’s assumption that he could contact the boss directly at home is a reminder of to how personal the relations of production remained. The telephone gave that closeness a new dimension. It also heralded changes in the pace of dealing with conflicts. Officials could use telephones to distance themselves from clashes, or to keep in touch.
the same time, his government extended inspection to gantries and other
“gear”, the omission of which “had been purely an oversight”.
While the debate dragged on, the beams holding a swing scaffold on the
Salvation Army Citadel cracked, allowing the ropes to slip, thereby
causing two painters to fall 9m. onto the Pirie Street footpath, killing
the contractor’s son and breaking the brush-hand’s bones.
Labor administration elected in March 1924 linked a tightening of
workplace safety to improvements in workers’ compensation. The
Legislative Councillors threatened a “last ditch” stance against
“monstrous” departmental inspection. They too raised the spectre of
bureaucrats condemning hay stacks. To get any Bill through the Council,
the government had to compromise. Hence, the provisions of the Act applied
only within the metropolitan area and only to scaffolds over 2.4m.
Department of Labour appointed its first inspector on 9 June. He
motor-cycled up to 1,400 miles in his first three months. Seven officers
from the Public Works Department assisted his efforts. In the first
quarter of 1928, two inspectors issued 33 written notices to correct
scaffolding before it could be used to support workmen, and they enforced
adjustments. These officials were pains-taking but their authority was
limited, as they explained in 1928:
City Council and the Master Builders’ & Contractors’ Association
lobbied the Minister early in 1928 to allow hoardings to be used as
Southern Europeans swelled the city’s building trade, the Inspectors
faced fresh difficulties:
immigrants worked in parties where only one or two admitted to
understanding any English:
Most Italian labourers worked for their countrymen. Few joined a union.
building unions claimed monetary compensation for working at heights, and
on ladders. The Industrial Court declined to put a price tag on a life
wherever the risk could be removed. The authorities allowed the boat type
of scaffold to survive only because no alternative existed in that case,
the worker received an extra 1s 3d per day. The Court preferred
precautions so that, where men were working 4.5m. up, and in a
thoroughfare, “there must be an attendant in charge at the foot of the
lurch to the Right inside the Labor Party machine and Caucus affected the
way that Departments administered the government’s own projects. By the
mid-1930s, safety had become part of a conflict between the AWU-dominated
cabinet and the Communists who strove for one big building industry union.
As the voice of the militants, the Queensland
Building Trades Worker championed safety. In June 1936, its editor
attacked the Labor Government’s record at the Women’s Hospital:
members are forced to risk their lives 80 feet in the air with nothing but
a sure footing to protect them from a sheer drop.
editor saw beyond the faults to a policy of cost-cutting:
later article declared that the trestle scaffolds at the Hospital were the
worst seen in ages: “skeleton scaffold 80ft from the ground; on the
trestles were laid scaffold boards”, while a rope had been stretched
instead of a guard rail.
editor contrasted the shoddiness under Queensland Labor with that in a
photograph of Soviet scaffolding. His faith that the Soviet Union was well
on its way to becoming the new workingman’s paradise marked the gulf
between militants and successive Labor governments. His belief that he
could lash out with immunity underestimated his enemy who sacked him from
the Railways and expelled from the ALP. The State government banned
marches in support of the ACTU’s campaign for a 40-hour week and
arrested an unemployed lad for distributing leaflets. By 1940, the
Queensland ABLF referred to Labor’s inner cabinet as the Grand Fascist
Taylors complained that Masters not only had to pay extra to men working
at “height”, but were
The Taylors gave no thought to the pressures that the Masters put on workers to go faster, and to make do with inadequate materials. It was beyond the Taylors’ ken that a militant who stood up to his foreman’s demands to take a risk was less likely to keep his place than one who bowed before such instructions.
Taylor’s death early in 1928 allowed his widow free rein for her
anti-working-class spleen. After the deaths of three building workers in a
few weeks, she again blamed the workers, especially the young ones,
sympathising with the employers “whose worrying function it has become
to make things foolproof against the thoughtlessness of the modern
Even she had difficulty maintaining her tough stance after six building
workers lost their lives in and around Sydney between June and August
1928. Her editorials did not forget that the workers were wont to throw
their lives away, and she reinforced this allegation by pointing to the
carelessness of motorists and pedestrians. However, the increase in
fatalities on sites required a new target if the employers were to be
shielded. She now pointed the finger at the State government for employing
only two inspectors to do the work of twelve.
every Master Builder was as walnut-hearted as Florence Taylor.
Nonetheless, many shared her enthusiasm for fascism. Late in 1925, the
Taylors advocated criminalising union membership and praised Mussolini
because he had “prohibited three or more persons being assembled
together. It left no loopholes for evil plotters as we leave for strikers
to assemble for intriguing and scheming, for the wrecking of industry.”
The Royal Australian Institute of Architects today offers a Prize Medal in
honour of Florence Taylor.
The Bridge presented unheard-of challenges for Australian labourers as its arch reached three times the height allowed for a building. Most the workers rose with it and so adjusted themselves to the fury of the winds. The Director of Construction acknowledged the emotional strain: “Every day those men went on to the Bridge, they went in the same way as a soldier goes into battle, not knowing whether they would come down alive.” The men asked for a 22-hour week and for 17s 6d a hour when working the creeper crane, 160m. above the water. They also wanted to halve their working week because their nerves could not bear 44 hours under those conditions. After peering over the edge, Industrial Court Judge Swindell is supposed to have gasped: “Give ‘em what they want.” To reach their workplaces, men either scrambled up the slippery metal, or packed into an open-sided box-cage which was latched, not tied, with a pair of cables over a hook. The principal contractor, Dorman Long, installed few if any safety rails or arrest devices. The firm found it cheaper to gamble with its workers’ lives than to take safety precautions such as nets, as on the Golden Gate in San Franscico. Instead of bearing those extra costs, the contractor paid the men a little more in danger money which its contract allowed it to pass back to the government.
regulations had to catch up with technology. In Victoria, a crane driver
needed a licence for a steam-winch but not for an electrically-powered
one; in addition, steam cranes had to be inspected, though not the newer
kind. After a dogman was killed early in 1931 when a steel component on an
electric crane snapped, the Coroner recommended bringing the Act into line
with current practices. Victoria’s minority Labor administration tried
to strengthen the law in 1931 when the ABLF joined the Melbourne City
Council in seeking
MBA and the government attended to none of these essentials until the
Building Trades Federation (BTF) increased the pressure around the sites.
ABLF threatened to stop the General Motors-Holden job in July 1936 if
Monier Concrete and the Port Melbourne Council did not fix the
scaffolding. Nearly two years later, a contractor sacked three men from
the Myers site in Coburg for refusing to work on a “black” scaffold.
By then, the Building Trades had met with the Master Builders to tighten
controls. At the top of the ABLF’s demands was that union officials be
appointed inspectors. In addition, the union insisted that scaffolding be
done only by its members who wanted the Act to cover demolitions,
derricks, sheer legs, cranes and winches, and for winch-drivers to be
certified and paid at a higher rate.
The MBA took months to consider the proposals, adopting every trick to
weaken the draft legislation by evading clarity. One point in dispute was
whether the Act would apply to structures over 4.5m., or to anything above
one storey. Cathedrals were again quoted as a case in point. The MBA, at
last, agreed that the Act should operate on one-storey buildings if they
went above 4.5m.
BTF prepared a model Act but the Tory Minister in charge of Public Works
opposed any reform. Three injuries in the first three weeks of the year
sent the BTF and the THC Disputes Committee to inspect sites. The unions
pressured authorities to use such powers as the Act allowed. Before Easter
1938, a contractor on a Coburg church made only minor changes after the
local inspector had ordered that all the scaffolding be replaced; the BTF
pulled the 20 workers off the
The conflict over scaffolding controls took a new turn in April 1938 when
the BTF withdrew from the Trades Hall Scaffolding Committee, accusing the
THC of treating the building unions “with contempt”. The difficulties
in gaining Trades Hall support revived talk of a single union to cover the
dispute about concrete during the second half of 1939 showed that the
mentality of the reactionaries in the Legislative Council was alive among
the Melbourne City Councillors. The deputy Building Surveyor had
identified several jobs where the contractors had skimped on the portion
of cement in the mix; instead of one part to six of sand and gravel, they
had used one to nine. The Surveyor recommended passing the control of
concrete from architects to engineers. Moreover, he contended, engineers
needed to be paid independently, and not out of the architects’ fees, an
arrangement which encouraged architects to limit the engineers’
involvement to reduce expenses. The chair of the Council’s Building
Regulations Committee had ignored the Surveyor’s warnings because his
report “had not been submitted in the correct manner through the town
clerk.” That chairman could not remember what he had done with the
document, though he “might have torn up his copy.” He assured the
public that there was no need for concern. Anyway, he knew that any
weaknesses in the concrete were the fault of the navvies who had failed to
stir the mix sufficiently.
was the bailiwick of the Loughnan clan, with two sons of Branch Secretary
R.I.P. Loughnan serving as its mayor. Con took office in 1932, and Jimmy
for five terms after 1937. The Richmond Council had appointed Loughnan Snr
as its inspector of scaffolding in 1925. Ten years later, his clique made
Con the Permits Clerk, where he drank his way through his salary and
kick-backs until dismissed in the 1940s. The unionists’ call for its
officials to be appointed inspectors was useless if those organisers were
defence work took place on the frontier and under pressure to finish ahead
of schedule. In May 1941, Attorney-General and Labor rat W. M. Hughes
abused the Reds as the firebugs of industry.
Relations improved after the labour movement swung behind the war effort
following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in July 1941. From
October, the new Federal Labor government included a Left-wing Minister
for Labour, Eddie Ward, who made concessions to the unions.
membership became compulsory, which was not the best way to instill
solidarity. However, that enforcement took place within a spread of ideas
critical of capitalism for its production of two world wars, two
depressions and fascism during the fifty years to 1940. Hence, the labour
movement entered the post-war years better organised than at any time in
its history. This strength was partly ideological as many returned
soldiers lent to the Left. The
population at large was determined to prevent a return to the depression.
“Post-War Reconstruction” had to lift living conditions far more than
to repair war damage. The ABLF had an interest
in ending the chronic underemployment among casuals. Labourers were
anxious to improve their opportunities at the personal level as well as
collectively. With victory in sight, the Queensland Branch approached the
Minister for Public Works “for Builders’ Labourers to be given every
opportunity to assist in the erection of scaffolds so as to qualify them
to procure a Scaffolder’s Licence.”
necessities of war had diluted the qualifications needed to carry out work
reserved for tradesmen. The labourers who picked up those skills continued
doing them in peacetime. Employers took advantage of these overlaps to set
labourers to skilled tasks. Nowhere was the realignment of skills greater
than on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric scheme, with its thousands of
quarter of all the fatalities occurred during the three years from 1957 to
1959. The peak of 13 during 1959 at last forced the Snowy Mountains
Authority to establish a Joint Safety Committee. By then, 48 workers had
lost their lives. At every stage, traffic injuries were high, a
consequence of the steep inclines, unmade roads and ice. In 1960, the SMA
made the wearing of seat belts compulsory; a second offence brought
On that issue, the Authority was more than ten years in advance of the
law. Similarly, helmets came in during the 1950s, which was also ahead of
most construction projects.
repeated warnings without taking action against the Authority or its
The managers had an equally soft cop with the AWU through its NSW
Secretary, Charlie Oliver, who boasted that he had blocked rank-and-file
activists by instructing his organiser to “Just knock ‘em over, So he
similar tactics, by 1952, the Industrial Groupers and their allies had
defeated the Left in every ABLF Branch except Victoria. The Cold War
warriors aimed to bust the strength of unionised workers rather than to
repel a Red-Yellow Peril from without. The attempts to ban the Communist
Party in 1950-51 had more to do with driving down labour costs than
One reason for building the Snowy Hydro had been to supply the electricity
needed to produce nuclear weapons.
From 1957, tests at Maralinga exposed labourers to radiation.
With the gravest threat to health being posed by Mutually Assured
Destruction, ABLF militants battled to make peace their union’s
 Labor Monthly, December 1926, p. 12, May 1927, p. 15, and November 1928, p. 18.
United Labourers’ Protective Society (UPLS) Minutes, 30 November,
 NSW Master Builders’ Association, Annual Report, MBA, Sydney, 1903, unpaginated.
 Victoria, Parliamentary Debates, 18 December 1895, volume 79, p. 4341, quoted Geoffrey Serle, “The Victorian Legislative Council, 1856-1950”, L. J. Eastwood and F. B. Smith (eds), Historical Studies, Selected Articles, First Series, MUP, Carton, 1964, p. 141.
 Serle, “The Victorian Legislative Council”, pp. 127-51.
Sir Alexander Peacock,
Victoria, PD, v. 139,
Victoria, PD, v. 140,
Victoria, PD, v. 140,
Victoria, PD, v. 142,
Victoria, PD, v. 139,
Victoria, PD, v. 140,
Builders’ Labourers’ News
Victoria, PD, v. 142,
Victoria, PD, v. 161,
 One Big Union Herald, February 1919, p. 1.
Victoria, PD, v. 161,
Victoria, PD, v. 161,
Victoria, PD, v. 161,
Victoria, PD, v. 161,
Victoria, PD, v. 140,
Australian Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (ABLF), Victorian
Branch Records, Minutes,
 Victorian Minutes, 27 April 1925; Mary Turner Shaw, Builders of Melbourne, The Cochrams and their Contemporaries 1853-1972, Cypress Press, Melbourne, 1972, pp. 52-53.
Victorian Minutes, 14 September, and Special,
 Civil Engineering, May 1925, p. 18.
 Civil Engineering, November 1925, p. 152.
Building and Construction,
Robyn Annear, A City Lost and
Found, Whelan the
Wrecker’s Melbourne, Black Inc,
 Victorian Records, “Accidental Report Book”, Z398/19.
Victoria, PD, v. 161,
Victorian Minutes, 28 April and
 Victorian Minutes, 15 and 29 September 1924.
 Victorian Minutes, 3, 12 and 17 May 1926.
Victorian Minutes, 13 February, 17 July and
Victorian Minutes, Special,
Victorian Minutes, Executive,
 Parliamentary Debates, South Australia, 18th Parliament, 2nd Session, 12 September 1906, pp. 459-61; 19th Parliament, 2nd Session, 14 August 1907, pp. 338-42, and 14 September 1907, pp. 455-61.
PD, SA, 19th
Parliament, 3rd Session,
 PD, West Australia, New Series , v. 70, 21 August, pp. 489-90, 26 August p. 502, 2 September p. 573, and 9 September 1924, p. 668.
 Western Australian Industrial Gazette (WAIG), v. 8, 1928-29, p. 6.
 WAIG, v. 8, 1928-29, p. 6.
 WAIG, v. 18, 1938-39, p. 529.
QBTW, September 1936, p. 10.
Caroline Mackeness (ed.) Bridging
Sydney, Historical Houses Trust,
 Mackeness, p. 218.
Quoted Helen Borger, “Give ‘Em What They Want”, National
Safety, September 2007, pp. 24-32.
Peter Lalor, The Bridge,
Allen & Unwin,
 Victorian Minutes, 5 April 1937; Janet McCalman, Struggletown, Public and Private Life in Richmond 1900-1965, MUP, Carlton, 1985, pp. 222ff.; Australian Municipal Journal, December 1977 – January 1978, pp. 162-4.
ABLF Records, South Australian Branch, Minutes,
Sydney Morning Herald, 14
May, p. 15d, and
 AA 419/3/32 MP574/1.
Fergus Robinson, Study of occupational health and safety practice in the construction of
the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, NOH&S Commission,
Sydney, 2000, pp. 78 and 64-68; Noel Gough, Mud,
sweat & snow: memories of Snowy workers, 1949-1959, p.p.,
Moonee Ponds, 1999 ed.; Elizabeth T. Mattner, Construction
camp capers: living in camps on the Snowy scheme, privately
published, Cooma, 1999.
Quoted Siobhan McHugh, The
Snowy: the people behind the power, A&R,
 McHugh, pp. 239-41 and 245.
 McHugh, pp. 66, 125 and 134.
 Robinson, Study of occupational health and safety, pp. 26-27.
Quoted McHugh, The Snowy, pp. 151-2.
 L. J. Louis, Menzies’ Cold War, a reinterpretation, Red Rag Publications, Carlton North, 2001.
Adrian Tame and F. P. J. Robotham, Maralinga: a British A-bomb, Australian legacy,
 For examples of such policies among even a Right-wing Labor Branch, see Queensland Minutes, 28 March 1950 and 19 April 1955, Executive, 5 August 1958; Peace Congress, 1 September and 24 November 1959; support for a nuclear-free southern hemisphere, 7 May and 27 August 1963; opposition to Vietnam involvement, 4 May and 8 March 1966, 7 February 1967, and 2 February 1968.