Building unions merger: more than they bargained for?


The Builders' Labourers Federation didn't go away after the Hawke government's drive to destroy it in the mid-'80s. It still has legally recognised branches in four states, and there are networks of former BLF members in the states where the union was deregistered. BLF official JOHN CUMMINS spoke with Green Left Melbourne correspondent DAVE KERIN about recent moves to amalgamate the legal branches of the BLF with the Building Workers Industrial Union.

What will this proposed amalgamation mean for builders' labourers?

It means a foot in the door of the BWIU. Our first choice was to remain as a federation, but because of the pressure put on our registered branches by the federal government, it became a shotgun wedding. They forced us into it, but now they're going to have to live with it.

Labourers are now inside the BWIU nationally. In the registered states, they're in there with the interests of builders' labourers protected. They have their own sections and the right to elect their own officials.

This contrasts very markedly with the second-class status of builders' labourers in Victoria and NSW. Our ambition is to get the same conditions for builders' labourers in the eastern states.

In Victoria there's been controversy about elections and representation within the BWIU.

In Victoria we had a takeover. The BWIU were involved in the deregistration with the government, employers and police. To cover this behaviour, they put up a couple of token builders' labourers in the 1987 elections. Their ticket got up, although not without one of their officials spilling the beans on their ballot rigging.

Now, out of the six elected to the state management committee in 1987, only one remains. The others have been replaced by appointees who have never been elected, and the leadership refuses to hold an election.

This really is characteristic of the BWIU. Its five leading positions are all filled by appointees. Out of the president, vice-president, secretary and two assistant secretaries, only one is a labourer. That's Martin Bingham, defeated by builders' labourers in the 1985 election in the BLF. He was not elected this time either, but appointed.

What are your expectations of the coming Victorian branch elections in the BWIU?

Members of the BWIU, conscripts or not, really have a clear an remain in their second-class position, or they can do something about it.

Doing something about it isn't pie in the sky any more. The interstate model is something tangible to focus on. If the BWIU have any brains, they'll accede to representation.

Why wouldn't the BWIU leadership, especially the federal leadership, see it as in their interests to have a separate labourers' section and identity? Isn't their only other choice the risk of a complete takeover of the branch by the democratic tendency?

There are always two sides to these things. The BWIU agreed to take in our four registered branches, not because they wanted to give the labourers their own section and their own rights, but because they wanted to swallow them up, to isolate them. Tom McDonald spilled the beans at their national conference last year. We got hold of a tape of him saying they wanted to make us a pimple on a pumpkin.

There are some unfortunate aspects to this amalgamation.

It's starting off on the wrong foot. It's not starting with an attitude of "water under the bridge" or "let's call it quits and start anew"; it's starting as a contest.

It's a contest we are enthusiastically taking up. We are committed to looking after our members, and if the BWIU wants to do an award restructure, to alter pay levels and interfere with traditional relativities in the building industry to the detriment of builders' labourers, then our four registered branches are going to continue kicking up. We will really pull the contest on in their own ranks.

It will also offer tradespeople in the BWIU a democratic and militant leadership alternative.

There have been rumours of amalgamation between the BWIU and the Timber Workers. How advanced are these moves, and what will they mean for building workers?

We're getting information second-hand, but that's an improvement on what members of the BWIU are getting. We've been advised that they've formally applied for amalgamation.

Firstly, they applied for amalgamation on grounds of community interest, the standard procedure under existing legislation. Secondly, they applied to proceed without a ballot of BWIU members. Only the timber workers will get a vote.

The whole thing has been railroaded through by the BWIU leadership because, under existing legislation, they will then be exempt from holding elections for a period of two years.

So BWIU members are to be denied a vote on the amalgamation, and that denial of a vote will be used to further deny them a vote in the scheduled 1991 elections. Catch 22. The Labor Party leadership, the ACTU, and the BWIU always relied upon building workers simply wanting to do their job and make heaps of money in a boom period. They believed this would finally defeat the BLF. Now it seems that they not only underestimated building workers but they helped to spawn a younger, more militant crew, willing to take a stand on questions such as importing rainforest timbers and the Gulf War.

Yes, but I don't think that we have a monopoly on this sort of outlook. It's what unionism is about. Such developments reflect the sorting out process that's going to take place in the BWIU.

Besides the social issues, we also have to win the argument about defence of wages and conditions.

The Australian Federation of Construction Contractors and the BWIU leadership are in the process of drawing up a joint application on restructuring and amalgamations. At the heart of the application is the question of restrictive work practices. And for restrictive work practices, read workers' conditions.

In the document we got hold of, they are lining up the inclement weather clause because they say that building workers' interpretation of it is too over the top. They're talking about the one-in-all-in principle, saying that it's unreasonable that the whole job stops for wet weather.

They are talking about eliminating overtime restrictions, such as the right of building workers to have a crane crew, an electrician, a hoist driver and shop stewards stay back for safety and industrial reasons. They want to eliminate what they call "featherbedding", which for workers means two-person crane crews, and less safety generally because fewer workers will be asked to do heavier and more dangerous tasks.

They're talking about, and I'm quoting from the document now, "electricians and plumbers not being able to dig trenches" as a restrictive work practice. In their view, "tradespeople not being allowed to load or unload their own materials" is a restrictive work practice. They want tradespeople to erect their own scaffolding.

These questions involve safety and job protection, not restrictions on work. The employers, with the BWIU leaders, want to eliminate conditions. They're tame cat unionists.

How did things get to this stage?

During the lead-up to deregistration, when the employers were going on about how over the top the BLF were, the ACTU, because they were so isolated from the ranks, believed the bosses.

With the BWIU, you can see this is duplicated. When the employer complains about alleged breaches of the inclement weather clause, featherbedding etc, the BWIU leaders believe the boss because they are so isolated from the membership.

Instead of people who ought be as unbiased as the Collingwood cheer squad, you've got people who want to be reasonable to everybody, trying not to upset the applecart with their government in office. The sooner unions get back to defending the wages and conditions of their members, the sooner members will have better things to say about them.

What do you think is the main lesson of the '80s for the union movement?

People will look back on the '80s and early '90s as a tragedy for the unions because of the cannibalism of the movement. We've got to stop the poaching, because it's helping the boss and killing the movement.

This poaching is emanating from the drive for the Kelty super unions, which has always been Hawke's agenda.

Now workers are voting with their feet and not joining unions. The ACTU is going to begin advertising in Vogue magazine. In return for answering the ad and joining a union, people will receive knick-knacks like travel cards and discounts with department stores.

I wouldn't even mind that sort of stuff if unions were doing the real work too, but they're not. Unless you are getting out there and sorting issues out with members, you're getting out of touch.