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Class Power can Remake Society: Remembering Australia’s "Green Ban” Movement

By Ben Purtill - Organizing Work, March 24, 2021

Ben Purtill recounts when building laborers in Australia stopped work, first over wages and working conditions, and then to protect the environment, among other “social” causes. Image: Jack Mundey, Building Labourers’ Federation members and local residents at a Green Ban demonstration, 1973.

Jack Mundey, who died aged 90 in May 2020, first made his name as the union leader associated with one of the most inspiring moments of class struggle of the last 50 years: Australia’s green ban movement. As a secretary of the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) from 1968, Mundey — a member, then president, of the Australian Communist Party (CPA) – was widely credited with coining the term “green ban” to describe a form of strike action undertaken in defense of environmental causes. Members of the NSW BLF also downed tools in defense of the gay community, indigenous Australians, and feminists, at a time when these causes were far from the mainstream of Australian society.

Reviled and vilified at the time, Mundey received a State Memorial Service in March 2021. Attended by the great and the good of Sydney, Mundey was hailed as a savior of the city — a renegade who broke with the base concerns of economistic trade unionism to focus on more refined issues than wages or workplace conditions, while prefiguring a social liberalism the nation would only begin to embrace decades later, and a green politics that it has yet to.

While the perceived content of Mundey’s unionism now sits quite comfortably with liberal — even conservative — values and principles, the form of unionism pursued by the NSW BLF at their peak in the early 1970s would undoubtedly be condemned were it revived today. Militant, democratic and regarded as quasi-syndicalist by critics and supporters alike, the story of the Mundey and the NSW BLF is one of both the power of the rank and file and the limits of leadership, no matter how left-wing.

Black Bans, Green Bans and everything in between

Most historical accounts suggest the green ban movement for which Mundey is best remembered began in 1971 at Kelly’s Bush, an area of parkland in Sydney’s affluent Hunter’s Hill suburb. A group of local women contacted the BLF having exhausted all conventional means of halting the development of the area by construction firm AV Jennings. With luxury houses set to be built on what was the last remaining patch of native bush in the suburb, the BLF called a community meeting attended by over 600 local residents and announced a ban, meaning no work would take place on the site. Unions had been using the term “black ban” to designate disputes aimed at an economic end, for example a wage increase, but since this action was being taken to defend the environment, “green ban” was decided to be more appropriate.

Over forty green bans followed until 1974, when the NSW BLF was deregistered as a union, resulting in billions of dollars worth of development being prevented in Sydney; the tactic was also deployed in other towns and cities across Australia, most notably Melbourne. All green bans were declared in a similar manner as a point of principle: the union did not decide to initiate a ban, local residents did so through a public meeting. If it was decided that a site would not be developed, BLF members would not work on it. In following this tactic, large areas of the historic centre of Sydney were saved from development, and the union joined alliances with an unlikely range of characters: early environmentalists, heritage campaigners, and middle-class homeowners.

The NSW BLF also applied the tactic to other causes and concerns, for example the expulsion of a gay student from Macquarie University, the demolition of houses occupied by indigenous Australians in the Redfern suburb of inner-city Sydney, and the right of two women academics to teach a women’s studies course. In each case, the campaigns were won. More broadly still, the BLF campaigned against apartheid South Africa and the war in Vietnam. As union secretary of the NSW branch during this period, Mundey is now typically remembered as the brainchild of this movement, even earning him a speaking slot at the United Nations Conference on the Built Environment, but it reflected much wider changes occurring both within the Australian left and among rank and file union members.

Green Syndicalism in the Arctic

By Jeff Shantz - LibCom, March 30, 2021

On February 4, 2021, a group of Inuit hunters set up a blockade of the Mary River iron ore mine on North Baffin Island. The mine is operated by Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation and has been extracting iron ore since 2015. Mine operations are carried out on lands owned by the Inuit.

Blockade organizers arrived from communities at Pond Inlet, Igloolik and Arctic Bay over concerns that Inuit harvesting rights are imperiled by the company's plans to expand the mine and associated operations. Solidarity demonstrations have been held in Pond Inlet, Iqaluit, Igloolik, Naujaat, and Taloyoak. In -30C degree temperatures.

Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation is seeking to double its annual mining output to 12 million metric tonnes. This would also see the corporation build a railway and increase shipping traffic through its port at Milne Inlet. These expansions would threaten land and marine wildlife along with food sources essential to Inuit people. The waters surrounding the port are an important habitat for narwhal and seals in the Canadian Arctic. The expansion also threatens caribou and ptarmigans.

A fly-in location, Inuit blockaders shut down the mine’s airstrip and trucking road, closing off access to and from the site for over a week. Notably this has meant that 700 workers have been stranded at the mine site and food, supply and worker change flights have been suspended. Workers have been on site for at least 21 days.

This could, obviously, have posed points of contention, even hostility, between workers and blockaders. Certainly, the company tried to stoke these tensions in its efforts to go ahead with mining operations. In a letter filed with the Nunavut Court of Justice on February 7, Baffinland told the protesters that their blockade is against federal and territorial law, and the Nunavut Agreement. In classic divide and conquer fashion, the company asserted: “You are causing significant harm by blocking a food supply and keeping people from returning to their families.” The company has also gotten the RCMP involved.

Yet an important development occurred a week into the blockade, and after the company’s court theatrics, as stranded workers issued a powerful statement of solidarity with Inuit people and communities and the blockaders specifically. The open letter is signed by a “sizeable minority” of Mary River mine workers currently stranded at the mine site (with 700 workers it represents a sizeable number). They have remained anonymous due to threats of firing leveled against them by the company. In their letter they assert that they recognize the Inuit, not the company, as “rightful custodians of the land.”

The letter represents a significant statement of green syndicalism. One that should be read, circulated, and discussed. It is reproduced in full here.

Mutual aid will help us survive the Biden presidency

By Dean Spade - ROAR Magazine, November 20, 2020

Biden and Harris are not going to stop the crises we are facing — mutual aid projects are essential to survive and build the world we want to live in.

The only thing that keeps those in power in that position is the illusion of our powerlessness. A moment of freedom and connection can undo a lifetime of social conditioning and scatter seeds in a thousand directions.

Mutual Aid Disaster Relief

Many people are feeling great relief that Trump has been voted out and are rightly celebrating the efforts so many people have undertaken to make that happen. But even as we celebrate, we must ensure we do not demobilize, hoping that the new administration will take care of our problems. Unfortunately, we can be certain that the Biden/Harris administration will not address the crises and disasters of climate change, worsening wealth concentration and poverty, a deadly for-profit health care system and racist law enforcement.

Biden and Harris have built their careers off of criminalizing people. In response to the killing of Walter Wallace Jr. in October they promptly issued a joint statement focusing more words on admonishing protesters than acknowledging police violence. They have made crystal clear that they will not oppose fracking, and if they return to Obama-era climate policies, we are certainly doomed. Biden has a wretched pro-war record, and has expressed unconditional support for Israeli colonialism.

He recently tapped oil and gas industry booster Cedric Richmond as a top advisor and a third of his transition team comes from think tanks funded by the weapons industry. Under the new administration, even if they roll back some of Trump’s worst policies, our communities will still be witnessing worsening crisis conditions.

Trump’s policies and rhetoric were extreme, openly racist and sexist, climate change- and COVID-denying, which helped mobilize many people to question the legitimacy of the police, military, border enforcement and capitalist economy and join social movement work to oppose those systems. While we are all tired from four years of fighting Trump, nine months of urgently responding to the pandemic and all the loss and devastation it has caused, and the bold efforts that so many have undertaken to fight the police in the streets and organize an historic uprising against white supremacy, we cannot risk demobilizing now.

We must continue the momentum that Black Lives Matter, No DAPL, Not 1 More Deportation, Abolish ICE and other campaigns have built exposing the utter failures of the Democratic party to oppose racism, war, the oil and gas industry, criminalization and wealth consolidation, and the necessity for bold direct action in the face of mounting crises. More than ever before, we need to organize and sustain mutual aid efforts, both to survive the crises we are facing and to build our movements for change.

People Power in the Coronavirus Depression

By Jeremey Brecher - Labor Network for Sustinability, November 4, 2020

As we enter an era of constitutional crisis, contested government, intensifying pandemic, and mass economic disruption, the future of democracy will depend on popular mobilization. The earlier commentary “Fighting the Great Depression – From Below” described the grassroots unemployed, self-help, labor, and other movements of the early years of the Great Depression. “The Unemployed vs. the Coronavirus Depression,” “Self-Help in the Coronavirus Depression,” “Striking in the Coronavirus Depression,” and “Workers vs. the Coronavirus Depression” described the recent stirrings of grassroots action for health and economic protections in the coronavirus era. This commentary examines the grassroots response to the coronavirus as a whole. An upcoming commentary will examine the role of people power in the period of turmoil that lies ahead. The latest from Jeremy Brecher. To read this commentary, please visit this page.

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.”

Extinction Rebellion – in or out?

By various - New Internationalist, December 5, 2019

In October 2018, Extinction Rebellion (XR) launched a series of protests that mobilized thousands of (many first-time) activists and caught the attention of the media.

The rebels had three key demands: that the UK government tell the truth about the climate devastation by declaring an emergency, the establishment of a citizen’s assembly to overview a repeal of climate-negligent laws and the enactment of new policies in line with climate science.

They injected a new sense of energy and urgency into the climate movement. Thousands joined non-violent actions; London bridges were blocked, hundreds arrested. But the group has also come under fire for neglecting more political questions of justice, power and racism.

One month since XR burst on to the UK climate scene, five climate-concerned campaigners – from both in and outside the movement – give their views:

WTO Shutdown: A Few Things From the WTO Shutdown I Carry Into the Future

By David Solnit - Common Dreams, December 4, 2019

WTO Shutdown 20-Year Anniversary Series: The Shutdown WTO Organizers History Project and Common Dreams have produced this series of ten people's history accounts and forward-looking lessons from organizers who were in the streets of Seattle in 1999—at the very end of last century. Articles in the series—including archival photos and videos—will be published over ten days to commemorate and reflect on the events that happened 20 years ago this month. Read all the articles in the series here.


“…two projects of globalization are in dispute. The one from above globalizes conformity, cynicism, stupidity, war, destruction, death and amnesia. And the one from below globalizes rebellion, hope, creativity, intelligence, imagination, life, memory and building a world where many worlds fit.”

-Subcomandante Marcos, during the 2003 WTO Ministerial in Cancun, Mexico 

I just spent a good few days with old and new friends in Seattle, reflecting back 20 years since we all shutdown the WTO, and looking forward in this moment of global uprising against economic and political injustice.  Over the fall I reconnected with a few other core organizers from the Direct Action Network—the network of local groups that organized the shutdown of the WTO 20 years ago. We put together the Shutdown WTO Organizers History Project and did some writing, talking and thinking together. 

Here are a few things about the organizing we did that seem important and I carry with  me as I organize into the coming 20 years:

  • 1) Globalization from Below  
  • 2)  Jail Solidarity
  • 3) Grassroots (vs Nonprofit) Leadership  
  • 4) Effective Mass Action Requires Organizing and Strategy. 
  • 5) Indymedia: Interrupting the Corporate Media Narrative
  • 6) Art is a Hammer

1) GLOBALIZATION FROM BELOW

We were “globalizing from below”-- connected to, working with and mutually aiding movements across the globe. When we shut down the WTO in Seattle, movements on every continent were taking action with us, and when hundreds were in jail for five days, solidarity actions took place from Mexico to India.  On Nov 30, 1999 in India thousands of farmers in Karnataka marched to Bangalore and over a thousand villagers from Anja (Narmada Valley) held a procession. Thousands took to the streets in the Philippines, Pakistan, France, UK, Portugal, across Europe, the United States and Canada. In 80 different French cities, 75,000 people took to the streets and 800 miners clashed with police.

We were part of the People’s Global Action network, which came out of a series of Zapatista-initiated “Encuentro"gatherings.  We used the phrase, “Our resistance will be as transnational as capital.” 

WTO Shutdown: "Shut It Down. Didn't We. Don’t Let Them Tell You That It Can’t Be Done."

By Jim Page - Common Dreams, November 26, 2019

WTO Shutdown 20-Year Anniversary Series: The Shutdown WTO Organizers History Project and Common Dreams have produced this series of ten people's history accounts and forward-looking lessons from organizers who were in the streets of Seattle in 1999—at the very end of last century. Articles in the series—including archival photos and videos—will be published over ten days to commemorate and reflect on the events that happened 20 years ago this month. Read all the articles in the series here.


As far as I’m concerned no political movement can be called "authentic" without music, theater, poetry, dance, the whole thing. Revolution is not just a mental exercise. For most of my life I have pursued a musical career that carries the details of reality with it. I’ve traveled and lived in places that became the songs I sing. I play acoustic guitar, which makes it easy. You can take it out anywhere, at any time. Music is the landscape, song is the form, and the guitar is the tool.

Before the WTO got to Seattle I had become cynical. I didn’t expect much. That was an obvious mistake on my part, and I should’ve known better. I had a friend from Oakland staying at my house for those days—she was doing a literature table at one of the convergent points downtown. I gave her a ride on Tuesday morning to where she was going to be working. I turned the radio on and they were talking about tear gas and people blocking the intersections and how whole streets were unusable. I dropped her off and immediately went to the Pike Place Market to park my car. I figured they had more to worry about than parking tickets. I crossed First Avenue on Pike Street right into the middle of everything. There was somebody climbing up the face of Nike Town, there was a burning dumpster at 3rd Ave, there was a police line facing off to a line of demonstrators with linked arms, there was an IMC under siege, there was a marching band—absolutely every square foot of the city center was occupied by somebody doing politics. It was the first time I heard the phrase, "This is what democracy looks like," and it made complete sense.

I made up my mind to spend the next three days swimming in over my head, soaking up as much as was humanly possible—mining for songs.

People say, “Why do you sing political songs?” And I say that’s the wrong question. The correct question is, “Why don’t you sing political songs?” Or, “Why don’t you sing more political songs?” Because, as an artist, you not only have the right but the obligation to address the world that you live in. That means all of it—sports, economics, love, war, political scandal, comedy, tragedy, fascism, religion. Everything. If you can talk about it you can sing about it.

So that’s what I did. I tried to be everywhere at once. I wore out my shoes and got no sleep. I was booked to play at the Showbox on Tuesday evening, but Bill Clinton was in town and they had declared a state of emergency. There was a lot of gas outside and the word had gotten around that there was an enforced curfew, so that the venue security people didn’t come to work and the owners were afraid they would lose their license if they went ahead with the show. So the gig was moved to Pioneer Square. The next day I played at a church on 5th Ave, in behind the no-go lines. They had said that nobody was allowed on the streets but I went around anyway, it was porous. I carried my guitar with me everywhere.

I felt fortunate to have been a part of those events, even in the limited capacity that I was. It was an actual political victory, and those don’t happen very often. My main takeaway lesson was that cooperation, variety of tactics, and unity of vision is what leads to success. And most importantly, “direct action gets the goods.” Whoever said that hit the nail right on the head.

AND—don’t let them tell you that it can’t be done.

WTO Shutdown: Remembering for the Future: Learning from the 1999 Seattle Shutdown

By Chris Dixon - Common Dreams, November 25, 2019

WTO Shutdown 20-Year Anniversary Series: The Shutdown WTO Organizers History Project and Common Dreams have produced this series of ten people's history accounts and forward-looking lessons from organizers who were in the streets of Seattle in 1999—at the very end of last century. Articles in the series—including archival photos and videos—will be published over ten days to commemorate and reflect on the events that happened 20 years ago this month. Read all the articles in the series here.


On Tuesday, November 30, 1999, I was standing in downtown Seattle on 6th Avenue between Pike and Union – an unremarkable place amidst remarkable circumstances. Directly in front of me stood a reinforced line of police officers in full body armor, carrying truncheons, rubber bullet guns, and grenade launchers. All around me, hundreds of protesters packed into a human wall taking up half a block. And directly behind us in the middle of an intersection, at least another hundred people protectively surrounded a large wooden platform underpinned by metal pipes. Locked inside each pipe was the arm of an activist. Resolute and defiant, we were all there to shut down the World Trade Organization Ministerial meetings that were scheduled to begin that day.

“This is the Seattle Police,” an authoritative voice crackled through a loudspeaker. The rest was drowned out by the loud discharge from a grenade launcher and the disarming hiss of tear gas, punctuated by the shots of rubber bullets. Suddenly, we were scrambling, coughing, gasping, and crying. The police advanced, flanked by an armored personnel carrier. Yet, just as quickly as we dispersed, we returned – this time with bandannas on our faces and water for our eyes. We weren’t going to be moved so easily. And again, the face-off began. Such was the rhythm of the day.

Alone, this scene was inspiring. But what was truly remarkable was that we at that particular intersection were not alone. For blocks around us – stretching out of view and snaking around buildings – were thousands more people. There were blockades at every single intersection in the twenty blocks surrounding the Washington State Trade and Convention Center. In addition, many local students and workers were on strike that day, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union had shut down the ports along the entire West Coast.

Who could have guessed that this was going to happen? Even those of us who had spent months planning to “shut it down” were stunned when our rhetoric became reality. On that Tuesday, the first day of WTO Ministerial meetings ever to take place in the U.S., most sessions were canceled because our blockades were so effective. The Seattle Times quoted one of the last WTO delegates to leave that afternoon: “That’s one for the bad guys.” We were the bad guys, and we clearly won.

In the years since, “Seattle 1999” has become a shorthand. People have produced articles, books, graphic art, music, documentaries, at least one oral history project, and even a Hollywood film about the protests. Police agencies and security analysts have closely studied “the battle of Seattle” in order to thwart similar efforts. Left intellectuals have used the Seattle protest experience to advance all sorts of theories about radical politics. The so-called “Seattle riots” have become an historical reference point for journalists covering U.S. protests. Not surprisingly, much is missing in these accounts.

With the twentieth anniversary of the Seattle protests, now is a good time to revisit the history from the perspective of those who were deeply involved in organizing the mass direct action. I was one among them – at that time, a 22-year-old activist living in Olympia, Washington. Along with dozens of others, I co-founded the Direct Action Network in the summer of 1999 and spent months organizing for the WTO shutdown. In what follows, I draw on accounts from other organizers and my own experiences to discuss the lead-up to Seattle, what actually happened, and what we can learn from it, all with an eye toward our current circumstances of struggle in North America.

A Look At the Miners’ Blockade Stopping Coal in its Tracks

By Earth First! Journal - It's Going Down, August 14, 2019

When I heard news of the coal miners’ railroad blockade in Harlan County, I knew it presented a real chance for growth, especially for movements like Earth First! who are at the intersection of various struggles, including eco-defense, anti-capitalism, climate justice, and prison abolition.

Though I spent most of my life in flat swampy Florida, stories of Harlan County, Kentucky, were burned into my head as a teenage anarchist in circles of Earth First!ers and IWW-types singing labor songs by fireside.

One of the most famous of union ballads, “Which Side Are You On?,” about miners’ resistance in the Kentucky coalfields, includes the line, “They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there…” Even before the development of climate-focused mass movement, it has always been Big Coal vs. the rest of us.

Over the years, I must have heard dozens of knock-offs of that song for campaigns all across the country. We’d replace Harlan with whatever county we found ourselves in at the time, facing off with corporate raiders of all types.

And now the barricades have come full circle: back to Harlan, a locale of near-mythical significance for it’s legacy of resistance to corporate greed. The miners there have stopped a coal train operated by the company Blackjewel LLC, which filed for bankruptcy and secretly stopped paying the miners while they were still working.

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