Thursday, April 06, 2017

Jack Mundey – From Ratbags to Heroes: Creating Social Movements and Making the World a Better Place

Presented to the 2007 Communities in Control Conference, Convened by Our Community & Centacare Catholic Family Services

Dr Jack Mundey AO
I think it’s a bit dangerous to allow an old bloke in his mid-seventies to wander down memory lane.
And I don’t know whether ratbags to heroes is OK, but I suppose vilification to vindication would be one of the ways I’d describe the green bans movement, because it’s clearly the most exciting thing that I’ve got caught up in in my life, the bringing together of diverse people around ecological issues.

Paul Ehrlich described the green bans as the birth of urban environmentalism. Before that there was a tendency to look upon the environment as the preserve of the more educated middle to upper classes who appreciated the whole ecology movement. The green ban movement brought together ordinary people. It was a linking up, as I’ve described it, of the enlightened working class and the middle class, both coming together to fight for the built environment.

It was only in the ’60s that the first international environmental movement took place. And, in fact, when the first conference took place in 1972 in Stockholm, the audience really couldn’t agree on what was the environment. The nature conservation people said it was the green environment, it was the lakes and rivers and oceans and forests. Others argued the world was becoming more urbanised, with huge cities of 10, 15, 20 million people coming along and bringing about huge problems, and that was what it was about.

Of course now with global warming – the most political issue of the 21st century, there is no doubt about that – the environment is very much on the front burner.

My background in the trade union movement was that you fight for wages and conditions. That’s true even now as unions fight for their lives, with a very conservative government out to limit their power and to restrict them in many ways.

And I think it’s true to say that, essentially, the trade unions in Australia have been responsible for the living conditions that we’ve enjoyed over the last 100 years.

When you look back, it was the union movement that formed one of the main political parties, the Labor Party, in 1891. And I’d like to talk about some of the other positive things that have been achieved by the unions before I get onto the green bans.

The union movement is a very broad church, and it moves from left to right, taking on different political themes and approaches that differ greatly from period to period. For example, in the 1914-1918 war the progressive unions led the campaign against conscription. In the Great Depression of the late ’20s and early ’30s, when evictions were taking place in Melbourne and Sydney and other major cities, it was the trade unions that fought against that.

With the rise of fascism in the ’30s it’s well to remember that it was the brave waterside workers in Port Kembla that refused to load pig iron for Japan because of the military build-up taking place in that country. Ted Roach, the leader of the waterside workers, was jailed by the Attorney-General Robert Gordon Menzies in 1937 because he took that action, refusing to load that pig iron that came back as weapons against us a few years later.

Of course, in some cases, the union movement was very backward. They supported the White Australia Policy, for example. But then the progressive unions broke away from that in support of the Aborigines. They brought the striking stockmen down from Wave Hill 40 years ago in 1967, and took them around to building sites and the waterside and through the factories, and educated the workers in the cities about the real plight of the Aboriginal people, about the land rights struggles that took place and the Wave Hill strike that went for nine months.

And of course, when the Whitlam Government came in, that was the birth of land rights. Those striking stockmen who were out for nine months, that was the turning point that brought that around.

On the Apartheid question, when Nelson Mandela came here over a decade ago, he honoured the trade unions and the progressive sections of the political parties who had come together and played such a powerful part in the end of Apartheid in South Africa.

Let’s look at the gay movement. When Jeremy Fisher was kicked out of the Robert Menzies College at Macquarie University in 1972 because he was homosexual, the building workers on the site at the time went on strike in support of his reinstatement, and compelled the authorities to reinstate him. This was unheard of before that but it was an indication that the progressive section of the union movement was taking a stand.

About the same time, Elizabeth Jacka and Jean Curthoys started a course at Sydney University on women’s social liberation, but the university authorities stopped the course. Again, workers on that site, because there were a lot of extensions taking place at Sydney University at that time, went on strike and compelled the authorities to have that course reinstituted.

These are some of the examples of the very positive contribution made by the union movement, coming together around gay rights and women’s rights issues. These actions showed a growing maturity within the trade union movement. These days, when unions are fighting for their very life, it’s well to remember that when unions reach out like this, they strengthen the whole position. It’s that extra- parliamentary action, the residents’ action groups and those sorts of things, that have changed society.

There have always been attempts to keep politics out of unions, and while I believe that unions should not be just controlled by one political party, it’s true that political action should be a part and parcel of the union movement. Really, a union movement will wither unless it’s got that broad outlook of moving beyond wages and conditions. Of course, wages and conditions are important, but increasingly there are other political issues that play their part.

The green ban movement really started when progressive women in a fashionable part of Sydney, Hunters Hill, went down in front of the bulldozers when the first big development was taking place to destroy a whole open bushland. This was the last bushland on the Parramatta River, and these women went down in front of the bulldozers and stopped it.

As a last resort, they came to the Builders’ Labourers’ Union. The reason they came to us was because I had said that in a modern society it’s not much good just fighting for wages and conditions if we live in polluted cities, devoid of parks, denuded of trees. The quality of life issue was equally as important as the wages packet. Those women more or less said to us, “Well, here’s a chance to put your theory into practice.” And so that started the first of the green bans.

We went to the site, held a meeting and went back to our members and said, “Those people want us to put a ban on.”

We said that if they could show that it was a feeling of the community and not just the handful of people that would benefit if we kept the open bushland, that we would put a ban on it. And a ban was put in place.

The company that was going to do the work was AV Jennings, a Melbourne-based company at the time. They came up there and they said, “Oh well, if you put a ban on, we will use non-union labour.”

Now, we had fought to improve the union, to civilise the union, because the union when we took over was run by people who colluded with the employers, who were very right wing and didn’t look after the workers at all. We civilised the industry, we gave the workers dignity, improved the wages and conditions and safety on the building sites, and because of that we won the respect of the workers.

When we went to the workers and put it to them that they should support these middle class people, some of them said, “Look, we haven’t got a member in Hunters Hill. They couldn’t afford to live there.” Others said, “Well if you’re fair dinkum, whether it’s Redfern or Hunters Hill, if we believe that there should be open space within a great urban area, well then we should support them.”

And so a ban was imposed. At the time it was called a black ban, but we changed it to a green ban because black bans had connotations of workers taking action to jack up their wages and conditions.

A black ban was about going to the hip pocket, whereas we said that this was more of a moral question – it was a wider issue; it was an environmental issue. It wasn’t as though the workers were immediately benefiting themselves, it was for society as a whole. So we changed it to green bans, and this movement really caught alight. We were inundated with similar requests.

Although AV Jennings had said they would use non-union labour, we had a lot of bargaining power. Because of the work that the union had done, 95% of the workers working in the building industry as labourers were in the Builders’ Labourers’ Union.

When Jennings said he would use non-union labour to smash the green ban, on one of AV Jennings’ jobs in North Sydney the workers decided, over 130 workers, that if one blade of grass or one tree was destroyed at Hunters Hill, Kelly’s Bush, this half-completed building would stand half completed as a monument to Kelly’s Bush.

Well, that really set the cat amongst the pigeons. The very conservative Premier of NSW at the time, Sir Robert Askin, was very pro-development and viciously anti-union, and he sort of sneered and said, “Who do they think they are? They’re mere labourers. They think they’re urban town planners,” and other such guff. But it certainly had the effect because Jennings immediately pulled back from that position.

At that time things were changing in our big cities, in Melbourne and Sydney in particular. When I started 50 years ago in the building industry, the tallest building in Sydney was 12 storeys and the height limit was 150 feet. But then they lifted the height limit and the sky became the limit, and with that came many accidents. Building workers were not experienced in going up to heights like that, and so many accidents occurred because of that and because of the poor conditions that had been in operation before we took over.

So of course it happened that many other organisations came to us and said they wanted bans as well. We always followed the same pattern. Of course we wanted to build buildings, but we argued we wanted to build socially useful buildings; we wanted to have concern for people as well as building buildings.

So there was Kelly’s Bush – it still remains there I might add, 35 years later – but then the other green bans came along and at the end of five years there were 43 green bans holding up over 5000 million dollars worth of development.

The second green ban was very different to Kelly’s Bush. Whereas Kelly’s Bush was in a fashionable area of Sydney, the second one related to the ordinary people down on The Rocks, who were going to be kicked out – the idea was to develop The Rocks into high rise development right down to the water’s edge. Those of you that know that part of The Rocks would know you’ve got the Harbour Bridge, then you’ve got The Rocks, Circular Quay and around to the Opera House. It is really a vital area of Sydney.

The wonderful leader of the green ban movement down on The Rocks was Nita McCrea. Unlike the people at Kelly’s Bush and Hunters Hill, Nita worked in a bar, and the rest of the people who lived in The Rocks mainly serviced the city – worked in factories, worked in the waterfront and so on – so the socio-economic position was completely different to the one at Hunters Hill.

The Government said to the developers, “Go right ahead – kick the people out.” They introduced legislation that took away the rights of the people to property in the area. So those people took action.
The green bans at The Rocks were to save those people from being kicked out, but it was more than that too.

The movement there linked up with the National Trust, which also did not want that place destroyed because The Rocks really was the birthplace of European Australia and was also the place to which the first Australian Asians came in great numbers after the gold rush – The Rocks were very important from an historical point of view.

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