Human cost of concrete and steel

Review by John Tognolini
13 September, 2009

Framework of Flesh: Builders' Labourers battle for health & Safety 
by Humphrey McQueen 
Ginninderra Press, 2009 
337 pages, $30 (pb) 
Available from

Humphrey McQueen’s Framework of Flesh takes up a 1920s challenge from a militant builders labourer, Charlie Sullivan:

“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."

Sullivan’s epic quote is the book’s historical focus.

McQueen’s story of builders labourers’ battles recounts a range of safety issues including the licensing of scaffolders, the collapse of concrete pours (with the tragic and often preventable loss of building workers’ lives), the safe removal of asbestos and the struggle for workers’ compensation, including a decent burial.

McQueen has put together an epic yarn.

The stories start in convict times and continue to the present-day building industry in all six Australian states and the ACT.

The decades of labourers’ struggle for health and safety is explained, as is the creation of the federal government’s industrial Gestapo, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

The concluding chapter, “Killing no murder”, as McQueen says, “dethrones the majesty of bourgeois justice by detailing why there can never be ‘one law for all’ in a class system”.

It reflects McQueen’s unashamed Marxism — what the book’s introduction describes as his “red armband” view of history.

McQueen explains the on-the-job experiences of demolishers, scaffolders, dog-men, riggers, brickies’ labourers and building site labourers. He validates the view of an early Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) official, Ben Mulvogue:

“A union constitutes a school for the working class, wherein they learn self-reliance, learn their rights, privileges, opportunities, as well as their possibilities. Every new demand for better physical protection of the workers ensures a great ideal development for a future generation.”

McQueen has documented in detail this rich education through struggle gathered by builders’ labourers. It was a result of the confrontation between big capital and workers in the building industry, especially over safety.

Generations of builders’ labourers supported socialist ideas. McQueen gives due respect to this hope for a just world in Framework of Flesh.

The book is an important contribution to the history of BLF’s struggles and the working-class history of Australia.

Framework of Flesh also takes former PM John Howard’s, and now ALP PM Kevin Rudd’s and deputy PM Julia Gillard’s ABCC to task for not prosecuting construction bosses for endangering, and at times taking, building workers’ lives.

Instead, the ABCC is happy to prosecute construction unionists such as Adelaide rigger Ark Tribe. Tribe’s only “crime” was standing up for workplace safety and campaigning for a safe building site to work on.

McQueen also explains the importance of the right of entry for union officials to building sites. He documents how unionists won safety conditions in an industry that was marked all too often by workplace deaths.

However, it has to be said that Framework of Flesh is a difficult book to read.

Regrettably McQueen has written it in a very academic style. In some sections the stories of builders’ labourers, and the life and death struggle of job safety, struck me as equal to turning a ride on a roller coaster into a bus ride. Also, McQueen has a habit of presenting disjointed arguments.

McQueen does present the names of unionists over the past hundred years — people whose names we should know — and highlights the brave stands many of them made. He also details numerous building industry disasters.

However, one thing I found that went against my grain is his treatment of the 1970 Collapse of the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne that killed 35 construction workers and one engineer. The engineer was made out to be the scapegoat for the collapse.

Just two paragraphs are included on this horrific event, but the book has pages about building site toilets.

When I did my documentary on scaffolders and riggers for ABC Radio
National in 1998, the late John Cummins, who was the BLF shop steward on the West Gate Bridge, introduced me to West Gate survivor Paddy Hanopy.

Hanopy said: “As you drive across you think about it. You think about your mates <193> Well the night before there was about 10, 14 of us having a drink and playing pool and the next day it collapsed. Most of them lads got killed. It could have been about 10, 14 people out of that I think there was only three of us left <193> It was six of us in the lift. As we got in the lift and as soon we got to the ground, the bridge followed us down.”

The survivors said there was a big buckle at the top and bolts were snapping like machine gun fire.

Pat Preston, another survivor and then a safety organiser for the Victorian construction division of Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) told me: “One person landed almost in front of me. Another young guy, a young apprentice carpenter landed to the left of me in the swamp. Many friends on that particular day had to go through the experience of viewing their friends’ bodies as they lay trapped and crumbled.”

Sadly, with Framework of Flesh, McQueen draws a lot of his sources from written archives. He hasn’t tapped into the rich oral record that exists from the Victorian BLF’s and the construction division of the CFMEU’s long association with Melbourne’s 3CR radio station.

McQueen is now writing a five-volume history on the BLF. It is my hope that this work will build on the strengths of Framework of Flesh, while being written more accessibly, so the important story that it tells is read by those who most need to understand its meaning — working people.

Framework of Flesh is well worth a read, although it may be a challenge.

John Tognolini was a BLF organiser in Sydney during the deregistration struggle in the late 1980s and made the 1993 film The Deregistration of the Builders Labourers Federation, about the Victorian BLF branch. He is a member of the Socialist Alliance.

From: Cultural Dissent, Green Left Weekly issue #810 16 September 2009.