The true saviour of Glebe and inner-city Sydney, Jack Mundey, died on Sunday 10 May, aged 90. We residents owe our pleasant and convenient lifestyle to Jack and the rank and file members of the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF). Sydney would be a very different place if the BLF had not saved green space, historic buildings and workers’ housing by placing world first ‘Green Bans’ on the shocking overdevelopment being proposed in the early seventies.
Jack came down from North Queensland in the 1950s to play rugby league for Parramatta and, failing to make the cut, ended up on the tools. Confronted with a conservative union leadership, Jack fought hard to democratise and radicalise the union, joining the Communist Party along the way in 1957. He became Secretary of the BLF in 1968. Along with Joe Owens and Bob Pringle he led the union in the famous Green Bans period of the early 1970s.
Having grown up amidst rainforests, Jack was an environmentalist before that term was even used. But what Jack brought to the struggle was his view that workers should campaign around the social responsibility of labour. He believed that workers should think about the sort of work they do and the environment in which they live and work.
The Green Bans were originally just called black bans but were later, in a stroke of brilliance, dubbed ‘green’ bans by Jack. There were eventually 54 Green Bans and they held up $5 billion worth of building activity in 1970s’ dollar terms.
It was Jack and the BLF who led the fight in the early seventies against the two great expressways that would have trifurcated Glebe – the Western Distributor and the North Western Distributor. They were planned to cut a huge swathe through Glebe as we knew it.
At the behest of the newly formed Glebe Society, the Builders Labourers put what was then a black ban on the project. In fact, this destruction of Glebe would have wiped out the house I was living in and was one of the major reasons why I first became involved with the Green Bans movement.
Another wonderful aspect to the Glebe Green Ban was that Lyndhurst, the beautiful old manor in Darghan St, also had a separate Green Ban imposed on it. It was almost derelict at the time and was being rented by a number of different organizations including the Nazis.
Remember that, at this time, there were no environmental planning laws at all. There were no heritage laws that would save streetscapes or even important historic buildings. We had to wait until the Wran government, elected in 1976, for the Environment and Planning Act and the Heritage legislation to be enacted.
The other great hero of the struggle to save Glebe, and a great mate of Jack’s was Tom Uren. Tom was the minister for Urban and Regional Development under Gough Whitlam and it was on his recommendation that the Whitlam government bought the old Anglican housing estate – the 900 houses – which are now part of the housing department area. This saved the streetscape of Glebe and gave it the character we now delight in.
Apart from this suburb-saving intervention in Glebe, the BLF Green Bans saved the Rocks and Woolloomooloo from being turned into a forest of high rise ‘executive suites’; saved Centennial Park from being turned into a giant sporting complex; saved Victoria St Kings Cross from destruction; saved Surry Hills from excessive high rise; saved Ultimo from an expressway and saved the Opera House fig trees from being destroyed for a car park. Individual buildings saved by Green Bans include the State Theatre, the Pitt St Congregational Church, and the Colonial Mutual, National Mutual and ANZ bank buildings in Martin Place.
The late sixties had seen a massive building boom in Sydney caused by unregulated ‘hot money’ overseas investment and the activities of the corrupt and pro-development Askin government. There were few anti-development voices. The media was openly hostile to the Green Bans (although a lot of rewriting of history has gone on) and the only other professional voices were weak. There was a poorly funded National Trust and an even weaker Royal Australian Planning Institute.
However, the BLF’s stand was massively strengthened by the rise of inner-city resident activism. The progressive middle class had started to move into the inner city, which is where most of the pressure from developers was occurring; and these activists were desperate for help in their stark situations.
Resident Action Groups were formed – first in Paddington and Glebe in 1971 (there’s a bit of argument over which was first), quickly followed by other suburbs – Woolloomooloo, The Rocks, Surry Hills and the very militant Victoria St which even included squatting (and where I was arrested).
The BLF leadership always insisted that every ban had to occur at the request of the residents and had to have the community involved. This involved endless discussion between the union leadership and the concerned residents. It was what Jack referred to as ‘the enlightened middle class and the enlightened working class coming together’ to work for a better living environment.
Every proposed ban had to be agreed to by a general meeting of the union. Almost all bans ended up being physically defended and many labourers and residents were arrested and even gaoled for this stoic defence.
Jack always understood that, on the whole, the bans could only halt development in order to allow time for political solutions. He developed excellent working relationships with NSW Premier Neville Wran and with Tom Uren. These friendships particularly helped in the government intervention to save Glebe and Woolloomooloo and the building of Sirius for social housing in the Rocks.
The union’s Green Bans quickly became known around the world. ‘Green Ban Committees’ were formed by unions in Britain. Jack Mundey was invited to lecture in Europe and North America and in 1976 he addressed the first United Nations Conference on the Built Environment.
The timelessness and the internationalism of the Green Bans and Jack Mundey’s leadership at that time has recently been illustrated by the fact that 50 years after the Green Bans, interest from students and international scholars is so high that our book Green Bans, Red Union: The Saving of a City has recently been reissued.
After he voluntarily left the union leadership (believing in limited tenure of office) he remained active in environmental and urban planning issues. He was elected to the City of Sydney Council and was briefly Chair of its Planning Committee. He was active in the National Trust and was made a life member of the Australian Conservation Foundation. Bob Carr appointed him Chair of the Historic Houses Trust (now Sydney Living Museums). The National Trust campaigned for Jack Mundey Place in the Rocks to be named after him. He was made an AO and was voted one of Australia’s National Living Treasures. He was awarded Honorary PhDs from the University of Western Sydney and the University of NSW. He once said to me in mock sympathy ‘only one PhD?’ He did love to provoke.
After the tragic death of his first wife Stephanie from a cerebral haemorrhage, he married Judy Wilcox in the 1960s. Further tragedy occurred when his son Michael died in a car accident at the age of 22. Judy has been his partner in life and politics for over 50 years. She was an important activist in her own right becoming President of the Communist Party in its important ‘independent’ years from 1979 to 1982.
Jack Mundey and the men and women of the BLF did indeed save a city, as our book points out, and every day all of us benefit from that.
Dr Meredith Burgmann is a long time Glebe resident and a former Green Bans activist. She is the author (with Verity Burgmann) of Green Bans, Red Union: The Saving of a City (re-issued 2017)
Jack Mundey and the Glebe Society
As alluded to by Meredith in the preceding article, the connection between the Glebe Society and Jack Mundey goes back nearly 50 years. Here we highlight some of those connections over that time.
Life membership of the Glebe Society in 2019
Members will recall that at the 2019 Annual General Meeting, Jack Mundey was given Life Membership of the Glebe Society. See Bulletin 8/2019 for the citation which was read by Meredith Burgmann.
Jack attends the Glebe Society 50th anniversary Community Festival in 2019
Jack Mundey made a surprise – but most welcome – visit to see the exhibition at the Glebe Society 50th anniversary Community Festival held at the Tramsheds in June last year. Fortunately, a few moments of this visit were captured on video with Jack talking to the Society’s Allan Hogan. It can be viewed on our Facebook page. This is well worth a look, as it’s a beautiful moment.
Jack attends the Society’s 40th anniversary celebrations, 2009
As reported in Bulletin 5/2009, Jack gave the keynote address at a party held at the Woolcock Institute (formerly the Max Factor building) on 19 June 2009, to celebrate its 40th year since it began in 1969. You can listen to a recording of his address on the Glebe Society’s YouTube channel.
Jack is keynote speaker at the 1999 Christmas Party
The year 1999 was the 30th anniversary of the Glebe Society and this was celebrated in the company of Jack Mundey who attended our Christmas Party at Lyndhurst. Jack was then Chair of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW. The location was most fitting, given Jack’s key involvement in the saving of Lyndhurst that was slated for demolition for an expressway. Jack addressed the crowd on the evening (Bulletin 10/1999).