Uncharted waters: social responsibility in Australian trade unions , by Greg Mallory (2005) investigated the NSW BLF Green Bans. Until recently Greg had been President of the Brisbane Labour History Association for 17 years. Workers Liberty has previously reported on his research into Green Bans: see here and here. Janet Burstall asked Greg some new questions, to help uncover issues for eco-socialist trade unionists to take into account, in promoting workers' control as a means for tackling climate change.
JB: The NSW BLF Green Bans must be the most quoted example around the world of workers taking sustained and effective action for the environment via their union. If this is such an inspiring example, why do you think it hasn’t been more widely replicated in the 45 years since?
GM: I don’t think there was that consciousness amongst workers. Jack and the leadership of the NSWBLF ‘educated’ the workers through the struggle. Workers are primarily concerned about wages and conditions and not one union was prepared to lake that leap. Maybe the Maritime Union of Australia and some aspects of the Victorian Electrical Trades Union did take that leap.
JB: The story you tell is of workers' control, perhaps best epitomised by your quote from Jack Mundey "we will decide which buildings will be put up and which will be pulled down”. How did the members of the NSW BLF come to act for workers’ control? And what did worker’ control by the NSW BLF look like?
GM: I think exactly what you said, making decisions about what building would be built and what buildings would be pulled down. Through Green Bans they had that power, a revolutionary statement given that developers had that power.
JB: What was the connection between the Communist Party of Australia's political reassessment in the 1960s, to Jack Mundey’s development as a leader of the NSW BLF?
GM: I think the CPA had a big influence on Jack’s development, as Jack was influenced by the changes that were occurring in the Party, which was its awareness of environmental issues. I remember drinking with Jack and other building workers at that pub near Town Hall. There were a couple of blokes who were selling works of Lenin to the workers. I think this grassroots activism was crucially important. A lot of Jack’s mates were members of the CPA, including Darcy Duggan and Tom Hogan.
JB: Can you elaborate on what it was about the construction industry in NSW and Sydney in particular in the early 1970s that made it fertile ground for the BLF to become a militant fighting union, that took up environmental issues?
GM: I think if you watch Rocking the Foundations it will answer that question. The industry was undergoing massive changes in the construction of buildings with height limits increased. There was a huge influx of workers coming into the industry including many from different nationalities of which the BLF ‘educated’ by translating their leaflets into their language. In my book/thesis I discuss Wyong in which workers demanded they build hospitals and not a shopping centre. Apparently, Jack was not happy with this action.
JB: The NSW BLF under the leadership of Jack Mundey, Joe Owens and Bob Pringle was broken up by the Master Builders Association in 1974-1975 with the active support of national BLF General Secretary Norm Gallagher. A defender of Gallagher says that “the sheer numbers of bans were cutting people out of work, especially as the 1974 recession hit the construction industry.” Did the difficulty of getting work at that time play any role in undermining support for the leaders of the NSW BLF and the Green Bans? And if so, with hindsight, what could the leadership have done differently in regards to that issue?
GM: I think that might been the case and Gallagher jumped on the bans wagon with the support of the MBA. Not sure how this could be handled, this was fought out on the building sites, see my example of the battle at the Broadway site. I think the economy and the fact that workers needed work was a factor in the demise of the NSWBLF. Gallagher put his stooges into the leadership of the branch after Jack and others were sacked. A combined take over by Gallagher and the bosses.
JB: Do you have any other observations for climate and trade union activists to take note of now?
GM: I think the influence of Jack will live on for a long time. As I said before it is important for workers to develop policies and practice outside wages and conditions. I think it is difficult for workers to see a bigger picture.