Jack Mundey (1929–2020): Catalyst for Union Change

Meredith Burgmann

In all the (deserved) praise of Jack Mundey’s role in saving Sydney and initiating the first stirrings of world-wide urban environmentalism, his important role in changing union culture has been largely ignored. It was this aspect of the Builders Labourers story that always fascinated me and it is the heart of my PhD thesis.[1]

Jack’s leadership of the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) in the sixties and seventies showed what a truly progressive union could look like. The mainstream media have concentrated on his leadership of the Green Bans and the way in which he, with Joe Owens and Bob Pringle and the rank-and-file men and women of the BLF saved the face of Sydney. These are indeed great successes but it was also the way in which he changed the union which we, as the Left, should contemplate.

John Bernard (Jack) Mundey was born in Malanda in 1929. He came down from the Atherton Tablelands in the 1950s to play rugby league for Parramatta and, failing to make the first grade side, ended up working as a labourer. Confronted with a corrupt and complaisant union leadership, Jack fought hard to democratise and radicalise the union. Many of the truly democratic practices that he later introduced to the union were borne out of this long struggle for control.

He first became involved with the union rank-and-file struggle in the fifties, and as a consequence, joined the Communist Party (CPA) in the late fifties. He became increasingly influenced by the ‘independent-line’ CPA leadership writings about the need for greater democracy and participation in union affairs.  Many unionists had mouthed these mantras but few had attempted to put them into practice. Jack did so in a thoughtful and meaningful way. By 1968 he was secretary of a militant but industrially weak union.

Jack realised that the first job of a union official was to raise the wages and working conditions that were present in a low-waged and dangerous industry. If you read the CPA paper Tribune of the 1960s and early 70s there are many articles by Jack about democratic practices within unions and how a socially aware union should operate.

The Margins campaign of 1970, which culminated in a six-week strike, finally changed the ratio of labourers’ wages to the tradesmen’s wages. This was not only important for the labourers’ sense of themselves, it was also a source of some tension between the BLF leaders and the Moscow-leaning leadership of the tradesmen’s union, the Building Workers’ Industrial Union (BWIU). The accident pay strike of 1971 cemented the union’s reputation for militant (and often successful) vigilante tactics on scab building work.

John Bernard (Jack) Mundey (1977)
Source: Builders Labourers’ Federation (NSW) Archives, courtesy Meredith Burgmann

Jack fought for the meaningful involvement of all members in union activities, including the large and diverse migrant cohort; he introduced ‘limited tenure of office’; tied organisers’ pay to the industry award and instituted the practice whereby officials did not get paid during industry strikes.

A campaign to have workers elect their own foremen even had limited success on large militant sites. Jack skilfully managed the tension between bread-and-butter issues for the labourers and the more hopeful ‘workers’ control’ policies of the CPA at the time.

Jack was an environmentalist before that term was even used. But the unique insight that Jack brought to the struggle was his view that workers should campaign around the social responsibility of labour. He believed that workers should think about the sort of work they do and the environment in which they live and work.

Jack was a man of great charm and intellect. He loved an argument and rarely met his match. His articulate advocacy of progressive causes was a huge plus for the union movement generally. The mainstream media opposed what he was doing but loved having him turn up to explain what was happening – he was a perfect ‘talking head’.

The late sixties had seen a massive building boom in Sydney caused by unregulated ‘hot money’ overseas investment and the activities of the corrupt and pro-development Askin government.

At the time there was no heritage or environmental protection legislation in NSW. Voices against rapacious over-development were few. The media was relentlessly pro-development. In fact at the height of the confrontations the Sydney Morning Herald published five editorials in twelve days attacking the union.

Strike actions to protect heritage buildings were placed by the BLF and a much smaller building union, the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen’s Association (FEDFA), between 1971 and 1974. They were originally called black bans but were later, in a stroke of brilliance, dubbed ‘green’ bans by Jack in early 1973. There were eventually fifty-four Green Bans and they held up $5 billion worth of building activity in 1970s dollar terms.

It is not exaggerating to say that the NSW BLF is responsible for the shape of Sydney as we now know it.

The BLF leadership always insisted that every ban had to occur at the request of the residents, and had to have the community involved. This involved endless discussion between the union leadership and the concerned residents. It was what Jack referred to as ‘the enlightened middle class and the enlightened working class coming together’ to work for a better living environment.

Every proposed ban then had to be agreed to by a general meeting of the union. Almost all bans ended up being physically defended and many labourers and residents were arrested and even gaoled for this stoic defiance. This physical protection of the bans is what distinguished the ‘real’ Green Bans era from its later and paler manifestations.

One of the aims of the Green Bans was to protect the right of the working class to live in the inner city. The bans saved the Rocks and Woolloomooloo from being turned into a forest of high rise ‘executive suites’; they saved Glebe from being split into three islands by two major expressways; saved Centennial Park from being turned into a giant sporting complex; saved Victoria Street Kings Cross from destruction; saved Surry Hills from excessive high rise; saved Ultimo from an Expressway and saved the Opera House fig trees from becoming a car park. Individual buildings saved by green bans include the State Theatre, the Pitt St Congregational Church, and the Colonial Mutual, National Mutual and ANZ bank buildings in Martin Place.

Jack always understood that, on the whole, the bans could only halt development in order to allow time for political solutions. He developed excellent working relationships with NSW Premier Neville Wran and Federal Urban Affairs Minister Tom Uren. These friendships particularly helped in government intervention to save Glebe and Woolloomooloo and the building of The Sirius for social housing in the Rocks. The incoming (1976) Wran government also legislated for environment and heritage protection legislation for the first time.

The union’s Green Bans quickly became known around the world. ‘Green Ban Committees’ were formed by unions in Britain. Jack Mundey was invited to lecture in Europe and North America and in 1976 he addressed the first United Nations Conference on the Built Environment.

The NSW BLF was smashed in March 1975 by a combination of Master Builders- financed Federal BLF intervention, NSW police action, state government harassment and opposition from almost all other unions.

So much of what happened to the BLF can be explained by the politics of the Left at that time. The leadership and many of the organisers were CPA or Left ALP members. The activists and supporters were a similar mixture with the addition of some non-aligned socialists, anarcho-syndicalists, Libertarians and even Trotskyists. However the various splits in the Communist Party led to open hostility from the Maoist federal leadership of the BLF under Norm Gallagher and less overt but probably more damaging opposition from the pro-Moscow Pat Clancy leadership of the building tradesmen’s union, the BWIU.

At the final mass meeting of the BLF in 1975, only two unions were there in support of the Mundey/Owens/Pringle leadership – the ever reliable FEDFA and the Teachers Federation. It was not until Joe Owens’ funeral in 2012 that then Unions NSW Secretary, Mark Lennon apologised to the old BLF members in the room for Labor Council’s hostile attitude to Jack’s leadership and the Green Bans.

Perhaps the union’s most committed supporters were the young black activists of Redfern who organised to get a union ban on demolition of the ‘Block’ which eventuated in a Whitlam government hand over of the land to the community. This action was often referred to as Australia’s first successful land rights claim.

After Jack left the union leadership (believing in limited tenure of office) he remained active in environmental and urban planning issues. He was elected to the City of Sydney Council and was briefly Chair of its Planning Committee. He was active in the National Trust and was made a life member of the Australian Conservation Foundation. In 1995, Bob Carr appointed him Chair of the Historic Houses Trust (now Sydney Living Museums). The National Trust campaigned for Jack Mundey Place in the Rocks to be named after him. He was made an AO and was voted one of Australia’s National Living Treasures. He was awarded Honorary PhDs from the University of Western Sydney and the University of NSW. He once said to me in mock sympathy “only one PhD?” He did love to provoke.

After the death of his first wife Stephanie from a cerebral haemorrhage, Jack married Judy Willcocks in the 1960s. Further tragedy occurred when son Michael died in a car accident at the age of 22. Judy has been his partner in life and politics for over fifty years. She was an important activist in her own right becoming President of the Communist Party (1979-82) in its exciting independent-line period.

Jack Mundey and the men and women of the BLF did indeed save a city, as our book points out, and every day all of us benefit from that.

Meredith Burgmann is a former Green Bans activist and Labor MLC. She is the author (with Verity Burgmann) of Green Bans, Red Union: The Saving of a City (re-issued 2017).


[1].          Meredith Burgmann, ‘A New Concept of Unionism: The NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation 1970-1974’ (PhD thesis), Macquarie University, 1981.Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/1959.14/1273252.