MILESAGO - Features

In the early 70s, an entirely new social phenomenon emerged from Sydney.


A perspective on Sydney’s Green ban Campaign, 1970-74

Burgmann, V. Power and Protest 1993

The background to the green-ban struggles is the story of the destruction of Australia's major cities in the 1960s and early 1970s, when vast amounts of money were poured into property development: giant glass and concrete buildings changed the face of our cities and valuable old buildings were razed in the process. The interests of home buyers and architectual heritage lost out against often purely speculative construction. At one stage, there was ten million square feet of vacant office space in Sydney's business district, while people looking for their first homes or flats could find nothing.

In 1971, the New South Wales branch of the Builders Labourers' Federation (BLF) decided this destruction should stop, even though they were the people employed to do it. The New South Wales branch was led by three men who soon became notorious. They were either loved or hated – Jack Mundey, Bob Pringle and Joe Owens. They argued that:

In a modern society, the workers' movement, in order to play a really meaningful role, must engage in all industrial, political, social and moral struggles affecting the working people as a whole…In this context, building workers are beginning to demand of governments, employers and architects that buildings which are required by the people should have priority over superfluous office buildings which benefit only the get-rich-quick developers, insurance companies and banks.

The union insisted priorities be reversed, that the construction of flats and houses was more important than piling up empty or under-used commercial office buildings. They claimed the right to intervene in the decision-making process and exert a degree of workers' control, determined as they were to use their labour in a socially useful manner. The campaign maintained that 'all work performed should be of a socially useful and of an ecologically benign nature'.

The movement got under way in 1971 when a group of women from the fashionable suburb of Hunter's Hill sought the help of the NSW BLF to save Kelly's Bush, the last remaining open space in that area, where A.V.Jennings wanted to build luxury houses. They had already been to the local council, the mayor, the local state member and the Premier, all to no avail. The union asked the Hunter's Hill women to call a public meeting at Hunter's Hill, to show that there was community support for the request for a union ban on the destruction of Kelly's Bush. Over 600 people attended the meeting, which formally requested a ban. This ban was called a green-ban, to distinguish it from a black-ban, a union action to protect the economic interests of its own members, in this case the union was going against the immediate economic interests of its members for the sake of a wider community and environmental interest.

A.V.Jennings declared it would build on Kelly's Bush using non-union labour, but building workers on an office project of A.V.Jennings in North Sydney sent a message to Jennings: 'If you attempt to build on Kelly's Bush, even if there is the loss of one tree, this half-completed building will remain so forever, as a monument to Kelly's Bush.' This influenced A.V.Jennings, and alarmed property developers generally.

The first green-ban was successful – and Kelly's Bush is still there as an open public reserve. After this, resident action groups concerned about destruction in their local areas rushed to ask the NSW BLF to impose similar bans. The union continued to insist that a ban could only be imposed after there had been an enthusiastic public meeting by the people concerned; the union did not set itself up as the arbiter of taste and only imposed those bans with community support.

By 1974, 42 green-bans had been imposed, holding up well over $3,000 million worth of development. Some people argued that the union was denying workers employment; the union replied that they did want to build buildings, but useful buildings such as kindergartens, homes for the aged, hospitals, housing for ordinary people, not the superfluous buildings for get-rich-quick developers that were destroying the built environment. Mundey writes: "What would we have said to the next generation? that we destroyed Sydney in the name of full employment? No, we wanted to construct buildings that were socially useful."

Over 100 buildings considered by the National Trust to be worthy of preservation were saved by the green-bans. And the green-bans led to the New South Wales government bringing in tighter demolition laws. Some of the areas saved by the green-ban movement include The Rocks, the birthplace of European Australia, where over three million tourists go each year; Centennial Park, which was saved from being turned into a concrete sports stadium; the Botanical Gardens, which was saved from becoming a car park to the Opera House; and Woolloomooloo, saved from $400 million worth of high-rise commercial buildings, and now a prototype for attractive and useful inner-city redevelopment where a genuine socio-economic mix of residents live in medium-density buildings with trees and landscaped surroundings. One Sydney woman wrote to the union:

"I don't like unions. But thank you and your union for what you've done. Private people are not able to prevent stupid destruction as you have been able to... Thank you for acting for me and others like me."

The green-ban movement collapsed in 1974 when the federal branch leadership of the BLF under Norm Gallagher removed the New South Wales branch leadership. This 'intervention' was justified on the grounds that the New South Wales branch had overstepped the bounds of traditional union business; it was carried out to the approval of property developers, conservative politicians and the media, who had tried unsuccessfully in so many ways to intimidate the New South Wales branch into dropping its green-bans. Overstepping the bounds of union business had constituted a genuine threat to the developers; Norm Gallagher was their man of the hour.

A key factor was Mundey and the NSW branch's commitment to the introduction of limited tenure of office for union officials. This undoubtedly threatened Gallagher's autocratic style of union leadership. And it was not just Gallagher who felt uneasy about the limitations placed by the NSW BLF on the term of office of union officials. It also disturbed officials in other unions, principled and unprincipled, left and right, which explains why the New South Wales branch did not receive more practical support from the official organs of the labour movement in their battle against federal BLF intervention.

That the green-ban campaign was broken from within the ranks of trade unionism was an especially bitter blow. Jack Mundey mused recently that the time of the green-bans was 'one of the most positive in the union movement'; he believes that if the New South Wales branch had survived the Gallagher putsch, its approach to conservation issues would have spread to other unions. Mundey argues that the political significance of the green-ban movement, while it lasted, was that it forged a winning alliance between environmentalists and trade unionists. As 90 per cent of the population resides in urban areas, success in preserving the built environment is vital, and trade unionists are especially well placed to influence the construction of the built environment:

The task of achieving a sustainable society, with a human face, an ecological heart and an egalitarian body, requires a massive joint effort by environmentalists and the organised working class.

bulldozers and people

Hardman, M. & Manning, P. Green Bans—the story of an Australian phenomenon

excerpt one

Is the redoubtable Mick Fowler right when he says the people are winning? Who knows? There's no way of asking "the people" and they are unlikely to rise up and tell us interested observers. One way of telling how bored or interested the citizenry are is to look at the responsiveness of people to grass roots organizing. Before the green bans came resident action and before that a few stirrers. What do they think?

The most depressing tale comes from Jim Munro of Ultimo. He is a newcomer to Ultimo and he and Bronwyn, both teachers, feel it deeply. You get the sense they feel they have arrived in foreign territory despite the fact they bought a house there, became involved in general community affairs centred on the Harris Centre and have been trying to save the homes of Ultimo people from the encroaching expressway. "I am really cynical about the lack of support you get here," Bronwyn Munro says. "The attitude is, 'It's my home, not homes as such', and we actually had people out there cheering the bulldozers on." Jim Munro says: "People saw it all coming five years ago but felt they couldn't do anything about it. Feeling rather helpless." The numbers in the area are steadily declining, industry is continuing to move in and there's an increasing proportion of city office workers buying into homes. Bronwyn: "Then there's the older Ultimo people. They just refuse to recognise you. They might be standing in the street talking and they'll just stand there and look right through you. And we've been here a few years now!" The Ultimo-Pyrmont Residents' Action Group has found it heavy going. The Munros, who constitute its core along with a few others, say their main role is keeping an eye on what's happening. "Like with the battle over Fig Street last year. Someone from Ultimo rang a few of the people in Glebe and said they were awoken by the sounds of bulldozers." The Main Roads Department was pulling down the pub on the corner of Fig and Harris Streets and a three-day occupation/resistance/skirmish that ended in victory for the protesters (i.e. the demolition was halted) began.

In all other communities in the inner-city though, the response has been virtually immediate. How does Nita McRae get crusty old Labor people from the Rocks to cross the line into passive resistance? Nita: "It wasn't a matter of trying to do that. We had problems from the beginning. The Bridge divided the Rocks community– physically. When it came to seeking West Rocks support for the struggle in East Rocks, it was interesting. Even though they're related to you, they'd say 'you poor things, it's bad, but it's your problem.' They'd have fetes, raffles, collect money, but they would never stand in front of the bulldozers. It became the sort of subject you didn't mention at the family dinner table. No-one particularly liked standing in front of bulldozers. Thirteen went to gaol one day. None of them younger than 40. One dear old man plays the organ up at the Catholic Church. There are the staunchies and the weakies. The weakies will do it if they have to. How do you get them to? By knocking on their door and saying 'the crunch is on.' By 1973 we had been going since 1970. I would say: 'Are you going to give up now? You might as well go all the way. Sometimes you'd knock on the door and they'd say 'Get the union' and I'd say, 'No. It's your ban. You've got to come out. And bring carpet to put on the ground."

Albert Mispel, who worked in the Glebe area to educate people about the coming expressway, makes a point slightly adjacent to Nita McRae's: "I have had it said to me a hundred times: 'Oh look you haven't got a hope, not a hope of stopping an expressway!' This happens all the time. But as soon as people see you make some progress things start to change." The Leichhardt anti expressway movement ended up crystallizing into three in an effective scissors movement on local public opinion. A young people's group worked on door-knocking, talking to people, issuing leaflets, getting the word around–and getting the response. Another group was almost entirely research-oriented. A third was a kind of anti-expressway parliament that brought disparate people and interests together. It was chaired by the then Mayor, Ald. Nick Origlass. It was an impressive operation. Says Mispel: "It now means that there's probably no way in which a local politician could not oppose the expressway. Everyone's behind it. A poll would show that."

At Kelly's Bush it was different again. There was no doubt of fervent support in the immediate area as a comic opera incident on a sunny Saturday showed. Kath Lehany: "My mother, going on 80, ran out one day in her nightdress, saying 'Bulldozer! Bulldozer!' Within a quarter of an hour 50 people were there, children and all. People felt so much about it. We had television crews, radio reporters and the Press here within 15 minutes. One woman came out cutting up pieces of rope and we all looked at her. Finally, someone went up to her and said: 'What are you doing there?' Do you know what she was doing? She said she was cutting up pieces of rope and she was going to tie her children to the trees!' But it was a false alarm. The bulldozer was not there to do Jennings' dirty work.

The Kelly's Bush experience has been a model for the others in the sense that almost all "the organizers" feel the learning process has been two-way. There were no "experts" in community organizing or anything else. "We've learned a lot," four women of the Battlers agree: Betty James, Kath Lehany, Christine Lawson, Monica Sheehan. "We're very cynical now about politicians, very cynical.'' One cynicizing event, they agree, was the pre-election Askin telegram and its aftermath, another was the discovery that a private letter to the Premier landed in duplicate form in the hands of Jennings' executives. Some of them agree they have shifted to the left since the struggle began. Betty: "But I have been tremendously impressed by the fibre and steadfastness of union officials. They are solid and believe in what they're doing… I think Jack Mundey is a very far-sighted man. And Joe Owens has been very sound, too."

There have been other idealists turned cynics too. Margaret Barry in Waterloo woke up to find her local paper featuring a press release from the Housing Commission searching out the family company of her mother and herself. It accused the Barrys of being "developers" too, because they owned the house they lived in and the former house they had lived in. Some Waterloo residents claim they have seen the files that the Commission keeps on the activists in the Waterloo Residents' Action Group. But that can't be true, can it?

after the green bans
Hardman, M. & Manning, P. Green Bans—the story of an Australian phenomenon

excerpt one

Two years ago the Lord Mayor of Sydney said: "All these action groups and harum-scarums… I have nothing to do with them. I regard them with a great deal of dismay because I don't like anarchism." The then Premier of NSW, Sir Robert Askin, defined his government's view of the role of government in these terms: "It is a government's job to create an atmosphere where private enterprise can flourish and make profits."

At least Sir Robert was being honest. One step down the scale of hypocrisy is a different attitude, pinpointed in a letter to the press in 1972 by Patrick White and the prime mover behind the Save the (Centennial and Moore) Parks Campaign, Professor Neil Runcie. They said: "The paradox of the existing situation today in Sydney town-planning is that many responsible politicians, from both sides, tacitly welcome industrial action, when the authorities are faced with inadequate, unimaginative reports from professional consultants and decisions pressed by rampaging developers…In professional institutes as well, the low standards of Australian town planning and the relentless urban over-development are causing deep concern and the authorities are not always able or willing to act…ill-considered action by the City Commissioners and ineptitude in correcting the situation by the City Council have established precedents which developers apparently feel compelled to exploit, irrespective of social costs."

Australian planning has been revolutionised by the combination of resident action and worker power. If green bans as a phenomenon had died in 1975 with the political demolition job done on the extraordinary NSW Branch of the BLF, its effects would still be felt. Planning journals, official reports, consultant briefs, academics' papers all reek now of the 'planning is people' syndrome. A shift in values and ideals – similar to other shifts that occurred for somewhat different reasons in the U.S. and Britain – is evident. There has been a polarization: instead of it being assumed that professionally-trained experts are necessarily correct in their evaluations because of the money poured into them in training programmes, it is now recognised that all town planning decisions involve making political decisions. That is, how are the resources of space and form and taste, not to say the physical requirements of housing, roads, services and shops, to be distributed within a given, limited area? The Canadian planning theorist James Lorimer laid it on the line in an article reprinted in the April, 1972, edition of the Royal Australian Planning Institute Journal. Lorimer's main points: the work of city planners focuses on land and its uses; urban land and its buildings are usually owned by "a host of small property owners and a few large ones"; the most important regulatory agency of land and buildings is the "elected" city government, the property industry usually controls the regulatory agency/city government ("It is the major downtown property owners, the property financing institutions, the construction firms and the developers that are running every city hall"); planners carry out the administrative work of city government policies as worked out at higher levels; therefore, for planners, "it is clear that you have to decide which side you are on." Says Lorimer: – "There may indeed be little honest work left for planners, in terms of work that is properly paid, but there is certainly lots of honest work for people who resign themselves to the fact that you usually have to live modestly these days if you don't want to work for the wrong side …It is time to forget the warm nonsense, the talk about the public interest and the city beautiful, and to face reality… Either you work against the power and influence of the property industry, or you work for it."

The constant wish, of course, is that the choice for everybody was as direct and easy as that. Maybe it is easier for Americans. Their defamation laws enable real and sustained investigation by a variety of journals and newspapers of the corruption of "city hall" and the real confluence of power. Not so in Australia. No-one can ever suggest, let alone prove, that the real patterns of power are as devious and informal as Lorimer's American analysis. So we sit tight and believe the warm nonsense. See no evil, hear no evil… and it encourages comments like those of Professor R.S. Parker at a planning symposium in 1972: "Except for aesthetes, planners and intellectuals (overlapping categories?), people by and large seem undisturbed by noise, smoke, asphalt, commuting, crowds, traffic congestion, suburban sprawl and urban constriction and the unlovely facades of the technological metropolis – on the contrary they relish some of these features as part of the 'stimulus of city life'." If nothing else, the events of the past three to five years have proven that statement wrong. People do not like the urban guck that intellectuals like Professor Parker think they alone abhor.

Picking sides, even without investigatory evidence, purely on the sensitivity of one's political nose can be an easy ego trip for the flabby-minded–as the conservatives amongst us will be quick to point out. It is easy to think you're participating when you're not and it is easy to invite participation when the final and/or crucial decisions are yours. The question can become one of when those in power are willing to bring down the intellectual shutters and accuse the potential participants of ignorance, buffoonery and lack of concern. But there are more complex problems involved in such a process than drawing up battlements. One is that people at different levels of power see the urban environment in different ways. One of the catalysts for action in Woolloomooloo was the discovery by the new secretary of WRAG (Wooloomooloo Residents Action Group), Fr Campion of a brochure being shown around Europe and the United States characterising the 'loo as an area of poverty, vice and crime. The implication clearly was that such slums ought to go–and why not make your mint in contributing to the public weal?

The stereotype of the slum lives on at a time when the notion of slum might be more properly applied to brand new home unit blocks squashed together in rows in places like Hillsdale. The Federal Government appointed "residents" advocate in Woolloomooloo, planner Colin James, says most planners are middle-class and regard their life-style as the norm and others as deviant. "It's all right to round on a 'windscreen survey' and say: 'That's nice, that's bad, we'll pull that down'–but there might have been somebody living in that for 30-odd years who really likes it." On a more microscopic level, social psychological studies of fields such as crowding, culture bound notions of social distance, perception of neighbourhood, noise consciousness and the rest all point to the incredible relativity of planning judgements. And the logical extension of that relativity is an enforced humility on the part of the experts. The new philosophy will start to work in practice when the ivory tower social engineers of technostructures like Housing Commission and highway authorities come down and talk with people in the areas they want to obliterate – before drawing up impossible planning options.

But talking may not work either. There may be a complete polarization of values. Brenda Humble, of Woolloomooloo, says too many middle-class do-gooders come walking into struggles like the 'Loo's, expecting that they will be able to get people to appreciate their set of values. "Quite often they are just knocking their heads up against brick walls because they just do not want to believe that they cannot change people, that they cannot bring them around to 'reason'." Sometimes, she emphasizes, the desire to stay put in a neighbourhood has nothing to do with notions of community and fellow feeling. "It's sheer self-interest, stubbornness, all those sort of things", Brenda says. You might get the same stubbornness about things that middle-class people wouldn't dream of.

excerpt two

In 1973, Wendy Bacon, who had been involved at Victoria Street, interviewed Jack Bourke, the chairman of the NSW Housing Commission, for the University of New South Wales newspaper Tharunka. For the article she dug up some of the planning texts of the l940s. She knew that Bourke enrolled in the town planning department of Sydney University after World War Two. She found that one of the formative influences on the department and its thinking was the young architect and planner, Walter Gunning (alias Jersey Road controversy in Paddington, Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority board member, Centennial Park consultant and, later, compromiser on Myall Lakes mining). Gunning was in the tradition of the planners who were still being impressed by Dickensian visions of the industrial poor a century and another country away from its original conception. Gunning wrote idealistically in his 1945 book, Homes in the Sun: "This (aerial photograph of an inner city area) happens to be Sydney… It has narrow city streets, lanes and alleys and mean pocket handkerchief allotments… The children play in the lanes and alleys; they live a lane life and their parents sit on the doorsteps. The authorities call it a 'blighted area'. We call it the 'slums'.'' The solution? In true middle-class distaste for meanness and dirt, the answer was to demolish the lot and clear the land and let the air in and build modern compact towers… "The flat is best suited to solving the slum clearance problem in areas where the population is undesirably dense." Such was the planning mentality that forms the basis for today's Waterloo and all the rest!

Of all the cities in Australia, Sydney has most exhibited this willingness to do away with its living heart. Is it because of some modern-day shame about the colonial origins of its narrow city streets, lanes and alleys? Or is it simply lack of foresight, humanity and control by governments that see their role as handmaidens to profiteers rather than making independent judgements about the people's interests?

Hugh Stretton, in his gloriously eclectic, self-published work Ideas for Australian Cities (1970), talks at length about Australian concepts of what makes a city and what makes a suburb. In a very perceptive chapter on Sydney, Stretton says the city is faced "with a terrible paradox: being desperately short of good city, we must continuously destroy the very best city we've got… the New South Wales government so far concentrates job customers' traffic into the single old centre more resolutely than any other Australian or American state government does."

Stretton emphasizes two very important points in reference to one of the forces obliterating inner Sydney expressways. First: "If nothing but travellers' gains are balanced against the resumption and construction costs, the works can be said to pay for themselves by reducing travel times. Nobody surveys the personal and social injury to the thousands of displaced people. Beyond financial compensation and some rehousing, there is no attention to the general social costs or to the economic effect on the city's whole stock of buildings." Second: "Orthodox planners… see their role as merely co-ordinating and economizing the central urban reconstructions as efficiently as possible. They accept 'the people's locational decisions and follow up with the transport 'the people' obviously want. In reality of course they are doing nothing so negative. Such planning makes a drastic choice of a particular future… Nor are such policies adapting democratically 'the people's' locational decisions: they work in favour of the interests of tiny minorities of central investors and developers." Limits can be set on inner city growth and inner city destruction. Stretton instances the case of London where for 50 years the city has limited its central office development to less than half that envisaged for Sydney!

More importantly, he underlines the fact that some of the best features of cities come from deliberately keeping their inner-city communities carefully protected. "The culture of assembly and conspiracy, of theatre and gallery and cafe, of great newspapers and little magazines, of chance encounters and intellectual communities, is rarely strong in a commuters' city. Such a culture… is rarely found in quarters which empty at night. The great cities are the ones people live in." It is a point Mrs Honora Wilkinson, aged 54, made about Woolloomooloo three years ago.

The more hopeless of the community organizers would say it is inevitable that those with power, education, status, money and affluence will deprive the powerless, the uneducated, the badly thought-of and the poor of their rights. Computer maps published recently of statistics from the 1971 census in Sydney show a truly dramatic tie up between these factors. If you are a child in Redfern you have about one-quarter the chance of the child in Ku-ring-gai of getting to university. Still, in analytical terms, Australians have yet to figure out the class dimensions of their society in the way older societies have – our mythology assumes classlessness but it is too clearly only mythology.

For the question of class is central to the notion of resident participation on all sorts of levels. Jack Mundey says: "It's the working class that suffers most because they're in the worst suburbs." You don't have to be a Communist to agree with him. Stretton refers to the way in which the rich grabbed Sydney's magic – its harbourside – and priced it out of reach of anyone other than themselves. Other social scientists hold to the theory that railway lines determined Sydney's distribution of environmental wealth. For that is the question: should the less well-off be destined to the worst living conditions? Is urban amenity a commodity up for grabs on the open market, laissezfaire-like?

Critics of the green ban movement – sympathetic critics, that is – accuse it of bolstering up the current state of environmental wealth. They say green bans have simply ensured that the status quo is kept – the rich keep their Centennial Park intact and Hunter's Hill keeps its trees; the most the poor get is not to have an expressway demolish their homes, not to be obliterated by office blocks, not to be moved out west for housing towers. How?, the critics ask are the resources of this society being redistributed along more just lines?

We know what the friends of the green ban movement are saying. They are saying the movement has changed the power relations between institutions in Australian society and the people. Professor Runcie says issues like controls on demolition work and on appeals system for residents over various developments are now real talking-points. The Mundeys and the Pringles and the Owens and the rest of the BLF's leadership and the rank-and-file have effected one of those rare shifts in public thinking that occurs only a few times in a lifetime. Maybe they were madhatters and larrikins – a true Australian tradition – but, by God, there's many a Sydney resident who will remember them with love.

Reproduced with the permission of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Green Bans: Campaigns to Protect the Environment
By the 1970s the importance of the environment was becoming clear to more and more people. To varying degrees the different building unions began to respond to the change in popular consciousness. The most far-reaching response was in NSW where the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) shot to both national and international prominence as a result of their green bans. These bans saved much of historic and natural Sydney, the most famous examples being at Kelly's Bush, the Rocks, Woolloomooloo, Victoria Street in Kings Cross and Centennial Park.

The leader of the BLF and pioneer of the green ban movement was Jack Mundey. In the following 1998 interview Mundey looks back at the movement's origins:

"I think the Green Bans were probably the most exciting innovation that the Builders Labourers became involved in. There was so much development taking place and at the outset there was this feeling that 'all development was good - it was progress'.

"But as historical buildings, and buildings worthy of preservation were knocked down, and whole neighbourhoods were disrupted - for example all the working class people in the Rocks were going to be thrown out for high-rise development - a segment of the population said 'well, we should be concerned about our vanishing heritage'.

"And those people had an impact on us, because the Builders Labourers had opened up to a lot of new ideas. And ironically it was a group of women from the fashionable suburb of Hunters Hill that first came to the union saying, 'we've seen where you've said unions should be concerned about things other than wages and conditions - well here's your chance to do something.' Because a developer, AV Jennings, was coming in to knock down the last remaining bushland on the Parramatta river, and build luxurious homes for the few.

"When the ban went on at Kelly's Bush it was called a 'black ban', and of course the conservatives went off their brains about it -'these are mere labourers! - who do they think they are? - urban town planners!!' and suchlike.

"The workers on an AV Jennings' site in North Sydney passed a resolution saying they'd ban any further building on that job if a tree or a blade of grass was touched at Kelly's Bush, which really set the cat amongst the pigeons.

"And with the success of Kelly's Bush it spread like wildfire. At the time there were Residents Action Groups all over Sydney opposing over-development… and we were then inundated with requests - Woolloomooloo, the Rocks, Victoria Street, Centennial Park. And in five years there were 43 green bans.

"They became 'green' because we felt it was more descriptive of what we were doing. It wasn't workers stopping the job to up their wages and conditions. They were saying we should have a social conscience and we should be concerned about community interests. Of course the union had to fight for wages and conditions, but we also felt it had a wider obligation of social responsibility.

"And moving from 'black' to 'green' it meant that we had a new constituency. People who were normally hostile to unions came on-side. It was a very positive example of union activism, but going beyond normal unionism."

The ban on this construction work led to more than 40 other bans worth more than $3000 million of 'development'.

Green bans on building and construction work also extended beyond Sydney.

In Melbourne, the Hamer Liberal government ran into serious opposition in September 1974 over its plan to construct a power station at Newport on the mouth of the Yarra River. The Building Workers Industrial Union, the Amalgamated Metal Workers' Union, the Plumbers' Union, the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen's Association, the Electrical Trades Union and the Furnishing Trades Union argued that the environmental damage was unacceptable and banned construction work.

In Adelaide, the SA Branch of the Plumbers and Gasfitters Union challenged the Mainline Corporation's proposal to demolish the 130-year-old Australian and New Zealand Bank and build a large office tower. That union also applied bans on other development projects in the suburbs of Unley, Highbury and Norwood.

In recent years the CFMEU has continued the use of green bans - at the Sydney Conservatorium, Finger Wharf, Erskineville and once again, Centennial Park.

Men who worked in the building industry from the 1940s to the 1970s acknowledged that the working conditions were extremely poor. The work was particularly arduous. There was very little mechanisation, and ladders and scaffolding were often unsafe. Toilets, clean water and lunchrooms either did not exist or were in very poor condition. As Darcy Duggan said: '... make-shift bloody ladders, the likes of toilets of which were only four posts with a bit of hessian around, the state of the sheds was bad, just made out of corrugated iron.'

And Keith Jessop: 'There was no payment for public holidays, there was no wet weather pay, no annual leave and no sick leave. In all, it was a very hard, arduous, dusty and dirty and thankless job as a builder's labourer in those days.'

The union did not appear to do very much about these poor working conditions. A number of men became active on the job, fighting for basic conditions like clean drinking water on the sites, better amenities and basic work safety. In response to the thuggery and lack of democracy in the official union, Builders' Labourers Federation meetings were called at the Railway Institute Hall to work for a change in the running of the Union. Brawls ended these meetings when the leadership sent in their 'standover men'.

Finally, in November 1961, the Rank and File team was successful in the elections to a number of positions. Mick McNamara was elected General-Secretary, and Jack Mundey became a temporary organiser the following year. In the 1963 elections the Rank & File team won all contested positions. In 1968, Mick McNamara resigned from the Secretary's job due to ill health and Jack Mundey became the new Secretary. In 1969 Bob Pringle became the new President and Joe Owens, a temporary organiser.

The first job of the new leadership was 'to civilise the industry', as Jack Mundey put it. By the end of the 1960s an enormous amount of money was flowing into Australia and invested into the building industry. Height restrictions on buildings were lifted in Sydney and building workers were expected to develop new skills

In May 1970, builders' labourers went on strike over an increase in their wages as well as industrial recognition of their skills. This became known as the 'Margins Strike'. It was run by a Strike Committee which was characterised by a large migrant representation in order to match the make-up of the industry.

The employers responded to the strike by employing 'scab' (non-union) labour. The Strike Committee decided to form what they called vigilante groups - flying pickets - to go out to work sites and talk to the workers about conditions and the employers' use of 'scab' labour.

Some buildings were occupied by the 'vigilantes' and no work was done on the site. After five weeks, the employers accepted the demands of the union. The builders' labourers won the principle that with increasing technological change, the gap between tradesmen and labourers was closing and this should be reflected in their wages.

Victory in the Margins Strike increased the Builders' Labourers (BLs) confidence. As Tom Hogan said: 'If I were asked prior to the 1970 strike, what I did for a living, I would probably mumble, I'm just a builders' labourer. After that, if someone asked me what I did for a living, I was a bloody BL.'

In May 1971, the BLF joined forces with the Building Workers' Industrial Union (BWIU) over the issue of workers receiving full accident pay. Prior to this, workers would only receive half-pay if injured on the job. All the building unions joined in the struggle, with the BLF adopting tactics used in the Margins Strike.

On 21 May, the New South Wales (NSW) Industrial Commission awarded compensation on full pay for injured workers. The great achievement of this strike was that this decision flowed on to other industries. Once again, the BLF's reputation was enhanced as a militant industrial union that achieved results.

Jack Mundey asserted: 'If it wasn't for that civilising of the building industry in campaigns of 1970 and 1971, well then I'm sure we wouldn't have had the luxury of the membership going along with us in what was considered by some as 'avant-garde', 'way-out' actions of supporting mainly middle-class people in environmental actions. I think that gave us the mandate to allow us to go into uncharted waters.'

By 1971 the opposition to the Vietnam War had become so great that it was the main political topic in Australian society. Two large 'Vietnam Moratorium' demonstrations took place. The BLF played a significant role in helping 'draft dodgers'. Many builders' labourers and BLF officials were arrested, and this helped 'politicise' the membership. The movement that had originated on the university campuses against the Vietnam War began to branch into other areas and started to develop an ideology, becoming known as the 'New Left', and it influenced the BLF.

The BLF was also involved in supporting the Black Movement. During the 1960s the union organised demonstrations and 'talk-ins' in support of the Gurindji people. In 1972 the Black movement organised the 'Black Moratorium' following the model of the Vietnam Moratoriums. Many BLF members took part in this demonstration.

Also in 1971, the Rugby Union team of South Africa's apartheid state toured Australia. Prior to their match in Sydney, Bob Pringle and John Phillips (then BLF president) broke into the Sydney Cricket Ground and started to saw down the goal posts with a hacksaw before being arrested by the police. Many builders' labourers attended the last day's hearing when both men were fined $500 and placed on good behaviour bonds.

Many labourers worked on buildings in the inner city. After work BLs congregated in inner-city pubs where political activists also met up, particularly on a Friday night. As Joe Owens explained: 'Pubs are very important places for building workers. They are not only places to drink and meet people. You can find out lots of things in pubs when you work on the buildings. For example, if you are looking for a job, you go to the current watering hole, where someone will let you know if they've heard of anything going. You get all the latest rumours in pubs, you hear of what jobs have the best wages, or where you can pick up a day or a couple of days work. You can find out who's got sacked, where, and why.'

The BLF also participated in an annual picnic with other building unions. These were very large gatherings of over 20,000 people, including wives and children. In December 1964, 30,000 people attended a picnic at Gunnamatta Bay. This was an Australian record for a picnic crowd. Ten years later, 22,000 people attended a picnic at the same place.

The BLF tried to ensure a democratic structure of organisation. One of its principal policies was 'limited tenure of office'. This meant that after a certain period of time, an official should step down from his position in order to allow 'fresh blood' to come into the organisation. In 1973, Jack Mundey as Secretary and Dick Prendergast as Organiser stepped down from their respective positions. Then Mundey stood as Treasurer, a rank and file position, and won.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the concepts of workers' control and self-management were much discussed on the left. In 1973, the BLF, with other unions, was involved in the organisation of a conference on this issue. The BLF produced a booklet called 'Workers Call the Tune at the Opera House' which was a result of work-ins at the Opera House in 1972, resulting in improved pay and conditions and the BLs being able to elect foremen and regulate production. At the Kent Street site, BLs elected their own safety officer and foremen who would discuss with management the work schedules each day.

Early in 1974, after a four-week strike on the Wyong Shopping Plaza site, workers were offered money to leave the site so that no militant action could take place. On 9 May a worker was sacked on the site, and a week-long strike followed. It developed into an occupation as seven men took over the jib of a crane on the project. A large crowd supported the men, and Joe Owens set up a radio station, radio 2BLF, to give the men support. An attempt was made to bring a crane driver in to shift the men, but intervention by another union, FEDFA, prevented this.

After the men came down from the cranes, workers occupied the site. Calls were made for more decision-making on the job and the social usefulness of the building was questioned. A meeting of local residents and workers was held on 13 May in order to decide on the future of the project. Jack Campbell, from the FEDFA, and Joe Owens questioned whether the town needed a shopping complex more than a hospital. Much debate followed, though finally a motion was passed in support of continuing with the shopping centre project.

After six weeks the dispute was won and the union established conditions on the job that had been won earlier in Sydney.

According to Harry Connell, who worked there: 'We returned to the site but we also had some conditions there, important ones in regard to the management structure. We said the foreman must leave the site over his behaviour in the lockout, etc. The only one that's allowed on the site of the past management would be Rick Mirtus, and he's the man who brings the money up to pay the workers... In fact, we're running the job. The workers met every second day. We put our own leader-foreman in, our own leading hands, all the structure to organise the workers in production. We put our own foreman in. This was a totally new situation for the Australian trade unions.'

By 5 June 1974, the NSW BLF listed 49 green bans in the Sydney metropolitan area. Some of the green bans were still in operation, some had achieved their aims, while others had been lifted at the request of local resident action groups or the National Trust. Green bans were successful because the BLF had control over demolition and excavation work.

The first 'green ban' was round Kelly's Bush, a parkland in Hunters Hill, Sydney, in June 1971. The struggle to preserve the parkland had begun in 1968 when A.V. Jennings, a corporate developer, unsuccessfully attempted to re-zone the site. In 1969 the Council switched the area from Open Spacing Zoning to Residential Zoning. In September 1970, 'The Battlers for Kelly's Bush' were formed to oppose the re-zoning and to campaign for the State government to purchase the land.

In June 1971, the Battlers phoned the NSW BLF and other unions. Bob Pringle investigated, and recommended at the next executive meeting that the union should impose a ban. The proposition that a left-wing union should support a group of middle-class women was fiercely debated, as Joe Owens confirms: 'Pringle was the first bloke that brought the green bans to the union's attention - with the green bans in Kelly's Bush. When he came along to an executive meeting and said that these people from Kelly's Bush didn't want a building built there, a lot of us were very sceptical. My question at the time was, what the fuck are we doing tangling around with the blue-rinse brigade from over there. You know, they weren't our natural allies. But, however, Bob insisted and it went ahead.'

In Jack Mundey's words, 'Our cities had to be for people, not for corporations to plunder and destroy. Kelly's Bush wasn't just for its neighbours, it should be public land and used by everybody who wanted to use it.'

When A.V. Jennings responded that they would use 'scab' labour, a meeting of BLF members was held on a half-completed North Sydney building site and a resolution was passed that 'if one blade of grass or one tree is touched in Kelly's Bush, this half-completed building will remain forever half-completed as a monument to Kelly's Bush'. This decision provoked outrage. Tom Hogan recalls that the popular feeling in the press was that they were 'mere builders' labourers' who had the gall to make monumental decisions.

The struggle to preserve Kelly's Bush lasted for 20 years, but in 1994 the land, having been purchased in 1983, was entrusted to the care of the Hunters Hill Council by the NSW government.

The struggle to save the Rocks, Sydney's first area of European settlement, from proposed redevelopment was considered the most important green ban of the BLF. Local people had formed the Rocks Residents Group (RRG) in February 1971 to oppose plans for massive high-rise development in the area. The president of the group was Frank Ashton, a crane driver from Cockatoo Island, and the Secretary was Nita McRae, a fourth generation resident. They argued that the area housed workers and retired workers who had traditionally lived in the inner-city at affordable rents, and who with the proposed redevelopment would be forced out by increased rents.

The BLF imposed a ban, and the Rocks Residents Group developed a 'People's Plan' for the area after discussions with the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority (SCRA, set up by the NSW government) and the BLF. Jack Mundey pointed out that many office buildings had been erected during the building boom of the 1960s but lay idle whilst there remained 'a scarcity of hospitals, schools, universities, kindergartens, creches and quality homes'.

In October 1973, scabs were sent in to knock down buildings needed for the redevelopment. For two weeks the Rocks became a battleground for Premier Askin's law and order campaign leading up to a State election. Local residents demonstrated against the scabs, who were protected by a large number of police. Many residents were arrested along with Jack Mundey, Joe Owens and Denise Bishop of the BLF and R. Divers of the Waterside Workers' Federation. When they were released in the middle of the day, they held a meeting at the Sydney Trades Hall and a mass rally at Circular Quay the next day.

The green ban stayed in the Rocks until the 1975 takeover of the NSW BLF Branch by the federal union.

Woolloomooloo was probably the most successful BLF green ban. Woolloomooloo had traditionally housed maritime workers who worked on the nearby wharves. Prior to the 1970s, the area had suffered major disruption when the Cahill Expressway was built through the suburb. The proposed Eastern Suburbs railway line was also planned to cut through the heart of the area. As the central business district began to expand close to the city, Darlinghurst and Woolloomooloo, like the Rocks, were earmarked for redevelopment.

In 1969 the State Planning Authority (SPA) proposed a plan which would demolish housing so that 90,000 people could work in high-rise office blocks.

The 'Loo residents established an action group at a street meeting on 8 October 1972. The Secretary of the group was Edmund Campion, a Catholic priest at a local church, St. Columbkilles. They approached the BLF, and a green ban was placed on the area in February 1973.

Pressure from the local residents, coupled with the continuing BLF green ban, enabled a satisfactory community solution to be reached in the beginning of 1975.

Victoria Street in 1969 was a street of terraced houses built around 1900 in Kings Cross, overlooking Woolloomooloo. Its residents were artists, wharfies, seamen and other people who worked in the area. In 1969 the developer and wealthy Sydney businessman, Frank Theeman, submitted a plan for three 45-storey towers to be built in the street.

In early 1973, Theeman submitted another plan - with a 20 storey tower set on a three-storey podium with stepped development and a six-storey car park - and on 3 April, Victoria Street residents were given notice to vacate their properties within the week. By the end of that week, 100 residents had left. Some were offered money inducements, some had their gas and electricity cut off, and others had their houses broken into and bricks thrown through windows.

The BLF placed a green ban on the street. By the middle of 1973 only a handful of residents remained in their houses and these included the wharfie and seaman, Mick Fowler. After consultation with residents and BLF officials, Mick, who had returned to Victoria Street after a long stint at sea, decided he would 'make a fight of it' and stay for as long as he possibly could. A number of politically active people organised to squat in the buildings. The next six months saw a battle to evict the squatters with a combination of physical intimidation and legal action. Theeman's security guards patrolled the streets, carrying pickhandles and intimidating the squatters, who set up child-care facilities, a playgroup and other community projects such as a food cooperative, and issued a newsletter called Victoria Street.

On 3 January 1974, at seven o'clock in the morning, a team of 30 men moved into 13 houses which had been occupied by the squatters. Eighty squatters were cleared from the buildings and 44 people were arrested, including Joe Owens.

The evictions of the squatters forced the remainder of the tenants to leave - everyone except Mick Fowler - who remained in the street for the next three years. The struggle ended with a stand-off. The developer had been forced to alter his plans, but the residents had been forced out.

Other green bans include the fight against the Opera House Car Park, the struggle to save the Newcastle Hotel from demolition, the fight to prevent the North West Freeway cutting a path through the inner-city suburbs, and the struggle to save the Theatre Royal from demolition.

The Newcastle Hotel, on the outskirts of the Rocks, was a pub frequented by residents of the area as well as by artists, poets, political activists and the famous 'Sydney Push'. The pub was to be demolished as part of the Rocks redevelopment plans. The BLF placed a green ban on the site, and, standing at the bar of the hotel, Jack Mundey stated: 'This pub is a symbol of what all thinking Australians are concerned about. Builders' labourers are not going to say 'Thank you' to the boss and build what we are told. We will preserve the best of Sydney and we will decide which buildings will be put up and which will be pulled down'.

The hotel was eventually demolished, but only many years later.

The BLF also used industrial bans to protect the rights of the vulnerable. In 1973 the BLF came to the support of Jeremy Fisher, a Macquarie University student expelled from a residential college of the university for declaring himself a homosexual. When Bob Pringle addressed the workers at the Macquarie University site about the issue, they immediately walked off the job and determined that no work would occur until he was reinstated at the college - which he was, fairly swiftly.

When a proposed women's studies course, to be offered by Joan Curthoys and Liz Jacka, was vetoed by the Professorial Board at Sydney University, the BLF threatened the university with a green ban on some building projects which needed urgent completion. The University allowed the course to be taught by the women.

The success of those two actions encouraged the BLF to take further action. Penny Short was a Macquarie University student financed by a Teacher Education scholarship from the NSW Department of Education. She wrote a poem for Arena, the University's student newspaper, about the experience of making love to another woman. She was summoned to an interview with a psychiatrist, who told her she would lose her scholarship 'because the Department didn't allow this sort of thing'. Later she was told officially that her scholarship was terminated because she had 'personality and emotional problems'.

A 1,000-strong student general meeting on 27 March 1973, addressed by Penny Short and representatives of the New South Wales teachers' union, called a demonstration to demand that Short be reinstated. The BLF responded by saying that all maintenance work on Education Department and other government offices would be banned unless the scholarship was restored.

This surge of working-class action was eventually broken when the federal leadership of the Builders' Labourers Federation, under the Maoist Norm Gallagher, intervened to smash the New South Wales BLF and set up a new loyalist NSW branch. In June 1974 the federal BLF was 'de-registered' - had its legal status removed - on grounds of the NSW BLF's green bans. In October the federal BLF started issuing new 'federal' union tickets in NSW, and major employers started sacking BLs who kept NSW BLF 'tickets'. By April 1975 the BLF Federal Council felt strong enough to expel Jack Mundey and 25 other NSW builders' labourers from the union for life. In November 1975 came the 'Kerr coup': the Governor-General [appointed by the British Queen] sacked the reforming Labor government of Gough Whitlam and installed the Liberal Malcolm Fraser as prime minister. After an upsurge of demonstrations and strikes, Fraser kept office, and the whole Australian labour movement swung rightwards.

This article is an adapted excerpt from Greg Mallory's University of Queensland PhD thesis, Going Into Uncharted Waters, Department of History, University of Queensland, 1999.

Jack Mundey talks to Geraldine O’Brien about challenges to conserve Sydney’s heritage

‘O'brien G. 'Jack of Spades’, insites: newsletter of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Winter 1998

There was a time, back in the early '70s, when then-National Trust director John Morris phoned then-Builders' Labourers' Federation leader Jack Mundey to arrange a meeting. Mundey suggested they meet at the Federation's office; Morris demurred. So Mundey suggested he front up to the National Trust office; Morris was appalled.

Eventually they met in the bar of the Royal George, on Sussex Street. Elaborate signals for recognition had been provided by Morris – totally unnecessarily, as it happened, for when Mundey arrived, the only person in the saloon bar was the promised "red-bearded, with glasses, in a check sports-jacket' John Morris himself.

Why all the secrecy, Mundey wondered?

"Oh Jack,' said Morris, "the more conservative supporters of the National Trust just wouldn't understand."

Communist union leader and leader of the National Trust became, and remain, firm friends. Both have dined out on the tale but its real moral is how the times have indeed 'a changed,' just like the song promised. And yet, in some respects, they remain disturbingly familiar.

Jack Mundey, now chairman of the Historic Houses Trust, concedes that the "concrete and glass" keeps sprouting in Sydney, with "more and more space going for expressways and the great god car'.

"We've got to fight hard to keep what we've got."

And even he is not sure just how that can be done: "I don't know... I'd like to think civic awareness is a cyclical thing, and I hope that again people will start getting concerned as they were in the 1960-1975 boom when Sydney was just about destroyed..."

It was that boom period, with its attendant notion that "all progress was good," which gave rise to determined resident action which, in turn, was reinforced by the world-renowned "green bans".

It began, famously, with Kellys Bush, –"Hunters Hill?… But we haven't got any members there" Mundey remembers builders' labourers saying – and continued in bans on Victoria Street, The Rocks (thereby saving Susannah Place), the expressway that would have obliterated 25,000 homes through Glebe, Annandale, Leichhardt and out to Concord (thereby saving Lyndhurst) and the Pitt Street Congregational Church (which the Minister wanted replaced with a 20-storey building).

In Martin Place there were bans on demolition of the bank on the George Street corner, on the National Mutual building on the Pitt Street corner and on the George Street Societe Generale – in total bans between 1971 and 1975.

The union was selective in applying the green bans, Mundey says: "There always had to be an approach to the union from the community, there had to be genuine widespread concern and public meeting held to request a ban."

Even so, the Askin government damned it as industrial anarchy and the Sydney Morning Herald editorialised that "Mr Mundey and his men" should stick to demolishing and building what they were told.

It is almost impossible from this perspective to remember just how draconian some of the proposals were and just how wedded the decision-makers were to the glory of 'progress'. The first scheme for The Rocks proposed bulldozing the lot, then the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority, with the emphasis on 'redevelopment', agreed to preserve some token buildings.

Woolloomooloo was to be razed, and there were bitter battles over Centennial Park which brought even the normally reticent Patrick White to the barricades.

But backing resident outrage was the force of the union bans and sadly, given "the enormous hostility of this present [Federal] government to trade unions, it's hard to see any union breaking new ground in that way now," Mundey says.

"But there are groups of young architects questioning the logic of the bigger architectural firms in Sydney's development; there's growing concern in the community as shown in the campaigning for the harbour foreshores, and there's a stirring among people over indecent development in this city."

Earthbeat, ABC Radio, Saturday 5/12/98

Greens Bans Revisited

As our population becomes more urbanised the green spaces in our cities are increasingly coming under pressure. Scarce parkland and open foreshores have been swallowed up by roads, housing and high rise developments. Just last week a green ban was placed on work at the Conservatorium in Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens so we thought it was timely to have a chat with the originator of the green bans, Jack Mundey.


Martin Hewetson: NSW Branch of the Builder's Labourers Federation has been disbanded for almost 25 years now. During the build and boom of the late 60s and early 70s the BLF refused to demolish many historic buildings thereby preserving them for future generations and coining the phrase green ban. In three years they placed green bans on 42 developments worth 5,000 million dollars. In the process stopping developers razing the historic Rocks, much of Victoria Street in Kings Cross as well as Woolloomooloo.

Jack Mundey was the Secretary of the NSW Branch of the BLF during the green ban period and I spoke to him about the environment, the future and how the union was different.

Jack Mundey: The time, look at the time. The time was the '60s. It was the time of the Vietnam War. We were opposed to the Vietnam War. We were the first union to bring down blacks and take them round the building sites get support when they went on strike at Garingee up in the Northern Territory. We fought at the time of the referendum, we fought for the right of the disgraceful position where our indigenious people were neglected. We fought for the rights of those people for that referendum. We were involved in all of those movements which I think made the union different.

Martin Hewetson: The BLF had some very radical ideas in its time some of which you've already mentioned, limited tenure of office, championing the causes of women and indigenious Australians, letting the rank and file.control members have a far greater say in matters that concern then. Yet out of all of these and more it's basically the green bans that captured the public imagination. That's the one that's remembered most. Why do you think that was?

Jack Mundey: At the time there was a notion that all development was good and the thinking segment of the population started to question this. When heritage building after heritage building was razed to the ground, when people were turfed out of their homes to make way for high rise development, when whole communities were effected there was a changing nation. And having in mind that in the 60s and 70s at one stage there was something like four to five hundred resident action groups and they were part of the community. Those resident action groups and the environmentalists and the builder's labourers linking up together were a very potent force. And so, had it just been the Builder's Labourers on their own, we could never have achieved that.

But we had widespread support across the whole political spectrum. In fact, many people who had voted for the Askin Government were on side with us in saving fig trees in the Botanical Gardens or in saving the lochs or Kelly's Bush. Centennial Park was to be turned into a sporting stadium. People rose up in the anger so on the one hand we had conservative union leaders such as the Labour Council leaders and others berating the Builder's Labourers for going too far quote, but on the other hand we had people who were smaller Liberals and larger Liberals saying, look normally we are against unions, particularly a Marxist led union like ours, but we find ourselves on side with them, So, it was this dichotomy and this new dimension of people's concern for the environment that put the built environment on the agenda. Before the green bans there was a notion that the environment was the preserve of the better educated, well to do or middle upper classes and mainly about forests, or lakes or about the Barrier Reef of things like. Nature conservation.

But of course the point is that we are one of the most urbanised countries on earth. So the damage that this was doing to the city, this over development was doing to the city, the progressive segment of the population were right on side with the green ban, and were really instrumental in the green ban.

Martin Hewetson: To many people listening they'll think you must have been a very large and powerful union. Yet you actually were quite a small union with 11,000 members. I mean how could such a small union actually do so much?

Jack Mundey: Well I think the thing was that even though it was a small union we had a high level of union membership. Say 95% of all workers working as builder's labourers were in a union and also having in mind that we were the ones that did all the demolition. A building couldn't be demolished unless builder's labourers went on. Conversely, when the first footings of a new building commenced we were the ones in the bowels of the earth digging up and putting those footings in place. So we had enormous bargaining power as to the demolition of buildings and the building of buildings.

Martin Hewetson: So do you think the conditions, they allowed the NSW branch of the BLF to be so strong, do you think they could ever repeat themselves again then?

Jack Mundey: Well of course it could happen again. I think it was a demonstration that unions in the main are very conservative and even left wing unions are mainly blinkered by questions of economics. And I believe that unions should, and if unions are going to have a real role in the future, must broaden their image to become more concerned with social, ecological and other issues of the broader community.

Because the reason that the Builder's Labourers even now 30 years on, 25 years on, are so respected because of the legacy that they left.

Martin Hewetson: But isn't it now perceived with the strength of economic rationalism that the environment is a luxury the union movement can't afford? I mean greens costs jobs and all those stickers.

Jack Mundey: I think that was always there. After all it was raised in our day too. And we argued which buildings should we build. After all at the height of the building boom there was 10 million square feet of unrented office space in the middle of Sydney. At the same time there were 55,000 people waiting on a Housing Commission list. So we argued that we should have a say in which buildings are built. That there should be a diversion of finance and energy and materials to build buildings that are socially useful. So I think that the question of social responsibility and social useful maker of production consumption will always be political issues. I think it's a fact that the union movement is so conservative they haven't taken them up. There was a widespread support that went wider that just the union movement.

Martin Hewetson: So you have this widespread support an were considered the Robin Hood of Unions. How come you were so easily disbanded in 1975? What actually went wrong near the end?

Jack Mundey: Well it wasn't easily disbanded. I mean the short answer to that is when they couldn't bribe or coerce the leadership and having in mind they offered the leadership millions of dollars to lift green bans, when they couldn't do that, they then used a corrupt element of the union movement who was later goaled for taking secret commission, the Gallagher leadership, to come into NSW and so it was an alliance of the Askin Government and a corrupt union coming against us. And so the situation, the rank and file never left the union but when you have the situation where the police were blocking workers from going to work and saying only Gallagher's workers could go in, we called all our members together and said right, we will all go in to the Gallagher's Union and we'll fight from within.

We all went into that union. Gallagher responded together with the support of the employers and the government and expelled all the leaders of the union. Expelled us. All of the democratically elected leadership were expelled. So we were driven outside the union movement. The answer to it is of course that the combined forces, it might sound a bit Shakespearian, combined forces of reaction were able to break the union. But they haven't broken the legacy of that union."

References / Links

Verity Burgmann
Power and Protest: Movements for Change in Australian Society, Allen & Unwin, 1993