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Making and remaking the boilermaker at the Newcastle Steelworks

07 March, 2006

Boilermaking is a craft of many nuances that is underpinned by two centuries of industrial capitalist history and culture. The occupational label 'boilermaker' is linked inexorably with the technological dynamics of industrial capitalism and, in particular, with the steam engine's chief power source — the high pressure boiler.

Dennis McIntyre - The Australian Society for the Study of Labour History

The list is extensive and includes power station steam generation plants, space shuttle fuel tanks and the air receiver found in all automotive service stations. Boilermaking has also come to include tasks subsumed under the general rubric 'metal fabrication and welding'.

Visualise the Newcastle steelworks and with your 'minds eye' peel away the roof and wall cladding; remove the bricks, concrete, wood, glass and paint; banish the electrical and mechanical components; strip the picture back to bare steel.

What remains — the lion's share, at least — bears the boilermaker's handprint. Boilermakers made and maintained the plant that produced the materials with which they mainly worked. Boilermakers made and remade the physical and social structures in which they and others worked. 

For all its economic and social importance, there is a dearth of detailed research on the life and times of the Broken Hill Propriety Company Limited (BHP) Newcastle Iron and Steel Works and of the many thousand who worked there between the works' commissioning in 1915 and its closure in 1999.

This article revisits Dennis McIntyre's original fieldwork and some of the findings that have been forgotten and/or ignored about the making and remaking of organisational culture.  Connections are made between the boilermaker, his history and culture, his task, and the steelworks. (Given that it was a male milieu, the language is also necessarily masculine.)

Drawing on historical method, cultural studies and social theory, the article explores the world of the steelworks boilermaker as a species of industrial man, including the ideas, values, symbols and practices which shaped his expectations, outlook and actions as a skilled industrial worker.

On the basis of the evidence available, McIntyre maintains that boilermakers were a product of industrial capitalism and that their history is also a central feature of the history of industrial capitalism. As an occupational community they epitomised the contradictions of capitalism.

On the one hand, they pursued the sectional end and exclusive practices typical of well-entrenched male tradesworkers. At the same time, however, the steelworks that they built and maintained was also the site of their exploitation as wage labourers and, at times, they did demonstrate a strong consciousness of their class position, and acted accordingly.

As boilermaking tasks were crucial to steelmaking operations, management sought to resolve the long-standing shortage of boilermaking skills by utilising apprentice labour. This reliance on apprentice labour, McIntyre argues, led to a major restructuring of the boilermaking function in the early 1980s and to a shift in the boilermakers' position within the work organisation.

The upshot was that between May 1982 and December 1983, the period known as 'the purge', approximately 4,700 personnel were slashed from the 11,500-strong workforce; a labour force of historically high proportions. The article carries the narrative up to the period immediately prior to this restructuring and it is argued that by this time the position of the boilermaker was already changing.

A proletarian from birth

The quintessential eighteenth-century boilermaker occupied the metal-working space between the tinsmith and the blacksmith. Boilermaking combined the tinsmith's knowledge of geometry with the blacksmith's knowledge of metal working (cutting, bending and joining iron bars).

The boilermaker did not emerge as a result of the technical division of labour, but rather, filled a space created by the emergence of a revolutionary new technology, specifically the steam engine. There is no evidence confirming the actual craft progenitors of the boilermaker. Nor is there evidence to support any claim as to Boulton and Watt's Soho Steam Engine Works being the birthplace of the boilermaker.

It is maintained that James Watt did not invent the steam engine in 1765; it emerged as a synthesis of ideas and events over the preceding seventy years. This process, McIntyre considers, can be extended to include boilermakers. However, the Soho Works in 1770 is an ideal point of departure because at this time and place there is a specific commodity (a steam boiler) being manufactured by a specific wage-labourer (a boilermaker) via the capitalist mode of production.

From the outset, around 1770, the boilermaker has been a propertyless labourer, with only his physical and intellectual labour power to sell, and the occupation has always been affected by the dynamics of capitalist production. Although blacksmiths and tinsmiths would eventually be dragged in droves into the orbit of factory-based commodity manufacturing, they were able to exist, though in decreasing numbers, as independent producers.

Their tools were simple, as was the product of their labour, which was exchanged for whatever price they could command. In essence, the independent craftsman maintained control of his labour process. They provided their own labour and capital, and received the price for the product of their labour. What we have here approximates to Braverman's notion of a craftsman's 'golden age'. If such an age existed, it was exclusive of the boilermaker milieu.

The original boilers were hemispherical vessels, manufactured from wrought iron, or copper plates, that were shaped with hand tools and riveted together. The selection of materials and shape was not accidental. Copper and wrought iron are soft enough to be cut with a hammer and steel chisel.

They are malleable enough to be shaped using a forge, hammer and forming blocks, and are capable of withstanding high temperatures. Furthermore, spherical-hollow-vessels are ideal for countering the mechanical problems engendered by rapid contraction and expansion as steam pressure varies.

An industrial boiler cannot be manufactured in a morning or afternoon. Nor can it be carried about the countryside in search of a prospective buyer. The task of boilermaking was both labour-and capital-intensive. Just the issue of auxiliary labour (boilermaker's helpers), cost of materials notwithstanding, renders the notion of a boilermaker as an independent producer meaningless.

The boilermaker was unable to enter into a patron-client relationship (execute a commission) or manufacture a tool for sale at a future date. Boilers were an expensive and specialised commodity and they were sold to a restricted clientele of mine and/or factory owners and, later, to railway and shipping owners. Thus, the boiler and boilermakers were from the outset, very much an integral part of industrial capitalism.

Edward Thompson maintains that the English working class was both made by, and made, early nineteenth-century industrial capitalism. Extending Thompson's thesis to include industrial artefacts, the handiwork of boilermakers was everywhere. It was in iron ships, steam locomotives, iron structures such as bridges and so on. The nineteenth-century was indeed an age of iron and steam power.

From this epoch emerged the boilermaker as the metal fabricator, and his place of work, first the boiler shop and later the fabricating shop. This development was certainly attributable to the restless nature of capitalism. However, iron and steam power are parts of the one process and developments in one technology impacted on the other. 

The production of wrought iron was a complicated and labour intensive process. Wrought iron is almost pure iron; it is ductile, malleable and has a much superior tensile strength than cast iron. Production involves alternately heating and hammering a 'pig' of iron until all the impurities (carbon, sulphur, etc.) are removed.

The resulting product, a 'bloom', is then forged into the finished shape, and this involves more heating and hammering. The development of rolling mills removed this bottleneck from wrought iron production. A series of power driven rolls reduced a bloom, heated to a plastic state, to a structural wrought-iron section of predetermined shape and size (plate, rail or bar). Plates, rails and bars were now commodities, products for sale, hence the term 'merchant bars'.

From this short description of iron-making and rolling mill technology, three points are salient. First, steam power and the need for boilerplate provided the need for rolling mill development. Second, rolling mill development generated a commodity, merchant bars. Three, merchant bars placed iron and, later, steel in direct competition with hitherto traditional building materials such as wood, stone and brick. The first half of the nineteenth-century is the period when the boilermaker, as an established metalworker, migrated to shipyards, civil and industrial construction sites and, from their very beginning, railways.

The craft fulfilled  

Scholars of the history, philosophy and sociology of science are generally united on the proposition that by the close of the nineteenth-century, the practitioners of the natural sciences thought that that the twentieth-century was going to be anticlimactic.

They mistakenly thought that, except for some minor details, the major mysteries of the universe had been solved. Boilermakers would have been justified in holding a similar outlook. Mechanical cutting had superseded manual cutting with power-operated shears, punches and saws.

Manual bending had been overtaken by a variety of bending rolls, and forming presses. Riveting was now executed with a range of pneumatic and hydraulic presses and hammers. So far as boilermakers were concerned, the human need to labour, in terms of brute physical strength, had been reduced. So was the need for the people who had contributed the bulk of the brute strength, the boilermaker's helper.

Boilermaker's helpers, otherwise known as 'TAs' (an abbreviation of the term tradesman's assistant), have been around as long as the boilermaker. With the evolution of mechanised bending and cutting tools, and later electric arc welding, their numbers declined. In some instances, TAs had been redeployed as operators of drills and saws and utilised in some aspect of metal fabrication where the work is repetitive.

In such cases they approximate to the Babbage system of deskilling where lower paid workers do some or all tasks previously performed by a 'skilled' higher paid worker under what is termed the 'detailed division of labour'. Out of the workshop and on the site, where an extra pair of hands is required for holding and carrying, was perhaps the last refuge of the TA. It is on the site, generally construction, that the boilermaker and the TA continue their historic relationship as co-workers.

By the conclusion of the nineteenth-century, the technical evolution of the boilermaker as a species of industrial man was in many aspects complete. Low carbon steel was replacing wrought iron as the preferred material and steam power, other than in locomotives and ships, was under challenge from electric and internal combustion modes of power generation.

Greater emphasis, however, was also placed on the fabrication of steel structures such as industrial and commercial buildings (especially skyscrapers), bridges, iron & steelworks, reservoirs and gasholders, material handling and storage systems, and industrial plant of all description. The list is not exhaustive but the term 'metal fabricator' (a carpenter who works with steel) would have been a more apt occupational label. In terms of the variety of work performed, then, the boilermaker had by 1900 far outstripped his blacksmith and tinsmith progenitors.

The twentieth century ushered in two technological innovations: oxy-flame cutting and electric arc welding. Both innovations replaced the stereotype image of the boilermaker as a riveter with a new stereotype — the welder. Oxy-flame cutting (better known as burning) and arc welding introduced new technical paradigms, making many aspects of existing knowledge and technique obsolete.

World War II was the major turning-point in metal fabrication and design. In spite of spectacular failures, such as the breaking up of ships in the Atlantic Ocean, by the 1950s welded design was the rule rather than the exception. Welding eliminated the need for the myriad of rivets, rivet holes, intricate connections and the complicated bending of plates and sections necessitated by riveted design.

Welding introduced a new actor into the boilermaking milieu, the welder. Welding and burning also became of locus of disputation between boilermakers and other metalworkers, namely conflict around the application and ownership of metal cutting and joining processes and legendary demarcation disputes, which to the general public must have seemed pedantic.

Boilermaking culture in Newcastle

Among its many cultural imports from Britain, Australia received the boilermaker, the apprenticeship system, and the craft union. The Newcastle branch of the Boilermakers Society was established with 20 members in March 1877.

In 1973, after 96 years of continuous and autonomous activity, the Society ceased to operate and became part of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union (AMWU). A search of the archives reveals a century of preoccupation with the same themes and issues, namely increased rates of pay and shorter working hours, fear of unemployment and victimisation, opposition to piece-work and the dilution of labour, and solidarity with other unions. Strategies and tactics used from the very beginning, included direct action (strikes), overtime bans and tight discipline.

In the decade prior to the 1890s economic depression, the Society consolidated its position among local boilermakers and their employers by withdrawing labour from selected workplaces. With a base established, the Society then began a long campaign to ensure that its rules were being enforced in all boiler and fabricating shops.

In Geoffrey Robinson's account of this period it appears that full employment existed for boilermakers. Also, 'strike pay' appears to be about the equivalent of the standard rate of pay. These two factors can account for the relative ease with which family-owned engineering firms, the major employers of boilermaking labour, were brought to heel. Robinson is not specific, but colliery companies seem to have been less inclined to acquiesce in the Society's demands.

By the close of the 1870s, employers, so far as boilermakers were concerned, seem to have accepted that basic principle of organised labour; the closed shop. The notion of a closed shop implies that an employer will recognise a union and only employ its members. Also, members of a union will not work in a shop which employs non-members to do work claimed by their craft or calling.

With the closed shop principle established, it was Society membership, not credentials (indentures and/or trade certificate) or work experience which determined who was available for employment as a boilermaker in the Newcastle region.

Membership was drawn from journeyman boilermakers (persons who had served a boilermaking apprenticeship). Tradesmen from allied trades, blacksmiths and tinsmiths, also joined. From the 1920s welders were also recruited to prevent them from claiming boilermakers work.

Finally, there were 'dilutees', usually TAs who became provisional tradesmen during wartime labour shortages. Dilutees had little potential as union busters, their best interests were served by remaining in the Society and receiving the boilermakers' award wage. Moreover, five years provisional membership was treated as the equivalent of an apprenticeship and could result in full membership (with seniority rights) being awarded.

Much of the rich history and culture generated by the past membership of the Boilermakers Society lived on in the AMWU. The closed shop and regulation of membership were still boilermaker norms. Monopolising access to, and hence jobs in an occupational labour market was not unique to boilermakers.

Indeed, doctors and other professional groups are even more adept at this practice. Furthermore, unlike boilermakers, the status and privilege enjoyed by some so-called professional groups is legitimated by the State. Boilermakers, and other craft unions, have had only tight discipline to hold what they have gained and, where possible, to improve their life chances.

Consequently, for over a century in Newcastle, boilermakers submitted to the dictatorship of their rules. It was an act of faith that members who were victimised for upholding the rules would be supported by the union's resources (financial and legal), whereas backsliders would be punished.

With formal punishment the alleged offender was judged by his peers and fined if found guilty of a breach of rules. Non-payment of fines resulted in membership being suspended or withdrawn. The employer then had the choice of upholding the closed shop principle and standing the non-union employee down, or having the rest of his labour walk out.

It is the terror of being abandoned by both boss and co-workers which keeps the would-be backslider in check. Workers have their own ways of organising and practicing violence in the workplace.

At the workplace, boilermakers develop common ways of perceiving, evaluating, feeling and acting. These frameworks of values, perceptions and actions give rise to expectations and constraints on how persons ought to behave. Thus, common enemies are identified.

These are the managers and supervisors who attempt to speed up the labour process and/or victimise union activists. There are also the coworkers who break production norms. These people are called 'tear-arses'.

Michael Burawoy terms a person who breaks production norms a 'rate buster'. The distinction between a rate buster and a tear-arse is that in the Australian context boilermaker's wages were not directly tied to output as the union proscribed piecework. Thus the tear-arse's motivation was not an immediate increase in financial reward; rather, he might have been driven by a need for recognition, a desire for promotion, or just subscription to the Protestant work ethic.

Any occupational category, which encroached on boilermaking work was seen as a craft enemy. Fitters, though also members of the AMWU, and TAs, who were covered by the Federated Ironworkers Association (FIA), were watched with suspicion.

Both groups had the capacity to increase their share of a labour market through cutting and welding, which they performed to a limited extent. Enemies, real or imagined, were part of the boilermakers' world and hence part of their culture. And any notion of boilermakers as an occupational community, replete with culture, was strengthened by the existence of an unofficial network.

Until the late 1970s, the network was underpinned by the considerable workplace mobility of Newcastle boilermakers. The grapevine provided news about every workplace in the district. What firms were hiring and laying off? Who were the managers and supervisors with a bad attitude? What was the tightness or otherwise of work discipline? This news contributed to boilermaker folklore and tempered beliefs about places, individuals and other groups.

According to Harry, a local boilermaker interviewed for this study,22 Vidor Engineering paid above the local average; carried out new and interesting work; but always 'laid off' (in seniority) between contracts. Cardiff Railway Workshops paid the basic award, but offered rotating day/afternoon shifts and days were free to build or renovate a house. The steelworks and the State Dockyard were for resting between jobs and/or 'tapering off' in the decade or two before retirement.

Steelworks boilermakers were not social isolates. They identified themselves as being part of a larger community of boilermakers. Construction of the steelworks commenced in 1913 and, like a well travelled road, was in a constant state of reconstruction. Until 'the purge' of the early 1980s, a continual traffic of boilermakers and others moved into and out of the steelworks.

Other than during the 1930s Depression, and in the wake of 1982 cuts, boilermakers readily found employment work at the steelworks, either with contractors or with BHP. The various workshops in Newcastle, the Fabricating Shop included, provided different economic and social functions for boilermakers, particularly in the post-World War II economic boom when a proliferation of heavy industries and engineering contractors all contributed to a buoyant boilermaker labour market.

Few boilermakers had made a career of working for BHP. In a sense boilermakers and the steelworks had constructed a symbiotic relationship, and one lived off the other.

But their world was not unchanging. The State Railways began replacing steam with diesel locomotives in the early 1960s and shipbuilding ceased at the State Dockyard in the late 1970s, virtually eliminating two major centres of boilermaker employment. With the demise of the Boilermakers Society as an autonomous organisation and, with a considerable diminution in workplace mobility in the 1980s, remaining boilermakers tending to be less mobile, holding on to the job they already had.

Apprentices and the boilermaking labor market

BHP's bargaining position had historically never been undercut by a tradesman shortage. Already the major training firm, BHP in 1961 embarked on a substantial apprentice-training program. Industrial awards and the State Factories Act set a limit of one apprentice to three tradesmen to prevent exploitation under the guise of apprentice training.

Also, in his first year, an apprentice had to work under the direct supervision of a journeyman. A training centre was deemed to be more of a quasi-technical college than a production workshop. With training rather than production designated as the underpinning philosophy, a dispensation to set a ratio of fifteen apprentices to one instructor was granted. Thus, the establishment of an Apprentice Training Centre (ATC) allowed the company to substantially change the tradesman to apprentice ratio.

The establishment of an ATC also allowed the company, through trade training instructors, the opportunity to operate a non-union workshop. The company's claim to be training apprentices in excess of requirements, as a contribution to raising the quantity and quality of Australia's skilled workforce, though laudable, failed to mention the self-interest factor.

First, by maintaining equilibrium between supply and demand for boilermakers, wages were kept in check. Every campaign for higher over-award payments was defeated. The use of apprentice labour enabled management to frustrate extended strikes, including a three-week strike in 1968 and another of seven weeks' duration in 1979, and a mass exodus of tradesmen followed both of these defeats.

Second, under the guise of training, apprentices carried out much of the repetitive work, thus releasing tradesmen to concentrate on unit production. Again, in tune with Babbage mode of deskilling, if certain tasks are performed by lower paid workers, then fewer higher paid workers are required.

Third, in terms of function and task, final year apprentices were interchangeable with tradesmen. Furthermore, being bound to the 'master', apprentices tended to obey orders and not go on strike. By the early 1970s boilermaking at the steelworks had taken on an entirely different demographic dimension, with 50 to 60 per cent of its practitioners being serving apprentices. At the steelworks, BHP controlled the boilermaker labour market.

How did this situation arise? Boilermakers in general did not make a career of working for the company. I commenced my apprenticeship at BHP in January 1963 along with 28 other 15–16 year olds. Of the 29, 26 completed the five-year apprenticeship but by 1970 — just two years after coming out of our 'time' — only seven of us remained, and this was a familiar pattern with every apprentice cohort.

The homo economicus element is only one factor. Others quit the trade due to unrealised aspirations and expectations, while others left in disgust and sought employment elsewhere. Following each protracted strike, whatever the issue, there was an exodus. 'A good tradesman does not have to work here', was a commonly expressed sentiment.

The exodus of tradesmen and the recruitment of apprentices were inexorably linked in that the increasing population of apprentices more than compensated for the tradesman exodus. Not only was work being performed for between two-fifths and four-fifths of the tradesman's price, but also the Fabricating Shop was able to compete with contractors.

In the boom period between 1979–81, there was a further expansion of apprentice training — and there was even talk of a new blast furnace being constructed. The end-of-year intakes doubled, mid-year intakes were introduced, female apprentices were recruited, and adult training schemes were introduced.

Then in May 1982, with the Fabricating Shop apprentice population at 116, came the crash. Boilermakers ceased their traditionally high exit pattern. The completing apprentices now elected to remain. With boilermaker numbers stabilised, management retarded apprentice recruitment and selected which completing apprentices would be retained. In 1981 about 100 apprentice boilermakers were recruited; by 1985 the intake was five.

For over three generations, boilermakers' labour power had been expropriated and incorporated into capital assets (plant and infrastructure). Boilermakers essentially produced and maintained the capital used by other workers in the steelmaking production process, and thus contributed to capital accumulation. In essence, if the wheels of industry did not turn, profit, the sole rationale for the existence of the steelworks, could not be realised. The boilermakers were key men, and they would be required so long as there was a Newcastle steelworks.

Boilermakers are a product of industrial capitalism, and their history is the history of industrial capitalism. Consequently, their long tradition as industrial militants should come as no surprise. As an industrial labour formation they epitomised the contradictions of capitalism.

The steelworks that they had built and maintained was the very location of their exploitation as wage labourers. However, at times, they did become conscious of this insult and respond in various ways, including leaving the trade. Boilermaking, however, was central to the continued operation of the steelworks. Hence the heavy emphasis placed on apprentice labour by BHP management in the post-war period.

In the short run, this restructuring did not result in redundancy for tradesmen themselves; rather, redundancy was the lot of the completing apprentice. With 'the purge', however, redundancy became the common lot, while for surviving steelworks tradesmen, the cuts of the early 1980s also ended the era of labour mobility and wider occupational engagement.

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