Green sites saved by a red union

By Meg Hill

Unions were declaring sites “black” for over a century before the communist-led Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) coined the term green ban.

Melbourne CBD is littered with iconic sites that were to be erased from the cityscape before a green ban was declared – including the Queen Victoria Market (QVM), the Regent Theatre, the City Baths and the Hotel Windsor.

There are enough sites around the CBD for Earth Worker Co-op and the Ian Potter Museum to run two-and-a-half hour walking tours. The tours are a history-from-below look at the CBD’s development – and a kind of pre-neoliberal time capsule. 

“A green ban, at the end of the day, is an expression of workers’ democracy,” said ex-BLF member and activist Dave Kerin.

But it is far beyond the confines of Australia’s current industrial relations laws to declare a green ban.

And, although the BLF’s most well-known green bans were in Sydney on sites like the Rocks and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Mr Kerin says the first green ban was called in Melbourne.

The 1970 ban was placed on abandoned land in Carlton, where local residents wanted a park and a developer wanted a warehouse. 

The land is now the Hardy-Gallagher Reserve, named after Labor councillor Fred Hardy and Communist BLF official Norm Gallagher. 

It was still referred to as a black ban at the time. The new name came as the BLF realised the nature of its industrial action had changed.

The union membership increasingly voted up bans, not only to save green spaces, but valuable community infrastructure, low-cost housing and buildings of historical value.

The term black ban gives a sense of paralysis or subtraction. Workers stop working, a development is boycotted. Disputes over unsafe conditions or bad pay result in something not being built, cargo not being shipped or trains not being driven.

And, while the green bans were certainly still a boycott, and stopped many developments being built, the point of them was constructive. 

“We refuse to get rid of low-cost housing or of buildings of historical value. It’s a social movement that doesn’t end at the factory door,” Mr Kerin said.

“When you look at organised labour in that sense, you start to see the nature of a different democracy.”

“And the green bans created more jobs than they ever stopped.”

For example, the traders at QVM would not be there today if it weren’t for the 1971 green ban against the plan to turn the market into a combined trade centre, office and hotel precinct.

And the green bans were also placed on sites emblematic of “the bosses”. For example, they saved both the ANZ Gothic Bank and the CBA Dome Building because of their historical and architectural significance. 

The Ian Potter Museum partnered with the Earth Worker Co-op’s walking tour as part of its State of the Union exhibition – focusing on the relationship between artists and the labour movement.

The exhibition runs until October 28.

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