Builders Labourers fight deregistration, 1981-94, by Liz Ross.
A history of the most severe defeat suffered by the Australian working class in recent times. Author Liz Ross interviewed dozens of participants in the battle and her honest account is forensic in its approach to detail.
In the 1970s and early 1980s the BLF was the most militant trade union in Australia. The wages and conditions enjoyed by all construction workers today stem from the victories won through the blood, sweat and tears of BLF members. Site sheds, long service leave, superannuation, site allowances and more weren’t handed to workers by generous bosses, but won through hard industrial action by the BLF. For example, Liz shows how the ACTU – the moderate national trade union federation – used the BLF as a battering ram to get superannuation for workers over the line in the early 1980s, and then turned on them and supported their deregistration in 1986.
On a whole range of broader issues such as protection of the urban environment and support for black South African workers opposing apartheid, the BLF took a strong stand. Much of the rich urban heritage of inner city Sydney and Melbourne remains standing today thanks to the BLF stopping greedy developers and compliant State governments from destroying icons like The Rocks and Victoria Market.
The BLF was the leading edge of the explosive movements of Australian workers and students in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Internationally in Paris, Portugal, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam, the US etc revolutionary and pre-revolutionary movements were taking place. In Australia the period was characterised by the anti-Vietnam War movement, the election of the Whitlam Labor Government, and the victories won by the BLF.
However the end of the post-war world economic boom meant the BLF began operating in a much more difficult environment. This period coincided with a pause in the mass movements of workers and students especially, as Liz explains, after the Portuguese Revolution was betrayed by the Communist and Socialist Party leaders in 1974.
From then on the BLF faced an employer class under great economic pressure not to give any crumbs off the cake to workers. They were supported by Labor and Liberal governments implementing a new neo-liberal economic policy of spending cuts, privatisation and tax cuts for the rich.
The BLF leadership was greatly influenced by the policies of the Maoist, pro-China Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). During the economic boom, its industrial tactics of guerilla-style bans and short term actions had a devastating effect on bosses. Even today the CFMEU tries as much as possible to undertake industrial action on the job. However it is quite clear from the interviews of BLF members and officials in Dare to Struggle that the lack of open, democratic discussion and debate in the union left members under-prepared for the range of forces lined up against them in the early 1980s.
In the manner of Mao and Castro, BLF leader Norm Gallagher was at times a brilliant general but kept power too close to his chest. The CPA(M-L) argued that Australia had not yet had a bourgeois (capitalist) revolution and therefore workers had to ally themselves with the local, progressive bosses against foreign imperialism. This Stalinist theory (a distortion of the genuine ideas of Marxism) led to Gallagher overestimating divisions amongst the bosses. He believed right to the end that the BLF could pull a rabbit out of the hat and divide and conquer the bosses. In fact the BLF faced a united front of bosses, the state machine, Federal and State Labor governments, the bosses’ media, and the ACTU and other construction union (including the right and left and even other Stalinists in the trade union movement). What was needed was to lean on the vast talent and enthusiasm of BLF members and supporters to prepare for the inevitable assault. The methods of Gallagher made this impossible.
In 1983 the Hawke Labor government was elected and, with the support of the bosses, they introduced a wage-cutting ’Accord’ to keep down labour costs. The ACTU and Labor government met each year until Labor lost office to Howard in 1996 and set wages for all workers for the next year. As each year went past wages fell behind inflation and profits boomed. This ’Accord’ was actually written by ’Communist’ trade union officials, which gives an indication of how almost the entire workers’ movement leadership had caved into the idea that there was no alternative to capitalism.
The BLF was the most important barrier to the Accord. A defeat for them, the bosses hoped, would be a hammer blow to all workers and allow a counter-revolution to occur in terms of winning back all the wages and conditions workers had won in the post-war boom.
Dare to Struggle outlines in graphic detail the preparation of the unholy alliance of ’Communists’, Labor Governments and bosses to deregister the BLF. The sub-chapter on "D-Day 16th April 1986" is both riveting and heart-renching. Building sites being surrounded by police and private security thugs. Workers turning up for work. Being told they couldn’t start until they joined the BWIU or FEDFA. Officials from these unions standing behind police lines ready with pens and membership applications.
In a matter of days the strength of the BLF had been broken, although Liz outlines the tremendous campaign by hardcore BLF members and supporters to fight on over the next months and years.
By the early 1990s John Cummins took the by now deregistered and weakened BLF into the CFMEU where they remain to this day. John is the Victorian President of the CFMEU (construction division) and several organisers and hundreds of members of the CFMEU and FEDFA are ex-BLF activists.
Believe it or not the leadership of the ALP and ACTU are even worse today. The collapse of the Stalinist states in the USSR and Eastern Europe in 1989-91 demoralised many CP-influenced activists in the unions. Capitalism waged an ideological campaign against the very idea of socialism. There are fewer members of the CFMEU today with a socialist consciousness than in the days of the BLF. This needs to be rebuilt.
The fact that building workers are at the mercy of interest rates, the cost cutting policies of governments, and the ebbs and flows of capitalist production shows that they need a pro-worker voice in the political arena. We need to link the day-to-day battles on the CFMEU on the job to the broader questions facing the working class. That is what the Socialist Party members in the union are trying to do today. Instead of giving financial handouts to the ALP (who deregistered the BLF) we should be working with other progressive unions and community groups and individuals to create a new workers’ party.
The other lesson of the BLF deregistration is genuine rank and file democracy. Without honest explanation to the rank and file of the issues they face and an encouragement and avenue for them to get involved in the union, the organisation misses out on its greatest strength.
A third lesson is the need to ensure that any militant union body does not get isolated. We need to spread all gains won in militant unions to all branches of that union and to the broader workers’ movement. If necessary that means actively helping workers elsewhere take command and control of their unions from ineffectual leaderships. If militant union branches are ’fenced off’ the pro-ALP moderate leaders elsewhere will link up with bosses and governments to counter-attack and reimpose tamecat leadership, as the AMWU have tried recently.
Liz Ross has done a great service to all thinking workers and youth who want to study our own history and most importantly learn the lessons of the past so as not to repeat past errors.
The BLF shines like a bright star compared to what workers are used to today. Read this book. Grab a vision of what is possible when workers organise. See how bosses, the media, Labor and Liberal all unite when workers move into struggle. Get inspired by the tenacity of the BLF members fighting to keep what they had won off the bosses. Most importantly think about the lessons for today.
Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win! published by Vulgar Press. RRP $35. Available also from Socialist Party library, Trades Hall Melbourne.