Margaret Nichols: Good evening, everyone and welcome to the National Library of Australia. My name is Margaret Nichols, I'm Chair of the Friends of the National Library Committee. For about another hour, and I'm off and new people are on. I'd like to begin by acknowledging Australia's First Nations people as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and give my respect to their elders past and present and through them to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples.  

Thank you all for attending this evening's presentation of the Library's 2023 Creative Arts Fellow, either here in the Library or online, and I think there's quite a few of you online. It's a pleasure to have you and to have you on the airwaves with us this evening. The Friends of the National Library are delighted to support an Annual Creative Arts Fellow, which allows artists working in a medium other than writing to develop their creative works by immersing themselves in an aspect of the National Library's collection over a four-week period. Since this program commenced in 2015, the $10,000 Creative Arts Fellowship has been awarded to a fascinating array of musicians, choreographers, visual artists, and playwrights and cartoonists, all of whom have delved into very different parts of the Library's collection.  

Tonight we welcome Sam Wallman, our 2023 Creative Arts fellow, and Sam has spent the last four weeks in the Library learning who knows what yet. Sam is a comics journalist, cartoonist, and labour activist based primarily in Melbourne, with an active interest in history at his present. His illustrated work has been published in The Guardian, The New York Times, on the ABC and the SBS. His first long-form graphic novel, "Our Members Be Unlimited: a comic about workers and their unions" by Scribe Publications was recently published in Australia, the US, and the UK, and was shortlisted for the 2023 Victorian Premier's Literary Awards. Congratulations, Sam. During his Fellowship, Sam has drawn upon the Library's unique collections to continue his research into the Green Bans, a strike action conducted for conservational or environmental purposes, and also to uncover more information about the Pink Bans, which were industrial bans carried out in the 1970s by unionised construction workers in defence of persecuted LGBTIQA+ people. Please join me in welcoming Sam Wallman and to learn about his research. 

Sam Wallman: Appreciate it. Thanks mates, appreciate it, and thank you for that. Thank you for having me and for this opportunity, I want to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and the Ngambri people who are the traditional custodians of this area and pay respect to their elders past and present. Indigenous people and their sovereignty needs to be front of mind for any research that we do and any activism that we carry out. I wanna acknowledge that the Green and the Pink Bans took place on stolen land. Aboriginal struggle is intertwined with the history of the Builders Labourers Federation, which is the union that we're talking about today. When the union was existentially threatened in the 1970s, 38 separate Aboriginal organisations pledged support for the branch in question. Industrial struggles are impossible to pull away from other parts of grassroots struggle.  

Before I start, I want to thank the staff here at the National Library. Shout out to you guys. Actually the first person, the first staff member that Simone introduced me to at the beginning of my Fellowship was Bindie, who works in security down in the basement of the Library. And within 30 seconds of us chatting, we joined some dots. Bindie's grandfather was active in the Builders Labourers Federation, was an early Aboriginal member of the union, the BLF being one of the first unions along with the Maritime Union to actively link arms with Aboriginal workers. Bindie is now a proud member of United Workers Union himself here in this Library, a union that I used to be a delegate and a member of, and later an official, so it's real like secret society kind of vibes when we worked all this overlaps out. I think he might be watching from security, so shout out to Bindie. Thanks also to Simone, Sharyn, Gemma, all the librarians, the Indigenous Engagement Team, other fellows, and especially the Friends of the Library, Friends of the National Library for making their Creative Fellowship possible. Banging on with a big thanks to CFMEU, Michael Hiscox, Meredith and Verity Burgmann, Liz Ross, Jeremy Fisher, Neil Towar, and Graham Willett.  

So a library like this is an act of faith in its citizens. The place would be useless without active, thoughtful people, both the librarians, the workers making the collections accessible, and the workers and others who come here to explore almost 11 million items in the collection. Almost 300 kilometres of shelved items. The National Library feels like both an extremely lush and lavish, but also a basic fundamental staple of a civic society like bread or something. I kind of pinch myself that it still exists as a relatively well-resourced service in such an era of austerity. I'll be a bit direct for a second, but I hope that in the future, if anyone comes for the Library, any tyrants or agents of austerity in parliament, that the union movement will be powerful and conscious enough to back this institution.  

So I've been in the building for a month to carry out this research in order to create a series of historically-informed artworks about the Pink Bans which will most likely take the form of a large ornate banner and a comic as well. So whether that comic is 20 or 200 pages remains to be seen, but I'll work that out once I get back home. I think the Pink Bans were a really big deal, and sadly, I don't think anything literally longer than two pages exists in the world about them. Nothing that I've been able to find. So it's been an effort of just stitching together small references here and there, but I hope to clumsily change that somehow once I get stuck into the project.  

I've been kind of obsessed with the BLF and the Green Bans for over a decade now. I was in Canberra, actually probably in my early mid-20s when I first saw "Rocking the Foundations" with some friends of mine, which is a beautiful documentary made by Pat Fiske who was one of the first female Builders Labourers. She made the film herself. I watched it at the National Film and Sound Archive, and it honestly completely changed my life. It's the one thing more than any other that brought me into unionism. I made this comic about a year after I saw the film and a little bit embarrassing, it's over a decade old, but it's a good entry point into the Green Bans, so I thought we'd read it. So it says, "Who built Thebes of the seven gates? In the books you'll find the names of kings. Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?" Which is "Questions From a Worker Who Reads" by Bertolt Brecht. It's also the quote that opens Pat Fiske's film.  

Australia, in the 1970s, enjoyed an economic boom. At the same time, social movements weaved alternate alternative textures. Sydney Harbour in 1971 and a group of people eager to protect the last remaining area, area of a native bushland, frantically sending out letters to whoever might listen. The letter reached the right clump of workers at the right time. The union stretched out the circle of its membership. A group of people said they didn't wanna move their beds for highways, so the union put down their tools. A lecturer at Macquarie Uni is fired for being a lesbian, and so tools down, beer o'clock, quitting time. An investment company with an active role wood chipping native forests in Queensland attempted to build an office tower down in Sydney. Someone jumping on the farm from Queensland to Sydney. Again, tools down. Development after development was indefinitely delayed until real consultation or sometimes a whole new plan was in place.  

Over four years, 42 Green Bans and $18 billion in projects were held in limbo until those at the top took notice of the ecosystems and the lives they were seeking to change. Efforts to destroy the movement saw the capitalists hiring thugs, the kidnapping of leaders, violent busts of heritage protection squatter communes, the smashing of strikes, and the still unsolved murder of a lead organiser and journalist. Rest in peace, Juanita Nielsen.  

Had the Green Bans not taken place, the Sydney Botanical Gardens would be the Sydney Opera House's car park. The Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne would be long gone along with hundreds of other organs of our cities and the ecosystems. Petra Kelly, who started the world's first Green Party in 1979, cites the Green Ban movement as one of her biggest influences and apparently where she got the name for the greens from. Side note, was the greens movement a mistake? Did it mean radical energy being assimilated into capitalist democracy? Does the colour green exist? But anyway, the Green Bans showed us the effectiveness of community inclusion, consultation, and bottom up organising. This is around the time of occupy, which painful, long meetings. So it says, "We're still fumbling on this one, but we'll get there." It showed us that the forests are the cities, the workers, no, the forests are the cities. The cities are the workers. The workers are the people, and that the people are the wildlife. The past is a part of the future, but the present is a hammer.  

I think we need a little bit more context though. So before the 1970s, it was fairly uncommon for workers to stick their necks out on issues outside of strictly industrial issues. There were of course exceptions to this. There is the hidden history of the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union in North America, which was formed in 1901. And it was a haven for openly queer members, people of colour, and communists hidden out at sea. Peter Brownley, a straight member of the union, said "We were 50 years ahead of our time. We were so democratic this country couldn't stand it." The most important thing was not that we had gays, it was that an injury to one was an injury to all, and we practised it. We took care of each other." Way back in 1936, 1936, that's a long time ago, the union slogan was, "It's anti-union to red bait, race bait, or queen bait." It was also phrased, "If you let them red bait, they'll race bait, and if you let them race bait, they'll queen bait." I wanna bring back the term queen, it's good. Steven Blair, a member of the union, said towards the end of his life, "What many of you younger people are trying to do today as queers, what you call inclusion and diversity we already did it 50 years ago in the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union. We did it in the labour movement as working class queens with left-wing politics. And that's why the government crushed us, and that's why you don't know anything about us today. Our history has been totally erased." Yeah, that's the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union if you wanna look 'em up, they absolutely rule.  

There was also the group called London Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners in England in the 1980s, which people will know from the film "Pride" of a few years ago. They built meaningful solidarity with coal miners as they were enduring serious existential attacks waged by Margaret Thatcher. They organised material support for strikers as they saw their mines close. They educated people in the city about what was going on out in the regions, and they organised big fundraising concerts for the miners called the Pits and Perverts fundraising gigs. Beautiful. Alongside other solidarity actions, which are all the more remarkable and generous as they were dealing with their own existential threat in the form of the AIDS epidemic.  

But the main focus of my research while I've been here has been the string of strikes and work stoppages in Australia in the 1970s, largely carried out by the Builders Labourers Federation, which we now know as the CFMEU, which I'm a proud rank and file member of in my day job back in Melbourne. Other unions involved in these actions that we'll talk about later today were the Missos, which is now United Workers Union, the New South Wales Teachers Federation, which is still a great fighting union by the same name, and the Australian Union of Students now known as the National Union of Students.  

But yeah, there were four main queer-aligned industrial actions that been the primary focus of my time here. So I'll gonna briefly summarise them.  

In 1974, Penny Short, a student teacher under a scholarship at Macquarie Uni in Sydney published an untitled poem in the student newspaper arena. It was a beautiful, embodied, erotic poem available in the NLA collections actually. She'd been told by a psychologist from the university to keep her sexuality a secret and to hide the fact that she was in a relationship with a woman. After Penny's poem was published, the psychologist said to her, "You haven't been keeping your sexuality a secret, have you?" She was then declared medically unfit to receive the scholarship from the university, which ended her studies. A protest of around 600 people of all sexualities gathered outside the Education Department's headquarters, demanding Penny have her scholarship reinstated. Fellow student teachers backed her at one of their mass meetings and they joined the protest. The Department refused to reinstate the scholarship. Kathy McDonald, an official of the Teacher's Federation, pledged to support the union and the BLF threatened to stop all demolition and construction work at Macquarie, of which there was quite a lot going on. It appears that this work ban never formally eventuated, and sadly, Penny did not receive her scholarship back. It was not until 13 years later in 1987 that Penny finally became a teacher, sad footnote, after passing a diploma of education at UNE in Armadale.  

Yeah, the archives are amazing, but they cannot capture every detail in time. Life on Earth is funny like that. Of course, not everything is recorded. Almost everything gets lost to time. So why the ban didn't eventuate for Penny Short is something that remains unknown for me at least. So, but if anyone here has any insight, let me know. I'll be grateful to find out.  

But jumping forward a couple years to 1976, Greg Weir had recently graduated as a student teacher and was also an outspoken gay rights activist. This was in Joh Bjelke-Petersen's Queensland. The Minister for Education at the time, Val Bird, stated in parliament that "Student teachers who participate in homosexual and lesbian groups should not assume that they would be employed by the Education Department on graduation." Weir, the spokesperson for his local homosexual and lesbian group, was formally notified that he could not work as a teacher in spite of his recent qualification. The Australian Union of Students stood alongside Weir to fight this persecution, which became a lightning rod campaign for gay rights. Weir and the union's campaign, they eventually led to anti-discrimination legislation designed to protect trans and intersex and queer teachers in public schools. The Library actually holds Weir's papers, which come in at a whopping 6.5, no, 7.65 metres long. It's crazy.  

The third big industrial campaign that I focused on during my time here took place a couple of years after Weir's battle at the Melbourne University in 1979. Terry Stokes was a PhD candidate at the university and a part-time tutor in history and philosophy of science. He went for a drink with his boyfriend, Darren Turner, at the Woolshed Bar, also known as Hotel Australia in Collins Street in the city. The two lovebirds were out the front of the bar making out when a police officer, Constable Anthony Burke, saw them. I kind of hope that's the only way that Anthony Burke is remembered in this speech. He arrested them for kissing. Their case was heard in the Melbourne Magistrate's Court and both men pleaded not guilty, which rules. Terry and Darren both copped fines in default of jail sentences. They had been looking it up to 15 days in prison for kissing. Part of the charge was loitering with homosexual intent. Good charge. I think my mate who's here somewhere, when I told him that, he's like, "Mate, I go to Woollies with homosexual intent."  

Anyway, Stokes was served with an eviction notice from his campus accommodation, he was given seven days to get out. The following day, over 100 people gathered outside the hotel where they'd been arrested and they staged a mass kiss in demonstration that lasted for about an hour, which is quite a while for kissing. Comedic reenactments of the kiss were timed with a stopwatch and the police didn't dare arrest anyone. The day after that action, about 20 students occupied graduate house in protest, which we probably now see them assaulted with chemical weapons, I reckon, knowing Melbourne cops. The Student Representative Council passed a motion condemning Terry's eviction and the student newspaper "Farrago" raged, and, vitally, the university cafeteria workers held a stop work meeting. They ceased making and serving food to the campus in order to discuss the issue.  

These days, while by no means impossible, stop work meetings do still happen against the odds. But such a stop work meeting could easily see the individual workers fined $18,780 and the union fined $93,900, even if the stop work meeting now was 30 seconds long. We clearly need to learn the lessons from the 1969 uprising, which we're gonna talk about in a couple of minutes.  

But the cafeteria workers at Melbourne University were deadly serious. They had the support of their union, the Liquor and Allied Trades Union, now known as United Workers Union after several mergers. The workers and their union promised that food service on campus would soon cease and a ban would be declared if justice was not served. The BLF promised similarly. The Graduate House Board investigated and a result of the public pressure, Stokes was reinstated and vindicated. In the end he did not return to his graduate house accommodation, though he did continue his studies at the university.  

Before any of these three queer efforts though, there was the OG Jeremy Fisher, the absolute boy, back in 1973. The aforementioned battles were all remarkable and genuinely heartening and effective to differing degrees, but on a technicality, they were not really official Pink Bans. They involved the threat of bans, but only one fight, the one involving Jeremy Fisher, led to a full-on enduring work stoppage. So I'll go into that a little bit more detail later but the gist of the story is that in 1973, Jeremy Fisher, a student living on campus at Macquarie Uni, same as Penny Short in Sydney, was expelled for being a homosexual. The New South Wales BLF placed a ban on any construction or demolition works at the campus until the situation was rectified. But we will come back to his story in a bit more detail later.  

But I think first we need to contextualise what was going on in the BLF at this time. The BLF, just in my opinion, arguably the best trade union this country has ever seen. But it didn't fall from the sky. In fact, something that significance can't be overstated and has lessons for today is that it was a terrible union before the leadership of the early '70s diligently and democratically took it over. It was quite gangster-like with violent repression of any members who actually tried organising and democratising things. It was pretty rubbish from the '40s until the late '60s by most reports, which is kind of heartening 'cause people act like the BLF just popped up, it was magically excellent. But the officials and members got organised and painstakingly took over the union.  

Unions are democratic bodies and they can be captured. I'll let you draw your own conclusions about how that might relate to some of the forces that currently dominate our union movement. But unions can be captured by communists and far-left forces, or they can be captured by authoritarian defenders of the status quo as has happened all too often, arguably more often than not. The point is though that they are up for grabs and that better forces had gotten organised, done the work, and grabbed it.  

Another vital thing to know about the laying of the foundations for this chapter of history is that in 1969, there'd been a massive general strike in defence of the right to strike. It's a comic that I made for Overland and the RTBU maybe five years ago. Actually this page is from ""Our Members Be Unlimited" but it saved me having to rewrite the history 'cause I can just read it. “Simply stopping work is probably the most profound and powerful single action we can take. It's possible that bosses and governments know this better than workers do. In 1969, workers in Australia were thoroughly fed up with unions being hit with huge fines for carrying out their bread and butter organising activities. Against the backdrop of resistance to the Vietnam War, rising student activism and communist activists embedded in workplaces, workers demanded their unions cease paying the fines. And so Clarrie O'Shea, the Secretary of the Tramways Union, refused to allow the industrial courts access to his union's accounts. For this, he was thrown in jail. The imprisonment of the head of a union is no minor footnote of Australian history, and nor was the reaction of everyday workers across the country. Somewhere around one million workers stopped work over the following week, often against the wishes of their unions. One million people did not clock on. One million people took to the streets rather than their workplace. One million people from a nation of then only 12 million. This sweeping tide of strikes rinsed O'Shea clean out of the prison. The mass shutdown withered the confidence of employers and the industrial court judges who no longer dared issue fines for unions carrying out industrial organising. In their defeat, the boss's confidence was perhaps breathed directly into the lungs of everyday people. By 1971, 30% of workers in Australia were involved in strike action. A similarly well-planned and widespread refusal to pay strike fines would be central to any meaningful future renewal of the Australian Union Movement.” 

This page is from the piece I did for the Railway Union and Overland a few years ago. I'll just read a little bit of it. “It's now been 50 long years since that struggle took place. In that time, we have seen bosses and their courts become drunk with confidence. Strikes are down by 97% since the 1970s. The CFMEU alone has been fined over $15 million since 2005. Union officers are raided by federal police under outlandish pretences with the government tipping off the media to come and watch. A politically motivated $46 million royal commission dragged trade unions through the mud for near on two years and convicted just one person. Organisers have to navigate complex bureaucracies in order to simply visit their members' workplaces. As the climate emergency calls out for greater democracy and worker power, anti-secondary boycott laws greatly limit workers' ability to organise to protect the ecosystem. All strikes outside of an extremely limited range of circumstances are now unlawful and just 15% of the working population is now in a union.” It's lower now since I drew this. “This is a new low, but the vital thing is we still do all the work. The power that workers enjoyed in the 1970s lies dormant within us. If we read the stars, a constellation resembling O'Shea and his one million fellow strikers may reveal to us a path forward.” Sounds a lot cornier when I read it out loud. Anyway.  

So this opened the path for the Green and Pink Bans, this uprising. The anti-strike laws were called the penal powers at the time. And Jack Mundey, the BLF leader, said in 1970, "I think tactics in strikes, particularly since 1949, have been so tailored as to give a high priority to the penal powers threat and thus the need to get back to work to avoid fines with the removal of some of the teeth from the penal powers in May, 1969. Longer strikes, including general strikes, are likely to become the order of the day." So that uprising set up the necessary conditions for what happened in the early '70s. And a crucial note is that this was also a long-term organising project.  

So seeing a bit of a pattern here, the long-term organising projects. Some say that the Tramways Union worked on building toward their effort for a decade before the 1969 upheaval, which may have been the highest watermark of the union movement in Australia. All of which is to say, as writer Jeff Sparrow writes, "There are no easy solutions to historical problems. There's no way to trickily circumvent the legacy of the past." There are no shortcuts, unfortunately. Organising is a slug and it takes time to build power. But every union has rules and democratic processes that can be followed for active members in order to change course.  

But anyway, the BLF was taken over and their vision was genuinely galaxy-brained, not just in terms of the Green and Pink Bans, which has historically unfortunately drowned out their other efforts. The union prioritised the fight for wages and conditions 'cause this is the bread and butter of unionism, and in winning these things for members, it brought them into the fold for the broader projects. They fought for women to join the labourers workforce, for Aboriginal members to be treated equally, for student rights, they fought for prisoners, and for poor people. They instituted term limits on their power, started work at the same time as their members, did not get paid when their members were on strike, and they instituted genuine democracy within the union and on the shop floor. The NLA Collection holds "The Aboriginal Worker," a newsletter produced by the Federal Council of Aboriginal Advancement that celebrates the solidarity that the BLF repeatedly demonstrated with Indigenous struggles.  

And as Meredith and Verity Burgmann wrote in their monolithic book, without which this presentation would be quite thread bear, it's called "Green Bans, Red Union." It says, "The Green Bans movement was immensely significant, but has tended to overshadow the union's other extraordinary achievements. The New South Wales BLF confounded the caricature of unions as organisations uninterested in issues beyond the workplace and unconcerned with forms of oppression other than class."  

BLF official Joe Owens said the union's biggest achievement was "breaking down the false distinction between us and the public and extending the union into the community."  

Patrick White, one of Australia's most respected authors, and a writer who's I think the outer area of the Library's named after, he said, "It's a rare thing to find a union with so advanced social conscience."  

Early gay liberationist and unionist, Ken Davis, said "It was the experience of struggle that really taught the BLF's members. The BLF was able to bring part of the working class movement together with the Indigenous movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the women's movement, the environmental movement, and the movement against prisons and police powers, and all of a sudden those issues were not separate anymore. They were part of the same fight."  

But what are the Green Bans though and how did they grow? Like we got this quote from Jack Mundey in his own book, "Green Bans & Beyond." He said, "Traditionally a Black Ban was describing industrial action at the place of work. So workers refused to work with scabs to handle material supplied by scabs or to go into unsafe places. At other times, these workers have refused to ship goods such as pig iron to Japan, which might come back in the form of bombshells. This was political action. We needed a new concept for our social and environmental objections. In 1973, I now said to Malcolm Colless that in the future we'd be talking about Green Bans. The adjective green was more apt than black." This is still Mundey. "It also explained our wish to extend our help to other citizens, not to unionists alone. Our union had a social conscience, and while we had an obligation to fight for the best possible wages and conditions for our membership, we weren't blinkered by purely monetary conditions, considerations, sorry. On subsequent occasions, we often emphasise that a trade union must represent its members, but it cannot stop there." So the bans were no longer called Black Bans, which is good. Aboriginal members of the BLF were also reported to have called for the name change since the term Black Ban had racial connotations that weren't appreciated. Bit of bit of a weird term.  

So the Green Bans had been taken place for a couple of years before that term was actually coined. The language takes a little while to catch up, but the visual artist in me enjoyed reading the media reports, toying around with other colours before they accepted the Green Bans. On the 28th of October in 1973, the "Sunday Mirror" claimed that the union was threatening to place an amber ban on a city hotel,. Action that never eventuated against the damming of Lake Pedder in Tasmania was labelled a blue ban. And as Meredith and Verity Burgmann write in "Green Bans, Red Union," "Both employer and state government authorities attempted with little effect to rename them Red Bans to stress the dangerously radical orientation of the union and the revolutionary implications of the Bans, with red being the colour of communism."  

The etymology of the term Pink Ban is harder to trace. Though some think the term was adopted unofficially more or less straightaway by the activists involved. Looking through BLF and official Bob Pringle's papers in the collection here at the NLA, in one document, you can see that he refers to all the bans as Green Bans, including Jeremy Fisher's. Doesn't use the term Pink Ban. The bans were over all sorts of issues after all, women's issues, Aboriginal rights, queer liberation, environmentalism, low-income earners rights. And not every one of these bans gets its own colour, so the necessity of the differentiation for the Pink Bans is arguable.  

But to go back a little bit, what were the Green Bans? Most of us know the story, but basically all sorts of construction projects all over the country were held up by unionists who insisted they should be able to carry out their work in good conscience. Obviously the developers, the corporate media and the government were going ballistic. In the aforementioned documentary "Rocking the Foundations," you can see an excerpt from a news clip. The reporter asks BLF leader Joe Owens, "What makes you so very sure that the union has the right to hold up all these thousands of millions worth of development projects?" To which he replies, "Well, is it a matter of holding up development projects?" He continues, "Surely our members are not animals to be simply regarded as people that simply pull things down and put things up irrespective of the effect that has on the community at large."  

Similarly, in 1972, Jack Mundey delivered a speech from the bar at the threatened Newcastle Hotel. "Builders Labourers are not gonna say thank you to the boss and build what we are told." Obviously, this was an extremely direct challenge to boss' power. The conventional wisdom being that each work site should be run from the top down. Sounds like I'm being hyperbolic, but back then as now, most workplaces could be classified as literally totalitarian in nature with the boss calling all the shots. Not so in the early 1970s in Sydney, as Aboriginal BLF member, Kevin Cook said in one of my favourite quotes, "The boss wasn't really the boss. We knew it and he knew it."  

Anyway, I'm not just interested in these bans as a footnote of history. I think they are instructive for us now. As much as workers make the world go round, we can stop it from moving as well. We don't have all that much power at the ballot box, but that other site of potential democracy, the workplace, we can institute real change. I've been obsessed with the BLF and the Green Bans, as I said, for a little over a decade now. I made the comic that I showed pretty early on in my development involvement with unions. But the BLF and the bans have been a thread through my art as my practise has become more intertwined with the labour movement, always come back to the Green Bans. I drew about 'em in my first book, "Our Members Be Unlimited" and Jeff Sparrow and I also celebrate the bans in our forthcoming book, "12 Rules for Strife," which is coming out on May Day. When Jack Mundey died a few years ago, I drew this that night for "Overland" as a head nod to him. It's meant to be a kind of monumental kind of thing. But we kind of joked that every building that they saved is already a monument to them. Anyway, I was gonna read that out but I should should whip on. Drew about Terry Stokes making out with his boyfriend getting arrested at the Melbourne Uni. This was an installation. It was printed massive on a metal disc, installed at the uni. Also made this animation with Bailey Sharp and Susie Taylor for Victorian Trades Hall. We'll see if it plays. 

[cartoon starts] 

Narrator: Union members have long campaigned for fairer paying conditions. But back in the 1970s, we also started campaigning to protect our green spaces, low-income housing, inner urban areas, and even beloved historic buildings. 

Speaker 1: Oh that's a nice building, isn't it? 

Speaker 2: Hmm. 

Narrator: It all started here in Melbourne in 1970 on a patch of public open space in Carlton, which developers wanted to turn into a Kleenex factory and residents wanted to keep as parkland for their community. Enter the members of the Builders Labourers Federation who showed solidarity with the residents by refusing to construct the factory. 

Speaker 3: What do we want? 

Crowd: Lovely parks! 

Speaker 3: When do we want them? 

Crowd: Now! 

Speaker 4: We just want lovely parks! 

Crowd: Lovely parks! 

Developer: Oh stop carrying on like pork chops and start building my giant tissue factory. 

Speaker 5: Who are you calling a pork chop? 

Speaker 6: You're a pork chop. 

Narrator: The developer even tried to bribe union leader Norm Gallagher. 

Developer: If you can see your way clear to not place a ban, we could all be running around in Rolls Royce. 

Norm Gallagher: Mate, it's not happening. 

Narrator: Norm and his comrade Mick Lewis were arrested for their role in the Black Ban. 

Cop: In the van. In the van. 

Narrator: Normie did three weeks jail and Mick did seven days. But eventually, everyday people triumphed. 

[cartoon finishes] 

Sam Wallman: I might leave it there 'cause I just realised my presentation is extremely long. I'm gonna run out of time. You can find that on YouTube though, I think. I love the Green Bans because they highlight to people who aren't involved in unionism already, what the potential there is there. I love it because it subverts the stereotypes of working class people as inherently backward, as bogans or rednecks, or right wing by default, which is just not true. But the more we say it, the more it risks becoming the case and becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

The CFMEU is a descendant of the BLF, but how many people think of this history when they dismiss a rank and file member of the construction union as two-dimensional or careless? As Meredith and Verity Burgmann wrote, "Homosexual liberationists found the stereotype of the homophobic building worker confounded by the union's practical support for their cause."  

I love the bans because they were creative and incredibly brave and because the movement wasn't just built around some kind of moralism, not ethics alone, it was materialist by nature. And I love the bans because they show that the working class might be the most powerful dormant force on planet Earth.  

But anyway, back to some history, back to what happened to Jeremy Fisher in a little bit more detail. In 1973, five years before 1978, when the Mardi Gras riot put the gay rights movement firmly on the map. So we're talking very early days here. Jeremy Fisher was an 18-year-old student at Macquarie Uni. He was also treasurer of the local gay liberation chapter. He'd gone into town as he told me, looking for love. Jeremy was sexually assaulted and spiralled as a result. He attempted to take his own life back at the campuses of Robert Menzies College and was found by a cleaner. While he was hospitalised, gay liberation items were found in his room and he was publicly outed. Rather than receiving care and support, the master of the college, Dr. Alan Cole gave Jeremy an ultimatum. He could only stay on campus if he led a celibate life being quote unquote "chaste" and sought to have his perversion cured by seeking psychological and spiritual help as well as medical treatment.  

I had the honour of meeting Jeremy earlier this month, and he told me that the head of the college had said he couldn't come back "Until I'd renounced my sexuality, until Jesus was my saviour, till I'd taken a vow of abstinence, and also that I'd made a big mess trying to kill myself." The master of the college was convinced that Jeremy had been possessed by a souvenir mask gifted to him by his father that hung on the wall of his room and that this had led to his homosexuality. This is the level of thinking that was commonplace at the time. Anyway, Jeremy Fisher had the strength and clarity of thought to refuse the demands that he renounce his sexuality and he refused them in no uncertain terms. And as such, he was expelled from the campus.  

The Macquarie Uni Students' Council approached the master in defence of Jeremy. They clarified that they were not asking that he change his personal opinion of homosexuality, but he stopped imposing it on the private lives of students. This got Jeremy and his supporters nowhere. So the Student Council tried another approach. They called rallies on the campus. The ABC interviewed Jeremy for the news show "This Day Tonight," and the long interview went to air that evening. Jeremy handles himself incredibly well. But meanwhile, the Student Union continued their campaign calling out to all their contacts for support. The Student Union had deep reciprocal relations with other unions, which is probably another good lesson to take from this history.  

Meredith and Verity Burgmann write that "The Student Council then approached the New South Wales BLF executive, which recommended a ban. This recommendation was endorsed at a state branch meeting and also unanimously by the Builders Labourers working on the campus who agreed that the ban should remain until the university made an unequivocal statement that there will be no discrimination against homosexuals and human dignity was restored. 

"Universities are places for people to learn. They should not discriminate against individuals," explained Mundey to the press. The ban will remain until the authorities at the university allow homosexuals to study there the same as anyone else. The ban threatened the construction of a lecture theatre, extensions to the gymnasium, a maintenance depot, and a science workshop. And poetically, there were also bans happening on the very building that Fisher had been residing in, which became part of the bans. The union put the situation to its rank and file members at a mass meeting and the members voted that unless Fisher was invited back to the campus, none of the construction projects would continue. However, Fisher decided he did not wish to return to the repressive campus accommodation, which is fair enough.  

As Jeremy Fisher wrote himself in "Overland" issue 191 in 2008, "The BLF assumed I wanted to return until one day in the Student's Council basement, Bob Pringle, part of the union's leadership asked me, ‘So why don't you want to go back into that place? Oh, why do you want to go back into that place?' 'I don't.' I said, 'But we're on strike to put you back,' he said, a hint of anger in his eyes, 'Oh, I thought because I'd been kicked out for being gay.' I answered. Bob looked at me for a moment directly into my eyes, all sorts of thoughts whirled in my head. Was he gonna withdraw the BLF support? Did he think I'd tricked him? Did he want to hit me? And then he said, 'I guess you're right. It's the principle of a thing they shouldn't pick on a bloke because of his sexuality.'"  

And Jack Mundey wrote in his book, "Green Bans & Beyond" that "The students said that the authorities had acted in a high-handed way. Whether a student was heterosexual or homosexual was his private concern. Fisher hadn't broken any of the rules. The policy of the BLF was to support the rights of homosexuals. We were doing a fair bit of work at the university and we were able to call a strike. But I must admit that we were a bit apprehensive about this request. The BLF had discussed a lot of issues in recent years, but the attitude of male superiority was still pretty strong. And there was likely to be a lack of understanding about homosexuals. Bob Pringle went out to North Ryde to explain the union's policy to the workers on site. To our surprise, the men on the job had no hesitation in deciding to go on strike. As a direct result, the student was reinstated in the college. He left the university of his own accord a little later, but the point had been made." That was Jack Mundey.  

The oral history collections here in the Library and also the interviews you get the chance to carry out while you're doing this sort of thing, they carry a very different weight. They're a bit more human than a lot of the other resources, a bit bit more emotional, which is great. So Jeremy told me when we met for a cuppa early in the month, it was the principle. And that's what I kept explaining to the guys in the union. And they got it. They got the principle and they supported it.  

So the most famous quote from the Pink Bans is from Bob Pringle, the BLF leader, the lion, "It's the principle of the thing. They shouldn't pick on a bloke because of his sexuality." And in Jeremy Fisher's house, I heard the same sentiment from his mouth. So in research like this, the past and the present talk to each other. And in activist efforts, it's hard to know where an idea really started. This principle, was it Jeremy's or Bob's, or did it float above them both?  

I had the chance to ask Jeremy if the Pink Bans had been healing for him after all that he'd been through. He said, "I was getting hate mail. People were writing these foul letters." He said that "The ban was what helped sustained me in terms of getting through things. I didn't feel that I was totally alone. Despite these people that were off their trees and carrying on, there were people who were more tolerant and had a loving perspective."  

I also asked Jeremy, "What about for you personally? Did it change your life?" He said, "Well, I was always a member of the union, that was relevant to me, after that when I could be." So I said, "So it made a unionist out of you for life." To which he replied, "Oh yeah."  

So as the BLF convinced their membership to back the queer struggle, you can bet that the gay liberationists attempted to do the same with their friends and fellow conspirators. Some joke about conservatives, literal nightmare, communists and queers working together , they would've been clutching their pearls.  

Victorian Gay Trade Union Group Foundation coordinator, Laurie Bebington, wrote that "Many gay people hold the view that we will not achieve total gay liberation through our own efforts, which points up the need to broaden the campaign to win the support of the vast body of workers. This is where strength lies. We've been encouraged by recent developments in several trade unions at both rank and file and executive level." Funnily enough, from what was written in "Camp Inc." in 1975, which is part of the collection here, it sounded as if the supposed hicks and meatheads of the construction industry were actually more willing to help the queers than the queers were willing to help the unionists, which comes to this quote, the editorial saying, "Mundey and Owens had the BLF unreservedly supporting our movement. We thank them by practically no support at any of their demonstrations."  

Picking through the archives for information about a couple of strikes from 50 years ago is hard. So you learn to take a lot from a little, in this case, that one sentence, there's a lot going on. An acute frustration with the lack of support for the workers' movement from the gay liberationists. And then drilling down further, you learn to pick apart individual words like and you become pregnant with meaning. So this editorial states that the BLF support for gay lib was unreserved. Pretty remarkable.  

Again, from Meredith and Verity Burgmann's "Green Bans, Red Union," when the National Homosexual Conference held in Melbourne in August, 1975, debated the issue of relations with other organisations, the direct material support to New South Wales gay lib by the then progressive leadership and the rank and file BLs was cited by delegates to the conference as an example of why homosexual women and men should support unions seeking social change. So as we can see, the solidarity zigzagged back and forth.  

But coming into the research, I had a frustration with this, the dominant simplistic idea that Mardi Gras in '78 was the start of the resistance to homophobia. The narrative is too smooth. And people have been fighting back against oppression for exactly as long as they've been oppressed. But for clarity and ease of thinking, I understand why people want a start point for a social movement. And that was definitely a jump forward. But if people wanna start data, you could arguably put it at 1973 at Macquarie Uni by the same measure, I realised through my research that I'd also had some of my own thinking that was too simplistic and too smooth. So while the workers at Macquarie Uni did vote unanimously to support the Pink Bans wasn't necessarily because every rank and file construction worker had some vision of the future where sexual oppression might become a thing of the past and they wanted on board. More likely it was the trust that the members had in the leadership that led them to back the strike. And the fact that the construction industry was in a boom period, work was plentiful, the strike muscle was well-exercised. And in the mass meeting that led to the strike vote, by all reports, the issue was more about the top-down repressive, authoritarian style of the master of the college that the workers took issue with, rather than the fact that it had an explicitly homophobic flavour.  

Greg Mallory wrote, for instance, in "Uncharted Waters: Social Responsibility in Australian Trade Unions" that "One of the BLF officials, Joe Owens, related how he was approached by a Builders Labourer in a pub who asked, 'What does your wife think about you knocking around with poofs, Joey?'" So it wasn't as if every construction worker was as Mundey said, "a galloping conservationist" or "a women's liberal" or even "a supporter of the rights of gays." But as Mundey said, "The homosexual movement had come to the Builders Labourers and said, 'Well, you're against the ideas of workers not having a right? Well...'" Implying that it was the same kind of fight against an oppressive outside force. And it does seem as if this might have been the argument that one work is over in the end.  

But it's important and most instructive to come back to the voices of rank and file workers themselves. Builders Labourer Ian Macon said in "Rocking the Foundations" that "Not all Builders Labourers agreed with all of the Green Bans or other progressive issues that the union was involved in. But certainly every Builders Labourer, every member of the union had a right to take part in those decisions at mass meetings where sometimes upwards of 3,000 Builders Labourers would come together. There was often fast and furious debate about whether or not a particular issue should be supported or a particular ban imposed." So the Democratic principle was important and it must be noted and celebrated I think that the vote for the Pink Bans was said to have been completely unanimous.  

Some people record the history saying that it was all about the strong leaders and that they dragged the members along with them. And I think there is some truth to this. The strong leadership was really important. But also as Builders Labourer Vari Perez noted, "They always talked about Jack Mundey deciding this or saying that but we knew that it had been a collective decision." Builders Labourer Dean Barber echoes the sentiment, "What I've seen I admired," he said, "I've seen a group of blokes prepared to get up and look authority in the eye and tell them to get stuffed. That was the first time I'd seen that, even though I'd been in some stupid riots inside institutions. But they were only one-off situations. Here was a group of blokes prepared to stay, look authority in the eye and keep fighting. Now for a lot of blokes, that's why they marched down the street, not Green Bans."  

Speaking on Monday to Meredith Burgmann as part of this research, she reiterated that in perhaps five or six of the oral history interviews she carried out on the BLF's interviews with rank and file Builders Labourers, "It was this ban that found least acceptance among the membership. A frequent response from those interviewed was an expression of total support for the bans, except for that one about homosexuals." But as Dean Barber pointed out, "There must have been support for it for the men to walk off the job." Pringle suggested, "Debate at the meeting that endorsed the ban indicated the unionists were concerned about the dictatorial attitude of the master of college rather than the actual issue of homosexuality. The labourers," he informed, "gay liberation press like society generally were not sufficiently radicalised on issues of sexual oppression is not really their fault." In the same publication, part of the NLA’s collection, Pringle went on to state that on the topic of Jeremy's sexuality, "The workers felt it was his fucking business." And then, yeah, like we said, you learn to take a lot from a little bit. And I think there's a lot in like, that's such a charged way to put it. "It's his fucking business."  

When I started looking into the Pink Bans specifically, I was nervous that I wouldn't be able to find enough recorded information about it. And it's true, you don't tend to find great swaths of text about it, but it gets referenced a lot, shards of references everywhere and the information surrounded it is useful context as well. Like this quote from Vijay Prashad, "You go to the past not as a destination but as a resource." This is why we go back to the past, to learn in defeat in the ruins. To learn what shines like a magpie. This is what a historian should be, a magpie in the ruins.  

The bans come up repeatedly in "Camp Inc." "The Gay Solidarity Newsletter," "Arena," "The Gay Trade Unionist." There are references in people's theses, in BLF leaders personal papers, in the papers of leaders of gay lib, and in oral history recordings. And as I sifted through one particular massive personal collection of papers, I didn't find what I was looking for, but I found a copy of "Gay Liberation Press" that couldn't find elsewhere in the archives. It featured an article called "Penny Short, What Now?" And the article revealed that another woman was persecuted by Macquarie at the same time as Penny, which I had never read before. She was a third year student who had a scholarship taken away under the same so-called medical reasons that saw Penny victimised. The Camp Women's Association reported that they were actually to do with her lesbianism. And this writeup included an insightful quote about the desperation around the time of the Pink Bans on campus. It seemed the activists had sort of hit a wall. "It is precisely this sort of intimidation of homosexuals by institutions which constitutes a main source." I'm getting the wrap up? 

Margaret Nichols: We are pretty close. 

Sam Wallman: Oh really? Whoops. I think Sharyn said it might be all right if I go a few minutes over. 

Margaret Nichols: Well, I'll be beaten up. 

Sam Wallman: [laughs] Let me jump ahead a little bit. Let me jump ahead. Where are we? I'll skip ahead. Sorry, sorry. So Neil Towar, the Heritage Offer and Librarian at Unions New South Wales, who was a great help in my research told me early on that it's hard to get a whole lot of info and images of Pink Bans stuff 'cause it was not widely acceptable to show public support, I suppose at the time, meaning that even though the bans happened, consciousness wasn't necessarily there to record every detail or to celebrate what happened. Class struggle and queer history are both suppressed and marginalised because they don't reinforce the status quo which seeks only to self-replicate. These kinds of projects don't exactly get the funding that matches the War Memorial. So we have to record our own histories and even then we struggle with the resources to do so.  

Unions in particular do not prioritise capturing these stories. They kind of can't. They are so under-resourced and always on the back foot, kind of always fighting for their lives onto the next dispute. There's a rolling quality with unionism.  

Just looking for where I can skip around. Sorry. So yeah, the histories of militant labour battles and things like the Pink Bans are doubly suppressed being about the unholy union of Poofters, Sheilas, and the working class. I wanna play this quote. Michael Hurley is an activist who was involved in the early gay lib movement and has a decades long commitment to these efforts. He was interviewed last year by Graham Willett for the NLAs, LGBTIQ Pioneers Oral History Project. And I think to hear an account directly from the voice of someone involved, very personal and vulnerable. Yeah, it's like a bit of a portal. 

 [recording starsts] 

Michael Hurley: And I've been involved in Greg Weir stuff, and in Penny Short stuff, losing teachers scholarships and Jeremy Fisher defences and my respect for the Builders Labourers had grown enormously around the defence of Jeremy Fisher getting kicked out of a Macquarie thing, that was '74. And I remember, and no, don't jump too much, And I went, I became a supporter of the Builders Labourers and they were having demonstrations against the ripping down of the old section of the city of Sydney. And in that time, that's when Anita Nielsen got murdered as well, probably quite possibly by developers indirectly. And I remember standing with Julie at one of those demos and watching Craig get bundled heavily into a police van along with 30 other people or whatever. And so we were, all I'm saying is that I was exposed to a particular conflict situation where it was you and the police and money behind all that, and Atkins. 

Graham Willett: Atkins. What was his, who was the Premier. 

Michael Hurley: So I was getting in left politics, but I was there, but I was still not a happy person. 

Sam Wallman: One minute, one minute? 

Margaret Nichols: One minute, one minute. 

Sam Wallman: Yeah, who cares? I'm sorry, I've missed a lot of it, but I might record it as a YouTube clip or something. One thing I wanna recall, as I was reminded by my mate Michael Hiscox of the CFMU, which what the BLF is now called, is that "The union was able to pull off the bans because they were built on broader community campaigns." The union just clicked into them. The BLF obviously didn't invent gay liberation, didn't even start the environmental campaigns they were involved in. The campaigns were mass movements with thousands and thousands of regular people involved. The union came into support these movements that didn't happen the other way around.  

So the next time you hear someone call for a Green Ban, I think take heart that the memory of the movement lives on, but remind them that the bans were there to support fever pitched community activity that was already going on. The bans didn't fall out of the sky. We need to do the slug of bringing thousands of people into our campaigns and rebuilding our unions before we can seek to meaningfully replicate anything close to what the Green Bans represented. And that is a trickier story to tell, which is a funny thing when I got to the Library, I started to, this is nearly the end, I promise. I started to find contradictions, clunky things in the story. Maybe the workers backed the bans because in general, authoritarianism repulsed them more than because they opposed homophobia specifically. Penny Short never got her scholarship back. We lost a lot of the strike traditions in the intervening years and maybe the BLF lost the reins in the end and the leaders were blacklisted and even violently bashed by parts of their own union. Things I didn't fully appreciate before I came here, but as the old labour slogan goes, “there are no permanent victories and no permanent defeats” and history isn't smooth, especially the closer up to it you get.  

And when I get back to Melbourne and try to turn this into a long comic, I kind of resource about all of this. I'll have to resist the urge to tell a story that is well-rounded and propagandistic, and unfortunately go with the sloppy and accurate. And in my opinion, the Green Bans still remains the most inspiring chapter of labour history that I know of personally. But it's all a fumbling effort. Unionism, grassroots organising and activism is fumbling. It's scrappy and bitsy and it's never a zero-sum game, which is its strength as much as its weakness. And you could say the exact same thing for this type of research too. It's all kind of fumbling, which leads me to the end of the presentation. I want to quote Andrew Jacobowitzs final line of his excellent thesis from 1982 entitled, "Was There a Green Ban Movement?" The answer to our opening question I believe is "There almost was a Green Ban movement, which is the most a movement can ever be."  

Thank you. Thank you for coming. Sorry, sorry, and come to the pub if you want. 

Margaret Nichols: Well, they loved you. I love you. 

Sam Wallman: They love you, not me. 

Margaret Nichols: That was terrific, Sam. Thank you. And everybody obviously agrees with me. I hope the people out there on the airwaves also agree. That's terrific. We don't have time for questions I'm sorry. How can they contact you if they would like to talk to you? 

Sam Wallman: I'm on social media. 

Margaret Nichols: Social media, you can do some stalking, guys, and you'll find him. Okay, thank you very much. Please join me again. 

Hear from comics-journalist and cartoonist Sam Wallman as he presents a lecture on his 2023 Creative Arts Fellowship research into the Pink and Green Bans movement and how it will contribute to a new artwork celebrating the 1970s coalition of blue collar union workers and LGBTIQA+ people.

Sam Wallman is a 2023 Creative Arts Fellow, supported by the Friends of the National Library.

About Sam Wallman's Fellowship research

During his Fellowship, Sam has drawn upon the Library’s unique collections to continue his research into the Green Bans (strike action conducted for conservational or environmental purposes), and also attempt to uncover more information about the Pink Bans, of which less is known. The Pink Bans were a series of work stoppages and industrial bans carried out by unionised construction workers in the 1970s in defence of persecuted LGBTIQA+ people (before the emergence of the gay rights movement).

This research will be distilled into a series of large format original illustrations and a large-scale banner produced in the highly ornate style of trade union banners of the 1900s. The illustrations will form accessible summaries of the history of these movements, built around specific items uncovered in the Library’s collections, and offer an entry point into this history. This 'Pink and Green Ban' art project will tour union halls, galleries and a labour history conference, and be a celebration of the supposedly unlikely coalition of blue-collar workers and queer people. 

About Sam Wallman

Sam Wallman is a comics-journalist, cartoonist and labour activist based primarily in Melbourne, with an active interest in history-as-present. His illustrated work has been published in The GuardianThe New York Times, and on the ABC and SBS. His first long-form graphic novel, Our Members Be Unlimited: A Comic About Workers and their Unions (Scribe Publications) was recently published in Australia, the US and the UK, and was shortlisted for the 2023 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. 

About the National Library of Australia Creative Arts Fellowship

The National Library of Australia Creative Arts Fellowship program offers writers and artists an opportunity to undertake a 4-week residency at the Library. This program is supported by generous donors and bequests.

Image credit: from 12 Rules for Strife (p128–129) by Sam Wallman