For Jack Mundey, Union Militancy and Environmentalism Went Hand in Hand

With the death this week of Jack Mundey, Australia has lost a giant of trade unionism. His green-socialist vision put labor militancy and democratic control at the heart of society and pushed back against the rapaciousness of urban development.

Jack Mundey was a legendary figure in the Australian trade union movement. A member of the Communist Party from the late 1950s until its dissolution in 1991 and later, a member of the Australian Greens, Mundey maintained a lifelong commitment to solidarity. As an elected leader of the New South Wales branch of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) from 1968 to 1973, he pioneered the pathbreaking “green bans” that combined union power with the environmental movement. Together, building workers and community groups saved urban green spaces, preserved workers’ houses in the inner city, and guarded valuable historic buildings against demolition. This movement began in Sydney, but its legacy lives in landmark buildings like Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market and Flinders Street Railway Station, and Brisbane’s The Mansions.

The early 1970s were the high-water mark of the Australian union movement, and the communist-led BLF was at the forefront of the commitment to rank-and-file-driven strategies, union democracy, and broad solidarity. In Mundey’s time as a leader of the BLF, union leaders were elected and paid the same rates as the workers they organized. When Aboriginal stockmen went on strike, the union toured them on construction sites to build solidarity. Elsewhere, they downed tools to force universities to allow a women’s liberation course and to rescind the expulsion of a gay student. The BLF pushed employers to hire women as builders’ laborers for the first time and organized in solidarity with the people of Vietnam and the campaign against apartheid in South Africa.

At the peak of the BLF’s strength, not only did construction workers win significant improvements to wages and conditions, they began to assert control over their workplaces and to determine the “end result of labor.”

In tribute to Jack’s life and work, we present this edited transcript of a speech he made in October 2011 at Melbourne University, forty years after the BLF and local residents in Kelly’s Bush, Sydney, led the first green ban. We thank Judy Mundey for her permission to publish.

A Red Union Leads Green Bans

It’s a tall order to talk about events that began in Sydney forty years ago. But that’s where the green ban movement started. It was one of the most invigorating campaigns in Australia’s history.

For our part, the BLF organized 90 percent of builders’ laborers. Back then, there were ten or twelve unions in the building industry. Carpenters had their own union, as did bricklayers, painters, plasterers, and so on. But the builders’ laborers did all the hard work. This gave us strength. For example, all construction had to commence with footings made by builders’ laborers. Likewise, we were the first ones to work on demolishing old buildings. It gave us a lot of bargaining power.

Before the late 1950s, the building industry hadn’t changed for a long time. After the Depression, building stopped in most of the main cities — and then the war came along. All through to the 1950s, little construction took place. Then, in the late ’50s, they lifted the height limits. When I started in the building industry in the mid-1950s, the highest building was 150 feet [46 meters] or twelve stories. After that, the sky became the limit. Australia was undergoing rapid development; the faces of Sydney and Melbourne in particular were changing. This meant workers’ homes were being knocked down in favor of skyscrapers.

The BLF argued that we should also be concerned about the sort of buildings we were making. What’s the point of higher wages and conditions if we live in cities devoid of trees, with too much high-rise development and too few workers’ homes? It wasn’t just a question of what we were paid for our labor, but of what our labor produces. So we raised the issues of socially useful production and consumption. Of course, workers have got to fight for wages and conditions — but they should have a wider vision of what they are making and how it is used.

This attitude, as well as our emphasis on union democracy, and the union’s healthy attitude on wider issues, like the anti-war movement, women’s liberation, and solidarity with Aboriginal workers, helped us respond well to the environment movement and develop the green bans.

Later on, it started as a heritage issue. For example, the National Trust came to us and argued that we should refuse to demolish certain buildings that should be preserved for posterity. They were right. We said we would take advantage of that and assist them.

Ironically, it wasn’t the BLF but a group of middle-class women who lay down in front of the bulldozers for the first time. It happened at Kelly’s Bush, in the very fashionable suburb of Hunters Hill, Sydney. They knew that I had said that in a modern society, we should look beyond wages and conditions alone. So, in a last-ditch effort to save their suburb, these women approached the BLF, telling us, “Well, here’s a chance to put your theory into practice.” When we called a residents’ meeting, over 500 people attended who wanted to preserve that open bushland against overdevelopment.

AVJennings, a Melbourne-based developer, threatened to ignore the union and use scab labor to knock down the bush. So workers held a meeting at an AVJennings job nearby, in the North Sydney area. They decided that if one blade of grass or one tree was touched at Kelly’s Bush, that half-completed building would remain so forever. This had the desired effect — AVJennings backed down. Forty years ago just last month, Kelly’s Bush celebrated its existence. The first green ban was very successful.

This unleashed a tremendous wave of calls for green bans. Of course, our trade was to make buildings — and we didn’t want all building stopped. So we said to people: “You have to come to the union and display what you want to do — and we will decide.” We always followed this pattern. It was never one group of people calling the shots; a green ban had to be proposed and supported by local groups.

At the same time, residents’ action groups were springing up, comprised of locals who wanted to have a say and not just leave the future of their suburbs to big business and Liberal premier Robert Askin’s corrupt state government. It’s important to remember, there was real democracy in the way that the green bans were imposed.

The next bans were in The Rocks, in Sydney. The suburb is the oldest part of urban Australia, built by the first convicts in the eighteenth century. Developers were going to knock down all of these convict-era buildings and replace them with high-rise development. At Kelly’s Bush, a lot of the activists were middle or upper class. But the campaign to save The Rocks was led by Nita McCrae, a barmaid. Workers had lived in The Rocks for four or five generations, and now, they refused to be dispersed to make way for high-rise buildings. Again, the authorities said they were going to use scab labor. In response, the BLF stopped all its Sydney workers. Over five thousand builders’ laborers marched down to The Rocks, where residents had holed up in the houses to prevent demolition. The Rocks is still there today thanks to that. Every year, over 3 million people visit the birthplace of urban Australia, thanks to the BLF’s green bans.

Centennial Park is another example. It’s the biggest park in Sydney, and it was going to be destroyed to make space for a giant sports stadium, in the faint hope we might have hosted the 1988 Olympics. This was in 1972, under the Askin Liberal government. A number of famous people lived in Centennial Park, including Patrick White, the marvelous old novelist, Vincent Serventy, the famous naturalist, and Harry M. Miller, the entrepreneur. It was a better-off area of Sydney. But they came out, too, and marched to Trades Hall, asking the union to impose a ban. A green ban was imposed, and Centennial Park is there today because of that. We finally did get the Olympics in 2000, but in a very different area, not in this beautiful park. [The 2000 Sydney Olympics were hosted in Homebush Bay, a former industrial site advocated for by Mundey when Centennial Park was under threat.]

In the course of three years, we imposed forty-two green bans, holding up $5 billion worth of work [in early 1970s prices]. This is partly what made the green bans so significant. They weren’t about workers looking out for their own hip pocket, but for society in general. Yes, it’s our job to build, but we wanted to determine which buildings we built — we were concerned about the end results of our labor.

Look at global warming now — the question of what labor produces is important to everyone. To create an environment that can harmonize with nature, we will have to take power over this. The BLF’s green bans were a very important first step toward this.

From the Green Bans to Eco-Socialism

I want to say a couple of things about the importance of the bans. They helped inspire the Greens movement. Petra Kelly was the first leader of the German Greens and one of the first Greens elected to any parliament in the world in 1983. She came to Sydney in the 1970s and saw the green bans. She admired the way in which working-class and middle-class people came together and later attributed the formation of the Greens to this.

Particularly in Sydney there was enormous publicity about the bans. Looking back, almost every day, they were in the newspaper headlines. We were being attacked and vilified, naturally, by the government and big business. The Askin period was very corrupt and repressive. Many of the fighters for the green bans were jailed. At times, the consequences were worse. Juanita Nielsen was a leader in Victoria Street, in Kings Cross. After holding up development there, she vanished, and her body was never found. She was murdered. Of course, myself and other union leaders were also threatened. And we were offered millions of dollars to lift the green bans.

But we were applauded at the same time. A typical letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald would read, “Normally we don’t like unions, but we find ourselves on side with the Builders Labourers.”

These struggles won the first heritage legislation. Prior to the 1970s, developers could knock down anything they wanted. When the National Trust, a very conservative body mainly made up of the well-to-do, came to the union, we responded, saying: “Well, if you’re going to look after buildings, then we’ll be part of it, too.” So we imposed a ban on any building the National Trust considered worthy of preservation. Over 150 buildings were saved in this way.

Finally, when the Askin government was defeated in 1976, Neville Wran’s Labor government brought in New South Wales’ first heritage legislation in 1979. The BLF and the residents’ action groups forced the parliament to make these laws.

The green bans made an international impact. I was invited to speak all over the world, in England, Canada, Europe, and even the United States. As I was a member of the Communist Party, the USA initially refused my entry. Finally they allowed me in for one month, only to speak at a conference in San Francisco.

Today, global warming is widely recognized — but it was only in 1972 that the first international conference on the environment was held in Stockholm. They couldn’t reach agreement on what constituted the environment. Nature conservationists defined the environment as trees, lakes, rivers, oceans, while others said that half the world’s population were living in cities and argued that the built environment should be included. So, another conference was held in 1976 in Vancouver, called Habitat, which discussed the built environment. Because of the green bans, I was invited to address it. Looking back, it’s interesting to note how long it took before environmentalism became a universal concern.

After the Vancouver conference, we started to discuss what to do after the green bans. We were inspired by socialism — but we were trying to develop an ecological idea of socialism. We saw that in the twentieth century, both capitalism and socialism failed the environment; they both aimed to conquer nature and use it for humanity’s benefit. I can’t see any form of capitalism being sustainable, since it is based on growth and a blind adherence to profit. But the Soviet Union and China also failed; in their arrogance, they were not concerned for future generations, but about mastering nature. I joined the Communist Party in the 1950s and remained a member until it went out of operation in 1991. But it seemed to me that the party had failed socialism.

If we are going to have a twenty-first century, and if socialism is going to be successful, it should be directed toward harmonizing with nature and other living species. The big question is: Can multinational corporations be controlled? This won’t be possible under capitalism, given the power they have. Capitalism cannot be humanized. So to move from a consumer to a conserver society, we have to go beyond capitalism.

To do this, we need to revive the political spirit of the 1970s union movement. Today, we are told it is either jobs or the environment. Instead of finding a way to preserve the environment by creating socially necessary jobs, they are posed against each other. But I can’t see unions doing this while they’re still shackled with the kind of penal powers that stopped them from being really effective up to 1969.

But I don’t think we have a choice. The only chance for humanity and other species is if ecology becomes the driving force of the twenty-first century. So I remain an ecological socialist, based on my life experiences of the connection between the environment and action around the environment. This is the richest thing that I experienced.

I hope I’m not accused of walking down memory lane too much. But we’ve just celebrated forty years of the first green ban — those areas in Sydney still exist today, and over forty of those bans are still there. I think the green bans were a wonderful success made possible when the working class linked together with better elements of the middle class, bringing about real change. That’s why it’s such a positive story. And as an old bloke, I’m allowed to walk down memory lane a bit with a story like that.