We know that union members have long campaigned for better pay and conditions. But did you know they’ve also fought to help protect green spaces, ecosystems…and some of our most beloved heritage buildings?
It all started here in Melbourne, on a patch of public open space in Carlton, which developers wanted to turn into a Kleenex factory and residents wanted to keep it as parkland for their community. Enter: the members of the Builders Labourers Federation, who showed solidarity with the residents by refusing to construct the factory. The developer even tried to bribe union leader Norm Gallagher. Norm and his comrade Mick Lewis were arrested for their role in the black ban. Normie did 3 weeks, Mick did 7 days. But eventually, everyday people triumphed. Norm and Mick were released…and the space was turned into public parkland which they named Gallagher Reserve.
It was the mighty beginnings of what became known as the Green Ban movement.
Unions in Melbourne and Sydney put the question to their rank and file members:
Do you want to live in cities, devoid of parks, trees, accessible housing and heritage buildings?
Up in Sydney, a group of women fought against construction giant AV Jennings’ plans to destroy bushland in Hunter’s Hill. The BLF not only banned work from that site, they also walked off the job on all the other AV Jennings sites around town – and it worked. The government was so threatened by the power of this multi-site solidarity, they brought in secondary boycott laws in 1977 to stop it from happening again.
Meanwhile back in Melbourne, when the council tried to redevelop the historic Queen Vic market, the people yet again fought back. Then there was the time the council tried to sell the Regent Theatre -and found some architects to attest the building had no heritage value. Again, the people got organised and union workers refused to demolish it.
And speaking of dirty mits, a little-known fact is that lots of union organisers used to take a morning dip in the Melbourne City Baths. So when the council tried to demolish yet another beloved historic building of Melbourne, the swimmers got organised yet again.
Union workers and community groups also triumphed in saving the Windsor Hotel from demolition in 1976 and protected Melbourne’s beloved Botanical Gardens from copping an all-night restaurant and carpark. All around the country, green bans helped save special places from development and demolition.
And here’s another little-known fact about the green bans…when a young German activist named Petra Kelly came to Sydney in the mid 70s and saw the success of their environmentally-focussed, democratic, political action she returned to Germany with Jack Mundey, who was a key activist and leader of the NSW’s Builders Labourers Federation and before long, Petra introduced green bans activism there. She went on to start up ‘The German Green Party’ in 1979 – which is thought to be the first ever Greens party in the world!
So as we know, from little things, big things grow.
The green bans represents working people fighting for greater economic democracy - for the right to determine how their labour is used, and the impact it has on the environment and the community. It was about everyday people coming together not just to improve their own working lives, but to change the world for the next generation.