Subbie? Me? – NEVER! … well, hardly ever

Like many of you, I find myself out of work quite often. The foreman or lending-hand takes a dislike of me, or me to him – sometimes it is a matter of mutual dislike – and like you I find myself on the rounds gain, looking for start.

The first day of knock-backs is not so bad: at night the missus says. “Don’t worry, love. You’ll get a kick-on tomorrow.’ But even when work is plenty there are times when you don’t – on the second or third day either. By the fourth day you are beginning to feel a little bit less of a man, and after a couple of knock-backs a subbie says he needs a hoddie and is paying good dough: “She’s all-in, mate.” And we say, “I’m sorry, I’m a unionist and I don’t work all-in.”

Pig’s arse we do!

We cop it all-in and we cop it sweet. And after a few days it’s kinda nice to chuck a casual $60 on the kitchen table for the housekeeping … and then you get a week’s rain.

Yes, boys, I know it all; for the past fifteen years I have been hoddying, on and off, in New Zealand, Brisbane, and Sydney, and there’s nothing much new in the game anymore.

Labourers employed all-in are an exploited breed. We don’t have near enough officers to police these jobs. I wish we did. I wish that someone would put our dues up to $40 a year and give us a decent-sized staff so that we could ring our Office and say: “Get an Organiser out here, and get him here bloody quick!”

Well, we don’t, and we still have to come to grips with a number of our problems at job level.

A large percentage of subbies’ labourers (and tradesmen) are non-unionists. In fact many of them who are new to the game see the Union as interfering with their “agreement” with the employer and their “over-award” pay. It is worthwhile noting, however, that when I hit Sydney in the hard days of 1961 (having been starved out of Queensland along with hundreds of other building workers), the going rate for hoddies was ₤25 a week: “She’s all in, mate.” On top of this, we were daily reminded that there were plenty of men walking the streets looking for our jobs, which was all too sadly true at that time.

The current average of $80 all-in does not, in my experience, represent a growing generosity among subbies, but merely indicates how they are forced to keep ahead of award rates won by our Union and our mates working on the flat rate. So boys, you will appreciate that I do not feel over-proud of myself for sometimes working all-in.

On the positive side, I, and a number of other Sydney hoddies, have had some small success over the years in educating a few of the local subbies. Three years ago, on the occasion of our annual paid picnic, I was informed by our brickie foreman that Picnic Day was to be a normal work-day as the subbie did not pay the holiday. With just one other unionist in the team, Spaniard Jose Uribarri, to back me, I informed the employer that he WOULD pay the Picnic Day or we would seek Union backing for our claim. He paid us both and nastily informed us: “Don’t think I am going to pay the rest of those bastards – I happen to know that most of them are working under bodgies and are too scared to go to their Union.”

Yes, a rough game.

The same subbie offered me a start last year and, at the end of my first week in the team, the rest of the boys were surprised to find a portion of their normal take-home pay withheld as “holiday pay”.

The subbie explained to them that I, as a unionist, might call in the Union at the termination of the job and secure holiday pay for all hands. Strangely, this did not endear me to my new mates, but it DID show them the value of their pay in a new light. I have since heard that as well as paying “holiday pay”, this same subbie has been compelled to pay a greater weekly pay in order to keep his men.

I must also pay tribute to our officials and some of the local builders’ labourers in the fight against subbies and their watering-down of our award. At Kent Brewery early in ’69, I was hoddying for another subbie who thought he could write his own rules.

With the loyal support of the labourers employed by the builder, four of us hoddies secured $65 a week, plus holiday pay, and the understanding that the wet-weather entitlement must be observed. The subbie was still making a handsome profit.

Of course, all subbies are not intelligent enough to see that that they can’t win against the Union. Just prior to last Xmas, I worked for another brickie who thought that the word “Union” could only mean a football game.

I was scrapping together a few dollars on the infamous old all-in when our picnic day arrived again. As in the previous experience, just two hoddies, Jimmy “Mort” Tumeth and I, stood alone in our claim for payment, patiently explaining to the subbie that our “one day of the year” was something nobody had the right to interfere with.

Although compelled to admit that we were both proficient in our work, he sacked us on an hour’s notice.

Organiser Morrie Lynch immediately took up the case and after some lengthy wrangling, the subbie not only had to cough up but also had his contract scrubbed by the builder for causing trouble on the site.

The builder took on his own bricklayers the next day, hiring Jimmy to look after them, and a week later I was also invited back to the built-up team.

We notice too that subbies have built up a few of their own fancy tricks to thwart the union and drive a wedge between workers and Union leadership, often claiming they look after their men better if the Union keeps its nose out of things. (I didn’t know the subbies cared about us so much!)

You hear some smirking subbies telling a visiting Organiser: “Right, I’ll put your members on the award rate – and see what they think of you then!”

Look boys, with due respect to all labourers, I’m prepared to say that an experienced hoddy or plasterer’s labourer is not an easy man to come by. Although they are graded on the fourth rate they are worth considerably more to the subbies – and the subbies know it.

You are required to have a fair knowledge of both tubular and quick-erect scaffolding, apart from building scaffolds in cramped corners out of whatever materials you can lay your hands on. From a floor set-out, you must know just where to place bricks and mortar-boards so as to get the best results out of the brickies or plasterers.

With increased usage of blocks, you must be able to work out the bond to judge the required number of half-blocks, quarters, three-quarters, half-rises, etc.

The experienced hoddy is often required to actually “run” the job in the absence of the boss, directing the brickies to their next place of work (having prepared it in advance). All of these things and more – and not forgetting the actual bullocking. The mean average in materials a hoddy handles in a day roughs out at 2,500 bricks to be wheeled and stacked; 25 barrowloads of mortar to be mixed and shoveled onto the boards; usually a couple of dozen 15-foot planks to be handled (often alone), plus scaffold frames, tubes and fittings … what I mean is, that student on holidays, a man fresh from another industry, or even a BL off a jack-pick is not going to fill your job or mine, overnight.

It’s a matter of simple logic: the subbie does not make any profit until the bricks are laid or the mortar spread; and the tradesmen get nothing done until we prepare the job. The subbie must pay substantial over-Award payments for our labour or do down the drain – and this means that we can, and should, reject all-in payments.

Educating the subbies is far from being an easy job. You accumulate a few scars over the years; you sometimes grow despondent too. And behind it all is the reminder that you have the all-important living to make – your bills to pay.

I have three resolutions for 1970: to drink less; to ear-bash my mates less – and have a good cut at those bloody subbies!

Ralph Kelly
Builders’ Labourer
March 1970, pp. 43 & 45.