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Australia Square And The Slab Gang

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When John Kennedy started work on Australia Square in 1962 it was billed to become ‘The Tallest Lightweight Concrete construction in the World’. He has some colourful yarns from the time.

Designed by celebrated architect Harry Seidler and featuring revolutionary construction techniques, there was plenty of hype around the 50-storey skyscraper (then the tallest in Oz). Newspaper headlines called it ‘Beauty in Concrete’ and it ultimately won a number of major awards for excellence in design.

Civil and Civic was paying good wages to work on the landmark building and with all the buzz around the project, any job related to it was considered a plum gig.

Moving Up

As a 17-year-old apprentice with Civil and Civic, John arrived on the job when it waalready eight floors high. Although he started at the bottom he quickly found his way to the top.

“I was a surfer, so I always wanted to be in the sun,” recalled John. “The head of the apprentices at Civil and Civic saw me sunbaking on my lunchbreak one day and said, ‘You like the sun do you, John? You’re not afraid of heights are you?’”

Soon after, John (full disclosure, he’s my Dad) was assigned to what famously became known as the ‘Slab Gang’: a crew of steelfixers, concreters, labourers and carpenters responsible for laying the formwork on each new floor as it went up.

Bonus

Being part of the Slab Gang meant John was the beneficiary of new union-enforced legislation

which stipulated all workers operating above a certain height were paid the same bonus, irrespective of their job status. The upshot was John became one of the highest-paid apprentices in the country at the time.

“The height money I was getting was almost equivalent to my wage…it was like I was on a double wage as an apprentice,” he recalled.

Hard Work

The sky-mining Slab Gang on Australia Square also had a few fringe benefits. TV crews and newspapers were eager to cover the exciting construction of Australia’s soon- to-be tallest building, and not surprisingly, they wanted to capture the action from the highest point. John missed the first news network to show up, but when the competitor’s crew arrived a day later his boss made sure he was front and centre on the news that night for all his family to watch.

The aim was to build a new floor each week. As the levels stacked up the construction would surpass other buildings.

“One day I looked over the edge and there was a girl on her office break, sunbathing topless on the roof of the building below,” chuckled John mischievously. “The boys got a good laugh out of that one.”

He vividly recalled how advanced the construction techniques seemed at the time. “It was brilliantly designed. It featured all prefabricated formwork, which was stripped out and used again and again and again. All the outside sections were precast and brought up by crane and bolted on the side. It was like putting a giant lego set together.” However, while the building techniques may have been sophisticated and the job well run, for a wide-eyed teenager the working environment could be rough and tumble.

“I remember seeing two guys fighting on the top floor. The steel had been tied-off with wire and they were like little razors, and these guys were just lacerated. We were a long way up by this stage and there were moments where you worried they might roll through a gap in the formwork and fall a couple of stories.

“It was a tough environment.”

Nanny State

The early 1960s was also a period when the union movement was in full swing. John was happy to be the beneficiary of the union- enforced ‘height bonus’, but there were times when he saw the pendulum swing too far the other way with union tactics.

“If you didn’t vote the way they wanted you to vote on something they’d make it so hard you didn’t want to work there anymore,” explained John.

Perhaps the most controversial incident on Australia Square involved a labourer who was discovered drinking at a nearby pub during work hours. The labourer swore he had left the building site to use the pub’s telephone because there had been a problem with a goat eating the clothes off his wife’s Hills Hoist. The bosses at Civil and Civic were determined to sack him, but the Unions backed up his outlandish claim.

The farcical scenario caused a furore and the Civil and Civic bosses actually stopped work on the site. As debate raged between bosses and unions the man in question posed for the front page of the ’paper holding what was presumably the offending goat in his arms. Eventually he was reinstated and work resumed.

Spooky

If workers were at times rowdy and the union relationship tense, management was intent on protecting its perfect reputation when it came to safety.

“The big brag on Australia Square was that nobody died on the job,” insisted John. “At the time, on a job of that scale, it was taken into account that probably two or three would die.” John pointed out there was a building across the road under construction at the same time, and when a worker fell off the building he’d landed in the back of a moving truck below. Unfortunately, there was no soft cargo to break his fall and he still died. Meanwhile, the truck driver became part of a tragic coincidence when he discovered the bloke who’d fallen from the sky and landed in his truck had exactly the same name as he did.

“First name and surname,” emphasised John.”

Voice From Above

While there were no fatalities on Australia Square the site wasn’t without incident. John remembered one worker falling down the lift-well.

“He was lucky it had been raining and the water in the bottom saved him.”

On another occasion workers were spooked by the sight of smoke billowing up from below and briefly assumed the whole building was on fire. As it transpired, the first bitumen had been poured on the bottom floor and caught alight. Thankfully it was extinguished before anyone was hurt or any major damage incurred.

Safety may have been a priority, but there was one high-risk practice still prominent on Australia Square.

As the huge bundles of steel and other materials were hoisted high by cranes, the dog-men would ride the loads to keep them steady. The most famous of these on Australia Square was an Aboriginal man known as ‘Sooty’. John still grows wide-eyed as he recalls the nimble and fearless actions of the fabled dogman.

“I remember seeing him come up in the empty loop of wire – which was like a swing at the park – casually rolling a cigarette.”

On another occasion, John was about 30 stories up when he saw the mechanism on the crane’s jib malfunction.

“They couldn’t get the jib up so the wire could swing in. Sooty was out there on the wire. I went down a floor to get some materials and the next thing I heard was, ‘Here son, catch this rope. Tie it around something.’ Before I could tie it off he’d shimmied in hand-over-hand on the wire, 30 stories up with nothing but thin air beneath him.”

Still Doing It

Civil and Civic were simultaneously responsible for the stage-one development of the Opera House down the road at Circular Quay. As part of his apprenticeship John was instructed to spend a day on-site at what would become Sydney’s most iconic building.

“They just said to go down and have a look around and it meant you could also say you’d spent a day working on the Opera House,” he chuckled.

While working on Australia Square had introduced John to classic characters, and delivered him an event-filled, baptism of fire into the building game, he admits he eventually grew weary of the project. Laying formwork on 50 floors was highly repetitious work, and although he was being groomed for a management position with Civil and Civic, John felt he wasn’t learning a broad enough range of carpentry skills. When they held a workers’ meeting and asked for comments he made his reservations known to the bosses. John eventually took a day off the Australia Square site to meet with a cottage builder who could pass on a more sophisticated suite of building skills. After the meeting at Maroubra, John went to check the surf. The waves were perfect but he didn’t have his board, so he asked a pretty local girl if he could loan hers. John rode a few classic waves on the borrowed board that afternoon, and a few weeks later he ran into the same girl at a dance. A couple of years later the girl, named Jenny, became his wife.

More than 50 years on John is 72 and still doing the odd gig on the tools. He has a colourful story for every job he’s ever worked on, but he’s proud to say it all began back on Australia Square with the Slab Gang.

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