You may have heard recently that the Curtin Hotel is closing down. An iconic pub, a popular live music venue and a go-to watering hole for Melbourne unionists for the past century — thrown to the dogs because it was unable to sustain itself financially through the pandemic. However, all is not lost for the Curtin, because the unions of Victoria are set to declare a ‘green ban’ on the pub’s demolition.
You may have heard recently that the Curtin Hotel is closing down. An iconic pub, a popular live music venue and a go-to watering hole for Melbourne unionists for the past century — thrown to the dogs because it was unable to sustain itself financially through the pandemic. However, all is not lost for the Curtin, because the unions of Victoria are set to declare a ‘green ban’ on the pub’s demolition. Green ban isn’t a term you hear much anymore, but during the 1970s it became a trademark tactic of the Australian union movement.
A green ban is essentially when unions get together to refuse to work on a certain construction or demolition project, normally for environmentalist or conservationist reasons. The term was coined by Jack Mundey, the communist leader of the New South Wales branch of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), to distinguish from the more traditional boycotting tactics of the ‘black bans’ that were already a union norm. It’s a name that would stick, and not just within the Australian union movement either: the usage of the term ‘green’ as a political category inspired the German politician Petra Kelly to start the world’s first Green Party.
The driving force behind the green bans was the BLF and their philosophy of the ‘social responsibility of labour’. The BLF recognised workers as having the power to shape cities in ways that respected the downtrodden and opposed encroachment upon the environment and public space. Jack Mundey articulated it best when he said:
“The environmental interests of three million people are at stake and cannot be left to developers and building employers whose main concern is making profit. Progressive unions, like ours, therefore have a very useful social role to play in the citizens' interest, and we intend to play it.”
The bans kicked off in 1971 when 13 Sydney women, having exhausted all other avenues, went to the BLF to request their support in saving the bushland of Kelly’s Bush from being turned into luxury housing. The women proved the popularity of their cause by staging a local meeting with 600 attendees and received the backing of the union, who organised the first green ban—saving Kelly’s Bush. This would only be the first of many, as the BLF would step in to support any local group who had popular support for opposing a project.
The green bans were employed mainly in the service of three goals: defending open spaces, protecting housing stock from replacement by freeways and high-rise development, and preserving historic buildings. They were staged across all the cities of Australia but particularly in Sydney where the construction boom was most intense. In Melbourne, we can thank green bans for saving Flinders Street Station, the City Baths, Queen Victoria Market, the Botanical Gardens, and the Princess and Regent Theatres.
A common perception of unions is that they possess a sole concern with what benefits them— that they are willing to forego broader concerns of the environment and social good to ensure that their jobs remain convenient and well-paid. Recent protests against vaccine mandates for construction workers certainly do not belie this perception. However, the green bans are proof that unions do not have to operate toward such selfish ends and that they are capable of protecting a dignity common to all society.
In the BLF’s notion of the ‘social responsibility of labour’, there was an understanding that unions could do more than just fight for better working conditions—they had the power to demand real social change. What the BLF advocated for was not just better working conditions but better living conditions. A majority of the working class (and a majority of the general public) lived in cities and so it was important for unions to adopt what Mundey called a “total view”:
“What is the good of fighting to improve wages and conditions if we are going to choke to death in polluted and plan-less cities?…Workers should be concerned about every aspect of life—not just their working conditions.”
This kind of ‘social movement unionism’ espoused by the BLF would extend beyond just helping the urban poor as well, for one of the union’s greatest achievements was its protection of Aboriginal land rights in the Sydney suburb of Redfern. By facing down developer giant IBK, the ban was able to prevent the demolition of ‘empty’ houses that were in fact occupied by Aboriginal residents. This gave the federal Labor government time to buy the houses and grant autonomy to the community through the Redfern Aboriginal Community Housing Scheme. This initiative provided low-rent accommodation and facilities to promote health, education and commerce via an elected cooperative committee.
The BLF’s preoccupation with environmental conservation and cultural heritage would change the Australian political and geographical landscape for years to come. All levels of government were driven to respond with legislative changes to city planning that would codify ecological and cultural concerns into law. However, the BLF themselves were not to last. The first blow was dealt in 1974 when BLF Federal Secretary Norm Gallagher staged a coup against the NSW branch in what was known as ‘Intervention’—a sponsored effort by embittered developers who offered bribes to federal unionists to break green bans. It played into existing sectarian divides in the BLF between the Maoists, led by Gallagher, and the rest of the union.
The policy came into effect during the height of a siege taking place at Potts Point as a consequence of a green ban. The ban had seen developers employ thugs to harass residents and, although it was never proven, kidnap the head of residents’ action group Arthur King. The NSW Police worked with developers to attempt a mass eviction which would result in the siege after residents barricaded themselves inside. The siege would be broken by Intervention, and the leaders of the BLF NSW branch were replaced by moderates who opposed the ban. This killed the popularity of the green ban and in 1986, corruption would kill the BLF in the wake of a Royal Commission, which resulted in the union being permanently deregistered and later merged with the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). Gallagher was also jailed for taking bribes from developers and using them to build a beach house.
We haven’t seen many green bans since 1974. Of course, we still see resident action groups and collective efforts to stop urban development. However, this principle of the ‘social responsibility of labour’ has been lost and these campaigns are led mainly by middle-class NIMBYs concerned with their house prices and ‘neighbourhood character’. So, it is interesting to see that the tactic has been revived recently for the purpose of saving a classic Melbourne pub.
The green ban on the Curtin is certainly in line with the original principles of the BLF. It’s a building with a rich, important history tied to Melbourne’s cultural heritage, and a venue that would likely have avoided being sold had there been adequate support for live music and hospitality during the pandemic. However, it also raises the question: why are we bringing back the green ban for the Curtin while so many other significant buildings have been lost over the years?
I don’t want to be too uncharitable to the unions. It should be noted that in 2016 the CFMEU announced a green ban on Sydney’s Sirius social housing building; I laud them for this. I also acknowledge that it’s been rough for the union movement over the years, and they no longer wield the power of the BLF back in the 1970s. Yet, I’m still forced to ask: why the Curtin and not everything else? All the social housing that has been demolished? The other cultural venues whose loss has seen Melbourne’s arts and music scene hollowed out? The thousands of kilometres of land we’ve surrendered to inefficient car infrastructure? Even if they were unsuccessful, surely an attempt would have been worthwhile.
To me, the answer lies in the symbolism of the pub. More than a location, it’s an idea at the heart of Australian culture. A representation of the things that matter to us most: drinking, taking the piss and our special brand of gruff, masculinised ockerism. And the Curtin is a unique pub as well, because of its importance to the union movement. For the unions, to surrender the Curtin would be to surrender the whole idea of the Australian working-class man. The kind of man that loves a pint after a long day’s work at the construction site, the mine, the factory, or whatever site of physical toil he has committed himself to. Except this idea has already been dead a long time and its history is far more troubled than such an idyllic conception might make it seem.
It’s worth mourning the Curtin if and when it goes. Its historical and cultural importance is undeniable and I think it does merit the green ban. Yet, the decision to announce a green ban on a pub of all places certainly appears indicative of some broader conceptual issues within the Australian union movement. If we are to revive the green ban, then we must revive with it the guiding philosophy of the ‘social responsibility of labour’. Let’s not stop at pubs. Let’s build cities that work for all people: workers, students, artists, Aboriginal communities, the homeless, renters, families, the disabled. Labour does have a social responsibility and it’s time to use it.