Permanency and union hire

By 1973, Jim Williams had been a builder’s labourer for 27 years, unmarried.

On strike since Easter. It had taken him nine weeks to get his last job.

He was familiar with the sight of 20 men hanging round a construction site before daylight, or dozing nearby in their cars.

These men have grabbed the early edition of the morning paper shortly after mid-night, rifled through the Positions Vacant columns, and chosen an advertisement which might read something like “Builder’s labourer wanted. Apply foreman on site at …”

But when the foreman drives up, it often turns out that only two or three men are wanted. And who is chosen from the 20 waiting depends entirely on the judgment or whim of that one foreman.

If his finger moves past you, you may importune him. You may tell him you were there first, that you have been out of work for so many weeks or so many days, that you have this much experience, that you can work as hard as that stronger-looking fellow. You may get a smart answer back.

And for the unlucky ones, the best part of the day for getting a job is over. They may as well as go home and try elsewhere at dawn tomorrow.

Very few qualify for five years with one employer for long-service leave.

No holiday pay No sick leave

On a block of flats at Bankstown he had got his longest run in 20 years – eight months

Jim supports a system of union hire whereby employers are allotted labour from a pool of BLF members.

“I suppose I would spend about 10 weeks a year going around looking for jobs. I live in Glebe, so I can get up about 1.30 in the morning and go down and get the Herald quickly. I go out to the site, and sleep in my car.

But it’s getting harder at my age. I am 42, and if there’s a young fellow there he’ll be picked before me. There’s no first come first served here.

I once told the foreman at one place, ‘Look, I’m in the union and I have been here since two o’clock.’ So he says back, ‘Well, you’ll be too tired to work then, won’t you?’

There’s 30 or 40 blokes outside the job. Why can’t they stipulate that they want only one or two?

Sometimes the foreman might not even want that many. He might have a relative or a friend all set up. I was on one site once, and the bloke that was picked got out of the car with the foreman.

‘I can still do a day’s work, and I don’t think I could know any more about the job. Some of these strapping young blokes – I’ve had to stop them doing things that would have killed them. But now, it’s just like with an old horse: he’s done all the hard work, so they come and knock him on the head.

You’ve got to work 52 weeks. You can’t get credit or anything if people know you’re a builder’s labourer, and you can’t blame them. You never know if you can keep up the payments.

I like fishing, and I’ve been thinking I’d like to buy a block of land down the coast. But I’m frightened to go and put my money down.

You can’t plan ahead. If someone asks you, you can’t say you’ll go down the coast with them at Easter. All you can say is, ‘If I go all right, I’ll be there.’

This permanency is the best thing I’ve heard of in 20 years. If I have to stay out for six months to get permanency I’ll do it. It’ll be worth it in the long run. So we can do what everyone else does.”

The day of the interview, the BLF had sent him to a job but when he arrived the jobs had been filled.

Something had gone wrong somewhere along the line.

Hamish McDonald
Sydney Morning Herald
1 June 1973, p. 2.