Review: We Built This Country
By Humphrey McQueen, Ginninderra Press, $30

I found Humphrey McQueen’s second instalment of his trilogy on the building industry disappointing. And it shouldn’t be, because We Built This Country is about builders’ labourers and their unions, telling their story from all the way back to Australia’s colonisation.

The fight for higher wages, better conditions and safety is the stuff of class warfare and a constant battle on building sites. The tight-fisted money grubbers that run the building companies force builders’ labourers to fight for everything.

Each era and every state is given as much coverage as McQueen could find. But critical to the weakness of this book is the lack of a Marxist understanding of the trade union bureaucracy. McQueen has set himself the task of writing about builders’ labourers and their unions, which invariably means writing about their union officials: good, bad and gangster-like.

While McQueen’s understanding of capitalist competition, accumulation and exploitation is excellent, his theory used when dissecting the role of union officials in Western capitalism is primitive. It’s as if Marxist theory has not been updated since Lenin and his “aristocracy of labour” theory of the 1910s.

The formal political affiliations of the building union officials—Jack Mundey as a Communist, Pat Clancy as a hardline pro-Russian Stalinist and Norm Gallagher’s Maoism—mask the real issue: The role of the trade union bureaucracy in Western capitalism in boom and crisis.

The problem in the book is that it simply cannot explain the radicalism of Mundey as a product of his formal politics. The political period, the development of rank and file confidence, and industry conditions that allowed him to lead union in a militant fashion, are not given a cogent Marxist analysis.
Unions are schools for class struggle for workers, but the union officialdom as a whole are one wing of “reformism” just as the Labor Party is the other wing.

Reformism encompasses a complex of opposites: it arises from the antagonism and conflicts in class society, yet it also contains protest and opposition within the limits of this society.

In one of its shapes, as trade unionism, it gives organisational expression to workers’ everyday experience of capitalism, in demands for and battles over wages, improved working conditions and job security. It asks members to fight and then to accept a “result” good or bad. It contests some of the effects of capitalist power through “collective bargaining”, while simultaneously recognising and accommodating to capitalist power in general.

It works at once within, for and against the existing system. It takes over, from the world it only partly contests, all manner of organisational forms and assumptions. Aping its adversary, it accepts capitalism’s own demarcation between “political” and “economic” questions. Under this division trade unions must be primarily concerned with “economic” questions of wages and conditions, while “political” questions like government spending on health and welfare or about going to war are dealt with in parliament.

Because, under “normal” conditions, reformist unions and parties offer a limited means of resisting capitalist power, they attract workers’ loyalty. At the same time, these forms of organisation also act to demobilise their own supporters, to constrain them within safe limits for capitalism.
The more advanced the process of capitalist accumulation, the more developed become the institutions of reformism, as the potential capacity of the modern working class to damage capitalist production grows.

Trade union bureaucracies are essential shock-absorbers for modern capitalism and its states, effective precisely because of their capacity to smooth out and contain opposition.
Nonetheless, they arise because such opposition is constantly regenerated. So too is the potential for explosions of struggle.

Phases of struggle

Another annoying aspect of this book is the way McQueen telescopes the class struggle between one era and the next. All the bosses and governments’ manoeuvres are viewed as a continuous process, rather than seeing that there were breaks and shifts in the class struggle. The victories and defeats don’t seem to matter. It is as if there was no upturn in late 1960s and early 1970s that threatened capitalist profits. And no defeats of mid-1970s and early 1980s, which the bosses needed to inflict to restore profitability.

One example is, “What began as a try-on around Adelaide [in 1972] set a battle plan to disorganise labour. The use of the Trade Practices Act erupted at the Mudginberri meat works in 1983-5. The full force of the corporations power in the Australian constitution hit with Workchoices and Fair Work Australia.”

Another example of this is the smashing of the Penal Powers in the historic general strike of 1969, which freed union leader Clarrie O’Shea, is dismissed, “The O’Shea victory could not put an end to penal powers, since employers rely on the state to enforce their needs.” In the abstract this is formally correct. But it patently ignores the era of working class combativity that opened up after that victory.

The strike figures are impressive testimony of this. The strike days “lost” by bosses and won by our class are: 1967—705,000; 1968—1,079,000; 1969—1,958,000; 1970—2,393,000; 1971—3,068,000; 1972—2,010,000; 1973—2,634,000; 1974—6,292,000.

That combativity was defeated by a combination of the 1974 recession, with unemployment rising from zero to 5 per cent within a matter of months, the bosses using inflation as a class weapon and the sacking of Whitlam and the subsequent working class demoralisation.

Those strike figures put today’s into start relief. For 2010-11, there were 214,400 days “lost”, with a working class far bigger than in 1968-74.

In all McQueen’s latest offering could have been much more than just a potted history of building unions. More’s the pity.

By Tom Orsag

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