Jack Mundey's legacy: union leader and environmental activist

12 May 2020
Union leader Jack Mundey AO passed away this week at the age of 90. Sydney academics reflect on his legacy and impact on urban environmentalism, the trade union movement and Australian society.

As a key figure who shaped Sydney’s history and prevented the redevelopment of historical areas such as The Rocks and Woolloomooloo, Jack Mundey was influential in urban conservation.

Above: Two Wall Mural of Jack Mundey on steps to upper street level in The Rocks, Sydney.

Credit: Jay Galvin via Flickr Commons (CC-BY-2.0)

“Jack Mundey was one of the most important and charismatic leaders of the green ban movement – a highly innovative and impactful urban social movement, which brought together building workers, residents and urban professionals to stand up for low-income housing, heritage and green space in the face of over-zealous development,” said Associate Professor of Urban Geography Kurt Iveson.

He had a fierce commitment to democracy that brought his union into coalition with very different groups across society.
Dr Frances Flanagan, Discipline of Work & Organisational Studies

In 1962, Mr Mundey was elected as a full-time organiser for the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) and became a household name in the 1970s for his work with the union movement.

“In the world of heritage conservation Jack Mundey is rightly a sainted figure,” said Dr Cameron Logan, an urban and architectural historian in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning.

“But Mundey’s real legacy was not to save the Rocks, or Victoria Street, it was to challenge fundamentally the status quo in land use planning and environmental activism.”

How Mundey pioneered ‘everyday democracy’

“Equally as important, the green bans pioneered a form of urban citizenship involving direct action through unions and resident action groups that expanded our concept of politics – at the time, Jack Mundey used to refer to this as ‘everyday democracy’,” reflects Associate Professor Kurt Iveson, who has undertaken archival research on the green ban movement.

Interview with Jack Mundey published by Honi Soit in 1984, Issue 22 via the University Library's Digital Collections

Having moved to New South Wales from Queensland in 1951 to become a metalworker and builder’s labourer, Mr Mundey joined the Communist Party of Australia in the mid-1950s.

“Jack Mundey was a political visionary who wove together the crucial principles that we must urgently grapple with today: the need for work that is socially useful, responsible and meaningful,” said Dr Frances Flanagan from the Business School’s Discipline of Work & Organisational Studies.

“He had a fierce commitment to democracy that brought his union into coalition with very different groups across society in the common pursuit of social changes necessary to ensure a flourishing life for all.”

Labour historian from the Discipline, Honorary Professor Ray Markey, echoed similar sentiments: “While Mundey led the BLF, the union became one of the most democratic at the time.”

Mundey’s impact broadening industrial relations concerns

"Jack Mundey led the BLF in broadening concerns beyond industrial conditions to embrace a range of social issues, including the environment, Aboriginal land rights, women’s rights and the Vietnam war,” said Professor Markey.

“Broader social concerns also meant that the BLF linked with other social groups, including local environmentalists and residents who always initiated action leading to BLF green bans, as well as students.

“In 1972 after the release of draft dodger Michael Matteson from Commonwealth police custody by students on the University of Sydney campus, the University was declared a draft evaders' sanctuary by students who were joined by BLF members in night time foot patrols on the campus perimeters."

In 2000, Jack Mundey was made an Officer in the Order of Australia “for service to the identification and preservation of significant sections of Australia's natural and urban heritage through initiating ‘Green Bans’ and through the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales”.

The degree of Master of Environment was specially created by the University of Sydney in recognition of Mr Mundey’s extensive influence in this field and his encouragement of other people in their work for a better world. The degree of Master of Environment (honoris causa) was conferred upon Mr Jack Mundey AO in 2001.

Today, the University offers a range of postgraduate courses in environmental studies including in environmental science and sustainability.

Sally Quinn

Media and PR Adviser (Creative Arts)

Katie Booth

Media & PR Adviser (Acting, Business)

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