We Built This Country - Review

‘A manual for unionists’

reviewed by Howard Guille, former secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union.
Australian Options
Summer 2011, p. 32.

This is the second book of Humphrey McQueen’s research into builders’ labourers and their unions. Read it, as the author says, with the earlier volume Framework of Flesh. This book is a history of builders’ labourers and their work from colonisation onwards. More especially, it is an account of the formation and operation of the Australian Builders Labourers Federation from 1910 to the amalgamation of its residual bits into the CFMEU in 1991-2.

The book cannot be summarized in a review that is two words for each of the years that McQueen covers. One impressive aspect is the weight given to the outlying States as well as to Victoria and New South Wales. Another is the section on the ‘money flow’ within unions; put plainly, a union will fold if it fails to collect and bank members’ dues. McQueen also looks past a ‘cult of individuals in the Jack and Norm show’ (p. 12). Even so, his account of the genesis of green bans and his analysis of the conflicts between Norm Gallagher and Jack Mundey will raise controversy.

McQueen tells how workers tried to control what was happening to them – in practice, what bosses were trying to do to them in the face of economic and social forces and changing technology. There are fascinating insights – for example, other things being equal, concrete gave builders’ labourers opportunities and increased their relative power and work value but scissors lifts reduced them. He makes subtle use of Marxist political economy weaving ideas of surplus value, socially necessary labour and the like into understanding the actual economic forces pressing on workers.

Unionised labourers fought with trades, with judges, arbitration commissioners and other unions as well as with bosses. The Arbitration system was a site for almost constant contest about which union covered which jobs and how these fitted into job award coverage – for example, was a plasterer’s labourer a tradesman’s assistant or a labourer?; is a bridge or communications tower a ‘building’? There was, especially in Queensland, an incessant coverage battle with the AWU. This went beyond the Builders’ Labourers and was a general fight from 1915 to 1996 between the AWU, as Labor government ally, and the unions affiliated with the Trades and Labour Council. This was reprised after 1989 with Goss ALP government.

I finished reading this book just as Alan Joyce gave QANTAS shareholders ‘certainty’ by grounding the entire flight of planes. The QANTAS dispute and media shrieking about unions came after a period of ‘official quiet’ about industrial disputation that McQueen’s book helps to put into perspective. Disputes fell off in the 1990s and 2000s apart from a few unions including the CFMEU, CEPU (ETU) and NTEU that adopted disciplined pattern bargaining. This has a clear lineage from the Victorian Building Industry Agreement of the 1950s onwards, led, as McQueen documents, by the Builders’ Labourers. This was ‘collective bargaining’ on an industry basis designed by unions. It is a far cry from today’s ‘enterprise bargaining’ designed by the Business Council of Australia and their legal and academic advisers as a second best if individual contracts could not be achieved.

McQueen says his book is about ‘defeats as well as victories, drunks and thieves as well as militants and revolutionaries’. More importantly, as he says, it shows ’why a union should be a school for the working class’. (p. 11) The book should be compulsory reading for new and old union officers and organisers: it will certainly challenge them to decide whether they are workers’ representatives or ‘workplace relations practitioners’.