|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.
What was the plan for the Opera House car park arrangement? What did they intend to do?
Well at the very last moment they said that they only had a few months to go before the Opera House opened and they were going to work twenty-four hours around the clock to cut into the outer Domain, or the area right near Government House, destroy three fig trees, 150 years old, and destroy the cliff face going down Macquarie Street towards the Opera House, which is part of that lovely area. And again was widespread opposition to it, and we at the request of Friends of the Botanical Gardens imposed a ban saying that the trees were important and that there should be other places found for the cars. In fact it should be under the Opera House. They responded by saying engineering-wise it wasn't [possible] to do that and so finally agreement was reached that the Domain car park which is only a few hundred metres away be used as a park and ride, and for a number of years that was carried out. Later on of course they found engineering-wise to go right below the Opera House ... [PLANE]
So what finally happened about the car park at the Opera House?
Well the ... much like many ... Like many of the other issues public support was very much on our side, particularly the destruction of the fig trees and park and ride came in for a number of years, until later on when the engineers found ways to do it. They built right down deep under the Opera House or under the Botanic Gardens that doesn't necessitate damage to the cliff face or the trees, so those trees are still there and the cliff face is still there. So it's ... it was another great victory to the ... to that period.
If we look around the city now, Jack, what's there? What exists in Sydney that would not be there if it hadn't been for the Builders' Labourers?
Well, I think it's more than the places I've mentioned and that over 130, 140 buildings that are still there, because there's also a belief that they can't do what they did before, that even though the developers as long as there are developers will always find new ways to corrupt or buy their way out, or buy their way into putting up the buildings that they want, there was still a birth of people's public opinion that makes the developers think more deeply about how they're going to do it. Unfortunately the developers still have the upper hand, because the victory that we achieved through the Land and Environment Court has been whittled away as residents no longer have sufficient legal aid to allow them to mount campaigns in the Land and Environment Court and successive governments, both Liberal and Labor, have shown themselves to be more pro-development than that period. In fact what is really required is another spirited, sort of public action that we had in the Green Ban days and, and it also proves that even though you can fight and win rights, they're not there forever, that when it comes to the question of development and conservation, there's always a need for eternal vigilance on the part of those who believe that heritage issues have got to be fought for, because nothing is ever sacrosanct and developers will stop almost at nothing to find their way or bribe their way into it. And you've only got to look at the amount of money they give to political parties now: Labor Party, for example, in New South Wales receives more money from developers than what it does from the trade union movement that gave birth to the Labor Party over a hundred years ago. That's one example. And of course, the developers throw money to both sides of politics to get their way, so it's a continual battle to try and ensure that heritage and environment have a say. I think that the other thing that came out of the ... the Green Ban struggle was the birth of urban environmentalism. Before that there was a notion that somehow the environment was the preserve of the better educated middle class people and was mainly concerned about forests, the Barrier Reef, trees, about rivers, lakes, etcetera, and what the Green Bans shot home is that we are one of most urbanised countries on earth despite the fact of the size of the country and most of the country is very fragile and cannot stand a lot of development. So most of the development is around the coastal areas and something like 70 per cent of the population lives in five or six cities. And particularly a fast growing city like Sydney where we've got four million now and will have five million in twenty years time, the enormous development pressures are ... are just mind boggling and so there is going to be ongoing struggles about that. But the Green Ban period shot home the fact that the urban environment is every bit as important as the natural environment and that working class people have every bit as much interest in what goes on in the city and in the urban areas [as] the middle [and] upper class. That I think is a lasting testament to the Green Ban movement.
During the period that the BLF was so active in this area though, there was a situation where the developers who were people, who were residents of the city too, had no interest in doing anything about preserving these buildings, had no interest in it at all and weren't concerned about the environment and they were backed, as you say, by the Government, and it was the unions, the unions who were prepared to go forego income even though they were low income earners, they were prepared to give up money to do this, whereas the developers who had money to spare weren't. Why do you think that was?
Well, I think, tracing through the manner in which the developers were behaving at the time, I think that the Builders' Labourers were fortunate in having that background of social actions around women, sorry, women, about the blacks, anti-apartheid, Vietnam. All of that political action held us in good stead when we were asked to take on environmental issues, and that experience, and then when we actually got involved with environmental issues had such support that we learnt through our own actions, we [bird singing] learnt that we could be fruitful in our actions and workers got a lot of pride out of that. Workers got a lot of pride out of being part of saving The Rocks. They got a lot of pride out of saving the fig trees and the Opera House and so Centennial Park. There was a feeling that they had a role to play, that workers were not just there as chattels but they had a role to play. We also argued that we should be building buildings that are socially useful and I think that's important that we weren't just saying stop, stop, stop this. We were saying that if you've got waiting lists of people that want to get public housing, why shouldn't we be building public housing instead of empty office buildings for ... for the commercial office space. I mean I think that was important. Now it's interesting now when you look at Sartor's living city, that a lot of that now, a lot of the city is residential, even though it's residential for the better off. But I mean we were arguing at the time that we shouldn't go ahead and just build more and more empty office buildings when we had people wanting public housing, and I think that's the sort of thing, that it's a question of social responsibility, not just building anything, thank you very much, but we want to have a say in what sort of buildings that are built. And after all, if we talk about ecologically sustainable development, if we're ever going to get away from the blind idea of growth for growth's sake, if we're going to have ecologically sustainable development as a ... something more than a cliché, well it's obvious that the workers who build the buildings, are the people who make the products, will have to have a say in whether those buildings and those products are socially beneficial. They're the real big questions for the future and I think that the union, the Builders' Labourers Union showed at that the time that a union has the capacity, given the leadership and membership coming together, to be a part of that planning process. It proved it once and for all because without the Builders' Labourers a lot of Sydney, old Sydney would have been destroyed, there's no doubt about that. [INTERRUPTION]
The Builders' Labourers actually had to ginger up the National Trust too, didn't they ... [INTERRUPTION]
So the Builders' Labourers Federation had to ginger up the National Trust too, didn't you? I mean the National Trust was supposed to be protecting these places. How did you get involved with them?
Well, after the decision the Builders' Labourers made about the Rocks, I got a call from John Morris, who was then the executive director of the National Trust, applauding us for putting the ban on and saying he's really ... he was at the meeting the previous night and he was so happy to know that the Builders' Labourers were taking this action. And I said, 'Well, why don't you go public on that and ... and let your applause be known all over the country'. And he said, 'Oh no, no, I couldn't do that'. And I said, 'Well, why don't I come down and we'll have a talk about it, in which way you could help us because if you made a public statement that would strengthen our position', and I said, 'I'll come down'. And he said, 'No, no, don't do that'. I said, 'Well you come down to the Trades Hall', and that was even more abhorrent that he'd do that, 'No'.
Why was he worried? Why was he worried about that?
I'll tell you. So then he said, 'I'll tell you what I'll do', he said, 'I'll meet you in the Royal George Hotel next Monday in the saloon bar at one o'clock'. He said, 'I'll be wearing a check coat, sports coat and I've got a closely cropped red beard'. So I said, 'Oh well, if that's ... if we've got to do that, why not?' So next Monday I go down to the saloon bar. There's only one person in the saloon bar with a red beard and a check sports coat, and I said, 'This is bloody mad, what's this about?' He said, 'No, Jack', he said, 'The blue rinse ladies from Bellevue Hill would never understand if they knew that I was meeting you in the Trades Hall'. So he said that, you know, it was all right to give support but they would never come on side. I said, 'Oh no, that's not right. We can win them round'. Anyway, it's just amazing that within a matter of months we'd been inundated with requests from other National Trusts all over the country, including Tasmania, to come along and put bans on. So ... and of course, I've told that joke many times about John Morris and he became a very good friend of the union, but there was this real fear because of the middle class, upper class nature of the ... of the ... of the National Trust, that they thought, well, you know, they'd put the people off side.
But Jack the fact that you were a communist must have had an effect on all of that too, didn't it? I mean, how far did that affect the way in which people approached you during this time?
Well, it had ... it had some effect because I got an invitation at that time to go down to Launceston and a woman down there, MacKinnon, she was Lady MacKinnon, [who] was the president of the National Trust ... Anyway the local newspaper was extremely hostile. She invited me down. On the very day I get there, I see headlines in the Launceston paper, Examiner I think it is, saying, 'Lady MacKinnon invites communist to Tasmania' [laughs], splashed all across the paper and ... even though, she stood up to it all right, but of course, they attempted to make capital out of it, but over time, well then we proved our credentials, and after all we were their supporters so they gained from us. [PLANE]
Did the Green Bans spread beyond Sydney?
Oh yes. In fact every state had Green Bans. Nothing like Sydney because Sydney we had the leadership and the membership all working together but there were isolated Green Bans imposed. Sand-mining in Fraser Island, a ban was placed in ... in Queensland, [and] in Melbourne and a number of places, despite the fact that the Victorian secretary and the national secretary, Gallagher, was at odds politically with me for much of the time, nevertheless there were bans imposed there that saved a theatre and saved a park. In Hobart, the Battery Point - a little bit like The Rocks in Sydney - Battery Point's the oldest part of Hobart, [and] it was going to be demolished and we imposed a ban there. In Perth, an old theatre was saved. So yeah, right throughout the country it had its effect but in the main it was the ... Sydney was the ... and Newcastle and Wollongong there were bans on different buildings, but it was mainly in Sydney, which was the flash point for what was occurring. But it had the sympathy of ... The other thing I think, it had the sympathy of workers throughout the country because there was so much support from the more, if I can say, the more enlightened section of society, that a lot of the workers who thought a bit about things in other unions, said, 'Well this is great. It's bringing a lot of ... It's enhancing the reputation of unions', not just to be seen as they were often reported by a hostile press as only concerned about themselves. It was an issue where they were saying well they have got social responsibility in what they were doing.
Things happened internationally too, didn't they?
Well, a number of things. Spike Milligan, the famous comic, he'd been out in Australia to see [his mother]. His mother lived here of course, in Woy Woy and he used to come to Australia and I got to know him and when I was in England, I was on a lecture tour in England in '75 around trade unions and the Labour Party and he said, 'Well, look up in Birmingham, they want to knock down the old post office and we should try and do something about it'. So I went up there and we ... fortunately the building unions were quite sympathetic and [had] left wing leadership [in] Peter Carter, and we had a meeting and they imposed a ban, and so a Green Ban saved Birmingham Post Office, and the person who was the Lord Mayor of Birmingham or the Mayor of Birmingham, he said, 'What is this? We're importing either communist or fascist ideas from Australia'. But the ban was imposed and Birmingham Post Office was saved.
Now, I'd like to go back now and pick up because we followed through the bans but of course during this period a whole lot was happening in relation to what was going on in the union and the union leadership, that paralleled what was going on with the Communist Party in Australia, that various things weren't moving there. So what I'd like to do now is for us to go back and pick up on the way in which some of the union policies were affecting the outcomes of what was happening with you, your role, and ... and your position in relation to other unions. So what I wanted to ask you was, after you become secretary ...
Is this the long view or the short view?
Well, this is just ... I want to go back and sort of pick up on any of that now because it was all running along and we haven't dealt with it. When you were secretary of the union, what was your feeling about how the leadership of the union should operate?
Well, limited tenure of office, I suppose, was the ... easily the most controversial point that I raised in ... other than the Green Ban involvement, because I had felt for a long time that union officials come in to a union with all the good ideas and with desire to really improve it, but with the passage of time they become more conservative. A lot of them who are slightly opportunistic often take a role with the employers and leave the union go, or they use it as a stepping stone to a cushy job somewhere or a seat in Parliament and there was a lot ... a lot of cynicism within the rank and file about union leaders using it as a stone stepping stone for their own benefit. And together with our desire to get the rank and file having confidence in the leadership, I felt that if power was limited, if it could be demonstrated that a tenure of office would show that the leadership could relinquish power and go back to the rank and file, and then come back again if necessary, if elected, would ... would cement the feeling between the rank and file of the membership. I think this was felt by a lot of career union leaders as extremely dangerous and so they were opposed to it, those that saw the union [PLANE] as a career putting their suits on and cars and travel and the rest of it, saw the advantage and they were horrified that someone should suggest a limit tenure of office. But conversely amongst the rank and file it had a lot of support because people felt well, they're fair dinkum, they're honest and they're straightforward, and so there was this contradiction between ourselves and many other unions, including Left unions, let alone the right wing unions. Many of the left wing unions also felt it was a lot of folly in putting this forward.
What did you feel about what you should be paid?
Well, of course that was another feature too. We paid the same ... We got paid the same as the workers on the job and in fact when there were general strikes of the whole membership, the union officials didn't get paid either, or if there were strikes, they got paid the same strike pay as other workers who were on strike. If there was a general strike, of course. With independent strikes you couldn't do that because there was always someone on strike. So this also was, I think, a great strengthening fact with, with the union. I might say that ... jumping ahead a little bit, that when you look back on the differences that occurred within the Builders' Labourers and the way the developers used the differences, I have to say that it was a bit too radical for most other union officials, and I think it played a part in our downfall that the union official ... I think it was looked upon as a bit utopian, that we do this.
A bit too idealistic?
A little bit too idealistic is probably a better way to put it, but against that is that rank and file members of other unions and our own were fully in support of it, thinking it really showed that the leadership was different and not just out for themselves, so it had great benefits in my opinion and I think if all the union members had acted that way, there'd be hell of a lot more support for trade unions.
The fear of the other union leaders - that this would become a precedent - had an effect, do you think, on the attitude they had to you. How did this show itself? How did this play out for you then, when it came time for you to step down?
Well, I ... [INTERRUPTION]
We'll pick up there. How did this play out, this sort of idealistic position that you'd taken and the resentment of ... of other unions or leaders, or the concerns that they had, how did this affect your position in the union when it came time for you to step aside?
Well, it was a pretty smooth change over in the Builders' Labourers. There was a whole range of people who were extremely competent and Joe Owens became the secretary after myself. I stepped down on an appropriate day, All Saints Day in 1973, and Joe became the secretary but the effect on other unions was I think that many of them even used the term, it's a sort of a Marxist term, saying they were Left Adventurist, which meant that they were too far out in front and so on. But it was mainly because they were looking at their own positions. Often we had people, who been formerly union officials, saying it's a great idea, because they are gone then. You had the rank and file fully supporting it but you had the existing union officials saying it's unsettling and it's ... I remember, Clancy, the secretary of the BWIU, saying it takes years to train leaders and therefore you can't just let them go. Well then of course the argument against that, if you train more leaders, well then you cement the ties between rank and file and the leadership, and so there was this discussion and it had an effect no doubt on the union and what happened to the union, but really what occurred in the Builders' Labourers was when the developers and the Master Builders, who were the organisation who looked after the developers, when they couldn't break or coerce the union, people like Pringle, the president, Owens, myself, Hogan and many other, Bud Cooke, [and] many other[s] were offered all sorts of money to lift the Green Bans. Myself in particular as the secretary. And because of that and because we refused all attempts to bribe us, and they couldn't bribe or coerce us, they then used divisions within the union to destroy the New South Wales leadership, and even though in the early period, Gallagher, the national secretary, the federal secretary and myself, we were both members of the Communist Party, but Gallagher had increasingly followed the line of the Communist Party of China, whereas I was on a line that we were completely ... should be independent of China and Soviet Union and any other country. And so there was this political differences but it was used by the developers to try and drive a wedge between Gallagher and myself, and of course history now shows that Gallagher took secret commissions and ... and was ... unlike us, was bribed and finally succumbed to the employer's wish that they move in and destroy the New South Wales leadership.
Now, how did he do that? What happened?
In short, what happened was that the federal body made a decision against the Green Bans - were saying that the Green Bans were going too far and the federal body should take over the New South Wales branch. Joe Owens was then the secretary. I think they used my departure, not that Owens wasn't an extremely capable union official, but I think that they used my stepping down period, to come in and to try and unsettle the new leadership, try and drive a wedge between us. They used that position. It was the final throw of the dice for ... for the Master Builders and Gallagher went along with it too, and of course, as I said, he was found out to be corrupt later on. So Gallagher before had been quite a good union official but he fell for the three card trick and came in. And the other states ... Because Gallagher had the numbers, the other states went along with him and they came into New South Wales. The rank and file here stayed very firmly in support of the ... of the elected New South Wales officials but Gallagher moved in and took over. The Master Builders locked out the New South Wales leadership. The membership. Members of our union were locked out by the Master Builders, so the Master Builders and Gallagher were working in tandem. Finally we said, 'We couldn't have a situation where the members, who were loyal to us, were locked out', so we said, 'We'll join Gallagher's union and fight within'.
What ... How did they manage to that? Did they have to de-register the union to make that ...
The union had been de-registered.
Could you tell us about that?
Well, the union ... It's rather complicated. The union was de-registered and one of the reasons it was de-registered was because of the Green Bans. But actually Gallagher liked the de-registration because it meant that the union didn't have the control over itself. It didn't have branch meetings, it didn't have executive meetings, and so Gallagher could work without the democratic process within the branch. So he and the Master Builders were quite happy for the union to be de-registered because it meant that the democratic rights of the workers were taken away. And then hiding behind the veil of de-registration we had no recourse. We couldn't go to our branch members. We couldn't go anywhere. We couldn't go to the Arbitration Court. So here's ... The only thing we could do was to gaol Gallagher ... to go and gaol Gallagher for contempt of court because the Court ruled that we should be allowed in the union after he expelled us. Gallagher expelled us. He was instructed by the Court to give us our tickets back. He refused to. We were then caught in the dilemma of having to gaol him for contempt of court and, of course having in mind that the Fraser Government was then in power, it would be written up as 'union gaoling their own' and so we really couldn't do that. Finally when we got registration back, we took him again to court, so Gallagher sacked ... expelled all the leaders of the union, the democratically elected union leaders, and Owens, Pringle, myself and all the others were expelled, about forty at the top were expelled. The rest of the membership were locked out. That's when we said, 'Well we'll go back in the union and fight it out within Gallagher's union', but Gallagher and the Master Builders kept the gates closed until they got rid of us. They got rid of us and then Gallagher and the Master Builders took over the union. We were locked out.
And how did you get back in?
We didn't. We were out for years, and finally we took ...
How many years?
Five years, and finally when the union got registered again we went back in and applied, and by that time a black ban had been imposed over us anyway, so Gallagher working with the developers had ... once again had a black ban, so all of those New South Wales ... [INTERRUPTION]
Could you describe to me about what happened in the relationship between the New South Wales union and the federal union under the leadership of Norm Gallagher?
In ... when I finished up in the union in '73 and Joe Owens became the secretary, the union continued on. There had been differences because of political differences between Gallagher, who was aligned with the communist version a la China, and ourselves, who were more for each country being independent and not blindly genuflecting to Russia, China or any other country ... the Soviet Union, China or any other country, so there was this complicated situation within the union. The main point to remember is that the Master Builders were trying to smash the New South Wales branch and they had many attempts to get Gallagher to come on side and help them do it. He refused but when deterioration set in between us and Gallagher, finally he did it and he moved in in the October of '74 and got the federal body to take over the New South Wales branch. The membership of the New South ... Joe Owens called a mass meeting and the membership of the New South Wales branch stood firmly behind the elected leadership of Pringle, president, Owens, secretary and then I was back on the job as treasurer of the union, so the union leadership in New South Wales was as solid as a rock and the membership right behind us. Gallagher had the support - total support of the Master Builders, and so for a period you had Gallagher setting up a federal office in Sydney but without members, bringing officials from other states to try and break down the New South Wales leadership. So for a period you had a federal office and a state office running together at the same time. We knew that we couldn't hold it forever because the Master Builders decided to back Gallagher and lock out the New South Wales membership from their jobs - refused to allow them to work. It was a lock out. We had an emergency meeting and said, 'Well this can't go on. We can't have all our members unpaid in this situation'. So we decided we'd all join the federal union and fight it out within, and that happened. We all joined the federal union. Gallagher responded by sacking all of the elected leadership of the New South Wales branch and all the other militants, who were the leaders of the job delegates and activists [PLANE] so they were all driven out of the union. At the same time there was no branch meetings held. There were no consultation with the rank and file because the union under Gallagher and the Master Builders had agreed in the previous year to get de-registered, and hiding behind de-registration Gallagher then carried out his unsavoury acts. So Gallagher and the Master Builders were totally in bed together, as later proven of course when Gallagher went to gaol for taking secret commissions from them. But that was the attack on the New South Wales branch and that's the way they worked it out. And of course two years later, Gallagher and the Master Builders go to the court and get reregistered so that for two years there was no democratic action in New South Wales at all. They ruled in a dictatorial manner. When the union got reregistered, Owens, Pringle, [and] myself applied for membership and we obtained membership. Gallagher thumbed his nose at us and still with the Master Builders refused to employ us, so we were locked out as well. We then were faced with the dilemma of having to gaol Gallagher for contempt of court and other unions thought, well, because we're such a highly publicised union, it will be damaging to the whole union movement if we were to put Gallagher [in gaol] because the story would go out, well, this proves the union gaols their own. So any other call by the employers to gaol union leaders in the future would be ... they'd say, 'Well you gaoled your own', so we really couldn't carry that out, and Gallagher used that.
[end of tape]