When Sydney was touched by workers’ democracy

7 May 2019
Jerome Small

If working class people had real power, what would society look like? If you live in Australia’s largest city, you don’t have to look far to find an answer. If you’ve ever seen the Sydney Opera House, you’ve seen a building constructed under workers’ control. If you’ve ever strolled through the the Rocks, you’ve walked though a historic area that organised workers saved from demolition.

If you head over to nearby Woolloomooloo, you’ll see one of the few communities left in inner Sydney where low paid workers can live – and it’s there only because of the actions of militant construction workers. And the giant Centennial Park, the lungs of inner Sydney, would have been turned into a gigantic, concrete-covered sports precinct if not for working class action.

In the early 1970s, around Australia but most spectacularly in Sydney, the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) was the core of an impressive movement that gave Australia – and the world – a glimpse of what workers’ power looks like. In their thousands, by their actions, builders labourers asserted that they were neither robots nor donkeys, but human beings. They used their considerable industrial muscle for the benefit of the working class, the poor and oppressed groups.

The contrast with the priorities of capitalism couldn’t be starker. One of the more far sighted and honest of the construction bosses of the time was G.J. Dusseldorp, the chairman of the huge Lend Lease group. Dusseldorp told housing industry leaders in 1968: “The housing industry as a whole knows little about the desires of the people and cares less”.

This puts it in a nutshell. To the companies that make the decisions, it doesn’t matter what is built, how or where, so long as a profit is made. Cheap housing, historic buildings, working class communities, parkland – it’s all dispensable in the pursuit of profit. In contrast, the then secretary of the BLF, Jack Mundey, declared:

“Yes, we want to build. However, we prefer to build urgently required hospitals, schools, other public utilities, high-quality flats, units and houses, provided they are designed with adequate concern for the environment, than to build ugly unimaginative architecturally bankrupt blocks of concrete and glass offices ... Though we want all our members employed, we will not just become robots directed by developer-builders who value the dollar at the expense of the environment. More and more, we are going to determine which buildings we will build.”

This extraordinary exercise in working class power had its origins in 1970. In that year, the Victorian branch of the BLF backed residents of the then solidly working class suburb of North Carlton, demanding that former railway land be turned over to parkland rather than used for a massive warehouse for Kleenex. Victorian secretary Norm Gallagher was jailed for 13 days after being arrested on the picket line, prompting a Melbourne-wide construction strike.

The warehouse was never built, and “Hardy-Gallagher Park” in North Carlton is still parkland today. In the years that followed, moves to demolish the iconic Victoria Markets, Swanston Street’s historic City Baths building and many others, were also thwarted by union “green bans”.

But it was in Sydney that the green bans really took off. In 1971, residents of Hunters Hill, a wealthy middle class suburb, approached the construction unions. The residents had been through all the “proper channels” trying to preserve Kelly’s Bush, the last few acres of bush land on the lower reaches of the Parramatta River, which was due to be turned into a housing development.

The “proper channels”, dominated by property developers and their money, had failed to give satisfaction to the residents, who then turned to the unions. After a vigorous debate among their members, the BLF and FEDFA – the crane drivers’ and bulldozer operators’ union – announced that none of their members would work on the project.

The developer, AV Jennings, warned it would proceed without union labour. In retaliation, the BLF threatened an immediate stop-work order on an office block then under construction by AV Jennings at North Sydney. The workers threatened to leave the building incomplete, as a half-finished monument to Kelly’s Bush. The developers backed down.

Over the years that followed, BLF green bans preserved dozens of working class areas and historic buildings, ranging from Aboriginal housing in Redfern to historic National Trust-listed mansions. These green bans became a world famous example of how workers’ action could preserve the environment. But there were other equally significant challenges to capitalist control at this time.

A remarkable experiment in workers’ control started on an office block project in Kent Street, in Sydney’s CBD. When construction company Fletcher’s attempted to sack militants in 1971, workers responded by going to work anyway, and electing one of the workers, Peter Barton, as foreman. The workers proceeded to organise the job themselves. Barton later recalled:

“It worked very well. Each morning, I’d go to see the site manager. He’d have lists of what he wanted each crew to do. I’d take these to the [elected] leading hands; we’d go over them and work out ourselves what would be the production for the day. Then I’d take the lists back to the site manager and tell him: ‘Here’s what production for today will be’ ... We were able to get on with the work in our own way, not having to take orders from any staff men. The workers were all happier in their work.”

Safety improved dramatically with an elected health and safety officer, and production jumped. “What we were doing was proving that workers could run industry and do it better than when a boss was telling us what to do.”

This example soon spread to other construction sites, including the Opera House. When a dispute over wages led to a lockout by management, the workers responded by occupying the site and organising production themselves. Work was proceeding well, but the managers were so terrified of this example of workers’ control that they shut off supplies of materials and engineers’ drawings.

After a three-week occupation of the site, production resumed – but workers were still electing their foremen, who had no disciplinary powers. As one worker, John Wallace, recalled: “Workers on the job were now in complete control of production ... decisions on questions which were normally the prerogative of management were increasingly being made at [workers’] meetings”.

The fit-out of the Opera House was completed under this system of workers’ control. People sometimes assume that once workers are no longer under management’s thumb, we’ll simply get lazy and nothing will get done. But in fact, workers having control over the job increased productivity significantly. The system worked so well that these workers were working only 35 hours per week, but regularly doing 48 hours’ worth of work – and getting paid for it!

There are plenty of other negative stereotypes about working class people. According to right wingers in the media, we’re meant to be a bunch of selfish, ignorant rednecks. The story of the NSW BLF shows what bullshit this is, and shows what working class people will do given even a glimmer of control.

The BLF was at the forefront of battles for Aboriginal people’s rights: in 1971, crane jibs all over Sydney had banners strung along them, promoting the “Moratorium for Black Rights”, a stop-work and demonstration in support of Aboriginal land rights. Members of the BLF were prominent in the protests against the racist rugby tour from apartheid South Africa. The union fought hard to get women jobs in the male-dominated industry. And at Macquarie Uni in 1973, builders’ labourers stopped work in support of gay rights, forcing the university to reinstate a student activist, Jeremy Fisher, who had been expelled from his accommodation for being openly gay.

The politics and militancy of the NSW BLF represent one of the high points of working class struggle in this country. Such high points don’t come out of nowhere. It took years of patient rank and file organising, especially by Communist Party and other militants, all through the 1950s, for militants to win control of the previously corrupt union.

From the early 1960s, the BLF fought bitter battles against unsafe and unsanitary conditions on site. More than once, stinking, unsafe amenities were pushed into deep excavations as labourers gained in confidence. Massive strikes shook the industry in 1970 and 1971, winning greatly improved pay and workers’ compensation. It was this militant, consistent organising on bread and butter issues that enabled workers to gain the confidence to take on even bigger targets in the early 1970s.

The wider political environment was also crucial. The radicalism fostered by the explosive movement against the war in Vietnam fostered an atmosphere of rebellion and direct action. In 1969, a rolling general strike involving hundreds of thousands of workers had freed Victorian union leader Clarrie O’Shea and smashed the anti-union “penal powers” laws. This set the scene for a period of worker militancy, of which the BLF and its famous green bans were justly one of the most famous parts.

Every single one of the bans that the BLF put on was debated, exhaustively, by the workers involved. The BLF’s commitment to rank and file democracy and workers’ control – over their own union as well as in wider society – was second to none. Recent migrants were prominent in the union, with mass meetings being translated into multiple languages simultaneously to allow workers to participate.

The contrast with the ruling class attitude to democracy is stark. Once every three years we trudge to the polls, to choose which brand of politicians will wield unaccountable power over us for three years. But none of us get to vote on whether to let Rupert Murdoch own half our media, or for Gina Rinehart to own a huge chunk of the country, or for most of the rest of us to work our lives away for someone else’s gain – and then get thrown on the scrap heap when the interests of profit require it.

So even at the best of times, “democracy” in a capitalist society is sharply limited. And when this cosy set up for the rich and the powerful is threatened, the gloves come off.

By 1974, the BLF was under intense pressure. Hired thugs intimidated activists and unionists. Activists backing the green bans were abducted off the streets of Sydney. One, journalist Juanita Nielsen, was never seen again. Despite being democratically elected by the membership of the union, the militant leadership of the BLF was targeted by employers, rival unions and the legal system. By 1975 the NSW branch was smashed, with hundreds of militants driven out of the industry.

Nevertheless, the BLF of that time leaves a rich legacy.

The built environment of Sydney is testament to the power of construction workers in the early 1970s. The green bans are celebrated in forums, walking tours, feature movies, websites, and in one of the best docos ever made about the Australian labour movement, Rocking the Foundations.

But most of all, the spirit of the BLF of that time continues wherever there is a living tradition among organised and politicised workers. It continues wherever workers collectively stand up for ourselves and assert our power and humanity in the face of a system that tries to strip us of both. It’s a legacy that continues among those who say that power in our society should rest, not with a profit-driven few, but with the mass of workers who create the wealth and make everything function. The NSW BLF gives us just a small glimmer of what such a society might look like.

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