Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Seaforth TAFE, Ballast Point, Union Square in Pyrmont. CFMEU, 2011
Bertolt Brecht, Questions From a Worker Who Reads, 1935. Who built Thebes of the 7 gates? In the books you will read the names of kings. Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
Green bans by Australian building unions are a unique contribution to the international workers’ movements. 16 June 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of the first Green Ban at Kelly’s Bush, Hunters Hill, placed by BLF secretary Jack Mundey. The BLF prevented A.V. Jennings building luxury units on one of the last remaining sections of bushland on the Parramatta River.
The Building Workers’ Industrial Union (BWIU), the Federated Engine Driver’s and Firemen’s Association (FEDFA) and the Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) imposed bans over 50 sites in four years. Hundreds of individual buildings listed by the National Trust and the Institute of Architects were saved including Elizabeth Bay House and Queen Victoria Building.
This was a unique time. The economy and planning laws were de-regulated. State planning authorities gave developers the ‘green light’. Foreign capital flowed in. Inner city Sydney, Newcastle, Melbourne and Perth especially were up for “integrated redevelopment”. Heritage buildings were proclaimed eyesores. Progress was all.
Green Bans stopped the bulldozing of heritage suburbs of Glebe, The Rocks, Woolloomooloo and Newcastle East End; the inappropriate building in Centennial Park and saved hundreds of historical buildings up to and including the Art Deco Museum of Contemporary Art (former Maritime Services Building).
Building bans are negotiable to achieve a better outcome. In the early 1990s the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) placed a ban on the demolition of the Woolloomooloo Finger Wharf for over 2 years. The wharf was saved (but gentrified.)
Recent bans by the CFMEU have forced the state to significantly amend plans for the better such as Sydney Conservatorium of Music, returning Seaforth TAFE to community ownership and keeping harbour side land at Ballast Point public and retaining heritage listed Union Square in Pyrmont. They also work at a local government level. The union helped save Fitzroy Gardens in Kings Cross, a significant modernist design by Ilmar Berzins, in early 2011.
Green bans are about much more than green space and important heritage buildings. They are a potent symbol of individual social conscience and a creative example of how workers can use their labour. Having a say in the city of the future created a planning system revolution, then changed institutions and laws. They set standards around the world. The state BLF leadership paid dearly. The union was de-registered and the leadership denied the right to work in their industry.
Today the CFMEU its successor and its members risk large fines under Federal Government laws that restrict industrial action. The Howard conservative government set up an Australian Building and Construction Commission – ABCC –with coercive powers and restrictions on union activities. It remains in place under the Rudd then Gillard Labor governments. The struggle to make the rich, the greedy and the powerful accountable for a better society, is a great victory for building workers. The Green Bans Art Walk acknowledges this achievement.