Meredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann,
Green Bans, Red Union: Environmental Activism and the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation.

Caroline Graham

Meredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann: Green Bans. Red Union: Environmental Activism and the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation. UNSW Press, Sydney, 1998, pp. xiv & 352. $29.95 (paper)

At last, the definitive account of the glory days of the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation and the green bans! Given the demands of the current parliamentary career of Meredith Burgmann, who was prime archivist as well as participant in the BLF epic, it seemed for a time that the full history might never be written, that the multi-layered analysis of the period, including union structure, ideological splits on the left, political and economic context, and the green bans themselves, might not reach the public record in appropriate detail.

It may seem odd that, given the national and international interest in the green bans, not to mention radical unionism in itself, no other labour historian has attempted a work of this scope in the quarter century since the defeat of the Mundey leadership team. Some accounts were published earlier, most notably by Pete Thomas and Peter Manning, but these were long essays or booklets rather than comprehensive studies. But everyone with an interest in the topic knew that Meredith Burgmann had written her doctoral thesis on the NSW BLF; that she had amassed a unique collection of union documents, interviews with participants, media clippings and photographs, and that one day The Book would see the light of day – if only she could find the time. Then sister Verity, well known labour historian, came to the rescue – encouraged by Jack Mundey himself – and after three years of rewriting and restructuring Meredith’s original thesis, and carrying out extra research, the Burgmann sisters have kept the faith. And for that we should all be thankful.

The NSW BLF, under the Mundey leadership team from 1970 to its defeat in 1974, gave us one of the most visionary and inspirational moments in Australian labour history, rivalled only by the revolutionary camps flying the Eureka flag in the 1891 shearers’ strike and the attempts to create an Australian utopia in Paraguay in its aftermath. William Lane, unlike Jack Mundey, did not know how to bow out gracefully, and his movement died not with a bang but a whimper. Lane ended his life in obscurity, as an embittered reactionary; Mundey continues to make a huge contribution to public life and debate on the environment, in Australia and overseas. Last year, both the University of New South Wales and the University of Western Sydney presented him with honorary doctorates in recognition of his ‘eminent and vital service to society’. Earlier this year, the union movement in Victoria invited him to advise on strategies for forming closer links between unions and environmentalists. Moreover, the legacy left to Sydney by the NSW BLF is a lasting one. As an American researcher summed up: ‘the people of Sydney possess permanent reminders of that crusade.’ The recent construction of the excrescence at East Circular Quay led to wistful memories of how industrial action was once used to save the city from such depredations.

In one sense, I did not envy the Burgmanns the task of documenting this unique history: no text could recapture the intoxication, the heady joys and successes of those few years for those fortunate enough to be involved, however marginally. The amazing energy arising from the ‘odd chemistry’ of a radical blue collar union making common cause with inner city residents, middle class conservationists, the old Sydney push, feminists, Aboriginals, gays and migrants defies sober analysis. The brew was potent, throwing up a kind of glorious lunacy which doesn’t lend itself easily to academic discourse, especially so long after the event. So the Burgmanns wisely opted for writing the history in reasonably detached style while using a valuable collection of quotations from others to convey the romance of it all.

Paul Ehrlich has remarked of the phenomenon of workers, resident action groups and conservationists uniting in direct action to protect the environment, that it was ‘the most exciting ecological happening, not only in Australia, but overseas as well’. Professor David Yencken, president of the Conservation Foundation, singled out the Rocks area, preserved only by a BLF ban, as ‘the jewel of Sydney’s CBD, thanks to Jack and his union.’ Senior journalist and writer Peter Manning gave the union credit for: one of those rare shifts in public thinking that occurs only a few times in a life-time. Maybe they were mad hatters and larrikins – a true Australian tradition – but, by God, there’s many a Sydney resident who will remember them with love. Hugh Stretton, well known for his writings on urban planning: ‘If you love any of Sydney’s old buildings or poor people, don’t ever forget who first stopped that (Askin) government, and the class and the party that put it there, from the injury they tried to do to all of us and all our heirs.’ The late Nobel Laureate Patrick White saluted Jack Mundey as ‘a great Australian’” the first citizen of our increasingly benighted shark-infested city of Sydney who succeeded effectively in calling the bluff of those who have begun tearing us to bits, ostensibly in the name of progress, but in fact for their own aggrandisement, with little regard for human need. The internal structure of the union was nicely summed up by an (unnamed) woman builders labourer, who recalled the exhilarating experience of ‘being able to participate in a near-perfect democracy’.

At the time, such praise for the BLF was drowned out by a sustained and one-sided media campaign against the union. This was hardly surprising. By 1975 this small union – 11,000 at its peak – had halted $5000 million worth of development projects in NSW. The green bans were a ‘deliberate confrontation with the power of capital’. Premier Askin was close to some major developers, and out to get the union. The press fell into line. (It was therefore ironic that Mrs Caroline Simpson, prominent member of the Fairfax family, was one of those who asked the union to place a ban on the demolition of the historic Helen Keller hostel in Woollahra).

The Burgmanns make good use of media research. The text is liberally sprinkled with fulminations from the print media, most1y from editorial writers and columnists, against the union and the green bans. Only occasionally was there a grudging recognition that some action against rapacious developers and a corrupt government was called for. More usual was the condemnation of ‘jack booted anarchists’ or, as the Sydney Morning Herald put it, in somewhat more measured tones: Mr Mundey, a leading member of the Communist Party, seems to be out to make a name for himself and his parry in an extreme and adventurist manner. His union followers should consider where he is leading them before it is too late.

In terms of the historical record, one valuable aspect of the book is its deconstruction of media myths. For example, the NSW BLF was branded as ‘violent’ so often that this was accepted as self-evident truth. To quote a few of many examples, the Sun stated: ‘nothing in the Federation’s recent history of building site violence … suggests its new cause will lead to anything but anarchy.’ The Sydney Morning Herald, in yet another editorial, was wildly patronising: ‘There is something highly comical in the spectacle of builders labourers, whose ideas do not rise above strikes, violence, intimidation and the destruction of properly, setting themselves up as arbiters of taste and protectors of our national heritage.’ Politicians and others joined the chorus: Hewitt, Askin’s Minister for Labour and Industry, called for people ‘subjected to threats of violence’ by the union to come forward; Peter Coleman, Liberal MLA, drew up a private member’s bill to set up an ‘investigation of industrial anarchy and politically motivated violence instigated by militant union leaders.’

The Burgmanns, drawing especially on Meredith’s lengthy interviews with 46 builders labourers, concede that while there was occasional destruction of property (e.g., knocking down of walls built by scab labour), there is no evidence of NSW BLF organisers assaulting employers or their representatives. On the contrary, there were numerous physical attacks on organisers and delegates by employers – over a dozen in 1972 alone, and Branch president Bob Pringle was hospitalised for three days with a broken nose, from a king hit by an employer. And of course there were the thugs employed by developers to evict residents, the apparent murder of Juanita Neilsen and the mysterious abduction of Arthur King. But the press never attached the epithet ‘violent’ to employers and developers, only to the union.

Likewise, the Burgmanns carefully examine other accusations, such as blackmail and corruption of officials. As subsequent inquiries showed, much to the satisfaction of NSW BLF supporters, the only seriously corrupt official in the BLF was Federal secretary Norm Gallagher, the Maoist union boss from Victoria, who came to Sydney in 1974 in the successful bid to oust the Mundey/Owens/Pringle leadership with the help of the employers.

In terms of the witch hunt against the union, and the defeat of the leadership, the Burgmanns make it clear that, in their eyes, the unkindest cut of all came not from employers, politicians or police, whose opposition was seen as inevitable, but from other leftist union leaders (with the exception of Jack Cambourn’s FEDFA), who failed to give support in the hour of need. Most prominent was Pat Clancy, leader of the powerful 22,000-strong Building Workers Industrial Union. The lack of solidarity is explained largely in terms of the three-way split which had occurred in the Communist Party of Australia from the late sixties, a sectarian feud which had a profound effect on the construction unions, with Clancy and other BWIU officials in the new pro-Soviet Socialist Party of Australia, Gallagher of the Federal and Victorian BLF in the new pro-China CPA (Marxist Leninist) and Mundey and Owens as champions of the independent CPA, now espousing New Left ideals.

Given the bitterness and rancour associated with those splits, it is hard to imagine how Clancy could have behaved differently. Fratricidal feuding was wrecking the lives of many old comrades at the time, with heartache worse than anything inflicted by the mutual class enemy. If the construction unions were a major cockpit for the feud, that was unfortunate but unavoidable. The Burgmanns, in their critique of Clancy, fail to take into account the effects of the taunts and provocations he endured in what was also a classical Freudian demonstration of Young Turk sons (in the NSW BLF) out to bring down the father figure of the construction unions. In one section of the book, the NSW BLF is lauded for its principled solidarity with other unions, including the BWIU, in terms of demarcation and other disputes. But there are other ways to ‘Get the Patriarch’ and these are not mentioned.

One such example was to do with the NSW BLFs permanency campaign. This was a nice idea under which – to put it in a nutshell – employers and the government would fund unemployed builders labourers so that they would receive 52 weeks pay per annum. Mundey argued convincingly that BLs suffered more than other workers from periodic unemployment and industrial instability. However the problem was that the permanency scheme would cost an estimated $20-50 million p.a.. The scheme was regarded as utopian by Clancy, the BWIU and other tradesmen’s unions. Moreover Clancy was annoyed because the BWIU had already reached a decision to make long service leave and sick pay the major union goals for that year (1973). Instead, the BLF went on a one-out strike for permanency (and union hire) without consulting the other building unions. In retaliation, the employers staged a lockout, throwing thousands of builders labourers and BWIU tradesmen out of work until the Federal Government defused the situation by promising a national inquiry into the permanency issue. Clancy and others were not amused at being dragged into a confrontation around an ‘impractical, unrealistic and therefore unwinnable demand.’ (Needless to say, the national inquiry came to nought.) Clancy would have been less than human if he did not feel that Mundey was trying to upstage him, whatever the rights and wrongs of pushing the permanency scheme. He was, no doubt, uncomfortably aware that the slogan of ‘portable long service leave’ was not likely to bring the working class out to the barricades, and could not capture the imagination like the glamorous green bans. Yet, equally, he knew that such reforms could be of lasting value. This is not to say that Clancy did not behave in mean and/or petty ways – the book details disagreement over tactics for accident pay, the eviction of the NSW BLF from BWIU headquarters, staying neutral when Gallagher was bringing down the NSW leadership, and so on.

In short, though, this is the authorised version of events as seen through the eyes of Mundey/ Owens/ Pringle and their supporters. Since I was one of them, I share the same viewpoint. However the book could have been even more valuable if it had managed to convey more understanding of the SPA/BWIU position, perhaps via interviews with BWIU leaders and rank and file from those days. And dare I say that interviews even with Gallagher’s team would have been rewarding. Of these, it seems that only Steve Black was interviewed, and he barely gets a mention in the text. Gallagher can be written off as a disgraced former union boss, but presumably not all of his followers were so venal and power-hungry, and their motivations, insights and criticisms, not to mention their opinions on Gallagher’s strong arm and illegal tactics, would have been of interest. Now that passions have cooled, this should have been possible.

Another minor criticism: the book rightly documents Mundey’s achievements after the 1974 defeat, but there is no follow-up of any of the lives of around 30 other leading militants who were blacklisted from the NSW branch by Gallagher, so depriving them of their livelihood as BLs. Sydneysiders owe so much to these people – the conservation of the Rocks, Centennial Park, Kelly’s Bush, Woolloomooloo, Pitt Street Congregational Church, the RACP building in Macquarie Street, the Regent Theatre and the State Theatre, to name just some of their achievements. They deserve recognition. How have they survived, do they all feel that their sacrifice was worthwhile, and how do they reflect on the glory days now ?

Finally, while this book is authored by two feminists, it is a fairly conventional analysis. By this I really mean that it does not attempt to assess the effects upon the NSW BLF of the alliance between some extraordinarily dynamic radical women and BLF militants. Meredith herself was one of these, Wendy Bacon another. After the defeat of the leadership, there was some scapegoating of these women in the wash-up. The term ‘tomato power’ was bandied around in pubs by some union militants and erstwhile comrades, in a highly unflattering way. The implication was that mad women and sirens had led the boys astray, egging them on into wild adventures, leading to disaster. This was a minor omission from the overall story, but an interesting one nonetheless. However I can fully understand that it would be too difficult and delicate to commit to print, even now, and probably of interest only to other feminists.

So, enough carping; the Burgmanns have documented all the most important aspects of an amazing campaign. So many creative policies were being enacted on so many levels by this union that it has been a major task to record the ferment in coherent fashion. But it is now on the record in proper form at last, and for this, I repeat, we are grateful.