Joe Owens: a fallen comrade remembered

September 6, 2012
Joe Owens in 1974. Photo:

The NSW Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) construction and general branch released the statement below on September 7.

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CFMEU State Secretary Brian Parker today expressed his deep sorrow of the loss of one of the building trade union’s most significant leaders — Joe Owens.

Owens, who died earlier this week, was secretary of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) NSW branch between 1973 and 1975.

With other BLF leaders Jack Mundey and Bob Pringle, Owens was an instrumental part of the Green Bans movement that saved some of Sydney’s now-iconic tourist sites such as The Rocks, the Museum of Contemporary Art building, Woolloomoolloo’s heritage and Centennial Park.

Owens played a key role in other social issues such as the push for Indigenous and women’s rights and the anti-Vietnam War campaign.

He was also a key player in the democratisation of the BLF that included a limit on tenure of the executive and was Secretary when BLF Federal Secretary Norm Gallagher took over the NSW Branch and blacklisted the former leaders.

Parker says the union movement has lost an outstanding leader.

“Joe Owens never took a backward step in his commitment to the betterment of workers’ lives.

“Through the Green Bans, with Jack Mundey and Bob Pringle, he sought to save our city from over-development.

“He did this in the belief that workers were not only concerned about better wages and conditions they also wanted to live in a better environment and protect their children’s future.”


While Joe Owens deserves to be honoured for all the positive results he achieved for the working class he should also be remebered for the anti CFMEU activities. Joe did his best to ensure that the FEDFA did not amalgamate into the CFMEU simply because of his personal hatred of certain BWIU officials and his desire to create a second union force in the building industry to oppose the CFMEU by joining the FEDFA up with the plumbers union. Fortunately the FEDFA leadership were not swayed by JOE and the CFMEU was created. How different things could have been if Joe had not been resisted.
Joe was one of the principled union leaders in the building industry along with Jack Mundey and the late Bobby Pringle. A proud member of the CPA, he was along with his BLF comrades, a political inspiration to younger unionists in the Seventies and well beyond. Hopefully the struggles he and his comrades were involved in will be continued by younger and enthusiastic socialists who seek to make unions more than just syndicalist bodies catering to self-interest but organisations interested in the wider and global progressive struggle Byron Comninos, Sydney
Competition is healthy even among unions. The CFMEU was hijacked by party-political opportunists from the ALP in the 1990s and the empire building continued through efforst encouraged initially by Hawke, Kelty and McDonald - all intent on maiming any real militancy in the building unions tha may be a threat to the conservative ALP, ACTU and BWIU.
A truly sad loss for all. Joe was an outstanding comrade, friend to many, who embraced the need for practising the principles for which he stood. I and many former members of the CPA will long remember him for his contribution to many struggles, his fierce contempt for the bosses and for his lively wit. The struggle continues! George McIlroy
Nothing can detract from the groundbreaking achievements of the old NSW BLF. Along with Bob Pringle and Jack Mundey, Joe Owens led struggles which will always inspire fresh generations of socialists and trade unionists. I know nothing of the internal politicking of the CFMEU and care less. When I tell comrades overseas about the NSW BLF, they shake their heads in wonder: the Green Bans, the struggle for better wages, conditions and safety on the job -- in short for the dignity of what was once one of the most downtrodden sections of the working class. I can personally recall building employers who would put workers off just before Christmas so as to avoid paying them for holidays. I was also one of those who once rode the hook. It was thanks to Joe and others like him that the building and construction industry was civilized. Nor should we forget Joe's part in standing up for the gay student at Macquarie University at a time when homophobia was ubiquitous. Joe was one of the best.

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