Green Bans

'Green bans' and 'builders labourers' became household terms for Sydneysiders during the 1970s. A remarkable form of environmental activism was initiated by the builders labourers employed to construct the office-block skyscrapers, shopping precincts and luxury apartments that were rapidly encroaching upon green spaces or replacing older-style commercial and residential buildings in Sydney. The builders labourers refused to work on projects that were environmentally or socially undesirable. This green bans movement, as it became known, was the first of its type in the world.

The green bans were of three main kinds: to defend open spaces from various kinds of development; to protect existing housing stock from demolition intended to make way for freeways or high-rise development; and to preserve older-style buildings from replacement by office-blocks or shopping precincts. 

Sydney's builders labourers were organised in the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation (NSWBLF). From the mid-1960s, the union had become increasingly concerned with matters of town planning. It persistently criticised the boom in office-block development and predicted an oversupply in office space, long before others became alert to the problem. It pleaded instead for the construction of socially useful projects. By the early 1970s, it had a membership of around 11,000 and covered all unskilled laborers and certain categories of skilled laborers employed on building sites: dog-men, riggers, scaffolders, powder monkeys, hoist drivers and steel fixers.

In May 1970, the executive of the NSWBLF resolved to develop a 'new concept of unionism' encompassing the principle of the social responsibility of labor: that workers had a right to insist their labour not be used in harmful ways. It was led by many capable officials but in particular by three outstanding union leaders: Jack Mundey, Joe Owens and Bob Pringle. Mundey and Owens, along with about a hundred of the union's most committed activists, were members of the Communist Party of Australia, which at this stage was subject to New Left influences; Bob Pringle was a member of the Australian Labor Party. Green bans were also imposed by builders labourers in other parts of Australia; but the movement was most spectacular in Sydney, where the construction boom was centred and the union branch most committed to the green bans movement.

With thanks to Dictionary of Sydney and Meredith and Verity Burgmann.