Thursday, June 13, 2013

The green bans, the people, and the right to the city - for Frank Stilwell

A while ago, I mentioned that I had been conducting archival research on the green ban movement -- an extraordinary alliance of building workers and resident action groups that imposed bans on various forms of development that threatened low-income housing and urban environmental amenity in Sydney during the 1970s.

I've now presented an initial paper based on that research in a few places - at an annual meeting of the Institute of Australian Geographers, at a seminar at UCLA, and recently at a conference in honour of Frank Stilwell, a Professor of Political Economy at the University of Sydney who has recently retired (not that retirement seems to be slowing him down!).

There's a longer version of this work in preparation for publication, but in the mean time, I thought I would post this most recent presentation that I gave at the Australian Political Economy conference in Frank's honour. 

A few caveats. It's the script of a talk, so there are few explicit references to other work on the green bans and urban politics that I've used to develop these ideas. Apologies to those folks, of course the references will be in the longer publication!

Also, I've left in a little story I told about Frank -- it's nice to be able to post something about him here, as well as saying something at the conference, because he has been such an inspiration to me and countless others.

If anyone reads this, feedback would be very gratefully received!

The green bans, the people, and the right to the city

Prelude: a little story about Frank, me, and the green bans

Until my last year of school, I wanted to be an engineer. And then one Saturday afternoon, my dad sat me down to watch Rocking the Foundations, a documentary about the NSW BLF and the green ban movement that I’m about to talk about.

It knocked me right off course. I still wanted to go to Uni, but where could I go to learn more about that kind of stuff?

My dad, who’s a fitter and turner, knew of one good bloke who had been to Uni and was teaching at TAFE. That was Billy Waters, the son of an ironworker friend of his. So we organized to meet Billy and get some advice.

It turns out Billy had been one of the tutors here at the University of Sydney during the Political Economy disputes in the 1970s. And he sent me straight to Political Economy with Frank and his colleagues.

A couple of years later, I was lucky enough to take Frank’s awesome class on the Political Economy of Cities and Regions. During the course, Frank took us on a memorable walk through Glebe and talked about the green bans, before buying us all a beer. One of the essay options was to write about the bans.

This movement meant a lot to me, so I sweated on that essay like nothing I’d worked on at uni to that point. On time, I handed in a pretty pessimistic account of the movement, drawing a little too much on some variant of Marxian urbanism that wasn’t so enamoured of cross-class alliances. I got home and realized I’d got it all wrong.

So, I stayed up all night, and completely re-wrote the essay.

The next day, I rocked up to Frank’s office, a little fragile, and asked if I could submit a different essay, because I’d changed my mind since I handed in the last one.

To many lecturers around the place, that would have been an unacceptable request.

Frank, on the other hand, just replied “well … yeah, sure Kurt”, and invited me into his office to chat about why I’d changed my mind.

Frank rocks.

So, here we are, only a mere couple of years since that episode (!!), and I’m now working here as an urban geographer.

Having left the green bans alone since that essay, I’m now back researching them, sneaking down to do archival work in Canberra.

It’s part of a wider project of which I hope Frank might approve – a search for a deeper understanding of how we can build the alliances and political subjects that will act collectively to pursue cities that are just and sustainable, to democratize and politicize the urban economies of capitalist cities.

I’m currently engaged in a nascent alliance-building effort in Sydney called the Sydney Alliance, a coalition of over 50 unions, community organizations and faith-based groups of which the National Tertiary Education Union is a part.

And given that the green bans are a touchstone for effective alliance building for justice in Sydney, I figured it was time to revisit them.

Of course, as John King pointed out in his talk yesterday, times have changed since the 1970s!

But I agree with Jacques Rancière that those of us interested in equality and democracy must not restrict ourselves to structural analysis of the conditions of its possibility in our own time and place. Part of escaping our current circumstances is to seek out those enactments of equality and democracy that have occurred in other times and places, and to take seriously the words and actions of their protagonists.

So today, I want to talk a bit about what I’ve found out in the archives that might help us answer that question about alliance-building for a fairer city.

The Green Bans as a Declaration of Rights to the City

By 1973, the green bans in Sydney were in full swing. Thousands of millions of dollars worth of proposed developments were being held up by work bans placed and enforced by unruly coalitions of resident action groups, builders labourers from the NSW Branch of the Builders Labourers’ Federation, crane drivers from the NSW Branch of the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen’s Association, and other progressives who were rallying to the cause. The colour of these bans had changed from black to green. And of course these bans were highly contentious and vigorously contested.

Map of Sydney green bans and proposed expressways in the Little Book of Green Bans: "Keep Sydney Green. People Before Profits. Support the BLF."

Critics of the green bans commonly-expressed the notion that the views of the people were best expressed through their democratically-elected Parliamentary and Council representatives. “Of course, people are entitled to have their voices heard,” cried the editor of the Sun-Herald (5 August 1973), “That is why they elect Governments. They are not entitled to stop approved building programs by direct action.” An editorial that appeared a day later in the Sydney Morning Herald opined that the green bans, by contrast to Parliamentary democracy, involved “the authoritarian imposition of the decisions of one group or one point of view” (6 August 1973). The editor of the Coffs Harbour Advocate articulated the issue even more clearly:
Sometimes [the BLF] may be quite right in their objectives, but quite often they are not. But right or wrong, there is one basic question they cannot answer. And that question is: ‘Who gave them the right?’
So, who or what gave them the right? Of course, no-one gave them the right – and indeed, they never requested it. The right to place bans on development, and the right to develop and promote alternative plans – these were rights to the city that were asserted, declared, rather than requested or given.

This declaration and assertion of non-existent rights was at the very core of the green bans. It was what had editors of the major metropolitan and national newspapers at the time accusing the green ban activists of “frustrating our democratic decision-making processes” (SMH 6 Aug 1973) with the imposition of “street-corner rule gone made”. It was what had the Master Builders Association taking out full-page advertisements in those same newspapers, arguing that the principles of “democracy and freedom of choice” were “under attack by the Builders Labourers Federation and the Lofty Crane Drivers group”. It was what had State Politicians introducing motions into Parliament condemning the green bans and the BLF in particular, on the grounds that they were “undermin[ing] our democratic processes and the proper functions of political parties and their parliamentary representatives” by “impos[ing] its will on the community rather than let[ting] people responsible do as they had planned.” It was what had many of their fellow unionists attacking them for “concentrat[ing] more on social issues than on the wages and conditions of their members” (as a leaflet authored by Norm Gallagher, Secretary of the Federal Branch of the BLF, put it).

Full page advertisement by Master Builders Association, The Australian, 9 May 1973

This remarkable declaration of rights to the city is worth revisiting. The green bans remain important because they staged a kind of disagreement that was not only about the nature of individual developments – it was also about the nature of authority and democracy in the city.

In fact, the green bans involved a declaration of the rights of ‘the people’ that was not about the inclusion of ‘residents’ or ‘workers’ or ‘experts’ as ‘stakeholders’ in the development process. Rather, this declaration was about the very nature of the city as a political community and a site of economic activity.

Let me now talk a bit about how this figure of ‘the people’ was constituted as a political subject whose interests could be defined as the real purpose of urban development … as interests that should be prioritized over the profitability of developers, whose interests are so often defined as representing the interests of the city as a whole.

The Green Bans and ‘The People’

In building the green bans, the figure of ‘the People’ … note the ‘the’ … served a crucial role. The needs of ‘the People’ served as the collective interest that was being served by the green bans beyond the sectional or particular interests of the different participants.

By their very nature as alliance-based actions, the green bans needed this kind of unifying identification. Resident action groups could only secure the support of the unions if they could make a case about why a proposed development in their neighbourhood mattered for the city as a whole. The unions could only justify their actions if they had the support and legitimacy conferred by the resident action groups. And both residents and unions needed the assistance of sympathetic experts and professionals in fields like architecture, law and planning in order to advance alternatives to the developments on which bans had been placed.

Cover of fold-out poster produced in support of green bans, 1973

In my analysis of the archival material collected so far, I’ve identified five key concepts which were advanced by green ban activists which sought to articulate a different understanding of democracy and urban politics by opening up a role for ‘the People’ in the governance of the city. These concepts, importantly, were concretely linked to various kinds of political action – a point to which I’ll return a bit later.

Let me take you through these now, illustrating them with reference to some specific bits and pieces I’ve come across.

1. “Everyday Democracy”

In 1972, Jack Mundey (secretary of the NSW Branch of the BLF and key advocate of green bans) was charged with contempt of court, after he suggested that the decision of a judge not to convict his comrade Bob Pringle (president of the NSW BLF) had been influenced by the presence of hundreds of protesters outside the court.

For that hearing, Mundey prepared a statement to the court, part of which read:

My conception of democracy isn’t merely casting a ballot paper in a box every few years, but is where people engage in every day democracy on any and all issues affecting them. People’s action outside parliament and other institutions of the State have been a feature of Australian society for many years, and have increased in recent times.
A classic example was the result of the actions of tens of thousands of people throughout Australia which influenced both institutions – the Cricket Board of Control and the Federal Government – to cancel the proposed South African cricket tour of Australia.
The huge moratoriums against the Vietnam War have greatly influenced governments and forced them to change policies.
The black embassy activity on the lawns of Parliament House, Canberra has vitally affected the black struggle for equality in Australia.
Industrial action by workers is usually taken outside the law and its institutions, another illustration of the persistent striving for grass roots democracy. This is how the people try to influence and change the decisions of those institutions and individuals who make and administer the laws, which are almost always framed and interpreted within the concepts of the dominant class in Australian capitalist society.

For Mundey, then, the democratic rights and practices of ‘the people’ were not to be restricted to voting for Parliamentarians, but to taking action on an everyday basis.

2. “Worker control”

Janne Read was a female builders labourer, who was ‘worked in’ to various jobs by her union colleagues in the BLF. Here, she describes how this worked on one particular building site, where workers had just been on strike for 6 weeks, so an alternative had to be found to going on strike to getting her a start:
“…the workers at first freaked out about it, that I should go and work on the job illegally and that the workers will pay me out of their wages. They considered that employers would in fact leave me there for nothing, they were getting a worker for nothing. And we argued no they won’t do that because you’re taking away their power, that’s one of their fundamental powers in this society. And so the incredible political debate that carried on in that job over me working in was the huge value of it -- plus I got the job. The employers did call the police to have me removed but in the end gave in and gave me the job. That is the real strength of the workers control movement, is the political debate and the understanding that you get that your life could be really different and that you do have some sort of power.”
So, for Read, worker control:
“challenges those people that believe that they have the god given right to rule your life and it also gives you the confidence in taking workers control actions, to start making decisions in your own life. It’s sowing the seeds for a new society, it gives you a chance to glimpse what a society could be like. It shows us that a different society could exist if we struggle for it.”

3. “Direct Action”

In 1972, would-be developer Frank Theeman bought up a bunch of houses on Victoria St in Kings Cross, and in April 1973 evicted most of the residents. A green ban was placed on the development, but empty houses were vandalized, so a so-called Action Group was formed, and squatting commenced. Mick Fowler, one of the evicted residents, decided to move back in, and described his experience this way:
“The main thing was I got into the Action Group. … We had a few meetings with the Action Group, and the Unions about me getting back into my room. It was decided that I would take occupancy again even though I had no furniture. So I’ll never forget that sunny day armed with a pair of pliers and a couple of the Action Group standing by to keep an eye on me as I walked up to the gate and cut the wires – I had to go through the garden gate up the garden path and turned into my room. I forced the French doors, they didn’t take much forcing because they were already vanalised. Then I got into the room. It was bare and vandalized – but I knew it was the beginning of getting back, and I was going to restore it back to what it should have been. I realized that it was the struggle of grassroots people – residents, unioinists, the people in the whole of the ‘green ban’ movement. It was sad to look at the room the way it was but I realized that there was still hope.”
Another fantastic article by Ian Milliss and Teresa Brennan describes the squat in more detail – the parties, the barricades, the phone trees, the patrols, the arrests.

4. “People’s Plans”

Typically, green bans were not only bans against a proposed development, they were enacted in favour of an alternative plan for the area, which was usually described as a ‘People’s Plan’.

Nita McRae, a key player in the Rocks Resident Action Group, talks here about the formation of an alternative plan for The Rocks while the green ban was in place:
“The ‘Peoples Plan’ was drawn up as an alternative to the SCRA plan in 1972 when architects, town planners and sociologists came to the assistance of the Rocks RAG. With residents they helped to prepare the ‘Peoples Plan’ for the Rocks. This simply called for resident rehousing in the area, retention of historical buildings (which has partly been achieved), infill development on vacant sites and public participation in the planning, and less emphasis on planning for profit with Australia’s heritage.
[And of course, Col James – a radical architect/planner who worked here in Architecture and who recently passed away – played a vital role in supporting communities in Woolloomooloo and elsewhere to develop their People’s Plans.]

5. “People Before Profits”

People’s plans were not just about locals having a say. They were also about planning for ‘the people’, which meant more than participation: it also meant planning that served the needs of the people ahead of developers’ profits, in providing needed public facilities, affordable housing, etc.

While I don’t have time to go into details here, the BLF were pushing hard for reforms to the construction industry through the formation of a national building company, and were in dialogue with the Whitlam Commonwealth about this for a period. The purpose of such a company would have been to organize building of socially-necessary infrastructure, and to offer secure and safe employment to building workers rather than being forced to move from one short-term job to the next. It never came to pass.

Identification, Action, and the City

So, what should we make of all this, and what relevance does it have for our situation today?

While I’m actually very sympathetic to some of the specific agendas that coalesced in the green ban movement (a bit more worker control around here would not go astray!!!! and “working in” some of our more precarious colleagues would be a fantastic idea), there are three more general lessons I want to draw out of these excursions into the archives.

First, the green bans clearly involved a remarkable mutual identification across significant differences in class, gender, sexuality, location, ethnicity and more. The figure of ‘the people’ served a crucial role here, as a universal that could help bind those particulars together in solidarity (not necessarily commonality, though).

Now, this coming together of a diverse group of people as ‘the People’ is a remarkable act of political subjectivisation precisely because none of these alliances were pre-given – they were based not on some essential unity guaranteed by the structure of society or the city, but on hard hard work. The political construction of ‘the People’ by green ban participants was of course a fraught, consuming, risky, and costly process as well as an exciting and powerful one.

Advertisement taken out by supporters of the green bans, November 1974

But as you would expect, these alliances were also difficult to maintain – not only because of the forces they were up against, but also because of the fact that they did not express some unity which was pre-given or guaranteed to work. I got a particular kick out of finding an anonymous leaflet called “Why it might be wise for workers not to trust middle class radicals”. Among the reasons a fictional middle-class radical gives for not being able to help out at a picket:
“I can’t come. I’ll be teaching next week at the university and I’m course convenor. … or, another similar one … Of course I support them but I’ve got to prepare notes on Marx for my lectures next week.” !!!!]

My second point about the green bans concerns the significance of space and the urban. While I would never want to suggest that the urban ought to be privileged as a site of struggle or organization, the fact that the green bans were in and about the urban played a big role in enabling the kinds of mutual identification, political subjectivity and solidarity I’ve just discussed. This is a point that has been made in different ways by the likes of Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, Doreen Massey, Ed Soja and others. In his recent book, Soja goes so far as to say that a shared commitment to ‘rights to the city’ or ‘spatial justice’ can act as a ‘glue that binds’ particularities into unities, especially the fraught divide between home and work that has been a thorny one for progressive politics.

But while I’m a geographer myself, I don’t think it’s all about space, which leads me to my third point about the green bans – that this solidarity and mutual identification was also forged in action. ‘Everyday democracy’ had meaning because of the actions people took to gather themselves together in town halls, union halls, pubs and streets as a public that could make decisions for themselves. Worker control had meaning because of the actions people took going on strike and working in BLs who were women or from ethnic minorities. Direct action had meaning because of the actions people took in occupying abandoned buildings and sabotaging building equipment. People’s Plans had meaning because of the work of residents and sympathetic professionals discussing concrete proposals for construction. We could no doubt expand on this inventory of actions.

In taking these actions, participants in the green bans enacted a radical disruption of the separate roles they were supposed to play in the city as a political community. Residents were meant to vote, workers were meant to perform work as instructed by their employers, students were meant to study, private property owners were meant to have control over their property, within limits that were meant to be set by elected representatives.  But the green ban movement involved all sorts of radical displacements of these roles.

Importantly, it’s not as though any one of these three features of the green bans – mutual identification, a shared commitment to the urban, or action – preceded the others. Rather, I think here we see a set of mutually reinforcing relationships that’s quite remarkable.

As we know, while there have been occasional green bans since the 1970s, the movement that coalesced around the NSW BLF came to an end a few short years after it began. The bans were fiercely opposed by politicians, the mainstream press, developers, and sections of the labour movement (including the Federal Branch of the BLF itself). The NSW Branch of the BLF was eventually deregistered, which meant that when its leaders were expelled by the Federal Branch who installed their own candidates, they had no legal redress. And without the union capacity to take industrial action, the mutually reinforcing relationship between identification and action came undone – green bans became impossible to effectively enforce in their previous form.

Newspaper advertisement taken out by expelled leaders of NSW BLF

Coda: Back to the Present…

And that drags me back into the present, and the efforts of urban-based alliances like the Sydney Alliance. It strikes me that a lot of what we’ve been doing in the early stages of alliance-building is working our way through some of these same issues concerning mutual identification, action, and the city. I don’t want to get into a second paper about how that’s going! But I do think that we are struggling precisely to find forms of action to build on the remarkable process of relationship-building that has been taking place slowly over the last few years, involving thousands of members of partner organizations. The Alliance inherits a repertoire of actions from the wider Industrial Areas Foundation of which it is a part, but our experiments with adapting and transforming this repertoire have not yet produced the disruptive and effective power that the green ban activists were able to mobilize. 

But, as Frank has always done in his lectures, presentations and writings, I’ll finish on an optimistic note, in saying that I believe the Alliance is worth investing in right now, precisely because it does provide a structure through which we might develop and declare a vision of a just Sydney that is for ‘the people’, not just for profit.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article, Kurt. I particularly liked the prelude and your description of your introduction to and passion for the Green Bans topic. On a personal note I drew a parallel with the fact that you were in fact the person to introduce me to the Green Bans two years ago. Maybe it's because I grew up in the country, or my family didn't have an interest etc but either way I didn't know anything about the Green Bans previously. I read something recently about the redevelopment of Barangaroo in Sydney and I thought of the Green Bans and perhaps what Sydney should have learnt from that time in regards to current developments like this. If it weren't for working with you I wouldn't have had those thoughts. I'm finding I hear about them more and more and it's clear from your writing how important they were, and indeed still are. It sounds like a lot of work to go through the archival research! So I wish you all the best, and I look forward to chatting about it some more soon and reading the published paper!