Rainbows and hard hats

When construction workers went on strike over queer rights.

Building sites are not something that most people would usually associate with the queer community, Village People videos aside. But in the early 1970s, builders labourers in Sydney went on strike in order to defend the rights of a gay student. How did this happen? What does it tell us about how we can link working class and queer struggles today?

Construction workers don’t have a great reputation for social progressivism in queer-and feminist-influenced student circles. We are probably best known for crude, homophobic jokes and for sexually harassing women from the scaffolding. In some ways, this view is fair enough. The building industry is the most male-dominated industry in Australia, with almost 90% of workers being men, and has actually gone backwards in terms of gender equality in the last decade. Women in construction are concentrated in roles like admin, marketing and human resources. They are largely excluded from low-paid labouring work and more secure skilled trade work on site, as well as high-paid technical and managerial positions, and have poor prospects in terms of earnings and career progression compared with men. 60% of women in construction have experienced sexual harassment at work, while 85% of queer building workers report derogatory homophobic comments by their workmates.

On my first day on a building site, some other day-labourers and I were given the job of cleaning up around site, moving piles of fibreglass off-cuts and broken concrete bricks into a rubbish truck. One workmate was worried about inhaling dust from these materials, and asked the foreman if there were any spare dust masks on site for us to use. The foreman replied that “dust masks make you look like a fucking fag” and told us that “you’re never gonna pull chicks wearing that gay shit.”  Luckily, another worker overheard and showed us where to get protective gear on site.

This male-only environment, like the footy changing room, is an intensely macho place. Building sites are dirty, loud, dangerous places. They are run by money-hungry developers who need to exploit the workforce as much as possible, and will cut corners wherever they can to maximise their profit. Homophobic and sexist attitudes can be used to bully workers into accepting unsafe work conditions – if somebody speaks up about a safety issue, a manager will call them a pussy and demand they do it anyway. And if you are on a casual contract and can be dismissed at any time, it’s very difficult to speak up about discrimination at work. I’ve seen managers use sexist notions about women being incapable of doing physical work to pressure young female manual workers into quitting. But paradoxically, these attitudes can sometimes be used by workers to stick up for themselves. I will admit to laughing when a co-worker called a particularly obnoxious corporate visitor to one site a “useless fairy” who “couldn’t organise a handjob in a brothel.” This display of machismo forced the manager to back off, and stop trying to get me to work in an unsafe way. With a worker killed on a construction site in Australia once a week, there is a serious side behind the dumb jokes.

While sexist and homophobic comments are a daily reality in the industry, people can also surprise you. One day during the marriage equality campaign, I was working alongside a deeply Christian labourer called Albert who moved to Dulwich Hill from Tonga in the early 1980s. Given my own experiences with religious homophobia in my family, I was nervous that he would see the rainbow ‘VOTE YES!’ sticker on my hard hat and that we might have a problem. Instead, he told me that his community visit a local church run by a socially progressive priest, and that they would all be voting yes. “D’you see any conflict between Christian values and supporting queer people?” I asked him. “Didn’t Jesus say to love others as you love yourself?” he said. “I love my gay nieces and nephews. And anyway, the union supports it and I support the union, so I’ll vote yes.”

Albert’s attitude helped me to understand why building workers in the 1970s might have been prepared to walk off the job over a queer rights issue. Firstly, not every labourer is a homophobic meathead – many of us are queer, have queer friends and family and are already on side. Secondly, building workers are very loyal to their union and if the union comes out in support of an issue, many workers will back it.

The NSW Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF) in the early 70’s was an inspiring outfit in every possible way. The union had spent the previous decade taming the worst excesses within the industry, fighting for workers’ safety and for better conditions on site – sometimes things as basic as access to a toilet and a place out of the sun to eat lunch. 70% of the workers in the industry at that time were migrant workers, who were exploited terribly by employers. Building workers also succeeded in their fight for better wages. These struggles were hard fought, with employers, the government, the media and the police all demonising construction workers. But builders labourers discovered that they could be more powerful than all of these groups – ultimately, they built the city and if they refused to work, the place would come to a standstill.

Jack Mundey, secretary of the NSW BLF at the time, describes how after achieving a better life for their members at work, the union turned its attention to broader political issues. Most famously, the union issued ‘Green Bans’ on projects which were seen by the community as environmentally destructive. The Domain, the Botanic Gardens, Kelly’s Bush nature reserve and Centennial Park would all have been bulldozed if not for the union’s intervention. But the union was also prepared to use its industrial muscle to oppose the Vietnam War, demand land rights for Aboriginal people, and challenge Apartheid in South Africa. Union members would down tools and join protest marches, and the union’s leadership were regularly on TV and in jail for their participation in demonstrations. Union leaders were paid the same as everyone else in the industry and workers were consulted on every decision. Because the union had shown its members it was prepared to fight for them, they were happy to support the union’s involvement in other issues, in some of the most inspiring and radical displays of political solidarity in Australian history.

Most extraordinary of all are the union’s ‘Pink Bans’, one of the first ever industrial actions taken around a queer rights issue. In 1973, gay activist Jeremy Fisher was expelled from a Macquarie University college after the Anglican dean found out about his sexuality. Despite the fact that it was a secular college, management insisted that they had a religious right to expel Fisher for being a sexual deviant, and refused to re-admit him unless he signed up to gay conversion therapy. Students tried to petition the college to change its mind, but they wouldn’t budge.

Enter the BLF. Macquarie Uni was engaged in extensive construction on campus, building new college accommodation and lecture facilities worth nearly $8 million in today’s money. Fisher and other student activists approached the BLF and asked if the union would support them. Mundey put it to workers on site that the university’s actions were discriminatory since “the university should allow homosexuals to study there the same as anyone else.” Workers agreed, and a total ban was placed on all construction work unless Fisher was allowed to return to study. The university needed the buildings completed urgently, and management caved.

The union also became active on feminist issues, arguing for the right of women to work as builders labourers, leading to hundreds of women taking up the work. BLF members also supported a strike by strippers in Kings Cross, and refused to build buildings at USYD unless the Philosophy department agreed to run the world’s first feminist philosophy course.

The BLF’s example shows us that struggles for recognition of social difference and struggles for a better deal at work are not separate. As Jack Mundey put it, what is the point of getting better wages and conditions at work if you have to live in a polluted environment and put up with social discrimination? Builders labourers’ visionary stance on these issues pioneered a new ‘social movement unionism’, which saw workers’ role as not just agitating for pay increases and more control over their labour but agitating for a better society for everyone. Some in the union movement opposed this, arguing that unions should limit themselves to bargaining within the workplace and not concern themselves with broader political campaigning. On the other side, more recent identity movements have often dismissed the potential for working-class solidarity with their goals, seeing class politics as ‘economistic’ and blind to social difference. The BLF demonstrates that both of these views are wrong – unions can and should engage in wider social issues.

The CFMEU lived up to this proud tradition during the recent campaign on marriage equality, unequivocally giving its support for queer rights. CFMEU officials spoke at the enormous demonstrations around the country, and organised workplace meetings to discuss the issue and urge members to vote yes. Officials and union activists explained to members that queer people and building workers share a common experience of discrimination at the hands of the hypocritical rich and powerful in this country, and that building workers need to support equality for everyone and oppose discrimination wherever it is found. Some members were upset with this, repeating the idea that gay rights is something outside the workplace and the union shouldn’t get involved. But the union has stood firm in arguing that equality is union business – how can we care about our safety and conditions at work but not care about safety for other forms of exploitation and discrimination? Knowing that the union supports me, I’ve never worried about the rainbow stickers on my hard hat since.

This article appeared in the autonomous queer edition, Queer Honi 2018.