Jack Mundey: transforming the BLF

An exhibition based on the Jack Mundey Archive held at Sydney Trades Hall

Image by Chips Mackinolty: Mick Fowler’s words from the song “Green Bans Forever” to the tune of Waltzing Matilda!

Thanks especially to Jack Mundey, Judy Mundey, Paul True, Meredith Burgmann, Jo Holder, Chips Mackinolty, Emma Vaughan, Inkwell Design and Print, Pat Fiske

Online interviews

Australian Biography interview with Jack by Robin Hughes

Interview with Siobhan McHugh

Political Seeds

John Bernard “Jack” Mundey was born 17th October 1929 on the Atherton Tablelands in Far North Queensland. Due to the premature death of his mother, Jack spent a great deal of time with his father, whom he credits with shaping his political views.

“…so you could say that I only had a primary school education. But I guess I’d say that through my socialist beliefs I have a lot of self-education

I’ve read widely, and so I’d have to put myself down in old age as a fairly successful self-educated person

Jack moved to Sydney initially to play Rugby League for Parramatta. He didn’t crack the big time but in 1955 he was captain coach for the Riverstone Butchers, who won the premiership in spectacular fashion after training 14-0 midway through the second half.

Rugby League Week had the story in a profile of the club in their 16 July 1977 issue

Building Boom

scaffold collapse
Gresham St construction 1960s (Courtesy M Burgmann collection)

becoming a builder’s labourer:

“The conditions were appalling, The workers were not respected in any sense of the word. Buildings were going higher, more dangerous work practices were being introduced because of the height of the buildings and one year there were 14 dog men who used to ride the load in those days, were killed. One of the reasons conditions were so poor was that the builders’ labourers’ union was led by a group of people who were in collusion with the builders. Worked hand in glove with them, and opposed any sort of militant action and in fact people like myself were hounded off jobs.”

BLF meeting, Trades Hall 1966

Jack: That union then changed and myself and others in the rank and file committee overthrew the union leadership, got control of the union and when the boom came on we were able to organise the workers, give them dignity and confidence, lift up their wages and conditions and we won the respect of the workers. Such things as putting the officials of the unions on the same wage as the workers on the job after greatly increasing their wages. We brought about the struggle where women won the right to work in the industry, which was unprecedented in the building industry. We fought for the rights of migrant workers because at that stage something like seventy to eighty per cent of the members of the Builders’ Labourers’ were migrants and we had Greek and Italian migrants. We had seven different languages at our mass meetings.

“So the union changed dramatically, and so we were in a position, when other things arose we could come into things”

And a group of you formed a rank and file committee to do something about it. How did you get on?

“the slogan we worked under was we had to civilise the industry and bring a bit of decency to the rights of the workers, and they were the ingredients that led to hostility with the union leadership.

And at the time, we realised that if we were going to have longer standing success, well, it would mean that we would have to have a level of activity and control within the union movement itself, and that’s what we worked to do.”

Lance Shelton dogman. Photo Valentin Sowada 1965
Bob Pringle (speaking, Jack sitting. BLF meeting Trades hall 1969 (photo Tribune Archive sl.nsw.gov.au)

DEVELOPING THE RANK AND FILE MOVEMENT

Mick Armstrong in Marxist Left Review: As Joe Ferguson put it: “Basically we built up a network… It came to a position where we started to run the jobs with the workers on the job, not the union”. Activists like Jack Mundey and Bert McGill were paid from collections on the job “for weeks at a time to go round Newcastle, Wollongong and city jobs, delivering Hoist, getting to know workers and getting them along to meetings… We controlled every monthly meeting in that period”.

They managed to have McGill and Mick McNamara, a young raw “cleanskin”, elected as temporary organisers at a branch meeting. When the executive moved McNamara out of the city to isolate him, “eight or nine big jobs stopped and marched to the office”. They caught the officials in the pub and forced them to back down.

The corrupt right-wing leadership was defeated in the 1961 elections by a coalition of the Rank and File Committee and more moderate forces. The Rank and File did a deal with some centre ALPers not to contest a few positions. The majority of the Rank and File backed the inexperienced ALP left-winger McNamara for state secretary in order to get the pro-Labor vote. A few militants, who were later to back the Maoist Communist Party of Australia (Marxist Leninist), argued to back Jack Mundey for Secretary. Mundey himself subsequently claimed that it would have been “adventurist” for him, as a known communist, to take the secretary position at that time. So essentially they ran a “Broad Left” team that won 17 out of 21 positions.

Mundey failed to win an organiser’s position in 1961. “It was an anti-communist vote.” But Mundey, who was playing an increasingly central role, was elected temporary city organiser in 1962 and state secretary in 1968


One comment on “Jack Mundey: transforming the BLF

  1. Thank you. A wonderful exhibition of Jack and his life. A reminder to those of my generation of what unions can and should be. For those of a younger generation perhaps an introduction to that concept.

    Like

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