In the early 1970s one of the most inspiring labour movement-based environmental campaigns was led by building workers in Australia. The story is recounted in Meredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann’s Green Bans, Red Union (1998) and Greg Mallory’s, Uncharted Waters (2005). The AWL published an account by Mallory in Workers’ Liberty magazine No.64 in 2000 in the aftermath of the Seattle demonstrations.
In the first half of the 1970s, the New South Wales Builders' Labourers Federation (NSW BLF) imposed around 50 green bans in and around Sydney. The term “green ban” - refusing to work on environmentally injurious constructions - was coined by NSW BLF secretary Jack Mundey as a more appropriate description of a refusal to work, known widely as “blacking”.
The first green ban was at Kelly's Bush, a parkland in Hunters Hill, Sydney, in June 1971. After a corporate developer attempted to re-zone the site, 'The Battlers for Kelly's Bush' community group were formed to oppose it. In June 1971, the Battlers contacted the NSW BLF, who agreed to impose a ban on redevelopment. The proposition that a left-wing union should support a group of middle-class women was fiercely debated, as BLF organiser Joe Owens confirmed. “[Bob] 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.”
When the developer responded that they would use scab labour, a meeting of BLF members was held on a half-completed North Sydney building site and passed a resolution was 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. 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. Local people had formed the Rocks Residents Group (RRG) in 1971 to oppose plans for massive high-rise development in the area. They argued that the area housed workers and retired workers who had traditionally lived in the inner-city at affordable rents would be forced out.
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 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”. Scabs were sent in to knock down buildings needed for the redevelopment. For two weeks the Rocks became a battleground. 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. The green ban stayed in the Rocks until 1975.
Woolloomooloo was probably the most successful BLF green ban. The suburb had traditionally housed maritime workers who worked on the nearby wharves. It had already suffered disruption when the Cahill Expressway was built. The proposed Eastern Suburbs railway line would cut through the heart of the area. The State Planning Authority planned to demolish housing to build high-rise office blocks. The Woolloomooloo residents established an action group at a street meeting in October 1972. 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 by 1975.
Victoria Street was a road of terraced houses built overlooking Woolloomooloo. Its residents were artists, wharfies, seafarers and other people workers. In 1973, a developer submitted a plan for a 20 storey tower and car park. Victoria Street residents were given notice to vacate their properties within the week. 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. The developer’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. In January 1974, eighty squatters were cleared from the buildings and people were arrested, including Joe Owens. The evictions of the squatters forced the remainder of the tenants to leave - 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 through the inner-city suburbs, and the struggle to save the Theatre Royal from demolition. Some green bans were permanent, some achieved their aims, while others were lifted at the request of local resident action groups or the National Trust.
The NSW BLF also took progressive action on a wide range of other political causes. The union took up the right of women to work as builders’ labourers and for equal pay, and included some women in its leadership. In 1971 the BLF took part in two large “Vietnam Moratorium” demonstrations and played a significant role in helping “draft dodgers”.
During the 1960s the BLF organised demonstrations and 'talk-ins' in support of the Gurindji people. In 1971, the Rugby Union team of South Africa's apartheid state toured Australia. Bob Pringle and John Phillips broke into the Sydney Cricket Ground and started to saw down the goal posts with a hacksaw before being arrested.
In 1973 the union supported Jeremy Fisher, a Macquarie University student expelled for declaring he was gay. 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. Fisher was reinstated, but then left.
When Joan Curthoys and Liz Jacka proposed a women's studies course, it was vetoed at Sydney University. The BLF threatened the university with a green ban on some urgent building projects, the university allowed the course to be taught by the women.
In 1973 Penny Short wrote a poem for the Macquarie University's student newspaper, about the experience of making love to another woman, she was summoned to an interview with a psychiatrist and told she would lose her scholarship. She was told this was “because the [Education] Department didn't allow this sort of thing' and later that she had 'personality and emotional problems'. After a thousand-strong student meeting, 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 NSW BLF with the help of employers.
The NSW BLF was at its height a model union taking ecological action. The lessons from its experience are directly relevant for today’s climate activists. The first lesson is the need for political organisation within the trade unions. Most of the BLF leadership were socialists, and many including Mundey were leading members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). The CPA was a dissident communist party, having shed first the Maoists in 1964 and then the pro-Moscow Stalinists in 1971. The CPA took up many new left ideas – including on the environment - and reconnected empirically with a more authentic tradition of workers leading others in a wide range of political issues. The CPA leaders in the BLF acted self-consciously as revolutionary socialists leading their class in all aspects of the class struggle.
The second lesson is the irreplaceable role of rank and file organisation within unions. It took a decade of struggle within the NSW BLF by the Rank and File caucus to transform the union. The rank and file leaders including Mundey and Pringle fought for a democratic structure in the BLF. 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, Mundey stepped down as secretary, and then Mundey stood for election as treasurer.
Thirdly, the union proved itself by militant action on the immediate interests of its members. In 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 with significant migrant worker representation. Jack Mundey said: “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.”
The union also used its power to wrestle more control over the labour process. 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, building labourers elected their own safety officer and foremen who would discuss with management the work schedules each day.
Another key lesson was the relationship between the NSW BLF and other community organisations. Residents groups appealed to the BLF for support, but they only received it if there was a groundswell of local support. The BLF made tactical alliances with conservationists, but not at the expense of their own politics or militancy.
Of course in retrospect the NSW BLF made mistakes and had weaknesses. It had the advantage of a favourable economic and political situation, in which the BLF had control over demolition and excavation work. Although the BLF was self-consciously political, it was not simply a syndicalist movement – its leadership did not assume the union could make socialism. It challenged the logic of capitalism and proposed socially responsible production as an alternative, but it could not alone alter the relations of production. The CPA was still far from a consistent revolutionary Marxist party, as it showed as the situation deteriorated by the mid-1970s.
The enduring significance of the NSW BLF is its contribution towards a workers’ ecology. Mundey and Owens told the Radical Ecology Conference in 1975: “it is essential that workers’ consciousness and workers’ action be enriched if the ecological crisis has any chance of solution.” (Burgmann and Burgmann, 1998 p.299) The NSW BLF showed that a trade union committed to green objectives was well placed to achieve its ends, while a green movement on its own could not hope to do so. As Jack Mundey put it: “Trade unions must become involved with environmental issues, and environmentalists must become more concerned with the importance of promoting trade union struggles for socially useful production and consumption. Too few people question the products we make.” (Burgmann 2000 p.98)
In an interview in 1975, Mundey also emphasised that ecology is vital matter of the working class self interest: “The myth that the environment movement is the preserve of the do-gooding middle class must be exploded. It is, in fact, the workers who are most affected by the deterioration of the environment and it is therefore up to the trade union movement to give it a higher priority to fighting to improve it.”