BLF NSW Defeat

This material was given to me by Harry Karslake, an organiser in the Victorian Branch throughout the sixties and seventies. Harry was a member of the CPA. He was Gallagher’s bitterest opponent, although he remained on the officers’ ticket. The passages in bold are the ones Harry highlighted. The underlinings are in Taft’s original. Harry’s copy has been sent to Melbourne University Archives to become part of the collection he left there before his death late in 2011.

In evaluating the document, it should be noted that Taft was the most timid of the CPA leadership group. So it is hardly surprising that any criticism he made would have been scorned as gutlessness. Nonetheless, the points that he makes are confirmed by the Branch and Federal minutes. See We Built This Country (Ginninderra Press, 2011). That book also notes that Gallagher would repeat the NSW mistakes as he led the Federation to de-registration and de-recognition.

On the Defeat of the NSW Builders’ Laborers

 By Bernie Taft

 This is a slightly edited version of a contribution to the June 1975 National Committee meeting of the CPA. [Note by Taft]

 The defeat of the Builders’ Laborers in New South Wales is a serious setback for the policies that we have been projecting in the industrial movement.

The Builders’ Laborers in N.S.W. demonstrated the exciting concept of workers taking up the issue of the social consequence of the results of their labor. They moved beyond the traditional confines of the trade union movement. They challenged capitalist values. They showed that militant unions DID care about more than their wages and conditions, that they WERE concerned with the broader problems of what happened to people, in contrast to the accusation at present leveled against militant workers – that they act without regard for broader interests of the great majority of the people.

The defeat of this leadership will, in my view, tend to strength conservative trends in the trade union movement as it will be claimed that it demonstrates that such advanced action is wrong and inevitably leads to defeat. This is all the more so because of the Builders’ Laborers impact on the party, the trade unions, the student movement and among young people. Our self-criticism should be concerned with learning the lessons, not to pull back from advanced actions, but on the contrary to help us to go forward more successfully.

We should heed Lenin’s advice: “A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfills in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analyzing the conditions that have led up to it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification – that is the hall mark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class, and how it should class, (sic) and then the masses.”

Lenin, Left-wing Communism, ch. 7.

It is argued that the defeat of the Builders’ Laborers was inevitable because of the bold challenge that they made. I don’t believe this is correct. We need to look deeper for the reasons for the defeat than the events of the more recent period. These reasons stem from a faulty conception held by the party about the relations between advanced actions and broad mass support. It seems to me that the defeat of the N.S.W. leadership may well have been prevented if, over the years, their bold actions had been complemented with the necessary attention to their mass base and trade union support. This is the central question. Advanced and inspiring actions, which are necessary and vital if the revolutionary movement is to advance, can only be successful if  they are supported by a broad base in the mass movement. This base naturally will not go as far as the advanced elements, but will provide the necessary soil for the advance elements to operate in.

Take the example of the draft resisters. That small band of courageous young men had an enormous effect on the anti-war movement, challenging both the authorities and the conscience of many people.

Yet they could not have done what they did – made a fool of their pursuers, the Commonwealth Police, appear at meetings and demonstrations – without the existence of a broad anti-war movement at different levels and with diverse motivations. This movement, which did not go nearly as far as the draft resisters, provided them with a base, with support, with a platform, with strength in depth to ultimately win through.

This is the significant lesson to be learned from the struggle of the Vietnamese. They engaged in the boldest action of all. They challenged the enormous military power of the U.S. imperialism – a challenge bolder than anything [that] is facing us today – yet at the same time they paid a lot of attention to the development of a mass base of support for their struggles among the most diverse sections and at different levels. They, almost alone in the world, managed to secure active support from all the socialist countries and of diverse forces in the United States, in Australia and elsewhere.

The message of their struggle to us is that we must never counterpoise advanced actions to winning mass support. I think essentially that here lies the root of our problems in the Builders’ Laborers. It is not that we were too bold or too advanced, it is rather that we, the Party, tended to ignore the need for mass support. On occasions we even made a virtue out of our isolation in the official trade union movement.

It is not a matter of watering down our policies or that we should seek unity on the basis of the lowest common denominator. To win mass support does not mean that at all. But we must at all times be conscious of the need to win mas support. The mistakes that have been made can only be explained by a lack of concern for mass support, otherwise there would have been an effective struggle to warn, overcome and correct mistakes in time. Nor it is sufficient to say that we were defeated by a combination of the economic downturn, the alliances between the Builders’ Laborers, by Hawke’s negative attitude, Gallagher and the S.P.A. After all, we had been saying these things for a long time.

We predicted that the economy would decline, we know that the ruling class was out to destroy the N.S.W. Builders’ Laborers, we knew what Gallagher’s position was, and we have ben critical of the S.P.A. leadership for years. But nobody predicted that the Builders’ Laborers would be defeated, let alone that this was inevitable – otherwise surely a responsible leadership would have been prepared for it.

 Take such things as the strict observance of Union rules, including those rules that our comrades did not like and did not think were good rules. It would have been a matter of course to observe rules scrupulously if you expect to be hit with them, and to attempt to change them in the proper manner. The same goes for administration, for proper accounting and the use of Union property. It is elementary that such things should have been watched. We should not have supplied Gallagher with ammunition to malign and misrepresent the N.S.W. leaders to the workers. If some comrades knew or expected, as they are saying now, that the NSW Builders’ Laborers leadership would be defeated, they acted utterly irresponsibly.

Other things also contributed to the situation where it became possible to defeat the N.S.W. leadership. There was a trend to non-organisation and anarchist concepts.

In his interview in the Australian Left Review in December 1973, Jack Mundey said “… I find, talking to anarchists and others, that there’s more respect among the left, the genuine left revolutionaries, for the Communist Party of Australia than ever before”. In the same interview he said: “The conservatives in the Building Trades Group are saying that one-outism is no good; Ducker is saying the same thing”. He dismisses as beyond debate the proposition that “if you take action it affects the plumbers, therefore you shouldn’t take unilateral action”. If matters little how it affects other workers, it seems. He was quite wrong.

These ideas did permeate the Party. They were not fought by the leadership and were certainly reflected among the Builders’ Laborers. There was also a bad reaction to criticism of aspects of these matters by the Party leadership. Critics were treated as hostile elements and their criticism, even when it solely designed to secure the very fine work that the B.L.F. was doing, was regarded as really expressing opposition to whole concept of advanced action.

In January, 1973, some leading comrades expressed the view that the Builders’ Laborers were not doing sufficient to impact the rest of the trade union movement and had a go-it alone attitude. They saw dangers in the isolation of the Builders’ Laborers in the trade union movement. But unfortunately this was treated as hostile criticism and misrepresented as opposition to what the Builders’ Laborers were doing.

There as in fact quite a deal of deliberate isolation from the official trade union movement under the impact of a false ethos which had spread in the Party: that the official trade union movement did not matter very much and that they were nearly all conservatives, anyway, and a tendency to counterpoise the rank and file movement to the trade union officials. I myself had raised this criticism on the Executive over three years ago.

There was also the way in which the limited tenure of office was handled. After making a great deal of this and publicizing Comrade Mundey’s return to work widely, Comrade Mundey did not in fact return to work. This discredited the campaign and actually weakened the very necessary struggle against those conservative elements in the trade union movement bureaucracy who remain in positions long after they should have be replaced.

Now the task before us is to learn from the lessons of the B.L.’s to continue their work in the new conditions. That requires a frank facing of the new realities, free from negative and carping criticism, but also free from any attempt to brush it under the carpet.

This is vital for the continuation and development of their positive work in the trade union movement.

See also: Labour History