This obituary for Jack Mundey was first published in The Guardian.
The environmental and social justice activist Jack Mundey died at the age of 90 in Sydney this week. Unusually for a lifelong radical, he has been remembered by many as a true Australian hero.
Mundey has been widely celebrated for his internationally pioneering role in the green bans movement of the early 1970s. He was secretary of the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) when it imposed 42 union bans on potential construction sites in the state.
These green bans provided a lifeline for scores of NSW resident action groups and played a crucial role in saving large tracts of Sydney from demolition to make way for property developments and expressways. Without these bans, Sydney would not have retained much of its inner heritage suburbs of The Rocks, Woolloomooloo, Darlinghurst and Glebe, scores of heritage buildings in Sydney’s CBD, Kellys Bush Park in Hunters Hill, parts of Centennial Park and the Botanical Gardens, housing for the Aboriginal community of Redfern and heritage areas in the regional city of Newcastle.
These green bans reflected Mundey’s visionary view that radical movements for social justice should encompass an ecological awareness. For a generation of activists of which I was one, he brought environmental concerns into the heart of urban and mainstream politics. He pushed for notions of democratic urban planning, critiqued dependence on the car and campaigned for public transport.
Mundey’s love of nature and the environment first developed in the forests of northern Queensland where he was born in 1929. His father, a dairy farmer on the Atherton Tablelands, was poor. His mother died when he was six and Jack was brought up by his father and older siblings.
He escaped his authoritarian Catholic secondary school at 14, and drawing on his talent for sport, moved to Sydney, where he played rugby league for the Parramatta Eels while working as a labourer. He had a keen sense of injustice and like many others of his generation, was influenced by the Communist party, which he joined in the 1950s.
Mundey put himself on the line for countless causes. In May 1965, the anti-Vietnam war movement was protesting against conscripts being sent to war when, in an Australian first, Mundey and two other activists held a sit-in and were arrested.
Throughout the 1960s, Mundey led thousands of militant builders’ labourers in courageous and often dangerous campaigns for better work conditions. Labourers were poorly paid and conditions were very unsafe. On one occasion, BLF militants heaved a flimsy substandard work shed into a large hole on a construction site. Concrete pours were stopped until basic demands were met.
By 1968, Mundey had been elected secretary of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation. During this period, union meetings were translated into seven languages to meet the needs of members, the majority of whom were migrants. For the first time, women were admitted as members and organisers of the union. In later interviews, Mundey was clear that without this fight for the dignity and safety of workers, he and fellow leaders Joe Owens and Bobby Pringle would not have won rank and file support for their green bans.
As the union was growing stronger, the 1960s property boom was accelerating. Developers dreamed up schemes for wall-to-wall skyscrapers across the city, and thought little of evicting residents and bulldozing the historic neighbourhoods they loved. On the north shore, developers eyed off parcels of surviving bushland for new housing estates. Residents’ action groups sprang up across the city.
The first green ban was imposed in 1971 at the request of the Battlers for Kellys Bush, 13 middle-class women who were campaigning to save a rare tract of coastal bushland from being taken for a housing development. After the then Liberal National party premier Robert Askin reneged on a promise to save the land, the women turned in desperation to the unions. The BLF agreed to impose a ban provided there was solid community support. Six hundred residents then supported the ban. The sole surviving battler, Dr Joan Croll, told me last year that although she had originally been worried about supporting a “red” union, she changed her mind after she met the unionists and regarded the union as an enlightened organisation led by a “wonderful man” Jack Mundey.
The significance of Mundey’s contribution is not just that he was an intelligent and courageous leader, but that he inspired thousands of working-class and middle-class residents to stand with the union. When Mundey was arrested and carried by police out of a building in The Rocks that was threatened with demolition, scores of people, including women in their 60s from Woolloomooloo and The Rocks who had never been arrested before, were carried out after him into waiting police vans. The protest stopped the demolition. I was one of a small contingent from Victoria Street, Kings Cross who were arrested on that day.
Mundey was a powerful orator. He spoke with conviction and directness. which meant that when he promised to stand by a community, we believed he would be there for us. When he threatened in a steely tone to stop work on building sites, his enemies also knew he meant it. He had a warmth and natural confidence that enabled him to reach across class and political divides.
Although the conservative media vilified Mundey and the BLF, he won over many journalists with his capacity to articulate his ideas concisely and calmly. Mundey strongly believed unions had an obligation to act with a socially responsible purpose that extended beyond wages and conditions. The nub of the green bans argument was that communities should have the right to shape and protect their environment, and that the workers whose labour was used to create the built environment should have a say in what was built. Coming from working class communities themselves, Mundey and other BLF organisers understood the desire of communities to defend their right to secure affordable housing.
By late 1975, $3bn worth of development was on hold. Internal battles came to a head and the federal office of the BLF led by Norm Gallagher, with support from the NSW government and the NSW Master Builders Association, took over the NSW BLF. Mundey and others were banned from membership of their union. Although the green bans period was soon over, by then a breathing space had allowed many battles to be wholly or partially won. Mundey paid a heavy personal price but remained a committed environmentalist. NSW Labor was elected in 1976 and new planning laws were passed, partly as a result of the green bans movement.
Mundey stood for the NSW Legislative Council for the Communist party in 1978 and came very close to getting elected with 80,000 votes. He served as a councillor on the City of Sydney from 1984 to 1987, representing The Rocks area.
In 1995, he was appointed chair of the NSW Historic Houses Trust. He actively campaigned to save many heritage sites including the Finger Wharf, the Female Factory at Parramatta and the Sirius building in The Rocks.
By the early 2000s, Mundey had joined the Greens and remained a member until his death. He was quoted as saying that he was originally inspired by their opposition to the Iraq war and their defence of public land.
When Mundey spoke of the green bans, it was often to argue for their relevance to contemporary battles. He continued to support collective action. Although in his late 80s, when told that students were sitting-in to save the College of Arts at Callan Park, he visited the protesters to support them. At 86, he stood on the platform with other leaders of the campaign to save the Bondi Pavilion. He publicly opposed the massive expenditure on Sydney’s WestConnex tollway project, believing the money should have been spent on public transport.
In 2015, in support of NSW Greens’ Jenny Leong’s successful campaign for the state seat of Newtown, he wrote a letter to the electorate stating that he believed his legacy was under threat: “Neither the previous Labor government nor the current Liberal government in NSW have taken the necessary steps to transition to renewable energy in response to dangerous climate change. Our community should not just be a place for millionaires and motorways. When I was the secretary of the Builders Labourers Federation, our union took the view that our work should improve the lives of the people of NSW, not harm communities or degrade the environment.”
Jack is survived by his partner and comrade for more than 55 years, lawyer and feminist Judy Mundey.