Jack Mundey — the father of urban environmentalism

22 June 2020 | Posted In: #135 Winter 2020,

Union leader and environmental activist, Jack Mundey, passed away last month, aged 90. As TINA PERINOTTO reports, Mundey was a champion for the planet and working-class communities. 

When I was still a fledgling journalist, I interviewed Jack Rich, then head of the giant AMP group. After brief greetings, Rich took me over to the window of his office with its magnificent panorama of Circular Quay and The Rocks. “See that”, he said, indicating the great sandstone buildings of the Rocks that formed Sydney’s first colonial settlement, with their tight cobblestone alleyways and rough stairs that led to pokey shops, cafes and pubs still reeking with history. “If it wasn’t for Jack Mundey and the BLF [the Builders Labourers Federation union] we would have flattened it all.” Clearly this was one legendary battle — mighty developer against an almost as powerful building union — that Rich was glad his side had lost.

It had taken a couple of decades for the turnaround in sentiment to be (at least publicly) admitted. And it was a powerful lesson in the beauty of forestalled action — just in case your perspective changes and what you stand to destroy is gone forever. But Jack Mundey, who passed away last month, left a much bigger legacy than The Rocks. He led the fabulously named “green bans” movement (see box below) where union members refused to work on or demolish buildings and areas of historic or environmental significance.

Mundey later became a well-known mascot for developers wanting to show they cared about the environment, and community groups alike, fighting a number of modern battles right up to the recent campaign to save the Sirius building demolition, which was successful — though the social housing residents whose homes Mundey also wanted to save, were moved out.

Mundey’s best legacy, though, was that he showed that strong humane, social and environmental causes could unite people across political and social boundaries. Nature Conservation Council chief executive officer Chris Gambian said, “Mundey was a visionary who understood that the struggles for social justice and environmental justice are part of the same broader project — to preserve human dignity in the face of unconstrained development. “Thanks to Mundey and the Builders Labourers Federation that he led, and the countless citizens who supported their principled stand, many priceless jewels of Sydney’s built heritage and foreshore bushland were saved from the developer’s wrecking ball and preserved for future generations.”

Jeff Angel, director of the Total Environment Centre (TEC) and the Boomerang Alliance, said: “Jack was a world-leading pioneer of the green bans that saved so much of our historic and natural heritage and, as importantly, paved the way for unions joining with the grass roots in suburbs and cities. Through his actions over many decades after the tumultuous 1970s, he elevated the environment protection message across the political and community spectrum — jobs and environment do go together in the pursuit of sustainability and equity.”

Courtesy of The Fifth Estate

How the green bans shaped Sydney

Green bans were synonymous with the 1970s in Sydney. The movement was initiated by construction workers employed to build a burgeoning number of high-rise offices, shopping malls and luxury apartments. Many became concerned that these developments were encroaching upon the city’s green spaces and heritage buildings. In response, the construction workers refused to work on environmentally or socially undesirable projects. And so, the green bans movement was born — the first of its kind in the world.

There were three principals underpinning the green ban movement: to defend open spaces from urban development; to protect existing housing stock from being replaced by freeways or skyscrapers; and to prevent older-style buildings from being turned into office-blocks or shopping precincts.

Sydney’s construction workers were led by the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF). By 1970, the organisation — under the leadership of Jack Mundey, Joe Owens and Bob Pringle — advanced a “new concept of unionism”, one that advocated for the construction of socially useful and environmentally friendly developments. The union worked in conjunction with environmental organisations, as well as resident action groups, to protect against over-development and in defence of open spaces. High-rise residential developments planned for Waterloo, Earlwood, Bankstown, Mascot, and Matraville all received green bans as public housing authorities began to emulate CBD developers and build ever upwards.

Importantly, there was also an emphasis on preserving working-class residential areas from attempts by developers to “gentrify” communities. In one case, the BLF not only defended the rights of the urban poor, but — notably — brought about the first successful Aboriginal land rights claim in Australia when, in December 1972, the union placed a ban on the demolition of “empty” houses occupied by Indigenous Australians in Redfern.

In total, more than 50 green bans were imposed in NSW, most in Sydney. About half of these saved individual buildings or green spaces from disappearing; the other half thwarted mass development projects, saving Sydney from much cultural and environmental destruction. As the Sydney Morning Herald reported following Mundey’s death: “It is not exaggerating to say that the BLF is responsible for the shape of Sydney as we now know it.”