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Remembering Australia’s Green Bans

From Tribune Magazine, Chloe Koffman explains how in the 1960s and ’70s, Australian construction workers organised with local communities to prevent the destruction of green spaces in urban areas and the movement they created pioneered a green class politics.

The late 1960s proved to be a time of immense change across Australia. In Sydney, a post-war boom in the economy and population size saw a wave of development; in this, the abandonment of green belt laws created prime opportunities for overseas investment. Equal pay for women became a viable demand of some unions for the first time in history, while others ran successful campaigns on superannuation and increased accident pay.One particularly strong wing of the country’s labour movement was in the construction industry, where the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) represented 90 per cent of construction workers in the state of New South Wales. In previous decades, a conservative-minded leadership had hindered the union’s ability to stand up and fight. However, in 1968, years of social partnership in New South Wales BLF was broken with the election of Jack Mundey as regional secretary.Alongside his comrades, like Joe Owens and Bob Pringle, Mundey—a committed member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA)—built a rank-and-file members body which, alongside other left-wing unions, turned its attention to resisting Australia’s cosy establishment. In Sydney, the BLF came out strongly against excessive urban development and fought for focus on projects that delivered social good.

The Green Bans

In 1970, the BLF formalised ‘social responsibility’ as a part of their union ethos, stating ‘that workers had a right to insist their labour not be used in harmful ways.’ This concrete dedication to pursue social good would go on to create the ‘green bans’. The idea was simple: BLF labourers would work with residents’ groups to protect sites at risk from developers by refusing to work on them.

While the appetite for the movement grew in Sydney, the first instance of a green ban emerged in the neighbouring state of Victoria. Local residents were enraged when developers planned to turn a rare area of parkland in the heavily working-class suburb of Carlton into a Kleenex factory, and hundreds banded together against property developers to stop the project. The turning point came when they were supported by local BLF members, who refused to build on the site and forced the plans to be abandoned. Though the term ‘green ban’ would not be used until months later, this act would provide an example for a union-led green movement that would soon erupt across Sydney.

A year later, a group of primarily middle-class women asked the BLF to help save Kelly’s Bush. One of the last remaining pieces of bushland on Sydney’s Woolwich Peninsula, Kelly’s Bush was under threat by AV Jennings, a property development firm planning to destroy the natural lands to build luxury housing. The BLF were swayed into action after a meeting in support of a ban drew over 500 people, formally agreeing that no BLF members would work on the site.

Incensed, AV Jennings unsuccessfully sought to use non-union labour to carry out the project, as BLF workers on other company sites reacted to this by downing tools and threatening to leave half-built buildings as monuments to the bushland if Kelly’s Bush was even slightly damaged. It took a matter of months for the Kelly’s Bush plans to be abandoned; in a triumphant display of the union’s power, the BLF began repeating this tactic at sites all around Sydney, quickly extending it to far beyond protected natural habitats.

In keeping with the BLF ethos, green bans were instituted to protect workers’ spaces, affordable housing, and heritage sites. Labourers would stand with the community in objecting to high-rise developments that would damage homes and neighbourhoods. In case of foul play, the disputed sites were often physically defended, with activists frequently being arrested for squatting or resisting evictions. Protests in support of the bans were largely colourful affairs, with people finding new and creative ways to bring public attention to disputed sites, such as crane occupations, sit-ins, and gate-crashing the dinner parties of property developers. The objections were entirely political in nature, with Mundey declaring at a rally:

There must be, in all this city, area provision for working-class people, for people of low and middle income, to be able to reside in the area. It’s not much good winning a 35-hour week if we are going to choke to death in planless and polluted cities, where rents are too high, where ordinary people can’t live.

Throughout the green ban movement, Mundey’s politics were always present. In 1971, union workers refused to build on the only park in the Eastlakes housing estate, emphasising the importance of accessible green space for working people. The union also protected poor tenants from eviction from their homes on Sydney’s iconic Victoria Street — a direct resistance against the move towards developing high-income housing.

One of the most notable battles was the fight against proposed freeway projects that would run through Glebe, Woolloomooloo, and other parts of the city, and put the residences of 80,000 people at risk of eviction. These people, who mostly did not own cars and relied on public transport, faced being pushed into the suburbs — and, for many, into deeper poverty. Mundey emphasised that local authorities had a responsibility to ensure that people shouldn’t be driven out of their homes on the basis of their class, and BLF workers stalled the project until Gough Whitlam’s progressive government purchased the Glebe estate in 1973 in order to abandon the plans, leaving the residents free from the threat of eviction.

Another success was the proposed development of The Rocks, a convict-built site overlooking Sydney Harbour which contained some of the oldest buildings in Australia. Developers planned to turn many of these buildings into high-rise office spaces, displacing the working-class port community that lived there. The BLF instituted a ban on the site, declaring it would be only lifted when the wishes of local residents and Australia’s historic buildings were protected. Protests at the site involved thousands and drew national attention, bringing the New South Wales Premier Robert Askin to mention the breakdown in ‘law and order’ during his election campaign.

Despite Askin’s attempts to demonise the protesters, they prevailed in the end, and the plans were abandoned. The BLF’s impassioned defence of heritage sites caught the attention of the National Trust, who reached out to the union to help protect buildings of historical significance. This saw the BLF refusing to participate in the demolition of 1700 buildings marked by the National Trust as ‘historically significant’ in 1972, saving scores of theatres, churches, and hostels across Sydney. Led by Mundey, the BLF were now leaders of a powerful social movement against greedy developers. In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald in January 1972, Mundey laid out the motivations of the workers he represented:

Yes, we want to build. However, we prefer to build urgently required hospitals, schools, other public utilities, high-quality flats, units, and houses, provided they are designed with adequate concern for the environment . . . Though we want all our members employed, we will not just become robots directed by developer-builders who value the dollar at the expense of the environment. More and more, we are going to determine which buildings we will build . . . The environmental interests of three million people are at stake and cannot be left to developers and building employers whose main concern is making profit. Progressive unions, like ours, therefore have a very useful social role to play in the citizens’ interest, and we intend to play it.

Mundey’s leadership had transformed the union — not only as a powerful force for urban radicalism and the environment, but for the rights of marginalised people in Australian society. The BLF came out strongly in favour of Indigenous rights and supported Indigenous activists occupying houses marked for development in the city of Redfern. Once they had been evicted, the union stalled on demolishing the houses, allowing time for the Whitlam government to step in to purchase the houses from developers. The BLF also instituted the world’s first ‘pink ban’, stopping work on Macquarie University sites until authorities reversed their expulsion of the gay rights activist Jeremy Fisher. BLF figures like Bob Pringle also attempted to destroy a goalpost at Sydney Cricket Ground ahead of a rugby match between Australia and the all-white South African team.

This change in the BLF did not go unnoticed, and Australia’s ruling elite worked aggressively against the emergence of the green bans movement. The mainstream media weighed heavily against the union, with the Sydney Morning Herald once publishing five editorials in twelve days calling for BLF leaders to be jailed. Criminals and gangland figures also targeted union members, with property developers sending hired goons to vandalise buildings and threaten and kidnap residents.

The most shocking episode of violence during this period was the disappearance of Juanita Nielsen, a journalist and green bans activist who went missing in 1975. After allegedly working on a story exposing corruption in the area, Nielsen went missing when visiting a club owned by a major gangster. Her body has never been found, with an inquest later concluding that she was likely murdered — either by agents of property developers or people connected to the Sydney underworld.

A Powerful Legacy

But these vile attempts at intimidation never proved successful, with the majority of green bans stopping and stalling damaging developments for years — and ensuring Sydney’s rich history was not buried beneath glass and concrete. By 1975, the movement had saved hundreds of historical buildings, working-class homes, and green spaces from destruction. They had stopped, stalled, or affected $5 billion worth of redevelopment projects; most crucially, they had moulded the landscape of the city in the image of its working people.

However, the successes of the green ban movement began to slowly fall away after Mundey lost the leadership of the New South Wales BLF in 1973. Without him, the union’s strength began to crumble, with developers bribing corrupt officials to intervene and stop the bans. They also worked with the federal union to ensure that only workers with a ‘federal union ticket’ could work on sites, leading to an immediate lack of effectiveness of the bans as New South Wales BLF activists were denied work. The momentum of the movement had ground to a halt and green bans were no longer a commonplace activity across Sydney by the late-1970s.

The sheer industrial power exercised by the BLF had shocked those in power, with a right-wing government introducing secondary boycott laws in 1977 that heavily restricted the power of such efforts. Further legislation introducing heavy fines for those who participated in certain types of industrial action have hampered efforts to reintroduce these techniques.

Yet though the green bans movement was short, its impact was astounding. The bans eventually led to planning reform on a local and national scale, influencing local authorities to consider heritage and environment as key parts of urban planning. Historians and planners also cite the green bans as instrumental in building an expectation of social responsibility — it is often said that Mundey and the BLF saved Sydney, creating a legacy for planning cities according to the needs of the people.

The legacy of the green bans extended internationally, too. Mundey himself coined the term at the time, due to their specific objective to protect the environment. The term was soon adopted into popular use and ban supporters were frequently referred to by the media as ‘greenies’. However, the expansion of the ‘green idea’ would not become significant until a German politician, Petra Kelly, visited Australia and was inspired by Mundey and the union. She returned to Germany, incorporating the techniques of resistance learned in Australia and started the German Green Party in 1979. This is thought to be the first use of the term ‘green’ to describe environmentalist politics in Europe.

Today, Australia’s litany of anti-union laws has brought membership numbers down to record lows, making it difficult to build impactful resistance to socially irresponsible development. However, glimmers of hope still emerge despite the difficult circumstances trade unionists today find themselves in. There is a current green ban in place against the proposed destruction of historic buildings in Parramatta, where the NSW branch of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) is refusing to work on the demolition ordered by Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian. This is the first ban instituted since Mundey’s passing in May 2020 — a poignant reminder of the durability of the vision for urban life he and his comrades possessed fifty years ago.

Hopefully, more will grow. The last few decades have proven corporate responsibility to be a thinly veiled attempt to convince the world of their good intentions, while slowly sucking the life out of our natural resources, poisoning our air, and destroying our homes. However, the politically sanitised, eco-capitalist ideology that dominates the mainstream debates on the environment will continue to do nothing to stop the irreversible damage done by private developers and corporations. Meanwhile, working people in urban areas suffer the consequences of their rampant pollution.

Climate activists must therefore be as concerned with the right to organise as they are with school walkouts and Earth hours. Otherwise, their fight will always remain one of David and Goliath, futile against the rapid destruction being wrought across the world. The lessons of Jack Mundey and the green bans movement demand that the future belongs to those who build — and we must organise to defeat those who destroy.

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