“High aims and aspirations”
921 words

Calls for lavatories or hard-hats do not sound a clarion for revolution. Rather, the provision of safe and healthy workplaces is the kind of reform favoured by the celebrants of incremental change. Yet, wads of legislation over 200 years have not stopped harms to builders’ labourers from staying at three times the levels for the entire workforce. Moreover, the proportion of all workers compensated year upon year establishes that something is happening beyond a splatter of accidents. The failure to make work safe shows that more than on-site practices need to be transformed. Promoters of the Victorian OHS legislation in 1985 hoped to reduce injuries by 10 % within ten years.[1] To limit improvements to around one per cent per annum is to admit that advances in health and safety are to be secured only by interfering with the rights of capital. That upending will be even more necessary to block the systemic violence indicated at the start of the previous chapter.

If the rate of harm among labourers remains so high after 200 years of battling for health and safety, how much more lethal would capital have been if left to self-regulation and market forces? Hope resides in recognising how many injuries have been prevented by the willingness of labourers to defend each other by defying a legal system where assault is not a crime if done for profit. Nonetheless, under the rule of capital, even the best organised labourers can do little more than push for dual power in their places of employment. Self-organising by workers to limit danger is a proven path to ensuring that fewer labourers are put at risk. The 1919 call by the One Big Union stands: “Workers! Your Safety lies in Shop Control Boards. Get Busy on the Job.”[2] Similarly, ABLF General Secretary Norm Gallagher never tired of reminding his members: what we can’t win around the jobs, we can’t gain from the courts. After saying as much in July 1982, he served seven weeks in Pentridge for contempt of court.

By combining in a Federation in 1910, builders’ labourers protected each other on several fronts. Over the decades, they limited the number of bricks in a hod and elected safety officers, insisted on “no helmet, no start” and on effective precautions for removing asbestos. Founding official Henry Hannah explained in 1916 why the Masters hated the builders’ labourers: “Because they have shown the employers that their organisation is capable of improving their conditions, which the individual cannot do.”[3] Collective action runs against limits too, since the vigilance required to hold onto the crudest elements of “common civilisation” can divert attention from the damage that capital imposes on our expectations about how we should live. Resisting the minute-by-minute grind deflects even the most militant from striving for a social order in which work guarantees rewards beyond the pay packet.

A framework of flesh has documented the bodily harms that the expansion of capital inflicts on building workers. Everyone is disabled in an economy where human capacities are treated as commodities. The battle to civilise worksites affirms a self-worth which can be measured in neither minutes nor dollars. At stake in campaigns to balance life with work is more than how a question of many hours of the week are taken by paid labour and how many are available for leisure. The quality of life outside employment is conditioned by the experience at work. A prime appeal of employment is the chance it offers to participate in the collective labour that made our species human,[4] and that continues to shape our development as individuals. To become more fully human, we need to feel at home in our work.[5] On site, builders’ labourers retain an element of control over their tasks because their knacks fill the gaps between planning a job and its execution.[6]  Workers who are denied those opportunities on process lines discover that misery outlasts poverty.

In a paired series of mural-like canvases, titled “Builders” and “Pastimes”, the French painter and Communist Fernand Leger (1881-1955) depicted scaffolders as acrobats and circus performers as collective workers. Here, creativity appears as work while work is represented as art, in a world where both jobs and play enrich human capacities. Leger portrayed “new-fangled” human beings, reliant on each other and hence unafraid of machinery or frameworks of steel. For a glimpse of what work should look like, consider the joy in Leger’s paintings.[7]

One pillar to the history of the ABLF has been its preventing death and disease, supplemented by its securing compensation for those injuries. Improving conditions on the job has involved labourers in more than campaigns for an afternoon smoko or clean lavatories. Securing health and safety required carrying the class struggle beyond work-sites. Contests over amenities, scaffolding and compensation opened the gate to challenging the power of capital throughout society, strategically and tactically. To improve all aspects of living, the builders’ labourers committed their Federation to socialism. The ABLF in the 1970s tied its campaigns for 100% accident pay to expanding the national health scheme. While getting sheds on site, building workers called for public housing. The Federation was drawn into environmental protection through combating air and water pollution on city jobs. These policies carried forward the “high aims and aspirations of the labour movement” that Victorian Branch Secretary Ben Mulvogue had proposed in 1915: “Every new demand for better physical protection of the workers ensures a great ideal development for a future generation.”[8] 

[1] Legal Services Bulletin, August 1985, p. 196.

[2] OBU Herald, February 1919, p. 1.

[3] Builders’ Labourers’ News, 7 January 1916 , p. 1.

[4] Gordon V. Childe, Man Makes Himself, Watts, London, 1936; F. Engels, “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition form Ape to Man”, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow , 1964, pp. 172-86.

[5] Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, International Publishers, New York , 1964, p. 110.

[6] Harry Braveman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1974; Jeffrey W. Reimer, “‘Mistakes at Work’: The social organisation of error in building construction work”, Social Problems, 23 (3), February 1976, pp. 255-67; Bob Reckman, “Carpentry: The Craft and Trade”, Andrew Zimbalist (ed.), Case Studies on the Labor Process, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1979, pp. 73-102.

[7] John Berger, Permanent Red, Methuen , London , 1960, pp. 121-25.

[8] Builders’ Labourers’ News, 24 December 1915 , p. 3.

Back to A framework of flesh

To Acknowledgements