We Built This Country : Book Launch and Review
Book Launch report by Peter Love, Review by Aidan Moore

The Recorder  no 273, December 2011,p. 6

Book Launch report

On Wednesday 30 November 2011, the New International Bookshop hosted the launch of Humphrey McQueen’s second book on the builders’ labourers, We Built This Country: Builders’ Labourers and their Unions. He was introduced by well-known activist, Bill Deller, who paid tribute to his impressive range of politically committed writing and how he was the right person to do historical justice to such a rumbustious mob as the BLs.

            In reply, Humphrey spoke about some of his own family’s experience of working-class life and went on to explain how John Cummins commissioned the book, warning him that it would be difficult to get any group of BLs to agree on almost event or issue in their history. Researching and writing the book persuaded him of the importance of rediscovering class in labour history, a matter on which he had recently excoriated the Labour History Society for neglecting. He talked about the workers, their struggles, their forgotten heroes, their working life and culture that were both physically arduous and politically vibrant. After a brief survey of the organizational genealogy, he explained how that family of unions had fought for health, safety and the environment as well as for wages and conditions. This was a reference to his earlier, companion volume A Framework of Flesh. It is a very welcome addition to the body of union histories that say as much about the workers as their unions, and they have them.

            It was a very well attended gathering that joined in a lively, good-natured discussion of the BLs, their past, present and future. The book was a sell-out on the night and those of us who lingered to carry on the conversation had to leave an order with the shop. It might well be a sign that Humphrey is right about the need for more about the working-class and would-be working class in labour history. The shop now has copies in stock and is only too willing to exchange $30 for a copy.

Peter Love

 Review   of We Built This Country: Builders’ Labourers & their Unions 1787 to the future

Where BLF history is concerned, it is all too easy to focus on, if not begin and end with the Green Bans, the ‘Jack and Norm show’, deregistration and annihilation of the union. No so where Humphrey McQueen’s latest contribution to the story of Australian builders’ labourers and their unions is concerned. Indeed, the full title of his book implies, McQueen not only begins his telling of BLF history at a point predating white settlement in Australia, but he also looks to the future, suggesting that builders’ labourers and their unions will continued to led the way in struggle for workers’ and human rights.

            It was a bloodied and battered BLF that was in 1994 finally boxed into a single industry union, the CFMEU. But as McQueen so deftly illuminates when he quotes union and working-class stalwart, John Cummins, as ‘Saying ‘Now the work starts’, the spirit that had moulded builders’ labourers into the most feared and perhaps most successful workers’ organisation in Australian history remained undiminished. It is a spirit that McQueen clearly applauds and for which he sees a future, wherever men and women continue to organise.

            McQueen’s history of the BLF is important because it demonstrates the peril that lurks wherever workers and their leaders in the union pull not together, but apart. It highlights the need for working-class consciousness and the struggle that must be waged against its enemy: the petit-bourgeois, upwardly striving, acquisitive individualism that capital and its agents in government use to divide workers and deprive them of their full share. McQueen, in other words, holds history – in this case BLF history – up as a mirror in which we can reflect on our present situation, and in which we can see an alternative future.

            We Built This Country is a text with which readers can engage on numerous levels – State-by-State, era-by-era, cover-to-cover, to name a few. For members of the Queensland branch that celebrated tis centenary in 2010 – more than a decade-and-a half after the Federation had been destroyed – it will be a welcome addition and enhancement to what continues to be a proud BLF tradition.

Aidan Moore

Former builders’ labourer is completing a doctoral thesis on Norm Gallagher in the context of the labour movement