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This Day in Labor History: May 23, 1973

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On May 23, 1973, the term “green ban” was first used in an Australian newspaper to discuss the remarkable movement of construction worker unions refusing to build in order to preserve green space. This bit of working class environmentalism is little known outside of Australia and deserves much more attention.

By the 1960s, sprawl was beginning to affect Australia pretty heavily given the suburban planning of the era. In Sydney especially, this worried lots of people. The loss of green space began to seem like a real problem. Moreover, this wasn’t just some elite thing. Unions were leaders in this. Sydney’s building trades were organized into the New South Wales Building Labourers Federation (NSWBLF). The union started expressing concern with overbuilding and the preservation of green space, especially in city centers. Mostly, this union was similar to the Laborers in the United States today–effectively unskilled labor. But it also included some skilled trades, including scaffolders, steel fixers, and hoist drivers. These were the people getting contracts and money to build this stuff and they thought it was all a terrible idea.

The idea of the building trade unions in the United States engaging in an anti-development stance to preserve the natural world is just something to laugh at. The old joke about the Laborers is that they’d build their own prisons so long as it is a union contract. These unions had mostly long been politically conservative, with many continuing to support Republicans even during the Roosevelt administration. So it’s a very different culture among the building trades in Australia, or at least was in the 1970s, the same time in which the New York building trades were beating up hippies protesting against the Vietnam War.

But regardless of what was happening in the United States, the Australian builders became more overt in opposing what they saw as unnecessary development. In May 1970, it met to create new standards of what it meant to be a unionist in Australia. The principle was that labor should be used for positive gains for society as a whole, not just for short-term profits. The leaders of this movement were Jack Mundey, Joe Owens, and Bob Pringle. Mundey and Owens were also members of the Communist Party and so while you might think this was some fringe group, the NSWBLF did have 11,000 members. And the union decided not to build what it thought were unnecessary projects. The green bans soon spread beyond Sydney to much of the rest of the country, but given that the development boom was mostly located in that city, so were the green bans.

In 1972, Mundey articulated to the Sydney Morning Herald what he and his fellow workers wanted:

Yes, we want to build. However, we prefer to build urgently-required hospitals, schools, other public utilities, high-quality flats, units and houses, provided they are designed with adequate concern for the environment, than to build ugly unimaginative architecturally-bankrupt blocks of concrete and glass offices…Though we want all our members employed, we will not just become robots directed by developer-builders who value the dollar at the expense of the environment. More and more, we are going to determine which buildings we will build …The environmental interests of three million people are at stake and cannot be left to developers and building employers whose main concern is making profit. Progressive unions, like ours, therefore have a very useful social role to play in the citizens’ interest, and we intend to play it.

Again, it’s almost impossible to imagine American building trade unions talking like this in 1972 or 2022. In any case, unions worked closely with environmentalists to save open space around Sydney and other cities. Do not underestimate the unions’ power here. For example, city officials wanted to build a parking garage under the Sydney Opera House. This was going to mess with the roots of some very old fig trees. Environmentalists protested. The developers didn’t care. So the greens approached the NWSBLF for help. The union simply stated that it would not build such a project. There was nothing the developers could do. The government had the parking garage built in a different location. The NWSBLF also opposed the rapid expansion of freeways and individualized transportation networks and demanded a significant investment in public transportation.

The NWSBLF also wanted to save working class housing developments from being razed to build new luxury housing. It also wouldn’t tear down old historic housing and played the key role in saving The Rocks, the oldest European housing in Australia, from destruction by developers. What the green bans did was not end all development in a given area. Instead, they put temporary halts on these developments until the union would approve of them, making sure that green space, historic sites, and working class housing and preserved, wanting the city to not become a giant set of skyscrapers and luxury homes. Now, a lot of these new developments were connected with the mob. And these scumbags were not happy with this resistance that unions led. At least two green ban activists disappeared never to be found again and were certainly murdered; more commonly, these thugs terrorized the local residents to try and get them to move out.

Finally though, the national labor federations had enough of these radicals in Sydney and in 1974 engaged in union takeovers that threw out the old leadership and ended the green bans. Working class environmentalism most certainly did not disappear in Australia at this time, but the most effective method of saving these spaces was taken off the table. Such is often the case with radical movements within unions. In the end, it was in the interest of both developers and national union leaders to end the green bans.

I borrowed from Verity Burgmann, “The Green Bans Movement: Workers’ Power and Ecological Radicalism in Australia in the 1970s” in the Spring 2008 issue of Journal for the Study of Radicalism to write this post. See also this excellent summary from both Verity and Meredith Burgmann.

This is the 442nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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