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
- 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.
John: Welcome back to the Working Class History podcast, about the green bans in Australia in the 1970s. If you haven’t listened to part 1 yet, I would go back and listen to that first.
John: To begin with today, Meredith Burgmann, co-author of Green Bans, Red Union, gives a quick rundown of some of the different kinds of green bans which builders labourers implemented between 1970 and 1974.
Meredith: There were a number of different green bans. There were green bans on natural bush, like in Kelly’s Bush. There were green bans to save parkland and, of course, the best known of that is the green ban on Centennial Park which is still our huge, iconic park right in the middle of Sydney. The green area was going to be turned into a huge sporting complex with no area left for passive recreation and it was the Centennial Park green ban that got the huge support of Patrick White, Australia’s only Nobel Prize winner for literature. To see the very austere figure of Patrick White marching in demonstrations in support of the builders’ labourers was always a delight. There were a lot of bans on working-class areas of Sydney because the labourers were very keen to argue that working-class people should still have the right to live in the inner-city of Sydney. Of course, this was the period when working-class people were being pushed out into the outer suburbs, so that the trendy middle-class could move into the lovely inner-city areas. The bans in The Rocks, Glebe and Woolloomooloo were really about the right of working-class people to remain in the inner-city. There were then bans on historic houses. I mean it’s appalling to realise how many beautiful, old buildings were going to be torn down by the developers with the support of the Askin Government. There was no interest in heritage or even the white history of Australia. There were also community bans on areas that local communities thought were important to the way they interacted with each other. That was to do with public places and sometimes things like swimming pools. There were a number of different bans and they were all called green bans because they were put on by the builders’ labourers and they were actively defended by the residents and the builders’ labourers themselves.
One of the bans that I remember really well was the Victoria Street ban. A number of quite well-known activists, including Anne Summers, our feminist icon, were involved in that ban. I had been inveigled into actually even being part of a squatting movement. I’m not a big lover of squatting. I actually enjoy hot showers and things like that but I’d gone up there one night to stay overnight because we believed there was going to be a raid the next morning. Sure enough, there was a raid in the morning and I was taken away and arrested. Strangely, [laughter] the guy that arrested me was actually one of my students at Macquarie University, so he was actually very polite to me [laughter] and I didn’t experience any of the terrible brutality which was sometimes used against the green ban activists.
Once some jolly squatters camped in Victoria Street
There they lived for months on end
They fought and struggled for the own community
The rights of the tenants to defend
Green Bans forever Green Bans Forever
Green Bans forever in Victoria Street
We sang as we hopped from chimney top to chimney top
Green Bans forever in Victoria Street
Meredith: Another ban that was very, very strongly defended was down at The Rocks. There’s a lovely picture of Jack standing defying the police with a bunch of residents behind him and there, resplendent in this extraordinary pantsuit, is me straight behind him. I keep wondering why I was wearing my very best clothes to a demonstration. I think I must have come straight from work because normally, you would not be wearing your very best clothes to a demonstration. I remember another demonstration where we were trying to stop the expressway going through Ultimo and it was at a little street called Fig Street where we were all sitting down in front of the bulldozers [laughter]. An old guy, who was one of those old, terrible right-wing, fairly corrupt leaders of the Labour Party in the Glebe area at the time, actually came over and spat on me as I was sitting on the ground. There was a huge amount of opposition to the protestors and to the resident activists. People now have a rosy view of what was going on. As I say, the mainstream media has totally rewritten their history. They now talk about the green bans as if they supported every one of them and they didn’t.
John: That photo Meredith referred to is included along with lots of others on the webpage for this episode, above.
In many cases, concessions won by the workers are still around today, like one of my personal favourite buildings, the amazing brutalist block of flats in Sydney, called Sirius.
Meredith: When The Rocks’ ban was being negotiated, I believe that Jack Mundey had an agreement with Neville Wran, who was to become the Premier some years later in 1976 when the Labour Party won that election. The Sirius building is a lovely, brutalist building but it’s there. I love it. It’s large. It’s proud. It’s got wonderful views over the harbour. Everyone sees it as they go across the Harbour Bridge. It was built specifically for social housing. It was built for housing commission tenants to live in The Rocks where they always had and enjoy the best views in Australia. That was an agreement that the builders’ labourers came to when they agreed to take off some other bans within The Rocks. What you have in The Rocks today is that all the old, historic area is saved with beautiful, old terraced houses and some lovely, old buildings. It’s now the place where tourists in Sydney always go to see old Sydney – old, white Sydney, I need to keep adding. The Sirius building is also a monument to what the builders’ labourers were about. They were about saving inner-city areas for working-class residents of Sydney.
John: Like many brutalist social housing projects around the world, Sirius was under threat recently, but while all of its tenants ended up being evicted, the building itself was saved for now.
One particularly high profile ban was on the construction of the Sydney opera house. While now a world-famous landmark, at the time it was a notoriously disastrous project. And among many errors, the architects forgot to include a car park. So during the construction, an underground car park was hastily designed, but which would have killed three historic olive trees in the adjacent Royal Botanic Gardens. Conservationists complained about the environmental damage, while engineers and architects complained that the car park design didn’t include adequate ventilation, but their concerns were ignored. So they went to the BLF, who then placed a ban on construction. The developers were incensed by this, at the temerity of lowly construction workers holding up such a high-profile project for three measly trees, and all manner of pressure was put to bear on the workers to give in. But they refused, and the opera house initially had to open without a car park. And eventually the developers were forced to shell out the extra money and have the car park built in such a way as not to damage any local wildlife.
Lots of other bans were implemented as well in defence of different sections of the working class, like Aboriginal people, women and LGBT+ people. There were many Aboriginal members of the union, but these ideas world also a result of the new left ideas which permeated the union, shaped by struggles which were going on around the world like the feminist movement, the burgeoning gay liberation movement, anti-colonial movements et cetera.
Dave: Historically, the construction unions, generally, were under left leadership in some states but often, the national leadership as well. Historically, those left leaderships had close ties with First Nations’ leaders and supported many of the campaigns, both within their own states of Australia but also nationally. Indigenous Australians were always in and out of construction in every state and were always good union members. Some of them went on into leadership. If I look, say, in New South Wales, you had Kevin Cook (Cooky) who was one of the most amazing men ever. He was just, again, an Indigenous First Nations’ worker who had lived through things that, no matter how hard a white worker in Australia has lived it, you’re never going to match the experience of our Indigenous brothers and sisters – never. I guess, again, it was because of the leadership in the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation. It was something that the left-wing leaders across the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation, regardless of their faction… when I regardless of their faction, that might give the impression that that’s just about the way they might vote on something. Not true. I mean people lived and died by their beliefs, quite literally. Despite the factions, support of the Indigenous struggle here in Australia for land rights was something that they all agreed on and they all supported, to their credit. Never enough. It never will be enough but to step up and give that support. In turn, what you get is the most amazing working-class leaders, like Kevin Cook in New South Wales, stand up. Kevin was one of the ones who led the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation to the right conclusions about First Nations’ people. You had that massive, migrant, worker population. You had white Australians who were ignorant of Indigenous history and the history of white invasion. Cooky did the great service to the Australian working-class by educating people and he did it in very practical ways. For instance, in the early ’70s, they wanted to come into the inner urban area of Sydney to a place called Redfern. They wanted to demolish a whole area which was known as The Block. It was a whole bunch of houses that were empty and Indigenous people were living there. Cooky united the Indigenous, Black population there and the white working-class in the BLF which was predominantly white working-class. They placed a ban on the demolition of The Block. Basically, an Aboriginal housing cooperative was set up out of that and, again, all of the lessons around that collectivist, cooperative structure which was something that reflected Indigenous culture and life. We were taught that. We were shown that in practice and years later, as we understood more, we came to understand that the First Nations’ people had a cooperativist, collectivist culture. They didn’t have a state, as such. There was no separation between the economy, health, welfare, education and spiritually. You had a civilisation that was a pre-industrial, socialist civilisation at work which was, of course, why, when the white invasion happened, our white forebearers had no capacity or context to understand what they’d run into here and just how amazing it was [laughter], so all the mistakes, errors and crimes were committed. It was through people like Kevin Cook (Cooky) and his leadership that we came to understand that in practical ways because we came to understand it through our own struggle to say, ‘Right, that work in Redfern is not going ahead but we will support this idea of an Aboriginal housing co-op,’ which put in place healthcare and kindergarten for the kids, etc.
Meredith: The ban on The Block was to stop a developer pulling down a long set of terraces that were traditional, Aboriginal residences. Eventually, the Whitlam Government, which had just been elected, sent their great Minister for Urban and Regional Development, Tom Uren, to the aid of the Party and there was an agreement between the developer who was buying the properties, the federal government, the builders’ labourers and the local Aboriginal community that that would be Aboriginal, community-owned land and it was for Aboriginal housing. It’s often called the first successful land rights’ claim in Australia but certainly, Aboriginal activists really appreciated that and towards the end, when the builders’ labourers were under so much pressure and were fighting for their existence, the Aboriginal activists were some of the greatest supporters of the builders’ labourers.
John: Another ban which got a lot of attention at the time was in support of a gay student.
Meredith: At about the same time, a student called Jeremy Fisher, at Macquarie University (also in Sydney), had been expelled from his residential college at the university for being homosexual. The builders’ labourers put a ban on all new building at Macquarie University until he was readmitted to his college. That was always known as a ‘pink ban’. Interestingly enough, that is one of the builders’ labourers’ actions that has most resonated with students and academics of today. I am continually being asked to comment on that 50 years after the event but when you think about it, this is when homosexual law reform hadn’t happened in Australia. It was still illegal and yet here was a very working-class labourers’ union putting a ban on a university until the student got readmitted to his college. They won that. The university put pressure on the college and the college eventually readmitted the student.
John: This was one of the more controversial bans amongst the builders labourers, and a lot of discussion and debates in pubs preceded it.
Meredith: One of the things that stays with me is the extraordinary discussions and arguments that used to go on in the pubs. Because most of the industry was based in the inner-city, as there were all these high rise towers going up, most of the activists were working in the CBD and so they were emptying out into the pubs around the city when they finished work. Real arguments were going on in the Ship Inn, the Criterion, the Sussex, the Newcastle and all those pubs around the inner-city. Just listening to those arguments and discussions was so interesting. The ban on Macquarie University over Jeremy Fisher was so debated in those pubs. As you can imagine, the rank and file took quite a while to be convinced that this was something that they should put their jobs on the line about but in the end, the majority did support that ban. That was very important.
John: At their peak, there were dozens of bans in New South Wales alone, with others elsewhere around the country.
Meredith: [Laughter] Yeah, most of the bans were physically defended. By 1975, there were 54 green bans and they were holding up $5 billion of development. That’s $5 billion in 1975 terms, so it’s like many, many hundreds of billions of dollars now. It was a huge headache for the state government and the developers. You can see why such a huge amount of effort was put into destroying the Jack Mundey leadership.
John: Now for context, purely in inflationary terms AU$5 billion in 1975 is worth a little under AU$37 billion today, that’s over US$26 billion. But property prices typically go up much faster than inflation. So the bans were huge.
They led to one newspaper outlet during the dispute sarcastically made reference to the “proletarian town planning institute (known in some circles as the Builders Labourers Federation)”, with “proletarian” being another word for “working class”. This was kind of a joke, but also partly true, as for the first time working-class people were actually wielding significant influence in the construction of the built environment.
Another key issue the builders labourers took up was the right of women to work in the construction industry. Now regular listeners will know that we don’t like to devote to much attention to the minutiae of arguments within left-wing political groups. But to understand the divisions within the BLF which emerged, and which would ultimately lead to its downfall, you need to understand the divisions within the Communist Party of Australia.
Meredith: One of the main problems for the leadership of the builders’ labourers, at the time, was the split within the Communist Party of Australia. Jack Mundey and Joe Owens were part of the Independent Communist Party, sometimes called the Aarons’ line from Laurie and Eric Aarons. What happened was that in 1961, there had been the split with the Maoists which happened all around the world and the Community Party, Marxists-Leninists and the Maoists became a separate party. Not much happened in Sydney. There were a couple of Maoists but the leadership of the CPA (M-L) were all in Melbourne under Ted Hill and, of course, Norm Gallagher, the federal secretary of the builders’ labourers. The next split, which I think was probably even more damaging, occurred after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets. The so called Stalinists (those who still supported the Moscow line) began to split away from the Communist Party. The problem with that was that one of the leaders of that split was Pat Clancy, who was the Secretary of the tradesmen’s union, the BWIU. So what you had was the three-way split within the Communist Party which was most played out in the building industry because there was the secretary of the federal Builders’ Labourers down in Victoria who was with the Maoists. The secretary of the tradesmen’s union, the BWIU, was with the Stalinists. The Secretary of the BLF in New South Wales was prominent in the Independent CPA – the Aaron’s line CPA. That was a huge problem all the way through and every split and every little difficulty within the building unions was exacerbated by that split in the Communist Party.
John: All the different acronyms can be a bit confusing so we will just try to summarise again. The Communist Party of Australia of 1960 ended up splitting into three rival factions. The first split happened in 1961, which was a reflection of the Sino-Soviet split, essentially strategic geopolitical differences between the Soviet Union and China under Mao Zedong. This split Communist Parties around the world, and in Australia resulted in the creation of the CPA (Marxist-Leninist), which supported Maoist China. We will refer to them as the Maoists, and they included Norm Gallagher, who has been mentioned several times, who was based in Melbourne and was the secretary of the national Builders Labourers Federation.
As Meredith explained, after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia – which was trying to ease up on some civil liberties – the majority of the CPA completely opposed this, so those who supported Moscow – typically referred to as Stalinists, even though Joseph Stalin had died by that point – left the party and set up a new one called the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA). Pat Clancy, the secretary of the Building Workers Industrial Union who we mentioned in part 1, was a member of the SPA.
So the bulk of the CPA which remained was in the Aarons faction, who were strongly influenced by new left ideas like individual freedom, democratic rights, feminism, gay liberation, Black liberation and so on. The bulk of the central leadership of the New South Wales BLF, including Jack Mundey, were part of this CPA, along with some Labor Party members and the odd anarchist.
This said, it is worth stressing that only up to around 100 members of the New South Wales BLF were actually members of the CPA, about 1% of their total membership. But their influence stretched much further.
These divisions would have a big impact on the more progressive campaigns the BLF wanted to run, which weren’t just about pay and conditions, or which were in support of specific sections of the working class, like women.
Dave: Again, New South Wales led the country, in my view, on this because at a policy level, they supported women in construction. I don’t mean they just had a policy that they wanted to see more women in construction. I mean they worked women in. Just like if you had a blacklisted male worker, the employer wouldn’t pick these workers up. The union would bring them into the job. Our union would do it and work them alongside everybody else and if the employer didn’t pay, then there would be bans placed. A mate of mine, Sandra Zurbo, tried to work here in Victoria but, again, the leadership here in Victoria was less progressive on this issue and the Secretary, Norm Gallagher, wasn’t like Jack Mundey. Norm had an outdated view of women and their rights and the roles that they were capable of playing, etcetera. He was determined that women wouldn’t come into the industry. Despite him being a communist, he was very conservative on that issue. In New South Wales, they took that very seriously and they did, I suppose, what came to be known later as affirmative action. You were seeing the beginnings of that in the practice of the BLF in New South Wales. It was based upon an absolute and utter understanding that these women were our sisters, just as much as the bloke was our brother. You couldn’t just be right about that; you had to be right about it and win. Just like everything else, you could be right about Vietnam and say the war shouldn’t happen but unless you went out and put your body on the line and you helped the Vietnamese win, it wasn’t much good. Unless you went out onto those fields and you stopped the rugby games of the white, South African teams that came out here, then you’d be right because you opposed apartheid in your own lounge room but you did nothing to help them win. People say, ‘What gives you the democratic right to do that and force an employer to hire a woman that he doesn’t want to hire?’ Well, I guess our union leaders, to their eternal credit, reversed the question and said, ‘We are the majority in the workplace and it’s time that that small minority of people were put in some perspective. Yes, they could have a say but only a say like everyone else.’
Meredith: Another one of the problems that the leadership of the BLF had in New South Wales was that their policies on what we would now call ‘identity politics’ were really opposed by the Stalinists. The Stalinists set themselves up as a separate party called SPA (the Socialist Party of Australia). They opposed the New South Wales BLF support for women in the industry as that was considered left-wing adventurism. They very much opposed support for the gay and lesbian movement. They kept arguing that the New South Wales BLF had become captive to middle-class students and trendies. What, in fact, the New South Wales builders’ labourers were doing was really quite groundbreaking. Jack had already started arguing about the social responsibility of labour where he was saying that labourers had to think about what they did with their own labour and that was really how the environmentalism and the green bans really started in the builders’ labourers. He was also saying that they had to be part of a new society and that included support for women. One of the bans that the old Stalinists in the BWIU were most opposed to was… women, academics and students came to the builders’ labourers and asked for a ban to be put on Sydney University until it allowed a women’s studies’ course at the university. There had been this big campaign to have a women’s studies’ course but it wasn’t until the builders’ labourers put a ban on all new building at Sydney University that the women’s studies’ course was permitted.
John: There ended up being 60-80 women working in the construction industry in New South Wales, not a huge number, but this was up from zero. And there was still sexism on building sites, which women workers fought against. In later interviews with Meredith, some women workers also reported that they also got swept up in the general macho culture. But still this was an advance on many parts of the world, where construction was still an entirely male industry, and all-male construction unions in places like the UK were still using scantily clad women as pinups in union publications.
Meredith: The support of the groups, such as the LGBTIQ community, the women and what were seen as middle-class types and students was always pooh-poohed by the Maoist leadership in Victoria. Norm Gallagher always said that the BLF leadership was kowtowing to “Sheilas and p**fters” and he had no empathy at all for groups other than what he saw as the genuine working-class, i.e. the people who supported him in Victoria. Certainly, the builders’ labourers were ahead of their time in seeing that there could be this coalition of interests. Jack Mundey always referred to ‘the enlightened working-class’ and ‘the enlightened middle-class’ coming together to fight for a better society. Norm Gallagher would have none of that. Also, the BWIU leadership, under Pat Clancy, was always arguing that what the BLF leadership were doing was left adventurism; that it was pandering to middle-class views of society and not sticking to what the working-class should have been doing which was wages and conditions. The very radical actions of the BLF were being attacked from both sides by the Stalinists and the Maoists.
John: “Sheila” is Australian slang for “woman”.
For context, it’s probably also worth pointing out that in the early 1970s most groups which called themselves Marxist-Leninist or Maoist shared the homophobic ideas of mainstream society, although sometimes dressed up in “radical left wing” language, like describing it as “petty bourgeois” “decadence” or what have you. At the same time it is also worth pointing out that especially after organising work by the Gay Liberation Front, who we talk about in episodes 24-25, some people who came from this tradition, like Huey P Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers, came to forcefully reject these sort of views.
Going back to the BLF, both it and the wider union movement were divided. Leaderships of most other unions were also terrified of the structural reforms of the New South Wales BLF, introducing limited tenure and requiring that all union officials from the workforce. This was a genuine existential threat to the whole union bureaucracy.
With that background, and with billions of dollars at stake, the capitalist establishment, the courts, the police, and the media became increasingly desperate to put an end to the green bans.
Dave: Legal threats were made constantly. The union would just say, ‘Do your worst. We’ll cop your hardest. Just throw your best shot and see what happens when you do.’ Outside of that, many of the employers used the traditional approach, which still goes on today, of hiring thugs and criminals. They’d get bouncers from the strip joints and the night clubs around town and try to heavy people. They’d put them on jobs as scabs. That’s happened since I was a boy and it continues to happen now. They stand over people. So that was tried but it wasn’t that, in the end, that destroyed us. In the end, it was our own internal divisions.
Meredith: The builders’ labourers, by the end of that period of, say, 1975, were almost totally alone with the forces against them just being so huge. First of all, the media was totally opposed to them. The Sydney Morning Herald have totally rewritten history and they seem to now claim that they supported the green bans. Well, they didn’t. They produced five editorials in 12 days calling for Jack, Joe and Bob to be jailed. None of the mainstream media supported the builders’ labourers. The state government, of course, was absolutely hostile and the police were used over and over again to protect employers’ interests. The union movement was opposed to what the BLF was doing.
John: Jack Mundey, Joe Owens and Bob Pringle are the BLF leaders being referred to there.
Even though they were originally illegal almost everywhere, in most countries today trade unions are legal, and given various rights to operate, as long as they play by the rules set by capitalist governments. But the BLF was not prepared to play by these rules.
Dave: I mean you joined a union mostly and it was like an insurance company. At best, it was a good insurance company. Basically, your wages and conditions would be protected and safety would be addressed, so you went home in the same condition you arrived in the morning. However, to join a union that had a leadership that was concerned about a better world and not just a bigger share of this one, especially for a kid like me and the others like me who’d become my mates and my comrades, it was life-changing, life-changing. When we look back now at the green bans, what we see, as I said at the outset, are workers taking the decisions about where we work and where we live and demanding that through our use of industrial power. Of course, that’s why the union had to go. That’s why it had to be smashed because it was challenging capitalism.
John: The employers and the state though were unable to break the green bans on their own. To finally achieve that they needed the rest of the union movement, as well as the federal Builders Labourers Federation under Norm Gallagher and his Maoist faction.
The BLF had already fallen out with the tradesmen’s union the BWIU, run by the Stalinists, following the successful margins strike which reduced the pay differential between skilled tradesmen and so-called “unskilled” labourers.
Then, the New South Wales BLF was expelled from the local trades council supposedly for violence during a meeting. However those involved in the violence were actually members of the Maoist faction, not the local leadership.
In late 1973, the employers locked out the New South Wales BLF for several weeks, denouncing them as “communists” trying to “create anarchy”. Various bosses tried to bribe Jack Mundey with millions of dollars to call off the bans – one developer offered him $20 million just to partially call off one ban. But he refused to be bought, and in any case bans had all been voted for and enforced by an organised and engaged rank-and-file, so it is unlikely he would have been able to in any case.
So the Master Builders Association tried to deal the New South Wales BLF a fatal blow, by deregistering the union. But behind the scenes they had made a deal with federal BLF secretary Norm Gallagher, that if the New South Wales leadership were all expelled, and control taken by the Maoist federal leadership, and the green bans largely ended, then the union would be re-registered.
After the union was deregistered, Norm Gallagher and the federal leadership used various unlawful and underhand tactics to kick the New South Wales leadership out of the union. They also essentially set up a rival union structure in New South Wales, sending in organisers to recruit workers to the federal BLF as opposed to the local branch. At the beginning this didn’t have much success, with the federal union picking up only 1000 members compared with 7000 in the local branch. And some workers in other unions tried to support the New South Wales branch. For example the smaller construction union FEDFA refused to work with federal BLF members. So when some of their crane driver members went on strike over pay cuts, the federal BLF flew in scabs from Victoria to break the strike. And after 6 weeks FEDFA had to relent and agree to work with federal members.
Federal BLF organisers were usually expelled from jobsites with physical force, but there were some amusing altercations, for example when one Maoist student went to lecture a group of labourers on one building site against their “ultraleft adventurism”, rather than remove him from the premises they nailgunned his briefcase to the ground.
The employers, the MBA, worked with the federal union in this, giving pay increases only to ticketholders of the federal union, and not to the New South Wales branch.
A mass meeting of 1500 builders labourers unanimously voted to reject the Maoist takeover, but Gallagher ignored the result and declared that the meeting had been stacked with quote “residents and p-words”, with “p-word” being a repeat of the homophobic slur previously quoted by Meredith.
After having essentially suspending union democracy, Gallagher was eventually forced to call union elections. His faction then just ruled every candidate outside their faction invalid, and declared a “bonecrushing” victory in the uncontested elections. This was later ruled completely illegal by the courts, but the green ban faction did not want to get their union comrades put in jail for contempt of court.
Some other unions, like the Australian Workers Union (AWU), also provided scabs to break BLF green bans, bulldozing homes in Ultimo to build an expressway.
A crucial factor in weakening the New South Wales BLF was the decline in the construction boom. Although they had been abandoned by much of the union movement, they found support from many other places. Particularly from residents groups, gay rights organisations and Aboriginal communities, who organised mass protests alongside builders labourers and help to defend bans.
But this wasn’t enough to save the green bans. On 12 March 1975, Norm Gallagher and the MBA agreed that employers would only employ ticketholders of the federal BLF, and that New South Wales BLF members would be sacked. With unemployment going up, this was a very powerful weapon. Then, five days later, the New South Wales branch office was broken into and all of their membership files were stolen. The perpetrators were never caught, but the only people who would benefit from the burglary would be the federal BLF leadership. This effectively meant that the New South Wales branch could no longer function.
A week later, the New South Wales union leadership, which no longer technically included Jack Mundey, as he had served his two terms and returned to work as a builder’s labourer, called their final stop work meeting.
Meredith: When the BLF leadership eventually called their last meeting and the union went out of existence, there were only two unions in support of them at that stage. It was a very emotional meeting. There were 3,000 builders’ labourers in tears and the only two unions there were the FEDFA (the very small building union that had always been in support of the builders’ labourers) and their leadership under Jack Cambourne, who was also in the Communist Party, was very important. The FEDFA was there and the Teachers’ Federation was there in support of the builders’ labourers but the other unions were totally opposed because they saw the sorts of policies that Jack had brought in, particularly limited tenure of office and the lowering of union officials’ wages as very dangerous to them.
John: In capitalist society, workers’ unions are tied to the interests of the national capitalist economy in many ways. So unions at big companies may fight their employers, but the same time they need their employers to remain profitable in order to continue operating. And across the whole country, unions need a growing economy in order to provide jobs for their members. So conventional trade unionism in wealthy democracies normally operates within these boundaries. Unions will typically try to bargain for a slightly larger slice of the pie, using quote “reasonable” methods. And in return, employers and governments tolerate them, within a strict legal framework.
So when workers try to go “too far”, by demanding pay or conditions too good for the capitalist economy to bear, or demanding control over the production process itself, which happened in many places in the late 1960s to early 1970s like the UK, Italy, France and the US, the unions turned against the workers, ordering wildcat strikes to end, expelling and having militants fired and so on.
Left-wing union officials in this situation typically acted in the same way as those on the right, although they would normally give the justification that they had to rein in a particular group of workers in order to protect the union as a whole for the longer term.
But the leaders of the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation never did that. They never compromised their ideals. They argued that if they had called off the green bans in order to remain in control of the union, then the “union” was effectively dead anyway. And so instead they decided to step aside, and argued for rank-and-file workers to continue the struggle for green bans, and workers’ control over the production process inside the new BLF.
Meredith: I also remember the last meeting, as I say, where 3,000 builders’ labourers in the Lower Town Hall just sat there, some of them weeping, as Jack, Joe and Bob said, ‘This is the end of the line for us. Thank you for your support. To keep your jobs, go into the Gallagher led federal union and continue the fight from there.’ It was just so sad.
John: Some people may think this was a mistake, and they would have been better off retaining power. But others would question what is the point of nominal power, if you can’t pursue your actual objectives. In many ways this really is the centre of many debates within the left and the wider working class movement, particular between statist and anti-statist wings. And of course, we don’t have all the answers. But one thing is clear, that the New South Wales BLF did not deteriorate, like many unions around the world from that time have, from internal forces of bureaucratisation, but was destroyed from without.
In any case, some of those union officials who abandoned the BLF eventually came to regret their actions many years later.
Meredith: It wasn’t until Joe Owen’s funeral, about five or six years ago, that the then Secretary of Unions New South Wales, which is the new name for the old Trades and Labour Council, Mark Lennon, actually apologised to the old builders’ labourers present on behalf of the union movement for the fact that the other unions had not supported the BLF leadership against the Gallagher onslaught. The reason why people are very backward now about talking about the Gallagher intervention, and this, of course, was the main reason that the builders’ labourers went out of existence. The Gallagher intervention, the federal intervention into a state union and these sorts of things happened from time to time in unions and the other New South Wales unions, on the whole, stood back and let Gallagher intervene. If the tradesmen’s union, the BWIU, had agreed to protect builders’ labourers’ work, that federal intervention would not have been successful. The reason why unions today feel a bit shame-faced about what they did was because not only did the Royal Commission reveal that Gallagher was taking money from the bosses in order to undertake that intervention, the Master Builders actually just admitted in court that they had bankrolled the intervention into New South Wales. I always get cranky about that because I spent about two months of my life going through all the accounts and proving [laughter] that Gallagher had been taking money from the bosses but also Gallagher himself was personally benefiting from money and services given to him by various bosses. Everyone knows the story of his beachfront house being built by one of the bosses. It was the Gallagher intervention that was the main problem for the builders’ labourers but as I say, the media, the state government, the police and most politicians were opposed. Although, interestingly enough, I think 54 Labour politicians signed a letter in support of the builders’ labourers. They were mainly left-wing Labour politicians but there were also quite a number of right-wing Labour politicians. Of course, what the builders’ labourers had on their side was the absolutely undying support of the resident action groups and those groups that they had supported, such as the gay and lesbian community, women activists and, of course, the students. However, that wasn’t enough to defeat the forces of the state.
John: With the federal BLF in charge, most of the green bans were ended, and women workers, who were disproportionately active militants, were once again banned from the industry.
And ultimately while the employers and the state were happy to use the federal BLF for their own ends, after the militant self-organisation and direct action faction in New South Wales was completely defeated, they had no use for them anymore.
Dave: So in 1974, the employers and the government deregistered us for the first time. It was in the 1980s, it was on for a real deregistration and derecognition. We were outlawed then but in 1974, we were deregistered and the deal was put to the General Secretary, Norm Gallagher, that reregistration could happen but it couldn’t happen with the New South Wales’ leadership and Norm took the deal. The rest, as they say, is history because, of course, around about nine or ten years later, we were all deregistered. That’s when they really did mean it. There was a permanent police squad working on the BLF 24/7. When they raided our office, they took everything from the office, like power points and everything. The legislation governing the raid didn’t go through Parliament until 12 hours after the raid happened. When they were asked, ‘How come you did that?’ they said, ‘If we had have put the legislation through, we would have forewarned the BLF and we’d never have got into the building.’ Australians hadn’t seen this before. We couldn’t even get a paid ad in the newspapers. Those of us who had been fighting each other with real tenacity in the ’70s were now, many of us, on the same side because for those of us who had opposed our General Secretary destroying the New South Wales’ BLF, we saw the same thing happening and we warned about it in the ’70s. We said, ‘This will come back and bite us on the bum. This will affect our whole movement. Don’t do this.’ We were ignored then and around ten years later, of course, it happened. The same thing that happened to the New South Wales’ BLF happened to us, virtually nationally. We can never mistake the factional life of the movement for the real world. We can never let the ideas we have in our head attain more importance than the rights, democratic control and power of our members. Our movement here in Australia, I know because I lived through it. Let alone knowing the history, I actually lived through it. I can tell you that we’ve never got over what happened then. Even the younger ones who now lead the movement, who know nothing about these events in the ’70s or the ’80s, or very little, don’t know the extent to which they suffer under the mistakes we made.
John: And when the state finally came for the BLF, they no longer had the widespread support they had earlier enjoyed from Aboriginal communities, residents groups and others.
So that was the definitive end of the Builders Labourers Federation. But they showed all of us how we can organise a movement, how we can win, both direct improvements for ourselves at work, and how we can stand up for particularly oppressed parts of our class, support Indigenous struggles, take more control of our life’s activity – our labour power – and defend our environment, which is now more pressing than ever.
Dave: That was a really important process to be a part of and to see unity around the role we played as working people, as the ones who created work, and culture, and time (weekends), and space. We created all that. It was never the employer. We took that right. The extent to which you hold on to rights is the extent to which you continue to fight for them. With the introduction of neoliberalism, I’ve unfortunately, some of those rights were not continued to be fought for and we have, at least temporarily, lost them.
John: And as we often hear, taking part in these struggles was often a joyful, life changing experience for those involved as well.
Meredith: The builders’ labourers were so proud of the fact that they had been responsible for these green bans and that Kelly’s Bush was probably the best known green ban of them all. Two old builders’ labourers, when they died, asked to have their ashes scattered, illegally I might add, in Kelly’s Bush and that’s exactly what we did. We went down to Kelly’s Bush after the funeral and scattered their ashes.
John: That’s all the time we have for these main episodes. If you want to hear more from Dave Kerin about his experiences, and his activities today with the Earthworker collective, we have produced a bonus episode for our patreon supporters.
Our podcast is only made possible thanks to support from you, our listeners, on patreon. In return you get access to exclusive content like this, as well as early access to podcast episodes, discounted books and much and more.
Learn more and signup at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes.
We think the story of the green bans is so important, and there is loads of information we weren’t able to fit into these episodes, not least because sadly so many of the participants have died. But Meredith interviewed dozens of workers for her and her sister’s book Green Bans, Red Union, so we highly recommend getting hold of a copy if you can.
Intro music to part 2 was all courtesy of unionsong.com.
Thanks to all of our patrons for enabling us to spend time making this podcast, and thanks to you for listening. Catch you next time.
[Outro music 2]
I see your monuments displayed in smog polluted air.
To the wraiths of black shawled mountains, in the wake of ‘I don’t care’
In oil choked harbours, upturned fish, and nuclear sullied seas
In forests felled, and deserts made from songbird’s aviaries
You’ve had your chance, you’ve run the world your way, we know it’s true.
Your monuments stick in my craw, the monuments to you.
We leave the cities of the world cemented with our sweat
The cemeteries of our youthful years, but we’re not beaten yet.
For there’s a living monument to all we’ve lived and learned
The green bans we’ve created, and the victories we have earned
And one day when our cities are but dust upon the air
The pollen from our fighting hearts will bloom again somewhere.
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