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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.

The New South Wales branch's commitment to limited tenure of office for union officials undoubtedly challenged Gallagher's 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.

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