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Builders Labourers' Federation

Vale Jack Mundey: A Visionary Ecosocialist Unionist

By Jim McIlroy - Green Left, May 11, 2020

Jack Mundey, a path breaker in militant unionism and a pioneer of the Green Bans movement in Australia, died on May 10, aged 90.

Mundey, along with co-officials Joe Owens and Bob Pringle, led the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) in one of the most crucial periods of working-class militancy in Australia.

Born in north Queensland, Mundey came to Sydney to play Rugby League with Parramatta in the 1950s. He got a job as a builder’s labourer and eventually joined with other members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and other left militants to win leadership of the BLF in the late 1960s.

Greg Mallory quotes Mundey in his book Uncharted Waters: Social Responsibility in Australian Trade Unions about the BLF’s campaigns to win significant wages and conditions for its members being led by the union’s new, left-wing leadership: “If it wasn’t for that civilising of the building industry in the 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.”

However, Mundey, who was elected NSW BLF secretary in 1968, also stressed: “It is no point winning great wages and conditions if the world we build chokes us to death”.

Green Bans

The Green Bans story started in the 1960s when Sydney was being transformed by a huge building boom, pushed along by the corrupt, pro-developer Liberal Premier Robert Askin.

The first Green Ban supported a campaign by a group of North Shore women to save a small piece of undeveloped land called Kelly’s Bush. After that success, the BLF was besieged with similar requests for industrial action to protect the environment and social values. BLF support was conditional on proven merit and community involvement and soon some 40 Green Bans tied up billions of dollars worth of development projects in Sydney and nearby regions.

The movement captured the imagination of residents, urban planners, environmentalists and heritage activists. Bans were extended to express solidarity with the right of women to work in the industry, to support anti-freeways campaigns and for Aboriginal justice. In 1973, the BLF imposed a “pink ban” when Macquarie University discriminated against a gay student.

Mundey also pursued another central principle — union democracy. All decisions on industrial bans and actions were put to the BLF membership for a vote.

The militant NSW BLF was eventually defeated by an unholy alliance between factionally opposed union leaderships, the Master Builders Association and the state government.

However, the Green Bans saved large parts of Sydney and set down new heritage pathways as part of a more progressive attitude towards urban development.

Mundey continued to campaign for environmental and social justice, and was elected to Sydney City Council from 1984 to 1987. He also worked with the Australian Conservation Council for more than 10 years, and was chair of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW.

Visionary

NSW Greens co-convenors Sylvia Hale and Rochelle Flood described Mundey as “a great visionary”.

“Under his leadership of the Builders Labourers Federation, for the first time we saw unity between the struggles of unions and environmentalists.

“The Green Bans born out of this unity reshaped Australian politics and delivered significant wins for heritage, urban bushland and public housing. The union stood shoulder to shoulder with the community in fighting developments whose sole purpose was to enrich the few at the expense of the many.

“Jack’s courage was phenomenal — taking on the corrupt Askin government and many ruthless developers. He and his union colleagues built a broad-based social movement with students and residents that won protection for The Rocks, Centennial Park, Kelly's Bush and Woolloomooloo.

“At the heart of Jack’s politics was a deep understanding that it is broad based social movements that are the drivers of progressive change. Jack was a great unifier.”

When Sydney was touched by workers’ democracy

By Jerome Small - Red Flag, May 7, 2019

If working class people had real power, what would society look like? If you live in Australia’s largest city, you don’t have to look far to find an answer. If you’ve ever seen the Sydney Opera House, you’ve seen a building constructed under workers’ control. If you’ve ever strolled through the the Rocks, you’ve walked though a historic area that organised workers saved from demolition.

If you head over to nearby Woolloomooloo, you’ll see one of the few communities left in inner Sydney where low paid workers can live – and it’s there only because of the actions of militant construction workers. And the giant Centennial Park, the lungs of inner Sydney, would have been turned into a gigantic, concrete-covered sports precinct if not for working class action.

In the early 1970s, around Australia but most spectacularly in Sydney, the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) was the core of an impressive movement that gave Australia – and the world – a glimpse of what workers’ power looks like. In their thousands, by their actions, builders labourers asserted that they were neither robots nor donkeys, but human beings. They used their considerable industrial muscle for the benefit of the working class, the poor and oppressed groups.

The contrast with the priorities of capitalism couldn’t be starker. One of the more far sighted and honest of the construction bosses of the time was G.J. Dusseldorp, the chairman of the huge Lend Lease group. Dusseldorp told housing industry leaders in 1968: “The housing industry as a whole knows little about the desires of the people and cares less”.

This puts it in a nutshell. To the companies that make the decisions, it doesn’t matter what is built, how or where, so long as a profit is made. Cheap housing, historic buildings, working class communities, parkland – it’s all dispensable in the pursuit of profit. In contrast, the then secretary of the BLF, Jack Mundey, declared:

“Yes, we want to build. However, we prefer to build urgently required hospitals, schools, other public utilities, high-quality flats, units and houses, provided they are designed with adequate concern for the environment, than to build ugly unimaginative architecturally bankrupt blocks of concrete and glass offices ... Though we want all our members employed, we will not just become robots directed by developer-builders who value the dollar at the expense of the environment. More and more, we are going to determine which buildings we will build.”

This extraordinary exercise in working class power had its origins in 1970. In that year, the Victorian branch of the BLF backed residents of the then solidly working class suburb of North Carlton, demanding that former railway land be turned over to parkland rather than used for a massive warehouse for Kleenex. Victorian secretary Norm Gallagher was jailed for 13 days after being arrested on the picket line, prompting a Melbourne-wide construction strike.

The warehouse was never built, and “Hardy-Gallagher Park” in North Carlton is still parkland today. In the years that followed, moves to demolish the iconic Victoria Markets, Swanston Street’s historic City Baths building and many others, were also thwarted by union “green bans”.

But it was in Sydney that the green bans really took off. In 1971, residents of Hunters Hill, a wealthy middle class suburb, approached the construction unions. The residents had been through all the “proper channels” trying to preserve Kelly’s Bush, the last few acres of bush land on the lower reaches of the Parramatta River, which was due to be turned into a housing development.

The “proper channels”, dominated by property developers and their money, had failed to give satisfaction to the residents, who then turned to the unions. After a vigorous debate among their members, the BLF and FEDFA – the crane drivers’ and bulldozer operators’ union – announced that none of their members would work on the project.

Sydney’s Green Bans: worker boycotts that saved the city

By Timothy Ginty - ROARMag, April 20, 2019

The destruction of heritage buildings, the encroachment of urban development onto green spaces and the gentrification of working class neighborhoods are flash-points of social conflict in expanding cities around the globe.

Communities that mobilize to protect their public spaces, services and culture can protest and call public meetings, or take to the courts and pressure the powers-that-be, but corruption, asymmetrical power and the influence of money can overpower them and make community consultation impotent. When all else fails and neighborhoods on the front line of speculative development are facing the wrecking ball, what options do they have to protect the commons of public space, services and culture?

Consider the radical and effective solution that emerged in Sydney in the 1970s: the Green Ban.

The people versus the speculators

The Green Bans were a series of worker boycotts of projects considered socially, architecturally or environmentally damaging to the local community during Sydney’s speculative construction boom of 1971-1974. Unionized construction workers would simply leave their tools in their toolbox and refuse to enter the building site.

The boycotts were initiated not by union leadership, but by a public vote in open assemblies after a community requested the Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) to intervene.

In the first ever Green Ban dates in 1971, a group of middle-class women of the harbor-side suburb of Hunter’s Hill urgently asked the BLF to save the last piece of natural bushland on Sydney Harbor. Property developers had the site earmarked for a private housing development, and the “Battlers of Kelly’s Bush”, as the women became known, had exhausted all the legal and political options available to them.

The women called a public meeting to gauge local support for more direct action. Over 600 people attended showed up to request that the union boycott the development. Within months the development was stalled and ultimately discarded, its success sparking a wave of similar requests from other community groups facing socially, physically and environmentally destructive developments.

The union responded to these requests wherever significant community support existed. Local residents would cast votes in public assemblies to decide on a Green Ban, and the union would mobilize when those votes reflected large majorities. Democracy permeated every aspect of the actions, down to the commitment to translate the debates and discussions for the migrant laborers.

This insistence on democratic decision-making for bans and strikes saw the union membership boom throughout the 1970s, reaching some 11,000 laborers at its peak.

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

By John Tully - Links, March 2019

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.

List of Green Bans, 1971-1974

By Steven - Libcom.Org, June 17, 2017

References: BLF (NSW) 15 June 1973; 22 October 1973; 5 June, 1974; Joe Owens Deposit, Noel Butlin Archive, ANU

To Executive Members and Fulltime Workers:- A list of our Green Bans and other community actions in support of residents. The following is the list:

1. Kelly’s Bush
2. The Rocks
3. Victoria Street
4.Congregational Church
5. Opera House Car Park
6. Theatre Royal
7. Moore Park (Centennial Park Sports’ Complex)
8. Cook Road (Centennial Park)
9. Mt. Druitt
10. North-West Expressway
11. “Lyndhurst” – Glebe
12. Ryde – Dunbar Park
13. Darlinghurst
14. Helen Kellar House – Woollahra
15. Woolloomooloo
16. Royal Australasian College of Physicians – Macquarie St
17. Pyrmont and Ultimo (NW Freeway)
18. Fowler-Ware Industries – Merrylands
19. Jeremy Fisher
20. Diethnes
21. East End – Newcastle
22. Rileys Island
23. Colonial Mutual Building
24. Dr. Busby’s Cottage
25. Eastern Hill – Manly
26. Eastlakes

27. A.N.Z. Bank – Martin Place
28. National Mutual Building – Martin Place
29. C.M.L. Building – Martin Place
30. Mascot High-Rise
31. Newcastle Hotel
32. Regent Theatre
33. Redfern Aboriginal Centre
34. Eastern Freeway
35. Botany High Rise
36. Motorway – Newcastle
37. St. George’s Hill
38. Kings Cross
39. South Sydney
40. St. John’s Park
41. New Doctors Dwellings
42. Tomaree Peninsula
43. Burwood
44. Western Expressway
45. Freeways
46. Soldiers Garden Village
47. Education Department – North Newtown
48. Port Kembla
49. East Woonona
50. Botany Municipality
51. Sydney University Women’s Course
52. Port Macquarie
53. Waterloo
54. Newcastle Motorway

The 1970s Struggle to Save the Vic Market

By staff - Earthworker Cooperative, June 2017; artwork by Sofia Sabbagh

Remembering the struggle to save the Vic Market from the threat of redevelopment in the 1970s. Earthworker recognises itself as part of this tradition of defending public and community space. 

The Vic Market is a vital public space in the heart of Melbourne. Many of us who live in and around Melbourne appreciate the Market as a place to work, eat, meet and enjoy company with friends and family.

Not many know that in the 1970s, pressure began to mount for the “redevelopment” of the Queen Victoria Market into a combined trade and hotel precinct. Even fewer know the truth about the role that a militant trade union, namely the Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF), played in protecting the Vic Market from this threat.

This is an excerpt from Vic Market’s own website: “The separation of the Wholesale Market from the Retail Market lead to a plan to redevelop the Queen Victoria Market site into a trade centre, office and hotel complex in the 1970s. However, public outcry prevented this and resulted in the Market being classified by the National Trust. Later, the Market site and its buildings were listed on the Historic Buildings Register.”

Not a word about a union. Yet if you talk to the older stall holders today they all know people who came before them who were involved in that period, and who are proud of the union-declared ban on development work at the Vic market. This action was only one in a series of bans that the BLF put on development sites that were deemed socially or environmentally harmful. This strategy was collectively termed “Green Bans”.

Here’s some words from Dave Kerin, co-founder of Earthworker and one of those involved in the victory to protect the Vic Market in the 1970s:

“Our community is there; our kids grew up with the Market as a formative community influence; and importantly thanks to John Cummins (previous Victorian secretary of the BLF), the Green Ban remains on the Vic Market. In the early 1990’s the stall holders approached Cummo to discuss yet another proposal to build inappropriately on Market land. Cummo reassured everybody that as far as he was concerned “The Green Ban was never lifted!” The Green Ban still holds and yet goes unacknowledged by the Market’s Administration. This ahistorical presentation of events must change.”

History is repeating, and we now see that the Vic Market is under threat again. But, if we know our history, we can assert with confidence “We’ve saved it before, we’ll save it again!”.

A new concept of unionism: the New South Wales Builders Labourers' Federation 1970-1974 (Meredith Burgmann)

Originally posted by Aunty Jack - Libcom.Org, March 10, 2017

Meredith Burgmann's pioneering work on the history of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Builders Labourers' Federation. During the 1960s and 1970s the NSWBLF introduced limited tenure of office for union officials, tied officials' pay to the minimum industry wage, introduced highly democratic forms of decision-making, and pursued militant industrial tactics. The union was also notable for its aggressive support of other social groups, most notably through the placing of "Green Bans" where members prevented work from taking place on environmentally or socially destructive projects.

Chapters 1-12 deal primarily with the period 1970-1974 when the NSWBLF was at the height of its industrial power and radicalism. The appendixes cover the period from 1950-1970 when rank and file workers struggled to democratise the union and wrest control from the corrupt right-wing forces that then held power.

Green Bans: How Building Workers Saved Sydney

By Neale Towart - Working Life, June 10, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

THE worldwide movement to put the environment at the centre of politics was given a huge push in the early-1970s by the actions of a most unlikely group – the NSW Builders’ Labourers’ Federation.

‘Green Bans’ was the term BLF secretary Jack Mundey gave to the actions of the workers in combination with residents in Sydney and elsewhere to challenge the prevailing ethos of development for development’s sake, at any cost to the environment or communities.

The first Green Ban, on Kelly’s Bush in Hunters Hill, set the agenda.

The suburb was and is a wealthy one. The developer AV Jennings was keen to turn the bushland into flats at great profit. The local residents opposed and opposed in every way they could, using the established forms of democratic action, all to no avail.

One of the ‘Battlers for Kelly’s Bush’ Christina Dawson put it well: “being politically naïve, [we]”. . . had infinite faith in the democratic process”.

Green Unionism in Theory and Practice

By Dan Jakopovich - Synthesis/Regeneration 43 (Spring 2007)

A new current in the global anti-capitalist movement has begun to develop in the last few decades. Rather than unfolding into a cohesive, self-assured and well received movement, it has largely existed on theoretical and practical margins, thwarted by dogmatic party-political, “affinity group” and NGO dominance, yet periodically reappearing as the “star of the day” wherever favorable socio-economic conditions or visionary initiatives gave it the broad attention and determination it needed to flourish.

The biggest hope for the greening of the labor movement lies in the revival of this decentralized, grassroots unionism. The parochialism, corruptibility and ingrained authoritarianism of the union officialdom have been shown time and time again, and only a bottom-up, rank-and-file approach to union work can seriously aid environmental protection and wider social change.

A basic tenet of green unionism is that labor struggles and ecological struggles are not necessarily separate, but have a potential to be mutually reinforcing. The basis for a working relationship between differing strands is the unity-in-diversity approach to organizing a mutually respectful and supportive alliance.

Especially since the late 60s and early 70s, partly as a response to working-class deradicalization and often an integration of traditional “workers’ organizations” — statist, bureaucratic political parties and business unions — there has been a massive practical and theoretical retreat from questions of class and especially class struggle, particularly in the “new social movements” which have gained in popularity after the second world war.

With the onset of neoliberal globalization, there has been a reversal to previously held positions, decomposition of people’s political “representation” (especially in social-democratic parties), a deterioration of workers’ rights and living conditions. A six-hour working day even seemed more plausible at the beginning of the 20th century (and indeed, some called for its implementation) than it does today.

Parallel to the de facto progressive deterioration of working conditions, depoliticization of the workplace has also continued, along with a general activist culture largely still hostile to labor issues (although this has partly been changing recently, especially due to the “new organizing model” exemplified by the Justice for Janitors campaign).

A dynamic understanding of people as workers and workers as activists is missing. For several decades now, there has occurred a shift of the concept of oppression from production relations (as the material basis for exploitation) to consumption, especially among many mainstream Greens who would have us confined to our roles as consumers, where we are inherently relatively powerless and almost always disorganized. This approach, as commonly understood and implemented, produces an individualistic and moralistic substitute for sustained political activity.

It is important to recognize the central importance of class and the revolutionary implications of class struggle at the point of production. People are in their materially most powerful role as producers of goods and services, capable of withholding labor, and also democratically taking over the means of production and distribution.

It is the material conditions of life which restrict and deform peoples’ humanity; therefore the struggle against those conditions also has to be concrete:

The constitution of new identities as expressive human beings in transcendence of alienated class identities implies a successful struggle over the very structures of domination, regimentation, hierarchy and discipline which exist concretely within the workplace. One cannot assume that the job site will simply wither away with the flowering of a new identity. [1]

Murray Bookchin discards the syndicalist strategy as narrow economism [2], and while it is true that the syndicalist movement has in fact often been guilty of “cultural workerism,” productivism and the idealization of the working class and its role in society, especially in the past, this has been widely challenged in and by the movement itself, and is only a secondary tendency now.

Not believing in the future of the workplace as an arena of political and social change, Bookchin calls instead for a sole focus on the “community” (as though communities exist without workplaces or classes). When talking about his libertarian municipalism, Bookchin conveniently forgets it is precisely the syndicalists who have the strongest and most successful tradition of community organizing among all explicitly libertarian currents and wider. [3]

However, democratic unionism from below is not inconsistent with the conversion to a bioregional structure consisting of self-governing, socialized units of producers and consumers, and in a system of production for need, not profit, rank-and-file unions might be able to provide the necessary councilist infrastructure necessary for decentralized decision-making and distribution, at least in the transitional period.

Green syndicalists insist that overcoming ecological devastation depends on shared responsibilities towards developing convivial ways of living in which relations of affinity, both within our own species and with other species, are nurtured (See Bari, 2001). They envision, for example, an association of workers committed to the dismantling of the factory system, its work discipline, hierarchies and regimentation — all of the things which Bookchin identifies (Kaufmann and Ditz, 1992; Purchase, 1994; 1997b). This involves both an actual destruction of some factories and their conversion towards “soft” forms of small, local production. [4]

Building the new society in the shell of the old entails changing who controls production, what is produced and how it is produced. This can be achieved only through democratizing the workplaces and empowering the communities. “The questions of ownership and control of the earth are nothing if not questions of class.” [5]

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.

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