BLF - OHS - CHAPTER EIGHT: BENEFITS
Aged sixty, and almost blind, the Melbourne Eight-Hour pioneer, James Stephens, broke both arms in a fall at work in the early 1880s. He was fortunate to be remembered by his Stonemason brethren who collected ₤500. In late 1906, Melbourne building unions raised £500 for the families of two men killed and three badly injured on a job. Such generosity was admirable, yet inadequate. In South Australia, the foundation Secretary of the United Builders’ Labourers’ Society, Gregor McGregor, had to continue working as a stone-mason and navvy after losing much of his eyesight in a forestry mishap in 1878, as did the worker-poet, John Shaw Neilson.
chapter looks at three more ways in which labourers have supported each
other against the dangers at work. General comments on union relief funds
are followed by an account of funeral benefits before surveying the
provision for “slow workers”.
the Builders’ Labourers’ Unions federated in 1910, the Branches
carried forward some of the benefit schemes. The Victorians set up a Club
into which members could choose to pay. A labourer who contributed for 13
weeks became entitled to 13 weeks’ support at ₤1 a week; he could
then receive 10s for another 13 weeks, before his total benefit was capped
at ₤19 10s. If he were killed on a job, his family got a funeral
benefit of ₤10. (211 & 464) The Branch paid out over ₤200
each year from 1911 to 1913 while, in the second half of 1915, its outlays
Given the dangers of the work, and the absence of a Scaffolding Act, the
rank-and-file wanted the scheme to succeed. When Secretary Mulvogue
declared that welfare work had no place in an industrial organisation, 250
members voted down his 1916 motion to abolish the Club. This show of
support did not reverse its financial decline. Two months later, the
reserves were almost exhausted.
Melbourne labourers organised socials for their injured fellows. A 1916
Bazaar raised ₤115 for Comrade Spargo.
After the Branch heard that Brother Snowdon “was right up against it”,
having earned only ₤4 in three months in 1924, the members held a
fund-raiser for him and two others.
In Sydney, the United Labourers’ Protective Society also maintained its
welfare arm, paying out ₤4,500 to injured members between 1919 and
In the first week in March 1926, the Victorian Branch’s outgoings
totaled ₤82 8s 5d., almost half going as benefits: ₤19 13s 4d
on accident pay, a ₤15 mortuary payment, and ₤1 19s to a sick
member, despite his being un-financial.
the ABLF continued as a welfare society as well as an industrial union,
there were limits on its beneficence. In Brisbane, Comrade Wilson had been
watching the England-Australia Rugby League test when the stand collapsed,
leaving him in a bad way in hospital with a broken thigh, and his family
without a breadwinner. The Branch referred his appeal for sustenance to
Victorian Branch appointed a Sick Visitor whose services were welcomed by
labourers who were single or transient. If injured or ill, they had no one
to conduct their business or run errands. For example, on hearing in 1925
that a member was penniless in hospital after surgery, the members voted
₤2 and donated another 13s out their own pockets. Six months later,
the hat went round to pay the dues for another hospitalised member.
A 1927 motion to pass the tasks of the Sick Visitor to the organisers in
an effort to stop men malingering was defeated by a single vote.
Victorian Executive had to weigh justice against compassion in June 1926
in the case of Ivo Thompson, a job rep. who had met with an accident. His
own contributions were in credit but he had not paid in ₤3 8s from
collecting dues. The Executive thought it was “a very doubtful
position” whether it could “withhold his accident payments” since it
“had not taken steps to collect the amount outstanding by him as a Shop
Steward.” Thompson explained that he had used the union’s money to
bury his sister, and “that he could not leave his mother go without food
once he had done wrong.” The Executive credited his accident benefit to
his Shop Steward account while he agreed to pay the outstanding ₤1
4s 8d within two weeks: “He was then told to go back to work.”
a rule meant ending up with no rules. Flexibility opened a side door to
favouritism. That outcome endangered unity. A whip around the membership
was a safer bet than the waiving of regulations. Nonetheless, a meeting
later in 1926 agreed to dip into the THC Fund to provide old and infirm
unionists with “some little sustenance”. Although Secretary Percy
Smith supported the sentiment, he warned: “Members could not treat the
Union as a Bank of Benevolence, where one could put in 4d and draw out
in 1928, Smith himself proposed establishing an Incidental Fund to do just
that. By contributing 6d every six months, a member could borrow up to
₤5. The need for such a service was real with labourers more likely
than most workers to be short of cash and with fewer assets to pawn; a
number were away from family and friends from whom they could borrow. The
discussion continued for several weeks with opponents pointing to the
mismanagement of previous schemes, including the funeral benefit.
Organiser Loughnan calculated that, on a 6d weekly subscription, a man
would have to contribute for 100 years to cover the ₤5 he could
borrow. Smith’s proposal was defeated.
Members then restarted the Pension Fund. Only four had joined by late 1929
when Smith reported that it was “absolutely unsound”.
By then, so was the Branch after the 1929 lock-out of timber workers, and
it limped on with a £200 loan from John Wren’s secretary.
in the depression, Wilfred Arthur Partridge slit his wrists and throat
after being refused a pension because he was ten months short of his 65th
birthday. His farewell note read: “No home, no friends, poor, old,
insane. Partridge, good-bye. All rest in peace. Old men not wanted, just
Labouring men from the Salvation Army refuge on Bourke Street got a few
shillings by posing at the National Art School in Russell street; their
gaunt bodies provided students with exercises in skeletal form, not
displays of muscle.
best that the Executive could do for Bro. McMahon in May 1930 was to
advance him £1 for a Hawker’s licence. To assist other unemployed
members, the Branch imposed a £1 levy on those in regular work. Next, to
provide the jobless with Christmas cheer, it struck a levy of two
shillings a week for four weeks, but garnered very little. Despite these
gestures, members used “rather strong” remarks to reject as
“degrading” a 1931 motion
to seek charity for unemployed members.
In regard to the provision of public relief, the ABLF pushed radical
proposals, wanting the Salvoes out and the government in. Since the
Federal Labor had abolished compulsory military training and slashed the
Army, the drills halls should be used as shelters from where blankets and
kit could be distributed.
recognition dawned that unemployment needed to be overcome throughout the
economy and not just for the building industry, a Communist scaffolder,
Jack Smith, proposed a capital levy to fund public works; he urged mass
meetings of the unemployed to insist on jobs at the basic wage, and for
all the workers to continue meeting until their claims were met. 
A conference between the ALP and the THC to come up with “ideas”
exposed the bankruptcy of both the parliamentary and industrial wings of
the labour movement. A general meeting of the ABLF tossed around proposals
with some favouring a uniform rail gauge to create jobs, while venerable
claims were advanced for day labour and preference for unionists.
The Executive called on the THC to arrange a conference of all officials
and organisers to make proposals to the Labor cabinets. Nothing much
eventuated, except a widening of the rift between the THC leadership and
By November 1930, the Victorian militants had linked their views about the
purpose of government to a three-point plan to deliver immediate
assistance: a rent moratorium for the jobless, half of the unemployment
tax to be passed to the THC to distribute as relief, and confiscation of
interest over 3½% to support the unemployed.
these political and industrial proposals, the union continued its good
works. In February 1930, it called for a Monster Meeting to impress on the
public, churches, business, municipalities and governments the “extreme
urgency of alleviating the distress” before winter.
The Branch discussed co-operative stores, pointing to those in the United
Kingdom and to one at Port Adelaide. The project needed ₤5,000 to
get started with unionists joining by one shilling down and then a
shilling a week.
As with several other propositions, this one came after any prospect of
making it work had passed.
choice was starker than between either managing capitalism or capping its
excesses. In the balance was whether to revive capitalism or to replace
it. Advocates of each alternative did not know how to proceed. At the ACTU
Congress in Sydney early in 1931, the call for a general strike expressed
frustration more than a welding of tactics onto strategy.
The labourers were not the only unionists to be overwhelmed ideologically,
politically and industrially.
Sold out by ALP governments, segments of the Left were swayed by the
demagoguery of NSW premier Jack Lang. In a minority report to the
Melbourne Trades Hall in 1932 on a shorter working week, a Communist
metalworker identified the over-production inherent in capitalist
competition at the root of the crisis.
Communist Party could not offer leadership until it stopped behaving as
what one Adelaide IWW militant disparaged in 1927 as “small impotent
groups of propagandists wilding beating the air” to the confusion of the
The adoption of Leninist methods became the key to rebuilding job
organisation in most industries, including the building trades with the
renewed drive for one big industry union.
Victorian labourers were was not helped by having an alcoholic Secretary,
The rank-and-file who bothered to attend fell to brawling,
while the organisers and office staff scrambled to retain their jobs and
Other State Branches fared much the same. Queensland fell under the sway
of no-hopers until taken back by the Left which wanted nothing more
fervently than permission to secede from the ABLF in order to join an
industrial union for that State.
The South Australians retained a militant leadership.
Tasmania was moribund, having paid no sustentation fees for many years.
As a result, the federal body proved less effective than ever until after
new and militant leadership during 1941, the Victorian Executive helped
out one member injured on his way home from work, another who broke his
leg on a Saturday afternoon, and for an Italian comrade who was
These collections were welcome because accident victims took much longer
to recover than today; for instance, the Victorian Executive heard in 1948
that Comrade Murphy was “starting to make good progress” after 15
months in hospital with a broken leg.
the peak of the Victorians’ militancy in the 1970s, the Branch revived
its sick visitor, sending fruit and flowers to members in hospital, with
an official calling to make sure that the patients had someone to look out
for them. As Assistant-Secretary Norm Wallace observed: “You have to
support your workmates when they are down. This service has been most
helpful to some of our older members who do not have much family left and
to those who are working interstate.” Wallace felt that such activities
were “what a decent union was about.”
Henry Lawson story, “The Union Buries Its Dead”, illustrated one
earthly reward from holding a union ticket. An itinerant dies in a country
town, “a young union labourer, about twenty-five.” In his swag is
General Labourers’ Union ticket. The mourners wonder whether it will
“be recognised ‘over yonder’.” Lawson did not say who paid for the
funeral. His readers knew, in the words of another of his yarns, that the
union rep. had sent around the hat.
miseries held as much horror for working people as being buried “like a
dog” in a pauper’s grave. Between 1853 and 1904, the Victorian
government paid for 8,500 funerals, or 170 annually, which it contracted
to undertakers who skimped as religiously on coffins as builders did on
One of the terrors of destitution was to be committed to a government
institution from which your remains were thrown into the dirt with a pile
of other corpses before the most casual observance – if any. There, you
were left to rot without so much as a personal marker, let alone a
headstone. Even worse was the fear that your cadaver would be treated as
government property and handed over to the Medical School for dissection.
In that case, your remains might not get a burial service of any kind.
labourers set up a mortuary fund in 1903. For a time, the benefit applied
to their dependents. During the 1906-07 dispute, money from the strike
committee buried one member’s sister.(499)
Greater strictness was essential to keep the funeral fund solvent.
Even so, it was usually in danger of sinking and was more than once
suspended. Members needed to be financial to receive the ₤15. The
Executive enforced this rule to the letter. Being behind for even a couple
of days disqualified your corpse. On such occasions, Branch meetings voted
an ex gratia payment, and took
up a collection among those present before sending lists around the jobs.
Bro. Moss died of kidney disease in July 1926, he was a shilling behind in
his dues, and the Victorian Executive recognised that they faced a serious
case but “could not see their way to depart from the rules … the man
was ineligible.” A week later, Bro. Cober appeared at the Executive on
behalf of Moss’s widow. The Executive stood firm until Cober offered
₤2 to start a fund, whereupon the officers referred the matter to a
J. Lopez was another “real good unionist” who had “paid in
advance”, being 8s in credit when killed in a motor accident in 1928;
the Executive voted the ₤15 to prevent his being buried a pauper.
that year, the Victorian Branch tried to keep its mortuary benefit going
by excluding the old and infirm. Henry Hannah softened these rules to
admit incapacitated labourers of five years standing; under his amendment,
the elderly paid only 6s 6d per half year for the full benefit.
Before the members abolished the Mortuary Fund on 9 March 1931, the
arguments pro and con had merit. Militants grumbled that the Fund tended to
“subordinate the Industrial to the friendly side of the matter.” Bro.
Fox went so far as to declare that the
The other side noted that the Fund had brought in members and kept them financial. Late in 1932, the Branch re-established an Accident and Mortuary Fund, to be kept separately from the Industrial Fund. The internal chaos of the late 1930s left the Victorians with barely enough money to pay their organisers and office staff. Nonetheless, in October 1941, the members voted ₤4 7s to the dependents of an old member G. Henderson, whom the Executive had fined ₤10 for scabbing a few weeks earlier.
NSW, the United Labourers’ Protective Society (ULPS) paid out
₤1,000 for funerals between 1919 and 1924.
After the 25-year-old English sailor “Nipper” Addison died on the
Harbour Bridge, his workmates put in half-a-day’s pay each; they heard
later that “Nipper’s” wife went mental.
When Sydney rigger Johnny Mitchell fell seven floors to his death in March
1974, his workmates chipped in their day’s pay and made the funeral
Commonwealth Labor government had established a ₤10 funeral benefit
for aged and invalid pensioners in 1943. That money could not be paid to
any fund run by undertakers, many of whom swindled the poor. The
Commonwealth benefit did not increase over the next thirty years.
Victoria’s Compensation Act provided a funeral benefit worth $750 in
1980. The union won paid leave for one day to attend a funeral of a close
relative while the Federal Award allowed labourers to take ten days unpaid
Branches had been too poor to underwrite a benefit to supplement the
government grant. Queensland was the exception, establishing a mortuary
fund early in 1956 by transferring ₤1,000 from general revenues.
Members paid 1s each half year for a benefit of ₤25.
Although Bro. Jennings died unfinancial, the union paid the benefit
because he had been sick for so long a time. S. Zibinskas had been a
member since 1959 when the police found him dead; his union buried him.
The Executive advanced $28.60 to the family on an honorary member to cover
a shortfall needed to pay the undertaker.
Rule-bending to meet hard cases was supplemented by sending around the
hat, as happened for a Gladstone labourer late in 1965, with the BLs on
site contributing 5s each for his burial.
Today, the Branch guarantees $7,000 towards funeral expenses for the
member, a spouse and dependent children.
the 1990s, building workers in Victoria took action to reduce the
occasions when such comradeship was called for by hitting the employers
where it hurt. On every death in industry, the Construction Division
walked off for the day and insisted on full-pay. The Building and
Construction Commission outlawed that safety program in 2005.
Why is it that grief counsellors are dispatched to every trauma, yet
builders’ labourers are expected to see a workmate killed or crippled
and to keep going as if nothing has happened?
the nineteenth century, the ULPS had allowed members over 45 to cut
whatever deal they could, so long as they upheld the Eight-Hour Day. The
1905 Queensland Compensation Act paid only a fraction of the entitlement
to a worker with an infirm certificate.
The 1913 ABLF Log included “Permit work” for those over 50, or who had
been incapacitated. To limit their numbers, the union approved who was
eligible for the concession. (21) In some industries, a worker had to rely
on the union secretary for a permit, with no right of appeal. The NSW
system operated the other way around. The Registrar of the State
Arbitration Court granted the permit but the union secretary could then
object if he suspected a scam. (360)
policed by the organisers, permits for “slow workers” became a dodge
for bosses. The concession opened the way to sweating when employers
advertised for “men with permits”. (68) The bigger contractors worried
that spec builders used “slow” workers to under-bid for contracts.
Loughnan reported in 1913 that “a number of employers were getting cheap
labour at the expense of their rivals.” He gave an example where the
union had granted permits to five men whom the contractor put to work flat
out mixing mortar, four holding “their own with men in good physical
condition.” The MBA’s representative interjected: “That is no good
to us.” (361)
members’ demand for permits increased when work became scarce as did
their willingness to accept whatever terms they could get.
Hence, by 1935, the Branch in Victoria decided to enforce its Awards.
Loughnan noted that the MBA expressed “sympathy” for labourers who had
been incapacitated or grown old in their service but when asked to put
this kind-heartedness into practice “by employing the men in the
erection of the building, they gave an evasive answer.”
did not always mean old. In 1937, a 39-year old labourer with the Sydney
Water Board was off work for 12 months after being hit on the head by a
bucket. The Board took him back as on light duties which included looking
after the “change houses, attending to showers, drying workers wet
clothes, boiling water for meals, and doing any light laboring, odd jobs,
1960, the ABLF reconsidered its provision for “slow workers” since
mechanisation was increasing the range of tasks that they could perform.
Some machines reduced the stress and strain on bone and muscle, thereby
extending the working lives of navvies.
On the other hand, machines intensified the pace of work so that older men
found themselves at a new disadvantage. This rethinking of the category of
“slow worker” was an early sign that labourers were lifting themselves
out of the bottom end of the market for labour power. The Federation
fought for its casual labour force to have the entitlements of permanent
extend the earning life of its members, the Federation won paid holidays
and portable long-service leave.
Superannuation came in the 1980s.
At all times, the union pushed for higher wages to compensate labourers
for the time they lost following the job and during downturns in the cycle
of construction. A higher wage-rate also made up for the shorter span of
years during which a labourer could earn top money than did most tradesmen
and professionals. No more than 15 percent of brickies’ labourers
continued after turning fifty.
1978 Award provided that aged and infirm workers be paid at a lower rate
for no more than 12 months at a stretch. Such arrangements still needed
the written approval of the Federation. The union pressed employers to
keep jobs as hoist-drivers and “billy boy” for its older members. Some
of the resistance to women labourers was because they took these positions
away from injured or aging male members.
Around the same time, union calls for full-time safety and first-aid officers provided chances for a few more
labourers to stay on, compensating them for decades of body stress.
When Jack Mundey stepped aside as NSW Branch Secretary to return to industry in September 1973 he was 42. By that age, most labourers had withdrawn from the trade or were seeking easy options on sites. Mundey had been a full-time official for the previous eleven years during which building operations had changed, his hands had softened, his muscles slackened. That long lay-off had protected his body from the “usual bangs and scrapes” so that he was in a better position to keep going than were many of his middle-aged members; however, his body had lost the tautness that they retained. He could have kept going as a “nipper” more surely than as a steel fixer. Mundey went back, got his photograph taken, but, as his wife commented: “He goes to the job – he just doesn’t get there very often.” Those who mocked Mundey’s reluctance to put in a full week’s work ignored the toll that labouring took. As he had remarked: “Every builders’ labourer wants to be something else. A man’s a mug to be a builders’ labourer. It’s a bastard of a job.”
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, p. 610,
hereafter the page references are given in brackets.
Clive Turnbull, Bluestone,
Builders’ Labourers’ News
 John Shaw Neilson, Autobiography of John Shaw Neilson, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1978.
 Trades Hall Gazette, 2 and 9 February 1989, p. 10.
Australian Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (ABLF), Victorian
Branch Records, Minutes,
 George Waite papers, Mitchell Library (ML), MSS 208/2/5.
Victorian Minutes, 9 January, 20 February and
Jacqueline Macnaughton, From
life: works by early generations of students at the
Victorian Executive, 21 and 28 May 1930, Minutes,
 Victorian Minutes, 25 March, 12 and 26 May 1930.
Victorian Minutes, 8 January, 19 February and
Jim Hagan, The History of the
L. J. Louis, Trade Unions and
the Depression, A Study of
Report of Sub-Committee on
Shorter Worker Week, Melbourne Trades Hall Council,
Quoted Jim Moss, Sound the
Trumpets, History of the Labour Movement in
Hall Greenland, “Nick Origlasso and the shovel-less men”, Red
Hot, The Life and Times of Nick Origlass, 1908-1996,
Wellington Lane Press, Sydney, 1999,
chapter 7; Queensland Conference Minutes, 28 November 1936; Queensland
Minutes, 12 March 1940.
 John Playford, “History of the Left-Wing of the South Australian Labor Movement, 1908-36”, B. A. (Hons) Thesis, University of Adelaide, 1958, pp. 94 and 107; Tribune, 27 June (p. 4), 4 July (p. 4) and 11 July 1947 (p. 7).
Victorian Executive, 5 May 1948; NSW Minutes, 31 August and
 Builders Labourers’ Federal Journal, September 1982, p. 23.
Quoted Bertram Hutchinson, Old
People in a Modern Australian Community, MUP, Carlton, 1954, p.
164; see also Alan Stoller (ed.), Growing Old, Problems of Old Age in the Australian Community,
Cheshire, Melbourne, 1960.
 Henry Lawson, Collected stories, Viking O’Neil, Ringwood, 1987, pp. 55-59 and 761-75; funerals were not always sober affairs, see C. W. Sullivan’s papers, ML MSS A2886, pp. 49-50, and Peter Lalor, The Bridge, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2005, p. 221.
Pat Jalland, Australian ways of death: a social and cultural history, 1840-1918,
John Stubbs, The Hidden People,
 Victorian Executive, 14 and 21 July 1926; Accidents and Mortuary Benefit Fund Meetings Minute Book, Z398/1 and 28.
 Victorian Executive, 23 May 1928.
Victorian Minutes, 9 January and
Victorian Minutes, 6 October and
 Waite Papers, ML MSS 208/2(5).
Lalor, The Bridge, p. 210.
NSW Miscellaneous correspondence file, 9 March, 15 May, 3 June and
 T. C. Kewley, Social Security in Australia, Social Security and Health Benefits from 1900 to the present, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1965, pp. 263-64.
 National Safety, February 2005, pp. 16-20, August 2007, pp. 33-35.
J. W. Blair, et al., Workers’
Compensation Act of 1905: with an explanation of its provisions and
cases decided on, Law
Book Company of
 NSW Workers’ Compensation Reports, volume 13, 1939, pp. 109-10.
 Builders’ Labourers’ Journal, October 1957, p. 2; Builder’s Laborer, March 1959, p. 15, and October 1959, pp. 3 & 15; ABLF Records, Federal Management Committee (FMC), 17 January 1960, NBAC, N130/49; Journal of the Building, Transport and Timber Workers’ Trades, June 1960, p. 19; FMC, 1966, N130/54; for the 1968 “skills” Award see Queensland Executive, 25 March 1968; file on “Wage Fixing Principles”, Z398/41; FMC, April 1969, N130/57; Western Australian Industrial Gazette, December 1966, p. 667; Jack Mundey to NSW MBA, 13 November 1970, MLK 04170.
 Shire and Municipal Record, August 1924, pp. 89-90, September 1924, pp. 147-8, and October 1924, pp. 205-6; Melbourne Trades Hall Council, Report of the Shorter Working Week Committee, Melbourne, 1932, p. 2; Construction Review, April 1936, pp. 27-28.
For a discussion of primary and secondary labour markets see Jamie
Peck, Workplace: the social
regulation of labour markets, Guilford Press,
 Entitlement with a single employer began in the 1950s, for the ACT example see 99 Commonwealth Arbitration Reports (1962) 639, and 100 CAR (1962) 628; George Crawford, Footprints, privately published, Melbourne, 1997, pp. 143-4; for South Australia, Construction, February 1974, p. 1; Victorian details see Australian Builder, December 1976, pp. 494-5; for NSW, see Building Worker, December 1974, p. 3; although Queenslanders in government employment earned pro rata leave after 8 years from around 1953, the rest waited until 1992, Builders’ Laborer, December 1992, pp. 15-16 and 21.
 Patricia Holt, Oral History of C+Bus: the construction and building unions’ superannuation fund, NCA Study, Monash University, 1996, pp. 22-25 and 192-200; Canberra Times, 4 October 1984, p. 1.
 An issue sidestepped in the leaflet for Denise Bishop’s campaign in the 1973 NSW Branch elections, MLK 04268.
 Australian, 5 September 1972, p. 9; the Communist organiser, Herbert Moxon, had refused to take on the Party Secretaryship in South Australia in 1929 because he would have to support himself as a labourer “an occupation that has always been repugnant to me.” (Moxon to CPA General Secretary, 31 May 1929, quoted in Playford, Thesis, p. 82.)