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Mundey and Gallagher, two lives in working class struggle

Written by: Lindy Nolan on 16 May 2020


Jack Mundey, former NSW Builders Labourers Federation leader and Sydney Green Bans’ champion who died on May 10, won huge praise in capitalist and progressive media.

As former Labor MP Meredith Burgmann stated in the Sydney Morning Herald, through 54 green bans, “It is not exaggerating to say that the NSW BLF is responsible for the shape of Sydney as we now know it."

Her weighty list includes what were once working class areas: The Rocks and Woolloomooloo saved from high rise; Glebe and Ultimo from expressways; Centennial Park from a sporting complex; Victoria Street, Kings Cross; parts of Surry Hills plus the State Theatre, the Pitt Street Congregational Church, the Colonial Mutual, National Mutual and ANZ bank buildings as his and his union’s legacy.  

The alliance of environmental groups and workers led by Mundey was powerful and important. But it is not the whole story. 

In a eulogy to Mundey, one speaker attacked “Australian Maoists” for the Federal intervention into the NSW BLF led by BLF General Secretary Norm Gallagher in the mid-70s. Ms Burgmann refrained from attack, though she has been vocal in the past.

An article by James Lesh in The Conversation went much further. 

Lesh, who “received funding from the Australian Government Research Training Program”, basically credits “Mundey and his fellow unionists Joe Owens and Bob Pringle” with battles which took place around Australia, including in Melbourne. 

He states the Kelly’s Bush battle in Sydney in 1971 was the first green ban. Certainly, it was the first using that name. But Norm Gallagher was jailed in late 1970 for assisting Carlton residents in a victorious black ban that turned commercial land into a public park. 

He led the Victorian BLF and resident action groups to save “the City Baths, Mac’s Hotel, Victoria Market, Gothic Bank, Regent Theatre, Windsor Hotel, Princess Theatre, Collins Street and the Rialto precinct, and Tasma Terrace”, all of which Lesh appears to credit to the then NSW BLF and Jack Mundey. Lesh does credit Gallagher with stopping the Victorian Housing Commission’s high-rise housing program. But the Victorian BLF won its first successful environmental black ban in the 1940s. It also saved the site of the Eureka Stockade from development. 

Lesh calls Norm Gallagher a “Corrupt Melbourne unionist” who “notoriously clashed” with Mundey.

The intervention into the NSW BLF

A number of issues led a large group of high-profile NSW builders labourers (BLs) who had worked closely with Mundey to break with him. The most prominent were Johnny McNamara and Joe Ferguson. Mundey had been best man at McNamara’s wedding.

While many BLs supported Mundey, Joe Owens and Bob Pringle, many others thought Mundey was too close to residents and not close enough to them. The sheer numbers of bans were cutting people out of work, especially as the 1974 recession hit the construction industry.  

National BLF campaigns were not implemented by the NSW branch. More importantly, Mundey proposed allowing residents to vote on bans. 

Prominent members siding with national policies and opposing Mundey, like McNamara and Ferguson, were blacklisted. On top of this, the BLF was deregistered nationally in 1974, pushed by the Master Builders Association largely in retaliation to “excessive” industrial action by the NSW BLF, including worker control of job sites, as well as green bans, all of them laudable! 

But the Federal branch leadership understood that prolonged deregistration meant the risk of losing coverage of builders’ labourers to other construction unions, the AWU and BWIU, particularly in NSW where the branch didn’t have a state award to protect builders labourers’ classifications. A tactical retreat was chosen. Gallagher pointed out that the NSW leadership failed to appreciate the BLF was “only a small union and could not fight for the whole of the working class in Australia.” (Sadly, Gallagher failed to take his own advice when bosses were gunning for the BLF in the 1980s.)  

The NSW branch maintained its line, pushing on alone. A takeover of the NSW Branch was supported by all other states. By this stage, Joe Owens, who ignored offers to talk, was BLF leader, not Mundey, who may have taken a different stand, despite fiercely opposing the intervention. 

Unions belong to their members

Numerous articles, speeches and books have alleged Norm Gallagher used thugs to enforce a takeover of the NSW branch in 1975. 

We are talking builders labourers here, workers in one of the toughest, most dangerous and historically most violent industries in Australia. The source of most of that violence was the clique of developers who variously sought to bribe, intimidate and physically coerce construction workers and their leaders. The BLF in NSW, and elsewhere, was for many years run by gangsters who worked with employers against their members. Communist members of the union fought to rid the BLF of these thugs. On both sides of what later became a split in Communist ranks, were men who’d wrested control of the union from those violent gangsters in the 1950s.

Violence and threats occurred after a split in the ranks of Communists in the building industry, but it was not one-sided. Joe Ferguson’s home was a boat he’d built at the quiet southern suburb of Como, when it was bombed and badly damaged. He ended his days living in public housing in Malabar. 

An organiser for another union was shot in the stomach at a Sydney pub, mistaken for a BLF organiser. He died of his wounds after terrible suffering, but too long afterwards for his attacker, who had been drinking with Mundey supporters immediately before the shooting, to be charged with murder. 

Mundey himself tracked this writer’s then partner, a former BLF media official, to the back alley exit of his office, and threatened to have him killed for acting as returning officer in a union election.

Despite this, when one of Mundey’s most prominent officials turned up at Johnny McNamara’s site looking for work, McNamara did not apply the same treatment he’d received. He was given a job. McNamara, always a rank and file worker, was BLF President at the time.

Joe Owens and Bob Pringle worked in the industry for years after the intervention after a period when they and others were denied BLF membership.

There were some in the new NSW BLF who were not as accommodating as McNamara. When Joe Owens rejoined the union he was sacked from a job at the old Moore Park Showgrounds. An organiser ensured he was reinstated. Union secretary Steve Black demanded to know why the organiser supported Owens, who was generally well regarded by workers and organisers alike. "Because he's a member," the organiser replied. Owens kept his job.

Underlying all this was a bitter split in the communist movement. Mundey was a member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). Ferguson and McNamara were members of the Communist Party of Australia Marxist-Leninist (CPA (M-L)).

By the 1970s, the CPA focussed on what would now be called “identity politics” and issues like the environment. (This isn’t to suggest that issues like gay liberation, which Mundey vocally supported, were unimportant, especially when being gay carried risk of gaol or murder.) The CPA was “mass party”, aligning itself with New Left ideologies and with Eurocommunist parties that focussed on parliament as a way to socialism, though there was struggle within it for a deeper analysis. It attacked the CPA (M-L) as “Maoist”. The CPA dissolved itself in 1991, against the wishes of many of its members. Mundey, by then an environmental socialist, soon helped found the NSW Greens.

The CPA (M-L) used Marx’s term, “revisionist”, to attack the CPA. Our party’s name tells our allegiances. While every person makes mistakes, the ruling class inflates those of communists to a fabricated frenzy, equating leaders like Mao with fascists like Hitler. While some use the term “Maoist” as an insult, we hold Mao as a great leader, equal in stature to Marx and Lenin. His methods in leading the Chinese people to socialism, in the face of Japanese invasion, civil war and foreign intervention, taught our party that a communist party worthy of the name needs to do more than gain leadership of trade unions and celebrate the achievements of foreign socialist countries. We have to apply detailed Marxist-Leninist analysis to Australia in its myriad of practical struggles, in order to serve the people effectively. We seek to build a Leninist vanguard party, with the indissoluble links to the masses described by Mao as being “fish in a sea of people”. 

There is no doubt this all played out in the bitter dispute leading to, during and after the national intervention. 

But the lessons are clear. While communists seek to lead the workers and help them sum up lessons they learn in struggle, unions must belong to their members. 

At their worst unions have been political play things of the Labor Party. But mistaken views of unions as revolutionary vehicles rather than as part of the capitalist system, tolerated only while it suits capitalism, have done enormous damage on all sides. 

Corruption double standards

Now, let’s look at corruption allegations. Norm Gallagher lived in a flat above the union office. With his own and friends’ labour, he built his only home and one for his son, on what was then a very cheap block of land. He made a huge error in accepting loads of bricks and sand and loans of equipment from construction companies. This was normal practice throughout the building industry, but it left him vulnerable to allegations of taking bribes to build a “beach house”. Low angle camera shots on countless front pages converted a relatively modest home into a mansion.  

The attacks were unrelenting. In 1981 Liberal Prime Minister Fraser instituted a Royal Commission against the BLF (one of a dizzying number against construction unions over the years). The Hawke Labor Government deregistered the union in 1986. 

Compare this with the inaction over corruption costing people billions by banks. Unlike bank CEOs, none of whom have been charged, Gallagher was sentenced to prison for eighteen months, though he served less.

Never was evidence provided of Gallagher selling out his members in return. He retained their support. They knew the union was militant and hated by the ruling class. 

Again, and again he led them to corporate headquarters demanding multinational insurance companies pay up, or stopped concrete pours to ensure workers’ wages, conditions and safety were guarded. He was gaoled numerous times for failing to bend his knee to the bosses, once gaoled for crediting his members’ struggle for his release.

Jack Mundey leaves a very strong legacy. He turned his back on communism, but not on struggle. He continued to fight for working class housing all his life. Like all of us, he was a human being affected by the capitalist system in which he lived.  

Likewise, Norm Gallagher had his faults. His time in gaol, ill health, a waning revolutionary movement, his reputation trashed by an avalanche of ruling class lies, and finally isolation from the workers he had served all his adult life, saw him hit out at Marxist-Leninist leaders like John Cummins. Our party should not have interfered in internal union business to back Gallagher. It is testament to Cummo’s generosity of spirit, and his deep commitment to communism and the revolutionary working class, that he overcame this to remain one of our standout leaders.

Once a Vice Chairperson of the CPA (M-L), Gallagher left the party not long before he died. Yet he never rejected his adherence to communism. He leaves a lifetime of struggle that will long be remembered by the people, and hated by the ruling class.

Correction: this article originally omitted the fact, that Joe Owens and Bob Pringle and others were denied membership of the NSW BLF for some years after deregistration. It also wrongly intimated that Joe Ferguson ended his days in public housing because his boat was destroyed during the violence of the intervention. It as badly damaged, but he was able to rebuild it. The author would like to apologise for these errors.


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