The struggle for Victoria St

Mick Fowler in his home in Victoria St, Sydney in 1973.

A 72-year-old man overly fond of a cold shandy on a hot day and a cigarette or two, was found dead in the room he rented in a pub in Waterloo, Sydney on February 23.

There was nothing particularly unusual about it except that the man, Eddie Trigg, was the last person to see Juanita Nielsen alive.

Nielsen was a society heiress, a member of the family that owned the iconic Sydney retailer Mark Foy’s. In the 1970s she was living in Victoria Street, Kings Cross, running a local paper called Now.

She became involved in the union-assisted community campaign to save Victoria Street from rapacious developers that was met by unprecedented violence. A private security force of thugs was encouraged to do their worst while the NSW police looked on.

In those days, most of the large terrace houses in Victoria Street had been converted into flats that were rented by low-income earners. By 1971, all of the houses between numbers 55 and 115 Victoria Street were owned by the property developer Frank Theeman who had links to a criminal milieu that included Abe Saffron and Jim Anderson.

Theeman’s redevelopment plan was to bulldoze the terraces and replace them with three 45-story apartment towers. Goodbye low-income earners. After the 300 residents were given one week’s notice to leave, the 40 or so who refused set up the Victoria Street Action Group (VSAG).

The NSW Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) declared a ban on any demolition work in the area. The residents were immediately subject to violent harassment and intimidation.

Arthur King, a prominent member of VSAG, was kidnapped by goons and forced to spend several days blindfolded in the boot of a car and a motel room. He was only released on the condition that he vacate Victoria Street.

Despite the violence, the struggle continued. When Mick Fowler, a seaman resident of the street, came home on leave in 1973 he found that all of his belongings had been thrown out of what was once his flat.

Fowler was as game as Ned Kelly, but when he tried to get back into the flat he was stopped by three guards. He came back a couple of days later with 50 builders’ labourers, seamen and other maritime unionists and took repossession. This time it was the security guards who were turned onto the street.

It would take another three years before he was once again forced out, this time by the courts.

The Green Ban on Victoria Street was in place, and 60 people were organised to squat in the flats.

In early 1974, 30 of Theeman’s paid thugs attacked the houses, using crowbars and sledgehammers to smash their way inside. The 250 NSW police who assisted came for free. The squatters managed to barricade themselves in and even took to the roofs. The siege lasted two days and 53 people were arrested.

In July the following year, Nielsen kept an appointment at the Carousel nightclub in Kings Cross. She was there to see the manager, “hardman” Jim Anderson, an associate of Theeman who worked for Abe Saffron. He had earlier shot and killed the notorious Kings Cross standover man Donny “The Glove” Smith. Nielsen was never seen again.

The manager of the Carousel’s VIP bar at the time, Eddie Trigg, pleaded guilty in 1983 to conspiracy to abduct Nielsen and was sentenced to three years jail. No one has ever been charged with her murder.

In 2004, the Carousel’s receptionist in 1975, Loretta Crawford, claimed that Nielsen had been shot in the nightclub’s storeroom.

The radical environmental activism of the NSW BLF came to grief when the branch was taken over by federal union officials. Their first action was to lift the Green Ban on Victoria Street.

What was destroyed in the process was a radical union that turned traditional Black Bans into Green Bans and gave the name to a new global political movement.

It was after German environmentalist Petra Kelly visited Australia in 1977 and became aware of the Green Bans that she founded the German Greens. From the late 1970s “Green” became synonymous with environmental politics.

The NSW BLF showed that unions could organise in the community for reasons not directly related to a contest narrowly centred on the labour process. It was living proof of the success of a broad left radicalism — communists, socialists, anarchists and militants of all stripes — linked with local communities in struggle.

There had long been rumours that Trigg was writing a book that would finally reveal who murdered Nielsen and where her body was buried.

NSW detectives couldn’t find it after searching Trigg’s room at the pub where he lived, yet the manuscript is said to be held for safekeeping by his lawyer.

If it does surface it will make the ICAC inquiry into the Obeid family look tame by comparison.