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Union leader behind 70s "green bans" dies


Jack Mundey, a tough union leader who brought a new dimension to environmental activism through green bans, has died. He was 90.

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Mundey, leader of the militant Builders Laborers’ Federation and a communits, forged unlikely partnerships with wealthy and conservative communities in the early 1970s to save many historic Sydney sites and change thinking about heritage management.

Although primarily a Sydney movement, green bans saved historic buildings in most Australian capitals and were influential overseas, especially in Germany.

Mundey was born in Malanda in far north Queensland and wentto Sydney aged 19 mainly for rugby league, playing three seasons with Parramatta.

He joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1957 because, he said in an interview for Australian Biography, it was the most militant group fighting for basic things like wages and conditions.

Later, he called himself an ecological communist.

In 1968 he was elected secretary of the NSW BLF. Like most union leaders, he used black bans on building sites as an industrial weapon.

He came, however, to realise that the environment was more than middle class trendies saving trees and native animals, and that inner Sydney had values for the working class.

Green bans had an unlikely start in 1971.

A group of middle class women from Sydney’s affluent Hunters Hill, who normally wouldn’t be seen dead with a communist trade union leader, came to the BLF in desperation after exhausting all conventional avenues in their bid to save Kelly’s Bush, the last bushland in the area, from development.

This was a novel experience for the union too. But with some reservations, it agreed to help if the ladies could show community support. This they did, with 400 turning up to a public meeting with the union.

So a ban was slapped on A.V. Jennings, the developer. When Jennings threatened to use non-union labor, the BLF countered with a threat to ban work on another big Jennings project.

Jennings gave way and Kelly’s Bush was saved.

This was a period of cowboy development and soon the BLF was inundated with pleas – Mundey insisted the union would only act at the request of a community – for help to stop the destruction of much of old Sydney and its green spaces.

By 1974, 42 green bans had been imposed, stopping more than $3 billion worth of development to the fury of the Liberal Askin government.

They included The Rocks, Sydney’s historic core at the city end of the harbour bridge, which now has a Jack Mundey Place.

Centennial Park was spared a concrete sports stadium, part of the Botanic Gardens was saved from becoming a car park for the Opera House, and $400 million worth of high rise for Woolloomooloo was blocked.

It was a heady time. Activist and historian Caroline Graham has written of the “amazing energy arising from the odd chemistry of a radical blue collar union making a common cause with inner-city residents, middle class conservationists, the old Sydney Push, feminists, Aboriginies, gays and migrants…The brew was potent, throwing up a kind of glorious lunacy.”

There was violence too. Mundey recalls 2000 builders labourers converging on the Rocks to stop “scabs” working.

He was offered bribes and threatened with calls along the lines of “I’ll cut your kid’s throat” or “there’s a bomb in the car”.

The worst violence was in 1975, after the high tide of green bans, when Kings Cross activist Juanita Nielsen disappeared. She was almost certainly murdered.

The green bans weren’t ended by developers, but by the BLF’s own federal body, especially its Melbourne-based federal secretary, the controversial Norm Gallagher, who led a takeover of the NSW branch.

But by then the idea that inner-city working class history and green space matters had been widely accepted.

And when Labor came back to power in NSW it established the Land and Environment Court, accessible to community groups helped with legal aid.

Mundey never stopped campaigning. Even in his late eighties he fought to stop developments at The Rocks.

In some ways, however, the firebrand communist became respectable. He was on Sydney City Council in the 1980s, he became a life member of the Australian Conservation Foundation after 20 years on its executive and he was chair of the NSW Historic Houses Trust.

Two universities awarded him an honorary doctorate.

But green bans remained “the highlight of my life”.

Mundey was twice married, first to Stephanie Lennon, who died young. They had a son Michael who was killed in a car accident aged 22.

He is survived by his second wife, Judy.


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