BLF - OHS - CHAPTER SEVEN: AMENITIES
labourers’ fight to improve conditions around construction sites became
part of the labour movement’s struggle for a healthy environment in
every area of life. Exploitation at work went hand-in-glove with swindling
wage-earners out of their earnings by diluting beer and adulterating food.
Wholesale grocers contaminated their brands and lied about ingredients. A
Labor politician asked: if you cannot trust capitalists to supply pure
milk to babies, what can you trust them to do?
One hundred years later, Nestle profited from pushing infant formula
which contributes to deaths from dysentery among Third World families.
the 1930s, building unions campaigned to make investment in the
construction industry serve working people. Affordable and decent housing
became the prime demand. The unions also called for more state schools,
hospitals and community services such as sporting facilities and
libraries. These social issues supplied a political context for the
struggles at work around safety and amenities.
the ABLF from 1968 in protection of the built and natural environments
deepened its rank-and-filers’ understanding of amenities beyond their
places of work. The horizon of struggle extended to social issues. For
instance, during 1981 as the International Year of Disabled Persons, the
South Australian government told new hotels to provide 5% of their rooms
for the disabled. With Adelaide’s Hilton under construction, its owners
were obliged to fit out 20 of its 400 rooms until the chain got an
exemption to offer only two. The 80 labourers on site imposed a work
regime which crippled construction. Within days, the owners agreed to
provide the 20 rooms, and to adjust phones, lifts and parking to ease the
burden on the disabled. The Hilton BLs donated wheelchairs to two
The effort to improve amenities on-site will be surveyed through the provision of lavatories, sheds, food, and hot and cold water. The policy of pursuing dirt money and disability allowances in place of these conditions is re-considered. The chapter concludes with five battles for conditions spread from the 1920s to the 1970s. Although amenities are being discussed separately from health and safety, they are connected in practice. Late in 1973, the NSW Branch worked with the BWIU over nine weeks to clean up a job at Penrith where the ABLF organiser reported: “Safety bad, toilets filthy, no doors; change rooms, eating room and tool shed all in one. After the company (W. P. Maher) agreed to rectify all these things, they sacked everyone.” Each offence is part of the same struggle.
Federation’s 1913 Log asked for no more than “suitable sanitary”
provision. Employers replied that they were so committed to tat principle
that the Commission need not write any requirement into the Award. The
union knew better. For five months at Rippon Lea, the employers had
provided two iron sheets and a hole in the ground, while conditions were
not much better in Collins Street. Justice Higgins told the employers that
“a thing of this kind involves common civilisation.” (pp.160 & 355)
tribunals spelt out the criteria for “suitable”, the employers could
pretend that they were meeting the standards required. The union had to
press the contractor on a bank in Collins Street in 1926 to provide
Even Sydney’s Sewerage Board was a principal respondent to a 1925 Award
which merely listed “suitable sanitary conveniences” as one of the
General Conditions of employment. The 1937 Award added “adequate” to
“suitable”. The Factories Act and the Public Health Act laid down some
rules, which inspectors from the local council were supposed to enforce,
but they were no better at fulfilling that task than they had been at
making scaffolds safer.
were precise for the construction camps around Canberra in the 1920s.
Latrines had to be 100m. “from the tents on the leeward side, and as far
from the kitchens as possible.” Chlorine of lime or quicklime limited
contamination. Because the campsites had no electric lighting, the men
were reluctant to walk 100m. in the dark, and so the authorities issued
each man with a pan for night use. Wheat sacks filled with sawdust served
The Sydney Harbour Bridge was a monument to industrial civilisation but
not for the men who built its arch. They shat in bags which they tossed
into the water. The driver of an elevated steam crane used his square
shovel as a pan.
For as long as Awards did not specify the number and quality of lavatories. One pan for twenty workers was common. Many Awards contained clauses limiting the provision of lavatories to “where practicable”. The Victorian Branch protested in 1937 at the “deplorable sanitary conditions … on most jobs”, insisting that the employers provide conveniences irrespective of the number of men employed. The 1950 Western Australian Award moved towards that basis when it specified that the conveniences “be kept in a clean and hygienic condition and where sewerage facilities exist proper connections must be made. If a pan system is used, thunder boxes are to be installed.” Clause 27 of the NSW Award laid down that lavatories must be roofed, have walls and a door, the pan had to have a seat and there had to be sufficient lime to serve as deodorant. That a tribunal needed to spell out such essentials showed up the failure of employers to meet “common civilisation”. The worst sites did not provide even a hole in the ground. There was no lavatory at all for nineteen labourers at Service Town (Q) in 1951.
the 1960s, labourers on blocks of flats finished most of their work before
the units were connected to the sewerage. It was rare for a pan be
installed on the upper levels. Organiser Norm Wallace dealt with sites in
Prahran where contractors told the men to shit on the floor and bury it in
More often, they had to piss against a wall or slip into the nearest hotel
Likewise, new suburbs were opening up before the sites had been connected
to the sewerage or a septic tank. Hence, the amenities for building
workers were rough, if there at all, while the 1962 Federal Award remained
vague, with Clause 30 (a) referring to “suitable and adequate sanitary
conveniences in accordance with the requirements of the local health
long as labourers put up with pigsty situations, the employers treated
them as deserving no better. One of the union’s tasks was to educate its
members to insist on adequate lavatories. Selfishness in using lavatories
forced men to squat over the seats, known as “kangarooing”. Activists
had to clamp down on labourers who fouled their own nests. This was never
easy with so many newcomers every few weeks. Education was made harder
when labourers had immigrated from villages with neither running water nor
sewerage. Moreover, many aspects of life in Anglo-Celtic households were
catch-as-catch-can until the 1970s. The affluent Fifties did not arrive in
Australia until after 1962. Plenty of suburban homes had neither sewerage
nor a septic, and toilet paper meant newspaper.
The percentage of Brisbane dwellings connected to sewerage had been
shrinking before the Labor administration from 1961, and much of Western
Sydney was unsewered until the Whitlam government supplied funds in 1973.
lack of sewers did not hold up as an excuse at the David Jones store along
Adelaide’s main street. In August
1964, the South Australian Director of Public Health ordered that
lavatories be connected to the main sewer or to a septic tank on any site
working for three months or more. That ruling still allowed large
contractors to operate in the heart of the city for twelve weeks with
Next year, a Brisbane Council inspector agreed to prosecute building
employers whose lavatories were health hazards. Two years later, the
Queensland Branch referred the lavatories and washing facilities on a
major site in the CBD to the City Health Department. Each improvement had
to be won and then defended, often more than once. The men on a job in
Sydney’s Margaret Street were intrigued to find that the Clerk of Works
had his claim to his own shithouse written into his contract: “We say
that if he craps physically half as much as he does verbally”, then he
needed it. A few months further on, an excavator in Elizabeth Bay thought
he could get away with a pan toilet.
about the inconveniences revealed other problems. Labourers on an
apartment block at the Gold Coast in 1981 complained that a view of the
surf from the porta-potty on the sixth floor did not make up for its being
the lone lavatory. Fixing that problem brought a clean-up of other
amenities. In the process, the members objected to the long hours demanded
of them on cranes working from dawn until close to mid-night. The Branch
meeting voted to ban their operation after dark. That ruling removed the
danger from poor light and from the exhaustion of an 80-hour week.
the Grollos won approval from the National Trust in Victoria to redevelop
the site around the Menzies Hotel they promised to preserve its external
fabric, including a suite of galvanised-iron urinals overhanging Flinders
Their survival is as much a monument to the “common civilisation” for
which the ABLF battled as is the 9x27m. mural that the union had placed on
the south wall.
As Alan Harris in South
Australia reflected in 2006: “I’ve been organising for 22 years. My
first assignment was to get toilets onto a site. So what do you think
I’ve been doing this morning?”
prospect of having to use a dirty, fouled closet, or a makeshift pan in
a rickety lean-to, can hang around in the back of the mind for half the
day. Having to queue up or dodge around in the hope of getting into the
“one and only” W. C. is a bad thing from everybody’s point of
view. When a man’s mind is only half on his job, efficiency falls off.
If the job is not connected to the main sewer, in all probability a pan will be provided. Make sure that the Sanitary Collection Serviceman can get to the pans to change them over. He usually calls in the “wee sma’ hours” and it’s not much good if the place is nailed up or the compound gate locked.
last point. It’s one thing to ask for, and get, decent civilised toilet
conditions, but it’s another to get the men on the job to use them with
consideration for their mates. One or two drongoes can reduce a clean,
serviceable toilet to a filthy, stinking dump in less time than you’d
believe possible. Line up with the clean, decent blokes and bring pressure
to bear on these “no-hopers”. Put a stop to the all-too-ready
accusation, “What’s the good of providing decent toilets – they foul
the place in a couple of days and make a mess of it whatever we put up.”
unionist not only sets a good example but also keeps in mind the good name
of his trade.
might seem to be a very small thing, but it registers more than you’d
It was a long time before the labourers’ concern about sheds shifted towards personal comfort. Beneath the rising Sydney Harbour Bridge, an apprentice recalled:
than 30 years on, the 1962 Award took a leap forward by stipulating
designs and dimensions:
still had to strike to get sheds of any kind. On a Queensland Public Works
Department job near Ipswich in 1962, the lavatories, water bags and
accommodation were inadequate, change sheds doubled as storerooms and meal
rooms, and in some cases, the sanitary pan was in there as well.
the winter of 1965, the Victorian employers had to be strong-armed into
fulfilling an industry-wide agreement amenities which the MBA had signed.
Strikes won such marks of “common civilisation” as heaters, food
warmers, soap, lavatory paper and rubbish pins proofed against flies and
rates. Unionists on a Leightons’ job in Russell street went out for 14
hours to get these necessities and then for a further hours to secure
their wages for the time they had lost.
July 1970, the men on one job in the Sydney CBD were eating in a laneway,
until the union threatened to strike to get the firm moving. When
stoppages failed to improve conditions, vigilantes demolished
“amenities” that breached the Award. After labourers dispatched a
Brambles shed at Kings Cross in late 1970, the company applied to Mundey
for $45 in damages. Did they expect to get paid? An MBA representative
blew into Jack’s ear that Brambles had to ask for the money before going
to their insurers:
Brambles wanted Mundey’s promise that he had taken his “marauders” to task: “Don’t contact him [Lance] especially but next time you are in contact just let him know that Brambles is safe in future.”
organiser, Mike Keenan, left this list of duties for the delegates on a
Toilet paper, hand soap and disinfectant – employees to see that supply is kept up.
Eating shed – lined walls, with lights, strip heater, table and seats, hot water urn, pie oven, and refrigerator. Shed to be big enough to fit all workers on the job if it is the only one provided.
Change shed: lights, strip heater, clothing hooks (not Nails). One shed for labourers and separate ones for sub-contractors etc.
Broom and mop.
Nipper who will take smoko and lunch orders from all workers on the job and make the tea. Nipper will clean the sheds twice every day and the toilet. Only a labourer will perform these tasks.
job is almost a full-time job. Other work will not interfere with the
nipper’s tasks as outlined above.
must be cleaned everyday. Toilet must have a urinal trough. The toilet
paper and soap supply must be kept up.
– within two weeks this job must have showers big enough for all the
workers, with hot and cold running water.
union laid down rules, but only job action could enforce them, as was
demonstrated by the following four examples. At starting time on 26 April
1972, Sydney labourers on a city site met to deal with the lack of a shed
and an urn. In addition, the only toilets belonged to the nearby wool
stores. Men working for the sub-contractor (ARCOS) walked off after the
firm refused to provide a shed because the job was for only nine weeks;
anyway, ARCOS said, washing facilities and toilets were available in the
wool sheds. The MBA instructed the company to comply with industry
standards and ARCOS also paid for the hours that the men had lost.
year later, on 9 May 1972, workers struck over amenities and safety on the
Lend Lease job at Eastwood. Once the company agreed to fix the site up
before starting time the next day, the BLs went back with full pay for the
time they had stopped. Three days later, at the Eye Hospital in
Woolloomooloo, the contractor agreed to begin to fix up the amenities.
Next morning, the BLs, carpenters and boilermakers walked off because the
company had made no effort to improve the situation.
labourers in Canberra were being reminded that strength on site decided
conditions, not scraps of paper. On 26 April, a Commissioner agreed to
hear complaints about amenities at the Citra job in Kingston only if the
labourers returned to work. They got no support from other Citra jobs, and
the BWIU Branch gave brickies permission to mix their own mud.
The delay contrasted with the prompt resolutions, and no loss of pay,
which militancy assured around Sydney.
continued to include terms such as “adequate” and “reasonable”. A
history of failure by employers to live up to the spirit of those
requirements saw the union insist on the right to refer disagreements to
industrial tribunals. The more specifications that an Award contained, the
easier it was to prove a fault. For instance, the West Australian
provisions for a shed detailed its size, lighting and ventilation, and
that tables had to have non-absorbent, washable tops with not less than
400mm. x 450mm. space for each labourer.
The enforcement of conditions depended on the willingness of the workers
on each site to act, and the capacity of their union to sustain them,
financially and industrially.
one-act play, without dialogue, which is re-enacted every day in a
multitude of places with a constantly changing cast.
Postscript: This play will be incomprehensible to builders’ labourers, unless they have worked for some time as a member of the Federated Ironworkers Association.
1961, the Queensland Branch turned to the City Council to get even cold
water for washing onto a site in the settled suburb of Toowong.
Conditions in the outer fringes needed even more vigilance. Neither the
1962 nor the 1978 Award said anything about a place or time to wash up,
and called for hot showers only “where practicable”. Labourers were
still expected to use the taps for the building operations. Sometimes a
requirement was written into site provisions. The NSW Branch insisted on
“hot and cold showers” for an apartment block in 1978. On the
Melbourne Underground Loop in 1981, the contractor had to supply
“personal washing facilities with hot and cold running water and an
adequate supply of soap”. One reason why the ABLF banned the demolition
or renovation of workers’ pubs in the CBDs was to preserve places for
concrete-encrusted members to get a beer.
Most early Awards made no mention of cold drinking water. By 1937, the NSW Award stated: “Employers shall provide pure drinking water for employees. Where the water is not conveyed by pipe it shall be kept in a covered receptacle.” The 1962 Federal Award stipulated no more than “reasonably accessible drinking water”. By 1978, the ABLF had won a ruling that drinking water be “cool, clean” and supplied “at all times”.
got the worst deal because so few facilities were on sites until after the
excavations. The 600 men sent from Perth to clear land for farming at Lake
Cronin in 1928 got 18 litres of water for week to cook and to wash
themselves and their clothes.
In the settled areas, the navvies had to seek water from neighbours, if
any. Hence, suitable drinking water was not always available. The water in
buckets was too warm or too dirty, and the only tap was often for washing
or for concreting. Water could be cooled in a canvas bag, if there were
any shade or a breeze. The water was best at a couple of degrees below
shade temperature since iced water upset the digestion. Eventually,
air-conditioned sheds with refrigerators allowed for a cool drink.
learnt to pace their fluid intake as another of the knacks of making it
through the week. If they drank too much too quickly they pissed too
often. Getting the balance right was harder if a labourer began the day
hung over. From the 1960s, the increased frequency of a few beers at
lunchtimes cut across the intake of other fluids and the maintenance of
safety. In 1989, a Queensland Liberal politician alleged that “a very
high percentage” of injuries on building-sites were due to alcohol.
Did he mean boardroom fridges and tax-deductible corporate lunches? Blood
tests on fatally injured NSW construction workers between 1989 and 1992
showed that 93% had no alcohol and that another five percent were under
the legal limit for driving.
labourer is not allowed to do it and very often the employer will object
to allowing anyone to do it. This is generally when it is piece work, and
the result is that the men have to wait until half past 12 o’clock
before they can get hot water for their dinner.(p. 161)
drafting the 1940 Log, the men wanted the water to be boiling before meal
time. The 1962 Federal Award went no further than requiring employers to
provide “boiling water” at lunch and smoko. The 1978 Award expected
“reasonably accessible boiling water at meal times and rest periods.”
jobs than breakfasts”
labourers started work too early to feel like a substantial breakfast,
even if they had time for one. They consequently pushed for a morning
smoko long before they demanded an afternoon one. That early break meant
more than a mug of tea, and could be the first major intake of food. Hard
work on little or no food drove men to gorge on sugars and fats, washed
down with high-sugar beverages – tea or soft-drinks. A lack of calories
at the start of the day followed by a rush of sugars disturbed judgement
in tricky situations. The hour between 9am and 10 am sees twice as many
injuries as at any other time, and more serious ones.
opposed more than one break in the day because even that disruption
reduced the labour-time from which they extracted value. Some realised
that a rest break improved performance, both in quality and quantity.
However, most managers suspected that any benefit to profit-taking from a
smoko was outweighed by its disruption to the flow of materials. Once
labourers won the right to a morning break, Messrs Construction Capital
determined to limit its effect on the production of value. In 1950, the
West Australian Award included a morning break but laid down that “the
period of seven minutes shall not be exceeded by any circumstances.”
The smoko was abolished in 1953 because it had been abuse and, in 1960,
the Court refused to restore a formal break but expected the employer to
allow one “so long as the progress of the work is not unduly interfered
A Dutch corporation sacked Sydney building workers in 1957 for being late
back from smoko, and even for sitting down during their break. After a
strike got them reinstated, the supervisor admitted that the sackings had
been intended to intimidate the men into working faster.
labourers ate varied over time. A contractor recalled Grollo’s cement
gangs from the 1950s: “Lou would roar in with a small truckload of
blokes! And they’d bring out their loaves of bread and a bit of
In recent years, labourers have grabbed pies to eat on the way back to
work following a few beers. Into the 1960s, the majority were still
bringing their lunches but more often the Billy Boy, or “Nipper”, was
going out to the shops for food. A Melbourne old-timer, George Fitton,
recalled a more exotic fare:
The prevalence of sandwiches for lunch meant that many labourers did not get a hot meal until the evening. Pies offered the chance for some hot fare, making pie-warmers another part of occupational safety. Workers had to protect their cut lunches against ants and flies. The latter were worse where lavatories were inadequate; the pans became known as “honey pots” for their attraction to blowflies. Air-conditioned sheds were a way of encouraging men to eat an adequate lunch.
The gutter press attacked these achievements as luxuries. What Murdoch columnist would work without them? More importantly, the likelihood of accidents from the lack of refreshing fluids and appropriate foods is greater on a 7m. scaffold than in front of a computer screen on the 7th floor of an air-conditioned office block.
Poor diet had long-term effects for the heart, kidney and diabetes. After Victorian organiser Terry O’Connor dropped dead in 1974, aged 50, the Branch paid for annual health checks on its officials. Diet was another area where Workers Health Centres were invaluable at preventive care. The CFMEU sponsored breakfasts in disadvantaged schools. A similar programme was needed around the sites. In 2006, the ACT Branch attached a hot food café to its office opposite construction projects.
one was to get a steady fire going. Banskia gave the best smoke but shoddy
planks were “much safer on the fire” than in a scaffold. Rule two was
to keep the fire slow because otherwise everything burnt faster than a
boss could say “out the gate”.
recipes were as varied as the workforce. One adapted Chinese chicken to
the barbeque. Mix a marinade of garlic, ginger, oil, soy sauce, sherry and
pepper in a painter’s tray no later than at smoko. After a few minutes
on the grill, test the thighs and breasts with a 4-inch nail.
Another page recommended taking a rest from the meat pie in favour of spaghetti marinara, a-la-BL. Crush the garlic with the base of a trowel onto a plas-ply chopping board and then use the face of the trowel to scoop the garlic into the pan and to break up some tinned tomatoes. After 30 minutes of simmering, the sauce should end up with the consistency of a good slurry. Get the Billy-boy to detour from the TAB to bring back fresh seafood. If you’ve had a win, tell him to lash out on prawns, and if the rent isn’t due, crabmeat will make the crew go weak at the knees.
lesson was: what you eat today, struggles tomorrow, or, as one stalwart
put it: “Once you’re filleted, you never get you backbone back.”
Inadequate, even filthy conditions were not confined to building sites. Few factories, offices or stores provided their employees with lunch rooms.
cash in lieu of amenities was no answer although such swaps were more
acceptable than taking money for risks. The flaw in that distinction is
that an employer who provided inferior amenities also neglected safety.
However, as with OHS, the Federation exacted retrospective “dirt
money” as an incentive to make employers behave. An example of combining
improvements with penalties appeared in June 1972 at Wynyard station where
Parkes Development Corporation had brought extra men on site but provided
no additional amenities. The small shed was dirty. The on-site manager
offered the BLs use of his office and to pay double time until proper
sheds arrived. Work resumed on the morning that the dispute began, with no
loss of wages.
Similarly, crane drivers came out of a long strike in 1973 with 25 cents
more an hour until amenities met the required standard.
Management experts warned employers in 1953 that “dirt is a most expensive commodity.” The turnover of labour and absenteeism were higher on dirty jobs: “Dirt breeds discontent”, and discontent produced militants. Whenever the union became active, dirty sites added to the direct and indirect costs. Moreover, a dirty site was an unsafe site. That combination of faults continued into the 1960s on major infra-structure projects and high-rises around the CBDs. Mundey’s lament that bosses did not provide labourers with a nail to hang their coats was not the half of it.
Money and Markets” became the slogan of the Federal government during
the 1920s. The “men” included 200,000 servicemen who had to be
resettled, and as many immigrants making Australia their home. The
population grew from 5 to 6 millions. Behind the rhetoric was the scramble
for jobs and housing. Building Australia took a turn towards heavier
industry: BHP developed Whyalla as a port to supply iron to its steel
works at Newcastle; a rail line linked Mt Isa copper mine to the coast;
steelworks opened at Port Kembla. Governments commissioned reservoirs,
such as at Eildon. A rural township expanded at Griffith. Two settlements
began. One was the national capital in Canberra, the other a company town
at Yallourn to supply secondary industry with electric power from brown
coal. A Jazz Age in the Roaring Twenties was not reflected in the
conditions for labourers employed on the emblems of modernisation.
an interview between union officials and the Department on 3 December
1915, the ABLF made requests on behalf of its Canberra members. Only one
was granted, namely, the payment of a living away from home allowance to
compensate for the crude conditions under which the men and their families
had to exist. The Minister declined to pay for a free cook at the
Yarralumla Woolshed, since only six of the 80 labourers were living there;
the rest preferred to be in tents with their families, or friends. The
same reasoning stopped a distribution of free firewood.
interrupted the works, which resumed in 1921 when peace required settling
ex-servicemen into jobs. During 1922, the Federal Government brought 200
of them to Canberra as labourers. No sooner had they arrived, than they
prepared to strike against a cut in wages and an increase in hours. Adding
insult to injury, the authorities had no blankets to issue and too few
tents, squeezing four men into the space for three. Candles supplied most
of the lighting. To ward off the winter, men contrived to attach tin
fireplaces to their tents. Only one worker was burnt to death in his bed.
Living conditions for labourers were like those in the army. The camps were split between single and married men. The former were graded according to occupation. At the bottom were the navvies, next came the horse-and-dray men and tradesmen, with officials at the top. The single men played sport and two-up, and got beer from the closest pub in Queanbeyan, where the shops were. Until 1928, the ACT was “dry” – no alcohol could be sold. Although gambling or possession of alcohol in the camps brought dismissal, one man died in a drunken brawl. The labourers worked 44 hours over five-and-a-half days. In mid-1925, they voted to perform their 44 hours in five days to get home for a weekend. One carpenter pedalled 100 km. towards Braidwood every second Friday and back on the Sunday. Rough as living was for the labourers building the nation’s capital, their conditions were better than on the silos, reservoirs, bridges and railways that were not in the public eye.
executives recognised the impact that housing had for industrial
relations. Married men in company-owned houses were likely to be more
tractable than the “agitators and hoboes” feared by the
superintendents. In line with the spread of support for eugenics among a
bourgeoisie fearful of working-class activism, one SEC manager declared in
the 1930s that some of its workers were born slum-ites, unfit for decent
arrival, the labourers went into camps, but were promised houses.
The cheapest dwellings were of wood, and offered two bedrooms, a
living room, a kitchen and lean-to bathroom with laundry. This design
represented the triumph of class prejudice over demographic fact.
Working-class families had more children than could fit into a single
bedroom. When the cheapest houses were made available to labourers, the
rent was 22s 6d, almost 50% higher than the 15s that Monash had planned.
The daily wage was 14s 3d. Something had to give. Either rents had to be
subsidised or wages increased to meet the socially necessary cost of
reproducing labour power. The SEC rejected both.
labourers on site never stopped battling for wages to match the expenses
of living away from home in an area with no public amenities and higher
than average food prices because of a monopoly grocer. At Morwell, late in
1923, the SEC men wanted 10s more, to lift their wages to 27s a day. They
were solid, with backing from the carpenters. The Branch Executive saw the
push as “the biggest thing the union had taken on for years and that it
was highly desirable that good and efficient attention should be paid to
An organiser reported on 11 February 1924 that he had “experienced great
difficulty in restraining the men from indulging in a strike.” The BLs
were “restive” because the SEC would not comply with its agreement.
Sanitation was poor.
The ABLF accused the SEC of interpreting the Award by “its
circumlocutions”. The workplaces saw endless pin-pricks from both sides;
discussions were on, and then off. The LaTrobe labourers insisted that
their Federation “seek redress by way of summons.” In May, the men
became more than stroppy.
Contests over wages persisted as the ABLF warded off coverage by other
unions, inevitably, the AWU. Early in July 1927, Secretary Smith
complained that the SEC treated the Federation “like a shuttlecock”.
Negotiations got nowhere because of the difficulty in determining “who
were the real employers” - the SEC, or the principal contractors, Messrs
Armstrong Whitworth. That division of authority remained a stumbling block
on every issue.
felt the shrinking of the economy. During 1930, conditions were driven
down so much that some BLs were not getting the Award wage. Accident pay
was unknown and injuries were not being reported.
The organisers found that “if a man were an active unionist and did not
take an interest in the welfare of the town, things were made rather warm
for him.” George Coulson was punished for his principles, and had to
quit the works. 
defiance of regulations that workers live within the boundary of the
Commission’s model town, the labourers voted with their feet. They
drifted to a mining settlement known as the Brown Coal Mine, or more
popularly as BCM. Outlying settlements sprang up around that centre, which
itself was hardly more than a straggle of corrugated-iron huts. The land
rent was a shilling a week. The newcomers fashioned homes from bark,
packing cases, tin drums and bagging, plastering the walls with clay
before whitewashing them. Perched above the model town, a sagging BCM was
a reproach to the SEC’s inability to provide for its workers.
In that regard, the Commission was no worse than the capitalists whom it
had been set up to service.
BCM-ites, or “coalies”, displayed community spirit and independence,
their Aussie Rules team taking on all challenges. Nonetheless, some
conditions were sub-standard even for the times. Epidemics were more
common than in Melbourne slums, with gastro killing seven infants at the
BCM in fourteen days during 1928. Press reports of the deaths shamed the
SEC into providing clean water and disposing of the sewerage. Thereafter,
dwellings up on the BCM could be more salubrious than in the model town,
which was “often buried in fog and coal dust.”
1944 bushfire tested the view that those who could afford higher rents
possessed superior ideals of citizenship. A Royal Commissioner saw the
failure of the townspeople to defend themselves against the blaze as a
result of the way that the SEC had treated its employees:
Yallourn burn because the SEC had taught its residents to believe that it
deserved no better?
November 1940, the Commonwealth began to establish the largest of its new
munitions projects at the hamlet of Salisbury on 1,200 hectares of wheat
fields. The decision to build in South Australia had been driven
politically. The State government attracted the factory by offering to
supply roads, power, water and sewerage. The Commonwealth’s failure to
acquire the land until building works had been underway for months
highlighted the slackness of the administration. Workers suffered from the
gap between promises and implementation. The Official War Historian
praised the speed at which the engineers got the site operational, working
from their offices, and supplied with automobiles.
Not a word appears about the labourers who “toiled in the heat, in the
cold, and in the rain” to make those blueprints a reality.
managers achieved their record times at the expense of safety.
In April 1940, the ABLF again called for amendments to the Scaffolding
Act to extend inspection beyond the Adelaide area. After Bro. Arnold was
killed at Salisbury in January 1941, the Branch referred the scaffolding
to the Building Trades Council after
voting to “deprecate the speed-up tactics employed on most Defence
The lack of official concern about safety was on a par with the
failure to provide basic services. The nearest rail stop was an
unsheltered siding from which labourers were transported on open trucks in
Once at the site, they found sheds, lavatories and water supplies which
were not up to even the usual sub-standard. The water was not fresh and
was being boiled in buckets, not coppers. Members complained that, as a
result, “men had been washing their hands, washing shovels, etc in the
water allotted for the men to make their tea with.”
Resentment over the conditions at Salisbury was so strong that the
Communist-influenced Branch continued to oppose overtime until March 1942,
eight months after the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, and
three months after Japan’s entry into the war. The South Australian
Branch adjusted its attitude upon conscription for civilian labour, but
the New South Wales leadership resisted longer hours into 1943.
Works Council (AWC)
the First Pacific War required sending labourers into remote areas where
they had to construct their camps along with the defence works. For
instance, thousands of NSW builders’ labourers went to North Queensland
to lay 800 km. of road. The ABLF wanted to know on what terms these
members were to be employed. Would they be paid at the lower Queensland
rate? If not, would the locals have their pay increased? When the AWC
asked Mr Justice O’Mara to apply the wisdom of Solomon, he recognised
that the only solution was to get the Arbitration Court to determine a
uniform set of conditions. The Federation would have preferred to take the
best from each of the States, but accepted that such a bonanza was not
achievable. The union put higher wages above an improvement in conditions.
The government, in turn, found it easier to pay a disabilities allowance
than to provide amenities.
men conscripted into the CCC were sent to jobs far from their homes. On
arrival, most had to build their own accommodation and facilities. Food
was poor and services non-existent.
In October 1942, eight construction workers, who left their Clermont (Q.)
camp for Sydney to protest about conditions, faced arrest as deserters.
Representatives from eight camps joined Queensland BTG officials to meet
the AWC in June 1943 to deal with “bad lighting, vermin-infested huts,
wash-tubs, clothes lines, banking facilities, tobacco, sandshoes.”
Secretary Fred Thomas reported that conditions around Brisbane were fair
enough. He accepted AWC assurances that the horrors further out resulted
from problems with transport; in some places, there were no roads. The AWC
also promised a clean-up. Whether Thomas visited any of the distant camps,
such as Clermont, is debatable. A NSW organiser accused him of staying in
Brisbane and pocketing the expenses. That behaviour was more in keeping
with Thomas’s known character than was undergoing the rigours of bush
officials encouraged labourers to accept wartime shortages and some lack
of “common civilisation” as part of the sacrifice for the defeat of
foreign fascism. Members compared their conditions and dangers with those
of the fighting forces, and knew they could be worse off. As soon as the
war ended, however,
Victorian BLs applied go-slow tactics to get amenities back on the
THE BOOMING ‘60s
nature of that work and the state of the sites presented organisers and
members with issues far beyond wages, hours and amenities. The
infrastructure at the camps began as a throwback to those for navvies on
railways and reservoirs in the nineteenth century. The Branch’s most
recent experience with such situations had been for the Civil Construction
Corps, responsible to the government. Whereas the resource projects were
undertaken by the world’s biggest and toughest construction
corporations, such as Utah and Fluor, Bechtel and Dillinghams. Secretary
Delaney acknowledged in May 1966 that “when agreements had first been
made we had been in our infancy in major construction.”
The infrastructure sites added layers to the battle for amenities. The Log of claims now went beyond sheds, lavatories and hot water as the union negotiated over full board and accommodation. Some disputes were about the prices charged, and others over the quality of food and bedding. Thus, the resources boom involved the Branch in social issues - health and education - that it had left to the Labor Party. The union needed to win housing, schools and entertainment from an anti-labour State administration and anti-union contractors.
companies tried to use board and lodging to reduce wages or to break
strikes. In July 1963, the contractor on the Calcap powerhouse deducted
₤2 4s for board and keep. When the men refused to accept this wage
cut, the company put them out of the camp before the union got them back
into the dining room without any charge for their food.
In 1966, the Calcap men went out for three days. In response, Holland
Constructions made them pay $4 for the nine meals they had eaten while on
strike, only to back off once Gallagher put the squeeze on its Melbourne
remained a flashpoint. Many men were living in caravans. To meet union
demands, one company offered to construct a caravan park with all
amenities adjacent to the site. Employees living in the park received $10
per week in lieu of accommodation and they got an additional $4 a week
until the site was complete. The company also conceded fares and traveling
time for those still driving in for shifts from Biloela. Meanwhile, the
Collinsville site still had no car park.
1966 agreement at Blackwater showed how many benefits union action could
deliver. The employers paid $7.50 as the site allowance, and provided a
wet canteen, a public phone and a weekly movie. They also funded an
ambulance man, an emergency vehicle and a first-aid room on site.
By contrast, Christmas Day 1965 at the Hammersley project on the other
side of the continent confirmed that construction workers got no joy
without struggle. Having worked the men for three months without a day
off, the company served cheese, bread and tinned meat. A riot rewrote more
than the menu.
population continued to grow. From 7,000 in the early 1960s, it had
reached 31,000 by 1981, with no sign of slowing. Caravans were the common
lot of families moving there, with some surviving out of the back of utes.
House rents skyrocketed. Because the corporations sped the construction of
the infrastructure to hasten the sale of the resources that realised their
profits, social infrastructure did not get a look in. The closest welfare
office was 136km. away in Rockhampton. Once more, the unions looked beyond
their worksites to battle for social environments. On 1 July 1981, 4,000
members stopped work, banning resource projects until their communities
were guaranteed funds for hospitals, schools, sporting and cultural
Premier Bjelke-Peterson proclaimed “States’ Rights” for the benefit
of overseas investors at the expense of Queensland citizens.
building boomed at the expense of its workforce until the NSW Branch tamed
the concrete jungle. On May Day 1972, work stopped on the Law Courts where
the contractors had agreed to supply pans on the upper floors for the
riggers. The BLs blacked this area until the pans arrived, and also
insisted on washing facilities at the top. On 11 May, the company again
assured its labourers that lavatories and washing troughs would be
installed higher up, but two weeks later, they were still only on the
flood floor. The workers then refused to go higher than that level. The
company once more promised that a trough and taps would be on the sixth
level on the following morning, and lavatories by Tuesday.
The right for “common civilisation” had to be fought from floor to
floor, not just from site to site.
linked campaigns for amenities with demands for wages, safety and job
control. Under the 1978 headline “Green Bans to Stay”, the NSW Branch
journal reported that jobs did not provide without “top
CONDITIONS and amenities”. (Emphasis in original) For example, a
project facing Centennial Park saw:
In helping the Federal Office to take over New South Wales, the MBA was left holding the ABLF tiger by its commitment to environments at work.
Karl Marx, Capital, I,
Foreign Languages Publishing House,
 Builders Labourers’ Federal Journal (BLFJ), November 1981, p. 9.
 Australian Builders’ Labourers’ Federation, NSW Branch Records, List of Industrial Disputes, 23 October 1973, Mitchell Library (ML), MSS 4879, Box MLK 04261; for a BWIU statement of the interlocking of these demands, see Report of NSW Royal Commission on Building Productivity, NSW Parliamentary Papers, 1992-93, Second Session, vol. XXI, Paper 271, pp. 422-3.
Transcript of 1913 Award Hearings in the Commonwealth Conciliation and
Arbitration Commission, Australian Builders’ Labourers’ Federation
v A. W. Archer, Australian Archives B1958 (B1958/1) 9/1912, the page
references are given in brackets.
ABLF, Victorian Branch Records, Minutes,
Ann Gugler, Builders of
Peter Lalor, The Bridge,
Allen & Unwin,
 Western Australian Industrial Gazette (WAIG), volume 30, 1950, p. 202.
 Stan Sharkey quoted Lindie Clark, Finding a Common Interest, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, 2002, p. 70.
John Stubbs, The Hidden People, Poverty in Australia, Cheshire-Lansdowne,
Melbourne, 1966, p. 51; Sharkey quoted Clark, Finding a Common Interest, p. 70; Janice Newton, “Dunnies and
Australian culture: looking backward and forward to explicate
community memory”, JAS,
91, 2007, pp. 81-92.
 E. G. Whitlam, The Whitlam Government, Viking, Ringwood, 1985, p. 372.
 NSW Builder’s Labourer, April 1973, p. 37, June 1973, p. 9.
 BLFJ, November 1981, p. 22.
Graeme Davison, “
 Unity, March-April 1985, p. 12, and August 1985, p. 12.
 Building, Transport and Timber Workers’ trades union Journal, December 1960, p. 27.
 Ian Ferrier quoted Caroline Mackeness (ed.) Bridging Sydney, Historical Houses Trust, Sydney, 2006, p. 193, and cf. p. 218.
 101 Commonwealth Arbitration Reports (1962) 318 at 348.
 Unity, July 1965, p. 12; for the failings of the Housing Commission, Unity, December 1966, p. 8.
R. M. Jones to Jack Mundey,
 for later checklists of amenities see Dare to Struggle, December 1978, unpagination; NSW Builders’ Labourer, July 1980, unpaginated, and NSW Parliamentary Papers, 1992-93, Second Session, vol. XXI, Paper 271, pp. 422-3. .
Jack Mundey to MBA,
NSW organisers’ diary,
The Builders Labourers’ Pocket
 BLFJ, November 1981, p. 6.
21 February 1865, p. 2, quoted John Moran, March
of progress, Part 1, A history of the eight hours’ demonstration in
Brisbane (beginnings to 1900), Preferential Publications,
Brisbane, 1989, p. 35; Qingfeng Zou,
“Mortality Experience from Injury and Violence in Australia during
1869-1992”, Ph.D. Thesis, ANU, 1998, p. 59.
 Queensland Master Builder, January 1965, p. 18.
Tresna Shorter, “The Working and Living Conditions of the Labourers
of the Public Works Department during the Depression 1928-34”, Early
Days, 9 (5), 1987, p. 120.
 Work-related traumatic fatalities, 1989 to 1992, National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, Camperdown, 1998, p. 14; NSCA’s Australian Safety, November 2000, pp. 24-25.
Quoted Ronald Henderson, Alison Harcourt and R. J. A. Harper, People
in Poverty A
 Building & Engineering Journal, 22 March 1890, p. 102, 6 June 1891, p. 218, 19 March 1892, p. 116.
 Seamus O’Hanlon, Together apart: boarding house, hotel and flat life in pre-war Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2003, pp. 32-34 and 47.
 Greg Foley, “Construction industry: occupational health and safety, performance overview, 1992-93”, Journal of Occupational Health & Safety Australia and New Zealand, 13 (1), February 1997, pp. 90-92; cf. Douglas Gordon et al., “Occupational Accidents in Queensland”, Medical Journal of Australia, 25 November 1961, p. 855; Work-related traumatic fatalities, 1989 to 1992, National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, Camperdown, 1998, p. 14.
 Labourers granted afternoon smokos to themselves in June 1977, The General, authorised biography of Norm Gallagher, p. 13 of the unnumbered chapter on 1977 pay dispute in unpublished 1989 typescript.
 WAIG, 40 (3 & 4), 1960, p. 671.
 Builders’ Laborers’ Journal (BLJ), July 1957, p. 4.
Robert Pascoe, Recollections of
Luigi Grollo, Grollo
NSW Records, list of disputes,
 BLFJ, September 1982, p. 26, December 1982, p. 26.
 NSW Industrial Commission, Compulsory Conference, No. 191 of 1959, Transcript, p. 3, 23 February 1960, MLK 04269.
 NSW organisers’ 1972 diary, MLK 04274.
 Jibs Up, May 1973, p. 2 and June 1973, p. 2.
Jack Mundey, Green bans and
beyond, Angus & Robertson,
Yarralumla Woolshed – complaint from Builders’ Labourers’
Federation, Australian Archives, A361 DSG17/2580, 1915.
 Alan Foskett, On Solid Foundations, The building and construction of the Nation’s Capital 1920 to 1950, pp. 57-8; Labor Monthly, May 1927, p. 20; Gugler, Canberra’s Construction camps, 2001, p. 94.
Geoffrey Serle, John Monash:
a biography, MUP,
Meredith Fletcher, Digging up people for coal: a history of Yallourn, MUP,
 Fletcher, pp. 28 and 40.
 Fletcher, p. 29.
Victorian Executive, 12 June and 10 and 24 July 1929; Victorian
 Fletcher, Digging up people for coal, pp. 30-33.
 Fletcher, p. 32.
Tresna Shorter, “The Working and Living Conditions of the Labourers
of the Public Works Department during the Depression, 1928-34”, Early
Days, 9 (5), 1987, pp. 113-29.
 D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1958, pp. 349-52; S. J. Butlin, War Economy 1939-1942, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1955, p. 294n.; A. T. Ross, Armed and Ready, The Industrial Development and Defence of Australia 1900-1945, Turton and Armstrong, Sydney, 1995, pp. 258 and 263-4.
 South Australia, Minutes, 5 February 1941, Executive, 5 and 19 March, 23 April, 7 May, 21 May, 13 August 1941, Special Summons, 19 November, and stop-work, 25 November 1941.
NSW Minutes, 22 September and
S. J. Butlin and C. B. Schedvin, War Economy 1942-1945, Australian War Memorial,
Bridget Griffen-Foley, Sir Frank
Packer, the young master, Harper,
 Butlin and Schedvin, War Economy, pp. 34-5 and 146-7.
 Butlin and Schedvin, pp. 147-9; NSW Minutes, 7 July and 26 October 1942, 23 March 1943; BLJ, July 1943, pp. 3-4; AA 419/3/32 MP 574/1.
Griffen-Foley, Sir Frank Packer,
p. 136; cf. NSW Minutes,
NSW Minutes, 10 November and
 NBAC, Z398/41.
David Ettershank and Peter Morgan, Busting
with the boom: what Gladstone development means to people, Labour
Research Group, Brisbane, 1981; Builders’
Labourers’ Federal Journal, November 1981, p. 8; see also Claire
Williams, Opencut, The working class in an Australian mining town, George
Allen & Unwin Australia, North Sydney, 1981.
See my Gone Tomorrow,
Queensland Master Builder,
 NSW organisers’ diary, May 1972, MLK 04274.
 NSW Builders’ Labourer, 2, 1978, p. 10.