When workers had class

indexMeredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann, Green Bans, Red Union: environmental activism and the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation, Sydney, University of New South Wales Press, 1998; Jock Barnes, Never a White Flag, edited by Tom Bramble, Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1998

Reviewed by Linda Kearns

With the class struggle currently in suspension, very few people, including workers themselves, see the working class as the critical agent of social change.  It has become much more fashionable to view ‘new social movements’, intellectuals and so onindexjock as those who can effect change.  And change itself is perceived as being organised from within the power structures of society and even then in only the narrowest terms.  Industrial workers, meanwhile, are regarded as the most backward section of society, to be controlled by the liberals staffing the state apparatus.

These two books are a powerful rejoinder to such fashionable snobbery.  They deal with periods of Australian and New Zealand history when important sections of workers not only fought their corner against the bosses over economic questions, but took up broader political issues to do with the organisation of society.

In New Zealand the wharfies were a traditionally militant sector of the workforce.  In a country highly dependent on imports and exports, and in an era when shipping was the means of transport for these goods, the employers had to totally control the waterfront.  In turn, the workers used their strategic importance to attempt to wrestle concessions from the bosses and establish some measure f union control over the job.

In the 1930s, the situation on the wharves was radicalised under the impact of the Depression and the generally harsh conditions and uncertain employment in which the men laboured.  In the late 1930s, Japan’s invasion of China also provoked outrage among many workers who then began refusing to handle pig-iron for the Japanese.  The Auckland wharves became a particular centre of working class radicalism, and Jock Barnes emerged first as the leader of the left-wing of the wharfies and later of the left within the broader trade union movement.

Never a White Flag is his memoir of the years of militancy on the wharves in the 1930s and 1940s, up until the government crushed the watersiders and their allies in the great lock-out of 1951.  It took two decades for the labour movement to recover from that defeat, and it is probably true to say that there has never been another movement of industrial workers which reached the levels of militancy and political consciousness of the wharfies of those years.

Many of the militants never got their jobs back, and Barnes was forced to set up his own business as a drain-layer.  For the rest of his life, he lost little of his fire.  A great deal of it was directed at the leadership of the trade unions and at the Labour Party, and this is indeed one of the merits of his book.

While much of the ‘Marxist’ left still lives in a world of illusions about the Labour Party, Barnes – a genuine working class fighter – shows very clearly the malignant effects of Labour on the working class five decades before Rogernomics.  He details the way in which trade union and Labour Party leaders’ main allegiance was to the employers and how they continuously undermined workers’ attempts to improve conditions and win some control over the wharves.  He is particularly excoriating of leaders of the first Labour government – such as Webb, Semple and Fraser – who had been militant ‘Red Fed’ unionists and antiwar activists at the time of the First World War, but imposed emergency regulations on the wharves in the 1930s and World War 2.

Labour established the Waterfront Control Commission and drew some of the watersiders’ leaders into running it.  One of the results was that these leaders were defeated in union elections by Barnes and other militants who won control of the Auckland branch of the union.

The militants, records Barnes, “knew that police batons under a Labour government were as hard as police batons under a Tory government” (p56).  He also describes Fraser and Semple as “the two greatest jingoes in New Zealand” at the time (ibid) and Labour as “New Zealand’s number one war party” (p53).  The section dealing with working class struggle during the war is one of the most interesting in the book, as the overwhelming picture in history books and the media is one of al NZers uniting around the ‘war effort’.

Barnes’ healthy class hatred for the Labour Party and the mainstream trade union leadership is also revealed strikingly in his coverage of the six years from the end of the war until the defeat of the wharfies.  Once the shooting war with Germany and Japan was over, Labour moved rapidly in behind the new ‘cold war’ against ‘communism’.  Peacetime conscription was introduced, something the wharfies and their allies vigorously opposed.  Labour moved to break the power of trade unions, as in the case of the Carpenters Union in 1949 and continued attacks on the wharfies.  When National eventually got into power in 1949 they simply continued the policy.

In 1951 the National Party government moved decisively to smash the watersiders.  Although labour historians have tended to blame Barnes’ personality for the scope of the defeat, the book’s editor, Tom Bramble, rightly notes that this is misplaced.  Barnes and the wharfies had little choice but to fight as they did.  In the midst of the imperialist war in Korea (which the wharfies also opposed) and the height of anti-communism, as well as a growing economic boom and widespread desire for stability, any kind of working class radicalism was fighting from a position of weakness.  Even then the government had to use extraordinary measures to win  – banning public meetings, leaflets and other material supporting the wharfies and even making it an offence to provide food for their kids.

The Labour Party and Federation of Labour leaders lined up with the government, delighted to see militant trade unionism smashed and Barnes and others put out of their jobs and blacklisted.

Barnes was the last of the old school of syndicalist or syndicalist-influenced militants.  Unlike most of them, he didn’t subsequently sell out.  This was his great strength.  At the same time, his syndicalism was also a weakness, since it was always impossible t challenge Labour in the trade union field alone.  In this book, Barnes also tends to be somewhat indulgent to people who were on the right side in 1951 but subsequently ended up as fairly run-of-the-mill reformists or, in the case of Jim Knox, one of the people who disorganised the working class in the face of Rogernomics.

While this book may well appeal to a certain politics of nostalgia on the left, the kind of trade unionism that Jock Barnes was part of may well not be reborn.  The era of air transport, mechanisation and containerisation has undermined the kind of power the wharfies could exert during Barnes’ time.  Moreover, just as industrial unionism replaced craft unionism, it may take new forms of organisation and consciousness to move the class struggle forward again.

So what is inspiring about Barnes’ book is its broader aspect: it shows that class passivity can give way to new rounds of radicalism, new forms of organisation, more developed forms of consciousness and new chances to struggle for liberation.

If the wharfies represented the highpoint of trade union radicalism in New Zealand, then the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation represented a pinnacle in Australia, certainly in the late 1960s and 1970s.  Coming several decades after Barnes’ period, the BLFers were also influenced by new trends going beyond the consciousness of the NZ wharfies in the 1930s and 1940s.

The NSWBLF is particularly interesting since construction workers are so typically seen on the liberal left as the epitome of racism and sexism in the working class.  Yet this was a union which fought for the right of women to work in the construction industry, which vigorously supported abortion rights and other demands raised by the burgeoning women’s liberation movement and which backed up its support by turning out for marches on these issues.

Long before it became fashionable, the NSWBLF also supported gay rights, went on gay rights marches and used its industrial muscle, for example by placing a ‘pink ban’ on building work at a university where a gay student had been thrown out of a hostel.  And in a society in which anti-Aboriginal prejudice was rampant, the union was forthright in its anti-racist politics long before such views became fashionable.

The union also organised on a very democratic basis.  There was a high degree of rank and file control, including over all agreements.  Most of the officials had worked in the building industry.  All officials, even publications editors, had to come from the shop floor, and officials had to return there after six years in full-time positions in the union.  Officials’ pay was tied to award rates, an important measure in preventing them from becoming a self-serving elite connected more to the bosses than to the workers they represented.

And while most trade union officials maintain friendly relations with employers, and quickly begin to think like them, the NSWBLF had a saying, “Never eat the bosses’ lunch unless you are occupying the site and find it on his desk”!  An inversion of the kind of class collaboration which involved eating the lunch provided by the boss as a reward for serving his interests, the union’s adage arose out of an actual occupation when one of the union militants, Mick Curtin, scoffed the bosses’ sandwiches.  Curtin relates, “I really enjoyed eating his sandwiches.  I rang up the police and told them not to worry, that everything was under control and I was having the bosses’ lunch at the moment and enjoying it.”

Perhaps what the NSWBLF was most known for, however, was ‘green bans’.  The construction workers risked their jobs to place bans on indiscriminate development which was tearing down much of inner-city Sydney and evicting working class people from their homes, as well as over-running parks and bush.  These campaigns were carried out in conjunction with local residents’ committees, forging an alliance between organised labour and the local community which made it especially hard for the bosses, the state and the media to isolate militants or push through the ‘re-development’ plans.

The union and local communities demanded that real development focus on meeting people’s needs not corporate profits.  Coming at the height of the building industry boom in the 1970s, the union’s militancy halted billions of dollars of ‘development’ and met with the virulent hostility of the big employers, the NSW Labour government and also the national leadership of the union, controlled by the pro-China CP(M-L)’s Norm Gallagher.  These forces conspired to smash the NSW union, eventually succeeding in the mid-1970s.

The Burgmanns’ book examines the union in the context of its time.  They look at broader developments in the Australian economy, the ideological influences in the union (which was led by militants associated with the Communist Party that had itself broken with Moscow and contained a variety of outlooks, including revolutionary ones), the nature of construction work, and how the new ‘social unionism’ of the BLF unfolded.

There are chapters dealing with industrial relations strategies, the role of women in the union and in construction work, the organisational principles and practices of the union, and a section of five chapters on the green bans.  A large amount of material was marshalled by Meredith Burgmann, who was involved with the union for five years, ended up in possession of much of its archives, and wrote her PhD on the subject.  It has been put into a very engaging and readable form, as wel as being supplemented and reconceptualised in parts, by Verity Burgmann, one of Australia’s leading labour historians and a prominent political scientist.

The book is by no means a panegyric, with the authors pointing to a number of weaknesses in the union, which was still a product of its time and place and not a substitute for a revolutionary political movement.  A few criticisms could be made of the book as well.  For instance, it sometimes apses into ‘movementism’, as in the chapter on women in the union where it is stated that the union’s support for women’s rights meant the men went against their interests “as members of an exclusively male union, and against their wider social interests as members of the dominant sex” (p146) and refers to the defeat of the NSWBLF leading to the return of “masculinist trade union norm” (p164).  Yet, elsewhere, the book sees no contradiction whatsoever between class interests – including those of male workers – and those of oppressed sections of society, such as women.  Keeping women out of unions and ‘male’ spheres of employment weakens all workers, including male workers, while the norms referred to are those of a privileged union bureaucracy, not those of a gender.  I sometimes wondered whether Meredith, who was by the time the book appeared a Labour member of the NSW Senate, had written the more feminist parts , and Verity, a supporter of the Industrial Workers of the World, had written the parts making the more class-based points.

After the NSWBLF was broken up, the book reports, the Gallagher leadership drove women out of the industry, dismantled the green bans, stopped the support for broader social struggles, reimposed bureaucratic structures in New South Wales and generally did everything possible to re-subordinate the workers completely to capital.  Key militants, including three women, were blacklisted.  This inspiring period of working class militancy and outward-looking ‘social trade unionism’ was brought to an end.

In putting together such a comprehensive account of this period the book’s authors have done a fine job academically.  They have also performed a useful service to all who seek to change society, by sowing how the social force which is indispensable to such change, the working class, need not be perpetually weakened by racism, sexism and other backward ideas, but can actually transcend the limitations of their immediate environment.  Certainly, anyone who thinks that workers, especially white male ‘backward’ ones, are part of the problem rather than part of the solution, should read this book.  They might find that the ‘enlightened’ middle class has some way to go to catch up with ‘backward’ construction workers like these.

One of the first women members of the NSWBLF was Pat Fiske; she subsequently made a film about the union, covering the period 1940-1975 which can be viewed here.  For more on the wharfies, see the two-part interview with Jock Barnes, here and here, and the article on the 1951 struggle and the background to it, here.

The above review first appeared in 1999 in revolution magazine, one of the precursors of this blog.



  1. […] When workers had class: Review of Meredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann, Green Bans, Red Union: environmental activism and the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation, Sydney, University of New South Wales Press, 1998; Jock Barnes, Never a White Flag, edited by Tom Bramble, Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1998; https://rdln.wordpress.com/2013/08/20/when-workers-had-class/ […]

  2. […] When workers had class: Review of Meredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann, Green Bans, Red Union: environmental activism and the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation, Sydney, University of New South Wales Press, 1998; Jock Barnes, Never a White Flag, edited by Tom Bramble, Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1998; https://rdln.wordpress.com/2013/08/20/when-workers-had-class/ […]

Comments are closed.