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Sunday, October 01, 2006

BLF Twenty Years after the Deregistration

April 16 2006 marked twenty years since the Builders Labourers Federation was deregistered by the Australian Labor Party governments of Prime Minister Bob Hawke, NSW Premier Neville Wran and Victorian Premier John Cain, these article appeared back in 1991 in Green Left Weekly, in the present context of John Howard’s attacks on workers’ rights I feel the issues they raised are still relevant.

John/Togs Tognolini

Inside the BLF

Inside an ambitious bureaucrat

Inside the BLF: A Union Self-Destructs
By Brian Boyd
Melbourne: Ocean Press. 1991. $19.95
Reviewed by John Tognolini

All the empty office space in Melbourne and Sydney is equal to 16 Empire State Buildings. Ninety per cent of the workers who built the skyscrapers of the 1980s boom are out of work, and a lot of the quick quid developers are on the run from the banks.

Building workers should be asking whether all the work, steel, concrete and rainforest timber from the Third World was worth it. Empty buildings and homeless people walking the streets are the social cost of the 1980s building boom.

Someone who does not pose questions of this importance is Victorian Trades Hall official Brian Boyd. The following words from his introduction to Inside the BLF indicate how he views the issues facing unionists:

“Big changes are now affecting trade unions in Australia. The early 1980s saw the introduction of the ALP-ACTU Accord. Rank-and-file workers are now demanding a greater say in the direction of their unions. This is healthy and democratic ... And unions are increasingly involved in macro-economic and social policy formulation. ”

In reality, workers' only involvement in macro-economic decisions is in dealing with their micro-economic consequences: like getting the sack and trying to survive on the dole.

The book is straight out of the Bob Hawke school of corporate unionism and will no doubt end up on the shelves of Trade Union Training Authority schools around the country. Its theme throughout is: have faith in the ACTU-ALP, and things will be right. Boyd's aim is to defend the Accord and justify the destruction of the BLF for trying to win wage rises outside the Accord.

This requires some rewriting of history -- his own and others'. Thus Boyd criticises the intervention of the Norm Gallagher forces into the New South Wales branch in 1974, against the Jack Mundey leadership of the union. This might surprise members of the BLF in Melbourne who remember that Boyd attended his first BLF meeting along with members of the Maoist Worker-Student Alliance from Latrobe University, who were not there just to raise their hands, but to attack dissidents in the Victorian branch and the rest of the Melbourne left who opposed the strangling of the NSW branch.

Boyd doesn't own up to his own Maoist past. He attacks Gallagher over the destruction of the old NSW branch without mentioning that he went there with Gallagher to help him.

His book focuses solely on Gallagher. The rank and file don't feature except as sheep being led to the slaughter. It's not surprising that Boyd doesn't want to recall that many of the same dissidents he attacked in 1974 were in the front lines against deregistration in 1986. People such as Dave Kerin and Johnny Lowe understood that the union was more than Gallagher, and it was the rank and file who broke concrete pours and drove developers crazy.

Hypocritically, Boyd pretends to mourn the loss of what the union could have been: “As a major union for so long, the BLF had the potential to play an ongoing, positive role in maintaining the militant, critical edge to industrial relations in Australia.” But it was for this very reason that the BLF was deregistered and decimated, not because of Gallagher getting materials from a few builders and developers.

Another Boyd rewriting goes like this: “In the period 1980-86 many trade unionist in Victoria considered that the BLF was bad for the rest of the labour movement. Consequently, it was not surprising that there was a lack of real support for the BLF at the height of the vicious, almost military, operation mounted against it. Even though large sections of the organised labour movement conducted rallies, marches and collections around such struggles as SEQEB, Robe River and Cockatoo Island, no concerted, united activity occurred in support of the BLF.”

No “large sections of the organised labour movement” did anything significant about SEQEB, Robe River or Cockatoo. The ACTU deliberately undercut support for these struggles as part of its commitment, shared with Brian Boyd, to the Accord.

In its 324 pages, the book has only eight pages on the five years of deregistration. It is a shoddy and evasive work, written by an ambitious individual who, when builders labourers where being bashed and jailed by the army of police that invaded the building sites in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, left the BLF for the relative safety of the Victorian Trades Hall Council. It's no wonder that Boyd's book was launched by ACTU president Martin Ferguson.

[John Tognolini is a former Sydney BLF organiser and a life member of the Ships Painters and Dockers who was involved in the Cockatoo Island struggle.]

[A review of BRIAN BOYD's Inside the BLF by John Tognolini appeared in the January 29 issue of Green Left Weekly. Here, the author responds.]

I am disappointed but not surprised in Tognolini's line of attack against my book. I would have wished for something more incisive and analytical from him rather than the usual “going the player, not the ball”.

However, it is still worth clearing up some of the whining claims in his disjointed review.

First of all there is not one word in the book that purports to support the Accord or what is deemed Bob Hawke's “school of corporate unionism”. Tognolini, of course, couldn't find one quote to use. The book's theme is not to push “faith in the ACTU-ALP”, but instead is an honest attempt to explain, from my own observations, how an effective trade union was unnecessarily lost to the Australian trade union movement. The real theme was hammered home in many parts of the book and was obvious to anyone who read it.

Secondly, the book does not make any judgment, critical or otherwise, on Gallagher's intervention in the NSW BLF branch in 1974-76. It simply shows that Gallagher's relationship with the traditional builders at that time, in working together to knock off Jack Mundey, was the start of the petty corruption he was to be nailed with seven years on. These same building employers were to fall out with the BLF secretaries and dob Gallagher into the special police task force when he began to play off the new developers against them for better site allowances in the late '70s and early '80s.

Yes, the book “focuses” on Gallagher. This was its intent. To explain how the union's power was misused, since the official corruption investigations around Gallagher began, the BLF's secretary's motives in many disputes had to be revealed.

It is interesting Tognolini does not challenge the day to day evidence in the book of how normal industry disputation was artificially portrayed to the rank and file to generate regular bans and strikes for these hidden motives.

To this end there is no suggestion the BLF rank and file were “sheep”. The exact opposite is true. Rightly, the rank and file fought hard against the “double jeopardy” -- the threat of deregistration -- which was the other arm of the Fraser government's attack on the BLF. What the rank and file were never told was that their persistent, brave efforts against deregistration (briefly successful in 1984 when all the governments and the employers pulled out of the proceedings) were continually compromised. Gallagher's covert insistence that the dropping of the corruption charges against him was more important than defeating deregistration saw to that, especially after the 1984 deal was reneged on.

Yes, the likes of Dave Kerin and Johnny Lowe “understood that the union was more than Gallagher” in the fight against the lead-up to the 1986 BLF deregistration. But these same people also allowed y manipulate the tactics and strategies of the battle for his own ends, with Kerin and Lowe knowing full well what he was doing. They can't have it both ways.

Yes, the rank and file “broke the occasional concrete pour” in the anti-deregistration campaign, but it wasn't simply against the developers as Tognolini alleges.

In fact, during 1984-86, while the Gallagher corruption trials were in full swing, the developers were, more often than not, exempt from such activity to encourage favourable court evidence. Or, if they were occasionally hit, it was to remind them to give favourable evidence. Again, nothing to do with the “saving the union/anti-deregistration” campaign.

The BLF was not finally deregistered by the ALP governments (and the book asserts this clearly) because it was just a “militant” union. It was attacked initially for such a reason by the earlier Liberal federal and Victorian governments (1981), who saw an opening in exploiting Gallagher's personal greed to have a go at unionism per se.

The BLF was deregistered because of Gallagher being personally targeted for his indiscretions (corruption) and more specifically for him believing he could use the BLF's industrial strength over a prolonged period to save facing the resultant criminal charges. If Tognolini had read the book, he would know this is the main point being made.

There is no evidence to suggest that the social/political atmosphere of the mid-1980s required the comprehensive smashing of a union. There was only a heightened “New Right” push that demanded the usual curtailment of unionism in general.

Yes, Tognolini is right it was not simply Gallagher's taking of “materials from a few builders and developers” that led to the union being wiped out. This was never claimed in the book. It was indeed Gallagher's covert campaign against the subsequent court appearances with sustained bans on major projects that had Hawke, Cain and the employers reinstitute deregistration proceedings after collectively withdrawing from the Fraser-instigated ones in 1984.

Despite Tognolini's convenient denials, there were in Victoria a large number of rallies, meeting and job collections over issues surrounding the struggles of PGEU, SEQEB, Robe River and Cockatoo Island. No such action of any kind was planned or ever contemplated by the union movement in relation to the BLF. This, despite the fact it was suffering a major onslaught of major concern. The explanation is simple. Most unions were intrinsically aware of what Gallagher was trying to do and did not condone it. Any common-sense assessment of his anarchistic tactics between 1981-85 showed Gallagher could not be “fair dinkum” about saving the BLF. Many unionists eventually expressed frustration over the dilemma of Gallagher always trying to hide behind the “defend the BLF” slogan as a cover for his own hidden agenda.

Simply, my recommendation is for your Mr Tognolini to read the book again -- this time more carefully.

Learning from the BLF events

A review of Brian Boyd's book, Inside the BLF, by John Tognolini and a reply by Boyd appeared in our January 29 and March 18 issues. DAVE KERIN, a BLF activist mentioned by both writers, comments on the debate.

Brian Boyd refers to John Tognolini's “going the player, not the ball”, yet then states that the whole intention of his book was to focus upon Gallagher. Brian's defence, to continue the analogy, is that the player, in this case Gallagher, was doing the wrong thing behind play, and that unionists have the right to be informed.

Well, why were we not told all of this whilst it was happening? Why did not you and other people who were in the same party-based leadership of that union inform the rest of us that Gallagher was in fact corrupt and that we should not defend him?

Why did it take until March 11, 1992, for the admission from you as an active supporter of Gallagher then that it was “Gallagher's relationship with the traditional builders at the time, in working together to knock off Jack Mundey ... “ which brought about the destruction of the NSW branch of the BLF in '74-'76?

Why were those in the union in Victoria who knew this and tried to inform members of it hounded, referred to as “white ants” and generally isolated by you and others of Gallagher's group? Then two decades later, when these people stand upon the same principles of unionism, rank and file control of decision making and accountability do they have to suffer your assessment that they are simply being used, worse that they know they are being used?

I would just say that Norm's past has caught up with him, and that although it's taken 20 years, because of his behaviour people will look freshly at the '70s -- not for its own sake but with a view to learning from it.

Why in Inside the BLF is the role of Gallagher looked at and analysed without ever looking at why and how Norm had the degree of personal power which he was able to misuse in the first place? Who put Norm there and kept him there?

Do you take any ownership at all for things that Gallagher has done, Brian? Don't get me wrong: I have made decisions in the past, vis-a-vis my struggle for social justice, which I would prefer not to have made, too. But we've all got to start owning our decisions more, and not hiving them off onto others; otherwise we can never learn from mistakes we've made.

Witness this. In your book, Brian, you condemn Gallagher as corrupt, yet in your role as an officer of the Trades Hall Council, you have been prepared to legitimise the BWIU leadership. This is just what you did in '74-'76. You have allowed them to appear legitimate despite their use of police on a massive scale, their demand for the jailing of workers and their officials who would not go along with the BWIU, their organising of ticket checks by employers and police, and the use of organised thugs and scabbing outfits.

Can you explain any difference other than scale between the Gallagher of the '70s, the current BWIU leadership and, for that matter, Norm's current performance?

In the '70s on the floor of BLF meetings you defended Gallagher when you knew, if we're to go by your book, he was wrong. Now on the floor of Trades Hall Council you do not speak out for the rights of BLF members at every possible opportunity. During the dispute at 417 St Kilda Rd, for instance you referred to the BLF as interferers and “outsiders”.

As to Gallagher being the one to “continually manipulate the tactics and strategies of the battle for his own ends”: if people like you had not organised such a “closed shop” on power and decision making within the BLF, then maybe members would have had more truthful information upon which to base decisions.

We can't live life in fear of being part of other people's agendas, nor in fear of losing. We can only decide in our own minds what is right, do it, and take full ownership of the decision. Then we have to live with the consequences.

Surely the important lesson to come out of the continuing story of the BLF is the issue of rank and file control. Radicals have to find the appropriate means to educate towards, establish and maintain this control. And could I suggest that this end can be established through the means we use here and now; that issues of strategic, tactical, moral and ethical rectitude must be decided upon by each in league with all active members of any union; and that service as officials and administrators had to be a path which has its reward in the job itself, and not as a pathway to power.


David Kerin and John Tognolini make good yards against B. Boyd's team of ghosts. The BLF conflict, engineered by the Master Builders, NSW State Lib-Fascist Government, the CIA and the developers, resulted in many casualties.

Several men were blacklisted, one for Life. Workers suffered severe physical injuries. Marriages were broken up; children suffered. There were suicides.

As developers joined in to destroy the green ban, residents were bashed, one ``disappeared'', streets of worker's housing destroyed, and private armies commenced. The heritage of Sydney's history, built with the blood and sweat of convicts and workers, was reduced to dust on the shoes of the new smarties. I wonder when the next worker Vs worker conflict will commence. And who will think it up?

Den Kevans

Wentworth Falls NSW

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