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
“I don’t like unions, but thank you and your union for what you’ve done. Private people are not able to prevent stupid destruction as you have been able to. I am a citizen and it is my trees and my history which are being destroyed without my consent. Thank you for acting for me and others like me.” — <i>A Rydalmere (Sydney) woman in a letter to the NSW branch of the Builders Laborers Federation.</i></p> <p class="> This was one of the scores of appreciative letters that have weighted the mailman’s bag as he gets up to the union’s Room 28 in the begrimed Sydney Trades Hall. Others have appeared in the press.
The letters have come from all sorts of people and from organisations to thank the union for its actions on social and environmental issues. The Glebe Society sent congratulations “on what we consider to be a truly public spirited defence of the parks, trees and environment of Sydney” and said that the union’s stand “has our deep admiration and support”.
A merchant navy officer wrote: “If governments or other authorities can’t act where they should, then responsibility devolves on people such as yourself — and thank you.”
A Double Bay woman wrote when the Botanic Gardens car park ban was in the news:
At a time when state and commonwealth governments do not seem to realise the dangers of environmental destruction, and can only see the profit to be made out of such schemes, it really is heartening to see constructive and decisive action being taken by the unions.
This is really the only way left to the average citizen to express disapproval of events foisted on him by uncaring and mercenary authorities.
A North Sydney woman who wrote a letter of support added feelingly: “Get stuck into the blasted developers.”
A Summer Hill man wrote: “I have been against the idea of black bans … but every recent union black ban has been for causes I thoroughly support.”
The Adelaide Environmental Concern organisation wrote seeking further information on the union’s activities and sending material on its own efforts.
A Rocks man asked if it would be possible for a sufficiently strong organisation to force into the light the facts of just who are behind “development” schemes, and added: “I hope you can persuade other unions to come in too.”
Individuals and organisations have sought union support on a range of issues. One, for instance, asked for any help that could be given to save Lake Pedder in Tasmania. Another asked for union backing of an ALP branch’s efforts to put a limit on Kings Cross high-rise.
All that was part of the torrent of support that came from people: people who, until union intervention, had felt hopeless and despairing but now found the power of workers, organised and well-led.
Writing in the National Times of July 31, 1972, about the builders labourers’ stand on various buildings, Sydney architect Norman Edwards 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.”
An eloquent acknowledgement of the effectiveness of the builders labourers in their actions for conservation was written by Alister Diffey in the January 1973 issue of Antiques & Art Australasia: a publication that might not normally be expected to be writing of the affairs of a trade union. It was a pity that Alister Diffey, like some others, saw the builders laborers’ policies and action all in terms of Jack Mundey, rather than of a trade union in which Jack Mundey is a leader. But, allowing for that blind spot, Alister Diffey wrote perceptively. He said that Jack Mundey:
Is the one person in a position of direct power in Australia who is prepared to use that position and the influence it carries to ensure that the country’s premier city is not pulled down about its inhabitants’ ears and re-erected in steel and glass as a soulless monument to the god of corporate profits.
Many important people; from the Chief Justice of Australia down, pay lip service to the causes espoused by Mr Mundey. They are but paper tigers, alas, since despite the best will in the world, they are inextricably part of the system whose effects they implicitly condemn. A maverick was needed; someone outside the system, with teeth to bite if his bark was ignored. Thus, Jack Mundey.
Alister Diffey wrote also of the enormous changes in attitudes in recent years:
Even four years ago it would have been unthinkable that a man in Mr Mundey’s position and holding his views (remember the days of the Red Menace? Whatever happened to them?) could have had such an influence over such a wide field. Unthinkable, too, that grey-flannelled accountants and their tweed-clad wives would confront bulldozers to preserve a patch of bushland and become activist campaigners to save an old house.
Mr Mundey has come close to being the catalyst of change, and Sydney owes him much.
Then, after speaking of Jack Mundey’s imminent return to work as a builders labourer in the industry, Alister Diffey added:
He will remain a member of the union’s executive body, and hopes also to continue work for the conservation cause. Let’s hope so. We need him.
Some of the groupings that have been helped by the builders laborers have found ways of putting their appreciation into practical effect. One example was in Sydney in May 1973.
One weekend in that month, when the NSW Master Builders Association was spreading its lockout over the permanency issue, green and white posters blossomed on hoardings throughout the city and in various suburbs.
The posters had been produced by the Victoria Street, Kings Cross Resident Action Group, whose fight to preserve gracious Victoria Street was being backed by a builders labourers’ green ban. The posters read:
Green bans. Builders labourers care about people. The BLF wants permanency and union hire. People support the builders’ labourers.
On the following Monday morning, one of the Kings Cross resident group, Wendy Bacon, addressed a builders labourers’ stopwork meeting at the Lower Sydney Town Hall. She said that she spoke for many other residents of the inner city areas who, if it had not been for the builders labourers, would no longer be inner-city residents. She went on:
We will conduct a campaign asking who is it who cares for the people? Is it the master builders and the developers, or is it the builders labourers?
And, when they answer that, we will ask, then who is it — the master builders and developers, or the builders laborers — who deserve the support of the people?
The union was highly appreciative of the support.
But, while people from across a broad range voiced appreciation and gratitude to the union, there were some other voices, frustrated and angry and increasingly vicious. These were voices who — in parliament, in newspaper editorial offices and elsewhere — spoke for the developers, for the pursuit of the sacred dollar, at whatever cost to the life of the community.
In twelve days in August 1972, the Sydney Morning Herald — the haughtiest voice of the establishment — had no fewer than five editorials attacking the NSW builders labourers’ leadership.
In the NSW parliament in November 1972, there were two debates on successive days in the Legislative Assembly to allow members on the government side — and unfortunately, some ALP members — to attack the union and its leadership.
For the past couple of years, the NSW branch of the union has been the target of a sustained and venomous onslaught. This is because the builders labourers and those associated with it are showing that big business’s authority can be effectively challenged. Millionaire corporations’ profits are threatened through the hold-up of giant projects, as at The Rocks, and their cherished power to make all the decisions is frustrated by workers asserting control over the character of the work they do and over social priorities.
Other unions have in the past meritoriously imposed bans on specific political fronts. Examples have included Port Kembla wharfies’ 1937 ban on pig-iron for Japan’s aggressive war machine; maritime unions’ ban against Dutch cargoes intended to help restore colonialism in Indonesia after World War II; seamen’s refusal to crew Australian ships on war missions to South Vietnam, and watersiders’ refusal to handle the Jeparit as it plied to and from Vietnam with war cargoes.
Builders labourers’ bans now inherit these traditions and extend them into a new area of authority.
This is cause for high alarm among those who are used to exercising virtually unquestioned authority in industry and over society. If builders labourers and others are able to assert authority over what they demolish and what they build, where could it go on to from there?
Would workers in the vehicle industry assert a right to social control there, to insist on proper safety and anti-pollution features being built into all cars? Would workers in the food industry compel thorough standards of hygiene and prevent introduction of impurities of any kind?
Would workers in a variety of industries set themselves up as public watchdogs over the prices charged for what they produce, to expose and challenge exorbitant prices imposed by the companies?
Such radical concepts are a threat to the whole ruling class, the whole establishment built around wealth and industrial and social power. The establishment sees the threat and fights it in every way it can.
The attack on the NSW builders labourers seeks to discredit and isolate them and to get rid of their present leadership and policies, so as to reopen the way for the developers’ anti-social projects, and so as also to discourage other unionists from taking up environmental and social causes.
A leaflet issued by the Defend Jack Mundey Committee in November 1972 at the time of contempt of court charges against him said:
The developers’ lobby and their friends — headed by Sir Robert Askin, Mr Peter Coleman [a right-wing Liberal MP] and the Liberal Party — want to get rid of Jack Mundey … The reason? The Builders Laborers, helped by a few other unions, have put a spoke in the developers’ wheel, checking their destruction of Sydney’s environment. Big money is involved.
About the same time, the communist weekly Tribune said:
There is no doubt that developers’ deep desire would be to have Mr Mundey and his colleagues dropped over The Gap or otherwise disposed of, and the union’s militant social conscience with them.
On one occasion, Mr Cutler (NSW Deputy Premier and NSW Country Party leader) even — under parliamentary privilege, of course — called the Builders Laborers Federation and Jack Mundey “traitors to this country” and “traitors to their fellow citizens”. Premier Robert Askin in 1970 was making melodramatic prophecies of “rioting and bloodshed in the streets of Sydney”.
The September 1972 decision of the Askin government to charge Jack Mundey with “contempt of court” was seen by many as a nakedly political and discriminatory action.
On the eve of the opening of the Mundey “contempt” trial in November 1972, a half-page advertisement appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, authorised by Mr Andrew Jakubowicz, of the Planning for People Campaign. It said that the NSW government was avoiding the real issues of the city — the destruction of the historic past, the erosion of open space, the uprooting of people. “The State Government,” it said, “condemns the unions but will not act itself.”
It said organisations at whose request union black bans had been imposed included the Battlers for Kellys Bush, Rocks Residents Group, Eastlakes Residents Committee, Save the Theatre Royal Committee, Save the Parks Campaign, Planning for People Campaign, Centennial Park Residents Association, Mowbray Park Preservation Committee, Save Lyndhurst Committee, Save the Newcastle Committee and Save the Regent Theatre Committee.
The advertisement sounded the call:
Support the Builders Laborers Federation and the other unions. They are under political attack because of their stand on protection of the environment.
We invite the state government to hold a Royal Commission into all aspects of the building industry and into citizen involvement in planning decisions.
The “contempt” charges against Jack Mundey, laid by Askin government Attorney General Keith McCaw, related to statements made by Mundey to a few pressmen. But the attorney-general expressly disavowed any intention of charging those who were responsible for disseminating the statements to possibly millions in a television newscast.
Judge Hope said during the “contempt” trial that, if the Mundey statements were in contempt, the damage done by his making them to those there at the time would be nothing compared with the damage done by disseminating them in the way it was done.
But the government prosecuted only Jack Mundey.
Again, too: more than 550 people, including two members of parliament, signed a declaration that repeated the statements for which the government had charged Jack Mundey. If Jack Mundey was in contempt, so were the 550-odd others who signed the declaration. The NSW government was challenged to prosecute them for doing this. It did not do so; it was only Jack Mundey whom the government — so responsive to the interests of the developers — prosecuted.
The outcome disappointed the government. In his reserved decision. Judge Hope dismissed one of the charges. He found the other proved, but did not impose any penalty other than to require Jack Mundey to pay two-thirds of the government’s costs in the case.
This amounted to a substantial sum, but it was much less than the penalty that some in and around the government had hoped for; after all, contempt charges can bring an unlimited penalty — jail for an indefinite period, a fine of any amount, or both.
Those who had seen the prosecution of Jack Mundey as a way to dispose of him, and to undermine the union’s leadership, saw their hopes fall around their own feet.
The Mundey statements for which he was charged were made at the conclusion of the trial of the union’s state president, Bob Pringle, and ironworker John Phillips for having sawn Sydney Cricket Ground goalposts in protest at the apartheid Springbok Rugby Union visit to Australia in 1971; they sawed the goalposts on the eve of a Springbok match at that ground.
Their defence was that they considered their action warranted in the light of United Nations and other decisions against apartheid and against maintaining sporting and other relationships with apartheid South Africa. Moreover, they offered to pay the relatively small amount they considered was enough to cover the damage to the goalposts. But the government, as in the Mundey case, wanted a scalp.
After a summing-up by Judge Head, the jury convicted Bob Pringle and John Phillips. Judge Head fined them $500 each and put each of them on a $1000 three-year bond.
It was after this that Jack Mundey said the decision in the case was a miscarriage of justice and Judge Head was a racist (Judge Hope dismissed the “contempt” charge laid over that) and that workers’ militant action and threatened further action had prevented Judge Head from sending the two to jail (Jack Mundey was convicted over that statement).
Bob Pringle and John Phillips appealed. Months after the conclusion of the Mundey “contempt” case, the Court of Criminal Appeal (three judges, including the Chief Justice) unanimously quashed the convictions of Bob Pringle and John Phillips and acquitted them. It found that Judge Head had wrongly directed the jury that the two men bore the onus of proof that they reasonably supposed they had a right to do what they did.
So the Askin government failed in the prosecution of Bob Pringle and John Phillips. And it could scarcely look for any credit for having charged Jack Mundey over comments he had made on a case in which the original decision was later upset anyway.
In the propaganda war against the builders labourers and particularly against communist Jack Mundey, the Sydney Morning Herald has contributed lavishly with fiction and folly.
Take this lurid sample from a Sydney Morning Herald editorial of August 23, 1972, about builders laborers:
The pattern of planned violence to disrupt and obstruct democratic union processes and to intimidate, humiliate and discredit union officials is crystal clear. It is the strategy endorsed by the Communist Party of Australia.
Nine days earlier, an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald referred to:
A handful of unionists led by the nose by a member of a party dedicated to social disruption and the overthrow of democratic government … The mass of the unionists concerned are, of course, only the dupes of their leadership.
However hysterical Granny Herald may get about it, there is nothing secret or furtive about the support by the Communist Party of Australia for policies and actions of the builders labourers and of those in other unions who have acted similarly. The Communist Party and the weekly communist newspaper Tribune have given this support consistently.
The NSW branch of the builders laborers acknowledged this warmly in a congratulatory advertisement in Tribune’s 50-year jubilee issue in June 1973. After saying the union in its campaigns had always been able to count on the wholehearted support of Tribune, the branch’s message said:
When we have been hard-pressed and under savage attack from many quarters, Tribune has been staunchly with us, and often has been alone among newspapers in this.
We offer thanks to Tribune and our good wishes for its continuing and invaluable contribution to all progressive efforts and the socialist cause.
The Communist Party has supported the union at times when leaders of all other political parties were disowning its actions.
The Communist Party’s own 1970 congress document, Modern Unionism and the Working Class, raised ideas of radical interventions by unions in areas that hitherto had been the exclusive preserve of employers and their establishment. For instance, that document said:
It is necessary to widen the horizons of trade union work … All matters that concern workers ought to be within the ambit of trade union activities.
It is this concept of unions using their strength to intervene on such matters, and on issues of real authority, which causes the nightmares among those for whom the Sydney Morning Herald speaks.
It may be noted, too, that ideas among communists about work-ins also go back a bit. For instance, a statement that “one of the ways of preventing the massive closures of factories, with the aim of cutting wages and worsening working conditions, could be the occupation of the plant or factory and the continuation of production despite the boss,” was made at the Third World Congress of the Comintern, held in Moscow — in June 1921.
One of the favorite bogeys paraded by politicians and the press against the NSW builders labourers has been the claim that the union’s NSW leaders encourage, even incite, violence against workers and other individuals. The Sydney Morning Herald and others persist with this falsity in the face of explicit repudiations by the union and without their having been able to produce a single factual case to support their charges.
Union statements have consistently rejected any notion of individual assaults. For instance, on May 21, 1971, the NSW branch executive issued a statement saying: “This union is completely opposed to all forms of physical attacks and terrorism on people.” Mass stopwork meetings of the union in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong endorsed the declaration.
Jack Mundey, in a letter answering a Sydney Morning Herald editorial in August 1972, wrote:
This union represents building workers who perform arduous tasks in the least congenial circumstances. The industry is a particularly unstable and insecure one and we have succeeded in recent years in sharply improving the wages, conditions and standing of our members.
The militant actions in the 1970 and 1971 strikes have been greatly distorted. The real position is that no physical violence was perpetrated against a single individual during these strikes.
During the two strikes and following them, we issued invitations to both the premier, Mr Askin, and the then Police Commissioner Mr Allan, to institute a full and open public inquiry into the building industry, land deals and the developers.
The government consistently refused such an open inquiry, where not only allegations of violence could have been raised, but all of the activities of the developers.
Once again, I repeat that no physical violence was initiated by any member of this union and the only slight damage to property arose when foolish employers completely ignored the democratic expression of 10,000 striking builders laborers and attempted to smash the strike with the use of scab labour.
Surely such folly on the part of these few employers was responsible for inflaming the situation, and that small group of employers must bear the heaviest responsibility.
What a strange double standard your newspaper has when it says nought about the Australian conscripts’ blood being split in the futile Vietnam war but is prepared to cry tears of blood over the demolition of a few bricks erected by scab labour.
The point was made also by Jack Mundey in an ABC TV Monday Conference in September 1971. In it, this exchange occurred:
Neal Swancott (The Australian): There was an occasion last year in which a shotgun was wielded by a person from one side or the other … where pickhandles were thrown around; I think it was a job in Blacktown.
Jack Mundey: The shotgun was produced by an employer and a pickhandle was produced by one of the scabs. The vigilantes did not carry any weapons. They just went to the job to enforce the decisions of the workers that the building close down while the strike is on … We make no apology for vigilante activity. After all, we’re out to win the strike. We’re not out to cause harm against any other individual.
But the slanderers persisted. For instance, Peter Coleman, a Liberal MLA and a former editor of The Bulletin (in Sir Frank Packer’s publishing stable), under parliamentary privilege in November 1972, made allegations that vigilantes attacked persons and said that there have been “three or four instances of their activities each week for the last couple of months” (untrue); that destruction of private property had included hospitals (untrue); that on a Strathfield job “a man was bashed into unconsciousness with an iron bar used by one of the gang” (untrue; the only iron bar incident was when one was brandished by a scab against vigilantes); that Mr Ducker of the NSW Labor Council had been “bashed” (untrue; Mr Ducker did not claim any more than that, after a strike meeting of plumbers — not builders labourers — he got a kick); that “it is not uncommon to hear these enforcers or vigilantes or whatever they are, exchanging so-called funny stories about how they chased the wogs off the premises” (untrue) and that the union’s executive is (wait for it) “racist“.
Ignorant rubbish — but it got headlined publicity.
It’s different when there are assaults on officials of unions by employers or foremen, as has been happening with increasing frequency. These don’t rate a mention in the press.
In 1972, in the course of their legitimate union activities, four builders labourers and BWIU officials were at various times physically attacked by employers. Builders labourers NSW president Bob Pringle was twice assaulted, on one occasion being king-hit and having his nose broken.
Newspapers suppressed news of these attacks.
In clashes over demolitions at Glebe for the Department of Main Roads, a demolisher threatened to “blow the guts out” of a girl who had questioned whether he had a permit to demolish. Another demolisher threatened a group of girls with a sledgehammer. One demolisher lit fires that threatened an occupied adjoining terrace. Other demolishers, posing as Department of Main Roads workers, broke into an occupied house.
The Sydney Morning Herald had no editorials about demolishers’ violence and lawlessness.
In one press statement, Bob Pringle and Jack Mundey challenged employers’ allegations of threats of physical violence by union members, and said:
It is ironic that, on the very day that the Master Builders Association began deregistration proceedings, our president was in Sydney Hospital undergoing a facial operation following an assault by an employer on a project in Bellevue Hill.
In the last few months organiser Dick Prendergast and a job delegate, Dave Perrin, have both been assaulted by employers …
The MBA has failed to control its own members and has been found wanting in its ability to enforce even the barest conditions of safety and amenities.<p class=">In one press statement, Bob Pringle and Jack Mundey challenged employers’ allegations of threats of physical violence by union members, and said:
It is ironic that, on the very day that the Master Builders Association began deregistration proceedings, our president was in Sydney Hospital undergoing a facial operation following an assault by an employer on a project in Bellevue Hill. “Concrete jungle” conditions abound in this industry, with the highest incidence of bankruptcies, with many employers absconding with workers’ money.
The fleecing of the public by fly-by-night contractors and the developer-inflated land prices should be thoroughly investigated. Once again, we call for a Royal Commission into the whole industry. This would serve the public far better than the employers conducting a witch-hunt against a militant union.
Some prominent figures in the labour movement have contributed to the attacks against builders labourers and other militant activists.
For instance, in the November 1972 NSW parliamentary debate in which Peter Coleman performed so astonishingly, some Labor members, instead of exposing the Coleman falsities, seemed to be intent on disavowing the builders labourers’ leadership, and Jack Mundey in particular.
The Deputy Leader of the Opposition Syd Einfeld, for example, described Jack Mundey, within a period of a few minutes, as “an enemy“, “an enemy of the worker“, “an enemy of the working class” (twice), and “an enemy of the people” (three times). Mr Einfeld said that he was not supporting “anything he has done”.
Another Labor MLA quoted, with approval, a letter from Mr Neville Wran QC (leader of the Labor opposition in the Legislative Council) to Mr Hal Lashwood (Actors Equity and the Save the Regent Theatre Committee) saying: “Because of what I had read of the black ban imposed on the demolition of the Regent by Mr Mundey and the Builders Laborers Federation, I made it clear to you that I would not associate in any way with a committee of which Mr Mundey was a member or which accepted his support.”
Some others in the ALP also have made statements that the Sydney Morning Herald and others have exploited to attack militant activists. In August 1972 Mr J.P. Ducker MLC (NSW Labor Council assistant secretary and ALP state president) wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald, saying: “It would be well known to any serious student of industrial relations that the official trade union movement has condemned violence unequivocally, whenever and by whomever. This applies to the tactics of the Builders Labourers’ Federation who, for practising these methods, were suspended from the Labor Council in May 1971.”
In such ways are bogeys kept in business. In fact, the union was suspended after a group of unionists (most, but not all, of them from the Builders Laborers Federation) engaged in a brawl at a Labor Council meeting — a brawl repudiated and condemned by the union’s NSW leadership.
The brawlers included no official or Labor Council delegate from the Builders Laborers Federation. On the contrary, among them were at least some who have been persistently hostile to the union’s NSW leadership.
After the brawl, the Builders Laborers NSW leadership took prompt democratic disciplinary action through a specially established committee of inquiry. Fifteen rank-and-file delegates from the main jobs in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong made up the majority of this committee, which included also the state executive. The brawlers were all invited to attend and state their case to the committee. Most of them did so. After thorough discussion, the committee condemned the brawlers and recommended that they be expelled from the union for two years.
A statement issued by branch president Bob Pringle and secretary Jack Mundey, announcing the committee of inquiry’s decision, added: “We believe our prompt and earnest inquiry, and our finding, show the sincerity of our aim to do our full part to repair any damage done to the cause of unity between all workers.”
The recommendation for the expulsion was endorsed by special mass stopwork meetings in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong. The Sydney meeting decision was made after hearing some of those involved in the brawl.
The disciplinary action was a decisive repudiation by the NSW leadership and the rank and file of use of violence against individuals. It completely dissociated the union in NSW from what had happened at the Labor Council that night.
The fact that the union’s federal executive subsequently, on a technicality, disallowed the expulsions was in no way the responsibility of the NSW leadership; Jack Mundey himself, who was the only NSW representative on the executive, voted at the executive meeting to uphold the expulsions.
Any attempt to implicate the union’s NSW leadership in that Labor Council brawl is a gross falsification.
Some of those who seek to discredit the union adopt an attitude — rooted in snobbery and contempt for workers — that sneers at the idea of builders labourers concerning themselves in environmental and social issues.
A blatant example was a Sydney Morning Herald editorial on August 14, 1972. This said: “There is something highly comical in the spectacle of builders labourers, whose ideas on industrial relations do not rise above strikes, violence, intimidation and the destruction of property, setting themselves up as arbiters of taste and protectors of our national heritage.”
In fact, the unionists are very likely better qualified to do so than most of their critics. The Sydney Morning Herald’s own drab, grey Broadway building, constructed in about the last 15 years, is hardly any testament to the aesthetic taste of those who rule within it.
In any case, the union and its leaders do not set themselves up to determine these questions; their bans — imposed in all cases at the request of concerned people — are simply to compel a breathing space, an enforced pause, before any shattering finality of demolition, so that the people themselves, including those with specialist qualifications, can consider it and make their views known.
If it had not been for the bans, buildings that are still surviving would long ago have been leveled in rubble and dust, watered perhaps by a pious tear from the Sydney Morning Herald.
As for the attacks on the union and its leaders, Mr Hal Lashwood put it well when, at his own request, he addressed a November 1972 stopwork meeting of the union in the Paddington (Sydney) Town Hall. Speaking on behalf of the Actors Equity (of which he is president), the Musicians Union, the Theatrical and Amusement Employees Union and the Save the Regent Theatre Committee, he thanked the union for its actions in social conscience, and then added:
If you remained content just to talk about these things and not do anything about them, then no one would worry about you. But the reason why the government and others attack you is because you are doing something about it, and because you are being successful.