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.