When I was still a fledgling journalist I interviewed Jack Rich, then head of the giant AMP group for a property magazine. After brief greetings, Rich took me over to the window of his office with its magnificent panorama of Circular Quay and The Rocks.
“See that”, he said, indicating the great sandstone buildings of the Rocks that formed Sydney’s first colonial settlement, with their tight cobblestone alleyways and rough stairs that led to pokey shops, cafes and pubs still reeking with history.
“If it wasn’t for Jack Mundey and the BLF [the Builders Labourers Federation union] we would have flattened it all.”
Clearly this is was one battle – mighty developer against an almost as powerful building union – that Rich was glad his side had lost.
It had taken a couple of decades for the turnaround in sentiment to be (at least publicly) admitted. And it was a powerful lesson in the beauty of forestalled action, just in case your perspective changes and what you stand to destroy is gone forever.
But Jack Mundey was who passed away this week left a much bigger legacy than The Rocks.
He led the fabulously named Green Bans where members of the union movement refused to work on or demolish buildings and areas of historic or environmental significance such as the best streets in Kings Cross, a battle that claimed another famous campaigner Juanita Nielsen, and that started with the fight for Kellys Bush where “middle class matrons” joined with union Communists to create the Green Bans, extending nature conservation to conservation of the built environment.
He later became a well-known mascot for developers, wanting to show they cared about the environment, and community groups alike, fighting a number of modern battles right up to the recent campaign to save the Sirius building from demolition – which was successful, though the social housing residents whose homes Mundey also wanted to save, were moved out.
Mundey’s best legacy though was that he showed that strong humane, social and environmental causes could unite people across political and social boundaries, a legacy that urgently needs relearning now as we face the climate emergency.
On Monday tributes flowed for Mundey who is survived by his wife Judy.
Nature Conservation Council chief executive officer Chris Gambian said, “The conservation movement is in mourning today following the passing of Jack Mundey, unionist, environmental pioneer and architect of the world’s first Green Bans.
“Mundey was a visionary who understood the struggles for social justice and environmental justice are part of the same broader project — to preserve human dignity in the face of unconstrained development.
“Thanks to Mundey and the Builders Labourers Federation that he led, and the countless citizens who supported their principled stand, many priceless jewels of Sydney’s built heritage and foreshore bushland were saved from the developer’s wrecking ball and preserved for future generations.
“Sadly, since the success of the Green Bans some have sought to drive a wedge between workers and conservationists.
“But with Jack’s passing, it is time to reflect on what we have in common and how much we can yet achieve if we work together.
“The board staff and members of the Nature Conservation Council express their sincere condolences to Jack’s family all those who mourn his passing.”
Jeff Angel, director of the Total Environment Centre and the Boomerang Alliance said, “one Australia’s greatest environmentalists” had passed away and that the TEC was proud to work with him.
“Jack was a world-leading pioneer of the green bans that saved so much of our historic and natural heritage, and as importantly, paved the way for unions joining with the grass roots in suburbs and cities.
“Through his actions over many decades after the tumultuous 1970s, he elevated the environment protection message across the political and community spectrum – jobs and environment do go together in the pursuit of sustainability and equity.”