Forty years ago, the margins strike provided a model example of how to involve rank-and-file union members in action in defiance of the law and win, argues Tom Orsag
In the 1970s the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) set a standard in industrial militancy and the defiance of anti-union laws—and gained serious wins for their own members and also in wider political struggles.
Their willingness to mobilise rank and file workers and to defy the law and get away with it, are an example of the kind of fight needed today to keep workers like Ark Tribe, on trial for defying the Australian Building and Construction Commission, out of jail—and to get the Commission scrapped altogether.
In early May 1970 NSW builders’ labourers (BLs), members of the NSW BLF, went on strike for five weeks and won a smashing victory for a pay rise in one of the most famous campaigns of the period.
Mass meetings of 1200 in Sydney, picketing of scab sites and activists’ meetings, all ensured rank and file enthusiasm and creativity was harnessed to win a battle over pay and respect for the dirty and dangerous work BLs did.
The dispute was run by an elected strike committee and measures were taken to involve many migrant workers into its organisation. Some 70 per cent or more of BLF members were migrants.
The strike was so solid that building employers “lost” $60 million during the strike. This was at a time when the BLs wanted a $6 a week pay rise. By 1973, after more strikes, in 1971-72, they would raise their pay to an average of $150 a week. Pete Thomas, a left-wing journalist, observed in Taming the Concrete Jungle, “The thing that stood out was that, after five weeks on the grass, their militant mood was as high as ever.”
In March 1970, the union said, “We will no longer accept low wages while employers, investors and developers in the industry are making record profits.” From 1970-71, Jennings boosted its net profit by 80 per cent, Lend Lease by 94 per cent and Hanover Holdings by 152 per cent!
The BLF’s claim aimed to close the gap—the margin—between wages paid to tradesmen and labourers. BLs earned 75 per cent of tradesmen’s pay but the nature of the high-rise industry had developed the skill levels of labourers. As the union argued in late 1969, BLs’ wages should rise “because of the versatility of the work performed by our members, and because of the key part we play in construction.”
New developments were financed in such a way that stoppages were a serious threat to profitability.
Developers relied on credit at high interest rates, so the difference between bankruptcy and profit was often a simple matter of a few weeks either side of a completion date.
The NSW BLF’s claim of a $6 week wage rise would reduce the margin from 75 per cent of tradesmen’s pay to 90 per cent. The employers offered between $1.75 and $2.50 a week.
The NSW BLF wrote a leaflet, “We do not begrudge the tradesmen their money. If anything, in our opinion, they are grossly underpaid for their skill. Tradesmen, as well as labourers, still have to work six days a week to make ends meet, and their wives work to meet the extras.”
The employers, the Master Builders Association (MBA) refused to concede any more on the pay rise to the BLs in talks on May 11 and the strike continued. NSW Liberal Premier Robert Askin told the Manly-Warringah branch of the MBA, “Whispers I hear are that, so long as you stick with Arbitration, you will win the battle.” Arbitration was the 1970s version of Fair Work Australia, with all its legal obstacles to successful strike action.
Birth of the vigilantes
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, strikes had been short, partly due to the penal powers of Arbitration, which meant unions faced huge fines for taking strike action. The penal powers were smashed in a general strike in May 1969, after union leader Clarrie O’Shea was sent to jail when his union refused to pay fines. In the new, long drawn-out disputes, scabbing was more likely to occur and would be used to undermine strikers’ morale.
An article by Paul Gardiner in the Financial Review in 1973 revealed that the MBA used scabbing as a deliberate policy to attempt to smash the 1970 margins strike.
By the end of the second week, it was clear scabbing was not being stopped. When the need to stop sites working was raised at a union meeting, the leaders replied that a handful of officials could not stop it, only rank-and-file involvement could. Sixty or more rank and filers stayed back after the meetings to go round to visit scab jobs.
In the suburbs, outside the CBD, small jobs made picketing difficult. Scab jobs re-started after small groups of mobile picketers left.
The problem was how to make sure work didn’t resume once the pickets left. The only tactic left was to make continued employment of scab labour uneconomic for the employers. The vigilante movement was born, as BLs knocked over scab-built walls.
As Jack Mundey, BLF Secretary, argued, “We did not set out a wanton destruction rampage, but attacked only buildings where employers were attempting to use scab labour to break the strike.” He added, “This had a devastating effect on the employers, government and police alike. In this dispute, it took the class enemy by surprise.”
Mass meetings grew and as the vigilante movement developed, many rank and filers eagerly joined in. Mass meetings endorsed daily vigilante meeting decisions, on the condition that there be no physical attacks on people. And none ever occurred.
This didn’t stop the Sydney Morning Herald from railing against “ugly and un-Australian tactics”. Nor did it stop the three Sydney papers of the day, the Herald, Sun and Daily Mirror running headlines like ‘Building Strike, Violence Goes On’, ‘Strike Emergency, Riot in the City’ and ‘Riot Squad Out: $10,000 Damage in Rampage’.
Liberal Premier Askin and Police Commissioner Allan frequently accused the vigilantes of violence against individuals. Mundey challenged both of them to find one individual who had been assaulted by striking labourers. They couldn’t find one.
There was plenty of rank and file enthusiasm for direct action. Mundey estimated at least 400 members were involved in vigilante actions. Organiser Tom Hogan quipped three months after the strike that if everyone who said they had been a vigilante had been one, there would have been 5000 of them.
The new leadership that led the campaign—Bob Pringle, Joe Owens and Secretary Jack Mundey—took office in June 1968, after years of right-wing, gangster control in the 1940s and 1950s. As Paul True wrote in Tales of the BLF…Rolling the Right, “In the 1950s the BLF in NSW was the classic ‘tame-cat’ union.” In the early 1960s, BLs in NSW were being paid 15 per cent less than BLs in Victoria.
The Left in the union, socialists from the Communist and Labor Party on a common ticket, won some victories in the early 1960s. But in was only by the late 1960s that it was in full control and in a position to improve members’ wages and conditions.
That was after over 15 years of rank-and-file organising against the gangster right-wing officialdom.
But the installation of a new set of more left-wing officials alone was not enough to shift the union—their efforts to build the confidence and involvement of rank and file members were crucial.
The new leadership instituted policies of being paid the same rate as members on the tools, internal democracy and a militant industrial strategy. By tying officials’ pay to BLF award rates, they hoped to avoid the long-term effect of higher salaries for union officials, which led to their distancing from the rank and file.
During the margins strike, they resolved, “that officials’ wages be stopped whilst the strike is on.” They lived, like all BLs, on strike pay.
As Mundey reflected, years later, “Regardless of how sincere and democratic a leadership may be, unless the delegates and active rank-and-file members are participating in the making of decisions, the life of the union cannot be as rich as it should be.”
Mundey reported to the branch in December 1969, “Strike action is ‘in’, and in all states we should break with agreements that tie us hand and foot and by word and deed, obstructing our right to strike.” Joe Owens said the branch was, “setting out with a conscious policy to clear up wages and conditions”.
The new, left-wing leadership of the NSW BLF had a support base in the CBD, due to the late 1960s building boom. The increased periods of employment for rank and file members and large-scale, long-term developments created a layer of job delegates on sites such as Sydney Opera House, QANTAS and Royal North Shore Hospital, who solved industrial problems on site, not in the Industrial Courts.
Apart from the pay rise victory of the margins strike and the active involvement of the rank and file, the other crucial gain was BLs no longer seeing themselves as “a second class citizen”, “the lowest of the low” or “just a ‘shit’ labourer”. They were now proud to be BLs and proud of their union.
In the wake of the margins strike, the union sought to increase membership, insisting on a “no [union] ticket, no start” policy. By the end of October, the Public Works Department was a closed shop [100 per unionism] and successful fights with other employers led to “no ticket, no start”.
By winning better wages and conditions for its members, the NSW BLF was able to lead the union in a massive environmental campaign to save parklands and stop overdevelopment through the green bans, as well as supporting Aboriginal rights.
Their methods contain important lessons for today.