Double podcast episode about green bans by building workers in Australia from 1970 to 1975 which held up billions of dollars of development which would have been harmful to the environment, or working class and Aboriginal communities.
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In these episodes we speak with Dave Kerin, a former builders labourer and member of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) and current member of the Earthworker Collective, and Dr Meredith Burgmann, who was an active supporter of the green bans, co-authored Green Bans, Red Union: the Saving of a City with her sister Verity Burgmann, and was later a Labor member of parliament.
- Part 1: Background to Builders Labourers Federation union and the construction industry; previous disputes; the first green ban
- Part 2: Examples of different green bans in support of the environment, Aboriginal housing, women and LGBT+ people; divisions within the union; how the bans were broken [available early for our patreon supporters]
- Bonus episode: More of the recollections of Dave Kerin, and his activism today [available exclusively for our patreon supporters]
Our episode graphic is taken from this photograph of an occupation on Playfair St, The Rocks, on 24 October 1973. Included in the picture are Jack Mundey (front, centre with curly hair), Meredith Burgmann (behind him), Nellie Leonard, Peter Wright and others. Image courtesy of Meredith Burgmann.
We have produced some t-shirts and other merchandise commemorating the green bans and the BLF to help fund our work, here in our online store.
- Meredith Burgmann, “A new concept of unionism: the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation, 1970-1974,” PhD thesis, Macquarie University (1981), accessed October 20, 2020, http://hdl.handle.net/1959.14/1273252.
- Meredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann, Green Bans, Red Union: the Saving of a City (NewSouth, 2017).
- Rowena Mason, “GMB tells Labour: ‘Listen to working people in debate over Trident’,” Guardian, February 9, 2016, accessed October 12, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/feb/09/gmb-tells-labour-listen-to-working-people-in-debate-over-trident.
- Mark Green, “Keystone XL’s New Labor Agreement And The Politics Of Pipelines,” American Petroleum Institute, August 7, 2020, accessed October 12, 2020, https://www.api.org/news-policy-and-issues/blog/2020/08/07/keystone-xls-new-labor-agreement-and-the-politics-of-pipelines.
- Rebecca Stoner, “Why are unions joining Conservative groups to protect pipelines?,” Pacific Standard, May 31, 2019, accessed October 12, 2020, https://psmag.com/environment/why-are-unions-joining-conservative-groups-to-protect-pipelines.
- “Position Paper of the Revolutionary Union on Homosexuality and Gay Liberation,” Revolutionary Union, 1970s, accessed October 16, 2020, https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ncm-3/gay-question/index.htm.
- Huey Newton, “The Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements,” speech, August 15, 1970, accessed October 16, 2020, https://libcom.org/library/womens-liberation-gay-liberation-movements.
In the early 1970s, construction workers in Australia launched a wave of militant direct action winning better pay and conditions, then began pursuing social goals, for better housing for working class and Aboriginal people, for women’s and LGBT+ rights, and in defence of the natural environment. In just a few years they held up billions of dollars of harmful development. This is Working Class History.
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The late 1960s were a time of intense social upheaval and class struggle around the world. From anticolonial movements in Africa and Asia to mass strikes in France to urban revolts in the US, to riots in Japan and to the Hot Autumn in Italy. Workers, women, people of colour, colonised and Indigenous peoples and LGBT+ people were all fighting to advance their collective self interests.
One place where many of these struggles coincided was Australia, primarily in New South Wales, where construction workers decided to organise themselves and fight, not just for better wages and working conditions, but for a different type of society, one not based purely on profit, but on human needs, where we live in harmony with the earth. The tool they devised to do this was the green ban: essentially a refusal to undertake work which was environmentally or socially destructive.
On a personal level, I first became interested in possibilities of social change as a kid because of the environment, because of the sheer ridiculousness of the fact that we are destroying the planet we live on and on which all human life depends, just to make profits, which most of us don’t even benefit from. And later in life, having taken part in a number of struggles, and read about many hundreds of others, I came to the belief that the most effective way for social change to occur is by the collective self-organisation and direct action of working class people ourselves. So the story of the green bans in Australia has always particularly inspired me, as the perfect intersection of these two things.
The story centres on one union in particular, the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), and I was very happy to be able to speak with Dave Kerin, who was a builder’s labourer and scaffolder, and member of the union at the time.
Dave: I hit the building industry around about the end of 1970. I was in and out of the building industry as a boy, as most people were. It was always what we’d call today ‘casual work’ back then until the union brought some control over it. I’d been involved in the anti-war movement through the ’60s because my brother was in the army. We all had to register for National Service over here and then if your marble dropped with your number on it, your birth date on it, then you were in the army. For a lot of us, one, we had to find out what the hell was going on in Vietnam. It became important that we did that and the more we found out, the more we realised we were on the wrong side and that was hard. It split a lot of families, just like it did in America and other countries, right down the middle.
Having been involved in the anti-war movement, I saw BLF at the rallies and I saw how well organised they were. I saw their level of self-education that their rank and file had. They were impressive. In the end, round about the end of 1970, I found myself beginning to work in construction and that sent me smack into the green bans.
John: I was also extremely pleased to be able to speak with Dr Meredith Burgmann, who was a highly active supporter of the green bans, and also became the unofficial archivist of the BLF.
Meredith: When the builders’ labourers went out of existence, they had about 24 hours to clear out their office. I was very distressed about their records just disappearing and so I offered to have them stored in my very tiny sitting room. So for some years, I had 50 or 60 boxes of union records in my sitting room. Some of the other records were stored in the basement of the pub that the builders’ labourers used to drink in, The Sussex Hotel. When I was doing my PhD, my thesis supervisor suggested that I switch from my topic which was a foreign affairs topic about Indonesia. He said, ‘Really, you should be looking at the builders’ labourers. You’ve got all their archives.’ He was absolutely right. I then lived with the builders’ labourers as my thesis project for the next seven years and also, of course, we wrote the book about them.
John: Meredith and her sister Verity Burgmann’s book is called Green Bans, Red Union: The Saving of a City. It is a really fantastic and important read. Links to get it in the show notes.
The green bans were the high point of the development of construction workers’ organisation in Australia, which really began over a decade beforehand in the New South Wales branch.
Meredith: The point about the builders’ labourers was that in the 1950s and ’60s, the union had a placid, right-wing, reasonably corrupt leadership. A rank and file group, under the leadership of Jack Mundey, had fought very hard to gain the leadership of the union. Jack had joined the Communist Party of Australia in the late 1950s and a lot of the rank and filers were also in the Communist Party, although some were also in the left of the Labour Party. It was a fairly amiable sort of unity ticket that they always ran. By 1968, Jack had become the Secretary of the union and the very long period that had taken to win the leadership of the union meant that he had thought a lot about democratic structures and how to make unions more democratic. There were a number of processes that he brought in when he became leaders. The first one, of course, caused a huge amount of angst amongst other trade union leaders which was limited tenure of office. The builders’ labourers brought in a rule that you could only do two terms in office, which would be two three year terms, and then you had to go back and work on the tools.
Dave: One of their first things was a raft of policies that were not only external policies around the workplace and solidarity with other workers here and overseas but internal policies around democracy and policies designed to limit bureaucracy and maintain democratic participation and involvement by workers. There were things like limited tenure of office where you never did more than two terms in the job and then you went back into construction, or you retired, or some other job.
Meredith: Another one was that when the industry was on strike, the officials didn’t get paid. Another was that officials’ pay was tied to the builders’ labourers’ wage. They also believed very strongly that their migrant workers (and there were a lot of migrant workers in the industry at the time) should be very much a part of the union decision making and so they always had translators on stage during mass meetings.
Dave: Shop stewards or delegates had monthly meetings where hundreds of shop stewards would come in, making sure that all of the language groups were fully involved. Mass meetings would often be a very long affair because all of the translations would happen as the meeting proceeded. You had an industry back then that was, in Victoria, around 85% that were direct migrant workers and I think it was 70% in New South Wales. They weren’t the sons and daughters of migrants like today or the grandsons and daughters but the actual direct migrant workers. They were the most amazing people and coming with the most amazing array of experiences from countries all over the world. It was not much good if they’d go to a meeting and they didn’t understand what was going on there. The union took a very strong position on that and the participation and engagement was a real sight to behold. I mean it was revolutionary.
John: The migrant workers were from all over, but there were large numbers in particular from Italy, Greece and the former Yugoslavia: mainly Croatia and Serbia.
Dave: We saw employers, often on the job, create situations where there was tension between groups. One of the things that the BLF did was to eradicate those differences; to make sure that translations were always done at the meetings; to make sure that when you produced material, it was in the other languages, even if it was only the primary languages because it was pretty expensive; to make sure that these newer Australians understood that this was their country, that this was their workplace and that they had the democratic right, equal with everyone else, to decide what happened there.
There was that sense of in our workplaces and in our union, we are working people and that unites us. Everything else is poetry and it’s beautiful. Everybody in Australia, apart from our First Nations’ Indigenous brothers and sisters, are all boat people, regardless of where we come from. It was a really important thing that we opposed the racism on the job, that some employers would instigate as a means to control workers on the job, and we provided the alternative to it. You saw workers, who had English as a second language, begin to step up and become delegates and organisers over the years.
Meredith: They also tried to take as many of the decisions that they made back to a general meeting rather than having the decisions made just at the Executive level. They’d fought very hard to get a democratic union and by the late 1960s and into the early ’70s, that was really appreciated by the membership. You had a union that was very much supported by its membership. They started to look at other areas that they could get involved with. They became very interested in Aboriginal land rights. They started talking about the rights of women and the rights for women to work in the industry which was, at the time, a very controversial policy but they ended up having women officials and women were on the Executive of the union.
John: There were a succession of struggles to improve pay and condition of builders labourers over number of years, with mass participation and direction by rank-and-file workers themselves. During this time, workers’ collective self-confidence and self-organisation grew.
By the onset of the 1970s, the union had expanded significantly, and there was a huge development boom, particularly in New South Wales and its capital, Sydney, where money was flowing in and high-rise buildings were being constructed in large numbers for the first time.
Meredith: The problem with development in Sydney at that time was that there was a very corrupt state government, the Robert Askin government. It was a Tory government.
John: Robert Askin and his government were part of the Australian Liberal Party, and is the main centre-right, conservative party, which would probably be pretty confusing to a lot of right-wingers in the US. But a central aspect of the ideology of liberalism is free-market economics, and it is these classical liberal economic ideas which the party name references.
Meredith: There was also no legislation at all that could protect buildings or even parkland. There was no heritage legislation. There was no environment legislation. We had to wait until the late ’70s, when a Labour government was elected in the state, for that legislation to be put in place. Of course, it was very much as a result of the green ban activity. Another problem for Sydney, in particular, as opposed to Melbourne was that a lot of hot money was coming in from overseas. It was to do with the valuation of the Australian dollar and a lot of money was coming in from America, wanting to invest. There was also the fact that the building industry was changing. Prefabrication meant that much higher buildings could be built. You went from the highest building being from about 12 storeys up to 35 storeys, just in that early 1970s period. There was a classic overdevelopment boom. There was a lot of money to be made. So traditional, working-class areas in the inner city, like The Rocks, Woolloomooloo and Glebe, were going to be just razed to the ground and high rise, executive suites or offices were going to be built.
The low level, hundred-year-old houses, that were in those very desirable inner-city areas, just weren’t making enough money for landlords, so they had to be cleared away and high rise had to occur, according to the developers.
John: High-rise buildings and new construction technologies caused major changes in the construction industry. In Australia, like in much of the rest of the world, construction workers were typically divided into multiple different unions by trade. So most skilled construction workers like carpenters and joiners were members of the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU), while the BLF organised labourers, inaccurately dubbed as quote “unskilled” workers, on worse pay and conditions. And the skilled workers’ unions defended their privileged position with respect to the quote “unskilled” labourers.
Skyscrapers made of concrete and glass though don’t really need carpenters or joiners, but they do need large numbers of labourers. And the construction boom also needed large numbers of labourers to work in demolition, destroying existing buildings so that new ones can be put up in their place.
These changes were giving additional potential industrial power to builders labourers, and they seized the opportunity. They organised strikes, and in addition to that, they took advantage of features of the production process to maximise their potential impact. So for example they realised that concrete pouring was a crucial moment, because if it was interrupted for too long, all of the concrete would be useless. So the labourers would stop the pour, make demands on the employer, who was then under intense pressure to agree them, because if they waited too long, the poured concrete would be no good, and would have to be removed and started all over again. Tactics like this understandably enraged the employers, who typically rely on workers and their unions “playing nice” to some extent.
In addition to these lightning stoppages, there were some major, industry-wide disputes.
Meredith: Yes, there were two big industry strikes in the early 1970s. There was the accident pay strike and, of course, it was a very, very dangerous industry at that time. There were no real regulations about, for instance, safety for the dogman going up on the hook. You’d have high rise office buildings being built with the dogman just hanging onto the hook as the crane swung them up 30 or 40 storeys into the air. There were a lot of deaths from falls and so the accident pay strike was very important. The second really important industry strike was the margins strike which was to change the difference between tradesmen’s pay and builders’ labourers’ pay. Basically, I looked at it when I was doing my thesis and the margin between the journeymen and the master in the building industry hadn’t really changed for about 500 years. So when the builders’ labourers won that decision and the margin was very much narrowed, it did cause real problems with the tradesmen’s union who, of course, felt that their skills were not being properly recognised. It’s also interesting that the builders’ labourers’ skills were being upgraded simply because of the nature of the industry. As the industry changed, the actual labourers were being asked to do more and more skilled labour as the buildings grew taller and taller.
John: The margins strike was a really key event in the development of the militancy and organisation of builders labourers. The New South Wales BLF walked out in May 1970 demanding higher pay for quote “unskilled” builders labourers, compared with skilled tradesmen. They were paid about 75% of the trades rate. When the strike began, the employers’ association, the Master Builders Association (MBA) refused to budge, while the tradesmen’s union, the BWIU, did not support them, while its leader, another Communist Party member called Pat Clancy, advised them to return to work.
But builders labourers in mass meetings voted to continue strike. So the MBA tried to break it by organising mass scabbing – using non-union members and members of other unions to work on its sites.
There were too many small building sites scattered over a huge area for workers to be able to organise flying pickets – mobile groups of strikers who would picket different sites. So number of rank-and-file workers got together and decided to organise what they called vigilante squads.
Dave: If scabs did our work, the union members would go out and destroy that work – physically destroy it. Not destroy the scabs but take their work apart.
John: After working hours, these squads would enter building sites, and systematically demolish anything built by scabs.
Some sites were also occupied by the workers:
Meredith: There was an occupation by the builders’ labourers of a building in North Sydney. The builders’ labourers always had this saying ‘never eat the bosses’ lunch’ and what that meant was do not be duchessed by the employers. Do not allow yourself to be taken off to lunch and then agree to something that wasn’t what the workers wanted. So this statement ‘never eat the bosses’ lunch’ was really quite well known around the industry. In this occupation of the site in North Sydney, one of the old builders’ labourers’ rank and filers, a guy called Mick Curtain, occupied one of the offices and found a lunch on the desk. He rang up the boss and said, ‘Hi, I’m really enjoying eating your lunch.’ From then on, we had a slogan which was ‘never eat the bosses’ lunch unless you occupy the site and find it on his desk.’ There were often joyous occasions where builders’ labourers really enjoyed the fact that they were no longer under the heel of the boss and that they were seen to be fighting back.
John: After five weeks, the employers had to concede defeat. And at the end of the dispute, builders labourers’ pay in New South Wales was up to 99% of the “skilled” workers’ rate. This then got passed on to builders labourers across the whole country.
In addition to acting on things like pay and safety, BLF members try to take more control of the job on building sites, as well as reshape the construction industry in more radical ways.
Dave: So when I came in, there was basically a four year cycle of boom and bust and when I started to come in, because it was a process, the industry was booming. There was a lot of work around and for a young bloke, that was great but it was always a problem, especially for the older men who had children. They relied on the building industry for their full-time, permanent type work. Boom and bust was a real problem for them and the union always had a view that they had a democratic right, when there was unemployment, to be able to nominate people who should take that work. That involved a number of things; one of which was especially around when people elect a delegate or shop steward or somebody has been an organiser for the union and then steps back into the ranks. Employers were going to blacklist those people. There was just no two ways about it. So workers had to have some capacity or some power to be able to insist and say, ‘This person will work and they will take that job.’ That was a battle, I suppose, for all unions because they all faced that but in New South Wales, particularly, and in Victoria, it was done as well but done a little differently, organisationally speaking. There were instances where the employers had to ring the union office if they wanted to fill a position – Union Hall Hire. In the BLF, when I came in, there were the beginnings of the development of a policy called Permanency – 52 weeks work a year for builders’ labourers – as a way to offset the casualised and insecure nature of the industry. That policy was never really achieved but the struggles to get it involved workers’ control and where workers took on the job of saying, ‘You need to fill a position on the job. This is the person who’s going to fill that position. They’ve got the ticket to do the work. They’re available. They’re fit. They’re ready. They start work tomorrow.’ It was even to the extent, in New South Wales, where workers were ‘worked in’. It was the idea of a work in instead of a walk off or a walk out. The worker would be brought in and work alongside everybody else and the employer, ultimately, was forced to accept the democratic right of that worker to work. Especially because they had been a spokesperson on another job, either as a delegate or, at some stage, they might have been an organiser for the union, that was a badge of honour. It was something that we respected and they had to be able to work, especially those people. Of course, the logic being that if you couldn’t protect your spokespeople, you’d have no union. That idea of Union Hall Hire/Permanency was part of a raft of policies, like the green bans, that involved workers’ control. It was the idea of workers having an equal say with the employer as to what happened on the job and what happened in our lives generally.
John: This was the general background to the conception of the green bans in New South Wales: a construction boom, lots of destructive development, and a well-organised, confident and militant mass of builders labourers, with a union leadership of rank-and-file labourers who were committed to workers democratically controlling their own struggles, and the idea of workers’ control. The idea which sounds very obvious but is actually revolutionary: that we as workers should have a say in what we do and how we do it at work.
Around this time, Meredith started to get involved with the builders labourers.
Meredith: In the early 1970s, I was a postgraduate student living in the inner city of Sydney. I was already heavily involved with left activity. I was a member of the Labor Party. I had been very involved with the anti-apartheid movement and the beginnings of the Aboriginal rights’ movement and, of course, I was a feminist.]
I had known the leadership of the builders’ labourers, Jack Mundey, Joe Owens and Bob Pringle. I knew them quite well through anti-Vietnam war activity and especially the anti-apartheid campaign in 1971. The racially selected, all white, South African Springboks team had come to Australia and there had been huge demonstrations against them all around Australia. I was one of the co-convenors of the anti-apartheid movement in Australia and so had come into contact with the BLF leadership. Bob Pringle, in fact, got arrested and charged with trying to cut down the goalposts the day before the big Sydney match. So I knew the leadership and some of the other officials pretty well but what really got me involved was when Glebe, where I was living and where I am still living (my much beloved Glebe), there was a plan to put two huge, great distributors right through the middle of Glebe. It would have been divided into three little islands. It would have destroyed Glebe and that’s when I got very involved and I remain involved. I still organise the reunions for the old builders’ labourers [laughter] 50 years later.
John: The first green ban in New South Wales was organised in 1970, in defence of an area called Kelly’s Bush.
Meredith: The green ban, which is always acknowledged as the first of the famous 1970s green bans, was Kelly’s Bush. Kelly’s Bush was the last remaining bit of natural bushland on the Parramatta River which is part of Sydney Harbour. A bunch of really middle-class women had been fighting to save it for some time. They had approached their local Conservative Member of Parliament who was no use. They had written to the Tory government which, of course, was no use. They had appealed to the developer which was even less use. They then wrote to a number of unions and the only union that replied was the builders’ labourers. The builders’ labourers sent their President, Bob Pringle, out to talk to the women and to inspect Kelly’s Bush. He comes back and it’s noted in the minutes that Bob Pringle reported on Kelly Bush, as it was called. They always got names wrong in the minutes. It was agreed by the Executive that they would put a black ban on the area until the developer agreed to keep the natural bushland. Of course, the bans were always called ‘black bans’ and, in fact, right through until quite late. I think it’s about 1973 that they start being called ‘green bans’. Jack has the bright idea to call them green bans because it was agreed in pub conversations that ‘black bans’ had a connotation of being a bad thing and that the Aboriginal allies really objected to that. That’s why they became known as green bans.
John: Just to clarify here, British colonists referred to Aboriginal Australians as “Black”. And as in 1970s Britain where activists of colour, labelled “Black” by the white establishment developed the identity of political Blackness which we discuss in our episodes 33-34, many Aboriginal Australians self-identified as Black at the same time.
Meredith: That was the first green ban and it wasn’t terribly portentous, except, of course, that the developer then tries to go ahead with the building work and the builders’ labourers’ and the residents physically defend the site and eventually win the green ban. I always make the distinction about the green bans in Sydney, especially, as opposed to what are called green bans later is that most of the green bans in Sydney were physically defended and often at the expense of residents, rank and file builders’ labourers and the leadership being arrested for the defence of the green ban. That was the first green ban in Sydney and, as I say, it doesn’t seem very portentous but, of course, within a few months, other areas which had a problem with development also started approaching the builders’ labourers for help. There was a huge amount of development that was problematic at that time, particularly in the inner-city areas because, what we’d now call, the trendy student types and academics were moving into the inner-city and wanting them to become lovely places to live. This was just at the same time as the developers were seeing the chance to make a lot of money by pulling down the historic old houses and putting up high rise. Most of the nascent resident action groups arose in the inner-city suburbs of Sydney.
John: In Melbourne, Victoria, around the same time, there was another green ban. Although rather than being voted on by workers in a mass meeting, it was imposed by the local union leadership, which reflects the different approaches to leadership held by BLF officials in New South Wales and Victoria, which we will go into in more detail later.
Dave: Simultaneous with Kelly’s Bush, because it’s always a bit of a debate about which came first, was what became known as the Norman Lyndsay Gallagher Park here in Melbourne, Victoria. It was a strip of parkland, that went for a long way and covering a couple of different suburbs of Melbourne, that used to be part of an old rail circle. When the rail land was shut down, the park was retained. In a suburb called Carlton, in Melbourne, the kids from the housing commission flats, the public sector flats, used to go and play in that parkland. It was the only area they had because the flats never had a yard to play in. One of the BLF members lived in those flats and Scotties tissue company wanted to build a factory there. Carlton, now, is a very different part of Melbourne and higher paid workers live there now but back then, there were a lot of industrial working-class people who lived there. He took this issue along to the union and spoke to the secretary and the union executive. The secretary, Norm Gallagher, went down and investigated and ran into the boss. The boss’ son assaulted him and he defended himself and he did 14 days jail over putting a green ban, although it was still called a black ban back then, on the development at that site. That was around 1970/71. It was definitely the very same sort of thing that was achieved at Kelly’s Bush in Sydney.
John: After Kelly’s Bush, environmental and social bans by builders labourers exploded, and also sparked a huge growth local residents campaigning groups, who the BLF would work with.
Dave: Wherever possible, those most affected by a decision should be the ones who make it and really, when I look back at the green bans, I see that principle at work. A resident action group would set up and invariably, there would be anywhere between 200-500 people involved. They’d approach the union and the union would investigate. If there was real public support for the resident action group and its aims and objectives, then the union believed that its first responsibility, as a collective, was to the people and not the developers who were opposed to the interests of the resident action groups and the people who lived in the areas affected.
John: Then, in New South Wales, any proposed bans were put to a mass meeting of builders labourers.
Dave: What that meant was that when a green ban was placed, in New South Wales especially, you’d had, preceding it, a lot of involvement and engagement by the members.
John: In many ways, these bans could be very surprising, because they were essentially construction workers deciding collectively to deny themselves potential work and pay. You can contrast that with many unions today, for example the GMB union in Britain supporting the Trident nuclear weapons program, or the AFL-CIO union confederation in the US supporting new oil pipelines like Keystone XL. Undoubtedly, the fact that the boom meant that there was lots of work to go around played a significant factor in this. But the bans were still contrary to the workers’ immediate, narrow economic self-interest.
Meredith: The interesting thing about the bans was that us activists really didn’t have to try to convince the rank and file builders’ labourers of the reason to put a ban on. We would run the public campaign of ‘Glebe shouldn’t be destroyed’ or ‘Save The Rocks’ or ‘Working-class people should be allowed to live in Woolloomooloo’. Those sorts of arguments were put at a fairly general level. The interesting thing was that it was the leadership of the union that used to talk to the labourers about why particular bans should be supported. That was quite good, in a way, because it meant that it wasn’t middle-class students telling rank and file builders’ labourers that they should give up perfectly good jobs in order to support our lifestyle. It was really about the leadership fighting out the situation in the pubs and clubs of Sydney. The arguments in the pubs were really very interesting and often got to be quite detailed. There were some bans that were more popular than others. I can still remember that there was to be a ban on a swimming pool in the eastern suburbs. It was a harbour swimming pool in the eastern suburbs of Sydney which is the posh area of Sydney. A number of rank and filers were saying, ‘Why should we do that for the nobs [laughter] out in the eastern suburbs? Shouldn’t we be concentrating on working-class areas of Sydney?’ The builders’ labourers had a policy that every ban that they put on had to be requested and supported by the local community and had to be passed by a general meeting of builders’ labourers. Their general meetings were often quite big and sometimes, they were a thousand or a couple of thousand members and they would debate and vote on each particular ban. So that was very important because it meant that the leadership kept the membership with them on these really quite radical policies.
John: In addition to bans in defence of the natural environment, numerous bans were also put on development which would have harmed local working class communities.
Dave: One of the ones that I found most exciting. Indeed, the organiser who led this and did all the work was a bloke named Brian Boyd. The green ban concerned the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne which is still there but only just and the fight to retain it is still going on now. Every ten years or so, it would arc up again and the blue would be on again and it is on again. It’s harder to fight with neoliberal capitalism and neoliberal organisational structures in our unions. Brian and the leadership here in Victoria put that ban on the Victoria Market. Thank goodness. When Norm Gallagher, the Secretary of the union, started work as a boy at 14, he worked at the Victoria Market loading and unloading all the vegetable trucks and so forth and so there was that sort of link there. As often is the case with green bans, you’ll find there are personal and family connections that then become community connections which then become connections to the union. The Queen Victoria Market, the Vic Market as well call it, is such an important part of Melbourne. Everybody who comes to Melbourne goes to the Vic Market. If people come from other states, even to go to the football, they’ll make sure that before they go to the footy in the afternoon, they’ll go to Vic Market and have a bratwurst and a cuppa. The stallholders approached the union and the union went down, took it to the Executive and the monthly branch meeting and there were rallies held. Workers went down there to make it clear that the market was not going to be demolished and be replaced with yet more office space and that this was a vital part of Melbourne. It provided an affordable week’s shopping for your food with really good, fresh fruit and vegetables. It had all your dry foods as well and your clothes. It had everything because it’s a massive area. That was an amazing thing to watch because what you learnt from that was that when the union reached out to the people, the people reached back.
Even in my history, as a boy when I left home, the place where I first moved into didn’t have a shower or a bath [laughter]. It had a wash sink and so once a week, I’d go to the city baths because they did actually have big, hot baths. They also had a pool where you could do your laps before work, if your job allowed it. That was a green ban because the people who used the pool approached the union. It’s some of the finest architecture in Melbourne which is world-class. It’s this beautiful bank on the corner of Collins and Queen Street in Melbourne. If you’re ever in Melbourne, go and have a look at it. It’s only there because the union stepped in and placed a green ban on it. Space, after space, after space was saved because of workers saying, ‘This isn’t right. We’re not just pick up and carry animals. We’re human beings and we’re not going to treat the communities that we live in in this way. That there, that you want to do, that’s not going to happen.’ However, the important thing about the green bans is this; we always had an alternative plan in place. It was never just saying no; it was saying yes to a whole bunch of other things. So if you look at Queen Victoria Market, a lot of the good things that happened at the market, like the development, the changes and the renovations, were part of an alternative plan that the people in the unions put forward and that became important later in terms of the development of strategies to deal with climate emergency and capitalist collapse.
John: The Queen Victoria market ban, like many others, was not just an all or nothing outright ban on any development whatsoever. Sometimes a ban was placed on demolition and construction work in order to make demands on developers and local authorities. Sometimes these were around safety, like improving fire safety of proposed buildings, sometimes they were around renovating historic buildings rather than destroying them, and other times concessions like decent housing for working class people was demanded alongside what was included in the original plan. In the next clip, Dave uses the acronym CBD, this means central business district, and is generally equivalent to what people normally mean by “downtown” in the US.
Dave: Melbourne City Council is a major council and, relatively speaking, a rich council which covers the CBD and some of the surrounding suburbs of the CBD in Melbourne. If you look at Victoria Market, they were the ones who owned the land and wanted to sell it and redevelop it and so alternative plans were put forward to renovate the market to make it even better because it had been under attack and parts of it had been closed down over decades and decades. The union said, ‘The plan that you want to go ahead with is not going to happen but we will go ahead with a people’s plan.’ They really gave them one option, unless they wanted to take us on. Back then, that was no mean feat to take on the building industry unions because, by then, the BLF was receiving support from the other unions with the ban. If they came out and attacked too vigorously… we’d just come out of a general strike in 1969, where a union leader had been jailed for refusing to provide the unions’ books and the union movement was strong. Even if it was the Melbourne City Council, did it really want to take on a class war? They didn’t and so the ban and the alternative plan held.
That’s it for part one of this double episode. In part 2, we talk more about different bans, like one on the Sydney Opera House, as well as in defence of Aboriginal housing, as well as the union’s support for women in the construction industry, and how the bans were eventually broken. We’ve also produced a bonus episode where we speak in more detail with Dave about his experiences, and about his activism today. You can listen to both of these now by supporting us on patreon.
Support from you, our listeners, is the only way we can afford to devote as much time as we do to this podcast. In return for your support, you get early access to content, as well as exclusive bonus content, discounted books and much, and more.
Learn more and signup at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link above.
You can also learn more in Meredith and her sister Verity’s book, Green Bans, Red Union, which is a fantastic read, so we will pop a link to that in the show notes as well.
If you like books, we should probably mention that WCH have written our first book. Working Class History: Everyday Acts of Resistance & Rebellion is a compendium of hundreds of on this day in history anniversaries, replete with photos, extensive references and further reading, and a foreword from Noam Chomsky. We’ve also produced some merch commemorating the BLF. You can get yours in our online store at shop.workingclasshistory.com.
Huge thanks to all of our existing patreon supporters for enabling us to make this episode. Thanks to you for listening, and catch you next time.
“In a mighty tide of human pride”
In a mighty tide of human pride, we surged through Sydney’s streets,
And the mark of green, on the concrete keen, was a kingtide, full and sweet,
Our names unknown, nor gold on stone, but still our hearts were high
To overturn the lies that burn the life from you and I.
I marched out front’ I took the dump, on me they tipped the can,
I saw the heroes point and say:”Do you call it a man?”
But when the coppers buckled me, and slammed the paddy van,
I saw the heroes stop and think – perhaps I was a man, perhaps I was a man.
And now my friends, my hair is grey, and I am growing young,
For in the sky, the stars will play, where once smog curtains hung,
I see the oceans shine with fish. the rivers glint with bream,
And there wont be any beaches where the kiddies cannot swim.
I built a city of green, the city of my dreams.
Oh my city of green, the best you’ve ever seen,
For, still and all, we all must dream, far better it is to try,
To build a city all of green, than to let your dreaming die,
And so, my friends, it you have a dream, do not let it die,
Then, when you are dead and gone, you’ll be alive as I.
Thanks to our patreon supporters and Conner Canatsey who make this podcast possible.
Episode graphic courtesy Meredith Burgmann.
Music used in these episodes includes: “Green Bans Forever” by Mick Fowler and the Jazz called Green Ban’d; “City of Green”, by former builders labourer Denis Kevans, performed by Kate Fagan; “Green Ban Fusiliers” by Denis Kevans; “Monuments”, by Denis Kevans, performed by Bob Fagan, all courtesy of unionsong.com.
Interview audio transcribed by PODTRANSCRIBE