Jack Mundey

Verity Burgmann

Jack Mundey (17/10/1929-10/05/2020), legendary leader of the green bans movement, showed the world how important workers could be in protecting the planet.[1] ‘What is the good of fighting to improve wages and conditions’, he asked unionists, ‘if we are going to choke to death in polluted and plan-less cities.’[2] He emphasized that workers suffered most from environmental problems. ‘Who lives in the least leafy suburbs? Who is subjected to increasing road noise, who has the poorest quality housing, who has least open space?’[3] Crucially, he stressed it was workers who had the greatest capacity to win environmental battles, given the power they could exert if they refuse to work. Environmentalists were important, he acknowledged, but they ‘do not have the muscle to change developers’ minds’.[4] In the green bans movement, ‘Mundey’s one-man band’, as a leading town planner observed, was ‘able to do more than many decades of legislators have even attempted.’[5]

Jack grew up on the Atherton Tableland, where he learned to love the natural landscape. After Parramatta Rugby League Club talent scouts enticed him to Sydney in 1951, he suffered environmental shock, noticing how the sun was shining on fewer streets in the city as high-rise office blocks went up, and his young son Michael suffered respiratory problems from industrial pollution in Granville. Jack’s first wife Stephanie died when Michael was a baby, a tragedy later compounded when Michael died in an accident when 22. Throughout his personal suffering and extraordinary political activism, Jack was sustained by Judy, whom he married in the 1960s.

Working in various occupations during the early 1950s Jack became active in the Federated Ironworkers Association, the Sheet Metal Workers and the Federated Engine Drivers & Firemen’s Association. He joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1955, because he considered communists ‘the most consistent fighters for better wages and working conditions’.[6] He was elected Sydney District Committee president in 1966. He declared he did not ‘worship at the altar of either Peking or Moscow’[7] and hated ‘this craziness about vanguard parties having all the knowledge … Union struggles can play the biggest part.’[8]

Mundey had joined the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation (NSWBLF) in March 1957 and became chairman of the Clyde Oil Refinery shop stewards’ committee. He was important in the rank-and-file movement to remove the corrupt, right-wing leadership, achieved in 1961. Elected city organiser in 1962, he became a major force in the union, and in promoting Aboriginal rights, opposing the Vietnam war and asserting the right of women to work in the building industry and receive equal pay. In 1968 he became acting secretary and was elected secretary in 1970.

Green bans supporters with Jack on the megaphone outside BLF federal secretary Norm Gallagher’s office in Melbourne Trades hall, November 1973.

The NSWBLF under Mundey’s leadership developed a ‘new concept of unionism’, which included an emphasis on job-site autonomy, opening executive meetings to all members; frequent use of mass stop-work meetings; tying officials’ wages to the BLF award. The most startling innovation was limited tenure: officials should come from the job and, after six years at the most, return to the job. So Mundey did not seek re-election and in 1974 returned to work as a pick-and-shovel labourer at St Vincent’s Hospital. When other union leaders were appalled, Mundey explained that the rule was designed to benefit the institution not the individual: ‘the important thing was the release of power’.[9] The opposition of Bob Hawke, as ACTU leader, to Mundey’s militancy, is representative of the union bureaucracy’s inability to embrace Mundey’s ideas, which distinguished between working-class interests and those of a trade union bureaucracy, and expressed the former.

The ‘new concept of unionism’ famously embraced ‘the social responsibility of labour’: workers had a right to insist their labour not be used in harmful ways. Mundey wrote in the union journal in mid-1972: ‘The Builders’ Labourers’ Union feels strongly about unions and the whole workers’ movement involving themselves more deeply in all political, moral and social questions affecting ordinary people.’ Several of its bans were not ‘green’, notably those on construction at Sydney University to safeguard a women’s studies course and at Macquarie University to ensure reinstatement of a gay activist, and on a land developer in Redfern, which resulted in the Redfern Aboriginal Community Housing Scheme.

Resident activists with Jack in Playfair St, The Rocks, October 1973.

The most spectacular application of the social responsibility of labour, the green bans movement saved Sydney and NSW regional centres from much of the destruction planned by developers. The Rocks would have become a jungle of high-rise office buildings without the green ban. Imposed by the union from June 1971 until March 1975, when the developer-funded intervention by the federal branch of the BLF ended this remarkable movement, these bans expressed the labourers’ refusal to demolish people’s houses or significant buildings, or to build on natural reserves such as Kelly’s Bush and Centennial Park. In February 1973, Mundey coined the term ‘green ban’, explaining that ‘green’ instead of ‘black’ was more truly descriptive of this environmental activity and had more positive connotations. The terminology of ‘green’ has its origin here, because the green bans inspired Petra Kelly, who was visiting Sydney, to name her political party in Germany the Greens, which spread the usage globally.

Mundy’s efforts after the green bans were directed towards forging links between green and working-class activists. ‘Trade unions must become involved with environmental issues, and environmentalists must become more concerned with the importance of promoting trade union struggles for socially useful production and consumption.’[10] This ‘winning alliance’, so effective in the green bans movement, was the only way to achieve his dream of ‘a socialist world with a human face, an ecological heart and an egalitarian body’.[11] As National Convener in the late 1970s of Environmentalists for Full Employment, Mundey argued society must secure socially useful employment for all, the wisest use of appropriate energy and resources and the guarantee of a habitable environment.[12] ‘The carefully orchestrated myth that the fight for a decent environment increases unemployment must be exploded.’[13] To counter this impression and provide positive solutions to ecological crisis, trade unions must design socially responsible job creation schemes, including projects to repair the damage already done to the planet.

Jack served as alderman on Sydney City Council 1984-1987. When the CPA disbanded in 1989, Mundey related his long-standing anti-Stalinism explicitly to ecological crimes. The ‘USSR’s pitiful environmental record’ was the legacy of the ‘stalinist nightmare’ that was an ecological disaster because it failed to deliver the promise of socialism. ‘Whereas the very nature of capitalism is acquisitive, socialism’s nature should be conducive to being able to harmonise better with nature.’[14]

Jack with Gough Whitlam and authors Meredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann in 1998 at the launch of the first edition of their book, Green Bans, Red Union.

In 1995 Jack was appointed Chair of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW. He was awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Western Sydney (1988) and the University of New South Wales (1998) in recognition of his ‘eminent and vital service to society’.[15] In 2002 he received an AO for service to the preservation of natural and urban heritage, and was voted one of Australia’s National Living Treasures. In 2003, he joined the Australian Greens. In 2007 an area in The Rocks was renamed Jack Mundey Place; in 2014 he joined the fight to save The Rocks’ Sirius apartments.

The green bans preserved much in the built and natural environments and prompted important improvements to the culture of town planning, and environment and heritage legislation at State and federal levels. Mundey’s impact was profound. His commitment to the working-class and conviction about its vital ecological role made him an especially effective force for good.

Jack in later life revisits The Rocks.



[1] On the green bans, see Meredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann, Green Bans, Red Union. The Saving of a City, NewSouth, 2017. On Jack Mundey, see Verity Burgmann and Meredith Burgmann, ‘“A Rare Shift in Public Thinking”: Jack Mundey and the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation’, Labour History, 77, Nov. 1999, pp.44-63.

[2] Courier-Mail, 30 June 1973, p.17.

[3] Jack Mundey, ‘From grey to green’, Australian Left Review, 108, Dec.1988/Jan.1989, p.19.

[4] Sydney Morning Herald, 5 February 1974.

[5] Bulletin, 12 May 1973, p.36.

[6] Jack Mundey, Green Bans and Beyond, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1981, p.21.

[7] NSWBLF Minutes: Executive Meeting, 27 August 1968; General Meeting, 3 September 1968.

[8] Jack Mundey, interviewed by Meredith Burgmann, 3 April 1978.

[9] Tribune, 19 August 1975.

[10] Jack Mundey, ‘Preventing the plunder’, in Verity Burgmann and Jenny Lee (eds), Staining the Wattle, McPhee Gribble/Penguin, Melbourne, 1988, pp.179-80.

[11] Mundey, Green Bans and Beyond, p.148.

[12] Jack Mundey, ‘Compatibility of the 3 “E’s” Vital to Survival’, Environmentalists for Full Employment, Newsletter, 1, Dec. 1978, p.1.

[13] Jack Mundey, ‘Covering letter for sending to prospective member-sponsor groups’, Environmentalists for Full Employment, n.d., 5pp., roneod.

[14] Mundey, ‘From grey to green’, p.20.

[15] Sydney Morning Herald, 12 May 1998.

1 thought on “Jack Mundey

  1. Russell Alexander says:

    Quote from Alexander Dubcek General Secretary of State of Czechoslovakia …..{In the service of the people, we followed such a policy that Socialism would not lose a human face} That is the key, when Socialism loses sight of that it becomes just another monkey on the workers backs.


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