Jack Mundey (Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

For decades, the UK city of Birmingham was a monument to concrete and urban alienation, the legacy of post-war clearing. “They love their concrete the Brummies”, one bewildered British Labour MP once remarked. 

One building survives the attack on the city’s magnificent Victorian heritage, and that is its central post office. It’s there because in the 1970s Jack Mundey, head of the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF), was passing through on his way to Germany, and took time to organise a green ban on the building’s demolition.

The building stands as one of the thousands of monuments to the life of Mundey — who has died age 90 — and to Joe Owens and Bob Pringle, his deputies in the leadership, and to the thousands of building workers and activists who were part of a movement whose influence would be difficult to overstate.

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They changed the idea of what a union could and should do, not only in urban and environment issues, but in black power, and gay and social liberation struggles.

The story is now famous, has become part of Australian myth: in 1970, the relatively new and left leaders of the NSW BLF were approached by a residents’ group trying to preserve the urban parkland of Sydney’s Hunters Hill from development.

The residents’ group and the area was solidly bourgeois and the campaign, largely run by married woman of the area, had been sneered at and written off over more than a year of campaigning.

Mundey, Owens and Pringle had risen to the leadership of the NSW BLF on the campaign that building workers should have conditions somewhat better than dogs, which is largely how they were treated at the time.

There was nothing inevitable or natural about the idea that workers forgoing work would risk legal action on an unauthorised strike — in those balmy far off days when you could actually, readily, strike in Australia — and the Mundey team were members of the Communist Party of Australia, which was still, somewhat loosely, Soviet-aligned.

Park space in the leafy bourgeois suburbs should have been, by any ordinary analysis, well down the list. But Mundey and Co, in the usual business of imposing “black” and “grey” bans — total and partial stoppages on workplaces to raise wages and get the most basic conditions — imposed a “green” ban to save the park space.

The colour was obviously derived from what was being saved, but it came also from the spirit of the age.

In 1970, the countercultural activist Charles Reich had published The Greening of America, a then-influential, now forgotten book, which explored and developed the way in which social activism and politics, mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, was taking new directions beyond left-right class politics, with the idea that life could be de-commodified and de-technologised immediately, without having to wait for the revolution.

Reich’s book was one of the first uses of “greening” in that wider sense, and the NSW BLF’s application of a green ban was one of the world’s first uses of it in an organised political context.

Once that principle was established, much followed. Many readers here will know the story better than I do.

How the green bans were rolled over to the defence of The Rocks, Victoria Street and other areas in Sydney — not, initially because they were “heritage”, but because they were living, working-class communities with a small bohemian component, based around streets of two-storey terraces that the fantastically corrupt Askin government, a bunch of developer mates and elements of the NSW Labor Right had their eyes on for a series of deathful skyscraper developments.

The movement and the era was as hard-fought as any in Australian history, with mass occupations, running street battles and gangsterish intimidation. It culminated in the murder of publisher and activist Juanita Nielsen, a measure of how desperate the developers had become towards a movement reshaping the way the city was made.

By then the green bans movement had become something more. It had rolled onto a different sort of “bla(c)k” ban, to resist the NSW department of housing’s attempt to racially cleanse the indigenous community of Redfern which had become a focus for the black power movement.

As Pat Fiske’s brilliant documentary on the movement Rocking the Foundations records, the movement even extended to “pink” bans, when a college at the University of Sydney had its building works stopped when it expelled a student for being openly gay. 

If the achievements of the movement are famous, so is its demise — when the federal leadership of the BLF, headed by Norm Gallagher, intervened in the NSW state branch to eviscerate the list of green bans and eventually remove the Mundey-Owens-Pringle leadership.

Gallagher was reviled at the time, and still is by many in memory, especially since it had a catastrophic effect on the blak bans on Redfern.

The Rocks and other areas had been saved as the BLF’s militant campaign fused with the wave of urban heritage enthusiasm. The Redfern movement had needed the lines to be held to prevent scattering of aboriginal public housing to Sydney’s outer-west, which duly occurred.

Gallagher, a Maoist, argued at the time that the movement was over-exposing the BLF to a wider attack — as much from the Hawke-led ACTU as actual capital — that it would not survive. In his defence, the BLF continued to run a series of trimmed-down green bans in multiple Australian cities; the question is whether he was also floating the union (with a little — very little — for himself) off kickbacks from developers to wind the movement up.

Gallagher’s Maoism, and the Stalinism of the Building Workers’ Industrial Union of Australia, saw Mundey and Co’s attachment to the Italian movement of “eurocommunism” — which, in cities like Bologna, was one source of the “new urbanism” of cultivating cities as rich places of multiple function and modes of life — as a woolly betrayal of class struggle.

If that sounds outlandish to you as a basis for the way in which a vast social movement would rise and fall in Australia, you’ve forgotten the Australia we once had. 

To commemorate Mundey — a north Queensland boy, one-time potential rugby star, self-taught and a decade-long veteran of radical union struggle before he gained the NSW BLF leadership — is to remember the many people, some of whom got less than their due in a collective movement.

But there are people in whom history will at some point concentrate with the full force of a piledriver going into deep earth, and Mundey was one of them.

In Tasmania, at the same time as the green bans went on, the United Tasmania Group had become the first “green movement” to take on the challenge of mainstream political contestation with its risks and necessities.

Trotskyists led by Nick Origlass ran the campaign to stop central Sydney becoming one smooth plane of freeway asphalt. In Melbourne, the Carlton Residents Association and others fought a years-long battle that ensured that the northern part of the city doesn’t look like South Melbourne does now — a ghastly no-space of steel, glass and flyovers.

Mundey’s Birmingham stopover was en route to Germany, where he met with the members of the nascent green movement. He would continue urban and social struggles for decades more, one of the last to stop the pointless evisceration of Sydney heritage for one of its pointless tramway boondoggles.

If the working-class city he led the fight for and saved has become a neoliberal one, if social cleansing followed racial cleansing, that doesn’t mean it will always be that way, and that it is not there to be reclaimed.

Mundey’s and others’ monument is the city they saved, the democratic and radical impulse written down in stone and streets.

The movement was of world historical importance: we punched so far above our weight in those days, and via Rocking The Foundations (among other sources) the movement inspired generations of activists to believe that more than you thought was possible at any given moment.

For once in these sort of obits, it’s not rest in power for Jack Mundey, but rest in peace.

His work is done and achieved and complete, and he is committed to roll in the diurnal course of the planet he fought for, and the principle on which such politics is based, scorning cynicism of dead capital piled in steel and glass, that the fight is worth it because the world is a beautiful place.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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