Review of Framework of Flesh: Builders’ Labourers Battle for Health and Safety, Humphrey McQueen, Ginninderra press, 2009.
Will they jail him? Hundreds of unionists in South Australia cheered Ark Tribe as he entered court on 10 March 2009. Tribe is the latest construction worker to be threatened with six months jail for standing up for his right to make the workplace safe and objecting to the flagrant injustice of the Australian Building Construction Commission (ABCC) star chamber by refusing to answer when questioned. But, will they jail him? The State forces failed to convict Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) organiser Noel Washington last year. With all the penal powers, the police, the ABCC’s special powers, and all the law courts of the land, the power of the unions stopped them dead. Despite all the encouragement, belligerence and arrogance of this anti-labour federal government, despite the coercive forces available to the State, they failed to follow through their threats. Legal means are no match for the collective response of workers. Solidarity grows from the social and industrial strength that workers build by organising and unifying their unions to better fight for their rights at work.
In 1890, the Victorian Master Builders demanded the sacking of the colony’s coroner because he believed that his duties went beyond establishing the cause of “accidental” death to preventing its recurrence. The coroner had attributed the death of a bricklayer to the vice-president of the Builders’ and Contractors’ Association. In 2009, Julia Gillard, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Workplace Relations, declared to the union movement that she and her government are unashamedly acting for these same business interests. Gillard, at the behest of her corporate masters, has made her choice and it is as bad as the other “choices” we have got rid of. The government is doing whatever has to be done to create economic and industrial conditions suited to maximising the corporations’ profits. Gillard and her ABCC are clear — woe betides any workers who demand, agitate, and enforce their rights to make a workplace safe.
Humphrey McQueen’s latest book, Framework of Flesh: Builder’s Labourers Battle for Health and Safety is an essential tool for the job of building our strength and organising our response to the bastardry of corporate bosses and their political minions within the labour movement. We are provided with a critical eye to workers’ activity on the job. The stories of labourers’ battles with their bosses as they respond to the logic of a system that drives capitalists to exploit, maim and kill, are insightful. Drawing on 130 years of evidence, McQueen resurrects the voices of the labourers themselves and allows them the opportunity to testify to the exploitation, the deaths, and the abuses committed by Messrs Construction Capital. Voices like Charlie Sullivan’s live on from the 1920s when he wrote that history was made by “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.”
Such sentiment is a sobering reminder to those of us who are fortunate enough to avoid nursing a lifetime of muscle strains, crushed bones and collapsed lungs through to retirement at age 67 — yet another of the federal government’s propositions for improving the quality of old age! McQueen asks his reader to consider the evidence, admissions and arguments that the bosses knowingly and actively enforce the neglect of health and safety at work. The historical evidence advises that ours is not a “brave new world” but one where old objectives are still pursued today, but in new ways: “In 1855 factory owners in Manchester, England organised and collected 50 thousand pounds to meet the costs of defending members who had been prosecuted by the factory inspectors. The object was to prove ‘killing is not murder’ if done for the sake of profit.”
Diminishing labourers’ efforts by trivialising their struggles and sacrificing lives is an essential part of ruling class propaganda that is absorbed and disseminated by the corporate mass media and perpetuated by too many of their journalists. Framework of Flesh is an antidote to the world of their creation. Few know what takes place on construction sites, and they lack the experience and imagination of the Director of Construction for the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the 1930s, “who acknowledged the emotional strain: ‘Every day those men went on the bridge, they went in the same way as a soldier goes into battle, not knowing whether they would come down alive.’”
Yet despite a construction worker being killed every week between 1996 and 2005 and 41 deaths in 2003 alone, the Cole Commission presumed the innocence of the construction bosses. “From mid 2001, the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry repackaged the accusation that labourers threw themselves off buildings to get compensation…to allege that unions provoked disputes over health and safety to win industrial demands such as Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs)…According to Commissioner Cole, this ‘widespread exploitation’ of bosses had trivialised safety. In truth, workers on EBAs were half as likely to be injured as those outside them. Pressing for an EBA was, therefore, a safety matter.”
The words of Ben Mulvogue, Secretary of the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation, should resonate today. In 1915, he reminded and reassured his members that: “the union does antagonise, and strives to abolish many things that are, and advocates and tries to inaugurate changes which should, and will, be made in the future. … The object and aims of the union movement and the realisation thereof have been the dream of the sages and seers, and the prophets of the past ages. Every new demand for better physical protection of the workers ensures a great ideal development for future generations.” Rights are not privileges to be handed out by the master to be taken back when they choose. Fighting for our rights at work and health and safety go hand in hand, they are only won and defended through struggle. Even if we could vote for our rights, this act would not prevent deaths and injuries at work. To absorb and act on this knowledge is “responsible unionism” — the agitation and organisation for workers’ rights.
The West Gate Bridge towering over the Melbourne docks is an ever-present memorial to those workers and their families who lost a life in the “most murderous of all incidents on Australian construction sites.” Workers recently contracted by Leightons to carry out repairs on the overloaded bridge, only to be duped of their wages and conditions, and see their health and safety representative and union delegates sacked, are now being represented in the media as the “violent thugs that are threatening to undermine every principle of human decency.” In recent weeks Leightons’ corporate leaders are carrying on Hollands’ legacy: while recognising that the lack of health and safety on sites could not be ignored, in practice the pursuit of profits came first for both.
Frameworks of Flesh makes an outstanding contribution to the continual struggle to make construction sites fit for workers to work on. It is much more than that, however, because the research is so thorough. McQueen provides both the evidence and the analysis necessary to make sense of why builders, and capitalists generally, do what they do. Understanding developments by interrogating our history are necessary if unionists are to prepare themselves for the inevitable struggles ahead. The proposed national standards for Occupational Health and Safety will fall a long way short of where we need them to be unless unionists get organised and demand something better. Both unfettered right of entry for union officials and the ability of unions to collectively bargain and organise across an industry are essential steps toward safer workplaces. The ABCC may finally be abolished, but this government’s intention is to maintain it and merely re-badge it. Our best form of defence is to strengthen both our individual understanding and our collective capacity to resist by learning from the combined wisdom that is accrued from our own experience and that of working people yesterday and today. Framework of Flesh is one exemplar from which we all can benefit.
Peter Curtis is a socialist and campaigner for the equitable provision of education. He is a teacher and a member of the Australian Education Union.
Framework of Flesh is available for $30 from Solidarity Salon or see www.framework-of-flesh.com.au