Newsmaker: Green bans

March 31, 2012

A file picture of Jack Mundey being carried from a protest at The Rocks in the early seventies.

Carried away … Jack Mundey being detained in The Rocks. Photo: Robert Pearce

The union action born 41 years ago is being called on again, writes David Humphries.

For all the romanticism about shared commitment and hands across social divides, the union that procreated the green ban was a marriage of convenience, albeit extraordinarily potent and effective at its zenith.

Forty-one years ago, a communist-inspired working class father, cultivating direct action as essential to creation of a workers' nirvana, was wooed by a middle class dame of affluent Sydney waterfront pedigree.

Within four years, 42 green bans held up more than a 100 buildings significant to the National Trust, The Rocks, parts of Centennial Park and the Botanical Gardens, Woolloomooloo, the Cross and Darlinghurst, and large slabs of the inner west earmarked for a freeway. In all, work worth an estimated $20 billion (in today's dollars) was stalled by the combined power of resident action and labour boycotts.

The bans collapsed in 1975 but by then politics was awakened to the reality that unfettered development angers voters. The green ban, so named to distinguish them from the black bans intended to financially enrich workers, gave its name to the movement of environmental activism that took root around the world.

Bob Brown, the leader of the Australian Greens, says green bans coincided with a mid-'70s visit to Australia by Petra Kelly, founder of the German Greens. She was so impressed she took the tactic and terminology back to Germany. "As best we can track it down, that is where the word green as applied to the emerging Greens in Europe came from," Brown told the Senate.

Now, residents near a former asbestos factory at Camellia, east of Parramatta, want a union green ban to stop redevelopment of the site, fearing contamination.

But back to the origin of the species. The Battlers for Kelly's Bush - a name that reflected more a determination to preserve open space near Hunters Hill than social disadvantage - had failed to turn the local council or state government against an upmarket housing estate approved for AV Jennings. As a last resort, the 13 women figuratively got into bed with the radical Builders Labourers' Federation, where members relied on building projects for their bread and butter.

The federation was led in NSW by a troika of communists: Jack Mundey and Joe Owens and ALP member Bob Pringle. Together, in 1971, they insisted of governments, employers and architects that "buildings which are required by the people should have priority over superfluous office buildings which benefit only the get-rich-quick developers, insurance companies and banks".

But the federation would ban a project only if public sympathy was demonstrated. The Kelly's Bush mob convened a Paddington Town Hall meeting of more than 600, and green bans were on the way. When Jennings threatened to employ non-union labour, Builders Labourers' Federation worksites retaliated with threats of a company shutdown, and the developer relented. Kelly's Bush remains a public reserve.

The movement, wrote participant Meredith Burgmann, "attracted people distant from any kind of left-wing milieu to embrace radical causes".

Residents were sometimes intimidated by police and thugs employed by frustrated developers. One activist fighting redevelopment of Victoria Street, Potts Point, was abducted. Another, Juanita Nielsen, disappeared in 1975 and has not been seen since.

Confronted by criticism that his actions cost union members work, Mundey wrote: "What would we have said to the next generation - that we destroyed Sydney in the name of full employment? No, we wanted to construct buildings that were socially useful."

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