Jack Mundey – a giant of the Australian labour movement – has died at the age of 90.
Mundey rose to prominence in the 1970s as a leader of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF). He famously pioneered the ‘green ban’ movement which stopped the destruction of many historical sites and working class communities across New South Wales, most notably The Rocks and Woolloomooloo in Sydney.
Sometimes described as the father of urban environmentalism, Jack’s advocacy for the environment stemmed from his socialist worldview. He was a leading member of the Communist Party of Australia for a long time, and a lifelong trade unionist.
The BLF was deeply politicised under Mundey’s leadership and supported a wide range of causes. In addition to protecting heritage and the environment, the militant union fought for improved rights for women, gay people and the Indigenous community.
The union backed up their words with action and gave us a glimpse of what things could be like if workers, rather than bosses, decided how society was run.
In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald in 1972 Mundey said, “Yes, we want to build. However, we prefer to build urgently required hospitals, schools, other public utilities, high-quality flats, units and houses, provided they are designed with adequate concern for the environment, than to build ugly unimaginative architecturally bankrupt blocks of concrete and glass offices… Though we want all our members employed, we will not just become robots directed by developer-builders who value the dollar at the expense of the environment. More and more, we are going to determine which buildings we will build.”
Mundey was widely respected by fellow construction workers, but the trust they placed in him did not fall from the sky. He won their support through years of tedious struggle for improved wages, conditions and safety standards on building sites.
While he was a union official he took the equivalent of a labourers wage, and was accountable to members. He fought for a militant, democratic union controlled by it’s members. With these methods builders labourers improved their own living standards, but they also weighed in on what kind of society we should have.
Building workers didn’t just worry about ‘bread-and-butter’ issues, they took a stand on broader political and social issues that affected them and their communities.
Before Jack ran the BLF it was a tame cat union led by a group of right wing thugs. The Communist Party wanted to change the union for the better and encouraged Mundey to get a job as a builders labourer. At the age of 24 he got work at the Shell Oil Refinery project at Granville. He ended up becoming a shop steward and chair of the site committee.
Along with other left activists, he patiently built a rank and file group in the union. He agitated for the BLF to be more democratic and take on a fighting approach. The work on the job, and in the political struggle, was tough. It took more than a decade for the militants to remove the right wing gangsters from the union’s leadership. The example set by Mundey and his comrades is a model for today’s struggle to transform unions.
In many ways this work was as important as anything Jack did throughout his life. It opened the way for the BLF to have a big impact, not only on the built form of Sydney, but on the politics of the labour movement more generally. To this day, the green bans and the union-community coalitions the BLF built are seen as high points in Australian labour movement history.
It’s not only the protected parks and historic buildings that remind us of Jack’s legacy. While the politics of the union has since degenerated, construction workers in Australia are still better paid and have better conditions than many of their counterparts around the world. A large part of this is thanks to Mundey’s socialist influence.
There are lots of lessons, and hundreds of stories, associated with Jack’s life of struggle. He continued the fight for all sorts of progressive causes all the way to the end of his life. Some of the struggles he was involved with are well documented but others still need to be recorded.
Hopefully this will happen in the months and years ahead so that future generations can take inspiration, and carry on from where Jack helped to bring us.
Long before COVID-19, Mundey showed that working people are the most essential part of society. Without our labour nothing moves. He showed that workers have the potential to shape the world around them, and that putting socialist ideas into action is the best way to get results.
It was a huge contribution. Rest in power comrade.
By Anthony Main
‘Tales of the BLF… Rolling the Right!’ tells the story of how Jack Mundey and others turned the BLF into a fighting and democratic union, paving the way for the green ban movement and other historic wins. It’s vital reading for today given that we’re faced with some of the worst union leaders in Australian history.