Power to the People: 50+ Years of Union & Community Green Ban Action

Samantha Dagg

23 Mar 2022

Power to the People celebrates the 50th anniversary of the green ban movement and brings together artists, unions and community groups to re-read their legacy.

While the history of the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation’s (NSW BLF) Green Ban activity in Sydney is well known – and rightly so – Newcastle has its own extensive history of Green Ban action, extending from the early 1970s and well into the 1990s. Very little of this history has been formally recorded, existing only in the memories of the many unionists and community members who fought hard to preserve their neighbourhoods, public green spaces, and the natural environment. Green Bans have shaped much of what we recognise as contemporary Newcastle and preserved much of the natural environment in the greater Hunter and Central Coast regions.

The Newcastle Trades Hall Council, along with the local branches of the construction unions, particularly the NSW BLF, the Building Workers’ Industrial Groups of Australia (BWUI), and the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen’s Association (FEDFA), spearheaded the Green Ban actions in the greater Newcastle region. This is a period of local labour history of which the Trades Hall Council is immensely proud.

In a region historically dominated by mining and heavy industry, Newcastle developed a very strong union tradition very early on, founded on some of the most brutal working conditions and longest-lasting and bloodiest industrial battles experienced in Australia. By the 1950s, the post-war boom meant high levels of employment which, in Newcastle, also meant high levels of union membership. In a union town, the Trades Hall Council, as the peak union body, was a central institution, with significant influence on shaping the development and future of the region. Much of the community looked to the Trades Hall Council to make sure it was developed the right way – in the best interests of all the people of Newcastle, not just developers and industrialists.

For the first time in its history, the Newcastle Trades Hall Council also experienced a long period of political stability under the leadership of Alex Dowling, Secretary, 1948 - 1968. Dowling, like the Secretaries for the next 50 years, was a staunch Communist, committed not just to the struggle for rights of working people but to the betterment of conditions for all the communities of the region.
By the 1970s, under the strong leadership of Secretary Keith Wilson (1968-1979), the Trades Hall Council had expanded beyond the traditional industrial purview of a labour organisation to become deeply involved in a wide variety of issues affecting the broader communities locally, nationally, and internationally, including the struggles for Indigenous rights, women’s rights, the Peace Movement and Nuclear Disarmament, and the fight for Medicare, just to name a few.

It was only natural that Trades Hall Council would also become involved in protecting the natural environment, public green spaces, and cultural heritage of our region as well. Long before the term “Green Bans” was part of the common vernacular, the NTHC had been engaged in Green Ban activity, supporting local community groups, helping them to organise, liaising and lobbying with the local and State governments, and, when all else failed, imposing Green Bans on any cause they deemed to be in the best interest of the general community. Some early examples included protecting the residents and national parks of Pirrita Island and Miners Points in the Swansea Chanel and the Redgum Forests near Wyong, which were both under threat from private sandmining interests.

In the early days of the Green Bans in Newcastle, the Trades Hall Council had a particularly close relationship with the NSW BLF. The NSW BLF was affiliated to Trades Hall and Council delegates included, among others, Ron Dumbrell, Jack Francis, Elfriede Burghardt, Jim Clark, and Tony O’Beirne, who were all heavily involved in Green Ban activity. Unlike in Sydney, where the Trade & Labour Council was dominated by the right-wing of the ALP, the leadership of the NTHC and NSW BLF were both far-left politically, making them natural allies, with Jack Mundey being a guest speaker at the Newcastle May Day rally in 1972 and giving the Toast to May Day in 1974. When the NSW BLF was deregistered 1974, the Newcastle Trades Hall Council staunchly backed them and refused to recognise the leadership of the ABLF.

After the deregistration of the NSWBLF in 1974, the Newcastle Trades Hall Council stepped into the central position of organising the local Green Ban actions. As the peak labour organisation in Newcastle, the Trades Hall Council was uniquely positioned as a point of contact between community groups, the broader union movement, and the local and state governments that were often pivotal decision-making body in many of these developments. Not to mention that in a place like Newcastle, many local unionists were also heavily involved in political and social activism. One such example is Peter Barrack, future Secretary of NTHC; he was also a committed CPA member, a Peace Activist, a dedicated community organiser, and, when something really needed to be done, the man who just got in there and did it.

By the mid-1970s, Green Ban activity in Newcastle had really started to accelerate, with two of the most well-known Newcastle Green Bans taking place: the effort to save Blackbutt Reserve from the proposed Motorway 23 and the fight to save the historic East End from rampant and haphazard high-rise development. Many different community groups were involved in these struggles, with the major players including the Blackbutt Action Group, the Newcastle East Residents Group and the inimitable Jean Perret, and the Northern Parks and Playground Movement.

After Keith Wilson retired in 1969, Peter Barrack was his natural successor as Secretary. During the 1980s, the Trades Hall Council developed a very nuanced, politically savvy approach to the Green Ban. By the mid-1980s the impacts of Green Bans were so notorious that the mere threat of one was enough to challenge developments that were unwanted by the community. A good example of this was the THC’s involvement in securing the land from the former railway for use as Foreshore Park. When the State Rail Authority (SRA) proposed to auction of the land for private development, Barrack threatened to show up at the auction with a bullhorn and declare a Green Ban on the site making the land virtually unsellable. The SRA promptly honoured the commitment made by the previous State government and handed the land over to Newcastle City Council.

During this time, through their initial engagement in Green Ban activism, the Newcastle Trades Hall Council became heavily involved in shaping the long-term development and revitalisation of many Newcastle inner-city suburbs and the disused areas of the harbour. A good example of this is Carrington. The Council was initially engaged by the Carrington Residents Action Group, led by unionist George Sewell, to boycott a Maritime Services Board (MSB) workshop that was proposed in the middle of a residential area. However, the Council’s role did not end when the MSB chose an alternate site. Carrington had long been abandoned by the government planning as a residential area and was slowly being encroached on as a purely industrial site. The Trades Hall Council stood by the residential community of Carrington, holding firm in the belief that the inner-city suburbs should be preserved both for their historic architecture and as residential areas with affordable housing for working and other low-income people. The NTHC engaged local architect Brian Suters to design a medium density housing development for Carrington that expanded the residential area and lobbied the government until the plan was eventually enacted. This lead, in the 1990s and 2000s, to the Trades Hall Councils involvement in the redevelopment of Wickham and the Honeysuckle Precincts as well.

To learn more about the NSW BLF and local Green Ban actions, please visit the ‘Power to the People: 50+ years of union and community Green Ban action’ exhibition. The exhibition is open the Lovett Gallery at the Newcastle Public Library until April 14.

If you have more information any items in the exhibition or about the local Green Bans, please contact Sam at Hunter Workers on 02 49291162 or library@hunterworkers.com.au

Music video for the local hip hop group Dhopec's song about the Newcastle Green Bans, 'BLF Green Bans': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfaG10Cj9g0