Vale Tony O’Beirne: A Newcastle builders’ labourer who devoted his life to protecting jobs and environment

Tony O’Beirne (second from left).

Tony O’Beirne, who passed away last November, demonstrated in a very practical fashion that protecting jobs and the environment are not counterposed.

O’Beirne grew up in Hamilton, an inner suburb of Newcastle, New South Wales. He left school early and worked various jobs before becoming a builders’ labourer.

O’Beirne liked boxing and used to spar with workmate Ron Dumbrell after work in the old Newcastle Workers Club’s boxing ring. Dumbrell was a member of the Communist Party of Australia and, one day, they skipped sparring on Dumbrell’s insistence to join a protest outside a nearby union office where local organisers Harry Anderson and Bobby Campbell were about to be arrested and jailed for refusing to pay a fine because of their anti-Vietnam War protest activity.

O’Beirne viewed their jailing as a grave injustice.

After Dumbrell introduced him to legendary activists such Harry Anderson, Elfreeda Burghardt, Keith Wilson and Jack Francis, O’Beirne would spend his evenings listening, talking and learning. He maintained this thirst for learning and knowledge all his life.

In an interview I conducted with him as part of the Radical Newcastle project, O’Beirne said: “Once the coin had dropped, it was almost impossible to get my mind off politics and I joined the Communist Party.”

O’Beirne was a capable organiser and he took a job with the NSW Builders Labourer’s Federation (BLF), which Jack Mundey and other militants led.

The BLF had a social conscience and questioned why low income housing, in some cases their own homes, was being demolished to make way for expensive and untenanted glass towers.

The environment was also on their radar; when approached to help save Kelly’s Bush, a vestige of Indigenous bushland on Sydney Harbour, the BLF slapped on a “Green Ban” to protect the site.

The development was shelved and, thanks to people such as O’Beirne, this unique bush reserve exists today.

The Green Bans soon captured the attention of residents, planners, environmentalists and heritage activists.

After a public meeting in Newcastle East in 1973, residents approached the BLF for a similar ban on a development. East Enders felt they were being driven out to make way for what O’Beirne described as a Gold Coast-style “concrete and glass circus” intended for the well-off.

Thanks to this union-resident alliance, the Newcastle East heritage precinct survived.

As Matt Hayes put it back then, the Newcastle Green Bans “jarred a complacent City Council and aloof planning authorities”.

Meredith and Verity Burgmann’s book Green Bans and Red Unions and Pat Fiske’s film Rocking the Foundations both mention O’Beirne in their coverage of how the Green Bans movement not only ensured the survival of Aboriginal and working-class heritage in Sydney, Newcastle and country NSW, but that the movement lasted long enough to force the planning laws to catch up with community values.

O’Beirne was also instrumental in developing a confident and militant union rank-and-file, which won good pay and conditions and, on the Wyong Plaza Shopping Centre, the right for workers to elect their foreperson.

In 1975, a convergence of interests between big developers, the NSW government and the federal branch of the BLF came together to lock local BLF stalwarts out of the industry and intimidate members into accepting a new leadership.

It took eight years and many legal battles before O’Beirne and 28 other leading BLF members won back their union ticket and the right to work again in construction.

In the 1980s, O’Beirne moved to Pacific Palms, just north of Newcastle, and was soon drawn into the campaigns to prevent the privatisation of the fishing village Seal Rocks and later against sand mining. He also regularly attended union and socialist events in Newcastle.

O’Beirne loved the irony that the BLF (now known as the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining, and Energy Union) proved that heritage and the environment do matter and that caring and planning for them creates jobs.

O’Beirne is survived by his three children, his wife Lila and sister Trish.

[Stephen O’Brien is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Newcastle.]