Vale Jack Mundey — a visionary ecosocialist unionist

Jack Mundey addressing a mass meeting.

Jack Mundey, a path breaker in militant unionism and a pioneer of the Green Bans movement in Australia, died on May 10, aged 90.

Mundey, along with co-officials Joe Owens and Bob Pringle, led the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) in one of the most crucial periods of working-class militancy in Australia.

Born in north Queensland, Mundey came to Sydney to play Rugby League with Parramatta in the 1950s. He got a job as a builder’s labourer and eventually joined with other members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and other left militants to win leadership of the BLF in the late 1960s.

Greg Mallory quotes Mundey in his book Uncharted Waters: Social Responsibility in Australian Trade Unions about the BLF’s campaigns to win significant wages and conditions for its members being led by the union’s new, left-wing leadership: “If it wasn’t for that civilising of the building industry in the campaigns of 1970 and 1971, well then I’m sure we wouldn’t have had the luxury of the membership going along with us in what was considered by some as ‘avant-garde’, ‘way-out’ actions of supporting mainly middle-class people in environmental actions. I think that gave us the mandate to allow us to go into uncharted waters.”

However, Mundey, who was elected NSW BLF secretary in 1968, also stressed: “It is no point winning great wages and conditions if the world we build chokes us to death”.

Green Bans

The Green Bans story started in the 1960s when Sydney was being transformed by a huge building boom, pushed along by the corrupt, pro-developer Liberal Premier Robert Askin.

The first Green Ban supported a campaign by a group of North Shore women to save a small piece of undeveloped land called Kelly’s Bush. After that success, the BLF was besieged with similar requests for industrial action to protect the environment and social values. BLF support was conditional on proven merit and community involvement and soon some 40 Green Bans tied up billions of dollars worth of development projects in Sydney and nearby regions.

The movement captured the imagination of residents, urban planners, environmentalists and heritage activists. Bans were extended to express solidarity with the right of women to work in the industry, to support anti-freeways campaigns and for Aboriginal justice. In 1973, the BLF imposed a “pink ban” when Macquarie University discriminated against a gay student.

Mundey also pursued another central principle — union democracy. All decisions on industrial bans and actions were put to the BLF membership for a vote.

The militant NSW BLF was eventually defeated by an unholy alliance between factionally opposed union leaderships, the Master Builders Association and the state government.

However, the Green Bans saved large parts of Sydney and set down new heritage pathways as part of a more progressive attitude towards urban development.

Mundey continued to campaign for environmental and social justice, and was elected to Sydney City Council from 1984 to 1987. He also worked with the Australian Conservation Council for more than 10 years, and was chair of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW.

Visionary

NSW Greens co-convenors Sylvia Hale and Rochelle Flood described Mundey as “a great visionary”.

“Under his leadership of the Builders Labourers Federation, for the first time we saw unity between the struggles of unions and environmentalists.

“The Green Bans born out of this unity reshaped Australian politics and delivered significant wins for heritage, urban bushland and public housing. The union stood shoulder to shoulder with the community in fighting developments whose sole purpose was to enrich the few at the expense of the many.

“Jack’s courage was phenomenal — taking on the corrupt Askin government and many ruthless developers. He and his union colleagues built a broad-based social movement with students and residents that won protection for The Rocks, Centennial Park, Kelly's Bush and Woolloomooloo.

“At the heart of Jack’s politics was a deep understanding that it is broad based social movements that are the drivers of progressive change. Jack was a great unifier.”

Former NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon said that the party’s four pillars of social justice, environmental sustainability, grassroots democracy, and peace and non-violence “truly summed up Jack’s world-view”.

“A member of the Communist Party of Australia, Jack spoke up for socialism with a human face. As a member of the Greens Party, he stood as a candidate on a number of occasions and helped strengthen the party’s work with unions.

“In the 1980s, Jack was elected to Sydney City Council. It was to the regret of many that he was never elected to parliament.”

Mundey supported campaigns for the environment and human rights up until his death. He spoke strongly at rallies in The Rocks in recent years to oppose the sell-off of the iconic Sirius Building, which was built for public housing as a result of the BLF’s campaigns in the 1970s.

Councillor Linda Eisler said that Jack was an active member of the Canterbury Greens and that he and fellow former BLF leader Mick Tubbs and Mundey’s partner Judy “used to hand out all day during elections, at their local booth, Croydon Park Public School”.

Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union national secretary Dave Noonan described Mundey as “an inspiration to all unionists and activists”.

Mundey set an example for union leaders that remains critical today as we head into the fight of our lives to preserve and extend union gains in a post COVID-19 recovery.

Mundey combined a deep commitment to workers’ rights and union democracy with a vision of a future ecological and sustainable world. That vision is more essential now than ever before.

As Mundey wrote in his 1981 book The Green Bans and Beyond: “Ecologists with a socialist perspective and socialists with an ecological perspective must form a coalition to tackle the wide-ranging problems relating to human survival … Such survival is based on a way of living in harmony with the rest of nature. My dream and that ... of millions … of others might then come true; a socialist world with a human face, an ecological heart and an egalitarian body.”

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