How to build a trade union

Author: 

Bob Carnegie

Bob Carnegie is an organiser for the Queensland Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (BLF). He was previously an organiser for the Maritime Union of Australia, and has been a rank-and-file trade unionist in a number of industries, including construction and seafaring.

The Queensland BLF today shows a pattern of industrial militancy and organisation substantially different from that to be found in unions in the countries of old trade union organisation like the UK.

Job grievances, even when they immediately concern only one or a few workers, are routinely dealt with by strike action. The typical form of union decision-making is the mass meeting on a site.

Part of the difference is due to the character of the construction industry. It tends to select a special sort of personality in its workforce. Jobs are transient. Trade-union action has to be quick or not at all. Historically, the industry is typically either very militant or very unorganised.

Another part of the difference must be down to a construction boom in Queensland now. And yet another part to the fact that construction is, by its very nature, an industry where the boss cannot threaten to move the work elsewhere.

Are there, however, other lessons to learn? Can the culture of worker assertiveness and rank-and-file democracy that exists in the BLF be extended to other unions which have become stodgier?

Are there lessons for the BLF today to be learned from the experience of the 1970s, where the BLF’s pattern of trade-unionism was more common in the countries of old trade union organisation?

What lessons does the BLF have for trade unionists and socialists in other countries?

Bob Carnegie discussed these issues with Martin Thomas.


The Queensland Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (BLF) is different in many ways from the Maritime Union of Australia, and probably the MUA was more typical of the stronger unions of the Cold War era.

Politically, the major influence within the Maritime Union was the Stalinist Communist Parties, with a touch of the Australian Labor Party. In the BLF it is middle-of-the-road or Roman Catholic ALP — plus a strong Maoist influence. But “Maoism” here does not mean a worked-out political doctrine connected to China. It means a philosophy of direct action — issues fixed up on the spot.

Expectations about working conditions are much higher among Maritime Union members. In construction, the extremely brutal nature of the industry and a transient workforce mean that workers are more interested in money, though safety is also a big concern.

The employers are less concerned with safety in construction, partly because wages are a much bigger proportion of their total costs there. Safety costs more in construction.

In construction, there is a culture of short, sharp stoppages. On the Riperian site in Brisbane we have had over a hundred days of industrial action, and gained better safety conditions and a more respectful attitude from the employer.

There are also some bigger strikes. In the last round of Enterprise Bargaining Agreement negotiations, in 2003, over 10,000 workers went out for 10 days in a 48-site shutdown in Brisbane.

The work is very arduous. Steel fixers, for example, who are one of the most militant sections of the workforce, do back-breaking work for eight or nine hours a day in sub-tropical heat. That probably contributes to making the workforce much more explosive than on the waterfront. They are also very confident that they are able to win concessions by industrial action against the employer.

The way the union leadership operates is also different. In the BLF union organisers are given much more freedom than in any other union. Without that the men would reject the union.


One previous experience of exceptionally militant organisation in the construction industry, being built on to develop working-class activism on broader social issues and offer some political lead to wider sections of workers, was the New South Wales BLF in the early 1970s, under the leadership of Jack Mundey and others.

After building a base by workplace militancy on pay and conditions, they pioneered “green bans” — industrial action to force developers to respect environmental standards. They took similar action to force Macquarie University to revoke the expulsion of a student for being gay and to force Sydney University to allow the development of a women’s studies course. They opened up jobs on the sites to women.

The NSW BLF was smashed in 1975 by a joint offensive from the Maoist federal leadership of the BLF under Norm Gallagher, the building employers, and other building unions. After the Kerr coup successfully ousted the Whitlam Labor government, also in 1975, the “new left” radicalism in Australia which had nurtured the NSW BLF — and which the NSW BLF helped nurture — declined.

The federal BLF remained strong and militant after 1975, but it was eventually smashed in the mid-1980s through a coordinated attack by the Labor government of that period, the building employers, and the majority of the trade union movement. The Queensland BLF is all that remains as BLF, though in other states ex-BLF activists have won leading positions in the construction sector of the CFMEU, the “super-union” which has taken over the BLF’s terrain.

Bob reckons that “among BLF activists in Queensland the dominant influence is still from Gallagher, rather than from Jack Mundey and the New South Wales BLF in the 1970s. The Mundey episode is seen as fleeting.

“The New South Wales BLF did many good things in the 1970s. But industrially it left a lot to be desired. The gains it won on workers’ compensation, superannuation, and so on were much less solid than those won by the Gallagher forces. Workers in the industry today have a much deeper respect for the Gallagher line than for the Mundey line. Victoria [which was Gallagher’s base] has always been the powerhouse of wages and conditions in the construction industry.”

Bob sees affordable housing for all as the key issue on which to fight to expand the industrial militancy into a wider political view. “We build apartments that most workers could never afford to own!

“I’m trying to raise people’s ideas and expectations, and convince them that they are the agents of change. We are the ones who build and create the wealth. We should not allow the growth of an underclass who can’t afford shelter. We should force the developers who are displacing the poor to concede social provision.”


But there is a lot of work to be done, a lot of ground to be covered. The Queensland BLF not only supports the Australian Labor Party, but specifically supports one of the right-wing factions in the Queensland Labor Party, the Labor Unity faction which, historically, is the “Catholic” faction. It has been like that for a long time, 35 years at least.

Unlike other militant unions in Australia, and certainly unlike the MUA, the Queensland BLF never saw the Communist Party of Australia and the Socialist Party of Australia [more Moscow-loyal split-off from the CPA after 1969] build any strong influence in it. The CPA/SPA tradition is strong in the CFMEU [the union which organises most construction workers across Australia, and the trades as distinct from the labourers on Queensland construction sites], but it is looked on as soft.

“Officials in the Queensland BLF still look to Gallagher’s leadership as a model, and have a sympathy for ‘Maoism’ in that sense, but there are not, nor ever have been, any political Maoists in the Queensland BLF, people with ideas about Mao’s China representing a model of society to be aimed for. What they mean by ‘Maoism’ is industrial direct action.

“I’d say a high proportion of the BLF membership don’t vote, or are not even enrolled to vote.”

Do they have a broader political outlook shaped by hopes and expectations for their children? “It’s hard to say. For their sons they want a better and safer construction industry: it’s not uncommon for sons to follow fathers into the industry. For their daughters, it’s difficult to say.”

It may be, paradoxically, that the exceptional militancy in the Queensland BLF owes its preservation in part to the lack of socialist politics in the union in the past. In unions where the backbone activists were political people — which meant, mostly, identifying with the Communist Party or some splinter from it — the decay and collapse of Stalinism has demoralised that backbone, and dragged the union down with it. More “pure trade-unionist” militants have been less affected.

Yet the militancy is doomed to be an anomaly — something that will die out or be isolated and defeated — unless some of it can be transmitted to other industries and to younger generations of workers, which means winning over at least a section of the activists to a broader view and to socialist politics in a new form, completely free of Stalinist shadows.

“We have to get involved in other workers’ struggles and develop links, or we will be isolated. Already there is a level of solidarity action in the BLF which I wasn’t aware of before becoming a BLF organiser. Construction workers have more confidence about defeating legal and employers’ attacks than other groups of workers.

“At the time of the big MUA dispute in 1998, for example, a big site in Carindale walked off for a week in protest against scab labour being brought onto the wharves. I was an MUA organiser at the time, and even I didn’t know about it.

“Workers in all industries need to be made much more aware of other workers’ struggles. Their expectations about solidarity between different groups of workers need to be raised.

“Trade union journals do a bit, but really we need a workers’ newspaper. Not a thick magazine, and not a sheet exclusively on industrial issues either, but a publication that could provide the basic information and ideas to build solidarity.

“At present communication is poor even between different sites in the construction industry. Of course, the system of Enterprise Bargaining Agreements isolates sites from each other more than the old system where awards [industry-wide agreements with legal status] were more important.

“What knowledge does get around is spread mostly by union organisers or by word of mouth, especially among crane crews, who are the highest-paid workers on the construction sites and also a very tightly-knit group, mostly working for one or another of only two big contractors in Queensland.

“Some younger workers in construction are developing as union activists, taking on delegates’ jobs and so on. Even if they later move into other jobs, they can take valuable ideas and skills with them.

“One of the finest unions that has ever existed was the Canadian Seamen’s Union. It was destroyed after World War Two. But many of its members ended up as union activists in other jobs — as lumberjacks, construction workers, and in other industries.”

In Europe, construction employers have undermined union strength by recruiting immigrant labour, including illegal immigrant labour. That is harder for construction employers in Australia for reasons of geography, but may not be impossible some time in the future. They have used illegal migrant labour a bit in Sydney, but not much elsewhere.

The employers do have a long-term problem of recruitment. A lot of the workforce are in their 40s and 50s. The employers have difficulty recruiting younger workers to the industry because of its harsh conditions. The union has put resources into training younger workers for the industry, and the employers support that, but they seem not to have a clear strategy of their own.

In the longer term they may go more for migrant contract labour. At present they use New Zealand a bit as a pool of migrant labour, especially in scaffolding, and especially Maori workers.

Older activists in other economic sectors often find it difficult to identify and bring forward new young activists. They operate in structures where most of the union reps are fairly old, and have been trained for years in disappointments.

For example, a survey by Britain’s biggest union, the public service union Unison, found the following picture. Its union reps’ average age is 47. Their average length of time as a rep is 10 years, and their average time in the union is nearly 20 years.

Mostly they function primarily as a sort of lawyer-cum-social-worker, pursuing individual grievances of individual workers on the basis of the leverage given to them by a good knowledge of the existing industrial agreements and legal provisions.

Not only do they function that way; the union members expect them to function that way. Breaking out of that culture can be difficult. And it’s a culture which makes it very difficult to bring on new young activists.

In Bob’s view: “There is no way round it but to reinstitute collectivism — to try to convince workers that difficulties they face with their work or their managers are not personal problems but work problems. It is very dangerous to have union delegates submerged in dealing with problems as individual problems.

“On the sites in Brisbane we are able to avoid that. On two jobs recently we had problems of workplace bullying. They immediately concerned only a few workers, but we stopped the sites. We got the contractor responsible thrown off and the foreman censured. The manager had to come and apologise.”


Communication is an increasing problem for union organising in today’s workplaces. In call centres, for example, all the workers have their breaks at different times, and when they’re not having breaks, they’re isolated from each other, each wearing headphones and watching a computer screen. For a union activist just to get to talk to other workers is difficult.

Sometimes the most available way for him or her to communicate, at least to some extent, with workers in the same workplace, is by email, which at least they can see on their computer screens. Over 60% of workers in the USA now use computers in their jobs; around 40% have Internet access at work; in the UK, the BBC website is now the most popular source for news, ahead of TV and newspapers.

But communication by email makes it very difficult to identify and bring forward new young activists.

Bob’s long and diverse experience as a union activist leaves him “very much opposed to union organising which relies on email. Some things in life can’t be done without personal, face-to-face contact, and political and trade-union organising is one of them. Without personal contact you will not mobilise people. You can’t sell organisation over the Internet.

“If work patterns make it difficult to get to talk to workers face to face, then the union just has to put in the resources to surmount those difficulties. If the workers all have breaks at different times, then you have someone sit in the lunch room all day in order to reach them.”

Where young activists enter jobs and want to become fresh union activists — usually because they’ve become politically aware before starting the job — these days they don't often face the “hard” barriers they faced in many areas 20 or 30 years ago, of strongly-organised Stalinist groups controlling the union machine and cracking down on anyone more radical or libertarian.

But they do face “soft” barriers which can be just as difficult.

The union machinery is run by older people who, though not necessarily hostile to new young people becoming active, have a mindset which expects they won’t.

Union meetings are infrequent or difficult to get to unless you are already a rep and have facility time. The existing union reps have difficulty seeing what a young person, who doesn’t know all the negotiated agreements and legal provisions, can achieve as a union activist.

In Bob’s view, the key task for any older activist who wants to break those “soft” barriers is to get out and talk more, face to face, with younger workers.

And the first thing for any young activist who wants to establish himself or herself as a trade unionist to do is to gather good people around themselves, in their workplace. They should seek advice from older activists in the union, but they have to build a base for themselves.


Another problem often faced by young activists comes where they try to develop union organisation in workplaces predominantly employing other young workers.

A lot of those young workers are transient or part-time, working for short spells in fast-food places or supermarkets.

The history of the labour movement tells us that this is not an absolute barrier to organising. Construction workers too, after all, are often transient. Some of the finest trade-union movements of the past, like the Industrial Workers of the World in its heyday, found their main base among transient workers.

Yet union membership remains extremely low among young workers. A young activist approaching his young workmates will probably find that they do not know much about trade unionism. Once it is explained to them what a union is, they may quite likely be favourable rather than hostile. But then, when they’re asked to pay up for the union dues, they back off.

An effective union sounds like a good idea to them, but a rather abstract and remote one, and they do not want to pay out from their low wages for something so abstract and remote. And, of course, if enough of them think like that, effective trade unionism really will remain abstract and remote.

Bob thinks that making union membership free for young workers for, say, the first year might help. Then the union can build up sufficient numbers to win some improvements and “prove” itself to the young workers who are reluctant to pay for union membership until they have seen what the union might mean in practice.

“Of course, in due course workers have to pay for union membership. They have to recognise that the union is something that depends on their contribution — it’s not just a service provided to them.

“We have hard-to-organise sites in the construction industry in Queensland. But we as union organisers have a legal right to go on site and speak to workers. Construction workers all know that, and that gives us some protection to start union organising.

“If it is a difficult site, we will hand out leaflets beforehand and build up awareness of the union before going on the site. We try to get at least one person on the site into union membership as a start, and to do that the union has to guarantee some protection to that person.

“In dealing with employers like McDonald’s, I think unions have to tell workers who want to join the union and start organising in their workplace that if they are victimised for trade unionism then the union, if it can’t defeat the victimisation, will at least guarantee to find them a job somewhere else.”

Bob Carnegie has been an organiser for the Queensland Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (BLF) and for the Maritime Union of Australia, as well as a rank-and-file trade unionist in a number of industries, including construction and seafaring.

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