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1971-1974: Green bans by builders in Australia

Kelly's Bush

A history of the massive campaign of industrial action by building workers which protected the environment and local communities by enacting green bans - refusals to work on harmful construction projects.

The bans prevented billions of dollars of development over 4 years, until the campaign was halted by the union leadership.

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 the cities and valuable old buildings were razed in the process. The interests of home buyers and architectural 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 AV 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.

AV Jennings declared it would build on Kelly's Bush using non-union labour, but building workers on an office project of AV 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 AV Jennings, and alarmed property developers generally.
- Read more about the Kelly's Bush Green ban

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 ($18bn, or £7.2bn in 2005 money). 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 playschools, 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.

Gallagher was later jailed for taking bribes from developers. One of the last bans, to prevent development in the suburb of Kings Cross, had resulted in forced evictions of residents by New South Wales Police, and the disappearance (and alleged kidnapping and murder) of journalist Juanita Nielsen.

Although green bans have been implemented on a number of occasions since the 1970s, they have not been so prevalent, nor so comprehensive in their effect.

Compiled by libcom.org from information taken from "A perspective on Sydney's Green ban Campaign, 1970-74" by Burgmann, V. Power and Protest 1993, and Wikipedia.

Posted By

Steven.
Sep 10 2006 14:37

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Mareika
Feb 24 2009 23:17

How wonderful to read this.

You know, my grandfather went bankrupt one time to pay 60 labourers pay while they were on strike to feed their families.

Some of those labourers came back to my grandfather years later and asked to invest in his business to take it global. My grandfather declined their help saying, "We are working class". We instead built a community sports centre. He was a soccer hero from Holland.

Anyhow, instead of us they boosted AV Jennings. This was something passed down to me but it is nice to read about them. They were once so small and my grandfather was an A grade architect who was by far the better choice. He built a whole city in Victoria from a swamp with pelicans.

BTW, these same people invested in Australian banks.

Gosh, I really like this site.

jonthom
Oct 29 2013 07:50

A Workers’ ‘Green Ban’ on Fracking?

Quote:
An episode that came up repeatedly in the discussions was Australian construction workers’ ‘green bans’ movement in the 1970s (in fact the movement that originated the use of the term ‘green’ in politics). The New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation union put ‘green bans’ on a number of socially and environmentally unsustainable construction sites, insisting that their skills would not be used to damage the environment and the interests of working-class communities. The confidence and power of the BLF to launch such a movement was built up over years of struggle, including within their own union, over issues as fundamental as the right to have access to toilets on construction sites.

The lesson is that by organising and fighting over issues of day-to-day exploitation, workers can develop sufficient confidence in our own power to fight for the transformation of our industries and for control over what our labour is used for.

The workshop discussion generated one particularly exciting aspiration: a workers’ ‘green ban’ on fracking sites. That aspiration is not going to be realised overnight. Work is hard to come by for everyone, union organisation in the construction industry is weak, and with many construction worker activists still suffering from the long-term effects of blacklisting, it’s a big task to try and persuade workers to refuse jobs. But if the climate movement can develop a solidaristic, rather than antagonistic, relationship with construction workers on fracking sites or on new fossil-fuel power plant construction projects, we can amplify that conversation and put that aspiration at its centre.

RedEd
Oct 29 2013 11:17
Mareika wrote:
How wonderful to read this.

You know, my grandfather went bankrupt one time to pay 60 labourers pay while they were on strike to feed their families.

Some of those labourers came back to my grandfather years later and asked to invest in his business to take it global. My grandfather declined their help saying, "We are working class". We instead built a community sports centre. He was a soccer hero from Holland.

Anyhow, instead of us they boosted AV Jennings. This was something passed down to me but it is nice to read about them. They were once so small and my grandfather was an A grade architect who was by far the better choice. He built a whole city in Victoria from a swamp with pelicans.

BTW, these same people invested in Australian banks.

Gosh, I really like this site.

Good story. You know this is a communist website right?

Ablokeimet
Oct 29 2013 11:28

There are a few things that should be known in order to understand the Green Bans. The first that he Green Bans were imposed by members' meetings, held after a community meeting had made a request official. They were not imposed by a decision of the union's executive.

Second, the campaign was conducted in the middle of a building boom. There was plenty of work for building workers, so they didn't have to worry about unemployment. The ending of the Green Bans and the crushing of the NSW BLF coincided with the end of the boom and Australia's entry into the recession of the 1970s.

Next, the NSW BLF was fighting like blazes for the material needs of its members, as well. There was a fight for shorter hours, for industry long service leave (as distinct from single employer long service leave, which in this industry meant no long service leave), for higher wages (claiming 90% of a tradie's wage) and, most importantly, for health & safety. The industry was in non-stop turmoil of industrial action, mostly short disputes around site issues.

The fourth thing to recognise is the political environment and its manifestation within the BLF. The so-called "Communist" Party of Australia had a major position in the union movement in Australia after World War II, controlling a large minority of unions. Through the 1950s, this position was eroded, but not eliminated. In the early 1960s, the CPA took over the BLF from a bunch of Right wing crooks who were in league with the bosses. The CPA was already running the BWIU, which was the main union covering skilled building workers.

In 1963, the CPA split, in a dispute over whether to follow the Moscow line or the Beijing line. Unusually, the BLF didn't all go one way - the Vic Branch went with Beijing and the NSW with Moscow. Then in 1968, the CPA was the first "Communist" Party in the world to criticise the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. This brought on a two year faction fight, which the tankies lost. In 1970, the tankies left and formed the Socialist Party of Australia (and controlled the BWIU, among other unions).

This left the CPA with no overseas guiding light. It had rejected both Beijing and Moscow and was left to run on gut level militancy. It turned Left (and, as an aside, the CPA had been regarded for decades as the most Left wing of all the "Communist" Parties in the world). The NSW BLF was at the centre of its Left turn.

The traditional CPA strategy in the unions in Australia was to base itself on the shop stewards network and run the union in a way that had a large amount of rank and file input, including regular members' meetings. This was an essential part of protecting itself against the Labor Party, which was always looking for ways to knock off the CPA. In the BLF, the CPA took its rank and file strategy to its logical conclusion, effectively adopting a syndicalist strategy. The rules were re-written to entrench rank and file control and the political base of the CPA officials expanded to include non-Party militants and even Anarcho-Syndicalists. As was noted above, they also practiced limited tenure of office, though I don't know whether it was written into the rules.

At the same time as the BLF was fighting hard for its members' material interests, winning major battles, and also implementing the Green Bans, the union was also fighting for social goals. It took a stance against sexism and won the right for women to work in the industry*. It even banned work on a job at Macquarie University because a student had been expelled from a teaching course for being gay. Remember we're talking about 1973, here!

Of course, the bosses and the State didn't like all this. The NSW BLF was de-registered by the Arbitration Commission. This was supposed to destroy it, but it didn't work because the other unions in the industry in NSW respected the demarcation lines and the BLF was winning its disputes on the ground rather than through the Commission. And the media were screaming blue murder about "the unions are running the country" - though, because of how the BLF was conducting the campaign, the Green Bans had massive public support.

Finally, when the building boom collapsed in 1975, the construction bosses went to the Federal leadership, which was controlled by the Maoist Vic Branch. They cooked up a solution. A new "Federal Branch" was registered to cover the NSW workers and militants were sacked from the industry. There followed a long series of battles on building sites, as the pressure of lack of work and the collusion of the Maoists with the bosses created a split amongst the rank & file. Gangs of bosses' thugs fought the militants, with many people hospitalised and more than one killed. In the end, the Maoists won. It was a pyrrhic victory, though, because they were thoroughly detested by the workers in the industry. In the 1980s, when the BLF as a whole came under attack from the State, the members in Vic defended their union. The members in NSW, however, let it fold immediately.

Now let's see how the Left Communists can demonstrate that the NSW BLF was a conspiracy against building workers.

* After the crushing of the NSW BLF, all women were sacked from the industry. It's hard to know whether it was because they were women, or because they were militants in the radical faction - because they were both.

backspace
Oct 29 2013 12:22

Thank you Ablokeimet, your recollections were interesting to read

Entdinglichung
Oct 29 2013 14:51
Steven.
Oct 29 2013 21:22

Ablokeimet, great post, really informative! What would you think of trying to edit that comment into an article in itself for the history section?

Ablokeimet
Oct 30 2013 06:30
Steven. wrote:
Ablokeimet, great post, really informative! What would you think of trying to edit that comment into an article in itself for the history section?

Hmm. I'll think about it. If it is to be an article in its own right, I'll have to look up the references. I did this one from memory, because the facts I've recalled were well known in the Anarchist movement in Sydney in the late 1970s.

Steven.
Oct 30 2013 08:57

Cool well have a think about it

Lugius
Oct 31 2013 00:15

Ablokeimet has done a very good job of recollecting those times. I'd like to add a few things;

Quote:
At the same time as the BLF was fighting hard for its members' material interests, winning major battles, and also implementing the Green Bans, the union was also fighting for social goals. It took a stance against sexism and won the right for women to work in the industry*. It even banned work on a job at Macquarie University because a student had been expelled from a teaching course for being gay. Remember we're talking about 1973, here!

At the time when Norm Gallagher came down from Melbourne to sort the NSW branch out, they had put a demand to the MBA that female members should be paid one day a month for menstruation leave. This not only freaked the bosses out but a lot of union officials as well.

Just about all the women in the BLF at the time had anarchist sympathies. The director of 'Rocking the Foundations' Pat Fiske, was one of these women.

Blokes like Mundey, Owens, Pringle and the like had been previously exposed to anarchist ideas, that is for sure.

Quote:
Of course, the bosses and the State didn't like all this. The NSW BLF was de-registered by the Arbitration Commission. This was supposed to destroy it, but it didn't work because the other unions in the industry in NSW respected the demarcation lines and the BLF was winning its disputes on the ground rather than through the Commission. And the media were screaming blue murder about "the unions are running the country" - though, because of how the BLF was conducting the campaign, the Green Bans had massive public support.

Deregistration means exile from the ACTU orbit and a more general isolation. The main reason the other unions in NSW respected demarcation lines was because their officials feared violent retribution. The building industry has a long history of employing violence as a method of conflict resolution. Before my grandfather became Secretary of the Victoria Branch of the Plasterers Union (long gone) he was a 'scrutineer' whose primary responsibility was to ensure that the union's elections were conducted in an orderly manner. Any problem that might have arisen was dealt with the simple means of calling a meeting, locking the doors and bashing the shit out of each other until a mutually satisfactory resolution had been arrived at.

Without being able to generate that kind of fear, your options as a deregistered union a limited to pretty much how far you can mobilise support from the general community from outside the union.

Quote:
Finally, when the building boom collapsed in 1975, the construction bosses went to the Federal leadership, which was controlled by the Maoist Vic Branch. They cooked up a solution. A new "Federal Branch" was registered to cover the NSW workers and militants were sacked from the industry. There followed a long series of battles on building sites, as the pressure of lack of work and the collusion of the Maoists with the bosses created a split amongst the rank & file. Gangs of bosses' thugs fought the militants, with many people hospitalised and more than one killed. In the end, the Maoists won. It was a pyrrhic victory, though, because they were thoroughly detested by the workers in the industry. In the 1980s, when the BLF as a whole came under attack from the State, the members in Vic defended their union. The members in NSW, however, let it fold immediately.

Amongst those killed were building workers with strong anarchist inclinations. These assassinations were skilfully disguised as industrial accidents and the most of the victims were buried with full militant honours and the families looked after. But the Maoists didn't manage to kill all of them.

Ablokeimet mentions the attack launched by the State and Federal governments (both Labour) in 1986 against the Victorian Branch of the BLF by means of forcible amalgamation with the BWIU (once ruled by the Stalinist Pat Clancy). I remember these times well as a BLF organiser came to an ASF Melbourne meeting on 1 March 1986 held at the (then squatted) old North Fitzroy Fire Station in St. George's Rd. (long since developed into a yuppie apartment complex).

The BLF organiser put a controversial proposal to the meeting; that the ASF Melbourne support the picket at Queen St./Banana Alley site. He acknowledged the long-standing hostility between anarchists and Maoists in Australia in general and Melbourne in particular but made it clear that he was only asking for ASF support on the basis it was being given to workers in struggle and not to the BLF leadership. He was listened to with respect as he was known for his own strong anarchist sympathies but the proposal was hotly contested by a significant 'Fuck Norm Gallagher' faction. In the end, and after an exhaustive debate, it was decided that ASF Melbourne would 'twin' with the Queen St./Banana Alley site. For five days a week from April to October, ASF members stood on a picket line with rank and file members of the BLF. One of those BLF members, a large and willing unit, is now a senior official of the Victoria CFMEU.

Another significant outcome of this particular ASF Melbourne meeting was a series of discussions over a number of weeks about how deregistered unions (or unions like the ASF who refuse to register with the State) can carry out successful industrial campaigns. This led to the practice of 'industrial dispute support groups' where the ASF would engage in solidarity actions in support of workers in dispute whether they were members of reformist unions or not. Here we can look at a number of disputes the ASF affiliates in Melbourne were involved with during 1986-90. The ASF also encouraged those who identified themselves as anarchists to join with them with little success. The general idea was that the community could be mobilised to support workers in dispute in the short term and that support could be subsequently mobilised to support a free and independent anarcho-syndicalist union.

History will show that the BWIU swallowed the BLF whole in 1986 only for itself to be amalgamated into the ACTU engineered 'super-union' CFMEU under the aegis of the Hawke-Keating Labour governments. After the election of Howard in 1996, the idea of mobilising community support in aid of workers in dispute was revived but this time with more control by reformist union leadership. This was seen during the 1998 MUA dispute and in the wake of that, the establishment of 'Union Solidarity' which was funded by some of the more 'militant' unions until i lost all its funding after Kevin Rudd was elected. What was left morphed into Workers Solidarity Network. I see similar outfits elsewhere.