Donate to Links


Click on Links masthead to clear previous query from search box

GLW Radio on 3CR





Syndicate

Syndicate content

A glimpse of what could be: The NSW BLF, the most radical and innovative union the world has ever seen

 

NSW Builders Labourers Federation Union secretary Jack Mundey is arrested during the ‘green bans’ at The Rocks in 1973 which saved the historic buildings of Sydney's birthplace 

 

By John Tully

 

Fifty years ago, a group of dedicated left-wing activists wrested control of the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) from the corrupt gangster types who had used it to feather their own nests. The militants, who included Jack Mundey, Joe Owens and Bob Pringle, rebuilt the union into a radically democratic, socially progressive and environmentally-aware organisation the likes of which Australia—and the world—had never seen. Today, we live in dark times for trade unionism. Only around 7% of workers in private industry are organised and unionists face ruthless attacks by the bosses and the state. The achievements of the NSW BLF, however, give us a glimpse of the liberating potential of the working class and are a beacon for the future.

 

It is to the great credit of militant building workers in Australia that almost 50 years ago they nailed their green colours to the mast and insisted that ecology was as much the concern of workers as wages and conditions. Jack Mundey asked “What is the use of higher wages alone, if we have to live in cities devoid of parks, denuded of trees, in an atmosphere poisoned by pollution and vibrating with the noise of hundreds of thousands of units of private transport?”

 

The union did not claim to be perfect—it was a work-in-progress, inventing itself as it went—but it showed that an alternative kind of unionism was possible. Its innovative radicalism shocked the bosses and conservative politicians, and confounded right-wing union bureaucrats by its daring larrikinism. It shook up Sydney in a way that had only been the stuff of dreams for socialists and surprised many who had written off the working class as a force for progressive change. Sadly, as the years go by, its achievements risk being forgotten under the crushing weight of neoliberal ideology.

 

As elsewhere in Australia, the BLF covered the unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the building and construction industry: labourers of various types; concrete finishers; jackhammer-men; excavation workers; hoist drivers; steel fixers who placed the steel rods and bars for reinforced concrete; scaffolders; powder monkeys or explosives experts; riggers, who erected cranes, gantries, hoists and other structures, along with structural steelwork and bridges; and dogmen, who slung loads from cranes and “rode the hook” hundreds of metres above the city streets in a spectacular, but hazardous aerial performance. Due to technological change in the industry, much of their work became at least as skilled as that of the traditional craftsmen, who had served traditional apprenticeships, and who were organised in separate unions at that time.

 

Much of the union’s membership was born overseas. In the years after World War II, millions of immigrants poured into Australia, many of them from southern and eastern Europe. Few made their fortune, although many had been lured with stories of streets paved with gold. Most of them became fodder for the factories, mines and mills that sprung up during the post-war boom. Many became construction workers and unless they had specific transferable skills, that meant working as builders’ labourers, mixing and placing concrete, carrying bricks, or digging deep into the Sydney sandstone for the foundations of the new high rise buildings. Immigrants did the dirty, hard, and dangerous jobs that the “native born” were often reluctant to do. By the 1960s, by Jack Mundey’s reckoning, around 70 per cent of the NSW BLF’s members were foreign-born.

 

For many decades the NSW BLF was run by gangsters; corrupt elements including defrocked lawyers and apolitical thugs who would bash opposition activists on command. One official was notorious for collecting the union dues, then spending the money on protracted drinking bouts. He even collected money from workers on the Snowy Mountains scheme, over which the BLF had no coverage, and drank it away! These characters had no interest in winning better wages and conditions for the members, nor did they want to see strong on-the-job organisation, which would undermine their power, and imperil the sweetheart deals they made with the bosses which personally enriched them. Many of the union’s members spoke little or no English, but bureaucrats who were in any case uninterested in their opinions did not see that as a problem. There was no translation of reports when meetings were held—in fact the members could be more easily sold out when they had little inkling of what the organisers were talking about. As a consequence, BLF members were paid a fraction of the wages of the carpenters, plumbers, electricians and other skilled tradesmen in the industry.

 

The gangsters too, were uninterested in health and safety issues. As Pete Thomas writes in his book Taming the Concrete Jungle, in three years in the 1960s, there was “an appalling total of over 61,000 compensation cases—some fatal, others creating permanent disabilities, others lesser but still cruel— ... in NSW building construction and maintenance.” In one year alone in the early 1970s, 44 building workers died in NSW. Fourteen dogmen died in another year. Nearly 250 Sydney excavation workers died from silicosis between 1948 and the 1960s, victims of the dust from the hard sandstone that they cut and blasted. There was little change until after the militants began the hard battle to “civilize” the industry. Even then, as building workers know to this day, health and safety is a constant battle in a hazardous industry in which corners are cut to boost profits.

 

Conditions on some sites were disgusting, with rat-infested humpies masquerading as lunch rooms and toilets—where they were provided—overflowing with filth. Nor did the existence of a legally-constituted union award or contract mean that workers automatically received the correct pay rates. Many bosses paid what they could get away with, particularly for youngsters who had little idea of their rights and entitlements.

 

The militants gained control of the union only after a bitter struggle lasting over ten years. One of those activists was a young man called Jack Mundey. Born into a poor Irish Catholic family in North Queensland, Mundey came to Sydney in 1951 to play Rugby League for Parramatta. A little later, after spending time in other jobs, he started work as a builder’s labourer and joined the union and then the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). [1] Mundey was elected Secretary of the NSW BLF in 1968. In 1973, he was succeeded by another CPA member, Joe Owens, an ex-seaman who had jumped ship to work as a rigger and dogman in Auckland and Sydney. The son of a Geordie miner who had contracted black-lung down the pit, Owens had an unswerving commitment to improving the health and safety of his fellow workers. In the 1950s and ’60s, the CPA was still an industrial force to be reckoned with, although its star had waned since the heyday of the 1940s when it all but controlled the peak council of the union movement, the ACTU.

 

The CPA was a contradictory force. During the late 1940s and early ’50s, when the Cold War was raging, it had identified itself slavishly with the Soviet Union and at the same time it had sunk to rigging ballots in elections to maintain its tight grip on unions under its control: most notoriously in the case of the Federated Ironworkers’ Association. Despite this, many of the best militants in the labour movement continued to look to the CPA for leadership and by the 1960s the party leadership had abandoned much of the old sectarian dogmatism, which had isolated them from the majority of trade union members who supported the ALP.

 

Inside the NSW BLF and other unions, party members adopted the tactic of “unity tickets” with left wing members and supporters of the ALP. The tactic bore fruit and when the militants ousted the gangsters, a real unity had been forged between Communists such as Jack Mundey and Labor Party members such as Bob Pringle and Mick McNamara. Pringle, who was elected union president, was a socialist who insisted in defiance of dog-eat-dog capitalist ideology that “the strong should defend the weak”.

 

Although the union had pursued a militant course under Mundey’s immediate predecessors, this was stepped up once he took up a full-time position. The new leaders of the union saw that the traditional craft unions had been adversely affected by deskilling brought about by changes in the industry from the 1960s on. However, the skills of their own members had been enhanced and the old image of the BL as an unskilled tradesman’s helper and general labourer was out of date.

 

While BLF members still did much of the hardest, dirtiest, most dangerous and least skilled work in the industry, the new construction techniques meant that they had become every bit as important as the tradesmen, particularly on high-rise city sites. When I was an assistant rigger, a highly-experienced foreman rigger told me, “I regard myself as the equal of any tradesman; and you should never forget it.” These facts gave the union much more industrial clout than previously, but it was not reflected in BLs’ pay rates, which lagged far behind those of the traditional craftsmen. The militants were determined that the situation had to change.

 

In 1970, the union embarked on a campaign of militant strikes, effectively shutting down building sites with mass picketing by “vigilantes” on a scale not seen before in the industry. The employers, not used to mass participation of the membership in industrial action, caved in after five weeks and granted large across the board pay rises and, most importantly, set BLs’ wages at a minimum of 90 per cent of the craftsmen’s rates; more for the highest skilled BLs. Indeed, in some cases, such as where riggers worked alongside boilermaker-welders, who were covered by separate industrial agreements, BLF members were paid more than the tradesmen. At the same time, the union experimented with the ideas of workers’ control, occupying construction sites, electing their own foremen, staging sit-ins and “working in” in response to lock-outs, poor safety conditions and sackings.

 

The union also began to campaign for permanency. At the time, builders’ labourers were generally employed on hourly hire: their employment could be terminated at an hour’s notice. Workers often used up what annual leave they had accumulated searching for a new job when their old one had finished. The worst scoundrels among the employers even put workers off before Christmas to avoid payment for the public holidays. Hourly hire was also used as a weapon against workers who stepped out of line by demanding their rights: knowing that you could be out the gate at an hour’s notice tended to dampen militancy. With fresh leadership and mass participation, the long-downtrodden BLs had found a new solidarity and dignity. One old militant interviewed in Pat Fiske’s film Rocking the Foundations recalled that before the left’s takeover of the union, builders’ labourers would, if questioned about their occupation, reply self-deprecatingly, “Oh, I’m just a labourer”. Afterwards, they would answer proudly, “I’m a bloody BL”.

 

Under Mundey’s leadership, the union also began to involve itself in struggles that went far beyond the traditional brief of wages and conditions (which, as the leadership stressed, remained the core of union business.). This was the period of the Vietnam War, when hundreds of thousands of people marched against Australian military involvement on the side of the US and its Saigon client state. It was the period of the May 1968 upsurge in France, when young people around the world set out to “storm the heavens”’ in search of a new society. This radical mood was reflected inside the CPA, particularly after the Warsaw Pact powers invaded Czechoslovakia to end the “Prague Spring”, which had sought “socialism with a human face”.

 

Back in 1956, when the USSR invaded Hungary, the CPA had remained loyal to Moscow, despite the loss of many of its members. This time, the CPA publicly condemned the invasion. A small pro-Moscow group split away, but many party members welcomed the radical new direction and enthusiastically adopted the new ideas. Even earlier, in 1966, the CPA leadership had roundly condemned the trial of the Soviet dissidents Daniel and Sinyavsky. Mundey himself pays tribute to the radical shift in the policies and attitudes in the Communist Party leadership: “I’m sure that none of our innovations would have been possible except for the changes in the Communist Party of Australia, even though we went beyond the CPA mainstream”. The Mundey leadership had in fact broken with the old Stalinism that had deformed the party.

 

The BLF leaders threw their union behind the anti-war movement and into other causes such as the fight against apartheid in South Africa. In one instance, Bob Pringle and other BLs cut down the goalposts to disrupt a rugby match against the South African Springboks, who were selected on the basis of race. They encouraged women to work in what had hitherto been an all-male preserve, winning an important breakthrough at the Summit site after women “worked in” with the support of their male colleagues. In 1973, Denise Bishop was elected to the union executive and became possibly the first female organiser of a construction union in the world.

 

The union also ensured that their largely immigrant workforce was provided with bilingual organisers-before this, the needs of non-English speakers were largely ignored. Many of the industry’s excavation workers were Portuguese, for example, so the union appointed Portuguese-speaking organisers. Awareness of the long history of racism against Aboriginal people also led the union to put on Kevin Cook as an organiser and to throw its weight behind the movement for Aboriginal rights.

 

In 1973, BLF members working on extensions at Macquarie University voted unanimously to black-ban all work on the Robert Menzies College, a hall of residence on campus. This action resulted from an approach by the Student Representative Council on behalf of a gay student, Jeremy Fisher, who had been expelled for his sexual preference. Fisher had also attempted to commit suicide. The black ban was probably the first instance of such an action in the world (and it was successful). Although Fisher received support from a special meeting of the University Staff Association, it was undoubtedly the black ban that forced the College to back down, particularly as the BLs threatened to ban all work on campus unless the College management backed down. Homophobia has deep roots in Australia and it is a measure of the leadership’s calibre that they were able to convince the members to take industrial action on this issue, despite initial misgivings. (For the record, student members of the Socialist Youth Alliance—a forerunner of today’s Socialist Alliance—were prominent at Macquarie University in the campaign to reinstate Fisher.)

 

The union was able to involve itself in these kinds of issues because the leadership had won the deep respect of the majority of members through its commitment to improving their wages and conditions, and also by restoring their dignity as human beings in a dog-eat-dog system that had treated them as expendable slaves. Ominously, one of the most vociferous critics of this kind of action was the union’s federal secretary, Norm Gallagher, a member of the Maoist Communist Party of Australia, Marxist-Leninist. The pro-China CPA-ML had broken away from the parent organisation in 1963 and there was no love lost between the two.

 

It is important to note that the NSW leadership consciously sought never to impose anything on the membership. Control had to flow from the bottom up, not the top down. The NSW BLF had a commitment to radically democratic methods that had nothing in common with the rigid Stalinism of the CPA in the 1940s and early ’50s, when they had ruled unions under their control with an iron hand. They had a horror of entrenched bureaucracy and introduced radical methods to ensure that control of the union stayed in the members’ hands. In the NSW BLF, all actions and policies had to be decided on by mass meetings of the members. The union’s officials were there to serve the members and not vice versa, as was so often the case with Australian unions. Australian union officials tended to keep the same hours as the employers; Mundey insisted on keeping the same hours as the workers on the job. The wearing of suits and eating of meals with the bosses was frowned on.

 

“The only time I eat the boss’s lunch is when I steal it,” said one organiser after a sit-in in the site offices of a major builder. Perhaps more importantly, the salaries of officials were cut to the same amount as the members’ wages, and the union introduced limited tenure of office; after a maximum of six years in a paid position, officials had to go back and work in the industry. Such measures often outraged the officials of other unions, who were fearful of losing their comfortable sinecures if such ideas were allowed to take root. Mundey says that the policy “broke down the barrier between officials and workers”. Like its sister parties round the world, the CPA had no previous record of environmental activism. The same was true, more broadly, of the labour movement as a whole and indeed many sections of the movement, including some self-styled revolutionaries and Communists, depicted the bans as a “diversion from the class struggle” and as a capitulation to alien “middle class ideas”. In one notorious outburst, Norm Gallagher, the Maoist federal secretary of the BLF dismissed widespread support for the NSW BLF as coming only from “residents, sheilas and poofters”.

 

When ecological ideas began to emerge in the 1960s with the publication of such books as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, they collided with deeply ingrained attitudes which viewed nature as a hostile enemy to be subdued, or mastered, and which was expressed in an ideology of limitless economic growth regardless of the social and ecological consequences. Again it is to the great credit of the NSW BLF’s leadership that they were able to gain support for the radical new ecological ideas from the union’s membership. Their actions also harked back to the ideas of Marx and Engels, who, many years earlier had warned against the view that nature was an enemy to be subdued.[2]

 

The NSW leadership realized that it would be wrong and self-defeating to try to impose industrial action in support of the environment on the members. By debate and argument at mass stop work or on-the-job meetings, the BLF officials convinced the members to support an all-out assault on the previously sacred right of the builders and developers to re-model the face of Sydney as they saw fit.

 

During the 1960s, Sydney, like many other cities in the world, underwent drastic change. There were fortunes to be made as old buildings and precincts were torn down and replaced, often with modernistic skyscrapers, for space in the inner city fetched astronomical prices. In the course of this great boom, the developers were not concerned with what was destroyed; Georgian terraces, Victorian spires and domes, parkland, jewels of art deco all fell to the wrecker’s ball. Scab labour would be used in nocturnal operations to pull down heritage-listed buildings. This was capitalism in the raw as described by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, where “all that is solid melts into air” in the frenzy for profit. The BLF would have agreed with the urban planner Leonie Sandercock’s assessment that,

 

Modernist planners [had become] the thieves of memory ... Faustian in their eagerness to erase all traces of the past in ... the name of progress [they had] killed whole communities, by evicting them, demolishing their houses, and dispersing them to edge suburbs or leaving them homeless…

 

The developers were seldom interested in creating liveable cities. Buildings, for them, were mere commodities. Such planning as existed was weak and ineffectual and at all times subordinated to the needs of capital. The face of the city was drawn by the market rather than human need. The industry was also wide-open for corrupt dealings, often with the connivance of heavyweight politicians.

 

The union was well-placed to put a spanner in the developers’ works. Its membership soared during this period, rising in one two-year period from 4000 to 10,000 and peaking later at 11,000, partly as a result of the building boom, partly because of an intensive recruiting drive. The union and its supporters did not oppose all change, recognizing that there was a place for urban renewal to make cities liveable for their inhabitants. What they did oppose was the unwarranted assumption that what was good for the developers was automatically good for the environment, the city, or its people.

 

The BLF’s actions were spectacularly effective. The Manchester Guardian considered that Jack Mundey was “Australia’s most effective conservationist” and claimed “Middle class groups are a little embarrassed at having to turn to a rough-hewn proletarian Communist to protect their homes (and values) from fiats and motorways, and their theatres and pubs from office developers. But approach him they do...” In fact, it was often working class homes and precincts that were saved from the developers, but the union would respond to any genuine request for help.

 

Probably the first time the union intervened in an environmental issue was in 1971, when it banned a new private housing development at Hunters Hill on Sydney’s North Shore. Kelly’s Bush, which the AV Jennings group wished to destroy for the project, was reputedly the last remaining piece of natural bushland on Sydney harbour. The local residents had campaigned strongly but unsuccessfully to save it, lobbying members of parliament, cabinet ministers and other persons with power. The NSW state government was firmly behind the development and in desperation the residents turned to the BLF for support.

 

The BLF called a mass meeting of members, which voted overwhelmingly to “black ban” the project. Other bans quickly followed and somewhere along the road, a union member coined the term “green ban” to describe union action to save natural bushland and parks. The term was expanded to describe bans to save historic urban precincts and significant buildings.

 

Perhaps the most celebrated Green Ban of all was imposed on Sydney’s Rocks area by the BLF and its allies in the union covering bulldozer and crane drivers, the Federated Engine Drivers’ and Firemens’ Association (FEDFA). The Rocks, situated just west of Circular Quay and under the southern abutments of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, is Australia’s oldest white urban precinct, dating from the 1790s. It is the site of many significant buildings and was also the home of a close-knit working class community who lived in rows of terraced houses, often at controlled rents. They were sitting on land worth a fortune and the developers eyed it hungrily. In 1972, the state government unveiled a master plan for the redevelopment of the suburb. The people would be evicted and their homes destroyed. In their place a grotesque commercial skyscraper development would rise, owned by wealthy corporate interests, and worth perhaps $2500 million in current values.

 

Had the government got its way, a community would have been killed, together with 160 years of collective memory, along with one of Australia’s most beautiful urban areas. Encouraged by the success of the Kelly’s Bush bans the Rocks Residents’ Action Group turned to the unions. The union bans held, residents and BLF members picketed against scab labour, occupied buildings slated for demolition, marched, and were arrested in droves. In the end they won an impressive victory and The Rocks was saved, although not without some compromises.

 

Buoyed up by their success, the union imposed a string of other bans at the behest of residents and community and conservation groups frustrated by the authorities. These included Green Bans on development at Centennial Park—the “lungs” of the city’s eastern suburbs—and at the Sydney Botanical Gardens on the harbour front. The latter ban prevented the construction of an underground car park by the AMP insurance conglomerate, which would have damaged the park’s trees, shrubs and plants and involved the immediate destruction of a number of giant Moreton Bay fig trees.

 

Other bans were imposed on demolition of a variety of public buildings, including the Theatre Royal, the fine old sandstone Pitt Street Congregational Church (which was to have been replaced by a multi-storey concrete car park); on a section of the proposed western distributor and the Eastern Expressway, both of which would have destroyed thousands of houses; and lastly on a monstrous redevelopment of the inner harbour-side suburb of Woolloomooloo, renowned as “the most Sydney-like place in Sydney”.

 

By this time, in 1973, the battle lines were drawn and the union was faced by an unholy alliance of employers, developers, politicians and right-wing union officials, all outraged by the BLF’s assault on the prerogatives of capital. At this stage, a well-informed article published in the Brisbane Courier-Mail claimed that the NSW BLF “has invoked an incredible 36 bans against using labour on projects worth a massive $3000 million because the projects would mean the tearing down of historic buildings or could violate parklands within metropolitan Sydney”.

 

The residents and union pickets in Victoria Street, Woolloomooloo, were harassed and intimidated by police. Goons trained in karate and carrying weapons lurked in nearby streets, thirsting for blood. Juanita Nielsen, a prominent and wealthy supporter of the union, vanished and it is an open secret that she was murdered by thugs associated with dishonest developers. The BLF and its supporters had also run up against the corrupt state government, led by Premier Robin Askin, who has since been exposed as a swindler and a crook with interests in illegal casinos and other sleaze. These seedy operators were prepared to stop at nothing to get their way.

 

In a period of 12 days in August 1972, the Sydney Morning Herald carried no less than five editorials attacking the NSW BLF. In one of these, “Granny” screamed about “a handful of unionists led by the nose by a member of a party dedicated to social disruption and the overthrow of democratic government...” Another rant claimed that “the mass of the unionists concerned are, of course, only dupes of their leadership...” Shortly afterwards, the Askin government charged Jack Mundey with contempt of court. Askin and members of his cabinet labelled the BLF leaders “traitors to this country” and made hysterical forecasts of “rioting and bloodshed in the streets of Sydney” if they were not removed. The vultures were circling.

 

By itself, the ruling class would have had a hard time to break the union. Scandalously, the Maoist leadership of the federal union did the job for them. In 1974, federal secretary Norm Gallagher decided to crush the NSW branch and replace all of its officials with his own unelected stooges. The union was facing deregistration in the Arbitration Commission and Gallagher’s personal ambition to gain a seat on the ACTU’s interstate executive was threatened as a result.

 

The Master Builders Association (MBA) and the Askin government were keen to offer him every assistance, barring NSW branch organisers from sites and sacking BLs who refused to join the new branch. When FEDFA crane drivers went on strike, Gallagher flew in scabs to replace them and there was a steady trickle of interstate “conscript” workers” who came to “do the work of pro-Mundey builders labourers.” Gallagher declined to put his case to a mass meeting of BLs, declaring that it would be “full of residents and poofters”. While Gallagher had imposed a number of green bans in Victoria and was industrially militant, he operated a top-down, centralised union structure that contrasted starkly with the NSW branch’s methods.

 

It was later revealed that much of the cost for Gallagher’s intervention was paid for by the bosses, and perhaps this included the wages of murderous gun thugs brought in to intimidate NSW branch loyalists. Some of these industrial mercenaries were lodged in the city’s most luxurious motels at nightly rates far in excess of a BL’s weekly wage. Unemployment was also rising in the industry during this period and it was clear that the NSW branch would not be able to resist for much longer. Also, with the honourable exception of the FEDFA, the union movement refused to help. Sadly, this even included unions led by “left” officials, even members of the CPA. This was also the case with Pat Clancy, the leader of the main building craftsmen’s union, the BWIU. Clancy was a member of a pro-Moscow breakaway from the CPA. The union was isolated.

 

The coup de grâce came in March 1975 when the NSW branch office in the Sydney Trades Hall was burgled and its records stolen, on good information by a career contract criminal in the pay of Gallagher and/or the bosses. Shortly afterwards, the NSW leadership advised its members to take out membership of the Gallagher branch and continue the fight from within. With heavy hearts, they agreed. Sadly, most of the NSW leadership was blacklisted and never worked in the industry again. Later, regretting what he had done, federal president Les Robinson admitted, “I think we destroyed a virile organization and it didn’t do the federation any good either”. Indeed it did not. Some years later, governments and developers turned on Gallagher, “de-recognised” the BLF, and smashed it.

 

The NSW BLF perished, but its exploits have become the stuff of legend and an inspiration to all who wish to rebuild the workers’ movement as a thoroughly democratic, class-conscious movement, committed to social and environmental action as an integral part of building a better world. Since those rare old times, other unions have from time to time taken up ecological issues, although perhaps none with the sheer panache and militancy of the NSW BLF. During the late 1970s and early ’80s the ACTU banned the mining and export of uranium “yellowcake”, until officials linked to the right-wing Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke white-anted the policy from within. On occasions, wharfies have banned ships carrying cargoes of scarce rainforest timbers from Southeast Asia and construction workers have stopped the routing of oil pipelines through ecologically sensitive areas. In my own neighbourhood, unions imposed bans on the redevelopment of an old industrial site heavily polluted with arsenic, until it was declared clean by independent experts. Such actions, alas, are less common today. Jack Mundey, however, is convinced that union environmentalism would have spread even further but for the destruction of the NSW BLF.

 

Looking back after some thirty years, the NSW BLF story still amazes and inspires those who hear it. Capitalist ideology holds that working people are brutes with no interests beyond satisfaction of their most immediate needs. The Green Bans prove them wrong; here is a clear example of a union composed of blue collar workers—many of them immigrants, most of them lacking formal education, “rough diamonds”, all “battlers” up against the odds—who stood up and counted themselves citizens in the fullest sense of the word.

 

In Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Questions from a worker who reads”, a labourer wonders who had hauled up the lumps of rock to build Thebes and other cities of antiquity, given that the books only gave the names of kings. Throughout history, building workers have been viewed as beasts of burden who had no right to concern themselves with what they built or demolished. The Green Bans movement challenged that, and for a few years we had a glimpse of what workers, unalienated from the products of their labour, might be like; of a truly human future. “We are not just animals who put things up or tear them down,” insisted Joe Owens. Today, when we declare that “A better world is possible” in the struggle against dehumanising and environmentally rapacious neoliberalism, we should not forget the struggles of the NSW builders’ labourers.

 

The Green Bans movement, as it came to be known, was perhaps the most radical example of working class environmentalism ever seen in the world. At its peak it held up billions of dollars’ worth of undesirable development and it saved large areas of the city of Sydney - streets, old buildings, parks and whole suburbs - from demolition. There is even strong evidence that the term “green” itself as a synonym for ecological activism came from those struggles. In 1997, the well-respected Bob Brown, a former Greens Party senator, said:

 

Petra Kelly ... saw the Green Bans which the unions ... were then imposing on untoward developments in Sydney ... She took back to Germany this idea of Green Bans, or the terminology. As best as we can track it down, that is where the word “green” as applied to the emerging Greens in Europe came from.

 

Jack Mundey and the other leaders of the Green Bans movement were among the most effective and radical of urban ecologists. Although they were eventually beaten by a coalition of rival union officials, rapacious developers, thugs and seedy politicians, their message has not been forgotten and in the final analysis their monument is the buildings, parks and bushland areas that they saved for future generations. Jack Mundey should have the final word:

 

Ecologists with a socialist perspective and socialists with an ecological perspective must form a coalition to tackle the wide-ranging problems relating to human survival... My dream, and that ... of millions ... of others might then come true: a socialist world with a human face, an ecological heart and an egalitarian body.

 

Notes

 

[1] We should not confuse the organisation calling itself the CPA today with the “old” CPA. After the original CPA dissolved itself in 1991, the current organisation took over the name. The current organisation is descended from people who left the old party when it opposed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

 

[2] See, for instance, Frederick Engels, 1934, “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” in Dialectics of Nature (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1954). See also John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).

 

The author is a former rigger and dogman. This article is a revised version of the author’s earlier piece “Green Bans and the BLF: the labour movement and urban ecology”, which appeared in the 17 March 2004 edition of International Viewpoint.

 

Some suggested further reading: Meredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann, Green Bans, Red Union. Environmental Activism and the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation (Sydney: University of NSW Press, 1998); Jack Mundey, Green Bans and Beyond (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1981); Pete Thomas, Taming the Concrete Jungle. The Builders Labourers’ Story (Sydney: NSW Branch BLF, 1973); Paul True, 1995, Tales of the BLF: Rolling the Right (Parramatta: Militant International Publications, 1995). There is also a splendid documentary film about the BLF and the Green Bans; Pat Fiske, 1985, “Rocking the Foundations: History of the New South Wales Builders Labourer’s Federation, 1940-1974”, Bower Bird Films, Sydney.

Powered by Drupal - Design by Artinet