Joseph (Joe) Owens was born in Durham County in the north of England; his Welsh father was a coalminer. He arrived in Australia in 1958, having skipped ship as a seaman, then worked as a cane-cutter in Queensland before working as a dogman on Sydney building sites. He became a member of the Communist Party of Australia and an organiser in the New South Wales Branch of the Australian Building Construction Employees' and Builders' Labourers' Federation (ABCE&BLF). He was Secretary of the NSW Branch of the ABCE&BLF from 1973 to 1975 and along with the Branch leadership which included Jack Mundey and Bob Pringle, supported the BLF Green Bans. In 1975, Owens and other members of the NSW Branch leadership were expelled from the BLF by the federation's then federal secretary Norm Gallagher. Owens was also a Federated Engine Drivers' & Firemen's Association of Australasia (FEDFA) delegate and Senior Project Delegate of the Labour Council to the Darling Harbour Construction Project.