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Builders Labourers' Federation

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.

Video: ROCKING THE FOUNDATIONS - A HISTORY OF THE GREEN BANS MOVEMENT

Documentary Film - 1985

For the full documentary, please visit this page (YouTube).

The film "Rocking the Foundations" is about the Builders Labourers' Federation of Australia who fought victoriously for their rights as a union, the rights of indigenous people, against gentrification, and in defense of the environment. They did this by performing the first of what are now known as the "green bans" or an environmental strike.

Green Bans: Worker Control and the Urban Environment

By Mark Haskell - Industrial Relations, May 1977

Australian trade unions, have long made effective use of the “black ban,” that is, the tactic of boycotting employers and others in order to improve wages or working conditions or to implement political goals. During the Indonesian struggle for independence shortly after World War II, longshoremen placed bans on shipments to and from the Netherlands, More recently arms shipments to South Vietnam were boycotted and an Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) black ban was imposed on French shipping to protest nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific.

In 1971, the black ban was transposed into the “green ban” when the New South Wales branch of the Builder’s Labourers Federation (BLF) agreed to boycott a construction project in Hunter’s hill, an upper-middle class area on the Paramatta River, an arm of Sydney Harbor. In September 1970, residents of that area had organized to oppose the construction of 25 luxury homes in Kelly’s Bush, an eight-acre bushland tract which had been preserved in its natural state. The tract had been zoned as “residential” just one year earlier despite widespread community opposition. After unsuccessful attempts to interest the state in purchasing the land for recreational purposes, the newly organized group, the “Battlers for Kelly’s Bush,” approached the New South Wales BLF to request that they not work on the construction site. Construction was halted and, despite the subsequent demise of the New South Wales branch in 1975, this green ban remains in force.

Thus emerged an unlikely collaboration between community groups struggling against drastic neighborhood changes and traditionally job oriented trade unionists - a merger which has often been labeled “unique” and may, in fact, have been the product of a special set of circumstances. On the other hand, the green bans do have the possibility of becoming an example for others. This paper is an attempt to analyze this movement for the purpose of providing an explanation for its appearance at a particular time and place. Part of that explanation may lie in the nature of the union which was most heavily involved, i.e., in the characteristics of its leaders, its members, and the way in which the union’s affairs were managed. Hence, the line of questioning will focus on the New South Wales BLF-i.e. why this union adopted this unconventional tactic to achieve this unconventional goal.

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