Taming the concrete jungle, 1973
Source: Australian Building Construction Employees and Builders Laborers Federation, NSW branch, July 1973
Source: Book, 135pp, July 1973
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter
The National Times in 1972 described NSW builders labourers as Sydney’s “social conscience”. The British weekly Guardian has said Jack Mundey, NSW secretary of the union, could claim to be “Australia’s most effective conservationist,” and it went on:
“Middle-class groups are a little embarrassed at having to turn to a rough-hewn proletarian Communist to protect their homes (and values) from flats and motorways, and their theatres and pubs from office developers. But approach him they do.
An architect, in a letter of appreciation to the union’s NSW office, described the union as “the last line of defence against the pack-raping of things of quality”.
This has been part of the recognition of NSW builders labourers’ actions, mostly by bans on demolitions, and also bans on certain constructions — to preserve history, people’s homes and what remnants survive of a gracious and natural environment. What builders labourers have done on this has, more than anything else, made their union so tall in public prestige and has won for it a respect of a character never before accorded to a union.
Issues of the environment, conservation and preservation have been rising in importance in the community’s mind in Australia, as elsewhere. Public concern has grown as big business marauders’ course of demolition and destruction has quickened, and as authorities have stood indulgently aside.
An article by Eugene Sochor circulated internationally as a United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation feature dealing with problems of preservation or development in various countries, said: “The destruction of old quarters is not inevitable, but is often the result of widespread ignorance, indifference or, worse still, real estate speculation.”
A British consultant with UNESCO, Graeme Shankland, has said: “A city without old buildings is like a man without a memory.”
Some countries have taken positive action. In France, laws to preserve structures recalling the history of France may apply to whole areas, such as the Marais quarter of Paris. Owners can be compelled to do work necessary for preservation, or the minister for cultural affairs may take over a building if the owner is misusing or neglecting it. In return, owners receive various benefits.
In England, when a building is scheduled for preservation, funds are made available for its restoration and upkeep.
But in New South Wales and most other parts of Australia, history and the environment are elbowed aside by the dollar.
Sydney architect Norman Edwards wrote in the National Times in July 1972 that, in Australia, “progress is defined as newness for its own sake, and the consequence of this environmentally is that of bushland bulldozed out of existence, of polluted rivers, and of fine old buildings and streets ripped up for the urgency of turning over a fast million bucks.”
Mr Peter Keys (a federal councilor of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects) wrote in late 1972 that every building of historic importance in Australia is in danger of being demolished. This could happen because state governments had no legal rights to stop owners from pulling down their buildings. He said also:
Of course, the cost of preserving these buildings must be weighed against the need for continued economic growth … But it seems the powers that be in this country think economic progress and growth are related to demolition and erecting multi-storey buildings.”
The Sydney Strategic Plan, calling for measures to preserve places and structures of historic or architectural significance, noted wryly:
“The history of Sydney is unique to Sydney, and its old buildings, precincts, structures and details are the physical expression of this history … An invaluable part of the city is being destroyed through redevelopment and there is a real danger that Sydney will become a faceless city because the buildings that are replacing the old ones are more and more international in style and homogenous in appearance … Economic pressure for redevelopment is strong and economic incentives for preservation are weak.
Mr G.J. Dusseldorp, head of the Lend Lease empire, has said that preservation of old buildings is a matter for public conscience. Developers, he said, should work within the framework of society’s ideals but these should be known in advance; there should be a national schedule of buildings to be preserved. He has suggested a government panel equipped with powers on this.
But establishment of a government panel is not any whole answer. One can imagine what sort of a panel would be chosen by, for instance, the Askin government in NSW.
The director of the National Trust in NSW (Mr R.N. Walker) said in 1972 that the trust “is pursuing every avenue properly available to it to secure the enactment of adequate legislation to protect historic buildings.”
But the NSW government, so sensitive to the interests of the developers, has sat on its hands in inaction. The iron ball of demolition kept on swinging, unimpeded’ Until the Builders Laborers Federation moved in.
The union’s initial intervention in NSW was over the Kellys Bush issue.
Kellys Bush is a much-loved surviving piece of natural bushland on the Parramatta River in elegant Hunters Hill. The A.V. Jennings group got its hot eyes on it and, with state government connivance, it planned to move in there with home-unit construction.
Local people and others were aghast. They protested in every way they could devise — meetings, deputations, petition, newspaper items, the lot. But to no avail. In desperation, they sought union aid, and they got it.
Building unions, including the Builders Laborers, were among those who responded. The Jennings group was warned that, if it persisted with desecration at Kellys Bush, it could face a ban on all its Sydney projects, which would be left stark and uncompleted as memorials to Kellys Bush. The threat was effective; Kellys Bush survives, in testimony to that. Parkland remains where otherwise stone and concrete would have taken over.
The next case was Eastlakes. Parkes Developments zeroed in on some remaining green land there; they intended to build more home units on it. Eastlakes people were indignant; the existence of this parkland, they said, had been one of the inducements used to attract some of them to move into Eastlakes units.
Faced with the threat to the parkland, they turned to the Builders Laborers, which put a ban on the project. Again, it succeeded. The parkland is still parkland.
A unionist coined a happy phrase for such bans to save natural bush and park. “They’re not black bans,” he said; “they’re green bans.”
Next came one of the most dramatic and significant of the union’s bans: the ban that checkmated a project to dismember Sydney’s Rocks area for the sake of a $500 million redevelopment, much of it for foreign interests, into commercial skyscrapers.
The Rocks area lies at the heart of Sydney’s history from the time of the First Fleet. This stubby finger of land, on the western side of Circular Quay, stretches to the tip of Dawes Point (which is now beneath the southern end of the Harbour Bridge).
It was Australia’s first colonised settlement, and was seen by Governor Phillip as the cradle of the new colony. A ship’s surgeon at that time wrote (as recalled by Charles Sriber in a 1972 Sydney Morning Herald article) about “the stupendous rocks … hanging over in a most awful manner from above and forming the most commodious quays by the water.” Settlers built wherever they could find a flat piece of ground: wattle and daub huts, and buildings of sandstone quarried almost on the spot.
It grew in a haphazard cheerfulness that was the delight of most but the despair of the predecessors of today’s civic officialdom. Wrote one of these in the latter 1880s:
How can you expect righteousness when one householder … is using as his backyard the roof of his neighbour’s house placed low in the street behind; or does it make for riches when the roadway suddenly narrows to a cart’s width and this man is growing roses in what should be the centre of the street?
Seamen from graceful clippers and from fouled whalers came to The Rocks for their sprees after savage months at sea. They were welcomed at such pubs at The Sailor’s Return and The Ship & Mermaid, where Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London stayed when in Sydney.
Some of the taverns around The Rocks and Circular Quay in the early days weren’t the best places for a seaman to do his boozing. When he came to, he might be out to sea on some strange ship bound for a faraway port — victim of a gang recruiting for a short-handed crew).
Times and ways have changed, but The Rocks remains rich in community spirit. Its pubs still carry names associated with long-gone personages and events: the Hero of Waterloo (built originally as a dwelling in 1804 and then, as a pub, named amid the exuberance about the final defeat of Napoleon on that Belgian battlefield in 1815), Lord Nelson (he came to his end at Trafalgar in 1805), Fortune of War, and Palisade. The convict-built Holy Trinity Garrison Church still stands as Australia’s oldest church, where officers and lesser mortals of the NSW Corps attended in between their other and less godly doings in a colony where rum was once the currency and the NSW Corps controlled the rum. The village green of Argyle Place and its drinking fountain are still there.
Cedric Flower has written: “To walk through the West Rocks is to experience a breath of calm, it restores our sense of balance, gives back our human scale, allows past hands to touch ours.”
The rows of terraced houses, monuments to the past, remain to help preserve the close-knit neighbourliness of those who live in The Rocks, some of them from families, which — like that of The Rocks Residents Group secretary Mrs Nita McCrae — have been there for generations and can conceive of no other place as home.
Newcomers, too, quickly feel the spirit of The Rocks community. A migrant woman told one of the public meetings in The Rocks: “When I came to Australia, I felt a stranger. But then I came to live in The Rocks and I found new friends all around me.”
Then, trampling into all of this came the monster of development. The state government, owning The Rocks, set up its Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority, headed (in deference to the bygone NSW Corps?) by a former army colonel.
The attractions of The Rocks as a site for profitable development were hawked around the world. The prospects made some foreign interests drool. Plans were initiated for a program with a first stage of some $50 or so million and to cost altogether about $500 million, including 40 and 50 storey towers, an international hotel and other ugliness rearing high.
Some of the historic spots and terraced homes were to be preserved — but not for people who now live in The Rocks; homes were to be restored as suites for professional men, and any history retained was to be virtually some sort of quaint and gimmicky annexe for the hotels and gaunt commercial high-rise.
Tenants in the East Rocks were told they’d have to go. Many left. But then remaining Rocks people rebelled. They asked for, and got, a ban by the Builders Laborers on any demolition or other work connected with the scheme.
The Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority tried to push ahead and to bust through the ban. On January 24, 1972 — two days before the anniversary of the First Fleet dropping anchor so near to The Rocks in 1788 — early in the morning residents heard bulldozers rumbling into destructive action.
In outraged indignation, some 30 locals, mostly women, rushed out and sat in the path of the bulldozers and trucks. As an added buttress, they moved a station wagon also into the way. And they called up the unions.
In response, the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemens Association, whose members operate bulldozers, joined the Builders Laborers in the ban, and prevented a resumption of the bulldozing. Australia’s biggest union, the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union, also joined the ban, Other unions, including the Building Workers Industrial Union, have declared their support for the residents.
The government and its Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority have tried in a variety of ways, — some of them subtle, some crude — to penetrate or get around the ban. There have been sugared approaches to tenants. There have been threats. There have court proceedings. But the ban stays.
Residents themselves have been resolute and spirited, and have taken their campaign out widely into the Sydney community. In one of its leaflets, The Rocks Residents Group said:
The buildings of The Rocks are part of our history. They can never be replaced. They belong to all Australians …
Planning is for people and progress, not for profiteers, politicians and pollution.
It acknowledged that, “once again, in the face of the usual apathy, inaction and favoritism of the Askin government,” it had been left to unionists “to show leadership in protecting our citizens and their historic buildings”.
Another of The Rocks Resident Group’s leaflets, calling for protests, asked people at large:
Do you want a city with a dead heart, a concrete jungle, increased noise and air pollution? … If you are concerned about the past, present and future of Sydney, you must act now.
The Australia Party candidate for Sydney in the December 1972 federal election, Allan Sorrensen, said in a leaflet that The Rocks community was the guardian of the national heritage of all Australians. He said the Askin government, the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority and the faceless developers were indifferent to social upheaval to families and destruction of the community spirit of The Rocks, overloading of transport and other essential services, and “cramming people into high-rise slums, like chooks in a battery farm.”
From a public meeting in The Rocks in October 1972, a Rocks People’s Plan Committee, including architects and others well-qualified for the task, set out to examine what was known of the authority’s redevelopment plan and to put forward a people’s plan. By hard work, it was able to publish its plan on the day of the annual Rocks celebration in April 1973, when the people cheerfully take over and the Hero of Waterloo and the other pubs are almost burst in the crush of hundreds, in happy carnival mood.
After seriously examining the options, the People’s Plan came out in favour of maintaining The Rocks as an integrated residential and historic area, separated from the functions of the central business district of Sydney. Any new development, it said, “should be either infill or replacement of derelict buildings and should conform to the style and mass of the area”.
The objectives of the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority, the People’s Plan said, should be redrawn so as to revitalise the area through a return of residents, an injection of cultural and entertainment centres, and an extensive program of historic preservation. The operations of the authority, it said, should be opened up, and full and ongoing consultation instituted between the authority and residents, tenants and interested citizens.
It said the future planning of The Rocks should be a co-operative endeavour of the planners and public, in place of secretive conflict and bad feeling. Decisions made about the future of The Rocks should involve as fully as possible, “and even to the point of veto”, those who now live and work there or who will come to live there over the next years. Earlier, in 1972, a report by the NSW Division Committee of the Royal Australian Planning Institute said:
The Rocks area is not a privately owned piece of real estate to be exploited in the most profitable way. The land in question has been acquired or is controlled by the government on behalf of the people of New South Wales. It is part of the national heritage, paid for many times over by the generations since the continent was first settled.
The NSW branch of the Builders Laborers said that it agreed with the conclusion of the Institute that the state government was sidestepping the moral issue; that is, to use the land in the way that would bring the greatest benefit to the most people. This, it said, “implies the same courage and foresight as must have been exercised by early decision-makers in this state, when areas such as Hyde Park, the Domain and Centennial Park were set aside for public use and enjoyment in perpetuity”.
The Askins and the developers huff and puff, and the Sydney Morning Herald and other dailies write venomous editorials against the union ban. But The Rocks still lives. Workers and their families are still there. They don’t intend to go, and the Builders Laborers and other unions are right beside them.
During 1972 and onwards, the Builders Laborers, and often the FEDFA, were called on for a succession of other bans. They responded. In every case, the ban imposed was at the request of residents or other concerned people. The unions were meticulous not to intrude, unasked. (Not that this stopped the Sydney Morning Herald and others from accusing them of intruding).
One such ban was to save the lovely Sydney Botanic Gardens — with their profusion of trees, shrubs and plants — from the effects of an underground car park project, dreamed up in the last stages of that massive saga of Opera House construction. The idea was that the AMP Society (whose insurance money takes it into a vast complexity of industrial and commercial undertakings) would build a $4 million car park excavated beneath the Botanic Gardens.
This project would, for a start, have doomed three venerable giant Moreton Bay fig trees. More than this, fumes from the cars going into and out of the underground parking area could extensively damage the gardens. But, in the government’s thinking, gardens for the people were rated subordinate to cars for those who can afford the Opera House prices.
The Builders Laborers’ help was invoked. It laid down conditions for doing any work connected with the project: the Moreton Bay fig trees must be saved and effective measures must be taken to ensure that the health of other gardens flora not be jeopardised. Unable or unwilling to comply, the government gave in. In August 1972, the plan for the underground car park was shelved. The government had to devise an alternative proposition.
The Botanic Gardens thrives, saved from the car park threat.
About the same time, the Builders Laborers Federation found itself in another eyeball-to-eyeball conflict with the Askin government; this time over Moore Park and Centennial Park.
The Askin government got enthusiastic over a notion to try to have the 1988 Olympic Games in Sydney. In some sort of a brainstorm, the government conceived the idea of using the Moore Park-Centennial Park area, to the south of Sydney city, for a grandiose sports complex for the Games.
There were immediate and strong objections. Some were on the grounds of the unsuitability of the location, because of transport and other problems. Others, even more emphatic, were because the project would commandeer acres of natural parkland.
The Save the Parks organisation wrote:
These parks already suffer from the effects of too many visiting cars and too much noise pollution and would suffer further irretrievable loss from the destruction of breathing space and greenery, including many ancient Moreton Bay figs lining Anzac Parade. It means chaos and the permanent downgrading of all nearby residential suburbs.
The western suburbs have a crying need for this very same sporting complex. In that area, there are several relatively uncongested sites available, adjacent to railways (the present site is not) which would actually benefit from this plan. These other sites are not beautiful parks and playing fields. They are not, as are Moore Park and Centennial Park, used by thousands of terrace-house inner-city suburbanites with inadequate gardens or growing room for children.
We must stop this plan. For everyone’s sake. It’s the right idea in the wrong place.
It asked: “A lot of park, or a parking lot?”
As in other campaigns, the support of the Builders Laborers was sought. The union responded with another of its green bans. Jack Mundey was one of those selected to move a resolution at a Sydney Town Hall public discussion on the project. Others on the list selected to move or second resolutions included Mr Neville Wran QC MLC (Opposition Leader in the Legislative Council), Professor Neil Runcie (Save the Parks Campaign president), writers Patrick White and Kylie Tennant, Miss Anna Katzmann (Sydney Girls High School captain), and Mr Andrew Jakubowicz (secretary of the Planning for People Campaign, Surry Hills). Others involved included the Mayors of Bankstown, Liverpool, Penrith and South Sydney — pointing to areas with alternative sites available. Entrepreneur Harry M. Miller and naturalist Vincent Serventy were among speakers at a rally in Centennial Park itself before the Town Hall meeting.
Feeling the hot, angry breath on the back of its neck, the Askin government got out from under. In June 1972, it announced the appointment of Mr Walter Bunning, Sydney architect and town planner, to investigate the submissions on the project: an investigation that obviously should have been carried through before, and not after, the government made a decision.
The upshot was a vindication of the public protest campaign. The Bunning report recommended that any such Games complex should be built not in the Moore Park-Centennial Park area but in the Homebush area, which is what the campaigners had advocated.
Another campaign, in which Actors Equity, the Builders Laborers’ Federation and the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen’s Association were involved, ran up against the Lend Lease empire, headed by Mr G.J. Dusseldorp. Lend Lease, together with the MLC insurance company, had an inner-city development project that involved a lot of demolition. One building marked for destruction was the Theatre Royal, with its historic and sentimental links going back far into last century.
The campaign to save the Theatre Royal brought together in common activity people from right across the social and political stage: a judge, Liberal Party and Australia Party and Labor Party people, and communists and others from trade unions. They pulled together in concerted effort. An attempt by Mr Peter Coleman, a Liberal MLA far over to the right, at one public meeting to redbait against Jack Mundey rebounded against himself.
In the end, it was not possible to save the Theatre Royal from demolition. But the pressure had been so strong that Lend Leases’s Mr Dusseldorp bent to it and promised to erect a new theatre (to be named the Theatre Royal, to maintain the lineage of Theatre Royals in that area). It would seat at least 1000, it would be devoted to live professional theatre, with preference to performances using local talent, only an “economic” rent would be charged (that is, a minimum rent related to costs), and so on.
Actors Equity, as one of the initiating forces in the campaign, applauded the outcome. In a pointed comment on Sydney’s lack of theatres, an Actors Equity spokesman said that, with the rebuilding of the burnt-out Her Majesty’s and now the promised rebirth of a Theatre Royal, Sydney’s three million people might by the end of 1973 have two working city theatres — “one more than Hobart.”
Another campaign was for preservation of Sydney’s historic Pitt Street Congregational Church, self-styled as “the church with a heart in the heart of the city”. The National Trust rated this church as “a highly significant building” and strongly recommended its preservation. But the church leaders had plans for demolition and a redevelopment, to include a high-rise office block, restaurant, and other amenities, as well as a chapel and church offices.
In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Mundey said that the union’s members would not demolish the building. He went on:
If architects, engineers and building workers combine to preserve a little of our history, people in the future will be grateful for our belated action. In the building industry, we will strive to continue to make our presence felt, not only in our members’ interests but in the interest of the general public as well.
The church’s minister, the Rev J. Bryant, said the office block and other aspects of the redevelopment were needed to provide the “financial sinews” that were “necessary for the church to minister to the people.” Demolition, redevelopment, money, for sacred purpose.
As well as its social and environmental significance, the affair had its piquant aspects. On the one hand, church leaders were wanting to knock down the church; on the other hand, a union with a communist secretary was intervening to preserve the church. A Molnar cartoon in the Sydney Morning Herald had Jack Mundey saying to the Rev J. Bryant: “Nothing personal, you understand; actually I’m an atheist.”
The campaign got results. A satisfactory alternative plan was devised, to save the church.
Another union ban saved from demolition what used to be Jim Buckley’s Newcastle Hotel, in downtown George Street on the fringe of the Rocks area and for long a lively haunt of artists and young people. Following the ban, it stayed in business for months after it was originally supposed to close its doors and, although it is now no longer operating as a hotel, the building remains.
In Canberra, the Builders Laborers Federation barred an attempt by the McMahon government’s Interior Minister (Ralph Hunt) to demolish Reid House hostel to make way for a car park. Canberra’s Labor MP Kip Enderby (now Interior Minister in the Whitlam government) and others urged that it be retained for temporary student accommodation, and the Builders Laborers Federation backed them with a ban on demolition. The union said that the only way that Minister Hunt could get it demolished would be to do it himself. Mr. Hunt chose not to do so.
Other bans imposed by the Building Laborers in response to approaches to it have kept demolishers away from a variety of Sydney buildings.
At one point in 1972 the list of union bans covered the Rocks project, Opera House car park, Moore Park-Centennial Park sports complex, construction of high-rise buildings on single blocks at Botany, and demolitions of the Pitt Street Congregational Church, Regent Theatre, three gracious buildings in the Martin Plaza area (ANZ Bank, National Mutual, and Colonial Mutual), Lyndhurst (a historic Glebe house threatened by an expressway) and many others.
The union’s branch executive secured from the environment committee of the NSW Chapter of the Institute of Architects a National Trust list of about 1700 historic buildings and declared that the union would not demolish any of these.
In 1973, residents of Woolloomooloo appealed to the Builders Laborers to stand with them against a massive redevelopment scheme there.
Woolloomooloo, adjoining Kings Cross and sloping down to Woolloomooloo Bay, has been called “the most Sydney-like place in Sydney”. Poets Victor Daley and Christopher Brennan lived there. Artists have painted adornments on brick walls; the nine in a house number has been made into a many-toothed face.
Sydney Morning Herald writer Helen Frizell, in a sensitive piece, wrote:
Politicians, planners and developers, who are tearing the heart out of Sydney, are tearing the hearts out of its people.
Go down to Woolloomooloo. Walk its streets. Talk to the men, women and children who live there. Hear of the hurt that they feel over what is happening to their suburb. See — and do not disbelieve — the tears in an old man’s eyes as he speaks of demolished houses, of lost friends driven from the ’Loo by the spread of development.
Most of all, sense the bitterness, the anger, the mateship of these Woolloomooloo people as they fight to preserve their area, and within it their own way of life.
A Woolloomooloo Residents Action Group (WRAG) was formed. Its secretary was a lively young Roman Catholic priest, Father Edmund Campion. They fought to keep the ’Loo residential, to save it for the people and not let it be devoured by a vast tower development, an associated office project and other plans. The Federated Engine Drivers and Firemens Association and the Builders Laborers Federation responded, with bans, to WRAG appeals.
The outcome was an announcement in July 1973 by a company spokesman that the $400 million Woolloomooloo scheme had been abandoned. A company director referred to there having been “new thoughts about the scheme after considering residents’ opposition and the ban on demolition at Woolloomooloo by the Builders Laborers Federation.”
In another episode, in Woollahra, residents plus the Builders Laborers Federation halted demolition of Helen Keller House by the Royal Blind Society.
Helen Keller House and houses around it had a National Trust C classification (”considerable interest” and should be retained) and a higher rating for them was possible. But the Royal Blind Society, in association with a developer, intended to demolish Helen Keller House and to replace it with new buildings to increase the society’s income. Demolition had already started when, alerted by an urgent phone call, union organiser Joe Owens got there and had it stopped — and also got tarpaulins for protection of places where the demolishers had begun. Community-union solidarity won. The society backed off from its intention to knock down Helen Keller House.
Other examples of Sydney bans include those on demolitions for the Western Distributor roadway and for the eastern expressway. The union rates people’s homes as more important than more roadways for cars and commercial vehicles.
The Builders Laborers involved themselves also in the campaign to save Kings Cross’s picturesque Victoria Street, with its venerable plane trees and long associations with the identity of the Cross. In response to an urgent appeal from those resisting a multi-million redevelopment scheme there, the union put on a ban. The developer was forced to get an alternative plan, much reduced in dimensions. The union ban remained, pending a decision being made by the people concerned as to whether the alternative was or wasn’t acceptable.
An article by Marion Macdonald in The Bulletin in May 1973 said that Sydney development projects worth $2500 million had been halted by “green bans” and “cultural bans”. Two months later an article written by Oliver Harvey and published in the Brisbane Courier-Mail said the union in NSW “has invoked an incredible 36 bans against using labour on projects worth a massive $3000 million because the projects would mean tearing down historic buildings or could violate parklands within metropolitan Sydney.”
There have, too, been builders labourers’ bans for other reasons. One such ban was on new work at Macquarie University. This ban, in June 1973, was over the exclusion of a homosexual student from the Robert Menzies College at the university. A week or so later, a similar ban was put on new work at Sydney University; this ban was in support of the strike by students and staff members in the Philosophy Department over the Professorial Board’s refusal to agree to a course by postgraduate students Elizabeth Jacka and Jean Curthoys on “Philosophical Issues in Feminist Thought”. (The course later got the go-ahead.)
In Victoria, too, some notable successes have been achieved on environmental issues and the defence of the people’s amenities. There was, for example, the Carlton affair. In Carlton, an inner suburb that starts where the city itself leaves off, some land (”big enough for a football field”, says football fan Norm Gallagher, the Builders Laborers Federation federal and Victorian secretary) belonging to the railways was being handed over to private interests. The company concerned wanted a warehouse there for tissues.
At one stage, the projected deal was that a developer would get the land on a 51-year lease (and with an option for another 30 years) for $3000 a year. The developer was to build the warehouse and then get $30,000 a year from the company for the land and warehouse: a handsome margin of profit for little outlay.
But the people thought differently, and got the Builders Laborers to back them. Pickets guarded the site. Men who went there to work despite the pickets even went to the extent of masking their faces. There was a clash between Norm Gallagher and a company man. Police arrested Norm Gallagher, breaking two of his ribs as they did so.
Sentenced to 14 days jail for “assault”, he refused on principle to pay the costs ordered against him. He spent 13 days in jail.
But the land was saved. Instead of it being used for an unsightly warehouse, the railways handed it over to the people of Carlton for use as a park. It is being administered by a people’s committee. One member of the committee is Norm Gallagher.
Then there was the case of the City Baths, at Swanston and Franklin Streets, within cooee of the Trades Hall and the union’s office. It’s on land that would attract hungry eyes. There were rumours that both Ansett and some Japanese interests wanted the land for a motel or some such commercial purpose.
The city council said it was going to close down the baths, as being “uneconomic” — although a check showed that 190,000 people a year used them.
The land on which the baths stand is held by the council under a lease from the Victorian government. Under the terms of this, if the site ceased to be used for the baths, the land would revert to the government — a government which, like the Askin government in NSW, is acutely sensitive to the requirements of the developers and other big business.
On behalf of the protesting people, the Builders Laborers moved in with a ban. The union also let the council know that, until it got adequate assurances, there would be a ban also on the council’s cherished City Square project. The demand put to the council was that either the baths stay as they are, or an Olympic-size public baths, under council ownership and control, be included in any development on the site.
So the baths are still there, in use. The union also banned demolition of the Beaurepaire pool, which the Council had closed (again on the ground that it was “uneconomic”). After the ban, the council offered to build a new indoor all-year pool in place of the one closed. Negotiations around this were proceeding in June 1973.
Earlier, in 1972, the Builders Laborers Federation in Victoria joined in the successful efforts to save Fitzroy’s Blanche Terrace, birthplace of author Henry Handel Richardson, who won worldwide repute for her book The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney.
A property development firm wanted to demolish Nos 169-171 of the terrace to build medical consulting rooms. But protests and threats of a ban succeeded in having the plans revised in order to save and restore the main double-storey section of the houses, including the facade.
The Victorian chairman of the National Trust, Mr Rodney Davidson, wrote to the Victorian secretary of the Builders Laborers, Norm Gallagher, saying that “this result was undoubtedly achieved by the action taken by your union and other organisations”. Councilor Brian Lennon, of Fitzroy Council, wrote to the union saying that its help had been “crucial,” and he added: “If other unions and unionists shared your sense of overall responsibility, our country would have far fewer problems internally and externally.”
An environmental ban by the union in Victoria on a proposed Newport power station brought expressions of appreciation from the Port Phillip Conservation Council and the Williamstown Conservation and Planning Society. A letter from the council said that the fact that some of the union’s members were losing work because of the ban gave it greater cause for gratitude.
In another episode, in mid-1973, the union banned work on a projected factory in Albert Street, East Brunswick. The plans for the factory, for which a home had been demolished, envisaged the factory being built right alongside the weatherboard home of a frail 69-year-old woman pensioner, who has an invalid pensioner son living with her. The factory would, among other things, block the sunlight and natural warmth from her living room.
The woman pensioner has lived in this home for almost 50 years. On being approached, the local council said that the plans for the factory must be altered to move the factory some feet away from the boundary between it and the pensioner’s home. But then, without the woman being told, the company appealed to the State Building Regulations Committee and a referee gave approval for the factory to be built right to the boundaries.
The East Brunswick Progress Association called the Builders Laborers, and the union responded: work on the factory was put under a ban.
In June 1973, to the delight of many, the Victorian branch of the Builders Laborers put a ban on demolition of Melbourne city hotels, so as “to preserve some watering holes for workers”. The old pubs where a man could go in working clothes and get a drink at normal prices, were disappearing, the union said, and they were being replaced by taverns with inflated prices and dress rules. Hence the ban on demolition.
The NSW builders labourers’ bans were in keeping with what was virtually a testament of the union’s social principle, set out in a letter from Jack Mundey to the Sydney Morning Herald in January 1972.
A snide paragraph in the Sydney Morning Herald’s titbits section, Column Eight, had implied that the union was two-tongued in expressing concern about unemployment in the industry and, at the same time, putting bans on projects that could have provided some jobs. In reply, Jack Mundey wrote:
Yes. we want to build. However, we prefer to build urgently required hospitals, schools, other public utilities, high-quality flats, units and houses, provided they are designed with adequate concern for the environment, than to build ugly unimaginative architecturally bankrupt blocks of concrete and glass offices.
Likewise, we wish to build for those aged people who gave their working lives to improve our country only to end up in some pent-up squalid room in the city.
In the whole building industry — both the public and private sectors — there is a crying need for an overall program, not only to arrest the unemployment but aimed at overcoming our building industry’s inadequacies.
The federal government, the Master Builders’ Association and the building unions should meet, not to engage merely in an empty exchange of words but to draw up and implement a meaningful program for 1972 and 1973.
”Though we want all our members employed, we will not just become robots directed by developer-builders who value the dollar at the expense of the environment.
More and more, we are going to determine which buildings we will build. Following our bans on the Eastlakes parkland, where a developer intended to erect more units, our ban on the intended destruction of the last remaining bushland on the Parramatta River at Kellys Bush, and our ban on the Rocks project because the scheme destroys the character of this historic area and ignores the position of the people affected, our union was inundated with congratulatory messages.
People from all walks of life expressed their support for a union not being myopic but truly acting in the real public interest and in the interest of future generations.
This union will stand with the National Trust, forward-thinking architects and engineers to protect buildings of historical or architectural significance. In fact, in future we will refuse to demolish any building so designated by the Trust.
Those of us who build must be more concerned with what we build. The environmental interests of three million people are at stake and cannot be left to developers and building employers whose main concern is making profit.
Progressive unions, like ours, therefore have a very useful social role to play in the citizens’ interest, and we intend to play it.
Some other unions — although not enough of them — have acted on similar principles. In NSW, the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemens Association (with Norm Hockney as its state president and Jack Cambourn as state secretary) has consistently joined in green bans and other bans, notably at The Rocks. The Amalgamated Metal Workers Union (with Frank Bollins as state president and Merv Malcolm as state secretary) is another that has associated itself with such bans.
The NSW branch of the Building Workers Industrial Union has supported such campaigns as those over Kellys Bush and the Rocks. It also put a ban on a projected marina for the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, which would have usurped for private use part of the Kirribilli-Neutral Bay inlet and which aroused strong protests from the public and ferry masters.
The demand for a say in what is to be built has been asserted in other states as well as NSW and Victoria. In Queensland, for instance, Hugh Hamilton (state president of the Building Workers Industrial Union) told a BWIU state delegate convention:
As builders, we must be concerned with what we build and what the buildings are to be used for … Building workers must more and more demand a say in this and take action to prevent our cities from becoming places unfit for humans.
Development must be based on planning for the needs of the people, as against development for a fast buck.
Queensland unions, through the Queensland Trades and Labor Council, have notched up some important successes on issues of ecology and the environment. Black bans halted the Bjelke-Petersen government’s plan to allow oil drilling in the Barrier Reef area (Premier Bjelke-Petersen himself has been shown to be a big shareholder in an oil company, Exoil) and barred mining of the unique Cooloola coloured sands area on the Sunshine Coast north of Brisbane.
In South Australia, plumbers warned of a ban on projects that had objectionable environmental implications or other anti-social features.
In South Australia, too, in another area of union challenge, the builders labourers played a significant part in securing the eventual legislation that eliminated employers’ rights to institute Supreme Court proceedings over industrial disputes.
The builders laborers’ actions on this issue included a refusal to attend a Supreme Court case seeking damages against the union for a black ban. In a subsequent case, a similar refusal was followed by the jailing of the union’s state secretary, Les Robinson, and organiser Ron Owens for ten days for “contempt.” It was after this that the Dunstan Labor government legislated to end employers’ access to the Supreme Court on such matters.
In Western Australia, builders labourers were able to stave off for three months demolition of Perth’s gracious old Esplanade Hotel. When it did eventually go, the union was able to have some parts of it saved from destruction, for incorporation in the new building.
The January 1972 Mundey letter to the Sydney Morning Herald set a cat among the chooks. There were squawks and much fluffing of feathers, as developers and their political friends saw the implications to their cherished fortune-building projects.
When the events of the following months showed how much in earnest the union was in its concern for people and the environment, the voices of the developers and their publicists became hoarse in their desperation. But there were influential voices raised on the side of the union and its principle.
After the Sydney Morning Herald had returned (for want of any valid argument) to its pious protestations of concern over loss of workers’ jobs through bans, answers came from, among others, Professor Neil Runcie and celebrated writer Patrick White. In a joint letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, they wrote:
Your arguments (editorials, August 11 and 14) about the adverse effects of selective black bans, such as those imposed by builders labourers, are inaccurate.
Your view that these bans cause unemployment assumes that earmarked funds for a banned development are not re-employed elsewhere and that available resources cannot be employed elsewhere. Neither of these assumptions is necessarily or even likely to be true, and especially so when government full-employment policies are pursued.
If your views were true, it would make more apparent the selflessness of unions prepared to impose bans of this nature.
The paradox of the existing situation today in Sydney town-planning is that many responsible politicians, from both sides, tacitly welcome industrial action when the authorities are faced with inadequate, unimaginative reports from professional consultants and decisions pressed by rampaging developers.
Note the reaction of politicians themselves to the proposed Moore Park sporting complex, to Opera House parking and the Theatre Royal, quite apart from the Rocks controversy. In professional institutes as well, the low standards of Australian town planning and the relentless urban over-development are causing deep concern, and the authorities are not always able or willing to act.
Witness the recent abortive efforts by the City Council to prevent an Eastlakes-type fiasco occurring in Cook Road, Centennial Park. The developers’ proposals are against not only the wishes of residents in two council plebiscites, an amenities survey, and opinion expressed at public meetings of residents, but are also against the election platform of Civic Reform itself. These same proposals are condemned in the Strategic Plan.
Unfortunately, ill-considered action by the City Commissioners [the three appointed by the NSW government to run Sydney during the period when the city was deprived by the government of a city council] and ineptitude in correcting the situation by the city council have established precedents which developers apparently feel compelled to exploit, irrespective of social costs.
With authorities careless or intimidated or ill-advised, grave responsibility rests with the judgment of a few conscientious citizens. And berating Mr Mundey, who has accepted this responsibility, does nothing to improve town planning, to strengthen councils, to stop reckless over-development, all of which are, after all, the bane of honest politicians and honest civic-minded developers.
Many citizens, Mr Mundey included, must bemoan the demise of the Save Sydney Committee and the limited (but valuable) efforts of the National Trust. The absence of an effective town planning ombudsman is Mr. Mundey’s problem. In the meantime, the black bans provide a breathing space to search for new ideas as the “belated” [that was the ill-advised word used in a Sydney Morning Herald editorial] report of the Royal Institute of Planners on the Rocks shows.
About the same time, Jack Mundey told a pressman:
In no way am I setting up Jack Mundey or our union as adjudicators on what should be built or on what should be demolished. We would prefer the state government to enact legislation to make our actions unnecessary. They could follow the kind of legislation that they have in France, for example.
But, while the vacuum exists, this union will continue to play a decisive part in urban development. We have a role to play and we are going to play it.
Anyone with a conscience has a right to speak up, before it’s too late.>/p>
There are plenty of buildings to be built — schools, kindergartens and creches, homes, hospitals. It would be irresponsible of us to say we would build other things anywhere anytime; we have some responsibility to future generations …
A union should intervene in all issues affecting the worker. It’s no good fighting for the welfare of the worker during his 40 hours of work if other people are going to destroy all the other hours of his week.
The union’s policy is for establishment of a Building Investigations Committee, made up of representatives of architects, the unions and employers. Others could be co-opted to it. This committee would determine which buildings should be erected and what priorities should apply in the public and private sectors of the industry. Its aim would be to serve maximum community needs.
The committee, in the union’s concept, should assess the needs and value of any proposed buildings. It should see that no buildings are undertaken unless they meet the needs of the environment in the areas involved.
Factors to be considered when assessing any proposed development should include:
Are the most urgent needs of the area catered for in this development?
Will the project displace families in the area of development? If so, have the plans been on public display for at least six months before acquisition of any properties? Has the matter been discussed in open forum with the residents? Has adequate reimbursement been offered and accepted?
What changes will the development make to the natural environment? Will any such changes be in the best interests of the future in that area?
Will this development cause any manner of pollution? If so, what measures will be taken to prevent or control it?
What effect will this development have on transport in the area?
Where the development is housing or home units, are adequate parks and playing areas being provided?
The union plan proposes that, where any member of the committee disagrees with a project, this project shall not proceed until such disagreement is withdrawn or alterations are made to the project to the satisfaction of the disagreeing party.
In the meantime, many buildings that earlier were marked for demolition, at The Rocks and elsewhere, still stand. This is to the credit of the initiatives and determined efforts of very many in the community — the resident action groups and so many other principled organisations and socially conscious individuals in all walks of life.
Supplementing the efforts of all these, the union bans have brought muscle and leverage to bear against those who would destroy. After the Kellys Bush victory, the Sydney Sun acknowledged that the people who had battled for a year to save it had, before they turned to the unions, “believed the battle had been lost”.
Sydney architect Norman Edwards, in a newspaper article that referred to Builders Laborers’ interventions, said: “For the first time in Australia, it is being shown that the power of big business to demolish and build where it pleases, despite informed opposition, may be thwarted.”
He saw resort to strikes as extreme. Then he added: “But, in the absence of other effective powers, good luck to the Jack Mundeys.”
Many of those who have written about the actions of the Builders Laborers NSW branch have seen it all in terms of Jack Mundey individually. They have overlooked how others in the leadership, including state president Bob Pringle, and the union’s membership generally, are all involved; that it is the union as a whole doing the things about which they write.
This is not to detract from Mundey’s personal qualities: the freshness and vigour of his ideas, the sharpness of his reflexes on environmental issues, the energies which he brings to the campaigns, and his capacity to express himself with such candour and effectiveness. But, given all this, writings that elevate him individually, in solitary state, embarrass him.
Similarly, the union has played its part in a situation created by community awareness, initiative and resolve. The union’s interventions on social and environmental issues have invariably been at the request of people or organisations that have already been active.
In many of the cases, union intervention has been sought only after residents or others have themselves already gone to the limit of what they could do in resistance to the would-be destroyers. In some instances — such as at The Rocks and in Newcastle, in defence of parkland — women and children had already stood in the way of bulldozers.
Jack Mundey, in a 1973 interview, said that a decision to take action on any given project would mean nothing without the backing of the public; “if the people feel strongly enough against a project, then it simply won’t go ahead, and that’s as it should be”.
In Bologna, northern Italy, under a communist administration headed by Mayor Renato Zanghert, the city’s historic centre is being preserved, protected against building speculation and development, and restored from dilapidation.
Bologna has about half a million people. Projected expansion was expected to lift this beyond the million mark, but the administration has introduced measures that will keep the population to a limit of 600,000 so as to prevent the city from becoming an inflated, inhuman and impersonal sprawl.
In the city’s historic centre, there has been a thorough census of every house, garden and yard as a step towards restoration. The restoration will be done with the same materials as were used when the houses were first built centuries ago.
Small owners who cannot afford the cost of restoration will be given long-term cheap loans.
Landlords who have used properties for speculative aims and who have been responsible for serious dilapidation will lose their properties.
An article in the Sydney Morning Herald in April 1973 on what is being done in Bologna spoke of Bologna’s communist administration’s “huge moral advantage of being able to point out that, while Venice has been ruined and neglected under Christian Democrat rule and Rome reduced to public chaos, Bologna under the communists can deal with the problems of a great historical patrimony as well as with modern urban growth.”