Wednesday, March 12, 1997

Rocking the Foundations

"It is not just a matter of breaking down some workers' prejudices against "greenies". If we want the strength of a mass workers' movement backing us up, we have to help build a mass workers' movement -- as the left-wing BLF leadership began to do in the 1950s and '60s."


Essential viewing for unionists and environmentalists

This film, an old favourite of radical activists, charts the rise of the NSW branch of the Builders Labourers' Federation. Beginning as a corrupt bosses' union in the 1940s, by the 1970s it was a powerful force for progressive social change and is now famous for placing "green bans" on building sites that were environmentally and socially destructive.

The old, corrupt leadership of the union was voted out after a 10-year campaign by a group of rank-and-file members who then reoriented the union to establish a high level of accountability for officials.

When, in the 1960s, there was a boom in inner-city high-rise building, the union was able to use its new strength to win important gains in working conditions and pay.

The first green ban occurred when a group of residents asked unions to ban clearing work on an area of bushland on Sydney's north shore. The bush was saved.

More commonly, work bans were placed on areas such as the Rocks and Woolloomooloo when residents faced eviction to make way for commercial developments. At the peak of this movement, more than $300 million worth of developments were being held up by BLF's bans, backed by enthusiastic local communities.

The movement was eventually broken by an alliance of developers, the Robert Askin state government and the federal secretary of the BLF, Norm Gallagher. The BLF was deregistered federally and the militant NSW branch was dissolved under the pressure of a rival branch set up by Gallagher.

Today, following the existence of a strong environment movement in this country during the 1970s and '80s, most people support the general aims of environmentalism. Opinion polls reveal that an overwhelming majority of the working-class oppose woodchipping in native forests and nuclear testing, for example.

Even on a mass level, however, passive environmental consciousness is not sufficient to stop the continuing destruction of our environment. Gaining the active support of the organised working-class is essential to win campaigns.

Many environmentalists understand this, but many fewer realise how to win that support. It is not just a matter of breaking down some workers' prejudices against "greenies". If we want the strength of a mass workers' movement backing us up, we have to help build a mass workers' movement -- as the left-wing BLF leadership began to do in the 1950s and '60s.

While Rocking the Foundations does not examine in detail what made the BLF's green bans movement such a successful and inspiring example of left-green activism, there are some valuable lessons for both environmentalists and trade unionists in that experience.

In particular, it was the cohesiveness of the union -- the close, democratic relationship between the rank and file members and their leaders -- that made the success of the bans possible. This was the basis for that union's industrial strength and for its members' confidence in their actions.

Only in the process of rebuilding such trade unions and movements will workers regain the confidence necessary to fight -- on both immediate economic and broader issues. Environmentalists should bear this in mind when they are presented with opportunities to support workers' picket lines, donate money to union strike funds and generally defend the right of workers to defend themselves.

It is high time that activists from the environment and labour movements had another look at Rocking the Foundations and began a serious discussion about how to put the lessons it contains into practice once more.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly issue 266, 12 March 1997.

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