During the early 1970s the NSW Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) emerged as one of the most progressive unions in the world. Beyond its use of militant tactics to vastly improve wages and conditions, much of its radical reputation came from its willingness to provide practical and decisive support to a range of causes. These included protecting heritage sites, working class housing and urban bushland and preventing unnecessary roadbuilding through the imposition of what became known as ‘green bans’. These generally involved community organisations and campaigns approaching the union to request they ban work on projects seen as socially and environmentally harmful. Many proposals were supported by the union’s membership with result that billions of dollars worth of projects were put on hold, saving entire sections of NSW from destruction. The union also took action on other issues, such as opposing conscription and the Vietnam War, supporting Indigenous struggles, and assisting people facing discrimination due to their gender, ethnicity and sexuality.
What is the use of higher wages alone, if we have to live in cities devoid of parks, denuded of trees, in an atmosphere poisoned by pollution and vibrating with the noise of hundreds of thousands of units of private transport? – NSW BLF Secretary Jack Mundey.
From the point at which left-wingers had won leadership in the early 1960s the nature of the union changed as it became a genuinely democratic organisation, with members seeking workers’ control over the direction and outcomes of their labour. Builders labourers had long occupied the lowest rung in the construction industry but grassroots control of the union, and the wins that militancy brought, engendered a new sense of pride in members’ work, as did their ability to turn it to more socially useful ends. Although government and employer enmity dogged the union throughout this period, it was a takeover of state branch operations by the federal branch of the union during 1974-75 which brought an end to green bans, as well as the fight for workers control and permanent employment. Nevertheless a number of the sites targeted by green bans were able to gain longer term protection through other means and remain in place today.
The following timeline was previously published in 2011 by the Green Bans Art Walks Project. It lists the more than 50 green bans that the NSW BLF placed between 1971 and 1974. It has been updated slightly by the Commons Library from the original.
1. Kelly’s Bush (Mid 1971)
An area of natural bushland in Hunters Hill, threatened with clearing and redevelopment by A.V. Jennings. Bans imposed a group of women, known as “The Battlers for Kelly’s Bush”, formally requested that the BLF impose a ban. The bushland remains to this day.
2. The Rocks (Late 1971)
An original ban was placed on demolition and redevelopment at the request of residents who were threatening with the loss of low cost housing. This changed in 1972, when there was a new rationale brought about by a Royal Australian Planning Institute report questioning the Sydney Cove Re-Development Scheme, which would have led to five hundred million dollars worth of high-rise building in this residential area. Subsequently, a people’s plan was drawn up for the Rocks area by residents and the ban was lifted in 1974 after high-rise buildings were removed from the scheme.
3. Victoria Street (1971)
A ban on the demolition and redevelopment of a historic street in Sydney. This came in response to opposition to the building of a forty-five storey complex, and the insistence by residents that Victoria Street be kept low-rise with provision for middle and low income wage earners to remain living there. To highlight the need for low income earners to live in the city, widespread squatting occurred in Victoria Street after former residents were forced out. In January 1974 a confrontation occurred and all residents (except one, Mick Fowler) were removed from the Street. Following continued campaigning the redevelopment design was amended and while low-cost housing was lost, some protection was applied to heritage elements.
4. Congregational Church (February 1972)
First of a number of BLF bans imposed on buildings considered by the National Trust to be worthy of preservation for historical or architectural reasons. The building was subsequently placed on the National Trust and still stands.
5. Opera House Car Park (March 1972)
After approaches from Labor Party politicians, progressive architects and the Total Environment Centre, a public meeting requested that the BLF impose this ban, because car park construction would destroy part of the cliff face, remove trees, and affect the contours of the Gardens. The ban was successful and the government built the car park elsewhere.
6. Theatre Royal (Mid 1972)
A ban on the demolition of the Theatre Royal stopped the proposed construction of a seven hundred feet M.L.C.-Lend-Lease project until a written guarantee was given that a live professional theatre of comparable size, incorporating features of the old Theatre Royal, would be included in the new site.
7. Moore Park/Centennial Park Sports’ Complex” (June 1972)
A very large public meeting of diverse groupings of people requested that the BLF impose a ban on the construction of a sports complex, which would have destroyed Sydney’s Centennial Park. The ban was successful and the Liberal Government of New South Wales announced that it would not go ahead with the proposed construction.
8. Cook Road (Centennial Park)
At the request of residents a ban was imposed on new high-rise buildings until a community plan for the area was drawn up and approved.
9. Mt. Druitt (Mid 1972)
In support demands for reasonable compensation from Lend-Lease and Housing Commission. Ban lifted – by Labor Council of N.S.W.
10. North-West Expressway (Late 1972)
A ban was imposed at the request of a public meeting in Glebe and Balmain, old areas of Sydney, where, if the freeway had been constructed, one-sixth of the total houses in the suburbs, would have been destroyed. A combination of continued campaigning, squatting of homes due for demolition, and blockading eventually saw the expressway cancelled.
11. “Lyndhurst” – Glebe (1972)
Historic building. A National Trust preservation ban. It was proposed to demolish this historic building to make way for a freeway, in Glebe. The building was saved, refurbished and later sold into private ownership.
12. Ryde – Dunbar Park (February 1973)
Residents requested a ban after Ryde council proposed a tip site for waste materials. Existing parkland was surrounded by new homes and the ban imposed to ensure that it remained a passive area. Ban successful.
13. Darlinghurst (March 1973)
Ban imposed on commercial building in this historic area of Sydney. Residents requested a ban and demanded that all housing should be high density low-rise with adequate provision for low and middle income families to live within the inner-city area.
14. Helen Keller House – Woollahra (March 1973)
A National Trust preservation ban. This house belonged to the Royal Blind Society who wanted to demolish it and other houses in order to develop the land to raise more income. Residents requested ban against demolition of the property. It was saved and subsequently moved into private ownership.
15. Woolloomooloo (April 1973)
Ban imposed on the demolition of housing and parklands for commercial building in this historic area of Sydney. Residents requested a ban and demanded that all new housing should be high density low-rise with adequate provision for low and middle income families. The campaign succeeded in getting two thirds of the new properties placed under rent control.
16. Royal Australasian College of Physicians – Macquarie St (May 1973)
A National Trust preservation ban on the Royal Australasian College of Physicians building in Macquarie Street, Sydney. It was saved from possible demolition and renovated.
17. Pyrmont and Ultimo (Mid 1973)
Part of the proposed North-West Expressway. A public meeting of residents in these two inner city suburbs carried a resolution and requested a “green ban” as large sections would have been destroyed by the freeway. Ban successful.
18. Fowler-Ware Industries – Merrylands (Mid 1973)
Ban on the construction a factory in a residential area requested, as by a meeting of eight hundred residents in that area. The factory was moved elsewhere the ban lifted at the residents’ request after the area was classified as “Residential A” in 1974.
19. Jeremy Fisher (June 1973)
Jeremy Fisher was expelled from Macquarie University Sir Robert Menzies College because he was gay. At the requests of students at the University, a ban was placed on all building there. It was later lifted after Jeremy Fisher decided not to further pursue the matter.
20. Diethnes (July 1973)
Request made by shop owners, after the block sold to developer, that a ban be placed on the demolition of this building. A ban was imposed in support of the tenants.
21. East End – Newcastle (August 1973)
Ban imposed following a meeting of the citizens of the historic East End, who wished to retain working class content, and opposed the extension of high-rise office buildings and motels.
22. Rileys Island (October 1973)
Residents requested BLF ban. This island was purchased by Hooker-Rex, who intended developing and removing all vegetation. It was feared that damage to its environment and ecology could never be repaired as had happened on St. Hubert’s Island, which was also developed by Hooker-Rex. The ban was successful and the area was made a nature reserve in 1989.
23. Colonial Mutual Building (November 1973)
A National Trust preservation ban against demolition. Following negotiations an alternative plan was formed which saved the facade.
24. Dr. Busby’s Cottage (December 1973)
This was the oldest house in Bathurst, N.S.W. Part of this cottage was classified “C” by the National Trust. The cottage was purchased by a development company from two pensioner sisters, conditional upon them demolishing it. An inspection by the National Trust, the developers, Bathurst Council and the local resident action group, was carried out together with the BLF. Due its poor state of condition it was decided to allow development to proceed. The ban was lifted at a branch meeting in March 1974.
25. Eastern Hill – Manly (Late 1973)
A large meeting of residents of Eastern Hill requested a ban on the construction of two huge tower blocks by LJ Hooker. The BLF acceded to the residents request and called upon the meeting to draw up their community plan for the area.
26. Eastlakes – A working-class area of Sydney.
Ban imposed following a large public meeting at which the Parkes Development were accused of duping unit dwellers into believing that nearby open land was to remain a park, only to find that the land was privately owned by the developer. The area remains as parkland.
27. A.N.Z. Bank – Martin Place
A National Trust preservation ban. It was proposed to demolish this historic building for redevelopment. The building still stands.
28. National Mutual Building – Martin Place
A National Trust preservation ban. It was proposed to demolish this historic building for redevelopment. The building still stands.
29. C.M.L. Buildng – Martin Place
A National Trust preservation ban. The building’s facade remains in place.
30. Mascot High-Rise
Ban on single dwelling blocks. This was placed at the request of a large meeting of citizens of Mascot, who opposed town-house type dwellings if there was not sufficient green area retained around them.
31. Newcastle Hotel
A ban was placed on this working-class pub in the Rocks area which was targeted by the Sydney Cove Re-development Authority. It was later demolished.
1973 May Day March. Courtesy of the Search Foundation.
32. Regent Theatre
A ban imposed at the request of Actor’s Equity demanded that the building be kept for live professional theatre. It was not demolished until 1990.
33. Redfern Aboriginal Community Housing
The BLF imposed a ban on the demolition of houses in various parts of Redfern at the request of the Aboriginal community. The Federal Government subsequently provided the community with money to purchase make properties available as low-cost housing through the Redfern Aboriginal Housing Scheme. Factories were also converted into a cultural centre, a preschool, a medical centre, and a multipurpose hall.
34. Eastern Freeway
Ban imposed following a meeting of eastern suburbs residents opposed to the removal of working class homes to make way for a proposed freeway, which would have destroyed large sections of Woolloomooloo, Darlinghurst, Kings Cross, Taylors Square and Bondi Junction.
35. Botany High Rise
A ban was placed at the request of a large meeting of citizens at Mascot, who were opposed to town house-type dwellings if there was not sufficient green area retained around them.
36. Motorway – Newcastle
A freeway ban was placed at the request of the residents who were concerned at the destruction of Blackbutt Nature Reserve. Road building was subsequently rerouted to preserve the area.
37. St. George’s Hill
A ban was imposed at the request of the residents of this suburban area, following the failure of a developer to pay adequate compensation.
38. Kings Cross
Bans were imposed while residents produced a Community Plan Proposal setting out appropriate redevelopment.
39. South Sydney
Ban imposed following a large public meeting at which people called upon the authorities to re-consider the high-rise scheme for the area.
40. St. John’s Park
A ban imposed due to a dispute over land resumption and a lack of proper compensation in this working class area.
41. New Doctors Dwellings
A BLF branch meeting decided to refuse to construct any new dwellings for doctors in New South Wales, until such time as they agreed to co-operate with the Australian Government’s plan to introduced universal and affordable health care.
42. Tomaree Peninsula (January 1974)
Residents objected to a proposed high-rise development in this area. A petition was signed by 1700 people who formed a resident action group. They produced a building code which banned developments from being higher than three floors. At a public meeting the local council claimed that it had never intended to allow high-rise buildings and the ban was lifted following this declaration.
43. Burwood (March 1974)
At the Request of the Burwood Residents Action Group a ban was placed on the demolition of premises in Burleigh and Elizabeth Streets, Burwood, to make way for a car park.
44. Western Expressway (March 1974)
Residents in the Leichhardt Municipality requested the BLF impose a ban on demolition being carried out to make way for this expressway. Construction threatened 1180 homes in the municipality and Annandale, Glebe and Leichhardt stood to lose most of their parkland. The project was later cancelled.
45. Freeways (March 1974)
Bans imposed on all demolition work to make way for expressways. A mass meeting of builders labourers in Sydney in late May 1974 expressed condemnation of the Nielsen Transportation Plan for expressways.
46. Soldiers Garden Village (April 1974)
At the request of the residents in Matraville an interim ban was placed on demolition of this community. The Housing Commission planned to demolish the village to make way for Housing Commission Accommodation. The reason for a short term ban was that it was not possible to find which Government Dept. was responsible for the village. It was later demolished.
47. Education Department – North Newtown (May 1974)
At the request of the North Newtown Resident Action Group a ban was placed on the construction of a proposed teacher’s college in an area bounded by King Street, Missenden Road, Carillon Avenue, and Theological Land. The residents worked on a Community Education Plan to serve locals, including the provision of infants & primary schools, playgrounds, open space areas, before & after school activity groups, and a nursery.
48. Port Kembla (June 1974)
At the request of the residents of Port Kembla a ban was placed by the South Coast Labour Council against high rise development and dredging. Members of Save Our Unpolluted Landscape (SOUL) called for the rehabilitation of the beach and for it to be made a parkland. The BLF Executive endorsed this decision on 4th June, 1974.
49. East Woonoa (2nd July, 1974)
Ban imposed, following a request from South Coast Labour Council for endorsement of their ban, which was in support the local progress association. The ban was to remain until the residents were consulted and are involved in planning of the area. The ban covered all high rise and flat development, including major roads in the East Woonoa area.
50. Botany Municipality (September 1972)
The ban covered high-rise building on single dwelling blocks and industrial development in residential areas.
51. Sydney University Women’s Course
A ban was placed on the construction of a new building because a professorial board refused to allow Jean Curthoys and Liz Jacka to run a course on feminist philosophy and the politics of sexual oppression, despite it having been previously approved. The ban was lifted after the university agreed to allow it to go ahead the following year.
52. Port Macquarie
At the request of residents a ban was placed on the construction of high rise buildings on the beachhead and waterfront.
At the request of the South Sydney Residents Action group a ban was placed on the demolition of existing houses and parkland, both privately and state government owned, for development of multistorey dwelling blocks of Housing Commission flats. The residents produced a community plan which included alternative forms of low-cost housing.
54. Newcastle Motorway
A ban was placed on the construction of this motorway at the request of the residents.
- Green Bans Art Walks Project
- Green Bans History
- The 1972 BLF Opera House Work-In
- The 1973 BLF Pink Ban
- How Workers Defeated Anti-Strike Laws in the 1970s
- Victoria Street Squats Interview with Ian Millis
- Australia - New South Wales
- Builders Labourers Federation BLF (Union)
- Direct action
- Green Bans
- History - Australia
- History - Australia - New South Wales