the mid-1980s, the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF)
was one of the most militant trade unions in Australia,
if not the world. The BLF was characterised by repeated
workplace-by-workplace strikes. For the most part, these
were victorious, and the BLF was able to secure for
its members a series of improvements in their pay and
conditions. The Federation also took up other causes,
including migrant, women's, gay and Aboriginal rights.
The union's most famous actions were the 'Green Bans',
the refusal to work on socially undesirable demolition
or development. But as one of Ross' many interviewees,
former BLF activist Peter O'Dea, recalls, 'We were far
too successful in elevating labourers. We were cheeky’.
Precisely because the Federation won so often, it made
a series of industrial and political enemies. Liberal
governments attempted to crush the BLF and failed. Labor
In 1985, a series of laws were passed to derecognise
the Federation. Members of the BLF were denied access
to negotiated rates of pay and hours of work. State
governments were given the powers to ban not just the
BLF, but any union which BLF members joined, or any
union that might emerge in the future with a substantial
ex-BLF minority. Former members of the Federation were
forced to sign declarations saying they were not in
the union before they could work. Deregistration was
not simply a matter of passing a few laws. A press campaign
was waged against the BLF leader, Norm Gallagher. The
police were instructed to enforce the bans. The Federation's
headquarters were repeatedly raided, including on one
occasion in October 1987, by 150 Special Operations
police in full riot gear. The government sequestered
the union's funds, and handed them over to an Arbitration
Commissioner, paying the princely sum of $1,000 for
every day he worked. The Commissioner published 21 reports.
The investigation continued for 14 years – long
after the BLF had ceased to exist. No financial misdemeanours
Dare to Struggle is a history
not of the employers' offensive but of the Federation's
attempts to fight deregistration. In better times, the
favoured tactics of the BLF included go-slows and wildcat
strikes. If organisers were barred from talking to union
members, they would risk arrest, and then refuse bail,
trusting the members to strike until they were released.
The same tactics were attempted after 1985, and not
without local success. But slowly the impact of deregistration
and the press campaign against Gallagher began to tell.
Middle-ground trade unionists drifted away. Sydney was
lost, long before Melbourne. Former BLF members attempted
to organise within other builders' unions including
the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU). The leadership
of this union tried to ignore the criticisms of their
new members, cancelling meetings and even national elections.
Eventually the BWIU was amalgamated into today's CFMEU.
We can see in retrospect that the deregistration of
the Federation marked a turning point in labour history,
comparable to the defeat of the pilots' union in North
America in 1981-82 or the British miners in 1984-85.
Dare to Struggle is a wonderfully
partisan account that takes seriously the challenge
of understanding the past through the eyes of the people
who realised that strong trade unions of unskilled workers
are a rare and precious thing, the men and (very often)
women who fought against the bosses and the courts.
More than 60 former BLF activists were interviewed for
the book, as well as leading employers, members of other
unions and the Labor Party. Ross's history echoes with
the backchat and the comradeship of the builders' yard
and the picket line. Even to list the names of some
of the second-rank militants – Stiffy Moore, Johnny
Rotten, Midget, Dirty Harry and Schoolteacher –
gives a sense of the personalities involved.
For most of the past 20 years, the trends within labour
history have been away from union or workplace studies.
Greater emphasis has been placed on people's home relationships,
rather than their work. Social identities have been
subject to rigorous but abstract analysis, and in the
process many writers have lost all sense of the experiences
of the individual activists whose lives they were supposed
to record. Much like Karl von Holdt, in last year's
Transition from Below, Ross restores the trade
unionists of the recent past to their proper status,
as full human beings, confident in themselves, committed
and determined not to lose.
Vulgar press thanks the journal, Labour
History and David Renton for their permission
to reproduce the review here. Labour History
is online at www.historycooperative.org.
The website for the Australian Society for the Study
of Labour History (ASSLH) is
www.asslh.com - for matters concerning membership
of the Society and journal subscriptions and orders
for back issues.