Unions and the fight for the environment

In the 1970s the Builders Labourers’ Federation led inspiring struggles in defence of the natural environment. Emma Torzillo looks at the history of an inspiring struggle when workers took industrial action and declared the social responsibility of labour

IN THE first half of the 1970s, the NSW branch of the Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) successfully pulled off the first green bans in history. The green bans saved green space and historical buildings across Sydney and NSW.

Famous public spaces like The Rocks, Centennial Park and the Botanical Gardens were all saved by the BLFs green bans from becoming packed with skyscrapers, sports stadiums and car parks, respectively.

Woolloomooloo was saved from $400 million worth of high rise commercial buildings, and the demolition of over 100 buildings now heritage listed by the National Trust was stopped.

The strength and militancy of the NSW BLF made these victories possible. With the boom in the building industry and big membership increases the BLF built up the confidence of the rank and file with successful and increasing industrial action. They were also influenced by socialist ideas and drew inspiration from the struggles for liberation going on across the world.

It was the determination of the BLF to fight and win in the workplace that produced a union that could fight and win in political struggles around women’s rights, Aboriginal rights, in the anti-Aparthied movement and for environmental justice.

In a pamphlet distributed by the BLF at that time at the beginning of the 1970s, the leadership of Jack Mundey, Bob Pringle and Joe Owens wrote that:

In a modern society, the workers’ movement, in order to play a really meaningful role, must engage in all industrial, political, social and moral struggles affecting the working people as a whole… In this context, building workers are beginning to demand of governments, employers and architects that buildings which are required by the people should have priority over superfluous office buildings which benefit only the get-rich-quick developers, insurance companies and banks.

The building industry boom

The environmental consciousness in the union developed from their experience of the rapid commercial development of Sydney, particularly in the CBD. They could see the way the priorities and practices of the industry were unsafe for workers on the job, with new technologies and no good safety, but also unsafe for the environment and the communities that were displaced by office buildings, and breathing in the smoke of industry. Green and public space was rapidly being taken over by big business, through the manoeuvering of corrupt local and state government.

The economic boom of the 1960s and 1970s saw a lot of money flow into redeveloping the city centre of Sydney, with big new office buildings and residential towers going up one after the other. New materials and technologies meant that it was possible to build bigger and higher buildings, all needing more and more workers to make it happen fast.

The unskilled labourers who had previously been spread out in small groups around the suburbs, working on house building and low office blocks, found they were suddenly being brought together in the CBD.

These new jobs had no amenities, strange new techniques and dangerous building conditions on skyscrapers when there were few effective regulations, and little desire on the developers part, to protect worker safety.

Body hire was still being practiced: workers would line up before dawn on the street and bosses would drive past and hire them for the day or by the hour – no job security, no conditions, no guarantees about tomorrow.

This meant workers were being made to take high risks with no safety protection or security. But it also meant they had more power than ever before. The complicated steps needed to get high rise blocks up meant that workers could have a major impact on building progress if they acted together and stopped work to demand improvements.

Some moments were crucial – for example, the floor for each level had to be filled with concrete at the same time, because to interrupt the pour and restart it to do the floor in stages would weaken the result. So if labourers downed tools in the middle of a concrete pour, not only did work have to stop at the time, but work would be held up for days.

The 1960s and 1970s saw mounting industrial action and strikes, much of which was coming from inside the construction industry. This successful strike activity demonstrated for workers the efficacy of collective action. The triumph of the 1969 general strike in defence of jailed Melbourne Tramways unionist Clarrie O’Shea effectively removed the threat that industrial courts could use their penal powers against militant unionists. This period showed many unions and workers a more effective way to the path of arbitration and negotiation with government and bosses.

The working environment

The BLF could see first hand that the massive oversupply of office blocks was displacing inner city working class communities. There were 40,000 people on the NSW Housing Commission waiting list, but the government built only 5218 dwellings between 1971 and 1972. In the midst of this crisis, there were 370,000 square metres of unlet office space in Sydney, and 24 per cent of CBD office space was unutilised.

From the experience of the unsafe and unethical practices of the construction industry, the BLF developed a broader environmental consciousness. As early as the mid 1960s, there was concern in both the leadership and rank and file about the environmental destruction caused by commercial development, and the way that this profit driven construction threatened the health and housing of working class people, and the broader public right to green spaces. It was not only bosses clearly implicated in this process, but government also – the NSW state government in particular.

The first big campaign around environmental preservation by the BLF began in 1971. This was the fight to save Kelly’s Bush, a reserve in Hunters Hill.

Kelly’s Bush was left in an estate for the benefit and use of the public, and the last remaining open space in that area. Developer A.V. Jennings, a boss the BLF had had previous experience with, planned to build luxury homes on the site.

A small local residents group had been trying without success to appeal to local and state government to prevent the development.  After months of letter writing, lobbying politicians, contacting local environment groups, holding community barbeques and producing material about the impending destruction, the Battlers for Kellys Bush turned to the union as a “last resort”.

The union debated whether to get involved in protecting land in a suburb where working class people could never afford to live, but decided that this was an important place to draw a line and have a fight over. They got the Battlers to hold a public meeting, which was attended by hundreds of residents. After this show of support, they placed a green ban on the area. When Jennings tried to bring in scab labour, union members on a Jennings skyscraper development in the CBD walked off the job and forced a halt to the Kelly’s Bush project.

The story of the green bans shows the incredible power of working class people to change the very environment around them, and to actually win against big multinational companies and powerful governments. Today we are faced with a battle to stop climate change, against the state and federal governments continued support for coal fired power and their failure to provide good public transport or to invest in renewable energy.

To win against the power of government and big business, we need workers to refuse to build the nuclear and coal power stations, and to force the government to invest for public good. For this to happen, unions need to regain their strength in the workplace.

If environmentalists want to see the same radical green bans today, we need to fight alongside unions to shred WorkChoices, defend the right to strike and stop wage cuts. Environmentalists need to defend Noel Washington and all union organisers targeted by the government if we want workers to be able to have the power to stop climate change.


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