Framework of Flesh: Builders’ Labourers Battle for Health & Safety
Humphrey McQueen
Ginninderra Press.

Reviewed by Bill Tully

In 337 pages Australia’s best known and most outspoken Marxist historian has written the definitive history of the BLF. 

Organisationally the Builders’ Labourers Federation may be destroyed but Humphrey McQueen shows the spirit of Norm Gallagher to be as alive and well as the determination of the bosses’ deputies in parliament to subdue such subversive manifestations in the name of ‘Messrs Construction Capital’:

In 2007…opposition leader K. Rudd initiated the expulsion from the ALP of the assistant secretary of the WA Construction Division, Joe McDonald, because he had called a boss ‘a fucking thieving parasite dog.’ A few weeks earlier, on 5 July, concrete work collapsed on that site.

McQueen then asks, ‘which event was the more violent and intimidating: 

foul language or a falling section?’

From the time of Babylon (see Brecht’s Questions from a Worker Reading History) till the present, falling sections, toxic substances, freezing or boiling weather, inadequate and unsafe scaffolding are everyday dangers for workers. In the 1920s, Australian unionist Charlie Sullivan anticipated Brecht:

The names of kings and warlords are handed down in manuscripts and in books to after generations, but few ever think of the great and humble army whose sweat and blood are mingled in the concrete and bricks as surely as if the walls were built over a framework of human flesh.

They will remain unhonoured and unsung till workers write the histories that are taught in our schools.

Much of the written word is lodged in the National Library of Australia in Canberra. In mid-1983 a more deadly material was found there. The ACT Branch of the BLF walked off a job at the Library when asbestos was found lining the walls. In the 1970s, the Police Academy, Chisholm High School and the studios of the ABC were also found to have infected with it. McQueen describes the ubiquitous and profitable use of fibro sheeting from asbestos in both domestic and industrial buildings from 1945 to the 1960s and beyond. In 1957 a researcher reported on the results of the examination of 300 workers exposed to asbestos five years earlier in Victoria:

The pulmonary fibrosis of asbestos workers is insidious in its onset, irregular in its course and variable in its termination. It is a grave threat to life and health.

The victory of the ACOA and BLF picket after several weeks at the National Library of Australia was aided by the local Trades and Labour Council who supplied a caravan and other vital supplies. In general The Canberra Times, the National Health and Medical Council, and the management of the Library were not sympathetic. This important event involving hundreds of local unionists did not rate a mention in the Library’s official history. This action therefore awaits a full investigation, notably Norm Gallagher’s subsequent takeover of BLF (ACT) politics, and the subsequent feeble attempts by the ACT Legislative Assembly to remove asbestos from Canberra houses and compensate its victims These matters are beyond the immediate purpose of Framework of Flesh, but I hope may be filled in by people such as my comrades Peter O’Dea, Bob Briton and Peter Paramore. Other participants such as this reviewer may also write about this year of many unravellings.

The sweep and scope of Framework of Flesh is an example of looking at history not only from below but from the perspective of rulers and their agents who have the cunning, inhumanity and cowardice to work within unjust systems than seek true justice and equality and learn to either cut through capitalism’s deformities or, better still, work towards its demolition. When the First Fleet arrived, the options were not so clear:

The convicts were forced to clear land for building. Others assembled a prefabricated house for Governor Phillip. In May they laid foundations for his official residence. The prisoners, meanwhile, huddled in hollow trees or beneath cabbage-tree palms. Their labours established the place that the exploitation of building workers continues [as but one] mark of the inequities that had sent petty thieves into exile while ‘the atrocious criminals remained in England’.

After the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions they were considerably clearer!

McQueen includes a 1956 prizewinning poem by Adelaide solicitor Roger Clark from The Sydney Morning Herald about a dogman, a high-flying crane rider, extinct since the 1960s.

Spent eyes revive and spill delight.
Dead hearts resolve to live again.
Once more a man upon a height
Recalls their dignity to men.
…a bird, a song
A shaft of light, a glowing sun.
A god who ploughs above the throng
A man reflecting all in one.

To which Humphrey McQueen responds that such ‘isolated displays of human capacities will never reclaim dignity for labour’.

Framework of Flesh has an encyclopedic array of data about builders fighting the law, bourgeois prejudice and political reaction from the First Fleet to Rudd. Both Labor politicians and their Tory opponents unite against uppity unionists. The chapter Twenty-first century: 

frameworks for fear shows how Julia Gillard refused to turn the police- state powers of the Australian Building and Construction Commission against the bosses. It seems that the ABCC is also into denying entry to those officials who protect worker entitlements and who uphold occupational health and safety records. Humphrey McQueen demonstrates that building workers are now enduring police powers akin to those against alleged terrorism.

This book is filled with a mass of sources: archival, newspaper, government, parliamentary and bibliographical. Cited meticulously with careful and witty annotations and footnotes, it is carefully arranged with summaries, index, bibliography, apt and frequent headings and highlighted paragraphs. Occasionally horrifying, it is nonetheless optimistic about building workers not only surviving but overcoming. 

They have, after all, a very rich history of struggling and winning.

The book will be followed by two more volumes, We Built This Country and Weird Mobs and Nomad Tribes, with references to two journal articles which might be the foundation stones to these works in progress.

McQueen has written over fifteen books on history, biography, art, advertising and capitalism and maintains an expanding website. His journal articles are prodigious, beginning in the 1960s. He is a teacher, lecturer, polemicist and humanist, writing with infectious enthusiasm. In a 1978 article in The Nation Review he nominated Manning Clark as Australia’s best bourgeois historian. With respect and affection I would like to call him Australia’s finest Marxist historian, working in the best tradition of surveying the past from the present.

Source: 'Voices', September 2009.