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Jack Mundey, born in 1929, played a key part in the history of both unionism and the environmental movement in Australia. Mundey emerged into the public eye during the 1970s as a leader of the New South Wales Builders' Labourers Federation (the BLF) and as the figurehead of the famous 'Green Bans' of the period. These were industrial actions intended to protect the natural and built environment of Sydney from excessive and inappropriate development. They were very successful, and many central elements of Sydney's environmental heritage were preserved due to the BLF's activities, often in the face of strong opposition from developers and the NSW State Government.

The union and environmental activism campaign undertaken by the BLF led to large areas of The Rocks, Woolloomooloo and Centennial Park being preserved, along with many buildings of individual heritage significance. It has been estimated that between 1971 and 1975, the BLF green-banned some 43 projects with a value of around $3 billion. In the wake of the BLF's activities, the State government enacted heritage protection legislation that led, amongst other things, to the establishment of the Historic Houses Trust.

Born in far north Queensland, Mundey came to Sydney in the early 1950s when he was 19 and gained work as a metalworker and then as a builder's labourer. He became a committed member of unions such as the Federated Ironworkers' Union and the Builders' Labourers Federation, and was particularly concerned about poor conditions and the lack of safety on building sites. Even before engaging in environmental and social activism, Mundey saw the unions as a crucial protector and advocate of the worker in relation to powerful employers, developers and government bodies.

Mundey was also a talented sportsman, playing rugby league for Parramatta for three years. His political outlook was influenced by Marxism, a political philosophy that continues today. Speaking about a recent portrait of himself painted by the artist Robert Hannaford, he complained that the unidentified book he was pictured with should have been a book by Marx. Mundey joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1957, and during the 1960s was a crusading unionist. It was from 1970, however, that he would rise to prominence in the public eye. See image 1

Sydney in the 1960s, like many other major cities in the world, was undergoing major changes. Strong growth in the economy had led to a drastic rise in construction, and old buildings and precincts were demolished to make way for modern skyscrapers and up-market housing. As the price of space in the inner city climbed higher and higher, some people felt that government and developers were destroying the history and memory in the inner city communities, by evicting residents, demolishing their houses and dispersing them to suburbs or, in some cases, leaving them homeless. The BLF was particularly concerned about arrangements between developers and non-union labour to rush through projects at the cost of local heritage and the environment. Membership of the NSW BLF rose significantly in this period, from 4000 to around 11,000, partly due to the building boom and partly due to active recruitment.

In 1968, Mundey was elected secretary of the NSW BLF. He was an outspoken and visible individual who felt that the general ideas and priorities of developers needed to be kept in check, and that the city needed open community spaces and heritage buildings to be preserved for both the current inhabitants and for future generations. Mundey also had a social conscience, feeling that the availability of affordable public housing was more important than developers or the government accumulating empty or underused commercial properties.

The first environmental 'green ban' occurred in the upper middle class Sydney suburb of Hunter's Hill. An area of five hectares of urban bush (which remains today) was bought by the developer A V Jennings with the intention of building 25 luxury houses. Kelly's Bush was one of the last areas of bush on the Parramatta River waterfront, and the residents of Hunter's Hill, led by a group of local women, held serious concerns for the future of their suburb's environment. The bush, they argued, belonged to the neighbourhood, and should be preserved rather than destroyed for the sake of more luxury housing.

Although some of the members of the BLF were reluctant to get involved on behalf of the wealthy residents of Hunter's Hill, Mundey managed to convince them that it was part of the union's role in society. He believed that there was no use in campaigning for higher wages and better working conditions if his members then lived in cities devoid of parks and trees and cloaked in pollution. See animation

At this stage the union movement had no record of environmental activism, and some of the more left-leaning members of the movement saw it as a diversion from the class struggle in which working people were involved. However, ecological ideas began to emerge in the 1960s with the publication of such books as the American writer Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), which alerted a large audience to the environmental and human dangers of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. With strong leadership, Mundey and his colleagues were able to gain support for somewhat radical new ecological ideas from the union's membership.

The BLF applied the traditional black ban action, which was used to boycott building sites, and applied it to the Kelly's Bush site, thus earning the name 'green ban'. They refused to work on any project at the site, and when the developer threatened to get non-union labour in, they held a meeting on a half-finished A V Jennings building site in North Sydney, proclaiming that if a single blade of grass was removed form Kelly's Bush then the building would remain forever half-finished.

The preservation of Kelly's Bush set a precedent for further green ban action around Sydney. Perhaps the largest green ban of all was imposed on The Rocks in Sydney. In 1972, the NSW State government unveiled a plan for the redevelopment of the area, which involved demolishing a large amount of public housing occupied by working-class residents. This would make way for a $2 billion commercial skyscraper development. Some thought that this development would destroy a community with a collective and cultural memory of over 160 years and would be a blight on one of Australia's most beautiful and historic urban areas. Encouraged by the success of the Kelly's Bush action, a residents' protest group turned to the BLF. Residents, the BLF and its allies in the union covering bulldozer drivers marched, picketed against non-union labourers and occupied buildings which were to be demolished. Many were arrested. The green ban on The Rocks was ultimately successful and preserved the historic buildings and public housing in the area much as they are today. See image 2

In the wake of this success, Mundey and the BLF imposed a series of green bans at the request of residents, conservationists and community groups. These included actions on development at Centennial Park and on the construction of a car park under the Royal Botanic Gardens on Sydney's waterfront. Other bans were used to prevent the demolition of historic buildings like the Theatre Royal and the Pitt Street Congregational Church, as well as to block a large redevelopment of the inner harbour-side suburb of Woolloomooloo.

Inspired by Mundey and the BLF, green bans were called in around Australia at similar sites, and to support causes not normally associated with the male-dominated builders' unions. In 1973 the BLF imposed a ban at Macquarie University in support of a student expelled for being homosexual. Around the same time, at the University of Sydney, two graduate students, Jean Curthoys and Liz Jacka, proposed to run a course on 'The politics of sexual oppression'. Although the Arts Faculty approved the course, a special professorial board declared the women unfit to lecture. As the university badly-needed some buildings completed, the BLF was able to negotiate to have the women run their course in return for the union's cooperation.

The success of the green bans received international attention. Later in the 1970s, when Petra Kelly was leading the world's most successful Green Party, in Germany, she cited Sydney's green bans as a key moment in the global environmental cause. In 1975, Mundey and the other NSW leaders of the BLF were expelled from the union by Norm Gallagher who led the federal branch. Gallagher was later (in 1984) convicted of corrupt dealings with developers. Mundey is now chair of the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales.


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1. Jack Mundey was the leader of which Union?

The New South Wales Builders' Labourers Federation.

The Australian Metalworker's Union.

The New South Wales Bag Loaders Federation.

The New South Wales Clerical Union.

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