Remembering Jack Mundey, father of the green bans

Trade union choir at Jack Mundey's memorial. Photo: Jill Hickson

Jack Mundey was given a rousing state send-off at Sydney Town Hall on March 10. He died aged 90 last May, but COVID-19 restrictions prevented his memorial service from being held.

Wiradjuri woman and Metropolitan Land Council Chairperson Yvonne Weldon gave the welcome to Gadigal land and former NSW premier Bob Carr hosted the memorial, calling Mundey “Australia’s most loved communist”.

Mundey was part of a radical team that took over the leadership of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) in the 1960s. After a hard-fought battle, Mundy became the BLF secretary in 1968 and led a campaign demanding safety on the job, the right to come home at the end of the day, sick and accident pay.

Construction, Forestry, Mining, Maritime and Energy Union (CFMMEU) Assistant National Secretary Dave Noonan said Mundey’s life was “written in brick and stone and timber and concrete” in the beautiful buildings of Glebe, Waterloo, Millers Point and in the bush of Kelly’s Bush. “It is written in the bones and lives of construction workers who escaped death. Those concrete jungles took the lives of so many.”

“At that time, there were appalling amenities and many deaths of young workers,” Noonan said. “Mundey gave a famous interview where he challenged the Master Builders right to use scab labour. Jack pointed out the hypocrisy of the interviewer attacking the BLF for striking when 23 construction labourers, who had died the year before, went unremarked. The BLF was fighting to change that.

“The BLs fought for economic justice, then went on to fight apartheid, walk with First Nations peoples, fight for jobs for women in the industry, for black and then green bans. Those bans saved many heritage and environmentally significant sites.”

But, he said, the BLs did not receive much support from the broader union movement.

“Mundey and the BLs were treated as pariahs by the establishment press. The national BLF moved against the NSW BLF. He and dozens of others were summarily expelled from the union, which was a terrible injustice. This weighs heavily on the history of my union. Jack went to court, but still didn’t get his ticket back.

“Jack was a life member of the CFMMEU. He was a proud unionist and communist, as was his wife Judy. We still have the Masters Builders Association trying to casualise the industry. But, in Parramatta at Willow Grove, the CFMMEU is standing with the community against the demolition. That is the spirit of Jack Mundey.”

Meredith Burgmann, author of Green Bans, Red Power, the Saving of a City said: “The BLF of the 1960s and ’70s shows what a progressive union can do. Jack was influenced by communists writing about the need for greater democracy in unions. Under Jack’s leadership union officials were tied to average industry awards and didn’t get paid during strikes.

“He was an environmentalist before that term was even widely used. He held the view that workers should campaign around social issues. The first Green Ban was led by the people of Kellys Bush, who turned to a Communist Party-led union to save the last remaining bush on Parramatta River. This June it will be 50 years since that Green Ban.”

Under Mundey’s leadership, Burgmann said, 54 green bans held up $5 billion in development money. “They saved Glebe from two major freeways, Kings Cross, saved Ultimo from an expressway, the Opera House fig trees from becoming a car park, the Pitt Street Uniting Church, many heritage buildings in Sydney’s CBD, the Rocks, Woolloomooloo, Darlinghurst, Kelly’s Bush Park in Hunters Hill, Centennial Park, Botanical Gardens and areas of Newcastle. The BLs fought for Aboriginal housing in Redfern.

“There was no heritage legislation then. Jack and the BLF were the only thing standing between homes, buildings and the wrecking ball. Jack was cheerfully carried away by police from many demonstrations. He was always thinking and remarkably non-sectarian. He argued the enlightened middle and working class should come together in struggle.”

Former Greens NSW MP and federal Senator Lee Rhiannon said: “In 2011, at anniversary celebrations of the first Green Ban at Kelly’s Bush, Jack said ‘If 21st Century socialism is to be successful, we have to direct society to harmonise with nature and other species. Capitalism cannot be humanised’.”

Sydney Lord Mayor, Clover Moore spoke about the time between 1984 and 1987 when she and Mundey served as Independent councillors on the City of Sydney Council. Peter Watts of the NSW Historic Houses Trust spoke about Mundey’s time as chair.

Judy Mundey, Jack’s wife of 50 years, gave the final address. “Our first date was the ballet. Our second was a Ban the Bomb march. Jack worked on construction sites and joined the BLF. He joined the rank-and-file organisation because the leaders were corrupt. He had joined the Communist Party of Australia and thought this might jeopardise the election for the rank-and-file group. But he was persuaded to run and was elected.

“He read Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner, and was inspired by the idea of a world free of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism. He was never motivated by self-aggrandisement. When Aboriginal people at Wave Hill went on strike, it seemed natural to bring two members of the Gurindji to Sydney.

“When gay students were expelled, it seemed right for the union to fight to reinstate him. There was overwhelming support from rank and file union members for this fight about dignity and pride. A few years ago, Australia finally caught up with the BLF on this issue.

“Jack was so generous, and sometimes it wasn’t so convenient as we had a small apartment. He would endlessly invite people to come and stay with us, and sometimes they would for the better part of the year.

“Jack was generous, highly intelligent, quick witted, charming and calm. He had such an easy rapport with people, was always ethical and optimistic. He was inspiring and loving and much loved.”

Jack Mundey epitomises Bertolt Brecht’s 1930 “Praise of the Fighters”. “There are those who struggle for a day and they are good. There are those who struggle for a year and they are better. There are those who struggle many years, and they are better still. But there are those who struggle all their lives: these are the indispensable ones.”

As capitalism pushes our ecosystem towards collapse, Mundey’s street-fighting, communist and alliance-building legacy will be critical for our class to win.