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  • The Green Bans Movement:Workers’ Power and Ecological Radicalism in Australia in the 1970s
  • Verity Burgmann

The power of labor to confront those who would damage and pollute the environment is commonly discounted in academic discussions of ecological problems. This tendency reveals the influence of new social movement theory, dominant in the late 1970s and 1980s, which typically denigrated the labor movement for becoming institutionalized and incapable of opposition, and sharing with big business a commitment to growth.1 In the 1990s such assumptions and prejudices persisted. For example, Ulrich Beck ignores the role of unions when dealing with the question of how to confront ecological irresponsibility. He writes about the importance of a strong, competent public debate, "armed with scientific arguments," the need for "dissenting voices, alternative experts" and alternatives to be developed systematically, so there would be "'discursive checking' of scientific laboratory results in the crossfire of opinions." He says hazards become public and scandalous through "the needling activities of the social movements." Yet public outrage in the instance he discusses—a lead crystal factory dropping flecks of lead and arsenic on nearby Altenstadt—achieved nothing.2

If you lived in Altenstadt, would you rather rely on the workers employed in the offending factory refusing to continue working there until the polluting emissions ceased or on "discursive checking"? In Australia in the early 1970s, and particularly in Sydney, people concerned about the impact of environmentally damaging development had despaired of "public debate" and had found that "dissenting voices" and "alternative experts" were [End Page 63] simply ignored—until an extraordinary group of manual workers entered the scene. "Green bans" and "builders labourers" became household terms for millions of Australians during the 1970s, because a remarkable form of environmental activism known as the green bans movement was initiated by the workers known as builders labourers (or BLs), employed to construct the office block skyscrapers, shopping precincts, and luxury apartments that were rapidly encroaching upon green spaces or replacing older-style commercial and residential buildings. This movement, in which workers on a large scale refused to work on ecologically unsound projects, was the first of its type in the world.

The green bans movement was a grand coalition across the class divide that all too frequently sees environmentalists and workers at loggerheads, despite the absence of any inherent antagonism and, in fact, an overriding mutuality between environmentalist imperatives and labor. There would be no jobs at all on a dead planet.3 In 2000, Fred Rose's path-breaking study of lessons from the labor, peace, and environmental movements in the United States examined the "politics of division that confronts the public with tragic choices between protecting economic well-being and preserving the environment." He notes Barbara Ehrenreich's comment that the vision of a working-class and middle-class alliance in opposition to corporate power is "almost the defining dream of the American left."4 By the same token, powerful interests are served by pitting citizens and their legitimate issues against each other. "Dividing movements and social groups is a well-established strategy for undermining opposition and distracting public attention from issues of power and common interests."5 Rose's book provides some inspiring instances of practical coalitions from the late 1980s between workers and middle-class peace and environmental organizations. Yet the green bans movement in the early 1970s in Australia—because it used the ultimate deterrent of withdrawal of labor—provides the first and best example of a truly effective and powerful cross-class coalition that directly prevented environmental damage and focused public attention on issues of power and common interests. When Paul Ehrlich visited Australia during the green bans period, he considered the phenomenon of workers uniting with resident action groups and conservationists in direct action to protect the environment "the most exciting ecological happening, not only in Australia, but overseas as well."6 [End Page 64]

The World's First Green Bans

The international Dictionary of the Environment entry on "green bans" comments they were "very effective in Australia, where they were first attempted."7 Those who carried out this bold action were the trade unionists organized in the...


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