Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Classic book: Green Bans, Red Union

Camille Barbagallo looks at Green Bans, Red Union: environmental activism and the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation, by Meredith and Verity Burgmann

January 7, 2014
5 min read

greenbans2013 saw the return of environmental protest camps and demonstrations, with thousands participating in anti-fracking protests in Balcombe and other actions around the country. Considering the depth of opposition and the potential for such movements to intervene into ongoing debates about fuel poverty and sustainable economic development, it is useful to pause and consider what and who might actually be able to stop fracking. Such questions take us beyond the symbolic realm of actions aimed at raising awareness and pose the possibility of certain people – actual bodies – stopping fracking.

Community members who are opposed to fracking can and currently are physically blockading the site to stop the trucks. This strategy can be successful; indeed blockades and sabotage have long and successful histories in bringing about change. However, the strategy requires full-time activists and often prohibits those involved from carrying on other necessary tasks such as going to work or taking the kids to school. The other set of bodies that can stop fracking immediately and with staggering efficiency are the workers in the mining industry. Construction workers who joined the Balcombe protests explicitly raised this point, but it is still hard to envisage a situation where residents and drill site workers are organising side by side.

That this option seems utopian reveals much about the failures of green and red alliances both here in Britain and around the world. The possibility of workers engaging in industrial action that goes beyond their immediate industrial conditions and takes a leap into the ‘social’ reminds us – painfully – how far things have deteriorated with regards to what counts as union activity.

Which is why Green Bans, Red Union, which details the radical history of the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation in 1970s Sydney, Australia, is a bit like reading a left-wing fairy tale. A trade union, whose leaders were from the rank and file, who were politicised through social movements and communist politics, and who set about consciously to radically change not only the internal organisation of their union but the very notion of what ‘being union’ meant. The book outlines in well-researched detail the story of one of the most militant, effective and impressive chapters of Australia’s trade union history. Set against a backdrop of a booming inner-city construction industry and Sydney fast becoming a concrete jungle, the NSW BLF trade unionists, under the leadership of Jack Mundy, emerge as formidable yet immensely likeable characters.

Perhaps most strikingly, the story of the NSW BLF is one in which not just the form but the content of the union politics is almost unrecognisable in today’s industrial landscape. Key to understanding its successes in improving wages and conditions in the industry and its ability to effect wider social change are the initial processes of democratisation that the leadership implemented. These included limited tenure for union officials, open speaking lists at meetings, mass meetings on site to debate union policy, union officials’ wages capped at industry wage levels and officials forgoing their own wages when members were on strike.

The book pays particular attention to the important internal history and organisational change that occurred under Mundy’s leadership. It presents a convincing argument that it was these changes and the willingness to fight around workers’ dignity, as well as wages and conditions on site, that provided the necessary base of support for the union leadership to push for members to see their working class interests as being connected to broader movements such as environmentalism and Aboriginal and LGBT rights.

The NSW BLF tactic known as ‘green bans’ began when a group of community activists desperate to save Kelly’s Reserve, a green space in a middle class area of Sydney, approached the union for support. In response the union agreed to place the area under a ‘green ban’. No union labour would be used in the development of the area and hence, while forgoing the possibility of work, the workers were also actively casting themselves as decision makers as to the kind of city that was worth living in. Considering the level of class consciousness and sheer courage that so many builders’ labourers displayed during the height of the NSW BLF, it is little wonder that the building industry, government, developers and right-wing elements internally all colluded to undermine and eventually bring an end to a truly extraordinary working class tale.

Make no mistake, the green bans and the array of other bans – including a ‘pink ban’ on building works at a NSW University put in effect until the management reinstated a gay student in the student dorms – are not mere acts of solidarity. They are also the moment that labour conceives of its actual power within capitalism and acts to abolish the divisions that keep us pitted against those with whom we should be working together. In the words of the NSW builders’ labourers, ‘We built this city and we can shut it down.’

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


4