Four theses on ‘green bans’ and the contemporary right to the city

Photo: Rennie Ellis.

The ‘right to the city’ is back on the agenda. In Brisbane, hundreds rallied this past Saturday against rapacious development in the city’s migrant and student heavy West End. In Melbourne, houses resumed for the construction of a now scrapped tunnel in Collingwood are being occupied by the homeless. These and other movements are asking questions: why is Australia’s construction boom – a part of the shift from the mining industry to other forms of investment – leaving so many out? Why are high-rises being built, and left largely vacant, while people go without shelter at night? And why are ordinary people in the suburbs these towers are being constructed, over whom giant cranes now perpetually linger, being left out of the debate on how they want to live?

Similar questions were being asked forty years ago in Australia. In Brisbane, freeway construction was threatening inner-city working class suburbs with destruction. In Sydney and Melbourne, rapacious development was similarly remaking inner suburbs and CBDs with new construction. The value of construction projects approved throughout Australia increased from $1.7 billion in 1966 to $2.9 billion only 5 years later. Historic suburbs were threatened – Carlton in Melbourne and the Rocks in Sydney – yet the concurrent demand for labour also made this a prime time for construction unions to flourish. The Builders Labourer’s Federation in NSW, and the federal equivalent based in Victoria, both gained in members and power during this period, allowing the NSW branch in particular to re-think the role of unionism and to successfully challenge building booms that put profits ahead of people through a famous campaign of ‘green bans’.

I don’t want to go over what is a pretty well-known story in this article or be too prescriptive– the ‘lessons’ of the 1970s cannot be applied today. Rather, I want to pull out a few ideas that arise from looking at the BLF campaigns from today’s perspective.

‘Civilising the Industry’ was a precondition for militant struggle

The story of the BLF in NSW is told well by Meredith and Verity Burgmann in their 1998 work Green Bans, Red Unions, though it is out of print and hard to come upon these days. One point they make is that the BLs, as they self-identified, didn’t just discover a green thumb one day and decide to be the saviours of inner-Sydney. BLs were amongst the most exploited of workers. Low skilled, often from migrant backgrounds or with criminal records, they worked in an unsafe industry with low rates of pay run – as much of the construction industry still is today – by organised crime.

Indeed, the BLF in NSW was run by a ‘right-wing thuggish’ element before a group of Communist Party of Australia-allied unionists – the well-known Jack Mundey as well as lesser-known figures like Joe Owens and Bob Pringle – finally won full control in 1968. This new leadership first turned its attention to what they termed ‘civilising the industry’ – getting decent conditions – like toilets on site. ‘Doggers’ – those who managed the lifting of construction materials onto high-rise sites – were a particular target for safety struggles. Employers were reluctant to hire two ‘doggers’, leading to one man having to ‘ride the hook’ of the crane up as many stories as needed, without any safety harnesses. The BLF changed this by simply refusing to work if such conditions continued, direct action emblematic of their later green ban policies. Equally, in the Margins Strike of 1970, the BLs succeeded in having their wages matched with those of more skilled workers – something which perturbed their ‘comrades’ in other unions.

These ‘bread and butter’ issues had to be met before the workers would consider more socially conscious demands. Indeed, the wide range of interviews conducted by the Burgmann’s for their book indicate that it was the rapport and trust the CPA union leadership developed during these traditional union struggles that got members ‘on-side’ for the wave of green bans to follow, which saw the unashamedly working class BLF work with, for instance, the solidly middle class housewives of Kelly’s Bush to save one of the last piece of green spaces on the Sydney harbour. Without ever-improving wages and conditions, it’s unlikely the union would have been able to keep its members –not to mention scabs – from breaking whatever bans the leadership put in place.

This struggle makes me think about the industry today. We are in an economic crisis, not a period of boom, and are experiencing high rates of unemployment rather than the largely ‘full employment’ of the post war boom. Equally, construction unions are under significant political attack and incredibly prescribed in what they can ‘strike’ over. Secondary boycott bans now make what the BLs did in the 1970s impossible. The NSW BLF was deregistered in 1975 – its militancy was no longer allowable in the changing economic political climate of the ‘stagflation’ era. And the Federal BLF, led by corrupt Maoist Norm Gallagher, experience the same treatment in 1986, having waged its own more limited campaigns to save Melbourne landmarks like the Victoria Markets. So, no one should expect the contemporary union movement to be too forthright on these issues, at least in an industrial capacity.

I was however, brought to consider the plight of security guards over the weekend. These are the workers we’ll largely be facing off against, who fill the gaps in the police’s defence of private property. But they are super-exploited, often ‘contractors’, with low English language skills and subject to basically no job protection. If there’s an industry that needs civilising today, it might be this one, and maybe that’s worth thinking about.

The city we want is an inclusive one

Bo spoke well at Saturday’s rally on the absolute necessity for any movement for affordable housing to not forget Indigenous Australians, who are being squeezed out of West End by property prices and racist policing. Yet, an interjection from the crowd that ‘everyone’ should be allowed in West End shows both the possibilities and limits of such liberal Universalist categories.

The BLF were aware of this, the need to not just say that ‘everyone’ should have the same rights, but that different levels and types of oppression require different strategies for amelioration. So, the BLF published its material in multiple languages – ensuring that migrant workers of Greek, Italian, Yugoslav or other eastern European backgrounds could adequately participate and bring their own voices to union decision making. The BLF also supported calls from Women’s Liberationists to end job discrimination, ensuring that women were hired on building sites, and not just in the canteen. They also placed a ‘pink ban’ on construction at Macquarie University in 1973 after a queer student – Jeremy Fisher – was kicked out of a university college for his sexuality. BLF official Bob Pringle was arrested for trying to cut down the goal posts at the SCG just before South Africa was due to play in 1971, and the union provided real support to the indigenous rights movement.

Not all of these decisions were popular with members of this very macho union. But it reminds us today that any call for affordable housing or the right to the city needs to ask, whose rights are being defended?

Choosing your struggles carefully – or why not to be a ‘fly-in’ activist

I’ve made this point elsewhere, so I won’t labour it. But it is important that any struggle being waged has the real support of the community behind it. The BLF had a good policy on this – they wouldn’t place a ban on a site without a sizable public meeting of the people it effected passing a motion calling for their intervention, as ‘the union neither set itself up as an arbiter of taste nor attempted to impose bans that lacked local support’. This provided the union’s action with legitimacy, but also provided a space for the community to come together, show their resolve and to debate issues. Over 600 people attended the meeting that saw the BLF place a green ban on the ‘Kelly’s Bush’ area, and meetings of a similar size were a requirement of all future action. So, rather than trying to build an oppositional movement out of nothing or trying to mobilise people’s grievances in a way that didn’t meet with their wishes or needs, Mundey and his union ensured that they honoured the demands of those they were struggling for.

Whose ‘right to the city’?

I’ll finish this article by returning to a point I started to make above. My current research project examines the language of ‘rights’ – and particularly ‘human rights’ – in Australian social movements over the past 70 years. What I am finding is that the idea of rights has been narrowed and limited over the decades. ‘Rights’ to housing and employment – central to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – are rarely mentioned, let alone 1972 amendments that included the right to live in a decent environment. Instead, individual rights are often all that’s on the agenda. This is the ‘right’ to be a bigot, as our esteemed Attorney General put it back in 2014. And equally, it is expressed by the Australian Human Rights Commission, who talk about addressing structural, collective problems like racism by shaming individuals.

As such, the language of rights needs to be used carefully. Property rights, after all, reign supreme in capitalist states. It is just as much, if not more, the ‘right’ of property developers to do what they want in our cities and suburbs as it is for us – students, women, the elderly, indigenous – to live in them. So, let’s at least return to the spirit of the 1948 declaration, and start talking more about collective rather than abstract rights. As Henri Lefebvre, who coined the term back in 1968, put it:

The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.


21 thoughts on “Four theses on ‘green bans’ and the contemporary right to the city

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    1. I think that the rates are ‘high’ when compared to the 1970s. ~2% as opposed to 6.7% now in QLD. Is that really ‘high’ though.

      1. I guess the real divide is between unemployment during Fordism/Keynesianism and under postFordism/ neoliberalism. Today’s unemployment level isn’t by current standards.

  1. Underemployment and insecurity/precarity in employment are worth raising alongside unemployment numbers, as there is an increasing shift towards casualiation across a number of sectors (coupled with attempts to remove penalty rates). In many ways—as a result, unempoyment numbers are far from an accurate representation…

    1. From memory the tendency is a bit more complex. There has been a massive increase in part-time and casual employment since the end of Fordism but this dropped during the height of the mining boom. There has also been a massive increase in the participation rate in the labour force. Compared to Fordism more of us work and we work more.

  2. Regarding what Boe said about affordable housing for Indigenous Australians, i know this has fallen on deaf ears since 2009, but attempts by the Aboriginal Community (through Link-Up) to set up an Aboriginal Juvenile Community Centre opposite West End Primary school at 24 Horan Street was subverted by Qld Public Trustee (Peter Carne formerly of Goss, Downy & Carne).

    The resultant sale of the old AHIMSA house on that site for less than 50% of market value to CJ’s Pasta indicates how close to corruption are current and prior Labor identities (Carne included) in West End.

    Bernie Neville on Ahimsa house roof (Horan St West End) protesting the fraudulent sale despite market value bid by aboriginal community.

    When former Labor politicians resign because of corruption in local government (Rob Pyne, sic) they are pilloried by the likes of Jackie Trad (Deputy Premier, Local government & Resources minister) and Peter Simpson (ETU).

    Simmo’s outbursts against whistle-blower Pyne are doubly ironic given it was his own outing of the sell out by Anna Bligh of QRail that contributed to the fall of her government.

    Not to labour the point 😉 the whole AHIMSA house fraud was perpetrated by a person from the Left, Libertarian Anarchist, Brian Laver, and an architect, Will Marcus, who has received contracts from previous Labor administrations.

    ETU billboard in Highgate Hill West End

  3. The BLF and intersectionality
    Jon P’s Four Theses is a very interesting and brief read. The example of the NSW BLF and the green bans is great. It’s a shame that the examples of union action to challenge developers and government on such issues are mainly historical, and it’s great to see the CFMEU’s stand in relation to the Bondi Pavilion.
    Examples like the NSW BLF need to be laboured for two reasons.
    Many of the great activists in Jono’s election campaign (and the Greens more generally) see electioneering as the primary focus. It was certainly worthwhile doing letterboxing, handing out HTV cards, campaigning outside schools etc for Jono – that’s paid off – it’s great to have his voice in Council. But I think that for a lot of people electioneering has tended to overshadow grass roots mobilisation. Things might shift a bit after 2 July.
    The other reason relates to the influence of identity politics in the ‘right to the city’ campaign. In a recent discussion with one of the campaign activists I raised the need for solidarity and bridge-building as being important in campaign building. The activist responded with the concept of networking between oppressed groupings, and declared their adherence to identity politics generally. The question posed was how activists might build support.
    An issue with the focus on electoralism and identity politics is that such politics can tend to ghettoise the ‘right to the city’ and other campaigns. The example of the NSW BLF is a useful counter in that it suggests not only that the campaign can broaden out, but also that it is important to establish unity with unions, who have the social power to make such campaigns effective. (I don’t deny the political and organisational problems in the unions – but the point is that the unions have real potential to bring much needed and decisive clout to community campaigns.)
    I am not sure that the Four Theses’ characterisation of the BLF as intersectional is useful. I know that some Marxists have embraced the concept. The problem in part is that the concept is used to mean different things. And I agree that it is important for a framework that ensures a platform for people experiencing oppression.
    As I see it the problem with intersectionality is similar to problems associated with identity politics and privilege theory in that it has the tendency to fragment rather than lay an objective ideological framework for the kind of solidarity we need today in response to so many issues. To the degree that unity is forged by activists starting from a framework of identity politics, intersectionality etc it will be by moral argument.
    Another issue with describing the NSW BLF as intersectionalists is that it can cloud arguments about the centrality of class, and instead class may be seen as one more form of oppression. My argument is that describing the NSW BLF as intersectionalists introduces unnecessary ambiguity.

    1. Firstly what on earth is an ‘objective ideological framework’ as a good thing?
      Secondly I think you are seriously misrepresenting the debate around Jono’s election campaign and the movement on the question of elections and the dense net of contradictions that are presenting themselves.
      But more importantly I think we can only understand the working class, that is the class of labour-power as it functions as part of capital and within capitalism, as aprior built around processes of race and gender. This doesn’t preclude struggle but means that the real movement of the class will arise, does arise ,within these divisions and have to address them.
      Outdated socialist ideological baggage or the fetishism of certain forms of struggle and organization is of little use to communists today.
      Rather the challenge will be how we as a class which is always-already internally divided and stratified can encounter each other and struggle together. This is not simply a question of ideas but a lived and material reality – one that is enscribed within the city.

    2. Hmmm…I’m not at all convinced by this idea of an “objective ideological framework.” If we “lay” this framework as activists, how is it objective? What does “objective” even mean in this context? Do you mean a set of agreed-upon demands? Or do you mean some kind of a priori “truth” that exists outside of the uncertainty of our individual actions and movements? I presume the former….but I guess if it’s the latter, then we maybe just disagree epistemologically….

      So – let’s say your idea of an “objective ideological framework” is really meant to describe an accepted set of agreed-upon demands. Our question, and presumably our struggle, is how we develop, articulate and enact those demands. And I guess I’d suggest that a failure to formulate our demands intersectionally is what most often derails social movements, precisely because it gets in the way of meaningful coalition building.

      I guess for me, I feel like there are very valid critiques of “identity” politics (not least that an overreliance on the concept can ignore the fluidity and complexity of social identities, and can work to stifle conversation, or to reinforce elitist power dynamics, or to deny the ways in which our material experiences of the world are always more complex than a checklist)….BUT, I don’t think that those critiques necessarily lead us to outright reject the notion that our personal experiences of the world are political, or to deny that it is the material conditions of our lives which frame our political demands and priorities. And, as has already been pointed out by Dave, questions of class composition and mobilisation are always already questions around race and gender and ability and sexuality. Denying those intersections won’t make ’em go away.

      So – I guess I’d suggest that the purpose of recognising that the BLF was an intersectional coalition is to understand that it brought together people with vastly different material experiences of the world, and rather than refusing to acknowledge those differences in the name of the “unity” of the movement (or some outdated notion of class composition), it instead sought to frame a set of demands that reflected a variety of lived experiences.

    3. My other pedantic opposition to the notion of ‘objective ideological formation’ is as follows: Greg seems to place great store in Marxism but use the term ideology in a way completely alien to Marx’s use of it. Ideology is a concept that appears in Marx’s early work then disappears. In The German Ideology ideology doesn’t only mean an ism or a set of ideas but rather the condition of seperation ideas take from people due to the division of labour in class society. It shifts the athiest critique of God into a communist critique of the reification of all ideas. Thus ideology isn’t a good thing – it is something that will be abolished as part of class society. Engels later revives ideology to mean the separate world view of classes – but this imports a late 19th Century positivism which leaves us all poorer.
      Thus ideology, as a condition of ideas, is something we are opposed to. Can we think outside of it however? Maybe but only if thinking is part of the revolt against the world of reification.

  4. Thanks Anna and Dave.
    I will reply more fully, but I am a bit snowed under with different things at the moment. (This includes finishing a year long course of Interferon based medical treatment.)
    “Laying an objective ideological framework” was probably not the best formulation to use. Different experiences gives rise to a diversity of understandings. Activists will ask themselves what are the best sets of ideas that might take campaigns or struggles forward.
    A better starting point than “objective ideological framework” is Marx’s formulation in the Thesis on Feuerbach:
    “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.”
    That is some sets of ideas will prove to have a more useful practical application than others, and that becomes evident to us as activists in the course of campaigns, our study of history etc. So perhaps laying an objective ideological framework might be replaced with “arguing for certain sets of ideas (or ideological framework) that have proven or are likely to prove more effective than other frameworks in delivering positive outcomes for struggles etc.”
    I am not denying that struggles should ignore people’s experiences or the oppressions they suffer. In fact I have acknowledged that the BLF example is great – the confidence that builders labourers established in their capacity to take on the industry bosses meant that they were capable of using their strength as organised workers to respond to issues not thought of as industrial relations type issues, such as gender discrimination, environmental concerns, responding to community concerns and take action in response to the persecution of a gay student.
    I don’t think anyone here is suggesting that an understanding of lived experiences or oppressions should be ignored, but rather that such understandings particularly of issues relating to gender, race, ethnicity etc are necessary, and that it is the highest folly to ignore them. No-one is suggesting that oppressions or lived experience be ignored.
    I do think there are problems with a range of political frameworks that have emerged since the 1980’s. Privilege theorists eg. can argue that there is no basis for unity between those who are oppressed and those said to gain from that oppression. Such an approach is divisive and obstructs the building of social solidarity. I would also argue that subjectivism ignores the role of different oppressions under capitalism, and consequently ignores grounds that might be used to argue for solidarity.
    The above comments are probably too crudely put to satisfy anyone. But I better get back to an assignment due today.
    In unity

    1. Greg you are tilting at strawman called ‘Privilege theorists’ which may have some real world analogs but none of which are here.

      The hierachies of race and gender
      aren’t some ideological layer on top of the expierence of class or the fantasies of some US professor – they are part of the very materiality of how class exists and operates in capitalism. This doesn’t preclude the capacity for struggles in common – but inescapably produces and shapes these struggles in ways alot of inherited Left thought can’t grasp. So let’s grasp reality and let go of old dogmas ( communists are materialists after all).

      I think also Marx’s quote (for what it is worth) is about directing us towards the antagonisms in lived material conditions and away from the reifications of ideology. Theory yes – ideology no. (To quote the old US anarchists ‘Theory is when you have ideas; ideology is when ideas have you.)

  5. A few points.
    That identity politics can be a problematic framework for the evolving of campaigns is evident from Asad Haider’s article on Baraka. The examples Haider speaks of are very dramatic examples of the fragmentation I have expressed concern about.
    I not sure what Dave means when he talks about the reference to privilege theorists being a strawman. No one has made comments about privilege theory being an issue in the ABSOE campaign etc. But I have heard two prominent activists in/associated with the right to the city use privilege theory as a framework that underpins how their orientation to alliance building. One of those activists used privilege theory to undermine alliance building.
    The BLF/green bans example is very useful. It is one of many examples where socialists, unionists and other activists influenced by marxist politics have theoretically situated indigenous, environmental, gender and sexuality related and national liberation matters within a class framework and played crucial roles in campaigns advancing indigenous, gay rights etc etc. Such historical examples are useful in dispelling notions that class frameworks ignore various oppressions. (This is not to deny that political frameworks compromised by stalinism and many various other influences have resulted in support for positions that have reinforced oppressions.) The inability of the union movement to respond to changes since the 1980’s and the marginalisation of the left means that Australian examples are often historical. They are useful nonetheless in pointing to the potential for powerful challenges to oppressive structures etc.
    Finally I think that general statements such as arguments being “really off base” appear to be cheap misplaced point scoring and are not conducive to the fostering of political discussion between activists.

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