Rocking the Foundations

Australian Workers Film Guide


One of Australia’s most acclaimed labour films, Rocking the Foundations traces the history of the New South Wales branch of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) from the 1940s until its climatic de-registration in 1975. Produced, directed and narrated by Pat Fiske, one of the first women to work as a builders’ labourer, the film opens with an expose of the early hardships and dangers faced by BLF members, as well as union corruption, sparking a successful rank and file take over of the union leadership. During the socially tumultuous 1960s and 70s, a rapacious developer-led building boom sees this grassroots union enact historic green bans to save some of Sydney’s most cherished historic areas and working class neighbourhoods from wide scale destruction, including the historic Rocks on Sydney Harbour.

Told through interviews with union members and community activists, the film deftly incorporates extensive and often dramatic archive footage from a wide range of sources to tell a compelling story. Shot in black and white, the film opens with a scene of Sydney Harbour, followed by a quote from Bertolt Brecht which states ‘Who built Thebes of the seven gates? In the books you will find the names of kings. Did the kings haul up the lump of rock?’ Soon after, Pat Fiske as narrator says, “Builders make a living, developers make a fortune.”  

For the BLF, this was the beginning of a powerful social movement in which builders labourers put the environment and people ahead of their own jobs. The early days of the union are hard and arduous, replete with corruption and even violence. This gives way to a rank and file take over of the union leadership and the formation of a socially responsible grassroots union, which also rocked the foundations of Trades Hall as the union fought against entrenched officialdom in the union movement.

A high-rise construction boom in the 60s and 70s sees the union fight for better conditions and improved safety, along with the use of direct action tactics during industrial disputes. Language issues with migrants on jobsites are overcome and a system of financial support enhances the union’s industrial muscle. The growing union activism sees the BLF enact its first green ban at Kelly’s Bush, followed by a historic green ban on the working class area known as The Rocks on Sydney Harbour. The BLF was the leading union to respond to the community group’s plea for help. This was followed by green bans on the Centennial Park redevelopment, the Opera House, historic buildings, expressways, as well as the infamous Victoria Street redevelopment – a bitter and protracted battle resulting in violent clashes with police, not to mention kidnapping and the tragic disappearance of anti-developer campaigner Jaunita Nielson. 

This is followed by campaigns against the Vietnam War, for aboriginal land rights, anti-apartheid protests, women’s liberation, the unsuccessful campaign for permanency. NSW BLF union leader Jack Mundey eloquently articulates the union’s right and responsibility to be involved in social activism.

With over 40 green bans in place by 1973, developers and government sought to remove Mundey and the NSW BLF union leadership, facilitated by a hostile Norm Gallagher, the Federal BLF leader. With the state government re-elected on law and order issues, in May 1974 the NSW branch of the BLF was de-registered and the union leadership barred from joining the BLF’s federal branch under Norm Gallagher. However, despite this loss, much of Sydney had already been saved, including The Rocks.

Special Notes/Achievements

  • Cinema release, Chauvel Cinema in Sydney for 4 weeks, 1986 [1]
  • Official selection – Leipzig International Festival of Documentary and Animation Films (Germany), 1985
  • Official selection – Edinburgh International Film Festival (UK), 1986
  • Official selection – Festival Dei Popoli (Italy), 1986
  • Official selection – International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg (Germany), 1986
  • Official selection – San Francisco International Film Festival (USA), 1986
  • Official selection – Sundance Film Festival (USA), 1986
  • Official selection – Toronto International Film Festival (Canada), 1986
  • Official selection – Tyneside International Film Festival (UK), 1986
  • Official selection – USA Film Festival, Dallas (USA), 1986
  • Official selection – New Delhi International Film Festival (India), 1987 [2]
  • Best Screenplay & Best Editing, AFI Awards (Aust), 1986
  • Broadcast nationally on ABC TV (Aust), 1987 [3]

[1] Lambert S. (n.d.), Rocking the Foundations, Australian Screen [website], viewed Jan 21, 2023 <>

[2] Screen Australia (n.d.), Rocking The Foundations, The Screen Guide [website], viewed Jan 21, 2023  <>

[3] Lambert S. (n.d.), Rocking the Foundations, Australian Screen [website], viewed Jan 21, 2023 <>

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 92 mins

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