Australian Biography: Jack Mundey
Jack Mundey (b. 1929, Malanda, Qld) became a national figure in the early 1970s when he led the Builders' Labourers Federation's famous "green bans". This extraordinary conservation campaign redefined the development of Australia's major cities. A crusading unionist and Communist Party member, he also fought for safety reforms on building sites and helped usher in a new era of union activism for wider social issues, from feminism and gay liberation to land rights and international politics. In this interview, Jack reflects on his lifelong commitment to social justice. He was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 2000.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
Well, Malanda is a small town on the beautiful Atherton Tablelands, 3000 feet above sea level, sixty miles west of Cairns, and it's generally considered one of the most beautiful parts of Australia. But in the thirties when I was on a ... belonging to a family on a farm, just outside this town ... well of course it was in the height of the Depression or should I say the depth of the Depression, and my first memories were milking the cows, bailing the cows up in the morning and the afternoon, going with my father on the spring cart, three times a week, into the local town, the butter factory, so it was pretty idyllic, I suppose, for a little kid on a ... on a ... on a farm.
Well, he'd been through a bit. I guess he was in his late thirties when I was born. I'm the fourth of five children and three girls and I was ... myself and a younger brother. And in the early twenties ... Well, first of all he was one of the pioneers in that area. He went up and settled there in 1908 when it was all scrub, it was all rainforest, and ironically they had to clear so many acres of their allotment, of their selection each year. The ... My father came from northern New South Wales and his mother bought him this property, I think, for a very small amount of money because the government in those days were encouraging people to go up to that area and, in fact, when my father selected this farm, they had to clear twenty or thirty acres each year so as they could retain the farm. When it was cleared sufficiently they bought some cows and the farming commenced. And my father was also a very good auctioneer and he worked on that as well. But then, of course, the Depression hit and he was one of many hundreds of farmers who lost their farm. And so, he ... he had retained a herd of cows - milking cows, and so [he] then went and rented land from other owners. And so when I was born, he was in that period, so the Depression. He'd lost his farm and he was then renting another farm. And milking cows was pretty arduous sort of work - milking cows twice a day, morning and evening, 365 days a year. So they were very ... they were ... of course I didn't appreciate it at the time being a small child, but the thirties were very difficult years as well we know, but exceedingly difficult for dairy farmers in such harsh conditions.
I was born in the end of '29 - right in the heart of the Depression actually, so my first memories as a child is through the thirties.
Well, I think it's one of the only areas ... At that time, when I was a child, it was one of the only areas in the tropics where they had dairy farming but of course because it was 3,000 feet or thousand metres above sea level, well, it was modified. The harshness of the subequatorial region of Cairns ... the thousand metres above that meant that the farming was possible. And in fact, later on, that farming area, the dairy farming area had the longest milk runs in the world. It went right out to Darwin and down as far as Townsville, so dairy farming was really ... was something rare in the ... in the tropics anywhere in the world at that time.
Well, you didn't ... One didn't know much else, did they? So ... but it was very pleasant. I mean, as I mentioned before, it was an extremely attractive physical environment and, yeah, I think it was, you know, quite pleasant. We were close to the town. We were only a mile or two from the ... from this town, Malanda.
He was ... I think it was better than average father-son relationship. But having in mind that I was only six when my mother died ... I was actually very close to my mother [coughs] and she was ... Well, as a little kid ... I suppose, most little kids are generally closer to their mother than their father. But, yeah, I got on quite well with both of them.
Well, my mother was ... she was ... had a reputation as a very fine pianist and she played at different functions in the ... in the area of the Atherton Tableland. And she was a very kindly woman. Of course, that period also was extremely difficult for women in the farming areas, even more so than men, I suppose you'd say, having in mind that the Depression was at its worst and she had, with the arrival of myself, four children, ranging from eleven down, and then four years later she had my younger brother. So there were five little kids on a ... on a poverty stricken dairy farm. Well, not poverty-stricken but, I mean, extremely difficult circumstances so it was a pretty challenging period. The butter was at an all time low and so it was ... Well, as everybody knows, the thirties were extremely difficult for city or country people alike. I suppose the advantage of the country we always had food because of the ... the farms, so you had that advantage over the poor working class people in the big cities. And naturally as a child, I didn't have an appreciation of ... of all of that. And as I said, my mother was a very kind person and when she played at some of these functions I went along with her. I was looked upon by the other kids as a bit of a mummy's boy, and then of course, she was only in her early forties when she died, and so you had ... my little brother was only one or two. And at that stage the children were farmed out to different relatives, and my elder sister went to work in a convent in Cooktown. Two of the other sisters went to boarding school at ... at Herberton, near ... not far away. I remained with my father, who was then working on another farm. Just working for a farmer, and my baby brother was with a grand aunt in a nearby town of Atherton so we were a very scattered family because of the sad circumstances of my mother's death in the ... in the ... just before the war.
Twisted bowel they called it in those days - some internal problem. She died very suddenly.
Well, it was ... it was a slow process. It was during the early war years when my father went to yet another farm as a share farmer, which means that the ... the ... you get a share of the amount you make off the farm, and that was in the period of ... by that time the war had broken out, and so things changed quite considerably, because the Atherton Tableland was the area in which there was over a million soldiers pass through in the war years. Of course the Coral Sea Battle and the fight against the Japanese was centred in northern Australia, or the area around northern Australia, and so the Atherton Tableland all of a sudden became a very important area in the sense that both the United States and Australian troops were trained there for jungle fighting in New Guinea and other islands in the Pacific, and all of a sudden the military authorities wanted all the milk they could get. And so the harshness of the thirties vanished somewhat as more farmers found that they could sell their milk to the ... to both the United States and the Australian army and naval, [and] air force services. So the quality of life actually improved in the war years despite the fact that by then I was ten or twelve-year-old and we had an appreciation of just how close we were to being invaded. And I remember in the Coral Sea Battle, for example, I think it was '42, where literally the sky was full of planes flying north, flying up to that battle. I remember that well because the planes left a nearby aerodrome at Mareeba, on the edge of the Atherton Tableland, and so of course the ... the influx of ... of troops into the area changed things considerably in the ... in Far North Queensland.
More interested in peace but, well, I mean, naturally with those number ... with that number of people in the area, it has an impact. And also, I don't know if we appreciated just how close we came to being invaded but I remember at the school ... like the better off ... Such was the fear at the time that the better off people came south because the idea of the Brisbane Line that was going to be compromised with the Japanese and part of Australia would be surrendered and ... and so the Brisbane Line was a very strong thought in the minds of a lot of people in Far North Queensland. And then the better off people came south and away from the likely battleground. And even those on the coast that weren't so affluent came up to the Atherton Tableland to get away from Cairns which they thought ... like Darwin was bombed ... that Cairns would be the next place bombed. And so it was ... there was much disruption in the whole area and they were very anxious years, the early '40s - very anxious years in North Queensland and even as a child there was an appreciation. I remember at the primary school we all used to have drills in case of air attacks, know how to go into trenches and all of that preparation for the bombing that almost came, so it was a period of great anxiety for all of those people in the country, of course, but more particularly in the far north because that's where was the closest area to the actual war.
Oh, I think it was probably a male thing. I mean the ... the ... my father was, I suppose I'd term him a relaxed Catholic. We weren't ... we weren't ever, you know, deeply religious but the two ... Well, my eldest sister, who more or less became the mother when she was only thirteen, when our mother died ... and of course after she was about fifteen or sixteen and she went and worked in a convent in Cooktown and the next two sisters went to a boarding school. So I suppose it was possible for the father to have me with him ...
Yeah, he tried that later on [Laughs] and I later the Marist Brothers pretty quickly. But, no, I think, well, you know, little kid, you're five or six ... six or so, and so I suppose that being his son and heir [Laughs] no ... But ... but ... but the family was scattered and I guess he thought that I would stay with him, and the brother of course was too young. But when he ... they gathered a bit of togetherness we went back to the farm, which would then be in the early forties.
I went to a number of schools. He moved around as I mentioned - went from one farm to another. I went ... my first school was a little school, a one teacher school called Chigan [?] and my next school was in Malanda, where I spent the rest of my primary school education ... which is a lovely little town nestled on the Johnston River right in the centre of the Atherton Tableland, and as I said before, known for its milk and butter, and of course before that, timber had been great source of wealth in the area.
Well, I think that I was an average student. I'll put it that way. Well I think living on the farm you had to catch the horse and ride the horse to school, most of the schooling I went to. Another school I went to we used to walk. So the kids there would catch the horse and throw a corn bag over it and ride it bareback to school and let the horse off and so the school itself, it was ... I was an average kid at school, I guess. The things I liked most were history and geography - always had a interest in history and also [was] greatly concerned about knowledge of geography. So I guess that those things remain with me actually, later on.
Nothing exceptional. I think I was just a pretty average kid. Got on quite well - mixed ... mixed in reasonably well. I was always, I suppose, if you divide the human race into extroverts and introverts, I guess I was a bit more introverted than extroverted. Might have changed later on, but ... so, no, I was a pretty average kid.
No, nor later.
A share of, I suppose, but no - I think, when I look back, when you put it that way, I think I was just a pretty average kid.
Yeah, I was a bit sport mad actually. I mean ... and ... as a ... as a young person I [was] particularly interested in cricket and, of all things, boxing actually, and I fought in a number of boxing tournaments, and at that time, as I mentioned before there were soldiers on the Atherton Tableland and I remember the early '40s being ... there must have been six or eight thousand people at a big boxing tournament, and I was a better than average schoolboy boxer, and fortunately when I was sixteen I tore the muscles in my back of my left shoulder and thankfully it cut short a promising boxing career.
Well because, I mean, even though I had an encyclopaedic knowledge of boxing at the time and [was] mad on it, with the passage of decades of course I changed completely to the ludicrous position of men getting themselves fit and punching each other insensible. It's against everything that I stand for. But as a kid, and particularly in that period, there was a ... boxing was booming and I was caught up in the boxing bug. But I turned then to ... only slightly better I suppose ... rugby league and I was a good rugby league player and that represented the Atherton Tableland and played right throughout the north. And cricket in the summer and football in the winter and that's how I came to Sydney actually, is that I was invited down to try out with Parramatta when I was nineteen years old. And so in my teenage period, I was ... at school and then after school, when I went to work, I was just ... I suppose sport dominated most of those teenage years.
Very briefly. [Laughs and coughs] I went to the Marist Brothers boarding school in Cairns - St. Augustine's, and I think the authoritarian methods didn't coincide with some of my thinking and in fact after about six months I ran away and went to work with an old bootmaker ... or to a bootmaker who had previously been in my home town, Malanda, and I went and ... with him and my father found out I was there and came down and took me back to Malanda. So my career at the Marist Brothers was cut short by escaping.
Now that's a fairly quick way of describing what must have been a big moment: to actually run away from school. What had gone on that had made you really not like it at the Marist Brothers? Could you fill that out a bit?
Well, I think that .. I don't know whether I was spoilt or not but I ... I didn't like the fact of living in a boarding school and being compelled to go to mass and benediction. And the rigorous nature of that life did not appeal to me and I wasn't cut out for boarding school.
No, I don't think I had a great philosophical, in depth discussion with myself about it at all. I think I just said well I didn't particularly like it and made off. So it wasn't ... it wasn't carefully worked out.
Well, not really cruel, no. A bit harsh maybe but no - it wasn't cruel. It's just that ...
My independent spirit didn't fit in.
No, certainly, certainly not. Not that, and no there was none of that at all, quite frankly, no.
Well, I think he was displeased about my departure but he ... he accepted it, and I went back to the ... to the Tableland and I became an apprentice to a ... to a plumber, so started work shortly after.
Oh I liked it. As I mentioned before, I guess my thinking in those years was very much on cricket and football and they become the dominating influence on my life. Very much a sport mad, young teenager.
And I would have thought that possibly at the Marist Brothers boarding school you would have got a good opportunity for an outlet with that, and that would have been a part of it that you enjoyed. Did you play for the school?
Yeah, I played both. Both. It was at the end of the cricket season, and the beginning of the football season, before my academic career was cut short by my departure. So yeah, I got on okay at those things, of course. It was ... it was the other part of the curriculum that wasn't so acceptable.
So, working as an apprentice, you still were very much absorbed with the sport. How did that develop then for you - the sporting side of things? You were doing better and better at it. Where ... where was it taking you? [INTERRUPTION]
Bit like sorcerer's apprentice, no [Laughs]. Well, it was just naturally in a farming area it meant going out and ... and looking after windmills, going down the wells to fix the pumps, pumping water from the rivers up to tanks, making galvanised water tanks, putting them in place on tank stands out in the countryside, putting the pipes from the rivers up to the tanks, that sort of ... making cream cans, and all sorts of work for farming communities.
Yeah, I stayed there for four ... over four years, until I came to Sydney.
I was nineteen when I came to Sydney.
One might say. Yeah.
During that period that you were a young teenager and so on, did you ever get into trouble? Did you get up to any mischief? Did you do anything that brought you ... got your father angry with you, or got you in trouble with your boss or anything?
No, I think that the even nature of my life was shown in my youth where I was just a perfectly ... a perfectly behaved teenager. [Laughs]
In most respects and I'd have to search a long time to find out where I went wrong.
Nothing worth reporting for posterity.
Well, I think the stupidity of being sports mad and ... and wanted to try myself out in the big smoke. Even though the parish priest at the time - he used to rail against the drift to the cities. I put that as aside actually but it was ... it was my really ... it was my interest in sport that brought me down. I ... The previous year before I came down my sister, Bernice, had suggested I come down to the Sydney Show, the Royal Show and that was my first experience of the ... an eighteen-year-old coming all the way down from the Far North, because I think it took about three days to get here on the train. And I came down to the Royal Easter Show and ... and went round all the places: city sights and beaches, the harbour bridge, and the Blue Mountains, etcetera, etcetera and ... and I was smitten by the ... by the big city and I liked it very much, but I guess I wouldn't have come back so quickly had I not been invited back to try out as a ... as a football, [on] a football team.
Well, I'd ... I'd ... The captain and coach of a team up there had played with Vic Hey, who was a legendary coach of Parramatta at the time, and he suggested to Vic Haye that I come down and so I came down to ... They used to have trials and so I came down that way.
Well, relatively speaking. I mean I guess the thing that made me look better than what I was, was that in the country, I trained all the year round. Even in the cricket season I used to run many miles of a morning and so I was pretty ... I was real physical fitness crank and I think it made me look better than what I really was, because in Sydney I was pretty ordinary player. I got graded with Parramatta but mainly played reserve grade, but I played football for about eight years, and I played with Parramatta for three years and then I went coaching in the country around Sydney for another two years and as I got into my later twenties I became more involved in unionism and ... and then of course politics. So, I suppose the football stars my eyes, coming down to the big smoke, but I was an average footballer and then I of course, because I hadn't finished my apprenticeship with the plumbing, I got a job ... I got a number of different jobs working in heavy industry.
I'll get you to tell me about that in a minute. I just want to ask you first of all, what was it about football because this was something that a lot of country boys aspired to: the chance to try out and get into a city team and come and do that. What ... what ... what was it that was the attraction for you? What were you dreaming of, imagining, when you came down to do that?
Well, I think it's like anything that you ... you try and excel in. It's ambition to play well and to go further and so I guess it was just that. And you'd read all ... I mean, as I mentioned, in either sport I was in I always read very seriously, if I could use the word, about the history of that sport: boxing and cricket and football and I've still got a pretty good knowledge, particularly in those periods ... that period and so it was this great interest. It was the interest in my life, I'd say. I was a bit, quote: sporting mad. And I think it's true what you say, I think it's ... there are many young men, particularly men of my era who were just, you know, crazy on football or cricket and ... and were seeking to improve and to hopefully play on a higher level.
And you say that when you got to Sydney it became evident that you weren't as good as you'd looked. Was that a very big disappointment to you and how did that become apparent to you, that you didn't have quite the promise that everybody up north had thought you'd had?
Just natural awareness. No, I mean, well, you know yourself that if you're in the country where you're very fit and had the advantage over other people, of course it's not difficult to look better but down in Sydney of course you've got much more competition for the places and ... and so, it was that, plus the fact that I became ... I hadn't finished my apprenticeship in North Queensland and so I did a number of different areas of work to earn a living. I mean, football in those days wasn't the highly paid proposition it is today, and so workers ... The work was the most important thing and football was secondary. And so I went into the building industry after a number of years and it was there that I became concerned about the lack of safety, about the paucity of conditions and where my interest in trade unionism and egalitarian attitudes really developed ... in a period. I might say that my father was ... had a background of left wing Labor. He was a ... he was against the Conservative Governments of the time and so I had some background of political thinking through my father, but it was my involvement in the trade union movement that really made me aware of the many problems in our society, particularly in relation to working class people.
My first job was in a metal factory at Rydalmere, on the outskirts of Sydney, and it was heavy engineering and drilling and carrying heavy ... heavy material and working with boilermakers. I was an iron worker. It was the first job - working with boilermakers.
Yeah, I joined the FAI - the Federated ... the Federated Ironworkers' Union. I was a unionist from early days.
No, I went from a number of different jobs. I went into ... as a sheet metal worker, making gas meters, and then I went into the engine driving - Fireman Engine Drivers' Union and then into the building industry.
Well, because [of] the calling in different work involved different unions and so even though they be similar in ... in type of work depending where they were, it would depend which union you were in.
Well because it was most of the jobs were short term jobs and they'd cut out and you'd get another job. So there wasn't ... it wasn't as though there permanency in those areas, and particularly in the building industry of course. It was [a] very volatile industry and the changes were quite numerous.
Well, I was approached to [do] a job and it looked a pretty good job. It looked like it would last for a few years, and I went into that. Before that I had been an engine driver and fireman and it was about this time that I became involved in politics and, in fact, I went to a meeting about a hospital ... [the] need for a hospital in the Bankstown area and a Communist Party member had seen me there and he called around to see me - sold me my first Tribune, which is the Communist Party paper, and got me interested in socialist thinking.
Now, Jack, you were a boy in your twenties from Far North Queensland, mad about rugby league and working as a ... an iron worker or metal worker. What took you along to a meeting about the need for a hospital in the Bankstown area?
Well, I think the thing that I've omitted ... I should say that my father was a political person and as he would point out, here we had the Depression and when the war broke out, well of course the first soldiers to go overseas were the unemployed and he was a harsh critic of the capitalist system. So I had did have that background of something wasn't right, that there seemed to be a lot of differences in the way that different people lived, and the opportunities they had and so I was aware of wrong things in society. And I guess that, as I mentioned, the whole question of concern for other people has always been instilled in me. I have always been strong on that, even at school: concern for others, not just concern about yourself, and I think that having in mind that that period, the post-war period was going to be one of great hope, that we'd learned from the war and we would have a better life, and of course a very important ingredient of that is having sufficient hospitals. So ... and having in mind at that time the area was expanding rapidly. I was living in the Parramatta area which is fairly adjacent to Bankstown and so it was a perfectly normal thing to do to ... to be concerned about the need for a hospital in the area.
Yes, and with my brother. My brother by that time had been down here and we went along to that meeting and we attracted the attention of Jack Campbell, who later became a very good friend of mine, and he paid us a visit with ... with the Tribune, and I suppose that increased my interest in left wing politics.
At this stage you already then, perhaps, had a feeling that things could be changed and improved. There was a bit of an impulse to feel that maybe you could get involved in some kind of level improvement of things. Was that the situation?
Yes, that ... I think that my father had ... had sown the seeds of politics in me, in the sense that his ... his understanding and explanation of how so rapidly we could go from a depression to a war and then into a post-war boom, all in the course of a decade and a half, I think, made me think a lot about that something was wrong in society, and certainly for those at the bottom of the pile, of which I always considered myself - always very much a working class person and never aspiring to being anything other than that.
So you went ... You were followed home by this guy, that sold you the Tribune. What did you think of the Tribune and what he had to tell you about the Communist Party at that time? What was your first reaction?
Well, I mean, I suppose, having in mind that my introduction to trade unionism had ... had taught me that unionists ... some unionists differed greatly to others. There were the right wing unions tended to be more passive in the way they approached things that they considered wrong, whereas the left wing seemed to have more militancy that accorded to my thinking. If you're going to change things, there has to be a vigorous approach to it and I guess that the militancy, not so much of only ... I hadn't met many communists but I had met many left wing Labor people, and so I was firmly in the school of left wing ideology of thinking about the need for change coming about why people's participation, whereas the right wing tended to more ... to acquiesce to the status quo. And so I guess that I moved ... I was a natural left-leaning individual.
Very much so, yes. [INTERRUPTION]
Not immediately. [Laughs]
Well, naturally through being in the trade union movement and going to trade union meetings ...
No, I hadn't been a member of the BLF, but I was working in the construction area because, as I said, it overlapped. A lot of the work overlapped, so work was often similar but in different callings. And, no - at that stage I haven't gone into the building industry. And in fact I was encouraged to go into the building industry from one of the left wing friends that I had met.
Mainly defence. Well actually, a five-eight or centre is the position I played, and I was stronger in defence than attack because I was ... as is my make up. I was a bit slow. No, I wasn't fast enough for city football, and my defence ... Seeing that the question is ... I guess I was a more defensive player. One might say I've been in the defence ever since.
No, I think that militancy and ... in unions attracted me to the thinking, not only to members of Communist Party but to left wing Labor as well - who were very different to right wing Labor. So I guess it was my natural militancy and interest that there had to be activity, that there's got to be movement to bring about change, and to improve the conditions. And unionism did that - that there's enormous scope for improvements in the working conditions and the wages and so I became involved. It was a natural progression, or regression - but natural progression to move from a militant position into communist, and I joined the Communist Party because I was asked to, but I joined it because of that militancy, because I saw the most impressive people in the trade union movement were either left wing Labor or members of the Communist Party. And I didn't have a theoretical ... a deep theoretical knowledge of Marxism at that time, and so I joined ... I guess I joined the Communist Party as a militant worker, who saw those allies of left wing Labor and Communist Party being my type of people.
Well, I guess I was ... I was asked to join the Communist Party and I suppose it was a stronger belief that a socialist system could come about by the Communist Party. At the time I did not have a knowledge of the more sinister aspects of Stalinism and the rather sordid history of what had taken place under the name of socialism. Very few people did. And so, I suppose, I came in and my understanding of socialism and communism developed when I went to schools within in the Communist Party, and then over the years my understanding of the enormity of the evils of Stalinism, that so perverted the rather terrific ideas ... the socialist ideals, the Marxism, that I still believe in ...
So, you say that you joined this because you had become a militant worker. What had radicalised you so much? What was it, when you started to work in the building industry, that you saw really needed fixing?
The conditions were appalling. Having in mind that we're now looking at the late '50s, and the first of the really big development hadn't come about. It was still mainly ... Say the real building boom in Sydney started in the early sixties, but in 1957 ... before 1957, for large buildings in the heart of Sydney, there was a hundred and fifty feet limit on the height of buildings. In 1957 that was lifted and the sky became the limit. And so there was great changes in the building industry, and the pressure of work meant that buildings were going higher, more dangerous work practices were being introduced because of the height of the buildings, and in one year there were fourteen dogmen, who ride the load, who used to ride the load in those days, were killed, and it was because of these practices. They were working of a night time, and the conditions in suburbia was ... were even worse. There often weren't adequate amenities or proper sanitary considerations. Often washing facilities were poor or non-existent, and so there was a real need for basic improvement in the industry and so we started a campaign to cleanse the union, to improve it.
Well, by that time, that was a highlight of the early sixties when that happened. But, of course, the builders would put it down to the changed conditions, but it was an indication of just how little concern there was for ... for the workers themselves. Of course at the same time asbestosis was hardly known and yet we now find building workers, thirty and forty years on, suffering from asbestosis from that period. So there were a whole lot of work practices and a lack of concern for the health of the workers right throughout that period.
The union, [coughs] excuse me ... One of the reasons that the conditions were so poor was that the Builders' Labourers' Union were led, was led by a group of people who were in collusion with the builders. They were ... worked hand in glove with them, and opposed any sort of militant action and in fact people like myself were hounded off jobs. There was a blacklist that existed and as soon as people like myself and others, who were militants, got on jobs, they would be pointed out by the organiser and there was instant dismissal. Back in those days there was only an hour's notice, so on any trumped up reason, a builder would say, 'Well, work's cutting out, got to lay off', and [they would] lay off militants.
Well, they were ... they would take ... It wasn't a question, in those days the level of corruption that came out later hadn't arisen in the industry but they were ... they were people who took the soft option and went along with the ... with the employers, that the employer's god given right to hire and fire wasn't ... wasn't questioned, and the rights of workers were, in their mind, very minimal, and they wanted the soft ... they wanted an easy life. The more corrupt of them, of course, went along with the builders and could have got kickbacks.
We formed a rank and file committee to cleanse the industry and improve the conditions to ... in other words to civilise the industry.
Exactly. The rank and file, the rank and file movement ... [INTERRUPTION - DOG]
Well, formation of a rank and file committee for the purpose of tackling the worst issues in the industries, which were indiscriminate sacking of militant workers, making sure that there was a sense of decency, that the workers had rights: a clean shed and amenities, that they had a civilised industry. We ... The slogan we worked under was we had to civilise the industry and bring a bit of decency to the rights of the workers, and they were the ingredients that led to hostility with the union leadership ...
Well, those sort of actions: stopping the work, forcing the employers to improve ... to rapidly improve the conditions and of course fought for higher wages and better conditions. They were just basic union entitlements but because of the manner in which there had been this collusion between the ... the union, Crane-Cat [?] Union, leadership and the employers, they were very hostile to that, and so they resorted to all sorts of sackings and, as I said, blacklisting. And one year, for example, I had seventeen jobs in a twelve month period because no sooner would you get on a job than you would be chased off. And that happened with a lot of other workers. And of course when the building boom started in the early sixties - and that's when I talked about when the sky become the limit - well then it made it more difficult for them to blacklist workers because there are a greater concentration of workers on the one job, and so the strength of the rank and file committee was greatly increased.
That's right: stop work and improve things, but also we were campaigning to change the leadership of the union, and finally that came about in the end of '61 when ... when the first rank and file grouping got one ... one position of power in New South Wales.
So you were sort of younger workers, who decided that the situation that prevailed wasn't good enough, and you organised yourself and persuaded people to support you and got a change at an election, did you?
Yeah, well, we realised that spontaneous action on jobs had certain limitations, that if we were going to have longer standing success, well it would mean that we would have to have a level of activity and control within the union movement itself, and that's what we worked to do.
Well ... [INTERRUPTION - DOOR KNOCK]
It wasn't quite as simple as that because at the time I was secretary of the rank and file committee, which is a driving force to bring about change and because the building industry is so scattered it meant that workers made a lot of sacrifices because we'd travel great distances in, and at the time there was still a Cold War period and the Labor Party was quite hostile to ... the Labor Party right wing leadership in New South Wales was quite hostile to the left wing Labor Party linking up with people like myself in the Communist Party, and they forbid the Labor Party to stand on the same ticket as communists. They used to call Unity Tickets and in fact Labor Party people could be expelled for standing on the same ticket with communists. You know, that was the Cold War mentality of the late fifties and early sixties. And when we broke through ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well, the change occurred in a partial sense because the Unity Ticket attitude was such that people like myself stood in the background and we had other people in the Labor Party, who would get in and so a young ... the youngest secretary ever in the builders' labourers, Mick MacNamara, became secretary in 1961. And then in 1962, myself and others were appointed as organisers of the union, and that was a tactic on our part to overcome the possibility of the Labor Party people being expelled for standing on Unity Tickets, and I think that gives you a glimpse of the harshness of the time because not only did you have the right wing Labor Party but you also had the more extreme right wing that had broken away from the Labor Party in Santamaria's NCC and the set-up in certain ... in many of the states, particularly in Victoria, of the Democratic Labor Party or the anti-communists, so that was a scenario that made it ... the need for careful tactics on the part of the Left so you wouldn't get the Labor Party left wingers expelled from the union ... from the Labor Party because of their union activity.
In New South Wales the split hadn't occurred in the same way as it had in other states, and especially in Victoria. What did that mean for the Labor Party here and your relations with it as a communist?
Well, it was really only a subtle difference because whereas say the ageing Mannix in Victoria had gone all the way against Labor, in New South Wales Archbishop Gilroy, being younger,did not have that sort of strategic intention and so they believed that the ... what would have otherwise been the DLP, to remain in the Labor Party, and so the right wing of the Labor Party here was much stronger than it was in Victoria. And thus you had a very different scene in New South Wales to Victoria and that called for skill in the way that unions approached ... sorry ... the way that rank and file approached union elections and the need to safeguard the unity of left Labor and members of the Communist Party, like myself.
Mick MacNamara was a young ... a bright young builders' labourer, who was a Labor Party member and he was elected ... lived all his life in inner city Pyrmont, then a very much working class area, more so than today. And so he became secretary and I worked very closely with him, and myself as a sort of leader. He was in the rank and file movement as well, but because of this sensitivity, shall we say, on the need to protect the Labor Party - Communist Party unity and to stop the Labor Party expelling people who had shown togetherness with us, we had to work very skilfully, and we did that. We ... we developed a very strong relationship and our strength, of course, was that the rank and file strongly supported us because conditions improved immensely, wages were better and workers had confidence in their own ability to change their lives. That was the great strength of the ... at that stage, of the Builders' Labourers' Union.
Well, it ... to travel around the many jobs. It's such a scattered nature the building industry. You can have literally hundreds of jobs in a metropolitan area and I was allocated an area. I mainly worked in the city proper and of course great change ... changes were occurring there, as the city skyline changed dramatically in the '60s and particularly ... In fact the longest building boom in history was really from 1960 through to the oil crisis of '74 - '75. So for fifteen years there was just ... Sydney, or the Central Business District of Sydney, was a gigantic building site really, as older people would remember.
No, as a matter of fact the union was in debt. Left ... We were into a union that was completely threadbare and so we had to rely on the workers' goodwill and, in fact, imposed a levy almost as soon as we got in. But such was the understanding of the rank and file ... was that they appreciated a chance of a clean sweep, that they responded and that's why we were able to identify with the workers and win their confidence.
Well, those that had been in the industry for some time had ... could appreciate the different attitude that existed when the new leadership came in, that there was a feeling of confidence, the feeling that the union belonged to them, and that they weren't just there to be bargained with between the old leadership and the ... and the builders. So there was a new found confidence in the leadership.
How did you keep that sort of level of understanding up? Did it have a lot to do with the way in which you communicated with the ... with the workers? How did you organise the communications so that they understood what was going on?
Because the industry was so scattered we had a belief that we should call a lot of delegate meetings, so we put a great faith in the delegates that the workers had elected, and because of the widespread nature of the building industry, this was very positive. It allowed ... [INTERRUPTION - DOOR]
Yes, because of the scattered nature of the industry we placed a lot of value, a lot of emphasis on the elected delegates on the jobs, and we used to call these delegates together once every month, at least, and come together to discuss the problems and to organise a ... the way in which we would conduct the union in the next stage. So I think it was this consultation with the delegates that gave confidence to the rank and file to see that the union was changing and was addressing their problems. And whereas in the past you'd have officials who would deal directly with the employers and not consult the workers, you had a situation where the new officials first of all consulted the workers and then went to the employers. So it was this feeling that the workers had that the union was doing something for them, that gave us the extra confidence.
Well, the first one would have been to allow the workers, the rank and file, some say in the leadership of the union. I mean, the centrepiece of the rank and file organisation was that the union was their union, was the workers' union, and it wasn't just there as a plaything for political parties or ... or the union officials. And I think that stood us in good stead with the rank and file. Because of the scattered nature of the industry, there was this reliance on the delegates. And also when important issues came up about campaigns, we would call strike meetings - stop work of the whole building area of all Sydney - and so there was this different levels of consultation and involvement of the workers, the rank and file workers, and I think that was really the hallmark of the union during all those years, where the New South Wales leadership stood out in the fact that it always put consultation down as one of the main steps that we should take.
Consultation in some context now has come to mean, you talk to them and you don't take really any notice of them. When you were consulting with the workers, did that seriously influence your policies as a union?
Oh very much so. The ... as I said ... as I said at the time actually that we'd seen a lot of other unions where union officials come in and then with the passage of time they change, or they become complacent, or some become wheeler-dealers with the employers. Often some sell-out and go over to the employers. So I think that our approach was that we should concentrate on involvement of the rank and file in a real way. And I suppose it was later when I became secretary that we strengthened this still further.
Oh there have been many occasions because I ... we never went into a ... we never went into ... [INTERRUPTION - DOG]
Could you give me an example of a case where you ... [INTERRUPTION - DOG] Could you give me an example of a case where the union had decided on a particular course of action and as a result of meeting with the workers changed that ... that style line?
Well, actually would have been many. There was no ... I can't think of an outstanding case but if you had the leadership as we had, that was working close with ... closely with the workers, well then naturally you've got your finger on the pulse and therefore you're ... it's unlikely that you're going to get a shock [DOG BARK] out of a mass meeting decision that comes out and says ... I think that [if] the leadership is close to the workers, well it gets the feeling of what's happening out there anyway and that was our strength because [DOG BARK] later on when I became secretary we strengthened it still further and I think [DOG BARK] things like limited tenure of office and having the workers [DOG BARK] ... the officials on the same wages as workers on the job really cemented the rank and file to the union leadership, and particularly when we introduced limited [DOG BARK] tenure of office, that all officials had to be elected and that after two terms all union officials had to relinquish office and go back to work for a period, so as to identify with the leadership and the rank and file, and not have a wide variation between the ideas of a leadership [DOG BARK], as a stepping stone to political action or power positions and the rank and file. [DOG BARK] And I think that those things in particular gave confidence to the rank and file that the leadership was not just on a [DOG BARK] kick, a selfish kick, but it was really concerned about the union as a whole.
I was struck by your decision making at the time, which was leading up into the '70s collectivism, that whole idea of collectivism, is the problem is that sometimes they are window dressing ... So during this period that you were an organiser you were saying the major priority was the involvement of workers in the union and in the decisions that were being made. What were some of the other issues that you took on where you really wanted to bring about change?
We strongly believe that unions should be political - that's in the sense, in those days particularly, with the arbitration court. There was great discussion about the role of penalty powers of the arbitration court, and often a strike would occur and next thing the employers would take the matter to the court and the court would instruct the union to return to work, or they'd be fined. And so many thousands of pounds ... hundreds of thousands of pounds were paid by all of the unions over these strikes, and there was a strong feeling against the employers overuse of the penalty powers of the arbitration court. And so many of the campaigns were for ... for the abolition of the penal powers. That occurred during the sixties. But also because of other happenings that went wider than wages and conditions - the Vietnam War commenced and immediately Australia, of course, was split down the centre over whether we should be involved or not and the union took a stand that we shouldn't be involved in the war and there was a lot of discussion at the job level on this, and the big protest marches that took place - we always based ourselves on the rights of the workers to determine whether they should be in it or not. At a leadership level and a delegate level we had voted to be in favour of taking action in the moratorium against the war, but it was left to the various jobs to decide whether they would stop work to join those marches, and I think that showed the ... the ... the ... the grassroots decision making process. In the union movement of course was against the penal powers. It was complete opposition by the workers to the penalty powers. But also in the support of our own blacks. When the Gurindji people took action and the stockmen went on strike in Northern Territory we brought down the leaders of the strike and took them around the building sites to talk to the building workers about the actual conditions that existed. And this was an educative process really because it educated the workers that they did have some control over what was happening in far off northern Queensland or Northern Territory. And that ... and that the ... the whole question of land rights was in fact an issue that the union should be involved in. So the union was getting involved in wider ranging things that reflected the change in the leadership - that the leadership was concerned with things beyond wages and conditions. Of course, we felt that unions have a vital role. Their main purpose of the unions is wages and conditions and ... and the dignity of work, but also that there are other issues [which] impinge upon on the workers' rights. We got caught up in many political issues in the sixties and seventies, but the first ones we were caught up in were the blacks and the question of the moratorium and the Vietnam War.
I want to go into each of those in a little bit more detail in a minute, but before you do that, looking at the more traditional issues that unions have always been involved in which were the wages and conditions, those were things that you got involved in reasonably quickly after you came in because they needed attention, didn't they? Could you tell me how you organised tactics and how you managed the dealing with some of the problems of conditions on the sites and the issues of wages? Could you take me through what the problems were on the sites and how you set out about correcting them and also what your main ambition was in terms of wages for the members of the BLF??
Well, the builders ... because the tradesmen had been better organised in a different union ... In that period there was something like eleven unions in the building industry and the Builders' Labourers were really the poor relation. Even though they were labourers, they did some of the most skilled work because the changing ... the changing nature of the building industry meant with higher buildings going up, larger buildings going up, often builders' labourers or people such as riggers, scaffolders, hoist-drivers - they were doing some of the most skilled work on building sites, whereas before they had just been labouring to the tradesmen ... to the craftsmen. So the industry was changing and the role of the builders' labourers were changing. So many of the campaigns we fought along with the other unions. We fought along with them. On the same time we also felt that the gap in wages between the tradesmen and the builders' labourers were too wide and so we worked to narrow the gap between the tradesmen, and putting forward that the most skilled builders' labourers should get 100 per cent of the tradesmen rate and other builders' labourers should get 90 per cent of that. It was called a hundred-ninety ratio. So it was a ... Besides winning the minds and the hearts of the builders' labourers it was also to show that the changing nature of the industry meant that builders' labourers should have a bigger place in the scheme of things and ... and that was right throughout the sixties. That was the sort of action we were taking.
Yes, it took a five week strike actually in 1970 to bring that about and after a ... an all out strike of five weeks, the employers caved in, and we were able to get the arbitration court to formalise a decision that had been reached with the employers and the industry at the time.
Yes, and in those days, also, it was a break with the penal powers. I mentioned that the penal powers had been used to curtail action. Well in 1969, when Clarrie O'Shea, the leader of the Tramways Union, at the behest of his union, refused to pay a fine, Clarrie O'Shea was gaoled and spontaneously a million workers throughout Australia went on strike, and really that was the end of the penal powers of the arbitration court. So they couldn't be imposed in the ... in the way they had done before. Well, the year after that ... That was in '69. In 1970, in our five week strike, we weren't shackled with the penalty powers. They were not used, so it meant we could test out the ... the durability of the union. Not that we set about to test it out, but it came to that. And so the workers, through things I had pointed out about the growth in the 'sixties of rank and file activity, of the workers thinking it's their union, they were able to, in that five week strike, sustain themselves because of that knowledge, because of the fact that we raised money everywhere. Other unions came to our support, and we also, as a tactic, split the employers because those employers who were prepared to pay the extra money, we said that they would be released and allowed to work, so we divided the employers. The more progressive of the employers, or the least hostile of the employer organisations, came to the party and so we were able to split the employers by allowing those workers, who had received the money, to return to work.
Yes, there were many attempts to use scab labour, but having in mind that because of the way in which the union's confidence had grown, at the time of that strike something like 90 per cent of all builders' labourers would be in the union, so it was very difficult for them to try and break the strike. But nevertheless, there were attempts to use scab labour and one of the actions that we took about occupying building sites caused great discussion within the trade union movement. In fact, some of the employer organisations really tried to divide the union by saying, 'Well this was, you know, extremist action', and tried to strip the union off, and some of the more conservative unions also condemned the union for so doing. But we argued that we'd made the democratic decision to take the strike action and that it shouldn't be broken. The workers had made a decision and we expected that decision to be carried out. And where they attempted to use scab labour, we occupied the actual building site and so prevented work from taking place. Now in so doing, some minor damage occurred and of course the union put up an hysterical claim that the ... that the buildings were being destroyed.
The employers claimed that the building itself had been, or buildings had been affected by the workers who were stopping the scabs from ... from building. But these weren't too many because the thing was that the strike held up and at five weeks the employers caved in.
Well, the State ... The State Government at the time was the Askin Government, which was very anti union. It's now universally considered one of the most corrupt governments in the history of New South Wales, if not Australia, and they were all behind the builders and the developers of course. But on the other hand we had other unions, who were very supportive of us, and so there was a ... It was a real dichotomy. It was a real ... It did differ greatly from union to union, and also it differed greatly from many in the employing class. [Some] also agreed with the builders' labourers actions. Not all of the employers condemned it.
Well, naturally the editorial writers were extremely hostile.
Well, because of history. The whole history of this country and many other countries, but this country, is that in a 160 years of ... of its publication: the Sydney Morning Herald has never supported a strike at all, so that gives you some indication. And because of the militant action in particular, they're opposed to the occupation of sites, etcetera. On the other hand we had many rank and file or ordinary journalists, working journalists, who applauded the builders' labourers action but it was only later when we became involved in other social and Green Ban action that there was even greater division between the owners of newspapers and the ... and the workers - the journalists.
Jack, could you paint a picture of some of the conditions that had to do with safety and also the conditions under which the men had to work, say in the rain and the kind of provision that was made for them on a site. Could you give me an example of maybe one of the first sites you walked on to as a builders' labourer, what the sheds were like, what the washing facilities ... Could you just paint a bit of a picture of the sort of thing you were trying to clean up?
Well, by 1970 and during that strike of course things had changed. In the decade of the sixties we'd come a very long way, but if you go back to where the rank and file had just broken through in the builders' labourers, you'd go on to a building site and often the workers would have get changed in the cement shed and there'd be all building materials and everything else around there. Often the toilet facilities were totally inadequate for the number of workers on the job. Sometimes it didn't exist at all, that the workers had to go to a nearby public toilet, on ... in the ... near the area where they were working. So the ... the amenities were often non-existent. There was often not running water and there was nowhere for the workers to get cleaned up when they'd finished their day's work. They'd hang their clothes up where all the other building materials were and there was no heating in the winter and it was just absolutely deplorable. The workers were treated like chattel and ... and there was no consistency at all. The workers were not respected in any sense of the word.
No, they, well ... when it's raining they could be rained off, they could just send ... send them off and [they would] not get paid at all, or they could sit them in the shed and not pay them, and wait until it stopped raining. But in the main they would just keep them there until the day's end and send them home and if it's raining the next day, they wouldn't pay them at all. So there was no ... there was no consideration for wet weather entitlement. Later of course we got that - we got wet weather entitlements and all the other provisions but it was ... it was the battle to bring dignity to the building workers. It was the real battle to show that they weren't second class citizens, that played a very big part in the union members supporting us later on when it became much more political - that we had built up trust, that they could trust us on basic human rights considerations, that then when we went into ecological and more political campaigning, those workers, even though they didn't always [have] the same level of political understanding that the union leaders had, went along with the union and in the whole process we were all on a learning curve.
So by the 1970 strike ... [INTERRUPTION] By 1970, when you had that big five day ... five week strike, you had improved the conditions of the workers greatly. At what stage ... And then you brought the wages in line so they were ... How long had that actually taken to do, to get that sort of ... to get to that position?
Well, most of that decade. If you look back on the changes that occurred, seeing we broke through in '61, and Mick MacNamara resigned as secretary in '68, and I became secretary. Mick had ill health and resigned but he still became ... when his health recovered, he became a great supporter of the union. He was still a rank and file and played a prominent role in the union, so there wasn't any change in the leadership's attitude to the question of workers' involvement or worker control, etcetera. But I suppose when I became secretary we became more involved in the social issues. For example, women working in the industry. That came in in the early seventies. But if we look at historically ... If we look at it chronologically, it was that decade. It took most of that decade to bring about a level of consciousness raising and a real belief that the workers control the union. It was their union. And from that time on, well then, we became involved in wider issues. We'd already been involved in the Vietnam War. Myself and other leaders like Joe Owens and Bob Pringle had become involved in many of the demonstrations. We'd been arrested a whole number of times. Again, in support of our blacks, we've come right out and brought the union into a situation where it fully supported the blacks.
Can we go through the issues one by one but before we do that, I'd just to like to ask you, how did you justify a union ... and unions up to that point had exclusively been interested in wages and conditions ... how did you justify to your rank and file and to yourselves getting involved in social and political issues?
Well, really the Australian trade union movement has a long history of involvement in issues beyond wages and conditions. Admittedly it's always been a minority of unions and it's mainly been the Left unions who are involved. But as long ago as the pig iron matter in Port Kembla where the ... where the ... where it was clear the Japanese were on the warpath and the waterside workers refused to load the pig iron for Japan, which later came back in bullets can killed many of our soldiers. That was a political action. When the war in Spain - the revolution in Spain was occurring, again some of the unions took action against that. When ... when action occurred with the Aborigines for example, again the whole number of unions had taken action. So it wasn't ... Really we have got a history as far back as the Depression, for example, when people were being ... were driven out of their homes, some of the more progressive unions took action. So there has been a strand right back, most of the twentieth century, where some of the progressive trade unions have taken some political action. But it was true that in that ... in that volatile period of the sixties where you had the women's movement, the black movement, the anti-apartheid movement, you know, Vietnam and besides the war - it stopped the war in Vietnam - all of those things really were on concurrently and so within the whole union movement - it wasn't only the builders' labourers - within the whole union movement, there were difference of opinions about the role of unions. How far should they be involved? Some of the right wing unions took the attitude that we shouldn't be involved in political issues at all. Others took the action, as we did, by saying that anything that affects the workers we should be concerned about. I remember myself saying that what's the use of winning higher wages and better conditions if we live in cities devoid of parks and denuded of trees, that it should be the totality of a worker's life that counts. It's not just the hours on the building site. Of course that's important, but other issues about where they live, how workers live. The question of transportation, the question of pollution - all of these things impinge upon the quality of life of the worker. And I think that was the sort of revolutionary aspect of what the builders' labourers shot home - besides of course the thing they're most known about: the Green Ban movement, the ecology, the environment movement, came into it.
While we're going through the social issues, in relation to the Vietnam War, could you just fill out what the attitude of the union was in terms of encouraging its members to take a position on the Vietnam War?
Well, right from the start when we considered, as did other progressive unions, that the [way the] Government, without any consultation with the population of this country, embarked us on that war in Vietnam, was completely improper. And so we opposed the way in which twenty year olds were recruited and [INTERRUPTION] sent to fight in a war. [INTERRUPTION]
Well because of the ... because of the Government of the day was blindly following the dictates of the United States, that had worked itself into an impossible position in Indochina, and right throughout the world but in this country and increasingly in the United States of America, there was opposition to the war. And because of that the Australian Government shamefacedly went along and got ourselves involved, and then as we became deeper involved there was a decision then to conscript our youth to that war, and that's when it really got ... reached boiling point. And so right throughout the country there were many demonstrations, and in Melbourne and Sydney in particular, huge demonstrations and all of these ... We took the ... Well, the union officially at state level and at the delegates' level had endorsed the action against the war. When the moratoriums - the big marches through the cities - took place, we left it up to the individual jobs. Overwhelmingly they voted to join the marches and to link up with the students and the other progressive people through the streets of Sydney. But some of the jobs had spirited debates. I remember going to a meeting at the Opera House where ... where about over 250 workers [were] and the voting was very close: would they go on. And finally they decided that those that wanted to go would go. Those didn't so ... That was an example of the democratic way in which we ran the union - that minorities ... minority decisions were respected as well.
Well, in the ... Because we had ... At our meetings of the delegates and rank and file, all of these matters were being discussed and the apartheid issue had come to the fore particularly with the rugby union side coming here in 1971.
The Springboks, the all white Springboks. And the progressive section of the union movement of which the Builders' Labourers was a part decided to oppose it and by that time it was quite a spirited opposition and in Queensland where they ... where you had the Bjelke Government, Bjelke-Petersen Government, there was even violence against the demonstrators. And here in Sydney in the big marches, both in the moratorium and the anti-apartheid, the police, no doubt at the behest of the Askin Government became more and more vigorous, taking off their numbers and whaling into the protesters. So things became very strained between the police and the ... and the union movement. By the time the 1971 tour took place, well already the union had been involved in support for our own blacks, in those campaigns of the mid and late sixties, and in the Vietnam War, through from 1964 - '65, through to 1970. So in '71 you had a union movement that was pretty involved in political action and Bob Pringle, who was the president of the union, was one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in the country, and in fact he organised the cutting down of the goal posts that led to a very sensational action. They had all the police asleep. Some of the police [were] asleep in the stands to look after the cricket ground and Bob Pringle and Johnny Phillips got in with their hacksaws in the middle of the night and started cutting the goal posts down. And of course it awakened the police and they were arrested but it caused a tremendous interest and even a court case against them: malicious damage [to the goal posts].
You were telling me that they ... that a couple of your colleagues cut down the goal posts during the Springbok tour and I was thinking that that was an appropriate role for builders' labourers, to do a bit of demolition. And what happened with the court case? Did they get off?
Well, actually of course, we now know that through the action of people like that and Meredith Burgmann and others, who invaded the game and stopped the game being played and all the other protests that took place ... I remember being at the Sydney Cricket Ground and having the whole ground with first of all with barbed wire around the top of the pickets and then with policemen shoulder to shoulder all around the ground, to try and keep the demonstrators from coming on. Many games were stopped and I think the great success of it was that there was to be an all white cricket team come here the following summer, and that was abandoned. So the great success of the people's action in ... I think that played a very big part in highlighting the people's hostility to the terrible apartheid character of South Africa at the time. And Mandela, when he came to Australia, of course paid credit to all of the protesters who took action in that period, so it was a very positive example of demonstration being for the good. But, yes, it was an interesting case because Pringle and Phillips looked like going to gaol and in a television interview ... They were fined heavily, and in a television interview I had said that if hadn't been for builders' labourers crowding the court that the, quote, 'racist judge would have sent those men to gaol'. That afternoon a conservative member of parliament got up and said, had they seen Mundey make this statement? And I was sued for contempt of court, and it was the first time ever that they used oral evidence because the only evidence they had was myself talking to ... to ... to a Channel Ten or Channel Seven correspondent, so that's all they had to go on. And they ruled that that was oral contempt, and ... and ... and I was fined. But they were let off very lightly and I reckon because of the fact that we crowded the court and the judge found them guilty but didn't gaol them. But it led, later on, to me being put up for contempt of court.
That's a hard one. First time I was arrested was Vietnam War. It was the first demonstration against the Vietnam War and it was say '64 or '65, and three people were arrested. One was Bill Brown, a journalist for the ... for the Tribune, myself as secretary of the Builders' Labourers and a ... a printer, Bruce Steel. We were the first three arrested outside the Commonwealth Bank building where the ... where they had the Commonwealth Members of Parliament, when in Sydney, used to meet, and that was the first time I was arrested. But over the years, of course, in all of those demonstrations I was arrested many times.
I think ... I'd have to look up my security file from ASIO to get that, but it would be a dozen times, but over many things: over the Vietnam War, over apartheid, in support of our blacks. There were many demonstrations. Some of them were the union demonstrations when the union ... later on, when there was divisions within the union and the union federal body moved in, again I was arrested. So ...
Well, probably in the rough and tumble of the building industry and having the big fight we had to win control of that union, because we were involved in many tussles there because the ... the people who had control of the union before we won through also were ... worked hand in glove with criminal elements and so there was, you know, strong arm tactics used against us in the early stages of the rank and file movement in the late fifties and early sixties. So we were ... we weren't strangers to physical violence being used against us and in fact as early as 1960, when the turning point of the union came, one of the reasons we won control of that union, [was] we stopped the corrupt union officials from leaving a meeting. We held them prisoner at a meeting because they wouldn't carry out the democratic rules of the union, and they in fact called the police. They had a spectacle where the police were surrounding the Trades Hall and we were saying [that] we had the majority, over a hundred and fifty builders' labourers [were] saying no, they're going to sit there until they carry out the rules of the union, and we kept them there for the full two hours of the meeting. And that really was a turning point, because that led the rank and file to say, 'Well, we can take them on. We can take the corrupt union on'. So we were ... It was a pretty rugged industry, as you can imagine, and so we weren't averse to taking on the opposition.
Oh non-violent action. We never engaged in ... in fighting the police but we took action that made it very difficult for them to ... to move in.
Oh well we stood solid and all together and so the police were reluctant to ... to take us on. Individually, in big protest rallies, there would often be individual policeman who would throw their weight around but there was always, in all of those exciting times, there was a lot of feeling about things like the Vietnam War in particular, but also on the other issues. There was a lot of feeling about it.
Well, no, not ... I don't think hurt to the extent ... I suppose I played football a bit, didn't I, so [it was] good training - rugby league. But, no I don't think I was ever, you know, bashed up in that way. A bit of pushing and shoving and that sort of stuff but never, never bashed up. No.
Now, we've been through Vietnam and the black issues. Now the other big issue, as you said earlier, the other big issue was the women's issues and what was the relationship of the Builders' Labourers under you to women and the whole emerging women's movement?
Well, I think as in ... with all men generally in that period there was room for improvement as there is probably now, but particularly then, and I think that the women's movement, the strength of the women's movement in the early seventies - late sixties and early seventies - took a lot of men by surprise, having in mind that ours was an all male enclave really. When women's social liberation came in, it affected us in many ways, but it was rather strange the manner in which we first got involved. Elizabeth Jacka and Ann Curthoys - sorry Jean Curthoys ... Jean Curthoys and Elizabeth Jacka had launched a campaign at the Sydney University for a course on women's social liberation, and it was opposed by the university authorities. The Builders' Labourers were approached by the women [who] said, seeing that there was a lot of building taking place on the Sydney University campus, would the Builders' Labourers consider giving support to the cause, because the university workers, meaning the staff and students had voted that the course should be conducted but the university authorities stopped it. And we had a meeting at the Sydney University, at which Jean Curthoys and Elizabeth Jacka and other women came along and spoke to the workers, and having in mind that the Builders' Labourers always ... had already been through a lot of political action, they responded to the request and decided they would stop work to support them. And this of course was taken up in the newspapers as a ... as a big issue because here is an all male, union ... an all male union that has never been involved in women's issues taking action to support the rights of women to conduct their own course, and in fact was successful in forcing the university authority to change their position.
Stopped work on all the campus sites and within days, three or four days, they'd caved in and so the course came on ... on stream. But it's interesting to note that it was the Builders' Labourers taking that action. And so it was a sense of explanation to the workers and I think this showed ... showed just how far the union was moving because almost at the same time, on another university, at Macquarie University, a twenty-year-old student, Jeremy Fisher, had been kicked out of the Robert Menzies College at the university because he was a homosexual. And again the emerging homosexual movement had come to the Builders' Labourers and said, you're against the idea of workers not having a right, well, students ... and because of these students and workers had been together against the Vietnam War and anti-apartheid, it was taken that there was a relationship there, between the progressive students and the ... and the workers, the progressive trade unionists. And again as a repeat of what happened at Sydney University, Bob Pringle, the president, went out to that university. Again there was substantial building taking place because Macquarie University was expanding. The workers came together and they, like [at] Sydney University, took action and said, they'll go on strike until Fisher is reinstated. And so the workers stopped work and forced the university authorities to reinstate Jeremy Fisher. And so both the women's movement at Sydney University and the gay movement at Macquarie University are two examples of the union coming in behind other progressive causes. And of course, this was the spirit of the times because after going through that sixties that I spoke about, of the union developing rank and file - really a sense of workers' control, that the workers themselves had a degree - I'm not saying complete control, but a degree of workers' control and how open-minded they were, that the union was broken away from the narrow confines of wages and conditions to broader issues, to involve the women's moment and then the gay movement. And of course, at the same time there'd be a struggle for women to work in the union itself because ... Led by a number of spirited women, who had applied for work on a building site in North Sydney and the workers on that job had endorsed them coming on the job, there was a six week strike, and they forced the employer to employ two women, and that was the starting point of women coming into the Builders' Labourers, that they had the right to work in the union. When they first came in they came in as nippers, or people who look after the sheds and get the lunches, etcetera, but with the passage of time they became more skilled. They did hoist-driving and other work. It was argued by the employers, well women couldn't do other work. Well, of course, as one of the women pointed out in Rocking the Foundations, well, then some of the men didn't like jackhammer work, either, but there were plenty of other things in a changing industry that they could do. And so the Builders' Labourers was the first all male building union to win the right of women to work in what was then, up to then, an all male enclave and that was a very significant step forward.
Wasn't there resentment of them from the ordinary workers on the job, though, that they were taking jobs? Maybe if they were given work that was less ... if they were given work that was less demanding, didn't that displace, say, older workers, or whatever from doing that ... those jobs?
No, well, the thing about it was that at the time the industry was pretty strong. There was still work available. Had it been in a period of real downturn, it would have been more difficult to sustain. But once the union had won the right of women to work on the site, when it came to the question of tightening up or losing jobs, they were treated the same way as the men on the jobs, so it was a breakthrough in more ways than one that they were given equal stature with the men on the job. [INTERRUPTION]
It's really hard to believe that builders' labourers - male builders' labourers in the sixties and seventies were prepared to take this kind of action on behalf of women, gays and blacks. How did you persuade them?
If you look at the ... at the whole picture of that period, of that fifteen year period really, the exciting early sixties through to [the] mid seventies, it was ... as I said, it was volatile. It was very volatile and there were so many changes occurring, like of course women's social liberation was one of the main changes and it just so happened that the building industry at the time was going through one of the periods where it took on workers and so we were able to take advantage of that situation, and one thing led to another. I mean ...
But did they understand? How did you communicate to them why? I mean, was there a lot of talking done? Did you have a journal? How did you go about changing attitudes because these are deep attitudes?
Look there are so many facets to that. I was saying early about, as a communist there were changes occurring too because we had broken with the blind adherence to the Soviet Union or to China and so we condemned the cult of the individual, the terrible Stalinist crimes and the glorification of the cult of the individual with Mao Zedong that led to, again, so many errors being made. And so we were fighting for each country finding its own way to socialism, based on the history, culture, [and] tradition of that country. But of course the albatross was too heavy. You could be the most independent Communist Party in Australia but you're still tarred with the brush of the Soviet Union or China, or what happened there, let alone Cambodia and Romania and other tragedies as well. But here in Australia from the sixties on, the Communist Party was one of the most independent communist parties in the world. And for example, women's social liberation, well I think there would be no party in the country that was so much at the forefront as the Communist Party. Likewise with the struggle in Vietnam. It was the communist influenced, if not led unions that led the way there in the big moratoriums that linked up with Labor. And unlike now, where the Labor Left hardly exists, the Labor Left then was very much influenced by the Communist Party, and, looking back, I think we acted as a ginger group for the left wing of the Labor Party and gave them some direction at the time, which you haven't go now. And so I think that the Communist Party of Australia in the sixties 'til it wound up in the nineties was very influential in Labor politics in that period. I think that can't be denied. It played a big part. And ... and because the Builders' Labourers were at the forefront of that and I suppose we're best known now, because of the Green Ban movement and environmentalism and ecology, which were really very revolutionary for a union to take up, all of those other things that we discussed, the union was deeply involved and took the membership along with it. Now, it's true that not every builders' labourer was a galloping conservationist or women's libber or even supporter of the rights of gays, but at least we broke down the hostility of the more extreme element and let the more progressive element carry resolutions that took the union movement into a more mature position, as is shown by the fact that the union still continued to look after wages and conditions and do the fundamental thing that a union's there for, but also argued cogently that the union, to fulfil a role, has a right and not only the right but the responsibility to do other things, and particularly round the environment, we could address such things as how people live, the question of what the next generation is going to have, what are we going to leave them and the whole issue of ...
I can understand that. I can understand how it was done with the environment. I suppose the reason that I'm asking ... The reason that I'm asking pressingly about how you persuaded the union on blacks, women and gays, is that I really actually like to know how? I mean, when you had to get a majority to vote in favour of those resolutions, how did you do it? I'm talking nitty gritty here. How did you go about it?
I think it's precisely because of the manner in which the union leadership had won the confidence of the rank and file about basic union requirements that gave them a certain dignity. I remember Tom Hogan, one of our organisers, saying succinctly in that film Rocking the Foundation, when he was saying ... when we went into the strike if you asked him what he was doing, he would say, he'd mutter, 'I'm a BL, you know, a builders' labourer'. If after the strike you said, 'What are doing?' he said, 'I'm a bloody BL'. So the confidence was there, the workers' confidence was built up and their dignity was definitely increased. They weren't second class citizens and I think it was that more than anything else, that those workers could see that the union leadership was really out to assist them. And then through our journal and through our meetings we were able to explain to the rank and file and brought people along there - the blacks, brought them along. When the strike was up at the Gurindji people, we brought down Vincent Lingiari and Dexter Daniels and took them round the building sites and addressed the workers, and for the first time white workers ... and having in mind that something 60 to 70 per cent of their membership at the time were foreign workers. They were mainly southern Europeans: Greeks, Italians, Spanish, Yugoslav. They were ... At that period, they were the ones that came into the country in large numbers and often at meetings we'd have eight to ten translations. So at mass meetings we always translated to the rank and file in their own language, so we'd involve them. It was involvement. We had migrant organisers coming on the jobs. We had women organisers after they were elected. And in all of these issues such as, you know, the issue around Macquarie University, again we had people from the gay movement go out and talk about the way they were being ... the way they were being ignored or the way that they were being downgraded and insulted. And so it was this winning of the workers over ... winning, as I said, the hearts and the minds of the workers by direct consultation, by talking to them, that they moved along and went with the union, and they had confidence in the union. The same thing happened with ... with the environment movement. When ... when we were fighting around ... Before the Green Ban period there was a tendency to look upon the environment as being nature conservation or being only about lakes and rivers and forests, etcetera. Well we shot home that who lives in the worst parts of the city? Who's put up with the most noise in the cities? The working class. So the whole question of where you live, of all the transportation problems, of all the pollution problems, they're a concern of the people. They're not just, quote, 'a middle class issue'. They're everyday, they're everybody's issue and I think it was actually explaining that they had the right and the responsibility to become involved, won them over, that they could see that they ... so there was no three card trick. There was no clever manoeuvre on our part. It was an open discussion with those workers about it.
Yeah, well he was of course a great peace advocate and actually the Building Workers' Union, who covered tradesmen, were the main union who were involved in getting him out here, and one of his actions was to ... one of his first actions was to go down and talk to the ... and sing to the workers on the Opera House and it was a magical moment when the first person to ever sing at the Opera House was Paul Robeson. And ... and that was another example. That was the early sixties, [and that was] another example of the involvement of workers at the time. [INTERRUPTION]
Yeah, well the Opera House commenced in 1959 and was completed in '73. Early in the sixties Paul Robeson was out in Australia on the basis of the peace movement of which he was a great advocate, and because of his background with workers he was invited down to the Opera House and he thrilled the workers at the Opera House with its first ever performance, so the Sydney Opera House workers were honoured when in 1962 or '63 the great Paul Robeson sang a song. And of course that's recorded: Old Man River. He sang a couple of songs and the workers really loved it.
During that period, one of the reasons why you were so effective was because of the sheer volume of work that needed to be done which gave you, as a union, a great deal of clout. Could you just remind us of some of the building sites, apart from the Opera House, that were happening in the city?
Well, having in ... I think the best example of that would be that ... that the tallest building in Sydney when I commenced in the late fifties, was a thirteen storey building, that's still there on the corner of Castlereagh Street and King Street. It's a thirteen storey building and the highest structure was the AWA tower in Clarence Street, and people used to go to ... in the ... on the bridge of the Opera House ... sorry, on the bridge of the harbour bridge, to look out over Sydney and when the first AMP building was built at Circular Quay, twenty-six storeys, they used to charge six shillings for people to go up and look over Sydney. And so now when you've got the MLC building sixty storeys, when you've got a whole range of buildings forty to fifty storeys, you can just imagine from that, from that Circular Quay really up to Chinatown, that whole area of the central business district, has been transformed and so all of those buildings: Australia Square, the round building that went up in '64, '65 and then the MLC building went up after that. So all of those buildings went up in that period, through to ... that twenty year period really, from '60 to '80. That was the enormous change that occurred within the Central Business District.
You managed to get considerable solidarity among the workers in the union. Was there similar solidarity on the part of the Master Builders' Association? Did they all stick together or was there a lot of variation in the employers you had to deal with?
The building industry changed considerably during that period. When I commenced in the building industry, the Master Builders were the same people. The Eastman's, the concrete constructions - there were six or eight large builders, and if, for example, a firm like David Jones wanted to expand their building, they would use the same builder that they've used before, or Max Cooper would be working for Fairfax and so on. But then with the advent of the large buildings, well it changed from just being the ordinary builder to being a developer. So you had the finance capital coming in together with the building industry and so you had a new ... shall we say a new extension to it. You didn't just have the builder, you also had a developer, so finance capital tied up with the building industry, brought in the property developer and the property developer changed the nature of the industry, from just the old orthodox builder. And so it was in that period that the union changed also. And so the Master Builders were a very conservative organisation that, of course, were able to use the union before us for their own purpose but then with the property developers coming in, some of them were just as reactionary as the orthodox builder. But then occasionally you had one like ... some like Dick Dusseldorf of Civil and Civic or Lend Lease, who was very open-minded and had a respect for workers as well as shareholders. And whereas they were of course concerned with ... with profit-making but they also had concern for the rights of the workers, and we were able to utilise that, and we had a better relationship with people like Dusseldorf than we had with the orthodox ... with the ordinary builders. So we were able to play differences between them, but in the main the developers stuck together and were very much opposed to our type of unionism.
Once you'd got some of the fundamentals that you sorted out in the sixties right, were there any other issues to do with the workers' conditions that you tried to pursue? I'm thinking here of permanency.
Of course. Yeah, well, the weakness of the building industry is that it fluctuates according to economic circumstances, and I guess with all work now, with the changing nature, it is ... it is evident that everybody is in the same boat. But in that period there was some consistency and workers did expect, or could expect, to have continuity of work over years or decades for that matter. But the building industry wasn't like the metal industry, for example, where you had ... you could work at the same factory for many years. The building industry was always temporary and so, I mean, the Opera House was a rarity because it lasted fourteen years. But most of the other buildings ... you could put up buildings in a very quick time: eighteen months, even the large buildings in Sydney, so there was a lot of movement.
Well, you've told us about some of the social issues that were taken up by the union at the time that you took over as secretary as you expanded the idea of what the union could do. One of the major issues too that you entered in at that time were issues relating to the environment. How did that come about?
Well, first of all I think that the environment action of the Builders' Labourers was easily the most dynamic involvement that the union had and looking back a quarter of a century later, you'd have to say that it's one of the most exciting chapters of any union in this country or anywhere in the world. And it's attracted world-wide attention from ecologists and unionists. Unfortunately it hasn't been repeated too many times, though there have been occasions where unions have taken similar action in other countries. But it came about not by way of any great thinking on the part of the leaders of the Builders' Labourers, even though as I've shown that we were involved in a whole range of social actions. The environment movement came into being with us by way of the unlikely alliance between middle upper class people from a fashionable suburb of Sydney, Hunters Hill, who had fought against a proposed development for the fortunate few. They were going to destroy the last remaining bushland on Parramatta River. And the women, all women, calling themselves the Battlers for this bit of land called Kelly's Bush, went down in front of the bulldozers and as a last resort came to the Builders' Labourers Union. And they came to us because they had read a statement that I'd made that in a modern society unions should have a right to intervene in issues beyond economics, that anything that affects the workers should be their right, and in fact their responsibility, to have a say in what was happening. And as a last resort they came to us and more or less said, in other words, 'Well, here's a chance to put your theory into practice'. They had exhausted all the means of protest. They'd been to the local Member of Parliament, a very conservative person, Peter Coleman. They'd been to the Premier of the time, Sir Robert Askin, and they'd been to the Labor Opposition, and because they weren't making any headway, at last resort they came to the union. We responded by saying, well, we'll invite them along to address the union executive and the women came along, first time they'd ever been in contact with a trade union, certainly a trade union leadership and they explained their case to us. We decided ... we decided ... When they left, it was interesting the discussion that took place. Despite the fact that the union had been in a lot of advanced action, some of the workers said, 'Well, Jesus Christ, what do we do? You know, we haven't got any members in Hunters Hill - wouldn't be one there'. And others argued, 'Well then, if we're fair dinkum, whether it's Penrith or Liverpool or Hunters Hill if we believe in the right of urban bushland to remain and not to destroy everything, well then we should be consistent'. So we said to the Battlers for Kelly's Bush, 'If you can demonstrate that it's the feeling of the people in the area and not just the fortunate few in the immediate vicinity of Kelly's Bush, we would impose a ban'. So a couple of Sundays later over 400 people came to a meeting outside Kelly's Bush and they put to the union, a request to the union, that we place a ban on the area so as to allow them more time to negotiate with the Government and the Council about alternatives in trying to save the bush. So it was a holding operation. At the time, from before that period, there's always been unions imposing black bans but they're generally for the purpose of jacking up their wages or conditions. This was a different action because it wasn't as though their workers were going to get any immediate advantage through the imposition of the ban and I think that when we changed the name from black ban to green ban was the move that attracted so much attention and brought wider support to us and people, who were normally hostile to unions, came on side with the concept of a union having a social responsibility to impose, quote, 'a Green Ban' and so the Green Ban movement was ... was born that way.
Well, I think it was just a feeling that there had to be some differentiation between the normal action of a black ban, which was mainly for the interests of the workers to one in which the workers were actually taking a more noble position of saying, it's in the broader community and even societal interest that this happen. And so I think that, it was I think a very important change in the thinking that afforded us a lot of support. But when the ... when we imposed the ban we said that we'd impose the ban so as to allow those people to have further discussion with the authorities. And then to compound ... to compound the whole issue, the Premier of day said sarcastically, 'Who did they think they are, they are mere labourers. Who do they think they are, urban town planners?' says Sir Robert Askin. And then Jennings, the Melbourne based company, a big huge company, who was going to destroy the bush, then said, 'Well we're going to use non-union labour on the site'. Immediately we called a meeting on one of Jennings' jobs in North Sydney and I've mentioned before that we had over 90 per cent of the workers in the unions, and the workers on that job decided that if one blade of grass or one tree was touched on Kelly's Bush that half completed building would remain half completed as a monument to Kelly's Bush. And of course this had the desired effect on Mr. Jennings and it strengthened the whole resolve of the workers and it also brought the workers into tow because it meant that we then had to go and talk to the workers about why we were imposing the ban and so it was an educative process that happened to all of us, because we were all were on a learning curve, and so I underline that it wasn't the great forward thinking of the union leaders that imposed the ban, but it was a combination of our preparedness to respond to community's issues that we were sympathetic with. And we found then that we were inundated with similar requests. In the course of four years something like forty-two Green Bans were imposed, holding up 5000 million dollars worth of so-called development at the time. And I think the ... one of the reasons for the success of the Green Ban movement was that we followed the same pattern. It was never the union leaders imposing a ban willy nilly, even though Askin and others used to say that. They were saying, well they're power drunk and they're going round imposing bans, flexing their muscles, etcetera, etcetera. Whereas we responded by saying, 'We have never arbitrarily imposed a ban. We've always had the situation where residents have to come to the union. The matter is discussed by either the executive or sometimes a strike meeting and endorsed'. And so it was. We did away with the argument [coughs], excuse me, [that it was] just the leaders on a power kick for their own ambitious purposes. And society generally was widely divided. On the one hand you had the conservative trade union movement, the right wing in particular, declaring that the Green Bans were out of the role of unions, that unions shouldn't be involved. On the other hand we had sections of the conservative sections of society, many of whom had never voted Labor even in their life, let alone supporting ... [INTERRUPTION]
What was actually going on in the community at large at that time that made it so many residents, including ones from well off areas, were resorting to coming to you? What was the sort of broader social picture of what was happening with building and the environment?
The period was marked in an upsurge the amount of development taking place and whereas in the beginning it was felt, well, this is progress, this is positive, the more thinking segment of society started to question whether all the development was positive, because many of the heritage buildings were destroyed and whole ... some of the best houses were demolished in the onward rush of development. So the questioning, particularly by people who were concerned about the older buildings and concerned about neighbourhoods being uprooted ... and they had nowhere to go because the Government of the day was hell bent on giving the developers open slather, and so you had a very pro-development Government, now considered universally corrupt, the Askin Government, lining up and destroying much of old Sydney. And so you had wide divisions within the community. On the one hand we had the right wing leadership of the Labour Council, the government of the union movement in New South Wales, openly critical of what the Builders' Labourers were doing, saying they shouldn't ... they're going too far. It isn't a role of unions to become so involved in ecological and social issues. On the other hand you had people who normally were hostile to union, people who probably never voted Labor in their lives, let alone supporting a Marxist communist led union, who said well, normally we're against unions but we find ourselves more sympathetic to the role of the Builders' Labourers than what we find to the government of the day. And so was this social discussion that was taking place right throughout New South Wales. I remember the chief of staff of the Sydney Morning Herald telling me that in one year there were more letters to and fro the Green Bans than any other issue from correspondents in New South Wales. So there was this widespread discussion taking place. At the same time the reason for the ... the hostility to the Government was that the people who opposed development had nowhere to go. They had no recourse. If they had a government that was pro-development how could they get anything done? So public participation was not on the agenda and so we were filling a vacuum, and we claimed at the time that we were not setting ourselves up as arbiters of urban town planning but we were saying that ordinary citizens should have a role in society, to have some say in what was happening and that was denied them. And so this was a powerful weapon that was used by the resident action groups which sprung up everywhere. At one stage there was something like 300 resident action groups in New South Wales and so we said that there should be a court set up so as to discuss these issues, so as to allow ordinary people to have a say, [to allow] public participation in the decision making process and that was a great weapon in the hands of the resident action group and the unions. A number of other unions were sympathetic to our cause: the Engine Drivers and Firemen and the Waterside Workers and the Seamen imposed a number of ... of Green Bans, or I should say supported the action that we were taking. So the more progressive of the Left unions were sympathetic and amongst unionists generally there was a high regard for the action of the Builders' Labourers Union. So it was a period of great change and in fact I think that the proof of the pudding came about when the Askin Government was defeated. The incoming Wran Government undertook to introduce many of the legislations that we had asked for. That is that there should be a ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well, the policy of the Labor Opposition in that election when Askin was finally defeated after being in office for ten years, was Wran came in ... The Wran Government came in with an undertaking to build on what the Builders' Labourers and resident action groups were doing and they agreed ... the Labor Party agreed to set up a Land and Environment Court and allow public participation of residents, and most importantly that legal aid be funded to the people who were opposed to the developments. And so they were very strong arguments that we'd been advancing for a number of years So looking back on that period with all the controversy about the Green Bans in the early seventies had their fruition when the Labor Government came into being of introducing the very things that we were asking for. So it was, I think the final decision that the residents and the unions were correct in their argument about some sort of public participation. Of course with the passage of time, a lot of those things have been weakened, but nevertheless at that time it was a great step forward.
Well, I won't go through all the forty-two that ... but just some of the others. As I before, it followed the same pattern and that's what I think gave us a lot of credibility amongst the population at large and gave the lie to the Askin allegation that the leaders were on a power kick. The Rocks, for example, was an area where the idea was to bulldoze all The Rocks, the oldest part of European Australia and build thirty and forty storey buildings. And here the ... it was, unlike Kelly's Bush where there was mainly middle upper class people, here there were working class people that had serviced the city for over a hundred years, and they were the people that worked on the wharves or worked on the ships [and] ferries, or worked in the departmental stores or worked in the offices in the city and they said, 'Well we don't want to be kicked out of our homes'. There was also a lot of public housing because the area of Millers Point which is adjacent to The Rocks was an area where working class people had lived for well over a hundred years, generations of them, and so it meant that The Rocks would be destroyed and all high rise buildings would be built and the people would be turfed out and go to way out in the western suburbs and so it started off on the basis of supporting the people like the residents, but then it developed beyond that because also the National Trust spoke of the importance, the heritage importance of The Rocks, that that should be retained. So there was a combination of residents' rights and also the question of the heritage value to society as a whole, and at the request of the National Trust we imposed a very important Green Ban, and that was that any building decreed by the National Trust to be worthy of preservation, for historical or architectural reason, we would not demolish. and there is over 120 buildings in the city area that owe their existence to the fact that we imposed that ban and of course this was great strength to the National Trust. And again when most of the strength of the National Trust resided with middle upper class people, who were mainly members of it, so you had a cross fertilisation shall we say, as you had with Kelly's bush, where you had a Marxist-led trade union linking up with the blue rinse set of the eastern suburbs and other parts of Sydney, coming together for a common purpose of saving historical buildings. And so The Rocks was a very important example. There were big struggles, when they tried to use non-union labour. Over sixty jobs in the city stopped and 2000 builders' labourers converged on The Rocks to stop the scabs from building and The Rocks was saved after a number of similar fights. Who would now suggest that The Rocks be turned into all high rise development? They claim that over three million people go to see The Rocks and Circular Quay and the Opera House each year, all that area, which is now known to anyone that knows Sydney. The bridge, The Rocks, Circular Quay and the Opera House will be featured thousands of times during the Olympic Games etcetera. And so The Rocks would have ... it wouldn't have been such an attractive area had there been thirty and forty storey buildings rearing up into the sky and dwarfing the Opera House and the bridge. And so The Rocks is one of the great Green Ban victories and it was led by a woman called Anita McCreagh, who has since died of cancer, but she was a barmaid around The Rocks then and was a terrific organiser and so it was a very spirited working class attachment to the Green Bans unlike the Kelly's Bush. Another one was the Centennial Park. In 1972 the Askin Government had the crazy idea that we would go for the Olympic Games in 1988 to celebrate 200 years of white Australia. [INTERRUPTION]
Yes, it's hard to believe now but in 1972, led by Sir Robert Askin and the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Nick Shehadie, they unveiled a great scheme to try and get the Olympic Games in 1988 to celebrate 200 years of white Australia, and the idea was to turn Centennial Park into a giant sports stadium with avenues for car parking as well in all of the ... not only in Moore Park but also across the road on the other side as well. So the ... Moore Park and Centennial Park. So the people in the area rose up in anger and it was a very diverse grouping of people. Patrick White, for the first time, came out and became of course a great supporter of the Green Bans and the Builders' Labourers. Then an obscure politician called N.K. Wran, who lived in the area, also came out against it, as did Harry M. Miller, [the] entrepreneur who served a little bit time nearby in Long Bay at one stage. He came out too, and Kylie Tennant the journalist, the ... the novelist came out as well. So you had this wide variety of people who normally were not in the protest business, coming to the Builders' Labourers and asking for assistance, and again we took the same angle by saying if you can demonstrate that people in the eastern suburbs don't want it, well, then call a meeting and two weeks later in Centennial Park over 8000 people came along to a meeting and formally requested the Builders' Labourers to impose a ban. We acceded to their request and said we would impose a ban provided that they continued to pressure the Government and also we would discuss such things as alternative sites. And ironically one of the sites we said ... We're not against the idea of games per se, but certainly to destroy such a part of our history when ... when Federation commenced in Centennial Park, would be just absolutely unbelievable that anyone should even suggest it, and we argued that if other parts of Sydney ... And ironically some of the parts suggested - one was Penrith, another one was Liverpool, and another one was Homebush, even as far back as '72. So after the second big rally at Centennial Park they marched on to Sydney Town Hall and an overflow meeting requested the Builders' Labourers to impose a ban and the ban was successful and Centennial Park is there now. Other outstanding bans ... And by this time we were gathering pace because people were putting forward that there should be provision for protest. They shouldn't just have to take to the streets on every occasion. And a couple of the other bans that received a lot of publicity was Woolloomooloo, the oldest working ... the oldest suburb of Sydney, so close [to the centre] and the idea was to turn that into part of the Central Business District and again twenty and thirty storey buildings [were] to be built there. That was an area where working people had lived much like The Rocks and most of those were out at the waterfront because the Finger Wharf at Woolloomooloo [saw] one of the biggest outgoing of ships and commerce in the ... in Sydney. And the people again approached the Builders' Labourers, and we imposed a ban and by that time the Federal Government had come into power under Whitlam and they'd set up a department of urban planning and so we were able to cooperate with the then Minister, Tom Uren, to have public housing built in Woolloomooloo, because we argued that public housing should not only be on the fringes of the city where people were thrown out, but should be in the inner part of the city as well. And so one of the successes of Woolloomooloo was that ordinary people had the right to public housing so very close to the Central Business District. Just above Woolloomooloo was a famous street, Victoria Street, where artists and waterside workers and others, musicians, had lived. It's been one of the nicest parts of the Cross and with very nice housing on the northern end of the street. The idea there was to build giant high rise development all in Victoria Street and by that time a number of squatters had moved into this street, including such well known people as Wendy Bacon and others, and it gave another flavour to it because it was also fighting for low income earners as in Woolloomooloo to have the right to work, [and] to live in the inner part of the city where they were working. [INTERRUPTION]
From the start again?
Yes, I think an interesting feature of the Victoria Street struggle was that you had squatters also there arguing that low income earners should be able to live in the inner city area, as with Woolloomooloo, and not be compelled to live on the fringes of the large city like Sydney. And I think that was a very important ingredient in that ... that struggle. And of course there the developers were losing enormous amount of money with interest payments because of the ban and so they went so far as to get the thugs and hoons around the Cross to come in and throw the ... the occupiers out, to throw the people who were squatting out and there was a real conflict between the trade unionists, because the Seamen Union had joined us there, because Mick Fowler, a musician and a resident of Victoria Street was involved. And so there was rather a big struggle taking place between the ... Abe Saffron and his ... and his friends who worked in the strip joints and nightclubs and the unionists, but also we had the situation where Askin used the police force to assist the squatters being thrown out. So Joe Owens, was then the secretary of the union, after I'd stepped down, and he said, 'Well no other building will take place in ... in ... in ... in Victoria Street'. So I think that it's pretty important to realise that the Victoria Street, even though some high rise development has been ... has taken place there, that the northern end of Victoria Street is as nice as it was back in the sixties and seventies. So ... and then of course there were other things too. The Theatre Royal was going to be demolished and so the people took action. Save the Theatre Royal people took action and argued that it should be retained and so the giant MLC building was held up until such time as Lend Lease and Dusseldorf, the managing director, came back from [the] Bahamas, where he was at the time, and agreed with the union that a theatre, to the specifications of the theatrical people who were fighting to save it, be incorporated in the giant development and that's why the Theatre Royal is there today, because of that agreement that we wouldn't commence building until such as time as the building ... the theatre was put in place [coughs], excuse me. So I think that gives you an example that we could strike compromise. It wasn't always yes or no. If it had to be a compromise, it can be worked out. Another one that received a lot of publicity was the Congregational Church built in [the] 1830s. It was the oldest church in Sydney and the idea was ... and the church was built by some of the richest families in the colony at the time, like the Fairfaxes, who owned the Sydney Morning Herald and the David Jones, the quality departmental store, and they were the founders of the Congregational Church. And the present person there ... the person there at the time of the ban was Reverend Bryant and he wanted to knock the church down and build a twenty storey building. And the David Jones and the other well-to-do people came to the Builders' Labourers asking for our support, so it was a bit of a strange combination again: people from different walks of life coming together. On the other hand you had Reverend Bryant who was hell bent on going ahead to such an extent that he wrote to Bob Hawke. Bob Hawke was then the president of the ACTU. On the basis that Hawke's father had been a Congregationalist Minister and he wanted Bob Hawke's support for it. He then wrote to the Labour Council. Of course as I mentioned before, [they] were rather hostile to the Builders' Labourers Union and John Ducker, the leader, later to become a leader of the Labor Party, also was against the Green Bans and the Builders' Labourers and condemned it. [INTERRUPTION]
The Labour Council leader at the time, John Ducker, who was a powerful figure in the New South Wales Labor Party, was also critical of the Green Bans and so they were trying to ... the Reverend Bryant was trying to use the right wing Labor leaders to thwart our support for the Fairfaxes and David Jones and all the other people who wanted to keep the historical theatre and church which had a beautiful theatre, a lovely organ ... to keep it for posterity. And I'll never forget one morning I was on an early morning television program and the Reverend Bryant was saying, 'I want to build a building' and me, this ... this person who doesn't believe ... who's not a Christian, you know, he's an atheist, wants to save it. And I said, 'Well, it appears to me that I've got more spirituality than you. You want to destroy your church and I want to support the David Jones and the Fairfaxes and keep it. You know, we're more morally correct than you are'. And so things were happening like that, that showed the differences in the two approaches and overwhelmingly we were ... got letters to the Sydney Morning Herald all supporting the Builders' Labourers role in saving the church. When ... when we finally won the battle and Reverend Bryant lost out, the Congregational Church held a special service and invited along all the builders' labourers on the basis of the 150th year of the church's being built, and we were there singing hymns with the Governor and Reverend Dorothy McMahon was then in the church - one of the more progressive of the church people in Australia, and so she had taken over from the Reverend Bryant so it was a very meritorious victory to have all the builders' labourers singing the hymns together with the blue rinse set from the eastern suburbs. And ...
The Opera House car park battle brought a lot of people on side for you who hadn't really properly understood some of the other issues. They could see that one. Could you tell me how that one came about?
Well, after the ... The Opera House had taken from 1959 to 1973 to complete and of course the builders' labourers and other building workers were thrilled to be a part of that wonderful building, but they'd clean forgot about a place for god car, and so as the final month ticked by and the ... the Opera House was going to open on the October of '73, they had to get a car park going, and the idea was to tear down the three Morton Bay figs, 150 years old in the outer Domain, right near the Government House, cut into the cliff face of Macquarie Street, which is lovely as you go down Macquarie Street, that cliff face really makes the wonderful opening up to the Opera House and so it would all be destroyed.
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]
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.
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]
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'.
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.
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]
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.
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.
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 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.
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'.
The union had been de-registered.
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.
We didn't. We were out for years, and finally we took ...
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]
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.
I think so, I think so. But other union officials ... having in mind it was the Fraser years and there were a lot ... like you're talking the late seventies. There was a lot of union bashing going on as with a lot of our history of course. Unions, any wage gain, or any action they'd take, they're always condemned. But, yeah, I think, yes, we should have done that. Yes.
Can I go back now and pick up on one aspect of your life in the union that came and went at various stages. When you first joined the union and there was an effort to take on the then leadership, you know, when you were making this rank and file movement to clean up the union, did that leadership use violence at all in that argument?
Well having in mind, of course they were violent, I mean they used the criminal elements because always around that sort of work there's a lot of knock about [people], shall we say, in there and they used criminal elements ... similar [to] criminal elements to threaten people and people - militants - were bashed up, but what really turned the clock was when the jobs ... when more and more workers came onto the big jobs, they couldn't control that then, there were so many. So the numerical strength won them over. But early in the piece there was a lot of violence in the fifties up until the time ... particularly in those years, the late fifties and early sixties until the union broke through, but after that there was limited outbreaks of violence but we had the upper hand then and we used that intelligently and of course were extremely hostile on any physical endeavours that the rump group would make against us.
Oh, well, I was threatened, but I mean having in mind that I was very fit and could handle myself, to use that term, and having in mind that the rank and file was growing rapidly, it was much more difficult for them act then. So we were on the ascendancy and they knew that, so there was implied threats, but never actual physical threats to me. Of course, when we ourselves used not violence but disciplinary action, when we kept them prisoner in their branch meeting when they used to ignore the rules of the branch and walk out of meetings, when we had the majority, we barred the door and forced them to remain the building. I told you before about ...
Well it was ... It was in the January of '61. What had happened the previous year, each of the branch ... the branch meetings took place once every month, the first Tuesday of each month, and it was eight o'clock of an evening, so you can imagine the building workers coming from far flung suburbs - from Hornsby, from Liverpool, from Penrith - all the way into town for an eight o'clock meeting and having in mind that six o'clock was the closing time for pubs. The workers had to fill in two hours. And during that period, during the sixties, 1960, they did have the criminal elements. They used to pay them, give them a few quid and drinks, get them in the pubs, get them half shot and then take over, and there were many attempts to mug people and to bash them. But of course with the increasing number of the rank and file they couldn't do that, so what they did, they went to a situation where your meeting would open. We would move a motion on a subject. We would win it convincingly and then the chairman would rule that we'd lost. They would then ... we would oppose it as I say, point of order: we want a division to count. They would then close the meeting and walk out of the meeting. And so we'd bring in all these people from all over Sydney and they became terribly frustrated as the year went by. So some of them said, 'What's the good of [wasting] all that time to go in there and they'll just walk out?' So in the January of ... of '61 which was really the turning point, we held them up at the door, [when] they attempted to walk out. We had a majority six to one, or seven to one, against them, a couple of hundred workers in the hall, and when they came down to go out of the hall, we picked them up and took them back and sat them down. One of their stooges then ran out and got the 21st Division, which was the political police at the time, and they came in to the meeting. We then addressed them saying, 'Well you're unionists too. Hands off. Stand outside. We're carrying out the rules of the union. The rules say that between eight o'clock and ten o'clock the meeting takes place. They're not carrying out the rules of the union. You stand outside and they're going to stay here until ten o'clock'. And we did that. They just sat there until ten o'clock. Well, the next day we stopped all Sydney and this is the first action against the old leadership. So we stopped them and we marched from down at Circular Quay - the Opera House hadn't started then ... Circular Quay up the street to the Town Hall, and that was the turning point when we said, 'Well right, we're going to set up a rank and file meeting and we're going to defeat them in the election taking place in September'. And that was the ... that was the real impetuous that gave away the old leadership. They had to go, and we were successful then in the next election. So it was that direct action that brought about the change.
Oh of course. I mean, after all you can imagine the frustration of militant workers, who first of all with the bashing of the old guard [sic] ... with the black listing of anyone who even raised their voice about conditions on jobs or any other feature ... and where they had their own lackeys appointed on jobs, not ... not even elected by the workers. So they went through a very bad period. And so that example, which was highly publicised, big write ups in the paper ... that was known then. [News] spread right throughout the industry that the Builders' Labourers were on the march and we were totally successful and won overwhelmingly in the elections of that year.
Well first of all we had a list given to us by ... A person in the office had given us a list and also a sympathetic builder who was ... had been a unionist in his background also had a list. So they had a list from the Master Builders that they sent out to their members and of course we had so ... so [there was] many examples of a union official [who] would come to a job, a worker would be working under an assumed name - all of us worked under assumed names then, but as soon as the official saw myself or other activists next thing you'd get sacked that afternoon because the ... there was an hour's notice. They ... all they had to give you was an hour's notice so they'd use some trumped up reason that there was no work left or something else and you'd get sacked.
Yeah, he promptly changed his name to Bundy to safeguard his future in the building industry.
I'm gonna go and lie down.
How long you got?
The Far North, not bloody Brisbane.
The Far North, Far North Queensland. We'll go back to Far North Queensland and you're a kid and when you were teenager we know you were sports mad and so on. Do you remember at what stage you got interested in girls? Do you remember that? Do you remember ...
Far North Queensland, no. Had to come to the big smoke.
Oh I haven't got a ... haven't got a ... I haven't got a diary on that but probably in my early twenties.
I was, slow learner, still ... [laughs]
Well I met her through, oh well, dances and ... and other social events with the football club and just the normal thing that people do.
Well I was going through an extremely difficult period because it was just before we broke through in the union movement so it was ... I mentioned before that one year I had seventeen jobs, and at that I was married and Stephanie was pregnant with Michael, so there was enormous pressure on ... on us but she agreed with ... she had support for the idea of what I was about and went along with it. [INTERRUPTION]
Stephanie Lennon. A very nice person.
Oh just ... oh very much a worker. She was ... she worked in a shop in Parramatta and we started going out and a number of years later I married her. [coughs]
Well, she came from a working class family and ... and she was, in general, though she wasn't terribly politically aware, she was supportive of the basic rights of things I was fighting for. It was ... the big uncertainty of employment of course was a problem but I explained ... Well I explained the position to her. She knew the position, and it was ... and was supportive of it, yes.
Well, we were living at her mother's place at the time, so that was a bit of a help. It was pretty much ... as with any casual worker, pretty much a very difficult period, let alone with the industrial activity. But we managed and I was also active by then in the Communist Party and so it was a very active life we were leading.
Well, as I said, she lived at her mother's place so at least she had her family there. Her father had died years before and she was the fifth of five girls and one boy - the last of the youngest, so it was a good working class family I married into.
A diversion, one might say. No. It was terrific of course. Michael was a lovely little kid. Born in Crown Street, Sydney and I was a proud father.
Oh well ...
Probably not as much as I should have, having been out so much and still very active in the union movement but, yeah, I was ... I wasn't ... Overall I wasn't a bad father. [PLANE] I reckon, I wasn't perfect but I wasn't bad.
Jack, can I ask you now about your involvement in politics, parallel to your life in the union and very much associated with it, was active ... an active political life. Could you tell me how that evolved for you and who within the party that you joined - the Communist Party - things developed and what your role was in that? [PHONE]
I joined the Communist Party because I felt that it was the most militant group of people who fought around basic things like wages and conditions, so I came in from that level. I didn't have a ... a very deep understanding of Marxism. I believed in the socialist principles. I believed in egalitarian principles and I was very much opposed to the gap between rich and poor that exists in this country. And because of my background and growing up in the Depression, as a result of the Depression and seeing then the Second World War and after the Second World War how money could be found very quickly for development, it made me realise the power of big business was immense and so [I held] a very idealistic belief that some form of system would be preferable to a greedy capitalist system, and I maintain that idea right through 'til now, despite the upheavals that occurred under the name of socialism. And I suppose that many people ... I joined the Communist Party in the fifties and as a ... as a young person and I went to many study classes and studied Marx and Engels and the other philosophers who were Marxists, and I was convinced that despite the terrible tragedies of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and particularly after the exposure of Stalinism by Khrushchev, there was great hope that socialism would have a rebirth, that a ... a form of socialism that more accords with modern society would come into being and in the sixties of course another split occurred when the Communist Party of China and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union came apart and so in the world you really had the three different varieties. You had countries like Italy and Australia, where the communist parties were taking a more independent position, and you also had the Soviet Union and China. And in all the western countries there were adherence to the different forms of socialism and it's rather interesting to note that within the building industry, of which I was involved in, you had the three main union leaders [who] were aligned to the different factions of the Communist Party. You had Clancy, who was the leader of the Carpenters and Bricklayers, the BWIU, following the Soviet Union. You had Gallagher, the federal secretary of the Builders' Labourers following the China line and then you had myself and others in the leadership in New South Wales, who believed that each country must find its own way to socialism and was critical of many aspects of the Soviet Union and China, particularly around the cult of the individual, of putting the individual up as being all knowing, and not learning from the tragic era of Stalinism. We found in China the same glorification and treat[ment of] him as an idol - treating Mao Zedong as an idol and this was counter to my understanding of what socialism and egalitarian principles were. And I take it ... Had the party continued to support the Soviet Union or China I wouldn't have remained in the party, but because of a hope that the independents would bring about a regeneration of socialist ideas, I stayed in the Communist Party. But as ... as I said before, I think the albatross was too heavy because even allowing for the amount of anti-communism of course in all the capitalist countries, the fact remains that the performance of the socialist countries was so poor, particularly around human rights and lack of democracy, that people who otherwise admired things that the Communist Party of Australia were doing, weren't prepared for vote for them, particularly in elections whether it be national, state or municipal. Though at the municipal level in various parts of Australia, communist were elected and served very well for years, and in Queensland one, Fred Patterson, was elected to the seat of Bowen. But in the main there was the union movement, [which] elected communists again and again, and the most successful union leaders were many communists, and the communists were the driving force really on left wing Labor. They were often the ... the brains, if I can say so, behind left wing Labor. You've only got to contrast the position now when there isn't a Communist Party and the Left of the Labor Party is almost leaderless, if it exists at all. So I mean I think that my evolve ... The way that my thinking evolved, came from differences in the Communist Party and the fact that the Communist Party of Australia was so much involved in those issues I've spoken about. The rights of women. For example, my wife Judy was the first president of any political party in Australia. She was president of the Communist Party of Australia, and many other women were elected to the leadership of the party. They were at the forefront of the women's struggle, and the environment movement of course, with myself and others in the Green Ban movement, anti-apartheid and pro-black, we were the first. The Communist Party of Australia was the first political party to unequivocally champion the rights of the Aboriginal people as far back as the thirties, I might add. So those things ... On an Australian based scheme, the Communist Party was truly independent. But in the minds of most Australians, it was still quote 'communist' and communist equalled, in their mind, because of ... because of anti-communist propaganda, that any communist equals Russia, equals China.
Yes, I was president of the Communist Party for a number of years in the seventies and before that I had many positions. I was president of the Sydney district committee and of course, all the time, active in the trade union movement.
Yes, I went ... I led a delegation to the Soviet Union in 1969 and it wasn't greeted with open arms because in 1968, when the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia, well we came out ... we were the first communist party in the world, Australia, to come out and unequivocally condemn the invasion in August of 1968, and this caused further breach. Already relationships with the Soviet Union were poor, but this caused a further breach between the Soviet Union and Australian communist parties. Of course the Communist Party of the Soviet Union considered, you know, Australia pretty irrelevant but they still wanted the various communist parties to genuflect at their altar and they thought it was rather audacious that we should be so condemning of that invasion, because the Dubcek period in Czechoslovakia gave communists in the western countries great hope that as Dubcek termed it, 'socialism with a human face', making it more democratic, making the system a plural system and being a part of a modern approach to things like environment, women's rights and other issues, and of course the very fact that the Warsaw Pact countries under the Soviet Union stifled that was really one of the last set backs for the hope of socialism or communists in the western world.
It was very ... It was mixed in the sense that on the one hand I think that you have to say that the education system at least allowed the people far better [opportunities] than most other third world countries. And many ways I say that because there are aspects of the Soviet Union that were sort of a third world country. And it should never be forgotten of course that even though it was '69, it was still evident that they suffered horrendously during the Second World War, where some twenty million people were killed and many more millions injured and homeless. So they suffered enormously in the Second World War in the defeat of Nazism. But against that, it was mainly the ... the ... I could see the evidence of the Stalinist repression even though in that period when Brezhnev was leader the ... the camps and other really repressive means had ... had stopped but the after effects were still there, and ... and you could see first hand that the people ... On the one hand the people had enough food and clothing, but it wasn't of the quality, particularly the clothing, of the west and they longed for many of the consumer items of the western world. So the people were clothed and reasonably well fed, but there was a lack of democracy which showed through in many instances.
Yes, I was, well ... I was elected to the Sydney district, sorry, to the Sydney Council ... to the Sydney City Council in 1984 and I served there for three years. But yeah, on many occasions I've stood in both Federal and State elections as a Communist Party candidate, but as I pointed out before, because of the anti-communism generated by the capitalist system, and also because of the paucity of the experience of socialism in both the Soviet Union and China, the Australian voters, whilst they would elect people like myself again and again to trade union positions, they were not prepared to vote under the name communist for those other positions.
Well, I think everything one does you learn something from it, but I probably realised how hopeless it was at the end. But just ... An interesting sideline for the very first time, I had a job handing out how-to-votes for the Communist Party. I was twenty-four, playing football at the time and I was allocated the electorate or the town ... then the town of Leura in the Blue Mountains, which was then really a retirement village for the well to do in Sydney. And so I travelled up there and got out with my panama hat and dressed up as the footballer, handing out the how-to-vote and an old Tory, no doubt, came up and made fun of me saying, 'Oh you look pretty well dressed. How come you're a communist? What are you doing all dressed up like that?' So I had to put up with this silly old bastard for most of the day and as the afternoon wore on, there weren't too many takers of my how-to-votes but the candidate came up and said, well would I mind scrutineering. So my baptism to the handing out to how-to-vote communist went from 8 am to 8 p.m. and then I had to check the votes. And so at ten o'clock my day's work had led to not one vote - not one person voting for the Communist Party after fourteen hours of activity, so you've got to say that I was a slow learner. [Laughs] And not too many communists in Leura at the time. I think there would even be more now.
Now I want to go back now to where we started before when we were so rudely interrupted by the planes. You were telling me about your first marriage and I wanted you to tell me about ... you were explaining how you were managing when life was very busy for you and you didn't have much work and you had a wife and baby. What did that mean for you economically as a little family?
Well, you had ... you haven't to be a Rhodes Scholar to work out that, have you? I mean, you just get by. But the conviction was strong about the need to win control of that union and I was prepared to make sacrifices and Stephanie, who was eight or nine years younger than myself, went along with me and of course the baby was the concern of us both. So ... and living with the mother, there was ... it was also an assistance.
But anyone that struggles ... anyone that struggles like that, you know, against the system, or against wrong things in the system, always has to make those sacrifices. I understood that because you're looking at a period, it was just after the war. The Cold War was still cold and well, shall we say, because, you know, the whole question of the atom bomb, nuclear power - all those things are on the agenda. Cuba and then the threat of bombing, the Kennedy - Khrushchev stand off, all of that was, you know ... it was ... it was at a flash point really in the late fifties and early sixties, so I think anyone who was a communist in those days knew that you're going to get a lot of flak, which we did. But in my work in the trade union movement, of course, there was a strong body of opinion wanting change in that union and that was most of my work in that period you're talking about: my early married period, was fighting for the ... the right of decency within the trade union movement.
I was still living with Judy ... with Stephanie's mother in Guildford, near Parramatta.
No, I was finishing up. I was having a qualitative change from football to politics and I finished up. I had been coaching at ... as a player-coach at Riverstone, which is just out of Sydney, and after that - the time of Michael's birth - I retired and became a full-time communist.
Oh yeah, about twenty-five hours a day, yeah. Very much so.
Well, within a year ... just a year after ... after she gave birth to Michael she ... she was good style of woman, good build and she fell away. Her weight fell right away and the GP couldn't pick up what was wrong, just put it down to postnatal health, depression, and her health didn't improve and she went into a coma, and Michael was fifteen months when Stephanie died and she was only then twenty-two, and she died of a cerebral haemorrhage. which the neurosurgeon said should have been ... should have been found out a long time before ... should have been discovered and so it was a very untimely death. And Michael's grandmother, where we were still living. then took over the role of ... of mother and I ... That was '62 and I stayed there for three more years and then '65 I married my present wife, Judy.
Well, Michael ... I was with Michael all the time. I'm saying that from '62, when she died, I was living at ... with the maternal grandmother, who looked after Michael and then in '65, I went to the more salubrious Croydon Park with my new wife. I'm still there thirty-five years later, proving once and for all Mundey did not take the bribes from the rich developers.
Oh yes. He was ... he was just fifteen months when Stephanie died and a couple of years I started to go with Judy so he was three, three and a half, and so he was five when we got married, so he'd known her since he was three and, and [got on] perfectly with her - had a terrific relationship right through life with Judy.
No, we had Michael, but no, we didn't.
... Any additional children.
What happened with ... Well, Michael of course ... He unfortunately at the very same age as his mother, twenty-two, he was tragically killed in a car accident - passenger in a car. He shared my environmental concerns about many things, including motor vehicles, and ironically died as a passenger in a car when he was twenty-two and five months. Terrible set back. Never got over it. Wouldn't get too many more tragic stories. Mother dying at twenty-two, with a baby fifteen months and then when he was twenty-two, getting killed in a car smash. Very hard to take.
Michael was studying at the Institute of Technology for media work, when he died. Before that he worked as a builders' labourer and it's also interesting to note that he had to work under an assumed name because he was my son. He worked for a little while in the ... in the building industry and he was active in environmental issues. He went to Japan with a friend for a short period of time and when he came back he enrolled in technology, in the media work and that's what he was doing when he ... when he died.
Wll he ... He started work when he was about seventeen and he worked for eight or ten months in the building industry.
Yes, yes, - the late seventies actually. It was during that period when I was barred from the union and so it would be late ... late seventies, early eighties and so that was a difficult period because ...
'82. He'd been in Japan '81 and he came back and was killed.
Jack, you say that you never get over these things. At the time that they happen, how do you deal with the fact - I mean, when Stephanie died and you left with Michael as a baby, it was at the height of a lot of your activity. How did you manage it? What did you do? How did you deal with the feelings?
Well, if you talk about the period when Stephanie died. Well I had just commenced work actually in the ... in the ... full-time work in the union. She died in the September and I'd started work for the union in that very same month, so I was extremely busy and I guess that that helped somewhat to the agony that went on. And also I was fortunate in the fact that Stephanie's mother ... I was living at that house and of course she looked after her grandson, and that helped too. But, one just has to face up to it and as everyone has had some tragedy in their life, probably not as so shocked as a young person dying like that, but everybody has ... have had tragedies and you've got no alternative but to face up to them.
I guess I just threw myself into ... into the work. I mean, I was busy before but I mean I've been brought up a Catholic but the longer I was believing in Marxism the less I believed in ... you know, in religion and so I suppose, I think there is a realistic attitude that atheists have, that you don't believe in blind faith in religion. I think there's a ... It gives an atheist a strength, in my opinion anyway. It certainly did with me. That all you've got both in the death of Stephanie and Michael, all you've got are the memories and when people say, 'Well, time will heal'. Well, I say, 'I don't want time to heal, all you've got are the memories, all the good things that happen and all the many other things that happen, all you've got are those memories', and I treasure those memories, and I think that's the best way to ... to try and come to terms with something that will ... will be with you all your life, 'til you die yourself. And also ... also think back to the good things that happened, look at the positive things, like Michael had travelled with his aunts to New Guinea. His aunt, one of his aunts, married in New Zealand. He went over to New Zealand. He went on a holiday with us to Fiji, so he'd had a lot of experience. He was ... had Aborigine friends. He was very strong on linking with Aborigines and ... and so he had a really terrific approach to ... to ... to positive and progressive causes. When he was at school the teacher chided him ... at this school here in Croydon Park, for wearing a moratorium badge during the anti-Vietnam campaign, and he was fully ten, you know, and so he took the teacher on. So, 'You're not going to take it off', and so he was ... and I think that Judy and I put forward our socialist views and he was, from a young kid, he was involved in talking in and the house was always full of, you know, active women in the women's movement, or environmentalists or communists and it was a pretty interesting life for a young kid to be involved [in] and, you know, again with the Vietnam War and support for our blacks. They were pretty good causes for a young kid to be taking up.
Oh very proud, yeah. He was a good down-to-earth kid.
As you say, most people have something in their life that's a big blow, but you had a double blow there. Was it harder the second time to rally yourself and get over it, I mean to the extent that you were able to carry on? I mean, that also was a period of some difficulty for you, this, this all happened. How again did you use the same method, of just absorbing yourself in your work or how did you deal with the death of Michael?
Well, I think that when it happens what are the alternatives if you don't do that? If you don't face up to the grim reality of what has happened, well then of course you'll go down hill yourself and that's not going to assist those that have prematurely departed. So I don't think there's many ... there is any other option but to remember the lovely things that happened and the good things that happened and the fact that he did have a very good life, though unfortunately very short. I mean they're the positive things I think to look at and I don't see ... I can't understand any alternative but to go in on yourself. Of course you think about other things. You think about whether you ... you know, you're so involved yourself in politics and so on, whether you could have given more time to him, but I mean, he wasn't keen on cricket or football but in the usual old father thing, I ... I took him and got him to play rugby league and got him to play cricket but he wasn't keen on those sort of things. But, you know, so I had a good relationship with him and when someone dies at twenty-two, of course, you think, oh gee, I should have spent more time. But one's not to know what's going to happen around the corner.
Death has played a pretty big part in your life. You lost your mother when you were six, then you lost your wife right at the beginning of your marriage and then you lost your only son, your only child. Does this mean that you ... I mean, does it affect your own attitude to your own death? Does it make you more worried about dying? Or does it give you a strength about it?
Well, I'm not crossing into it but ... and as an atheist you know it's the end result, you're not having yourself on about other things. So, yeah, when ... and of course you can think, well, you know, fate dealt you unfairly with the loss of two people at twenty-two years of age, but then again where does that get you? I mean it ... it doesn't do any good to your spirit or your soul to go in on yourself and become thoroughly depressed about it. I suppose Michael's death particularly affected me. When you talk about ... when you mention my mother, well, it's ... I was only six when she died and, and I do remember when the realisation that she was dead hit me ... you know, that was the first real shock of my life: what did it all mean? When I saw the other aunts crying and I knew she was ... mummy's gone, gone to heaven. I knew she'd gone and then the sadness of Stephanie dying - even though she had been sick for a period but never, but didn't expect death. And then with Michael of course, alive and perfectly fit, good style of a kid one day and bang, the next day he's gone, is ... is something you wouldn't want anybody else to experience.
Do you remember back to when you were a little boy and you were trying to make sense of it? Do you remember what went through your mind when your mother died and it was the first big moment that you had a big thought to face?
When my mother died?
Well, I mean at six years of age, being a country bumpkin, I wasn't thinking deeply about matters of spiritual value and other than the sheer shock of saying that she's gone forever, that was quite frightening, but then a couple of years later I went and even though we were on this little farm, the ... my father, as I mentioned, was a relaxed type of Catholic but we still went through the norm of getting holy communion, so I was exported to Atherton and to have the nuns put me through the hoops and learn the catechism and I was particularly impressed with one aspect of it, that said if you die with venial sin well you go to purgatory for a while, but if you die with mortal sin you go to hell forever and ever and ever. And I thought, Jesus Christ that's a long time and as a young kid I thought: forever, you know, and it strengthened my faith ... faith and for a while I became a devoted at eight years of age. But, no, seriously I thought, you know, it really shot home the catholic teaching of little kids and how it puts the fear of Christ in them.
All depends what you call mortal sin. I have some difficultly defining it, but, no, I'd say I have probably serious venial sins. [Laughs]
Well, of course, I was in the Communist Party and she was in the women's movement and also in the Eureka Youth League and I met her through that. And then later on, she was working in the Trades Hall in ... in another union and we got to know each other.
She was a clerical worker.
No, I've improved her a bit. [Laughs]
And fail. But no, but Judy was very ... She actually came from a sort of right wing Labor Party background, not very political and I think that through her association with me she moved to the Left and being thirteen years older, I was more influential then with her than I am now, considerably one might say. And she believed in the general principles of socialism and she was active in the Eureka Youth League, which was the youth movement, and she was also involved in the women's ... just at the commencement of the women's movement and she was, you know, a strong feminist, so we had a lot of things in common. She was ... And then she was attracted to Michael, so she got a little bargain too with Jack and Michael, so one might say. I don't know if she would agree with that. o we were ... we were very good for each other and we decided to get married. And she joined ... later on joined the Communist Party and ...
And rose to be president, two presidents. So, yeah ...
And then later on she became ... Like many working class women in that period, they went through ... and she went to St George, a selective high school and went very well. She was a good student but then went into the usual thing: office work. But through the women's movement and her activity in politics in her early thirties, see, taking advantage of the Whitlam Scheme to let working class people into universities in greater numbers, she went to university as a mature age student and like other women in that period, flew through. In fact, in her period at Macquarie University, the three women, one of whom was Judy, who topped the school, were all mature aged women and it was that rich period when women were coming through ... mature age women were coming through, and she then became a lawyer ... a solicitor and worked for legal aid for a period and then became a barrister, dealing mainly in criminal and family and general ... general barrister's work, which she is still doing.
Well, I suppose Michael and Judy would be two. But I ... there have been many friends. I ... I ... you know, I suppose when you're a kid when you're growing up, well, you've got friends then. You move from the Atherton Tableland to Sydney, you've got other friends and I suppose through being active as I have been in sport and in politics, well you have many friends and I would never ... [INTERRUPTION]
So you have many friends. I mean I'm not one of those people who just has one friend, who's your best friend. Of course at different stages you have different friends and that's ... I've never been short of friends, although they've mainly been ... I haven't got too many right wing friends, put it that way. They're mainly progressive, intelligent, egalitarian, Left oriented.
Many, many. Not as many as friends, but quite a few. Oh well, I suppose, naturally in the ... in the union movement, the ... the rapacious developers were my ... weren't my friends. They were my opponents. Within the union movement, I suppose, some of the right wing people I liked but I also clashed with a lot of them. And my feeling for equality and for a genuine fair go for people means that I [was] against greed and avaricious type of people, regardless of where they come from.
Now you mentioned, when we were talking about your life in the union the other day, that especially during the Green Bans period you were approached a lot for ... with bribes, that people actually attempted to bribe you in relation to those. Could you ... could you tell me about some of those instances and the bribes that you were offered?
Yes, well not only myself, but also the other leaders were offered [bribes] but I guess more so myself because I was secretary at the ... at the time when ... [PLANE]
Well I think, I don't think I ... That period that we have discussed in this sort of ... the crucial era of my involvement in the Green Ban movement led to an understanding of just what ... how corrupt that period was, because there were two or three outstanding instances where people approached me and believed that I was buyable, you know, and one of them would have amounted to ... to millions of dollars. The idea was to lift a ban ... [lift] the Green Ban and even gave the logic about what I could do by saying, 'Well look, you could tell the people that if you allow us to build, half the amount of money that we ... We've got the right to build now, well then you can have five per cent of the proceeds', and I quickly worked out what that would mean and it was a considerable amount of money. So [they] even gave me the logic as to what I could do and I rejected that. Another occasion ...
Well, the person is still alive so I'm not prepared to say.
Another ... another one was the question of a theatre where a person wanted to build a theatre in the Rocks. I advised them to go and see Nita McCreagh. They said, 'Come off it, you can do it'. I said, 'No, no, you go and talk to Nita McCreagh'. Again, an open cheque was the proposition.
Well, an open cheque, I mean, to do it, to have a theatre in the Rocks and the third one was over in North Sydney, where the proposition was to build a high rise building opposite the Opera House, which would allow people to ... from the North Shore, to drive in. It was when the car-parking ban was on ... would allow people, seeings that many of the eastern suburbs of course and the northern suburbs are the ones that go to the Opera House in large numbers, the proposition was that people could drive in from the various parts of Killara and Wahroonga, park their cars, go to the restaurants and then across to the Opera House and the proposition there was for a twenty storey building to be built opposite the Opera House. Again I said, 'Well there's no chance of that happening'. They said, 'Well we've got the right to do it. North Sydney Council we believe will go ahead with it, and the only thing standing in our way is the ban'. I said, 'Well we're supporting the people of the area. We will not put it ... we will not lift the ban'. Again the proposition was put up that I could have the penthouse if I could find my way clear to persuade them to do it. So they are the three classic examples. Many other offers were made of all sorts of inducements to lift the bans. So it shot home to me just the level of corruption that existed in the community in the Askin period.
Not really because ... because we were so open in what we were doing, it would be very difficult to bring those decisions in and justify it to the other union officials, even if you attempted to do it, let alone ... It would be counter to everything we were standing for. So, no, and also, you get found out. It's not going to ... I didn't entertain it. The very fact that I've lived here for thirty-five years indicates that I haven't got ... I mean having in mind, probably one of the reasons I'm living here is, I was driven out of work for ten years really. Either driven out of work or being unable to get it because of the black bans on - being black banned from jobs. But I haven't got a heightened desire for large amounts of money, so again I'm not a ... I'm not a great consumerist, so it wasn't the sort of thing that I was tempted to do.
I'm not saying other union officials wouldn't have allowed it, I'm saying that one would have been found out. I mean there's no way you could take that sort of money without being discovered even if you had wanted to. Not that I wanted to. Of course Gallagher did, but Gallagher fell for, as I call it, the three card trick. I mean Gallagher, when I first knew him, he was a militant union leader and we got on quite well together. I guess it was over ... mainly over political differences - the China line and our own independent line - that caused the rift. But Gallagher, when he fell for the offer of the employers and the biggest developers ... but the other thing which is humorous there is Gallagher could have settled for huge amounts of money and settled for a holiday home and building a house down on McLoughlins Beach, so he was castigated and ridiculed and, you know, lost any integrity he had through ... through a very small, really, to what Gallagher could have demanded ... could have easily got off the ... off the big developers. It was peanuts for them.
I've got a couple but I didn't want to discuss those. [Laugh]
Well, I guess that because the Green Bans in particular and our activities had generated such interest in areas ... in wide areas of the community such as resident action groups, community groups, universities, high schools, etcetera, I was in demand as a speaker, both here and overseas, and in fact I ... I went on a lecture tour of the United States. I was the first communist allowed into the United States, to show you that people now don't realise that the Cold War lingered a lot longer than we thought because into the 1970s I was invited to ... to talk to the World Wildlife Fund in San Francisco and I was refused entry on the basis that I was a communist. Then I was invited to speak in Canada and I couldn't get off the plane. I wasn't allowed off the plane at Los Angeles, when it landed, and finally on another event even when Gerry Brown, the then Governor of California, invited me there, I was allowed in for ten days only, just to go to the conference. But because of the interest in Green Bans and environmental activities, it had created a lot of interest internationally in the ecology movement, in the main, and I was invited to give lecture tours and talk about our experiences in both England, in Europe, in United States and Canada and so, I went to Nicaragua and travelled around many of those countries. So I had that during a period when we were banished, that in some ways I was better off than some of the others who didn't have that because they, they were ... they ... they didn't have that opportunity anyway, even though a lot of them did speaking tours of Australia. And I had that sort of thing and because I was, you know, the secretary of the union when the Green Bans occurred and that continued for a whole number of years. Even now, I still speak often at universities, etcetera. So, there were speaking fees at that time which helped ... helped keep my sanity and also helped keep me going. And it also spread the Green Ban gospel, shall we say.
Well because of the Builders' Labourers activity in the environment movement, I was asked to come on the ... the executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and ... and I accepted that. Subsequently I stood for election and was re-elected and the Australian Conservation Foundation, as you probably know, is the main environment movement in the country. It's elected and five delegates from each state. I thought the interesting thing ... and because there was a lot of support for the Builders' Labourers in the environment movement, because they saw it as a real shot in the arm, particularly around the urban environment ... And when I first went there I was impressed with the number of academics and [the] number of university people who were involved. And of the thirty-five delegates, who went along to make up the Australian Conservation Foundation national leadership, I was the only worker. I was the only industrial worker, which gives you an indication of just how middle class and academia oriented was the environment movement, and almost all of them were engaged in nature conservation issues. And so I think that we were ... I was able to introduce both a working class attitude and also on ... and raise the neglect of the urban environment in the thinking of the broader environment movement. As I said before, the fact that we are such an urbanised society despite the ... the ... the size of the land. And we were able to over the years then get a group of people who were urban environmentalists into it and so I think that the Green Ban movement's lasting testimony is that it changed ... it changed in part the thinking of the environment movement, the total environment movement, more towards appreciating both an urban as well as nature conservation considerations.
Yes, I was there for over ... over twenty years as a ... and I'm a life member. I stood down in the belief that I should make way for younger people and [clears throat] I stood down after twenty years and was made a life member of the ... of the ACF.
Countless others, but I ... I've been involved all over Australia, involved in mainly urban environment issues. I try and concentrate on those. Firstly because my background and experience and because I think it still remains a neglected area and so my main concentration has been, over the years, towards the question of heightening the environment movement around the cities, and I was also very active in an organisation here in Sydney called the Urban Environment Coalition, a coalition of environment groups who are fighting for open bushland, more open bushland, who are fighting for more control over the building codes, fighting for ... mainly for public participation in the decision making process and trying to make councils and other bodies ... regulatory bodies more accountable to ordinary people, and more ... make these other organisations more approachable, which is a tall order because whereas in the Green Ban days the developers were openly corrupt, now we find that the developers are working in other ways such as heavily financing both the main political parties to buy favours, and so you find different things being worked out, different attitudes being worked out. I think at the same time you find a lack of legal aid, a lack of any assistance, legal assistance to ... to people opposing councils or opposing developers, so it's a very difficult period to go through.
It still exists but it has lost a lot of its sting. We've never recovered. We've never got back to the position we were in, in the late seventies and early eighties. That was when ... during the seventies and you might say until the early eighties, the ... the urban environment organisations had some real punch but that's fallen away, I'd have to say in the last decade. Certainly in the cities of Melbourne and Sydney, the developers have got the upper hand.
Well because both sides of government have gone along with the development saga and ... and with the ... they wax lyrical about how many jobs will be created. It's always an exaggeration of how many, quote, 'jobs will be developed if they ... if we allow this or that development to go ahead', and of course they're greatly ... So it's an attempt to say, 'Well, you can't oppose this because it's going to create employment'. That's the main thrust they put.
Oh yes, and the Land and Environment Court has been taken over by the pro-development area, although they've ...
Well, often the assessors that they appoint to the Land and Environment Court, haven't got the experience, but it's mainly because the Court itself has lost the openness it first had. When the resident action group and the union forced the Wran Government to bring in the Land and Environment Court, it was enormously popular with the people as a whole, but with the passage of time and good decisions being made, we found that the Conservatives within society started to pressurise both Liberal and Labor to weaken the position of the Land and Environment Court. And in fact it's one of the reasons that Jim McClelland, even when Wran was there - Wran was there for a decade - but even near the end of his term, he and McClelland fell out and a lot of it was over Wran interfering with McClelland's decisions in the Land and Environment Court, and also the then Attorney-General and Minister for the Environment, Paul Landa, the late Paul Landa. So even ... even within the course of the first decade, it was experiencing trouble. Since that time, of course under both the Greiner and Fahey Government, and then under the Carr Government, the developers have ... Their position has been strengthened against the rights of ordinary citizens and the protest movement. And I think that the environment movement has to find a way within the urban environments to ... to have a renewal and that's where people like the Urban Environment Coalition are the ones that could do it, but again, I think there has to be another period like the seventies, where you had the resident action group. Of course the resident action group was assisted enormously by the ... by the Builders' Labourers. That gave the real power to the resident action groups of the seventies. But I think that again you want that sort of action. But on the horizon there is not ... there doesn't appear to be a union like the Builders' Labourers, or is prepared to do the things because I think it's a matter of will, but there are a couple of signs. The very fact that when McDonald's wanted to build in Centennial Park last year the CMFEU put a ban on it, and stopped them. So I mean I think there is still the potential there for unions, if they've got the desire, if they've the will, to play a positive role, and it would seem to me that there is so much concern in the ... in most of the areas that are experiencing big developments within the city area, because of the pressure on that extra million that's going to come into this country, into Sydney before ... in the next fifteen - twenty years. Well, I think that urban ... There's a real need for an urban environment coalition to be active.
Why do you think it was that the union movement as a whole, with that marvellous example in front of them of the power of labour in direct action to do something, that won enormous amount of popular support and morale for the workers and so on, why do you think they ceased in the eighties to be at all interested in joining with other people to affect these changes?
Well, I think most unions didn't do it in the seventies. I mean after all the Builders' Labourers were pretty exceptional and I think, as I've explained rather painstakingly, there was a whole number of reasons for it. That is, it was the excitement at the time. There was the number of social [and] environment actions taking place that gave a lot of education to workers and to unions. I ought to say that the union movement generally is a conservative movement. The union movement, all too often, is only concerned with wages and conditions, and while I don't for a moment denigrate that, I think of course that's important, but increasingly I think that unions have got to look wider than that. I can't give an answer as to why there hasn't been a repeat of the Builders' Labourer's Green Bans because now there is almost universal acceptance of them, you know. When ... you've only got to look at the case of myself, when I was vilified in the seventies, you know, public enemy number one, and twenty years on, you come here, and you are spending a day and a half talking to me. I'm almost respectable. But I mean people now applaud what happened then, but of course they weren't applauding it then, were they? They were condemning it and were prepared to smash that union. So I'm not saying that it's going to be an easy task to repeat it. But I think that the unions, if they broadened their vision and became more involved in these things, would enhance the union movement and in fact they are withering on the vine, the number of you know ... And so I think that they've got to do two things. They've got to take Reith on, head on. I mean unions have got to become much more militant even if it means that unionists go to gaol but they've got to take them on. At the same time they've got to become more involved in ecological and social issues out there so as you will attract a wider audience than just looking at the hip pocket nerve.
Well, first of all you want an active public, you want the public to do it. Secondly to forge links with the rest of the union movement. I mean a lot of the union movement will not ... will never become involved in wider issues. But the more Left or militant section of the union movement can become involved and I'm sure that as ... as I've seen happen already around the McDonald's issue, it can build a lot of support amongst the public at large for unions, who take that action, so as unions can see that people who are not unionists, but who are concerned about other issues, will come on side and applaud the union. And I'm sure just on this issue of what happened at Centennial Park [coughs], excuse me, that that action by the, the Construction Workers' Union, that gave a lot of support to it. It got a lot of kudos out of taking a stand. The number of middle class people from around that area who said, 'Look we fought for Centennial Park back in the seventies and thirty years later we've got to fight again for it', you know. So I mean that ... and I can see other unions doing that, it would impress ... It would do great things for the union movement.
One of the things that you were interested in, as I understand it, when you were a leader in the BLF was a closer cooperation and even amalgamation with other building unions. What ... You weren't successful in that objective at the time. Why was that it? What prevented it?
Well, actually, I'm glad you asked that because we were ... We believed in industrial union, that is in our day we had eleven unions in the building industry. Like the painters had a union, the plasterers had a union, the plumbers had a union, the carpenters had a union, carpenters and bricklayers, the builders' labourers had a union, so it was all of these unions. Seeing as we were in one union ... one industry, we felt it should be an industrial union, and that was a policy of the ACTU since 1921. But Australia unionism followed British unionism, so at one stage you had something like 300 unions based on the craft background of old Britain, of old England. Unfortunately in the 'eighties there were forced amalgamations under the Kelty leadership. They forced unions to amalgamate and so for example in the construction workers you got CMFEU, construction, mining, forestry, energy, all together, and some of those unions are not natural allies, and yet they were sort of signed together. And so what this did, it, you know, shotgun marriages of all these unions that were often hostile to each other and Kelty at the top level. But that was part of the eighties because of the ... One of the biggest blunders in my opinion was the Accord, in which wheeling and dealing was done at a top level, when Hawke and Keating were leading and Kelty was the ... the leader of the ACTU. Wheeling and dealing was done at a top level without any consultation with the workers below and this led to stagnation. It led to a lack of confidence and the union movement went down in numbers during that period. [clears throat] So unless the union movement always maintains its independence regardless of whether Labor is in power or the ... or the more Conservatives are in power ... There should be an independence by the trade union movement. Of course the union movement will most likely support Labor more than they would the Conservatives, or should I say the more Conservatives, but you know that ... that will be the position. But I mean, I think that the union movement must keep its independence, and the Accord is a classic example of that because actually the wages of the workers declined during that period and yet you had a Labor Government. Well, why do you elect a Labor Government? You had the Hawke and Keating Government from ... right from the early eighties to the ... to the mid nineties and yet in many instances the plight of the workers were not improved and yet capital gained enormously during that whole period. And also the Labor ... the whole question of deregulation, privatisation, doing away with the Commonwealth Bank, etcetera, really were carrying out the policies of the Conservatives and the union lost a lot of confidence in the Labor Party during that period, which is still going on. So I mean, I think we've got a lot to learn from those periods. So I think that forced amalgamations are wrong, but by the same token I think amalgamations within each industry is ... is positive. Though when you look back at it, had we been one union then, we would never have achieved the things we have because we would have been a minority in the building unions and the more conservative unions of the carpenters, bricklayers and that, would have put the kibosh on us, would have stopped us. So it's hard to look at everything as positive, but if I look at now what's going on and the way in which the union movement has been diminished, it's clear that it has to have more militancy and with the Reith period and the period of Howard, the unions have been restricted still further, unlike in '69 when I said that over a million workers stopped work when they took on the penal powers, I think there's got to be something like that against the worst of the Reith legislation. There's got to be at times ... there is a need of confrontation.
Oh yes. There were many times when we were threatened, particularly in the Green Ban period. Things like using a telephone, a telephone call saying, 'I'll cut your kid's throat', 'There's a bomb in the car', and other similar [threats] were made all the time. There were threats. In fact I went to the Special Branch of the police and complained bitterly. They said, 'Get a silent number'. I said, 'I'm the elected secretary of the union. There's no way I'm going to get a silent number. You can harass people at the anti-Vietnam demonstrations and with our other actions we take, in the union movement. I want you to take action and get in there and find out who it is'. So those sort of threats were made. Many were made, but they never ever, ever arrested anyone.
Well not ... well they said they did. They followed it through but they never ... There was never any satisfaction as far as I was concerned. No.
Well, I mean, Painters and Dockers had connections ... allegedly had connections with the underworld and they rang me up to say that they'd heard that there was a commission out on me and also out on the other leaders of the Builders' Labourers, Joe Owens and Bob Pringle. I've got no doubt that they would have thought about doing away with us, but at one time when ... when the secretary of the Kings Cross, of the Victoria Street action group vanished, was put in a car and taken away, we had a press conference, the people in Victoria, the squatters of Victoria Street and ourselves, and we said, 'Let it be a warning that if anyone is killed there will be no settlement, that what will happen is that there won't be any building in Victoria Street at all'. And so I think that sort of approach made them think again about whether it would be fruitful for them to kill any individual in the Builders' Labourers, that it would bring a doubling up of the Builders' Labourers effort to prevent further development taking place.
Yes, but I mean I think that you've got to look at it in a different way. They would say that she was expendable. She was a loner, who ran a newspaper, who with her partner, ran the newspaper and got the ads from around the Cross and she was lured into going to a place and [was] never seen again. But they ... She was writing of the bans after Gallagher came in and lifted ... and lifted the Green Ban on ... on Victoria Street. But other unions came in and supported it, so you had the Water Board Union and the Plumbers' keeping the ban on, so Gallagher ... so bringing Gallagher in and getting the Green Ban lifted was futile and I think they were very desperate then, and her little newspaper, which was delivered round the Cross ... She continued to put that out and it was her who I think got the Water Board Union on side. So they ... they were very angry at that. And of course she was expendable because she was a loner, because they were certainly thinking about knocking off the leadership of the union. I've got no doubt about that but they thought of the repercussions if they did, and you know, it wouldn't help their cause so they didn't. It didn't happen but there were many [threats]. The threats were almost continual during that period and as I said before, we were holding up five thousand million dollars' worth of development. Well you've got some pretty angry developers out there who would come at ... who would stop at nothing to get their way, so it's, yeah ... I think it ... you know, the leaders of the Builders' Labourers were a bit fortunate to get through unscathed and there's no doubt that she was killed for that reason and ... and there's never been a really, a satisfactory police investigation into it. There's a feeling that the police definitely didn't do a thorough job on that. Tony Reeves, a leading journalist, did some very good work on that and he's absolutely convinced that the police did not really go after that to find out the real ... even though they had long investigation which came to ... to very little.
Can I ask you now to do one of those nice summing's up that you do, one of those sort of ... because I'd like to be clear about when it was that you were ... ceased to be able to work on the building sites and when you got back to do that and then what happened to you because I'm not quite clear how long you were a builders' labourer after you left your, you know, position, after Gallagher took over in that and that intervention occurred. Can you sort of straighten that out for us?
Take me an hour or two but well ... Well I finished up on All Saints' Day in 1973 and Joe Owens became secretary. In '74, in the October of '74, Gallagher made ... and I went back to work on St. Vincent's Hospital. I was back in the rank and file [as a] worker.
No, no, I kept ... kept reasonably fit at the time. I was ... I used to run every morning. I was pretty fit. I was reasonably fit and also, of course, some of my people criticised the fact that I didn't spend much time back on the job because I was still on the executive and ... and I had speaking engagements and the agreement I reached with Civil and Civic, who was employing me, was that I'd be paid for the time I was there, so I still went to meetings of the union and because it was still a pretty volatile ... or very volatile period and also because of the speaking engagements generated because of our activity, and I thought it was necessary to keep those sort of contacts up. So in '73, I went back on the job and then in ... a year later, in October of the following year, Gallagher moved and that's when Gallagher ... or should I say Gallagher and the developers moved together, and then in '75 they expelled - sorry late '74, they expelled all the leaders from the union. In '75, we made the decision, as I said before, to go into Gallagher's outfit. Gallagher in turn had then pushed us out and pushed others, as well, out. So from that time on, from '74 we were out until '78. In '78, the union and the Master Builders agreed that the union would be reregistered. The employers went along with Gallagher and they got reregistered. We then applied ... the banned workers, to go back into the union. We succeeded. The court instructed Gallagher to give us our tickets back. Gallagher thumbed his nose at that and we were still frozen. So then in '79 ... so you've gone now from '74 through five years [to] '79, we did not go ahead and put Gallagher in the clink which we had the right to do, so he just thumbed his nose and together with the collusion with the developers still kept us out. So we had the legal right to work but the developers said, 'No, we can't employ you because Gallagher will come in'. That's the excuse they used, so we were still out. So then in the early eighties, '82 we applied once more and got our tickets back. We were then determined to go all the way Gallagher by that time. So really from '74 to '82 - it's almost a decade that we were denied the right to work in the industry [clears throat]. In '82 we still got our tickets back but they still had control of the union and wouldn't allow us back in, so that was the end. By that time Gallagher was running into trouble himself because of the allegations of secret commissions and the union was falling apart. In '84 the ACTU let the Builders' Labourers hands go and the Builders' Labourers went into extinction about '85 or '86. So for that decade, between when we went out in '74 until when the union was finally driven out of existence by the ACTU, we were denied the right to work in the industry of our choice - right through that period.
It was the BWIU, which are carpenters and bricklayers, the old Tradesmen Union. It extended its influence and draft to bring in the labourers into the union and that was the period, as I said before, when the ACTU then was encouraging and directing unions to amalgamate and so not only were the builders' labourers and carpenters brought together but so were mining, engine, which is Engine Drivers and Forestry all came under the umbrella which is now called the CMFEU, which is a combination of the old BWIU, the old Builders' Labourers, the Engine Drivers, the Forestry workers and the Miners, all in one outfit.
No, no, I didn't. On, well in '84 I ... I got elected to the Sydney City Council and so I was there then for that period as a ... in local government.
Well I was encouraged to stand for the ward that covers The Rocks and I was elected and ... and became head of the ... or chair of the planning committee and ... and ... and held that position then for a couple of years. Caught up in a number of ... again, in development of opposition to the monorail, which is running through Sydney, because we had supported an idea that bring light rail, bring a tram system back through the streets of Sydney and that got a lot of support from some of the companies such as Transfield, but unfortunately the power of the ... of Peter Abeles and ... and some of the other big companies was such that they wanted a monorail and so Transfield were overridden and a monorail was erected, despite the fact that there were up to 10,000 people marched through the streets of Sydney against it, a thing running overhead all through the middle of Sydney. So we were involved in that. We were also involved in ...
Yeah, because it hasn't made any money. It's been such a flop but it was ... anyway, it was a scheme at the time ...
Yeah, and Bereton, who was the Minister, was all for it and together with TNT, who then had the late Sir Peter Abeles running it, they gave full support to it, and ... and therefore Transfield was really stopped from doing that and Transfield went along with that. Transfield very keen on a light rail system. And I believe the pay back for Transfield dropping off was that they got the harbour tunnel because Kumagai, the Japanese company, and Transfield got the tunnel and I believe that it was a pay-off ... was that, well you drop off Peter Abeles getting the monorail and you'll get the inside rail run for the harbour tunnel. So because of my anti-development again, I didn't please too many people in the ... in the Council. When I say anti-development, anti-overdevelopment and I was keen to keep the cars out of the city. I think that I was opposed to those buildings, high rise buildings, being built in Sydney with more and more cars being parked underneath. A lot of things could have been avoided had we stopped in those years - twenty years ago or fifteen years ago - if we'd stopped building those high rise buildings with ... with eight and ten and twelve layers of car parking spaces underneath, cluttering up and strangling the city. So had the ... In 1985, the Independents were gaining the control of the Sydney Council and the Liberals and Labor came together, uniting in 1987 and the Council was abolished by a combination of Liberal and Labor in Macquarie Street and not only was the Council sacked but three rich ... two of them knights ... were put in as commissionaires to run the city and that was by a Labor Government. The Unsworth Government sacked the council five months before an election. An election was due to take place in the September of 1987 and the prediction was, because of the failure of Labor and Liberal to really perform, that the Independents with Sartor and Moore, myself, Brian McGahan, and many other people, would have won control of the city and the one thing they didn't ... didn't want was an environmentally orientated Council in a bicentenary year of 1988. So they sacked the Council on the flimsy reason the meetings were taking too long. And Crosio - Janice Crosio, who was the Minister for Local Government, put forward that as the reason for the sacking of the Council. So when you consider that they received scant money, if they wanted to sit until two o'clock well so be it, but they were sacked on ... that shows you they had no real reason to sack the Council but they sacked the Council on the flimsy reason, that the meetings were taking too long.
Jack, since you ... since you ceased your activities directly in the union, you've been involved in conservation issues in many different ways and currently you're chair of the Historic Houses Trust in New South Wales. How did that come about and what do you do in that work?
Actually I was at Jim McClelland's eightieth birthday, the late Jim McClelland's eightieth birthday party and Bob Carr had just been elected even though our politics don't always coincide, Bob's and myself. I've known him for many years when he worked for the Labour Council and he was a supporter of the Green Bans actually back in the ... in the seventies. Even though he had very right wing politics at least he was progressive on environment, ecological issues: strange combination, actually, for a right winger. And anyway he asked me would I would be interested in chairing the Historic Houses and I accepted his ... his offer. So that's the way I came into it.
Well, it is a statutory organisation that was set up in the early years of the Wran Government by Neville Wran when he saw that places like Hyde Park Barracks, but particularly Elizabeth Bay House and Vaucluse House, were being used by the silvertails of the eastern suburbs, and in fact the late Leo Port, who was the Lord Mayor of Sydney, wanted Elizabeth House for himself and he was going to make that the permanent residence of the Lord Mayor of Sydney, and Neville didn't quite see it that way, and I think there was a bit of animosity between the Lord Mayor and the Premier, and he moved then to get in Clive Lucas and Ian Stapleton and they really made it ... curated the place in a really good way. [DOG BARK]
... And so after these two places ... after Vaucluse House ... after Vaucluse House and ... and Elizabeth Bay House had been properly restored to their real worth, they were set up ... Historic Houses was set up to look after those places and then over the years they were so successful that Hyde Park Barracks and another eight houses in the Sydney metropolitan area, mainly in the city area, became part of the statutory body called Historic Houses and they are used for educative purposes of children - school children go to them such as Hyde Park Barracks, where there was ... of course where convicts were held and where the poor little kids from the Irish Famine were housed for years, and so it's got a real history about the nicest houses ... the old houses of Sydney including Government House now. So it's mainly looking after those and having exhibitions around environmental and heritage issues, history issues, historical issues. So it's quite interesting and it's a very good organisation that runs well. Like most of those organisations now there's a tendency for the Government to rely on private money to come in, which is of course something that is happening throughout all of the capitalist countries. [There is] more and more dependence on getting the private sector to fund what I think should be a public sector responsibility.
So how do you handle that, Jack? I mean, you're in a position where you have to preside over an organisation that's attempting to raise corporate sponsorship and that's sort of against your principles. How ... How do you deal with all that?
Well, I mean, we are restricted by the ... [INTERRUPTION - PLANE]
So I'll ask that question again. How do you deal with the conflict between your belief that these things should be publicly funded, that they should have come out of the collective purse, and the great pressure to raise money through corporate sponsorship. How do you deal with that?
Well I think that the corporatisation is ... is a reality and those of us who believe that there should be more government responsibility, have to continue to fight for a bigger share to go into areas like historic houses and other issues of public concern ... areas of public concern, but by the same token I think we've got to face up to the reality that there's going to be more need for private money. I think the main thing is to ensure that the corporations don't get control of the organisations and use them for their own purposes, and that I think is a real challenge, for anyone who believes that we've got to fight to restore government responsibility to where it was before deregulation and privatisation became the way in the early eighties and which has lasted until now. I mean, most people thought that the Thatcher - Reagan period of privatisation, deregulation was going to be a passing phase. Well unfortunately corporatisation has even [more] entrenched their position and so we go into the twenty-first century in a worse way than we did before. But I'm also confident that there will be a swing around because I think that we cannot go down this path forever. And so I think that we've got to watch the tide and try and go with it and then turn it back at a convenient time.
Yes. When the tide changes make sure that we get away from total control of privatisation, deregulation, which has, of course, swallowed both the Labor Party and Liberal Party. In fact in all the English speaking world in particular, where there it's Democrats or Republic, whether it's Labour or Conservatives in the UK, or Labor and Liberal here, it's unfortunate that corporatism has really got too much influence within all of the political parties, as is shown by the fact that at election time some of the developers give more money than the trade unions, for example, to the Labor Party.
In relation to that problem that, you know, everybody talks about the fact that the major parties have come together and they have very similar policies, have you ever at a political level attempted to do something about maybe forming some other political organisation since the demise of the Communist Party?
Well the convergence ... It's ... it's sort of fashionable to accept that the conversion ... that the convergence of both the ... both the main political parties is inevitable and ongoing. I'm not sure of that. I think there can be a turn around, given certain circumstances changing. But yes, since ... When the Communist Party wound up in '91, and having in mind as I said before that I think the last thirty years of the Communist Party, it was in fact one of the most progressive communist parties in the world, but it couldn't' carry the weight of the tragedies that occurred under the name of socialism in practically all of the so-called socialist countries. I think that's a reality, but it was going to be returned to ecological forms of socialism which I think are ... well, are a possibility because of the ravaging of the planet by capitalism. If there's going to be, well, I think it will be a very different sort of socialism and a very different value system than what we had before. But, you know, I think that there's the need to look at different political organisations. For example, when the Communist Party wound up, in the next decade there were attempts to get up another party going called the New Left Party [clears throat], precisely because we felt that the Labor Party was drifting too far away from its former principles. That did not really get off the ground. There was a lot of enthusiasm but I believe most people saw it as a rerun of the Communist Party. I was one of those that travelled round various parts of Australia and all the media and at the meetings, the questions that come up, well, who are the people in your new party? And of course they were mainly former communists, so it was ... it was considered by the population generally or those interested in politics as a ... as another communist party run.
At the time?
Oh yes, of course.
Well because ... because, as I've said a few times in this interview ... as I've said a few times, the ... I was aware that the albatross was too heavy and that despite a belief the Communist Party of Australia was open and taking up all the issues that I thought were really important, nevertheless the name communist and what had happened under Stalinism, what had happened with Mao Zedong, Pol Pot and Ceausescu in Romania, were just too heavy to have that name and to attract Australians to what I thought were very good policies, and therefore I went along with the need for a new political party and thought there was a possibility, though not a probability, that it would succeed. And then as I travelled round the country I realised that most people ... It didn't attract the Labor Party Left, for example. [They] didn't come into the party. It attracted some other Trotskyist grouping and some other anarchist groupings, some other non-aligned Left people, who weren't in political parties, but it didn't build a base, and I myself think that any possibility of building it will be a Green-Left arrangement, where those who believe in socialism and those who believe in ecological actions, like the Greens, come together. In some ways I think that the Greens have got great policies but they're a bit naive in many of the realities in the strength of capitalism. Whereas of course we haven't got any of that naivety, those of us who come through the trade union movement and have seen the brutality - of how capitalism can be brutal. Well we haven't got that naivety about us, so I think that [in] the future, there is a possibility of ... of ... of what I'd call a Green-Red future of a socialism with a human face and an ecological heart coming together with the more concerned environmentalists, because one thing that I am absolutely certain about is that we cannot continue to ravage the planet in the way that we have in the last fifty years and all forms, even the most benign form of capitalism, is still rapacious. It's still based on blind economic growth. It talks about the possibility of sustainability but it doesn't do anything about it. It's growth for growth's sake. And so I think that the need to link economics, each economic decision with ecological decisions are imperative, but there has got to be a complete new approach to the linking of economics and ecology and I can't see any capitalist party doing that.
Not all a lifetime. I'm still going.
Well I suppose, I came into the movement as a militant trade unionist fighting around trade union principles and the experience I had and the education I received in the Communist Party was very, very valuable to me and made me more a confirmed Marxist and I think that it's remarkable that Marx's general ideas have still got so much validity 150 years after he wrote the Communist... he and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto. And so there are people like myself who - I call myself an ecological Marxist ... who believe that it's that way, that the future is that way. Of course nobody can confidently ... There have been so many enormous upsets in my life by what has happened in the world that you'd only be a fool if you're going to say you can confidently predict anything, but if there is one thing that I can predict it is that capitalism cannot continue in the way it has done, particularly in ... in the period I've been so active in ... in the ... in the political movements in the last say half century, there is no way that it is going to continue for the next half century [PLANE] in the same manner.
Well I suppose I came in as a person who had just left the Catholic church and came in with my eyes wide open to the ideas of socialism in my time. In fact people of my age ... older people then when I was a young man, used to say, 'Oh well, I won't see socialism but you'll certainly see it', so this was a belief in the inevitability of socialism, that capitalism wouldn't last. Well, of course, I came in then as a militant trade unionist. I suppose the changes that occurred to me is the ecological side of my development which I ... which is ... which is the stronger one of the two, that I'm more an ecologist now than what I am just a militant trade unionist. So I suppose that has been a change, but I still strongly believe of course that while ever the system exists there's a need for ordinary people, from the lower echelon, working class and others, to organise. I mean I think that's absolutely vital to any future of avoiding the destruction of the ordinary people and of course you've only got to look at the richest country in the world now to see the gaps between the few with enormous, enormous wealth at the top, and then the great bulk of people. Even though it's so prosperous and such a rich country, there's so many living in poverty, so many in gaol, and [there are] the terrible differences between the rich and the poor.
Looking back at the period when you were most active through the sixties and seventies, just looking at the old newspaper cuttings and so on, one of the things that is striking is that big argument and the fear that was expressed by people and reflected in the media at the time ... was that the communist leadership of unions and especially yours, when it was under attack, were dedicated to the destruction of the system and would therefore use excuses, like environmental issues and so on, to bring down the system, that it was an attack on the capitalist system, that strikes were called wantonly to just simply bring the system to its knees. That was a very strong belief in the community during that time. How did you deal with it? How did you try to persuade people that that wasn't the case? In other words, how did you use the media to counteract that view?
I think that philosophically capitalism has ... From the time that socialism came into existence, or even was promoted in the nineteenth century, late nineteenth century it has always ... [DOG BARK]
I was making the point there was ... just flicking back through the papers about the degree to which the notion was that any communist action, any communist inspired action was just a generalised attempt to make nothing work, you know, to prevent activity succeeding in any way, and so I was asking you about how you dealt with that, when you actually had to speak to the media and so on.
I think that capitalism has always used the bogus idea of Reds attacking everyone to bring down capitalism. You've only got to look at the way in which the main paper here, the Sydney Morning Herald, in 160 years, it has never endorsed any strike or any pay rise or any advance by trade unions, and so you get some indication of the hostility by the media and by the capitalists to anyone trying to better themselves, particularly the bottom of the ... the lower echelon trying - so that's always been part of it, and of course the communists being militant in trade unions and fighting for those things have been singled out. [INTERRUPTION]
So I think the way the communists ... The claim is of course that everything that happened, every strike that's on, it's always communist led and so I think that, you know, that you just had to wear that and with the passage of time, well, we became capable of answering it and also putting forward how it was in the interests of the wider section of the people, that what we were doing it wasn't just the Communist Party.
Well I think the main ... the most important single thing was to tell the truth and be direct, and having in mind whenever particularly with the electronic media, I found out early in the piece that it ... it's no good rabbitting on with long winded explanations. It's better to make your point clearly and concisely and it's more difficult then for it to be manipulated and twisted. And I think we stood by the actions we were taking. I mean particularly on the environmental issue, the reason we were able to outstay our position was that we attracted people who were normally not our supporters. Many of them who were very conservative section of society, on the ecological and environmental issues, were on side with us, and so we were able to split those who would normally be opposed to the trade union movement.
Can I ask you a little bit about the road not travelled. Some of the decisions that you took at certain key points in your life, where you might have chosen differently and what might have happened then. For example, at the time that you decided to join the Communist Party, what do you think would have happened? How would things have been different in your life had you joined the ALP then?
Or even the Liberals. [Laughs] Well, I was idealistic when I joined the Communist Party and ... and socialism was just around the corner, or not too far away anyway, maybe a couple of corners, and I was convinced that capitalism was a very unfair system. I'm still convinced of that. And so we have right on our side. The only thing was some of the actions of the socialist countries were pretty hard to defend. We were defending the indefensible, on occasion. But the theory of socialism was as good as ever, with me. It's as sound as ever. It's in the implementation that, of course, is important. So I ... I ... Well of course had I joined the Labor Party, who's to know. You'd have to move a lot of ground. You'd have to sink a lot of principles. There are a very few in the Labor Party Left that I think you can say have done that. They have moved a lot of ground, changed a lot of principles. And some of my best friends are on the Labor Party Left but I think that the Labor Party Left, particularly since the demise of the Communist Party, has been greatly weakened because, particularly in the trade union movement, the vigour of the movement in those years we're talking about, the sixties, seventies and part of the eighties came about because of the influence of the [people] on the left wing of the Labor Party, which gave them more direction, if I may say so. You don't find that now. The downturn in militancy is partly a response because there isn't an organised Left that took the fight up as we did in that period. And we took a lot of the workers who were non-aligned or workers who weren't in any political party, came on ... on side with many of the things we did. Thus you have from the thirties on all of the main unions, all of the most progressive unions, who were at the forefront of making change, of bringing change, of better wages and conditions, whether it's the maritime unions, whether it's the mining union, the building unions, the metal unions, they were led by communists.
Oh I don't remember him saying it. Patrick White was a very good friend of mine. I mean, he was a great supporter of the Builders' Labourers, particularly around environmental issues, and so he might have been a bit biased, but I think he was attracted to the sincerity of the Builders' Labourers in being able to fight issues, and in a non-opportunistic way. You know, I think they're the things that attracted Patrick White to what the Builders' Labourers were doing in the Green Ban period.
You were able to take up these social issues and these environmental issues and you've said it was because there was a sort of educative process that the workers went through, which a lot of the rest of the community missed out on, that got them to the point where they could accept that those principles were worth fighting for. How had you, Jack, with your background, got to that position, because you got there ahead of most people? What was it in your experience that have made you have these progressive attitudes to women, gays and all the other social issues, particularly the environment, that you have been involved with?
I was impressed very much by Paul Erlich's book, The Population Bomb in the early seventies, late sixties actually, '67, and together with Suzuki and Barry Commoner, a Marxist environmentalist, I became convinced that capitalism in its brutal form was heading down hill and I also believed that a form of socialism was possible that could bridge the ecological barrier, though of course the forms of socialism of the twentieth century were also pretty hopeless on ecological issues. But nevertheless it seemed to me with the theory of Marx that you could blend in economics and ecology, and I became convinced of that. And I think it was just fortuitous that the opportunities came about in the Builders' Labourers Union and I said before, there was no great thinking on the part of the leaders of the Builders' Labourers to advance the way we did in the ecological issues, but we learnt on the way and we were convinced of the possibilities through it. And myself, I was absolutely convinced that unions could play a ... a very different role if they were involved in these sort of issues. We did not - looking back, reflecting back ... We did not take other unions with us sufficiently. We were way out in front, but the positive thing about it historically is that it did occur. So we were not as though we were just theorising about what unions could do or what an advanced section of the people could do on environmental issues. It's actually there. It did happen. [The fact that] a varied cross section of people [with] very little in common, could come together and bring about such changes, really, changes that have remained because almost everyone now that think about environmental issues, applaud the Green Ban action ... And yet at the time we were vilified and attacked and, in fact, driven out of work for well nigh a decade. And so it is refreshing to look back and say well, we were vilified then, but we've been well and truly vindicated. But it wasn't, and I repeat, it wasn't as though Mundey, Owens, Pringle and the other men and women who led the Builders' Labourers were somehow different. It was just that we struck a chord and we were able to use our industrial muscle effectively and we had such support from other sections of the community. If we didn't have the support of the more enlightened middle upper class, we would have been absolutely destroyed because there were many in the union movement, the right wing of Labor Party and of course Askin and all his cronies, who would have loved to have seen the Builders' Labourers Union destroyed and the very fact we weren't destroyed was partly the way we conducted ourselves and the vigorous manner in which we defended our action, but also the fact that other sections of society, who would normally against Labor, let alone against communists, came on side in our actions on the ... on the correctness of our actions we took.
You were vilified for your environmental action. What did they do with the fact that you got the union involved in cultural activity? You had theatre-on-the-job and so on. Your interest in the arts and how that got going with the union - what ... what ... what did the media make of that? They were a bit rude, weren't they?
Yeah, but I think that ... Oh well, of course, there was a lot of ... like in fact some of the unions, some of the right wing unions say, oh ... and the media were saying, 'Oh they're darling of the ... quote, the Builders' Labourers are the darling of the trendies', whereas of course we argued that it was ... it was quite a natural thing. If a union's involved in environmental issues as we were, in the Kelly's Bush and then the Rocks, Centennial Park, well it's a very natural thing for those who were fighting to save the live theatre to come to that union because they go together. As I said at the time when some of the commentators, some of the right wing commentators in the media, said, 'What do the Builders' Labourers know about the theatre?' you know, as though there'd be total ignorance on the part of the ... and I said, 'They've got ... they've got the right. The builders' labourers are not all, you know, galloping opera first nighters, but they've got an understanding of the theatre as well'. It's well to remember that we took The Chocolate Frog of Jim McNeil's ... The Chocolate Frogaround the jobs and we took the Q ... Warburton's ... Dorian Warburton's Q Theatre. Again we took them round the jobs, promoting live plays. So there was this connection there and from the time that Paul Robeson sang at the Opera House, there was a feeling that the ... the ordinary workers are not ignoramuses, that they have also got culture and culture isn't something just for the silvertails of the eastern suburbs or the northern suburbs. The culture is for all people. It has many different levels.
Jack, what do you think would have happened if you had been less principled about not having tenure of office and you had stayed as secretary of ... of the union? Do you think that the union might have withstood some of the pressures that came against it?
I think it's highly unlikely. Unless we had built bridges with other unions and got other unions involved in similar action, I think it was more or less inevitable. From the time that Gallagher took the three card trick and went with the developers and with the business, well I think the dye was cast because it meant that he had the power of all the other states and of course the employers lined up completely with him. So in that sense we would have to have more support from other unions and whereas we had a lot of support from rank and file members of other unions, the leadership of other unions were not as ... as keen and I think because of the way in which limited tenure of office and women working in leadership of ... of what was an all male enclave, wasn't popular with other building unions and some of the other building unions would not have been unhappy to see the demise of ourselves. That's the reality I think because of political differences etcetera. So it ... it ... I think we would have had more chance had I stayed on as secretary because of the ... not because ... Joe Owens was one of the finest union leaders, but just because of the continuity, that if there was to be anything settled, I might have been able to do it. But I think it's idle to think too much about that. I think the main thing was whether union is introducing the sort of advanced actions and we were doing. Well, I guess it's got a ... a shorter term life than a longer term life possibility.
It's an interesting issue because it brought a sort of principle in conflict with practicality, and I mean that's been one of the issues, hasn't it, for the whole movement of the Left? Where do you stick to your principles through thick and thin and where do you yield for pragmatism, for practical reasons?
Yeah. Well it's probably a never-ending ... There's no complete answer to what has been raised. I think the main thing is to look at the positive things that have ... that occurred and try and build bridges with other unions now. I mean ...
I suppose would you ... would you, if you had your time over again have stayed in that position and not fought so hard for people to have the renewal and the change, or would you still uphold that principle?
Well I was committed to it so there was no going back on it and probably had I stayed there and ... and did ... you know, made deals, I would have sunk down the way that most other people do. So, no, I don't have any regrets about what happened and I guess that it's not much good thinking about what might have happened. I'm just so pleased that the things that did occur were so positive and in many ways I think that they've set the benchmark for enlightened unions of the future.
Going back now to have a little further look at your childhood, which you've described to us. In a broader sense in your childhood, not just in the fact that you were brought up relaxed Catholic and you were ... What do you think were the things that you learned, the values that were inculcated in you in that childhood in Far North Queensland?
Well, I ... I guess that when I came to Sydney the thing that I missed was the beautiful terrain of the Atherton Tableland. It is one of the most beautiful parts of Australia and growing up as a little kid on a ... on a dairy farm, even though the circumstances were pretty modest, was still very refreshing when I look back on it. Swimming in the ... those beautiful clear streams and walking through a rainforest, and ... and that was just so marvellous to have the first, oh fifteen, eighteen years of my life in that area and so I was, I guess, an environmentalist from that time on. When I came to the city and ... and saw the city and how, the great difference that existed ... So I ... I learned from that. I think also the very fact that my father at least had a good idea of socialism, like he was against war, he'd opposed the First World War. He opposed conscription in that war and he made a very impact ... a big impact on me by pointing out how [there was] so much poverty before the war, both wars, and yet when the wars came they called upon the unemployed to be the main fodder for ... for those wars. And then after the wars, how things quickly recovered and the rich benefited from the wars. So I had [a] basic socialist upbringing without understanding it so much as socialist, so I've always had a feeling of ... of fair play and I think if anything I am I've always been egalitarian and ... and that has held me in good stead. I've never been tempted to take any of the bribes because I don't want much in life.
What's left of it. [Laughs] Oh well, I just want, well I still ... I'm still a ... a very enthusiastic ecological socialist and I want to do anything I can to assist that cause. I'd love to see a new political formation of ecologists and socialists coming together. I think that it would be very fine if that happened in this period of time, because of the way in which corporations have now controlled even the finer parts of capitalism. The more benign parts of capitalism are now firmly in the hands of big corporations and corporations are dictating to political parties and governments all over the world. It's frightening to think that these transnational corporations really have more power than any of the sovereign states and ... and it would appear to me that there's got to be an international movement of socialists and ecologists to combat those advantages because they using the world like a chessboard, as they move around their capital and use workers at the cheapest possible rate they can.
Well I don't walk on cloud nine very much, but I guess that I'm not wanting for very much. I don't desire very much and I guess ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well, in the autumn of my life I ... I don't think I want very much. The period I've got left will be devoted to doing all I can in a fairly modest way of assisting socialists and environmentalists to come together to try and be more effective in blunting the worst excesses of corporatism, which I see as very dangerous indeed. And when you consider that the workers have fought to improve conditions in new countries like Korea, where the Korean workers fought hard there, what do the transnationals do? They moved away and put their investments in Indonesia and Thailand and so, as I've said, they're using the world like a chessboard and no longer is it just enough for unions on a national basis, it's got to be ... unions have got to be connected internationally so there's more cohesion in the fight against the evils of transnational companies.
Oh sure. I think that I've never been ... I think it's individualism if you just think about yourself all the time. I mean I think that, well of course, all people do have to do that as well in the basic sense, but I think we've got to think collectively and I've always been a collectivist in that way. I don't believe in the great person theory that individuals come along and change things. I think it's ... it's the strength of like-minded people coming together that can bring about change. Individuals can't of themselves.
I think I was ... I think I was fortunate enough to be elected leader of a union at a very sensational time. The happenings came together because of all of those actions around social causes that were ... and then culminated in my life, with the Green Ban movement and so there was a whole number of people involved in that movement, and it was just fortunate that I was there as one of the leaders of that outfit.
There was a cry from the media at the time that you personally had too much power and that the union had too much power. In your life how have you experienced power and what do you think about the exercise of it? [INTERRUPTION]
Never too much power. I mean that allegation was made naturally by the opponents but of course we had power in the sense that we had a lot of strength by stopping jobs. We could change the course of events but I think we used it pretty wisely and we always had a lot of consultation with our members before we went into it. So the very fact that those members of the Builders' Labourers stayed with Owens and Pringle and myself was an indication that we handled that power intelligently in the eyes of the ordinary workers.
Did you think about it at that time? I mean it must have been exciting, Jack, to be in the situation where you did have the power to change things in ways that you wanted them to be changed. Did that ... you know, did you feel a sense of excitement about the exercise of power?
Oh they were exciting times. It'd be something strange with a person if they weren't influenced by being able to stop the destruction of rainforests in north Queensland, which was one of the things that we carried out on a big developer down here. Of course they were, they were terrific. You felt that you were doing something that you actually believed in and you were doing it with the assistance of those who you represented. So not only were you fighting for their wages and conditions but you were also fighting for really good issues as well, so naturally it was a certain elation in being able to do this. But at the same time, your feet never left the ground too far because you always had a hostile opponent. You always had in our case a very conservative and ... and corrupt government under Askin, wanting very much to destroy us, and trying to hard to do so, and also developers, likewise, in tandem with those conservative politicians. So you know we had to be ... we had to watch our back all the time.
Did you also have to watch your head that it didn't get a bit swelled? I mean you were a bit the darling of ... of ... of the trendy Left. Patrick White even put you in a play as a ... as a romantic hero. I mean was there ever any danger that your success might have spoiled you? [INTERRUPTION]
Well I wouldn't put it that way.
You were given tremendous star billing. I mean there was a tremendous excitement around what you were up to and what you were doing. Did you have any problems with that? How did you work it out with yourself and keep your natural modesty?
What are you laughing at. [Laughs] Well, look, of course it has some effect on the individual but the counter veiling forces were there and we were aware of the strength of those people. So I mean to get too much, as I said, to have your feet leaving the ground too much - the opponents were always there and you had to watch your back. So I think there was ... there wasn't any possibility of becoming absolutely enthralled with your own importance and your own actions. But it was very gratifying to know you could do something to assist resident action groups and to save the environment. That was terrific. Easy ... easily the most exciting part of my life and was ... it was a great feeling to be able to do something and truly believe in it, and so whereas on the one hand you might have been proud of what you were doing, you also were aware of the potential opponents that you had there.
Now I want to go back to discuss throughout your life your education, how you've been educated and, and what it's meant to you and what your attitude to education is, and I thought I'd begin by ... You mentioned to us in telling us this story of your life that you weren't much for school really when you were a kid. Did you ever wag school? Did you ever hive off and get out of school?
I think ... I think all kids in the country wag school or most of them.
Oh my brother and I had a great ... a number of days we were down by the riverside, just having a few days off, but I wasn't a great wagger, but talking about my education generally, I ... I was always pretty good. I only really went to primary school because I left my first year at secondary school when I was at the Marist Brothers boarding school ... when I left it very suddenly. So you could say that I only had a primary school [education] but because of the circumstances I related about my father moving from farm to farm and so on, I went to many one teacher schools and so the continuity of my education was disrupted and often at a one teacher school you'd be in one class and you'd go to another school and you'd have to be in a different grade or a different class. So it was ... I didn't have the continuity there. But I was an average student, or probably a bit better than an average student. But I always had a lot of interest in, particularly history and geography from the time I was very small and that's continued right through. But I guess I'd say that through my socialist beliefs I have had a lot of self-education and one of ... one of the positive things of being in the Communist Party was that we had a lot of schools and studied political economy, philosophy, etcetera, and so I participated very, very much in those ... in those education processes. And so, I've read widely, and so I'd have to put myself down in old age as a fairly successful, self-educated person.
Well, influenced by my socialist and communist beliefs, so most of the readings were on those sort of subjects or shall I say, sociology or political issues, and that domino question of peace and war - all of those things. They're the organisations that I've been in and I've read about most of those things.
Didn't have time: engaged in the battle. [Laughs] No, I ... not really because I guess from the time that I was in the union movement, well it's been one of activism [which] has dominated my life and up to now, I mean, I've always been an activist and I suppose I've been at most universities in ... in England, many in the United States and here. I think I've spoken at every university in Australia a number of times. So I've been around universities but ...
To a certain extent. [Laughs] No, yes, that's right. In ... in recent years I've got a number of honorary degrees from ... not that I put them in my CV, but nevertheless it's a recognition of ... of the union and the people and the environment I was ... environmentalists I was involved with.
At the time that you were using a pick and shovel on the job, did you ever imagine then how life might ... might evolve for you so that you would be someone, who would be in the future sought after as a lecturer, a speaker and a thinker in these areas?
No, actually it didn't cross my mind then. [Laughs] Of course not. No, I mean, there wasn't a great forward thinking on issues such as that because I was pretty much involved in the day to day struggle, first of all to keep your job so a boss wouldn't sack you, and then to organise the workers to bring about change, so most of the mental energy and physical energy went into those activities.
You sound like Caroline Jones, search for meaning ... [Laughs]
Well, the transition from being a Catholic to being a communist is a very common one. A lot of people of your generation experienced that ... that move, and I suppose, you know, how you were brought up ... You said you were a relaxed Catholic ...
My father was a relaxed Catholic. I was even more relaxed.
What did I think of religion?
Well, I told you about ... It frightened to buggery out of me when I was ... mortal sin and venial sins and all this sort of stuff.
I guess that the contradiction set in in my early twenties, when I came to Sydney. First of all I was never a terribly devout Catholic and when I saw that the Catholic countries didn't play a very good role in the ... in things ... like Pope Pius during the Second World War was in many ways pro-Nazi and the Spanish Civil War, again the church did not play a very positive role. So it's failure to align itself with the poor people or the hierarchy: Pope John XXIII was ... I could almost make a come back with him, but ... but other than that most of the hierarchy [were] very conservative and were against my ideas of socialism and equality and egalitarianism, so I wasn't attracted to the performance of the hierarchy of the Catholic church and I found it increasingly difficult to believe in the hereafter and ... and that. I believe that I became more and more an atheist in my philosophical thinking.
Well they say that every ... every Catholic that goes through it, it leaves a mark. I know when ... when I joined the Communist Party the, the joke was that the central committee of the Communist Party of Australia always had a majority of ex-Micks, ex-Irish Catholics on its ... its central committee, and you're right what you say that so many former Catholics were attracted to the radicalism of the Communist Party.
Right, but we were trying to make it less authoritarian, at least it was on this planet that we were trying to change it, not the next one.
A possibility but not a probability. [Laughs] No, no, I don't think so. I don't think that'll happen.
There's none. This is it.
Make the most it, in the autumn, that's why I say. I'll always use the autumn of my life not the twilight of my life because autumn's a bit longer.
In your ... in the course of your life you've had relationships with some very intelligent and interesting women, and some of those have publicly acknowledged the tremendous support and encouragement and influence you've had on them. What sort of influence have women had on you? Have you learnt from women, specifically, that you mightn't have got from your male colleagues? What ... what has the development of women and women individually done for you in your life?
Well, I think collectively the women's movement, of course, was one of the great movements of the twentieth century and that occurred at the same time as the Green Ban movement was ... was happening, and there was a lot of cross currents in that. In fact the women's movement played a part in helping the leadership of the Builders' Labourers because the women came into the leadership of the Builders' Labourers. There's a whole number of people that came in and played a part there. So I was influenced very much by the women's movement and of course educated, and the worst of my male chauvinism, worst of it, was broken down in those years. So it was one of the big influences on my life. [INTERRUPTION]
Oh I think so, certainly. I mean I ... the ... Any thinking male couldn't go through the sixties and the seventies without being changed by the strength of the women's movement and particularly in the union that I was in, because you had many of these women directly involved in the leadership of that union. People like Lyn Syme and Stella Nord were the leaders of the Builders' Labourers and played as important a part as many of the males in that union and the union before was an all male enclave. So ... and in the broader movement, with my wife and many other women in the Communist Party and the Labor Party and I, of course, had a lot to do with the women's social liberation movement.
That was quickly blunted and it stayed at the memory.
Well, it would be ... it would be boastful of me to say that I haven't got some remnants of it left but as far as I know it's just about evaporated.
No, I think all of them played a part. All of the women, that I've been impressed with, have played a part in convincing me on the correctness of women's social liberation.
I don't' think so because I was the fourth of a family of ... of five and so my three ... the three older children were all women and so I had the value of that relationship and I think that if you've got a good family relationship and you appreciate individuals ... I appreciated those sisters and particularly in the case of my eldest sister, Josie, who really took over the role of a mother in a very difficult period of ... of deprivation really in ... in the thirties. So I've ... I've got tremendous respect for Josie, my eldest sister - one of the most selfless people I've ever met. And so I had that ... I had that rich background as well. And not having had a mother who ... Well, I loved my mother but I was only six when she died and I had a terrific sister, who took over the role in extremely difficult circumstances, so I think I got away to a pretty good start, but I was never ... I always had respect for women and I think my track record of respect for women is ... is pretty good.
No, my three sisters tended to look upon me as a bit of a sook of a kid and ... and I was very much a mother's boy - never left her. And ... but of course when you're so young ... I mean I've only got a few memories that remain with me of always being with her when she visited people and when she was playing the piano at some of the functions. I was right near her and so on. So they're ... and of course with the advancing years they fade a lot, but the few memories I've got are very, very pleasurable.
Well, yourself: yeah, no. [Laughs] Oh yes, yeah, I get on well with women. In many ways a lot of quality women are much better than men, in a general sense. Maybe because I fought for the underdogs in ... in what was originally a male union, I can see the ... the way in which women, of the two sexes have been exploited more than men and so I've got that appreciation about the role of women. Yes.
Well, not a bad drinker, but ... Oh no, I think ... I think I was ...
Well, he wouldn't have a great chance of drinking on ... on a poverty stricken farm, milking cows twice a day. He wasn't ... Things were very ... During the early period after our mother died, things were very poor indeed and we were stuck out of the main town. He drank a little bit but he wasn't a huge drinker. And my background in football and ... and ... and in working class, well you tend to ... I think most working class people tend to drink too much, and I'd include myself in that category. I like the camaraderie of ... of workers and relaxing and a few drinks. Yeah. As I mix with the middle class more I've been twisted to wine a bit. [Laughs]
I will: Hunters Hill people and everything. [INTERRUPTION]
I think we've got enough.
No, we've got a few more things to do. One of the things that the Builders' Labourers were very much accused of, was violence. There was always this sort of part of the story, always ... was that you were a violent union. Can I ask you from your own perspective, whether there was any truth in that? Whether you did in fact use violence as a method ever?
I think the answer to that is I remember being on a Monday conference with ... with the ABC and Peter Coleman, an arch right winger, former editor of Quadrant and a Member of Parliament [and he] made that allegation that, well you've got to admit we were violent, and of course I challenged him to have an investigation into the building industry and find out just who were the violent ones, because ... And of course they cheated that. They wouldn't have an inquiry. They wouldn't have a Royal Commission into the building industry, and of course as was proven later on, it was the very big developers who bribed Gallagher, and of course they were the ones that were corrupt. They were the ones that were violent. There was ... We challenged them all the time to prove any violence on the building sites. We said we abhor violence, we were against it. There's a very different thing being a militant trade union to being violent, and so they never made any attempt to prove their point. It was just a wild summary of just saying, 'Oh they're violent, Builders' Labourers', because we were militant builders' labourers. A very big difference.
We ... When you say property, we had made decisions to stop scabs from working. We had made a democratic decision of ... that we were on strike. If the employers deliberately tried to provoke a strike by using scab labour, we said we would peacefully occupy the site and carry out the will of the majority, which was the fact that we were on strike. And so in the ... in the operation ... in the occupation of building, some minor damage occurred. It was exaggerated greatly by the media, particularly by the Telegraph at the time, but really it was insignificant, the amount of damage done. We were a very disciplined union and that's why we were so successful.
Well they were mainly used in the first place by the right wing leadership when we took control. They were used in that historical sequence of events in the ... when we took over in the late fifties, early sixties, they used it, but after that, well, no, that's not ... And even Gallagher didn't. Gallagher, in his early years, Gallagher was quite a militant union official that organised workers and that's ... that wouldn't be one of things. He fell ... As I said before, he fell for the bribe with the employers, but he ... he wasn't guilty either of using ... unless, right near the very end, when he took over the New South Wales, he attracted some unseemly types, but before that the union wasn't really a ... had that element in it.
No, I don't think so. I mean I think, well, in fact any violence I saw was perpetrated by the employers when they used scabs to try and break a strike, or in the case of Askin when in the marches to ... against the Vietnam War and in support of our own blacks and against apartheid, it was the police that used violence and that was proven, you can ...
Not really. I mean I ... I could imagine it happening. It could happen, but I think if a union conducts itself properly there wouldn't be any role for trade unions to engage in violence.
Jack, in the seventies - the sixties and the seventies - there was a whole movement that was ... that stood for all sorts of principles and it's the sorts of puzzlement that all of those things that were won then - like there are women now working in the building industry, that I'm aware of, am I right?
No, a few are still working in the building industry, but nothing ... not in great numbers, no. They've won the right to work and that's important.
What I'm interested in is the sort of thing that a lot of the things that were striven for in the seventies and people thought they were winning, suddenly those ideas that, you know, life should be a more complete picture, that we should be thinking about the quality of the whole of our lives and so on, that were upheld at that time, suddenly it all turned into the eighties and people were working longer hours and everything in ... in the ideals of that period were all just turned on their heads. How do you think that happened?
Very difficult question but I think it has its genesis in ... in again Thatcherism and Reaganism and that what I'd call economic fundamentalism that engulfed the English speaking world in particular and the whole rich world, in the main, in general, and it's lasted twenty years. And I think it cannot be permanent and there will be a swing the other way. But it is true. It's difficult for those who were so heartened by all the progressive issues that were tackled in the sixties and seventies, then to find that for two decades a complete reverse with privatisation, deregulation and economic fundamentalism changing our very lives and all the goals that we had, have vanished as more and more people work harder with more and more stress, with greater gap between rich and poor, and all the things that are against anyone who believes in a fairer and more decent world. And I believe that that is only temporary. I think that this nightmare cannot continue and there will be a return to the sort of civilised attitudes that were there ... were prominent in that period in the three quarter mark of the twentieth century.
A lot of the individuals who were involved in those struggles changed at a personal level their ideals and their goals. You didn't, you stuck with yours. Why? Was there any point that you thought that you might abandon them and go with the flow? Why have you kept your idealistic outlook?
Well, I don't know whether it's idealistic or whether it's very, very practical or whether it's both: idealistic and practical. But I think if one genuinely believes in human society, in a civil society, in a civic society, well then you can't get away from it. You've got to continue while ever you can breathe. You've got to continue to work for that. And that's why I still have confidence, despite what has happened in the last twenty years, that there will be a return to those sort of values because I don't believe that the values that exist now will maintain themselves, and that's why I retain confidence that there will be a return those values of decency, of egalitarianism, of ecological sanity.
Well, I used to say that I was a globalist twenty years ago, thinking how to think globally, but of course the globalisation has been destroyed by the multinational - the transnational companies, using that very word, globalisation, so it's come to be somewhat of a dirty word, shall we say. But I believe in a global society where there is genuine respect between all the peoples of the world and I think we're in the stage now where there is a need - people like myself, those of the Left or those who are ecologists, haven't got any alternative but to be internationalists because no longer can we just be concerned about our own country. Of course we've got to think locally and act globally on issues of environmentalism and all other questions of equity, but I mean I think that more and more we've got to think about everybody in the world and not just ourselves.
Well being an Australian has changed greatly, hasn't it? I mean after all the White Australia was nothing very great about White Australia. There was nothing very great about the way we treated Aborigines. I suppose Australia has become enriched with multiculturalism. There's no doubt that the ... the hundreds of different nationalities and races that have come to Australia in the post-war years has really enriched it and gave a lot more tolerance to what existed when we were really virtually an Anglo-Saxon country with a lot of hostility to other races, and of course our terrible on our treatment of our own indigenous people. So I think we have come a long way. We've improved, but there is a lot of room for improvement still.
But despite all of the setbacks that you've had in your political objectives, and also all the difficulties and tragedies that you've experienced in your personal life, you remain optimistic. What is your hope for the future?
Well, I ... When you say I remain optimistic, I'm not ... you know, I'm certainly not a pessimist and it's not good of being cynical. I mean there's plenty of reason for people to become more and more cynical about society. I'm certainly sceptical. I think that's good to be sceptical but I think it's counter-productive to be totally cynical and say it's hopeless. So I ... I retain confidence on the basic belief that human beings can be good or bad, but human beings can be moved to a better position and I think there is so much integrity in the ideas of ecologically sustainable society that there isn't any place for another society, and all forms of the existing society, of capitalism, are predatory, are acquisitive and are destructive to the natural environment, and increasingly to the built environment with the greed of the developers. So I see the sheer logic of ecological ... the sheer logic or the sanity of ecology as the main springboard for the future - as the great strength. I think that's the great strength. And I see all forms of capitalism, no matter how they dress it up for a fairer system etcetera, etcetera, are destructive - are destructive to the ecology, and that's why I think they're defeated in the end. But of course, if capitalism remains for a long time and economic plundering of the planet continues, if for example the warming of the planet continues at the rate it has in the last twenty years, then we are going to be in dire ... human beings and other species, who we scarcely think about, are going to be in dire straits this coming century. There's no doubt about that because I'm absolutely convinced through my activities in ... in the environment that this society cannot continue to ignore nature in the way it has, particularly in the ... in the last half century and ... and the enormous changes that I've seen since I've become politically involved until now, I do not believe that that pace can continue into the twenty-first century without dire effects on human beings and all other species that exist.
I wasn't thinking about it, actually. [Laughs] No, I don't think a lot about what you would be remembered about. I suppose I will be remembered for the Green Bans and that rich period of my life. I mean ... I mean that's the thing that is most satisfying is that to be, you know ... It's just a pleasure to be involved with like-minded people right across the political economic circle, right across the divide, around such an important issue as environment, ecology. They're the ... they're the ... they the things that I'm happiest about and proud about. But it doesn't worry me much how I'll be remembered, but I take it I'll be remembered because of my involvement in that which has been easily the most exciting part of my life.
I think being involved in it and giving it some direction, and then I suppose hitting upon the idea of calling it Green Bans as against black bans, certainly assisted one of those rare shifts that occur where we could attract more people to it. I mean I think that that was to me the most important thing that I've done personally. But as you've said, I mean I think that the whole ... the strength of the Green Ban movement was its collectivism. It wasn't great in inverted commas, leaders, but of course you had leaders and I was one of the best known leaders, so I'm saying in that sense I'm sincerely proud to be part of it but I've always been aware of not letting it run to your head too much and that the strength of the movement was ... Even though they tried at times to say it was a power drunk trip by the leaders, I think we justified all our actions by the collective approach we had, whether it was [being paid] the same wage as workers on the job, or all engaging in the same sort of action, or stepping down from real power positions. I think our evidence shows that we were very egalitarian in the way we went about it and that, to me, was the proudest thing. But I think that Green Bans certainly was the highlight of my life. [INTERRUPTION]
Of allowing you to interview me. [Laughs]
Yeah, a lack of confidence. I was more introverted as a ... as a younger person, I consider myself. Others would dispute this probably, but I was more introverted than extroverted and I think that when I commenced in the ... as ... in the union I was very nervous speaker. I was ... I was reluctant to speak. I used to worry about speaking and it was only through the years that I got ... I gained some confidence there, so I was ... I was a pretty shy, even though it might be hard to believe now. I was a pretty shy person when I first became active in the union movement and it was just in the hard battle of life that ... that I overcame a lot of that, so it was ... it was weakness in the first part. I used to stammer a lot and I used to find it difficult to express myself when I first became involved.
Well, I think if ... I always believed that if you're long-winded you tend to put people to sleep or they turn off and I always felt that, probably from the first time of being interviewed in television because that's the thing that really brought me out because you had no alternative. If the cameras are on you and you're in the height of a battle, you've got to make your points and I learnt early not to rabbit on because they'll pick out the least important issues or ones they can twist and turn and use against you if they are hostile. So I learnt in the first place to be more salient, to make the ... the most important, to get the answers out and so it makes it more difficult for them to ... to twist and turn them and use them for other purposes. So I guess that I've always striven then to ... to try and be precise and concise and get your points across.
Have you got another hour or two? [Laughs] Oh, of course, there'd be a hell of a lot of things but there's no ... I mean, I'm the sort of person to ... to dwell on what went wrong and what might have been and wasn't, doesn't worry me at all. I mean it's not much good going into that because to me I've been pretty happy with being able to be involved in some of the exciting issues that I've been involved in and so ... I end up in the ... in the autumn of my life happier than less happy with what ... what has occurred.
Now I want to do a pick up of something we missed because of one of the planes, a vital bit of the story, so we're back in narrative mode now. You were telling us about the story of Kelly's Bush and you explained how important it was to you and the union at the time to get evidence of the whole community being behind something and you were just explaining that to us when a plane went over and so we missed out on the Town Hall meeting and so on. So could you just tell that, starting with ... just tell the story again, starting with the fact of why the union considered it important.
When ... when we were approached by the women from Kelly's Bush, it was on the basis that they had heard that the Builders' Labourers, myself and others had said that in a modern society it's not much use winning higher wages and better conditions alone if we live in cities devoid of parks and denuded of trees, that the whole fabric should be of concern to workers, not just their workaday life. That the quality of life stretched about where people lived, the question of transportation. The quality of life was not a cliché, it was a reality. And the women from Kelly's Bush came to us because they'd heard that we were sympathetic to environmental causes and they had exhausted the normal channels of protest. They'd been to their Local Member, Peter Coleman, the right wing Liberal Party politician. They'd been to see the Premier, Sir Robert Askin. They'd been to see the Minister for Planning, Mr Morton [?], so they'd exhausted all those and as a last resort they came to the Builders' Labourers Union. [clears throat] They addressed the union executive and the union executive when the women left ... and asked us to give assistance. They really asked us to allow them more time to put a ban on so as they could negotiate from a position of strength with the other ... with the Ministers and other people. When the women had departed the executive had a discussion and having in mind that the executive and the union had been involved in issues like the blacks and against the Vietnam War, so they were very politicised group of people ... But of course one immediately said, 'Jesus, what we are doing? We haven't got one member at Kelly's Bush, in Hunter's Hill. You know, we haven't got a member there. What are we doing here?' Others argued then, 'Well, if we're fair dinkum about urban bushland, whether it's Hunters Hill or whether it's Liverpool or whether it's anywhere else, we've got to be consistent', and that won the argument. So we said ... when we contacted the women from Kelly's Bush, we said, 'Look, if you can demonstrate that it's the feeling of the people in the area and not just those adjacent to the Kelly's Bush - that's it a feeling of the people in the community we will accord to your request. We'll accede to your request and impose a ban so as to give you more chance to negotiate', and that was carried. We then told the women. The meeting was held in a nearby park to Kelly's Bush. Many hundreds of people came to the meeting and we made that announcement. We said, 'Well we will go along. We will ... we will put a ban on, to allow you to continue negotiations'. What happened then to really enliven that was that A.V. Jennings, the Melbourne millionaire company that was building, or was going to build the luxurious homes for the fortunate few when the bush was destroyed, said, 'Oh we won't worry about that, we'll use non-union labour'. At the time, because of the struggle to improve the union, wages and conditions, we had about 90 to 95 per cent of the workers in union, so on a big job in North Sydney, on an A.V. Jennings job, the workers stopped work and 150 workers made a decision that if one blade of grass or one tree was touched in Kelly's Bush, that half completed building would remain half completed forever as a monument to Kelly's Bush and I think that was ... that was a match that lit the bush fire and they went off their head. Askin came out with language like, 'Who do they think they are? They're mere labourers. Do they think they're urban town planners?' And Jennings of course really ran for cover then because he knew that he had a unionised force. He then quickly backed down and said they would not use labour ... they would not use scab labour and went on to negotiate, so the women then negotiated with A.V. Jennings with us in attendance, to just let them know ... And of course that was the turn of the tide because they, they realised then they couldn't go ahead with it and that we'd really virtually won the day even though it took another fifteen years before Wran finally said, 'Well, that's it. We're going to keep it forever', and then, even when Greiner Government came in, they put a plaque over in there saying that they too agree with Kelly's Bush being kept. It took many years later to be actually convincingly proven and won forever. Nevertheless it was in that turning point that brought about the change. And that was the manner in which we conduced all the Green Bans. One of the reasons that the Green Bans were so successful, even though our opponents were painting a picture that here were the leaders, you know, puffing out their chest and arrogantly imposing bans willy nilly, we always adopted the position that it had to be people, the residents, coming to the union, the union discussing it, either at executive level or at a branch level, so as all the workers were involved and then those workers making a decision to impose a ban. Some bans were imposed for a limited amount of time to allow negotiation. Other bans were imposed forever, such as Centennial Park. The bans on The Rocks, for example, wasn't against all destruction of buildings in The Rocks. We believed that there were some dilapidated buildings, but it was against the idea of putting all high rise up, so the bans differed from one to the other but they all had their commencing point in people coming to the union and not the union making arbitrary measures. And in fact we never imposed a ban if the residents couldn't back it up with numbers of people at a meeting.
Well, in the past, in that period when our bans were imposed we had just smashed the penal powers of the arbitration act. That was '69. The Green Bans occurred in '71 to '75 so we didn't have the penalty powers of the Arbitration Court on us. Now because of the reactionary regime of Reith and co., they've now got secondary boycotts and so, legally speaking, they'd be running a risk of a secondary boycott where they can't ... if it's not directly concerned with the narrow confines of wages, conditions, a union can be fined for imposing secondary boycotts, and that could happen. Now when the CMFEU put the ban on the McDonald's thing, that didn't happen because I think that even the conservative Government could see that it'd be unpopular to take the union on on that issue, but no doubt they would take the union on on certain other issues. But I think that in the smashing the penalty powers of the Arbitration Court, the same thing about secondary boycotts, it's only when workers will take enough strong action that you'll defeat the secondary boycott. Unions shouldn't be hampered with secondary boycotts, if a union wants to take an action over something for the community's good, for the good of all the people. But it's unlikely that will happen now because of the more restrictive attitudes that the Reith Government ... that the Howard Government has put on the union movement.
Yes, it has. It has a role to play, but conversely I think that if unions showed more activity around wider social issues they would redress that and you'd find more people wanting to be in unions. So I think it's a double edged sword that you've got to take that risk and have a go to win back new members who are not in the union now, because union movements have always been at their best in militant periods. It's when unions are doing things that they attract attention from non-unionists.
It's sort of like an attitude of keep politics out of union business and then, we'd say at the Arbitration Court, how can you have ... When the Arbitration Court is bringing down anti-union decisions, how can you keep politics out of unions because you've got to discuss ... the very court that refused to grant you money is a political institution. And they're saying, 'Oh no, it's nothing to do with us - we're industrial'. It seemed a very weak argument. That was the sort of the DLP attitude of the fifties and ... and the backward element of the union movement. And it was precisely the communists and left wing Labor that took that on, and said, 'Everything is politics, everything is politics. You can't divide industrial and politics. It's all political'.
Well, I think after the initial success of ... of the environment movement we found other organisations like in the ... in the question of the arts, of the actors' equity that wanted to keep a live theatre, the last of the live theatres or the longest running live theatre, and so we responded. So it was really a response by a thoughtful, intelligent union to other people, so as to have an inclusive policy and to assist where we can, while never getting away from our central position of looking after members' wages and conditions, but also saying that a union in a modern society has to have a wider vision and even more so now. I think one of the reasons why the union movement is contracting is first of all because of the Accord of the Labor Party in the eighties, that was all top wheeling and dealing and no involvement of rank and file in decision making, that was one of the things and the other thing is it's not inclusive. It's not taking on the other issues that it should be taking on. And in many ways, while we were applauded for so doing, in many ways also it allowed, in the case of the Builders' Labourers and the Green Bans, allowed hostile elements either from the Right, or in the case of Gallagher, from the Left, to use as an excuse this inclusive policy to claim, I think improperly, that the union was getting too involved with ... to use some of the language that they used, poofters and ... and gays - not ... poofters and lesbians and getting involved in all these wider things and neglecting the union which of course was a lie, because we'd fought the fight to get the highest wages and conditions. So I think that it was that sort of thing that was the most important element in the Builders' Labourers history, that it went wider and the Green Bans were only a part of it, the main part, but the Green Bans' success then meant that we had all these other people who had problems coming to the union and seeing the union as a beacon that will try and assist them in their struggles.