Brian Boyd, Inside the BLF: A Union Self-Destructs

Ocean Press, Melbourne, 1991

Drew Cottle

Like a number of Maoist student militants in Victoria, South Australia and NSW during the 19705 Brian Boyd joined the BLF. Unti11988 Boyd remained in the union. For some of that period Boyd served as a full-time official and was a trusted confidant of N.L. Gallagher, the BLFs General Secretary. After resigning from the BLF he took up a full-time industrial officer’s job with the Victorian Trades Council. He left his Maoism behind by joining the ‘tomato’ left of the Victorian ALP and becoming a close associate of the Trades hall President, John Halfpenny, an ex-CPA official.

Inside the BLF purports to be the diary Boyd kept between 1980 and 1986 when he was the BLFs national industrial and later publicity officer. It is a curious document for a former Marxist-Leninist to have recorded. Apart from its entire lack of any personal reaction to or reflection on the affairs of the union, the diary concentrates solely on the decisions, outlook and associates of Norm Gallagher. Much of the daily information listed in the ‘diary’ is drawn from the National Times, the Australian Financial Review, The Melbourne Sun, the Melbourne Herald, Tribune, the Australian and the proceedings of the BLF Royal Commission. None of these sources,were impartial in their reports and assessments of N.L. Gallagher.

Boyd’s diary seeks to explain the destruction of the BLF as coming from within. The BLF leadership is seen to lay open the union for deregistration because of their misguided loyalty to Gallagher whom the monopoly media, sections of the ALP and the former Communist Party accused of accepting bribes from a number of Melbourne developers for industrial favours. Boyd never advances any evidence to sustain this allegation. His ‘diary’ simply repeats it in detail selected from the ‘impeccable’ sources of Gallagher’s accusers. Boyd strains the limitations of his ‘evidence’ to prove that all industrial struggles involving the BLF from the early 19805 were orchestrated by the Gallagher faithful to have the corruption charges dropped. We are told repeatedly that Gallagher misled the BLF rank and file about the charges. Nowhere in the diary does Boyd signal any personal objection to Gallagher’s leadership. Why? Where is Boyd’s soul-searching dilemma of his divided loyalties? Like the corruption charges against Gallagher, (the lowest paid Federal union official) Boyd’s moral torment is non-existent.

If Boyd’s repetition of the continual corruption allegations against Gallagher may convince some readers who are willing to believe anything levelled against Gallagher the campaign waged by the Federal, NSW and Victorian Labor governments, the corporate media, monopoly developers, the ACTU and leaders of the Communist Party is never explained After the class collaboration designated by the Accord in early 1983 open class warfare was declared by capital on any union which continued to fight for better wages and conditions. Boyd omits to mention the Accord and Gallagher’s attendance at Hawke’s Economic Summit. Although Gallagher was a signatory to the Accord it was clear the militant on-the-job struggles of the BLF would continue. Gallagher ignored the Accord as a worthless piece of paper whereas those union leaders, allied to the ALP or the Communist Party, accepted its arguments that “workers and unions should be incorporated into management structures to improve efficiency in production”. The days of strikes were over. The Hawke government through the Accord would maintain real wages, improve social welfare and end anti-union laws, so it was trumpeted.

As the implications of the Accord unfolded an ideological crisis gripped the highest levels of the union bureaucracy. The preservation of the Accord, the Hawke government and their own positions became paramount.

Another ex-Maoist university student and former secretary of the BLF’s ACT branch, Peter O’Dea, although as critical of Gallagher as Boyd, is clear in his estimation of why the BLF were targeted by various Labor governments, the ACTU, rival unions and big developers for destruction. O’Dea states, “Obviously the major contribution was the gains in wages and conditions made by builders’ labourers in the past fifteen years, and more importantly the BLF’s determination to hang on to them in the face of a Labor government and an ACTU committed to an ‘Accord’ which had as its object the reduction in living standards.” (Swimming Against The Tide – Defending the Builders Labourers: an analysis of the union’s deregistration, ABCE & BLF (ACT Branch), February 1989, p.10).

This was the essential reason for the BLFs eradication. Allegations about the building of Gallagher’s modest weekender at McLaughlin’s Beach were part of an overall and long term strategy to destroy a militant union. The BLF engaged in demarcation dispute with Victorian plumbers and Port Kembla ironworkers in the mid-1980s which may have isolated them within the union movement. Such disputes are part of industrial life. Under the Accord these disputes and the guerrilla tactics of the BLF to win further concessions from the major developers were used as a pretext by the State to carry out legal and industrial attacks against the union.

From the time of the Accord’s inception, Labor governments, the ACTU and most leading union officials have allowed striking unionists to be defeated by their employers or the courts. Never was the labour movement mobilised to uphold the struggle of the SEQEB, Mudginberri, Dollar Sweets workers or the Plumbers 1987 wages campaign. Instead, the ACTU and most of those who occupy leading union positions have been silent or have urged capitulation. Boyd briefly mentions these struggles but asserts that the “BLF deregistration cannot be explained by pointing to the increasing anti-union environment of the 1980’s.

All of these disputes threatened the Accord. The fighting traditions of the BLF needed to be expunged as they acted as an inspiration for others involved in industrial struggle. In the deregistration process of the BLF rival building union officials in the BWIU and the FEDFA conspired with the Labor governments in NSW and Victoria and the ACTU to eliminate a BLF presence on most large city building sites. Boyd is careful not to make diary entries on this form of industrial police-work. Known BLF militants were blacklisted while the rest of the membership were ‘body snatched’ by the BWIU and the FEDF A. The smashing of the BLF preserved the Accord just as the publication of Brian Boyd’s diary about the corrupting influence of Norm Gallagher has allowed him to rise in the world of acceptable unionism.