We Built This Country - Review - Alison Thorne

Freedom Socialist Organiser
9 March 2012, pp. 8-9.

The latest offering by radical historian Humphrey McQueen is a crackling yarn. It provides an overview of the struggle of builders’ labourers in Australia form invasion to today.

McQueen was invested to write the book by the late John Cummins or Cummo, as he’s affectionately known in the Australian union movement. Cummo, who was jailed several times for doing his job as a union organiser, is the brand of unionist who meets with McQueen’s approval. Cummo was a militant who organised the members and was prepared to break bad laws! The book however, is an unofficial history because – as Cummo told McQueen, ‘No two officials would agree about anything’.

The book is a mix of stories drawn from battles over two centuries, coupled with crisp class analysis. McQueen argues that a union should be a ‘school for the working class’. Explaining. ‘Hence, the account includes defeats as well as victories, drunks and thieves as well as militants and revolutionaries’.

Unlike official union histories that glorify misleaders who specialize in telling members what they can’t do. We Built This Country refreshingly presents the union as its members. We read about the rank-and-file activists and delegates as well as the officials who can be described as the good, the bad and the ugly. McQueen pulls no punches exposing those dumped for stealing from the union or taking payouts from the bosses.

His chapter ‘Weird Mobs’ captures the diversity of the ranks, noting: ‘Labouring was the work available to the men at the bottom of the heap, irrespective of colour’.

The union had its share of Aboriginal members and a proud of battling for Aboriginal rights. Aboriginal member VE “Monty’ Malone was sent by the union to a conference for peace and full employment in East Germany. Alan Wood, another Aboriginal members, was part of a union fact-finding mission to Walgett in 1964 to investigate the jailing of two children. When police tore down the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972, builders’ labourers were amongst the 2.000 unionist who descended on Canberra to restore it in a couple of hours. One member, Rodney Robinson, was jailed for three months for defending the Tent Embassy.

The union also had a huge immigrant membership, starting with the Irish. Next came the Italians - many who fleeing from fascism quickly integrated into the leftwing culture of the union. Class-conscious unionists understood that racism was a tool of the bosses and the need to educate those members who had backward attitudes. McQueen reports on efforts such as resolutions recorded in the minutes banning the use of the word ‘wog’ which was to be replaced by the term ‘Southern European’.

McQueen describes the period in the seventies when the union in New South Wales was practicing worker control, ‘making up their won minds about who worked when, where and how hard’. One of the changes promoted through worker control was the employment of women. In 1972 unionist took strike action when one employer backtracked on the promise to ‘hire a nipper through the union’. The bosses were forced to fess up that they objected to the new labourer’s ‘being a girl’. Long before women were making their mark on building sites, women were playing a key role in the union office. McQueen documents the contribution of these women, dating back to the early 20th century. We meet the personalities of Miss Hartley, Miss Courtney and Mrs Drew. Many of the women who worked in the union office were communists.

Despite McQueen’s stature as an historian, this is anything but a sterile academic work. The strength of this history is that McQueen takes a side, and you can’t miss it! Throughout, there is the unmistakable clarity that there are bosses and there are workers. The bosses take on the personae of ‘Messrs Construction Capital’.

McQueen aims to educate that ‘there can be no such thing a fair day’s pay under the rule of capital’. He also illuminates how capitalism functions by showing that ‘the expansion of capital depends on the disciplining of labour-time, and that the role of the state under capitalism is to organise capital and to disorganize labour.

Through the pages of We Built This Country we see capitalism at work. We can also see that while the state – through bodies such as Fair Work Australia – is aiming to disorganize labour, what workers do makes a difference. With a clear class perspective, unity and leaders who don’t hold workers back, the masses of 2012 can make history.

Alison Thorne