Review: Framework of Flesh
By Humphrey McQueen, Ginninderra Press, $30
Noted Marxist historian Humphrey McQueen’s book on the builders’ labourers battle for health and safety, Framework of Flesh, was recommended to me by a militant labourer in the CFMEU. On his site, run by Bovis Lend Lease, there were 14 one-day strikes in 2008 over basic health and safety issues. The shop steward there when told of McQueen’s book, said, “The same issues come up today.”
McQueen shows how from the late 1800s to today, building companies have been run by the most penny-pinching, mean-spirited and Scrouge-like people.
His record of their contempt for workers’ safety is timely. Accidents on building sites have been on the increase as a result of the anti-union witch-hunt being conducted by the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).
In the 1880s, builders took money from workers’ pay packet to pay for the builders’ accident insurance!
One boss “discouraged” calls of nature by putting the lavatory alongside his store shed and making his labourers carry back a bag of cement after each visit.
Even in the early 1960s, employers refused to pay for site amenities like toilets, clean sheds to eat lunch and clean drinking water.
In 1983 John Holland would not provide protective gear for the removal of asbestos in Canberra, despite twice agreeing with unions on the correct ways to handle asbestos sheeting. This forced a two-and-half week strike at the Bruce indoor sports stadium.
Builders’ labourers organised to get “strike pay”, now outlawed by the ABCC, because so many times they were forced to strike to have an issue resolved. Why should they lose pay when they were in the right?
One of the strengths of McQueen’s book is that he details the cost in term of workers’ lives.
In the 2007-08 financial year, 41 building workers were killed at work in Australia.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge cost 16 lives in nine years. The principal contractor was even more callous than American bosses. At least they paid for the cost of safety nets on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
In October 1970, a 120-metre span of the Westgate Bridge gave way and fell killing 35 workers and injuring many others.
The Snowy Hydro Scheme built between 1948 and 1973 cost 121 lives. Most of deaths occurred between 1956 and 1964. In the words of a later investigation this period was, “The most frenetic time of construction where the speed-up in production was intense.”
The issue of workers’ safety versus “production” shines through Humphrey’s book as a conflict of class interests in the construction industry.
A form worker falls nine metres and break both arms and legs because there are no handrails. The union organises a strike on that floor until handrails are erected.
In NSW, “dogmen”—crane signallers and loaders—rode the hook of a crane, with or without a load. Over 30 NSW dogmen fell to their deaths in the 1960s. Henry Pollack, the founder of Mirvac, argued that riding the hook “saved time”. The union wanted it banned and two dogmen employed instead of one. By 1974, the union had won.
The push by the ABCC to reduce industrial action on building sites, what it calls “lawlessness”, is the latest attempt by the government and employers to unwind the safety gains unions have won.
One weakness in McQueen’s book lies in his political analysis that sees trade union leaders as either bad and corrupt or militant and willing to lead the rank and file to win.
Of course, he knows that the rank and file need to be organised but he places an equal emphasis on having “militant” union officials to back them up.
Having decent union officials is a good thing but even militant officials are part of the trade union bureaucracy—a social layer between workers and employers who exist to negotiate the terms of workers’ exploitation.
Even militant officials hold back the working class when it seeks to make strikes smashing victories. This means there is a need for rank-and-file organisation separate and independent of the officials.
The next time you look at a building, or a structure like a bridge or a dam don’t think of the dollar cost, think of how many workers’ lives were lost for the latest infrastructure for capitalism.
I, myself, can’t wait for the next two instalments McQueen promises about building workers and their unions, We Built This Country and Weird Mobs and Nomad Tribes.
The book can be ordered from ginninderrapress.com.au
By Tom Orsag