Jack Mundey became a national figure in the early 1970s when as Secretary of the NSW Branch of the Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF), he led the union’s famous ‘green bans’. This extraordinary conservation campaign redefined the development of Australia’s major cities.The BLF refused to work on developments thought to be destructive of the environment or requiring the demolition of buildings considered part of our social heritage.
Under Jack’s guidance, they joined with local communities to preserve such significant sites as Sydney’s historic Rocks area, Centennial Park, Victoria Street in Kings Cross and the last stretch of public bushland on the Parramatta River. As a crusading unionist, Jack also fought for safety reforms on building sites and, from the 1960s, helped usher in a new era of union activism for wider social issues, from feminism and gay liberation to land rights and international politics. In this interview, Jack reflects on his life-long commitment to social justice. Born in 1929 on a poor dairy farm in far north Queensland, Jack’s early life was shaped by the death of his mother when he was six. The family of five children was split up, and Jack spent much of his remaining childhood with his father, an early influence on his later politics and social values. Arriving in Sydney as a young man to play rugby league, he joined the Communist Party. Since then, political activism has been the focus of his life, despite setbacks and personal tragedies. Jack talks about the corrupt forces within the BLF that eventually destroyed his leadership, the sudden death of his first wife and later his son, and his hopes that the modern era of economic rationalism and corporatization will return again to values of fairness and compassion.
The background to the green-ban struggles is the story of the destruction of Australia’s major cities in the 1960s and early 1970s. Vast amounts of money were poured into property development of a predominately commercial and speculative nature and valuable old buildings and areas of affordable housing were often destroyed in the process.The BLF under Jack Mundey’s leadership insisted these development priorities be reversed, that the preservation of open community space and heritage buildings as well as the construction of more affordable flats and houses was more important than piling up empty or under-used commercial office buildings. Beginning in 1971 with the first successful BLF assisted community action to stop the development of an area called Kelly’s Bush in Sydney, the anti-development campaign that followed throughout Australia maintained that all building work performed should be of a socially useful and ecologically benign nature. The bans unions used to achieve this agenda were called green-bans to emphasize the wider community and environmental interest involved. It was also to distinguish them from a black-ban, a union action to protect the economic interests of its own members, which was already viewed by some members of the community in a negative light. By 1974, 42 green-bans had been imposed by the NSW BLF, holding up well over $3,000 million worth of development. Over 100 Australian buildings considered by the National Trust to be worthy of preservation were saved by the green-bans. The green-bans eventually led to the New South Wales government bringing in tighter demolition laws. Some of the areas saved by the green-ban movement in Sydney in particular are:
• The Rocks, the birthplace of European Australia, where over three million tourists go each year;
• Centennial Park, which was saved from being turned into a concrete sports stadium;
• The Botanic Gardens, which was saved from becoming a car park to the Opera House;
• Woolloomooloo, saved from $400 million worth of high-rise commercial buildings, and since proclaimed as a prototype for attractive and useful inner-city redevelopment where a genuine socioeconomic mix of residents live in medium-density buildings with trees and landscaped surroundings. Despite the fact the green-ban campaign was broken from within the ranks of trade unionism, partly due to the New South Wales branch’s commitment to limited tenure of office for union officials, Mundey argues that the political significance of the green-ban movement was that it demonstrated the potential power of a winning alliance between environmentalists and trade unionists.