Picture this scene — late April 1986, a group of a dozen builders labourers on a cold Melbourne morning. The time is about 7.30am. They were picketing a building site where they’d been sacked for refusing to resign from their union, the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), which had recently been “deregistered” — a nice term for outlawed under Bob Hawke’s ALP federal government.
The ALP premiers of New South Wales and Victoria, Neville Wran and John Cain, joined Hawke’s drive to outlaw the BLF.
An army of police was deployed to building sites in Melbourne, Geelong, Canberra, Sydney, Wollongong and Newcastle to attack the right of workers to be in a union of their choice, not that chosen by the bosses or the state.
BLF organiser John “Cummo” Cummins drove to the picket. I noticed as he opened the boot of his car that he had a large steel chain. He showed it to Neville “Killer” Kane, Jimmy “The Black Rat” Wilson and a third builders labourer.
Within ten minutes, the three sacked BLF men had occupied a crane on a nearby building site. They used the chain to lock the trap door of the crane to prevent police from removing them. They had no food or water and occupied the crane for more than 72 hours. They left on their own terms after making a defiant protest and shutting a building site down. They also endured three bitterly cold nights.
Killer later said about the protest: “It happened really fast. I was on the Market Street site and they [the cops] came down on the job ... I was sacked because I refused to join the BWIU [Building Workers Industrial Union, now the CFMEU]. I could have been the shop steward on site for the BWIU. All I had to do was to change over.
“But I decided to stick with the BLs.” Other workers were locked on the jobs, surrounded by rows and rows of police and threatened with the sack, threatened that they couldn’t leave the site till they’d signed over to another building union.”
So it’s not surprising that when Killer lost his fight with leukemia late last month, a few days later 175 construction workers on a Melbourne CBD building site gave him a minute’s silence.
Nor is it surprising that the red flag flying over Melbourne Trades Hall was at half-mast for him. The flag has now been sent to Killer’s widow, Margaret.
More than 400 people attended Killer’s funeral on April 2. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams sent a message recognising Killer’s life-long support of the Irish fight against British imperialism.
In many ways, Killer reflected the staunch, militant working class traditions of the BLF. The union was a rank-and-file membership-controlled organisation. It’s no wonder that Hawke and the ALP outlawed the BLF.
Hawke did his best to criminalise militant unionism. His policies in office led to one of the greatest redistributions of wealth in Australian history, which helped create today’s huge gap between the billionaires and the working poor.
Killer, and other men and women like him, opposed that in the 1980s. As a member of the BLF, he and a further 500 of us suffered for our militant dissent with being blacklisted and starved out of work.
Margaret, his lifelong wife and partner, was actively involved in organising the partners of BLF members during the outlawing of the union.
She once appeared on Ray Martin’s Midday Show. Martin basically surrendered his show to her elegant defence of the BLF. The interview appears in my film, The Deregistration of the Builders Labourers Federation — The Victorian Story 1986-1992.
I would have made the 830-kilometer trip from Wellington in central west New South Wales to attend Killer’s funeral in Melbourne if not for my partner’s recovery from cancer.
However, I was fortunate to catch up with Killer and Margaret last September at their home in Longwarry after Green Left Weekly’s Climate Change Social Change conference.
I played my guitar to them and sung my version of Roaring Jack’s “Lads of the BLF”, which was also played at Killer’s funeral.
I also played them “Back Home in Derry”, a song based on the poem The Voyage written by Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands and made famous as song by Christy Moore.