Jack Mundey died in May, aged ninety. His obituary in the paper featured a file picture from 1972 that brought a smile to my face. Mundey is being escorted from a protest at Sydney’s Rocks by three policemen. We see in that black and white snap the worn-out soles of this working-class man’s shoes as he is carried aloft to the waiting paddy wagon. His pin stripe trousers and corduroy jacket cannot conceal a bulging belly pushing through his buttoned-up shirt. His hands are locked together to allow him to be lifted by his arms and feet with ease. He looks relaxed in the policemen’s hold, and rather chuffed. His arresting officers seem equally as pleased to be caught in the frame of the photographer’s lens – all are smiling. By this stage, Mundey had already gained notoriety as an environmental hero.
Rising from humble, depression-era childhood to become one of Australia’s most prominent activists and social thinkers, Mundey stood in the way of property developers and their political backers in a period of unbridled, destructive expansion of our cities. His stewardship of the Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) during the 1970s was pivotal in helping the fledgling Australian heritage movement consolidate and grow. From a concept unique in the history of unionism – the twin articulation of ecology and workers’ rights – his actions and those of his fellow unionists saved a city. The federation’s ‘Green Bans’, which consisted in the organised withdrawal of labour from construction sites deemed an environmental and community threat, grew into a new form of people power that cut across class divisions.
In an episode of The Drum about his legacy, the host asked the panel: ‘how could this man hold up large scale developments, preserving the Sydney skyline that we know and love? Are we living on a different planet? Could we imagine that happening today?’ These questions put me in mind of Doris Lessing, who had asked similar ones of a younger generation. In 1990, she recalled:‘I knew I had lived through an extraordinary time, but now it was over. What had ended was a political atmosphere – and this is always impossible to describe to later people, who are living in a different, equally compelling atmosphere, nearly always inimical to the first.’
The construction boom of the 1960s and 1970s in Australia was felt most keenly in the commercial property sector, but included construction of the Opera House and new universities. The decades also witnessed political unrest, not just in Australia but across the globe. In Paris and other European cities, left-wing student activism challenged the old order. The ‘collective consumption’ thesis of urbanists such as Manuel Castells offered an intellectual challenge to the post-war urban form. Paul Erlich’s 1969 The Population Bomb topped the bestsellers’ lists.
Jack Mundey grew up on a poor north Queensland dairy farm that his father was eventually forced to sell, and left school at fourteen. He held a succession of low-paid jobs before moving to Sydney to play Rugby League for Parramatta. He took work as a builder’s labourer to supplement the meagre pay, but found working conditions in the construction industry difficult. Living in the concrete jungle of the city and working on dirty building sites, Mundey felt a strong sense of alienation from the natural wilderness of the far north Queensland rainforests. It was in Sydney in the early 1950s that his political activism began to take shape when he joined the ‘ban the bomb’ movement and began subscribing to Tribune.
Before Castells’ theory was translated into English, Jack Mundey had made an intuitive leap, recognising that it was in the sphere of consumption, rather than in production, that the potential for class struggle lay. For Australia’s builders’ labourers, the 1960s meant work was now relatively secure and this carried important implications for their organisation, and for Mundey’s vision. Successful industrial campaigns for improved wages and safety conditions in an accident-prone industry won rank and file support, or at least tolerance, for the Union secretary’s babblings about social objectives. There should be more ‘socially useful’ projects such as schools and housing and less (under-utilised) office blocks. His political thinking broadened to a more inclusive (and optimistic) world view of an ecological socialism that would rely less on old class antagonisms and more on broadly-based social movements.
The battle to save Kelly’s Bush – a public open space on the banks of the Parramatta River at Hunters Hill – is legendary, and was the catalyst that launched Mundey on a path that would bring him international fame, and guarantee him a place in the history of Australian urban political thought. No builders’ labourers lived in Hunters Hill, but the ‘upper middle-class morning tea matrons’ who did turned to the Union in a last-ditch effort to save the Bush from developers. Mundey was unequivocal in his support. ‘What was the use of winning higher wages and better conditions if we live in cities devoid of parks and denuded of trees?’ he argued. The doubters conceded that Kelly’s Bush was not the exclusive preserve of its neighbours, but was public open space and should be protected. The Green Ban was born and industrial action on building sites took a new direction. One can visit Kelly’s Bush today and see the obelisk erected to those who fought and won their battle against the developers.
Within weeks, the BLF had received a dozen requests for support from angry inner-city residents whose homes were under threat. Green bans snowballed into a mass movement of popular resistance to Sydney’s rampant development. The combined force of citizens and unionists overwhelmed and bewildered authorities. This was most clearly expressed in the battle for The Rocks. Sydney’s oldest residential area, with a tradition of working-class life built around the wharves that dated back to white settlement, was marked for high-rise commercial and residential development. Activists occupied heritage buildings and homes scheduled for demolition, resulting in numerous arrests – eighty in one incident alone. The BLF received notoriously bad press and were tagged among other descriptors as the ‘proletarian town planners’. Mundey was cast as both villain and hero, a Robin Hood figure. Yet the Green Bans were pivotal in saving The Rocks as we know it today – an area of charming sandstone buildings housing cafés, pubs, craft shops and old town squares popular for weekend markets and with tourists.
The Bans extended beyond heritage buildings to public parks. The most notable was Centennial Park, then under threat from a proposed giant sports stadium. On this occasion, the union formed an alliance with one novelist Patrick White, who later said of Mundey, ‘had he not been a communist he may have been a prime minister’. Green Bans developed a wide appeal and wide reach, from defending student minorities against discriminatory practices on university campuses under construction, to saving the ecology on Fraser Island and even the Birmingham Town Hall in England. In 2003, Mundey switched alliances and joined the Australian Greens, though he continued to call himself an ecological Marxist. ‘If you genuinely believe in human society,’ he said, ‘you can’t get away from idealism. You’ve got to continue to work to that, while ever you have breath.’
The BLF Green Bans from 1971-74 remain a unique, if short-lived, chapter in Australia’s urban and union history. Yet the ideal of what is possible given a collective conscience and willingness to act lives on. Jack Mundey can rest in peace.