Heartfelt tributes are pouring in for legendary Australian communist, trade unionist and environmentalist Jack Mundey, who died on Sunday, aged 90. Twitter has seen statements from the ACTU and Australian Conservation Foundation, a string of Labor heavyweights including former Labor leader Bill Shorten, Greens leader Adam Bandt and many others. As leader of the NSW Builders Laborers Federation in the early 1970s, Mundey and his fellow “BLs” Bob Pringle and Joe Owens had a truly global impact. They launched the green bans movement, which stopped bulldozers from clearing remnant scrub on Sydney Harbour at Hunters Hill, then known as Kellys Bush, in 1971. It was the first time a union anywhere had stopped work on a project for environmental reasons – well outside normal pay and conditions – and the green bans unionists went on to save much of Sydney’s built heritage in The Rocks and Woolloomooloo, and places like Centennial Park, holding up developments worth billions in the name of environmental amenity or social justice. It also embraced causes from gay rights to public housing. Peace and anti-nuclear activist Petra Kelly came to Sydney in the late 1970s and, inspired by Mundey, went home and formed the German Greens, which in turn inspired the formation of Green parties around the world.
But the significance of the green bans – a term coined by Mundey in a 1973 interview – wasn’t just that they saved a few precious bits of Sydney during the early 1970s property boom. (It should be noted that even most property developers today are glad Mundey won those fights.) The green bans recognised that the environment and heritage mattered to working people, that gay rights mattered to working people (hence the first pink ban, as the ACTU’s Sally McManus acknowledged today), that public housing mattered to working people. And the green bans could not have happened without the earlier black bans, in which the radical BLs stood up and stopped dangerous work practices like “riding the hook” in the very early days of high-rise construction, and insisting labourers should not die at work. And the green bans unionists were not about self-glorification or entrenching themselves in the hierarchy. They believed in grassroots democracy, with everything decided on site by the unionists themselves in stop-work meetings that would often drag on for hours – as long as it took, with many labourers from multicultural backgrounds. They also believed in limited tenure; Jack Mundey himself went back on the tools after his first stint as state secretary.
In short, Mundey and his fellow unionists saw at the outset that the jobs-versus-environment debate is a sham construct. Workers can have both, if they only insist on it. Consider how radical the green bans seem now, when the CFMEU (the successor to the Builders Laborers Federation) colluded with the far right against Stop Adani protesters at the last federal election, and national president Tony Maher tells Crikey [$] his union will never oppose a new coalmine that creates jobs. Yet new coal projects will literally make the planet uninhabitable for kids, not just those of the inner-city greenies, but the kids of regional coalminers as well – a much more serious threat than anything the BLF stared down 50 years ago. The CFMEU could, if it wished, stop the Adani project dead tomorrow (and with coal prices plummeting and projects being shelved, many coal companies would thank them). Unions across the world round could, if they wished, stop new fossil fuels forever.
When I interviewed Mundey for my recent history of the Greens in Australia, he criticised the union movement for failing to move with the times: “The union movement now could be a real, important instrument in the whole ecological struggle, because the whole question of global warming, the whole question of the environment, is on the agenda forever more.” Could a green ban be slapped on the Adani mine, I asked Jack. “First of all, it’s convincing the workers themselves. I think there is a need for that sort of action to take place. And if workers could be motivated along those lines, I could see there’d be a great benefit to the whole workers’ movement.”
As writer Jeff Sparrow pointed out today, former ACTU president Bob Hawke saw Mundey as a “menace” – the ’70s green bans represented exactly the kind of industrial unrest which, as PM, he stopped using the accord and union amalgamations. In his fifth vision speech today, Labor leader Anthony Albanese soft-pedalled on the policies that the Opposition would take to the next election, but has signalled that the party will dump ambitious policies on franking credits or negative gearing, for example. Last week, he was taking flak for committing to an entirely uncontroversial zero emissions by 2050 emissions target. Let’s hope that in the spirit of Jack Mundey – a true giant of the Australian labour movement – the ALP does not go to water on everything.