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The Sydney “Green Bans” Show How We Can Transform Our Cities

In the 1970s, trade unions in Sydney began imposing “green bans” on property developments that were going to cause social and ecological harm. The movement should be an inspiration for challenges to the power of big business everywhere.

Builders Labourers demonstrate for the green ban in the Rocks in Sydney, Australia, on October 25, 1973. (Russell McPhedran / Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Fifty years ago, in June 1971, the New South Wales branch of the Builders Labourers Federation (NSWBLF) voted to ban construction of a luxury housing development in the Sydney harborside suburb of Hunters Hill. Their bulldozer-driving comrades in the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen’s Association followed suit. The goal was to protect Kelly’s Bush, one of the last undeveloped areas of bushland on Sydney Harbour.

Over time, the tactic they used came to be known as a “green ban,” distinguishing it from a more conventional “black ban.” While trade unions imposed the latter in disputes over wages and conditions, green bans blocked construction on projects that were environmentally or socially destructive, or that threatened sites with heritage value.

The Kelly’s Bush green ban resulted from an unlikely alliance. Hunters Hill was a wealthy suburb, and most residents had little to do with the workers’ movement. Earlier that month, however, the Battlers for Kelly’s Bush — a resident action group — held a meeting of over six hundred people. It called on the unions to protect the bushland.

The NSWBLF was militant, proudly working-class, and maligned by respectable opinion. It was led by socialists and communists. Yet the union found common cause with the middle-class Battlers for Kelly’s Bush.

NSWBLF secretary Jack Mundey explained the union’s decision in a 1973 interview:

What is the good of fighting to improve wages and conditions if we are going to choke to death in polluted and planless cities? We are fighting for a shorter working week. If we get it, we still have to live in these cities. So “quality of life” should not just become a cliché. It should become a meaningful thing, and the workers should be concerned about every aspect of life — not just their working conditions.

Developer AVJennings attempted to circumvent the green ban by using nonunion labor. The NSWBLF hit back. Union members employed at another Jennings site sent a telegram to the developer’s head office: “If you attempt to build on Kelly’s Bush, even if there is the loss of one tree, this half-completed building will remain so forever, as a monument to Kelly’s Bush.”

The NSWBLF executive backed up their members’ threat. In August, AVJennings shelved their development plans. Kelly’s Bush remains untouched to this day.

The Green Ban Movement

Soon, all manner of people started appealing to the NSWBLF to block developments threatening low-income housing, green space, and built heritage. Within two years of the Kelly’s Bush green ban, the union had put in place forty similar bans, halting over $3 billion worth of construction projects.

The green bans resulted from of an array of coalitions in which building workers allied with working-class and middle-class resident action groups, feminists, Aboriginal and anti-apartheid activists, and gay activists. Migrant groups, architects, and a host of celebrities also lent their support.

At the peak of the green ban movement, even critics were prepared to concede that the NSWBLF backed a number of worthy environmental causes. At the same time, the mainstream media railed against the industrially militant tactics that made the green bans effective. A 1973 editorial from the Sydney Morning Herald is illustrative:

Of course there should be action, and the members of the BLF or any other union are entitled to take it, as private citizens, with the rest of us. The point at issue is whether any union is entitled to use the power conferred on it for quite different and specific functions to frustrate our democratic decision-making processes, imperfect and in need of reform though these may be in this case, and to substitute for them — and for their machinery designed to take account of a multiplicity of interests and points of view — the authoritarian imposition of the decisions of one group or one point of view.

The editorial’s author characterizes the green bans’ disruption to the existing machinery of representative democracy as “authoritarian.” But far from being authoritarian, the most radical aspect of the green ban movement was that it created new democratic machinery that fundamentally challenged capitalist liberal democracy.

When a writer for the National Times sarcastically described union members as “proletarian planners,” he inadvertently hit upon the truth. The green bans were part of a vision of Sydney as a city in which workers and residents — not property owners or planners — had the right to decide how the urban environment should be transformed.

Proletarian Planners

Carrying off the strategy required imagination and effective political communication. The green bans movement insisted on “everyday democracy.” More than voting for a candidate every few years, green ban leaders and activists demanded that citizens should be given a say over all decisions affecting them.

The NSWBLF insisted that building workers should have control on the job. Beyond this, they championed the “social responsibility of labor,” arguing that workers should also have a say over the product of their labor. Jack Mundey and other NSWBLF leaders also insisted that people and the planet should be valued above profits. They never missed an opportunity to rename “development” as “so-called development,” refusing to equate the interests of developers with the needs of the city and its residents.

Female members of the NSW Branch of the Builders Labourers Federation march on International Women’s Day in Sydney, March 1975. (Wikimedia Commons)

Crucially, fighting for these principles required the industrial power of a well-organized and determined union. By 1971, about 90 percent of builders in Sydney were NSWBLF members. And they were industrially militant — strikes gave the green bans their power.

The NSWBLF didn’t just halt work on sites under a green ban. The union also imposed secondary boycotts to force developers to back down. For example, when demolition work started at a site in Sydney’s historic low-income Rocks district under a green ban, the union halted construction on seven nearby sites. NSWBLF members then marched to the location of the primary ban to defend it against scab labor.

After two days, eight thousand builders laborers were on strike across the city. To defend the green bans, union members were also prepared to destroy work completed by scab labor, and to occupy banned sites alongside movement activists.

Although strikes were crucial, they weren’t the only weapon in the green ban arsenal. As Jack Mundey explained:

The principle we applied . . . was accountability to the people. We insisted that there must be a wide expression of concern within the area affected. The prerequisite for our intervening was a public meeting, and it was this meeting which had to ask us to intervene. The meeting had to decide how long the ban had to last, what other steps would be taken and when a report would be made to a further assembly.

By imposing these requirements, the union ensured that community groups seeking a green ban were strong enough to make the alliance with the union meaningful. In a few cases, the union refused to support a ban because the affected community wasn’t sufficiently well organized.

In addition to geographical communities, the union was happy to ally with communities of interest. This was the case with the green ban on the Theatre Royal, where Actors Equity galvanized support behind a ban. The NSWBLF also placed a high premium on union democracy. All community requests for union support had to be ratified by union branch meetings, open to all members.

Of course, bans did not always go according to plan. In Wyong, a couple hours’ drive north of Sydney, union members voted to strike over working conditions on a shopping mall construction site. They occupied the site and crane to prevent their strike from being broken.

Then they began to question the usefulness of the job itself. The strikers decided they would prefer to build a hospital rather than a shopping mall. They organized to keep work going under self-management — only now, they were building a hospital.

However, when the union hastily convened a meeting of residents, the residents voted in favor of the shopping mall. The branch of the NSWBLF respected their vote and resumed work on the mall — while still keeping the site under occupation and workers’ management for six weeks until they had won their industrial demands.

This episode highlights one of the limitations that confronted the green ban movement. Withdrawing labor could block some developments. But it would take more than refusal to bring about the union’s vision for a city built around people and the environment.

People’s Plans

Sometimes the green bans were viewed as a way to win “breathing space,” which is to say they forced developers and planners back to the drawing board. Rocking the Foundations — a documentary about the green bans directed by Pat Fiske — gives us a good example of what this meant.

The film includes footage of Jack Mundey turning up to the auction of a commercial building in Sydney’s central business district. As the auctioneer starts the bidding, Mundey crashes in and gives a speech to bemused prospective buyers. He reminds them that there is a green ban in place on the building, and that any attempt to redevelop without union consent would be blocked.

The breathing space strategy was probably most successful in the Rocks. For two years, the union had upheld a green ban on the demolition of some of the oldest colonial buildings in Sydney. In alliance with some of the area’s low-income residents, they eventually forced the state government redevelopment authority to back down and came up with their own “People’s Plan” for the area. The government came back to the table with plans to conserve the area’s heritage and to rehouse any displaced residents in refurbished or newly constructed public housing.

To go beyond bans and to proactively shape the city, the movement needed to win control over land and capital. In a few cases, the NSWBLF and its community allies achieved this by bringing their cause to the federal government, which could, in turn, provide the needed land and resources.

Gough Whitlam’s Labor government, which came to power in 1972, aided this process. Whitlam created the Commonwealth Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD), which provided material support for some projects championed by the NSWBLF. In the suburbs of Glebe and Woolloomooloo, for example, the union and community groups had imposed green bans to prevent developments that threatened to push low-income communities out of the inner city.

These disputes reached a stalemate — until DURD intervened to support the green bans. DURD gave activist planners funding to work with the residents to develop “People’s Plans” for the areas. Then the federal government acquired land and brokered deals with NSW Housing Commission to develop large amounts of public housing in the areas.

The Whitlam government’s Department of Aboriginal Affairs played a similarly important role. Following a request from the sizeable Aboriginal community in the inner-city suburb of Redfern, the NSWBLF placed a green ban on a housing redevelopment project in an area known as “the Block.” In addition to providing housing, the Block was an important base for Indigenous political activism.

Following the ban, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs purchased the land and housing. They then handed it over to the newly formed Aboriginal Housing Company for the construction of Aboriginal housing.

Unfinished Business

Drawing on these experiences, by 1974, the NSWBLF and DURD had begun to think about reorganizing urban development in order to build an egalitarian and ecologically sound city, while also improving conditions and safety for construction workers.

The NSWBLF began to push for the creation of a publicly owned building company to provide secure employment on socially beneficial projects. NSWBLF official Bill Holey set out the union’s wider vision in the communist newspaper Tribune:

With a Government Building Company, under workers’ control, a permanent workforce could be devoted to essential social projects. This would mean planned direction of resources. It could also mean a planned assault on high building costs, land prices, and high interest rates on housing loans. . . . But it would also, of course, have very beneficial effects for building workers, currently subject to the sack at an hour’s notice and notoriously some of the worst affected by recession.

In 1975, DURD released the National Program for Urban and Regional Development (Interim Statement). This program reflected the influence of unions and residents who had been involved in green bans. To contemporary readers, it resembles an urban Green New Deal. Many of its demands are still prescient. For example, the program outlined plans

  • To maintain full employment, maximize variety of job opportunities, and promote job enrichment
  • To provide the conditions for a wide range of lifestyles within the population
  • To preserve and enhance the natural and man-made environment and conserve natural and energy resources
  • To ensure that all citizens have equality of access to a defined range of public services, including health, educational, welfare, recreational, and transport facilities
  • To promote economic efficiency in the efficient achievement of other social goals
  • To reduce inequalities of income, wealth, and individual opportunities
  • To open the processes of government and planning to effective citizen participation and to decentralize decision-making and administration
  • To eliminate discrimination according to race, age, sex, religion, or class

These plans, however, were not realized. In 1974, developers, the mainstream media, and the NSW state government worked together to break the green bans. The federal leadership of the BLF assisted them by expelling leaders in the NSW branch who had supported the green bans and lifting many of the bans still in place. The authorities then de-registered entire NSW branch of the Builders Labourers Federation. As a result, expelled branch members had no legal recourse.

The de-registration of the NSWBLF marked the beginning of a broader counteroffensive. In November 1975, the governor general sacked the Whitlam government. Whitlam then lost the following election to Malcolm Fraser, putting an end to the radical plans developed while he was in office.

From Green Bans to a Green New Deal

Over time, the green bans have gained recognition for their role in conserving heritage buildings, green space, and low-income housing in Sydney. However, nostalgia threatens to relegate the green bans to a safely distant past.

Today, the work of the green bans is unfinished. Sydneysiders are up against a situation that in many ways resembles Sydney in 1970. The conservative state government is intent on selling some of the public housing that it built following green bans in the Rocks and Glebe. Aggressively anti-union federal legislation outlaws the kinds of industrial action the NSWBLF took to enforce green bans. Meanwhile, a flood of developer capital and new construction technologies threaten to radically transform the city, exacerbating inequality and harming the environment.

The green bans are as urgent today as in the early 1970s, and so are the Whitlam government’s unrealized plans for urban development. As Anna Sturman and Natasha Heenan have recently argued, a Green New Deal will have to reckon with the capitalist state and its role in both producing and responding to ecological breakdown, economic stagnation, and growing inequality. As the green bans show, alliances between resident activists and unions can open the door to reforming state projects. In turn, these can open the way for community and worker control.

But to begin this work, we need more than nostalgia. It’s important to not just remember the places that were saved by green bans but to remember how they were saved. We should remember the radical alliances that the NSWBLF formed with diverse community groups, the democratic machinery they built, and the militant action they took. And we should remember the even bigger political ambitions green ban participants were beginning to articulate before their movement was broken.

The radical urban programs outlined by the NSWBLF and Whitlam’s Labor government were anchored to a political movement that forged powerful connections between organized workers and organized communities. To achieve the large-scale transformation needed to avert ecological collapse and build more equal, more humane cities, a Green New Deal will need to wield the same kind of power.