|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: October 5, 2000
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
Well, you've told us about some of the social issues that were taken up by the union at the time that you took over as secretary as you expanded the idea of what the union could do. One of the major issues too that you entered in at that time were issues relating to the environment. How did that come about?
Well, first of all I think that the environment action of the Builders' Labourers was easily the most dynamic involvement that the union had and looking back a quarter of a century later, you'd have to say that it's one of the most exciting chapters of any union in this country or anywhere in the world. And it's attracted world-wide attention from ecologists and unionists. Unfortunately it hasn't been repeated too many times, though there have been occasions where unions have taken similar action in other countries. But it came about not by way of any great thinking on the part of the leaders of the Builders' Labourers, even though as I've shown that we were involved in a whole range of social actions. The environment movement came into being with us by way of the unlikely alliance between middle upper class people from a fashionable suburb of Sydney, Hunters Hill, who had fought against a proposed development for the fortunate few. They were going to destroy the last remaining bushland on Parramatta River. And the women, all women, calling themselves the Battlers for this bit of land called Kelly's Bush, went down in front of the bulldozers and as a last resort came to the Builders' Labourers Union. And they came to us because they had read a statement that I'd made that in a modern society unions should have a right to intervene in issues beyond economics, that anything that affects the workers should be their right, and in fact their responsibility, to have a say in what was happening. And as a last resort they came to us and more or less said, in other words, 'Well, here's a chance to put your theory into practice'. They had exhausted all the means of protest. They'd been to the local Member of Parliament, a very conservative person, Peter Coleman. They'd been to the Premier of the time, Sir Robert Askin, and they'd been to the Labor Opposition, and because they weren't making any headway, at last resort they came to the union. We responded by saying, well, we'll invite them along to address the union executive and the women came along, first time they'd ever been in contact with a trade union, certainly a trade union leadership and they explained their case to us. We decided ... we decided ... When they left, it was interesting the discussion that took place. Despite the fact that the union had been in a lot of advanced action, some of the workers said, 'Well, Jesus Christ, what do we do? You know, we haven't got any members in Hunters Hill - wouldn't be one there'. And others argued, 'Well then, if we're fair dinkum, whether it's Penrith or Liverpool or Hunters Hill if we believe in the right of urban bushland to remain and not to destroy everything, well then we should be consistent'. So we said to the Battlers for Kelly's Bush, 'If you can demonstrate that it's the feeling of the people in the area and not just the fortunate few in the immediate vicinity of Kelly's Bush, we would impose a ban'. So a couple of Sundays later over 400 people came to a meeting outside Kelly's Bush and they put to the union, a request to the union, that we place a ban on the area so as to allow them more time to negotiate with the Government and the Council about alternatives in trying to save the bush. So it was a holding operation. At the time, from before that period, there's always been unions imposing black bans but they're generally for the purpose of jacking up their wages or conditions. This was a different action because it wasn't as though their workers were going to get any immediate advantage through the imposition of the ban and I think that when we changed the name from black ban to green ban was the move that attracted so much attention and brought wider support to us and people, who were normally hostile to unions, came on side with the concept of a union having a social responsibility to impose, quote, 'a Green Ban' and so the Green Ban movement was ... was born that way.
It was an inspired piece of labelling to change black ban to green ban. How did that come about?
Well, I think it was just a feeling that there had to be some differentiation between the normal action of a black ban, which was mainly for the interests of the workers to one in which the workers were actually taking a more noble position of saying, it's in the broader community and even societal interest that this happen. And so I think that, it was I think a very important change in the thinking that afforded us a lot of support. But when the ... when we imposed the ban we said that we'd impose the ban so as to allow those people to have further discussion with the authorities. And then to compound ... to compound the whole issue, the Premier of day said sarcastically, 'Who did they think they are, they are mere labourers. Who do they think they are, urban town planners?' says Sir Robert Askin. And then Jennings, the Melbourne based company, a big huge company, who was going to destroy the bush, then said, 'Well we're going to use non-union labour on the site'. Immediately we called a meeting on one of Jennings' jobs in North Sydney and I've mentioned before that we had over 90 per cent of the workers in the unions, and the workers on that job decided that if one blade of grass or one tree was touched on Kelly's Bush that half completed building would remain half completed as a monument to Kelly's Bush. And of course this had the desired effect on Mr. Jennings and it strengthened the whole resolve of the workers and it also brought the workers into tow because it meant that we then had to go and talk to the workers about why we were imposing the ban and so it was an educative process that happened to all of us, because we were all were on a learning curve, and so I underline that it wasn't the great forward thinking of the union leaders that imposed the ban, but it was a combination of our preparedness to respond to community's issues that we were sympathetic with. And we found then that we were inundated with similar requests. In the course of four years something like forty-two Green Bans were imposed, holding up 5000 million dollars worth of so-called development at the time. And I think the ... one of the reasons for the success of the Green Ban movement was that we followed the same pattern. It was never the union leaders imposing a ban willy nilly, even though Askin and others used to say that. They were saying, well they're power drunk and they're going round imposing bans, flexing their muscles, etcetera, etcetera. Whereas we responded by saying, 'We have never arbitrarily imposed a ban. We've always had the situation where residents have to come to the union. The matter is discussed by either the executive or sometimes a strike meeting and endorsed'. And so it was. We did away with the argument [coughs], excuse me, [that it was] just the leaders on a power kick for their own ambitious purposes. And society generally was widely divided. On the one hand you had the conservative trade union movement, the right wing in particular, declaring that the Green Bans were out of the role of unions, that unions shouldn't be involved. On the other hand we had sections of the conservative sections of society, many of whom had never voted Labor even in their life, let alone supporting ... [INTERRUPTION]
What was actually going on in the community at large at that time that made it so many residents, including ones from well off areas, were resorting to coming to you? What was the sort of broader social picture of what was happening with building and the environment?
The period was marked in an upsurge the amount of development taking place and whereas in the beginning it was felt, well, this is progress, this is positive, the more thinking segment of society started to question whether all the development was positive, because many of the heritage buildings were destroyed and whole ... some of the best houses were demolished in the onward rush of development. So the questioning, particularly by people who were concerned about the older buildings and concerned about neighbourhoods being uprooted ... and they had nowhere to go because the Government of the day was hell bent on giving the developers open slather, and so you had a very pro-development Government, now considered universally corrupt, the Askin Government, lining up and destroying much of old Sydney. And so you had wide divisions within the community. On the one hand we had the right wing leadership of the Labour Council, the government of the union movement in New South Wales, openly critical of what the Builders' Labourers were doing, saying they shouldn't ... they're going too far. It isn't a role of unions to become so involved in ecological and social issues. On the other hand you had people who normally were hostile to union, people who probably never voted Labor in their lives, let alone supporting a Marxist communist led union, who said well, normally we're against unions but we find ourselves more sympathetic to the role of the Builders' Labourers than what we find to the government of the day. And so was this social discussion that was taking place right throughout New South Wales. I remember the chief of staff of the Sydney Morning Herald telling me that in one year there were more letters to and fro the Green Bans than any other issue from correspondents in New South Wales. So there was this widespread discussion taking place. At the same time the reason for the ... the hostility to the Government was that the people who opposed development had nowhere to go. They had no recourse. If they had a government that was pro-development how could they get anything done? So public participation was not on the agenda and so we were filling a vacuum, and we claimed at the time that we were not setting ourselves up as arbiters of urban town planning but we were saying that ordinary citizens should have a role in society, to have some say in what was happening and that was denied them. And so this was a powerful weapon that was used by the resident action groups which sprung up everywhere. At one stage there was something like 300 resident action groups in New South Wales and so we said that there should be a court set up so as to discuss these issues, so as to allow ordinary people to have a say, [to allow] public participation in the decision making process and that was a great weapon in the hands of the resident action group and the unions. A number of other unions were sympathetic to our cause: the Engine Drivers and Firemen and the Waterside Workers and the Seamen imposed a number of ... of Green Bans, or I should say supported the action that we were taking. So the more progressive of the Left unions were sympathetic and amongst unionists generally there was a high regard for the action of the Builders' Labourers Union. So it was a period of great change and in fact I think that the proof of the pudding came about when the Askin Government was defeated. The incoming Wran Government undertook to introduce many of the legislations that we had asked for. That is that there should be a ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well, the policy of the Labor Opposition in that election when Askin was finally defeated after being in office for ten years, was Wran came in ... The Wran Government came in with an undertaking to build on what the Builders' Labourers and resident action groups were doing and they agreed ... the Labor Party agreed to set up a Land and Environment Court and allow public participation of residents, and most importantly that legal aid be funded to the people who were opposed to the developments. And so they were very strong arguments that we'd been advancing for a number of years So looking back on that period with all the controversy about the Green Bans in the early seventies had their fruition when the Labor Government came into being of introducing the very things that we were asking for. So it was, I think the final decision that the residents and the unions were correct in their argument about some sort of public participation. Of course with the passage of time, a lot of those things have been weakened, but nevertheless at that time it was a great step forward.
The Green Bans started with Kelly's Bush. What were some of the other notable actions that you took to do with supporting residents?
Well, I won't go through all the forty-two that ... but just some of the others. As I before, it followed the same pattern and that's what I think gave us a lot of credibility amongst the population at large and gave the lie to the Askin allegation that the leaders were on a power kick. The Rocks, for example, was an area where the idea was to bulldoze all The Rocks, the oldest part of European Australia and build thirty and forty storey buildings. And here the ... it was, unlike Kelly's Bush where there was mainly middle upper class people, here there were working class people that had serviced the city for over a hundred years, and they were the people that worked on the wharves or worked on the ships [and] ferries, or worked in the departmental stores or worked in the offices in the city and they said, 'Well we don't want to be kicked out of our homes'. There was also a lot of public housing because the area of Millers Point which is adjacent to The Rocks was an area where working class people had lived for well over a hundred years, generations of them, and so it meant that The Rocks would be destroyed and all high rise buildings would be built and the people would be turfed out and go to way out in the western suburbs and so it started off on the basis of supporting the people like the residents, but then it developed beyond that because also the National Trust spoke of the importance, the heritage importance of The Rocks, that that should be retained. So there was a combination of residents' rights and also the question of the heritage value to society as a whole, and at the request of the National Trust we imposed a very important Green Ban, and that was that any building decreed by the National Trust to be worthy of preservation, for historical or architectural reason, we would not demolish. and there is over 120 buildings in the city area that owe their existence to the fact that we imposed that ban and of course this was great strength to the National Trust. And again when most of the strength of the National Trust resided with middle upper class people, who were mainly members of it, so you had a cross fertilisation shall we say, as you had with Kelly's bush, where you had a Marxist-led trade union linking up with the blue rinse set of the eastern suburbs and other parts of Sydney, coming together for a common purpose of saving historical buildings. And so The Rocks was a very important example. There were big struggles, when they tried to use non-union labour. Over sixty jobs in the city stopped and 2000 builders' labourers converged on The Rocks to stop the scabs from building and The Rocks was saved after a number of similar fights. Who would now suggest that The Rocks be turned into all high rise development? They claim that over three million people go to see The Rocks and Circular Quay and the Opera House each year, all that area, which is now known to anyone that knows Sydney. The bridge, The Rocks, Circular Quay and the Opera House will be featured thousands of times during the Olympic Games etcetera. And so The Rocks would have ... it wouldn't have been such an attractive area had there been thirty and forty storey buildings rearing up into the sky and dwarfing the Opera House and the bridge. And so The Rocks is one of the great Green Ban victories and it was led by a woman called Anita McCreagh, who has since died of cancer, but she was a barmaid around The Rocks then and was a terrific organiser and so it was a very spirited working class attachment to the Green Bans unlike the Kelly's Bush. Another one was the Centennial Park. In 1972 the Askin Government had the crazy idea that we would go for the Olympic Games in 1988 to celebrate 200 years of white Australia. [INTERRUPTION]
You were telling us about Centennial Park.
Yes, it's hard to believe now but in 1972, led by Sir Robert Askin and the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Nick Shehadie, they unveiled a great scheme to try and get the Olympic Games in 1988 to celebrate 200 years of white Australia, and the idea was to turn Centennial Park into a giant sports stadium with avenues for car parking as well in all of the ... not only in Moore Park but also across the road on the other side as well. So the ... Moore Park and Centennial Park. So the people in the area rose up in anger and it was a very diverse grouping of people. Patrick White, for the first time, came out and became of course a great supporter of the Green Bans and the Builders' Labourers. Then an obscure politician called N.K. Wran, who lived in the area, also came out against it, as did Harry M. Miller, [the] entrepreneur who served a little bit time nearby in Long Bay at one stage. He came out too, and Kylie Tennant the journalist, the ... the novelist came out as well. So you had this wide variety of people who normally were not in the protest business, coming to the Builders' Labourers and asking for assistance, and again we took the same angle by saying if you can demonstrate that people in the eastern suburbs don't want it, well, then call a meeting and two weeks later in Centennial Park over 8000 people came along to a meeting and formally requested the Builders' Labourers to impose a ban. We acceded to their request and said we would impose a ban provided that they continued to pressure the Government and also we would discuss such things as alternative sites. And ironically one of the sites we said ... We're not against the idea of games per se, but certainly to destroy such a part of our history when ... when Federation commenced in Centennial Park, would be just absolutely unbelievable that anyone should even suggest it, and we argued that if other parts of Sydney ... And ironically some of the parts suggested - one was Penrith, another one was Liverpool, and another one was Homebush, even as far back as '72. So after the second big rally at Centennial Park they marched on to Sydney Town Hall and an overflow meeting requested the Builders' Labourers to impose a ban and the ban was successful and Centennial Park is there now. Other outstanding bans ... And by this time we were gathering pace because people were putting forward that there should be provision for protest. They shouldn't just have to take to the streets on every occasion. And a couple of the other bans that received a lot of publicity was Woolloomooloo, the oldest working ... the oldest suburb of Sydney, so close [to the centre] and the idea was to turn that into part of the Central Business District and again twenty and thirty storey buildings [were] to be built there. That was an area where working people had lived much like The Rocks and most of those were out at the waterfront because the Finger Wharf at Woolloomooloo [saw] one of the biggest outgoing of ships and commerce in the ... in Sydney. And the people again approached the Builders' Labourers, and we imposed a ban and by that time the Federal Government had come into power under Whitlam and they'd set up a department of urban planning and so we were able to cooperate with the then Minister, Tom Uren, to have public housing built in Woolloomooloo, because we argued that public housing should not only be on the fringes of the city where people were thrown out, but should be in the inner part of the city as well. And so one of the successes of Woolloomooloo was that ordinary people had the right to public housing so very close to the Central Business District. Just above Woolloomooloo was a famous street, Victoria Street, where artists and waterside workers and others, musicians, had lived. It's been one of the nicest parts of the Cross and with very nice housing on the northern end of the street. The idea there was to build giant high rise development all in Victoria Street and by that time a number of squatters had moved into this street, including such well known people as Wendy Bacon and others, and it gave another flavour to it because it was also fighting for low income earners as in Woolloomooloo to have the right to work, [and] to live in the inner part of the city where they were working. [INTERRUPTION]
So we were hearing about Victoria Street and you described it.
From the start again?
... The squatters. We got up to the fact that there were well known squatters in the area.
Yes, I think an interesting feature of the Victoria Street struggle was that you had squatters also there arguing that low income earners should be able to live in the inner city area, as with Woolloomooloo, and not be compelled to live on the fringes of the large city like Sydney. And I think that was a very important ingredient in that ... that struggle. And of course there the developers were losing enormous amount of money with interest payments because of the ban and so they went so far as to get the thugs and hoons around the Cross to come in and throw the ... the occupiers out, to throw the people who were squatting out and there was a real conflict between the trade unionists, because the Seamen Union had joined us there, because Mick Fowler, a musician and a resident of Victoria Street was involved. And so there was rather a big struggle taking place between the ... Abe Saffron and his ... and his friends who worked in the strip joints and nightclubs and the unionists, but also we had the situation where Askin used the police force to assist the squatters being thrown out. So Joe Owens, was then the secretary of the union, after I'd stepped down, and he said, 'Well no other building will take place in ... in ... in ... in Victoria Street'. So I think that it's pretty important to realise that the Victoria Street, even though some high rise development has been ... has taken place there, that the northern end of Victoria Street is as nice as it was back in the sixties and seventies. So ... and then of course there were other things too. The Theatre Royal was going to be demolished and so the people took action. Save the Theatre Royal people took action and argued that it should be retained and so the giant MLC building was held up until such time as Lend Lease and Dusseldorf, the managing director, came back from [the] Bahamas, where he was at the time, and agreed with the union that a theatre, to the specifications of the theatrical people who were fighting to save it, be incorporated in the giant development and that's why the Theatre Royal is there today, because of that agreement that we wouldn't commence building until such as time as the building ... the theatre was put in place [coughs], excuse me. So I think that gives you an example that we could strike compromise. It wasn't always yes or no. If it had to be a compromise, it can be worked out. Another one that received a lot of publicity was the Congregational Church built in [the] 1830s. It was the oldest church in Sydney and the idea was ... and the church was built by some of the richest families in the colony at the time, like the Fairfaxes, who owned the Sydney Morning Herald and the David Jones, the quality departmental store, and they were the founders of the Congregational Church. And the present person there ... the person there at the time of the ban was Reverend Bryant and he wanted to knock the church down and build a twenty storey building. And the David Jones and the other well-to-do people came to the Builders' Labourers asking for our support, so it was a bit of a strange combination again: people from different walks of life coming together. On the other hand you had Reverend Bryant who was hell bent on going ahead to such an extent that he wrote to Bob Hawke. Bob Hawke was then the president of the ACTU. On the basis that Hawke's father had been a Congregationalist Minister and he wanted Bob Hawke's support for it. He then wrote to the Labour Council. Of course as I mentioned before, [they] were rather hostile to the Builders' Labourers Union and John Ducker, the leader, later to become a leader of the Labor Party, also was against the Green Bans and the Builders' Labourers and condemned it. [INTERRUPTION]
The Labour Council leader at the time, John Ducker, who was a powerful figure in the New South Wales Labor Party, was also critical of the Green Bans and so they were trying to ... the Reverend Bryant was trying to use the right wing Labor leaders to thwart our support for the Fairfaxes and David Jones and all the other people who wanted to keep the historical theatre and church which had a beautiful theatre, a lovely organ ... to keep it for posterity. And I'll never forget one morning I was on an early morning television program and the Reverend Bryant was saying, 'I want to build a building' and me, this ... this person who doesn't believe ... who's not a Christian, you know, he's an atheist, wants to save it. And I said, 'Well, it appears to me that I've got more spirituality than you. You want to destroy your church and I want to support the David Jones and the Fairfaxes and keep it. You know, we're more morally correct than you are'. And so things were happening like that, that showed the differences in the two approaches and overwhelmingly we were ... got letters to the Sydney Morning Herald all supporting the Builders' Labourers role in saving the church. When ... when we finally won the battle and Reverend Bryant lost out, the Congregational Church held a special service and invited along all the builders' labourers on the basis of the 150th year of the church's being built, and we were there singing hymns with the Governor and Reverend Dorothy McMahon was then in the church - one of the more progressive of the church people in Australia, and so she had taken over from the Reverend Bryant so it was a very meritorious victory to have all the builders' labourers singing the hymns together with the blue rinse set from the eastern suburbs. And ...
The Opera House car park battle brought a lot of people on side for you who hadn't really properly understood some of the other issues. They could see that one. Could you tell me how that one came about?
Well, after the ... The Opera House had taken from 1959 to 1973 to complete and of course the builders' labourers and other building workers were thrilled to be a part of that wonderful building, but they'd clean forgot about a place for god car, and so as the final month ticked by and the ... the Opera House was going to open on the October of '73, they had to get a car park going, and the idea was to tear down the three Morton Bay figs, 150 years old in the outer Domain, right near the Government House, cut into the cliff face of Macquarie Street, which is lovely as you go down Macquarie Street, that cliff face really makes the wonderful opening up to the Opera House and so it would all be destroyed.
[end of tape]