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Sunday, September 13, 2009

The human cost of concrete and steel by John Tognolini

Framework of Flesh: Builders' Labourers battle for health & Safety by Humphrey McQueen, Ginninderra Press, 2009, 337 pages, $30 (pb) Available from www.resistancebooks.com


Humphrey McQueen's Framework of Flesh takes up a 1920s challenge from a militant builders labourer, Charlie Sullivan:
“Few ever think of the great and humble army whose sweat and blood are mingled in the concrete and bricks as surely as if the walls were built over a framework of human flesh." Sullivan's epic quote is the book's historical focus question.

McQueen's story of builders laborers' battles, centres around a range of safety issues including the licensing of scaffolders, the collapse of concrete pours with the tragic and too often preventable loss of building workers' lives, the safe removal of asbestos and the struggle for workers compensation, including a decent burial.

It's quite an epic yarn that McQueen has put together.

The stories start in convict times and continue to the present day building industry in all six Australian states and the ACT. The labourers' struggle for health and safety is explained, as is the creation of the federal government's industrial Gestapo, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

The concluding chapter, “Killing no murder”, as McQueen says, “dethrones the majesty of bourgeois justice by detailing why there can never be 'one law for all' in a class system.” It reflects McQueen's unashamed Marxism with his “Red Arm Band” view of history, as explained in the book's introduction.

McQueen patiently explains the on-the-job experiences of demolishers, scaffolders, dog-men, riggers, brickies' labourers and building site labourers. He validates the view of an early BLF official, Ben Mulvogue:
“A union constitutes a school for the working class, wherein they learn self-reliance, learn their rights, privileges, opportunities, as well as their possibilities. Every new demand for better physical protection of the workers ensures a great ideal development for a future generation.”

The rich education of struggle gathered by builders' labourers, which has been a result of the confrontation between big capital and workers in the building industry, especially over safety, has been documented in detail by McQueen.

As has the builders labourers' support for socialism. McQueen gives due respect to this hope for a just world in Framework of Flesh. It's an important contribution to the Builders Labourers Federation's (BLF) struggle and the working class history of Australia.

Framework of Flesh takes Howard's, and now Rudd and Gillard's, ABCC to task for not prosecuting construction bosses for endangering, and at times taking, building workers' lives. The ABCC feels free to persecute construction unionists such as Adelaide rigger Ark Tribe whose only “crime” was standing up for workplace safety and campaigning for a safe building site to work on.

McQueen also explains the importance of the right of entry for union officials to building sites and documents how unionists have won safety conditions in an industry that has marked all too often by occupational fatalities.

However, it has to be said that Framework of Flesh is a difficult book to read. Regrettably McQueen has written it in a very academic style. In some sections McQueen has made the story of builders' labourers and the life and death struggle of job safety, equal to turning a ride on a roller coaster into a boring non-event.

Also McQueen has a habit of presenting disjointed arguments.
McQueen does present the names of unionists over the past hundred years, whose names we should know, and the brave stands many of them made. He also details numerous building industry disasters.

One thing I find that goes against my grain, however, is his treatment of the 1970 Collapse of the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne that killed 35 construction workers and one engineer, who was made out to be the scapegoat for the 2000 tonnes of bridge section collapsing. Two paragraphs on this horrific event: and he wrote pages about building site toilets.

When I did my documentary on scaffolders and riggers for ABC Radio
National in 1998, the late John Cummins who was the BLF shop steward on the Westgate introduced me to Westgate survivor Paddy Hanopy, who said, “As you drive across you think about it. You think about your mates… Well the night before there was about ten, fourteen of us having a drink and playing pool and the next day it collapsed. Most of them lads got killed. It could have been about ten, fourteen people out of that I think there was only three of us left… It was six of us in the lift. As we got in the lift and as soon we got to the ground, the bridge followed us down.”

According to the survivors there was a big buckle at the top and bolts were snapping like machine gun fire.

Pat Preston, another survivor and at the time I interviewed him, a safety organiser for the Victorian construction division of Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) said, “One person landed almost in front of me. Another young guy, a young apprentice carpenter landed to the left of me in the swamp… Many friends on that particular day had to go through the experience of viewing their friends' bodies as they lay trapped and crumbled.”

Sadly, with Framework of Flesh, McQueen draws a lot of his sources from written archives. He hasn't tapped into the rich oral record that exists from Victorian BLF and construction division of the CFMEU's long association with Melbourne's 3CR radio station.

McQueen is now in the process of writing a five volume history on BLF. It is my hope that this work will build on the strengths of Framework of Flesh, while being written more accessibly, so that the important story that it tells is read by those who most need to understand its meaning - working people.

Framework of Flesh is well worth a read, although it may be a challenge.

[John Tognolini was a BLF organiser in Sydney during the deregistration struggle in the late 1980s and made the 1993 film The Deregistration of the Builders Labourers Federation, about the Victorian BLF branch. He is a member of Socialist Alliance]

From: Cultural Dissent, Green Left Weekly issue #810 16 September 2009

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