Last night, 10 May 2020, Jack Mundey passed away in Concord hospital at the age of 90. He was cared for until the end by his wife, Judy.
Mundey was a hero to many workers, once a leader of the radical NSW Builders Labourers Federation throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. Though known for his politics, Mundey originally ended up in Sydney because he played Rugby League for Parramatta. Not only was he famous for his labour activism, but his environmental activism too. It was the way the BLF combined the two that has left a lasting example not only for activists in Australia, but around the world.
The Builders Labourers Federation in the 60’s was a union plagued by corruption and incompetence. Rank and file activists from the Communist and Labor Left organised on the ground to overturn the leadership. They succeeded by ’68, when Jack was elected secretary of the NSW branch. This marked a turning point in the history of the Australia union movement. An organisation of ‘unskilled’ manual labourers was to become the vanguard of many social struggles in Australia.
They implemented many reforms, including limited tenure, rank and file control, political education, and most importantly they developed the ‘Green Bans’ strategy.
The Green Bans were revolutionary for unions around the world. If a community organisation with concerns around development contacted the BLF, a public meeting would be organised. Residents would express their concerns with development and speak with the workers who would be building the project. They would have a vote, and if the concensus was that the project was harmful, the union would implement a ‘Green Ban.’ In other words, they’d refuse to build the project. The first example of this was when residents of Hunters Hill requested the BLF save Kelly’s Bush on the harbour foreshore. This simple act pitted the interests of the working class against developers. The BLF began to give workers the power to shape their own environment.
From here, action spiralled. Green Bans saved parts of the Botanic Gardens, Centennial Park, Moore Park, and other smaller projects. Then the bans began to shift in content. The BLF implemented bans to save The Rocks from development. The neighbourhood was overwhelmingly working class, and the BLF didn’t want gentrification to displace the people who lived there. In opposition to private developers, the BLF worked with the community to develop a ‘peoples plan’ for the area. The bans held firm until the people’s plan won, with the democratic support of the residents.
Then, in another ground breaking form of activism, the BLF helped bring about one of the first Aboriginal Land Rights claims in Australia. The union banned development on so called ‘empty’ homes in Redfern, where indigenous Australians actually lived. Their stalling of development, combined with the community activism and solidarity resulted in the co-operative Redfern Aboriginal Community Housing Scheme.
The BLF and their green bans went on to deal with social issues like women’s employment, gay rights and more issues around racism. It’s needless to say this militant, direct action oriented, rank and file controlled unionism shares parallels with the ideological principles of syndicalism. It’s no coincidence that the BLF won so many victories, and is a lesson to all unionists today. In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, Mundey described the unions values thus;
“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.”
On a personal note, I only brushed shoulders with Jack once. Though he was once a CPA member, over a decade ago Jack spoke at an anarchist conference in Sydney. He spoke eloquently and never displayed a hint of sectarianism. Though still relatively new to leftist politics at the time, I knew who Jack was having met a few old BL’s, and having seen “Rocking the Foundations”, the fantastic documentary about the BLF and their struggles. No one I know has seen that documentary and not been moved by the militancy of the rank and file, and of their leaders like Mundey being arrested over and over again for what was right. A far cry from the politics that runs the union movement today. I’d also read his autobiography, “Green Bans and Beyond.” As a young bloke who had worked on farms and as a labourer, I found his story imminently relatable. An anecdote from early in the book stuck with me. Jack describes once of his first jobs, chopping wood for a woman with ‘aristocratic notions’, and during smoko he wasn’t invited inside to sit down for lunch. This incident stuck with him as an early lesson on dignity and class. Many times in my years working in domestic labour that line stuck with me, as I sat my arse on the concrete or dirt to eat my lunch. Sometimes when I feel dejected about the state of our unions I watch Rockin the Foundations, or read Green Bans and Beyond again, just for a glimpse into a period when hopes were aflame and our class had the power to shape its own environment.
The story of the BLF is part of Jacks story, and Jack is part of the story of the BLF. Inspirational working class leaders emerge when the rank and file movement is strong, and Jack came from a generation of union leaders who really belonged amongst the people. His leadership gives us lessons in how to conduct ourselves in our union work today.
In 2007 a space on Argyle Street in The Rocks was named “Jack Mundey Place”, in honour of his efforts.
Vale to a hero of the working class.
You can view Rocking The Foundations; A History of the Builders Labourers Federation here.
Jack’s autobiography is Jack Mundey; Green Bans & Beyond.
Green Bans, Red Union: The Saving of a City by Meredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann is also a recommended book on the topic.
Tommy Lawson is a rank and file member of the Electrical Trades Union in Melbourne.