'Rocking the Foundations' -- the story of Australia's pioneering red-green trade union

August 14, 2013 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- An outstanding historical account of the "Green Bans" first introduced by the communist-led New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) in the 1970s in response to community demand to preserve inner-city parkland and historic buildings. One of the first women to be accepted as a builders labourer, filmmaker Pat Fiske in 1985 traced the development of a union whose social and political activities challenged the notion of what a union should be.

More on the BLF from the Green Left Weekly archives below.

Essential viewing for unionists and environmentalists

Review by Ben Courtice

[This review appeared in Green Left Weekly, March 12, 1997.]

This film, an old favourite of radical activists, charts the rise of the NSW branch of the Builders Labourers' Federation. Beginning as a corrupt bosses' union in the 1940s, by the 1970s it was a powerful force for progressive social change and is now famous for placing "green bans" on building sites that were environmentally and socially destructive.

The old, corrupt leadership of the union was voted out after a 10-year campaign by a group of rank-and-file members who then reoriented the union to establish a high level of accountability for officials.

When, in the 1960s, there was a boom in inner-city high-rise building, the union was able to use its new strength to win important gains in working conditions and pay.

The first green ban occurred when a group of residents asked unions to ban clearing work on an area of bushland on Sydney's north shore. The bush was saved.

More commonly, work bans were placed on areas such as the Rocks and Woolloomooloo when residents faced eviction to make way for commercial developments. At the peak of this movement, more than $300 million worth of developments were being held up by BLF's bans, backed by enthusiastic local communities.

The movement was eventually broken by an alliance of developers, the Robert Askin state government and the federal secretary of the BLF, Norm Gallagher. The BLF was deregistered federally and the militant NSW branch was dissolved under the pressure of a rival branch set up by Gallagher.

Today, following the existence of a strong environment movement in this country during the 1970s and '80s, most people support the general aims of environmentalism. Opinion polls reveal that an overwhelming majority of the working-class oppose woodchipping in native forests and nuclear testing, for example.

Even on a mass level, however, passive environmental consciousness is not sufficient to stop the continuing destruction of our environment. Gaining the active support of the organised working-class is essential to win campaigns.

Many environmentalists understand this, but many fewer realise how to win that support. It is not just a matter of breaking down some workers' prejudices against "greenies". If we want the strength of a mass workers' movement backing us up, we have to help build a mass workers' movement — as the left-wing BLF leadership began to do in the 1950s and '60s.

While Rocking the Foundations does not examine in detail what made the BLF's green bans movement such a successful and inspiring example of left-green activism, there are some valuable lessons for both environmentalists and trade unionists in that experience.

In particular, it was the cohesiveness of the union — the close, democratic relationship between the rank and file members and their leaders — that made the success of the bans possible. This was the basis for that union's industrial strength and for its members' confidence in their actions.

Only in the process of rebuilding such trade unions and movements will workers regain the confidence necessary to fight — on both immediate economic and broader issues. Environmentalists should bear this in mind when they are presented with opportunities to support workers' picket lines, donate money to union strike funds and generally defend the right of workers to defend themselves.

It is high time that activists from the environment and labour movements had another look at Rocking the Foundations and began a serious discussion about how to put the lessons it contains into practice once more.

An inspiring tale from Australia's radical past

Green Bans, Red Union: Environmental Activism and the NSW Builders Labourers' Federation
By Meredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann
UNSW Press, 1998. 352 pp. $29.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

December 2, 1998 -- Green Left Weekly -- When the Australian peak building employers' body, the Master Builders' Association (MBA), got hot under the collar in 1974 and stormed into print about the "anarchy and the destruction of democratic processes" caused by the 'Green Bans' of the "self-appointed dictators" of the NSW Builders Labourers' Federation, the heat was on in the class war.

"This is the Communist way", continued the building bosses, looking with hatred and dread at the Communist Party of Australia leadership of the NSW BLF. "Issues come and go, but the eventual goal of communism is to destroy the existing political system."

In this hysterical diatribe, there is an element of truth: the NSW BLF under CPA leadership had a string of victorious industrial and political campaigns, and many ideological triumphs against the profit-driven anarchy that passes for "development" in a market economy.

There is also irony in the MBA broadside. The NSW BLF, with its massive community support, showed up the building bosses, governments and courts as the true minority dictators, self-appointed by reason of wealth, and contemptuous of the majority opinion of those without money.

The Burgmanns' book, a history of the union from 1970 to 1975, relives those vibrant days of the NSW BLF, when working-class "industrial muscle" made the bosses tremble and gave hope and inspiration to social and community activists.

After a long struggle in the NSW BLF, rank and file activists rescued the union from its conservative leadership in 1968, when Jack Mundey, former Parramatta rugby league star and now CPA activist, was elected secretary.

With Bob Pringle and Joe Owens (also CPA) the new leadership built the NSW BLF into an "abnormally democratic and combative" union.

They organised the job sites by forcing employers to accept a "no-ticket, no start" policy, thus cleaning the industry of scabs, who were being used to undermine wages and conditions. Militancy thrived during a building boom in a buoyant economy, against vulnerable bosses who had borrowed heavily at high rates.

The NSW BLF went on the offensive, winning "substantial real wage rises, accident pay, paid public holidays, and improved safety and amenities" in the low wage , dangerous (around 40 builders labourers were killed each year in NSW) industry.

Scornful of arbitration with its "protracted, legalistic and costly procedures and its frustrating decisions", the NSW BLF found that the quickest way to a boss's purse strings is through direct action, from the traditional (the strike) to the innovative — the "vigilante teams" that demolished scab-built constructions to make the continued employment of scabs during strikes an uneconomic proposition to the employer.

The combination of militant industrial tactics with the internal democracy of the NSW BLF won the involvement and fierce loyalty of the members.

The 11,000 NSW BLF members were in control of the union. Limited tenure for elected leaders, who received wages at the award rate, prevented the officials from becoming seduced by the career security of a trade union bureaucrat and the moderate, risk-reduction industrial strategy which that entails. The fostering of rank and file industrial initiative and self-action made for a self- confident membership.

It was this self-confidence that gave life to the politically radical activities of the NSW BLF. The Mundey team argued for the "social responsibility of labour", that workers could and should be concerned about the results of their work, that the interests of the working class do not stop at the factory gate, that the "political" is inseparable from the "industrial".

As well as the famous green bans, builders labourers imposed industrial bans over prisoners' rights, discrimination against a gay student at Macquarie University and in support of a women's studies course at the University of Sydney.

The NSW BLF supported Aboriginal land rights and opposed the apartheid Springbok rugby tour of 1971 (Bob Pringle qualifying as "un-Australian of the year" for attempting to cut down the SCG goalposts with a hacksaw).

As the Burgmanns note, however, these "political' actions of the NSW BLF were neither universal nor instantaneous amongst all its members. It is no surprise that the sexism, racism and homophobia endemic to capitalist society should affect builders labourers.

What is instructive is that the large majority of NSW BLF members underwent a revolution in social consciousness, the Burgmanns noting that the higher the union consciousness, the more advanced the social consciousness.

This transformation of the NSW BLF members is best highlighted by the green bans, which were all approved by full branch meetings and never lifted even as economic recession kicked in from late 1974.

Builders labourers were proud of their green bans, although they did find it more instinctive to support the defence of low-income housing in such inner-city working class communities as the Rocks, Woolloomooloo and Victoria Street in Kings Cross, than to accept the preservation of national heritage buildings or the green spaces of middle-class residents.

By 1975, the NSW BLF seemed invincible. Developers were on the back foot, with the hugely popular green bans holding up around 40 developments worth $5 billion.

Clouds were gathering, however. The union's challenge to the power of capital, from urban planning to election by the workers of their own foremen and safety officers, was an intolerable encroachment on "management prerogative".

Bosses' helpers

The building bosses found their saviours in the trade union officialdom of the federal BLF and other unions which felt under threat from the NSW BLF's militancy, democracy and incorruptibility.

When the MBA successfully applied for deregistration of the national and state BLF branches, Norm Gallagher, the federal BLF secretary and a leading member of the pro-China CPA (M-L) (which split from the CPA in 1963), moved in to bust the NSW branch in an operation financed by the bosses.

Despite some Maoist bluster about the deregistration being a "foreign bosses' plot", Gallagher did not oppose it, turning it to his advantage because it freed him from any legal restraints in his ruthless, violent and thoroughly illegal smashing of the NSW branch.

The NSW BLF was isolated by the inaction of Bob Hawke's ACTU and the other major building union, the BWIU (led by Pat Clancy). Gallagher's and Clancy's fear of the NSW BLF's radicalism was spiced by political antagonism. Clancy, prominent in the pro-Moscow SPA (which split from the CPA in 1971) hated the pro-China Gallagher, but feared Mundey more.

Gallagher and Clancy eyed off the membership base of the NSW BLF through ideology-coloured glasses — as Joe Owens remarked, "With the Sino-Soviet dispute, every time the tanks moved up to the border, you could rely on a demarcation dispute in Pitt Street or Flinders Street". The feuding Stalinists, however, found a united front in wanting the NSW BLF out of the way.

The end came in March 1975. Gallagher and the bosses colluded to accept only a federal BLF membership ticket for builders labourers seeking employment, and Gallagher brought the NSW branch to the brink of destruction. An emotional mass meeting of NSW BLF members voted to wind up the branch and take out federal union tickets.

Another way?

Was there a third option for the NSW BLF, apart from giving up their principles or facing annihilation? The Burgmanns conclude that there wasn't, although they do cite different assessments, for example, Jim McIlroy, who argued in Direct Action that the CPA should have made the survival of the NSW BLF a strategic political priority.

The CPA, however, was ambivalent on the NSW BLF: not all tendencies of the party, despite its left turn in the early seventies, supported union militancy.

Verity Burgmann comes to the gloomy judgment on the fate of the NSW BLF because of her politics of "syndicalism".

This political philosophy maintains that only trade unions can win reforms or more fundamental social transformation. It sees no role for revolutionary political parties in organising working-class and community struggle.

The unionists, residents, squatters, gays, women's liberationists and environmentalists who stood alongside the BLF, however, had to be organised to improve their chances of successful resistance to the employers, the state and their pawns like Gallagher, a task which was beyond the resources of one isolated union branch.

That the CPA did not prove up to the job in difficult economic conditions with an unfavourable balance of forces, is no refutation of the principle, as put by Trotsky, on the relationship between party and masses: "Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But what moves things is not the piston but the steam."

Trotsky admired syndicalist workers (they had more of a head of steam up than their more reformist colleagues), and regarded trade unions as the training grounds of the working class, but he saw the syndicalist philosophy as unable to turn this energy and training to advantage in resisting (and ultimately overthrowing) capitalist power.

Syndicalism aside, the Burgmanns' book is an inspiring tale about the remarkable NSW BLF and its green bans, an episode from Australia's radical past in which lies the hope of the future for both red and green.

'BLF Green Bans'by Dhopic

A modern hip-hop piece about the epic BLF Green Bans of the 1970s. Many thanks to Pat Fiske whose amazing documentary Rocking the Foundations was and is a massive inspiration and which to this day helps keep this piece of Australia's radical history alive; the black and white footage in this clip is from the film.

Mad props to Meridith and Verity Burgmann for their amazing book Green Bans, Red Union (you should totally print some more of them, seriously). Thanks also to Billy Bragg for letting us sample his track, "There is Power in a Union", to Tom Hunter-Leahy and Evan Drinkwater for making the clip and Jacquie Lomas for helping us liberate this clip from its plastic prison (it was stuck on a glitchy DVD for YONKS). Thanks heaps to Jack Mundey for giving us a shout out on our album.

And above all thanks to the men and women of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation whose brave and visionary actions are more relevant today than ever before. We salute you.