Marxist Interventions

Aboriginal rights & trade unions in the 1950s and 1960s


The Hall looked like a garden, because we [Faith Bandler and her husband, Hans] by then had the land at French’s Forest, and it had not been developed and it was a mass of wildflowers; and two wharfies, who were not working that day, came out with their truck, and cut the wildflowers and decorated the whole platform. And it was magnificent, absolutely beautiful!


In 1957, a small number of people, a majority of them white, organised a meeting to support Aboriginal rights, as the first public activity of their recently formed organisation, the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship (AAF). They booked the Sydney Town Hall – an enormous statement of optimism! And they almost filled it. According to Faith Bandler, who was involved in organising it, and the author of the above anecdote, there “were a lot of Aboriginal people” there. Dame Mary Gilmour, Jessie Street and Don McLeod, the white Communist Party of Australia (CPA) member who had been involved in the Aboriginal strike in the Pilbara in 1947, were among the whites present.

When asked many years later if Don McLeod was the main speaker, she replied,


No, he wasn’t…he was small fry, really; once…once Bill Onus got out front. You know, Bill Onus made a speech,…and by the time you had Harold Blair, [an Aboriginal singer] and Bert Groves [long-time Aboriginal activist and President of the AAF], I tell you the whites didn’t get much of a say![1]


These stories may be a romanticised account of long-past events. However, the records indicate they are likely to be a fair account of that historic meeting. They attracted my attention because they contradict the tone of much of what has been written about the struggle for Aboriginal rights. New Social Movement theorists assume that trade unionists were traditionally only interested in “narrow economic” issues. If true, we could expect that the struggle for Aboriginal rights was built by Aborigines themselves and in as far as whites were involved, students, and perhaps some “middle class” or “intellectually trained workers” would be most significant. It is interesting to contrast what theorists were concluding by the late 1960s with what was actually happening in the working class in the 1950s and 1960s.


Herbert Marcuse, who never gave up on the idea of the need for an anti-capitalist revolution, reacted against the rising living standards of the post-war boom and turned his face away from the working class, who he considered bought off by the new mass society. Instead, he turned to the dispossessed and marginal in the search for the revolution he desired.[2] He was not alone in writing off the working class as a force for progressive change. The American Marxists Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, as early as 1964, in their book Monopoly Capitalism, argued that the working class in the developed countries was no longer likely to be revolutionary.[3] Andre Gorz in 1968 declared “in the foreseeable future there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes”.[4] In The Post-Industrial Society, Alain Touraine brought together a series of influential articles he had written between 1959 and 1969 in which he argued that society was now fundamentally different from earlier capitalism. Alienation was not simply a product of misery, or the deadening assembly line. This new society “seduces, manipulates, and enforces conformism”. This meant rebellion would be more cultural and social than economic, putting skilled, educated workers at the centre of this resistance[5]


These themes were repeated in Australia. The editorial in Arena, a Marxist journal, in the summer of 1966 declared: “...the industrial working-class, its image of society, its programme for social change has...begun to dissolve.”[6] In 1967, Rex Mortimer took up a theme which was becoming ever more common: students were the new revolutionary force.[7] In 1968, Geoff Sharp and Doug White argued that “the centres of formation of the intellectually trained become a main centre of conflict”. Intellectually trained workers were more aware of alienation, more conscious of their “humanity” than industrial workers and more likely to see the contradiction between the way their labour is used and “universal values”.[8]


The theories of the sixties continue to influence theorists of the so-called new social movements. The claims for these movements do not concern us here, except in as far as these claims rest on a view of the “old” movements. They argue the old movements were based on a mechanical, reductionist view of earlier capitalist society and struggles against it. The old movements, in particular the workers’ movement, are said to have had a too narrow focus on economic issues. The old, unlike the new movements, ignored the oppression of women, racism and other social issues.[9] Barbara Misztal, writing in Arena tells us that the “trade unions have been less interested in the pursuit of social justice than in defending their own members”.[10] As though the living standards of the millions of workers in trade unions was not a question of social justice!


Actually social issues such as equal pay and Aborigines’ rights came up regularly in key blue collar unions. At times they would levy their members to support such issues. By 1969, when the first meeting of the women’s movement occurred, some unions had consistently campaigned for equal pay for over a decade. These issues were a recurring theme in much trade union propaganda and low-key activity for years. Theories which draw a sharp dividing line between economic and political struggles only obscure how this low level campaigning contributed to much more public and widespread campaigns by the late sixties. As Connell and Irving argue in Class Structure in Australian History, the fifties’ theorists who dismissed the possibility of class struggle missed the dialectic of changes and tensions going on in industry and private life.[11]


The emphasis on students is understandable, given they were increasingly restless – and their expanding numbers did represent a new feature of capitalism which social scientists needed to theorise. These writers provide important insights and understanding. However, they claimed a universality for student rebellion that has not been born out. As a basis for historical research they are too narrow and mechanical. On the one hand, they dismiss the working class as an agent of change because it is not automatically revolutionary, while theorising the “intellectually trained” as the automatic bearers of dissent, as if this problem of lack of revolutionary activity does not exist in these social groups. The research for this paper highlights the problems with all of those theories which assumed that quiesence by workers was the same as support for capitalism and its atrocities.


The Aboriginal Rights Movement


It seems self-evident that a movement for Aboriginal rights could not be built without significant involvement by Aborigines themselves. I will return to this to look at how a number of Aboriginal activists became involved as working class activists. But first I want to look at the trade unions which overwhelmingly represented white workers. The story of wharfies collecting wild-flowers for an Aboriginal meeting well before Aboriginal rights became a mainstream issue reflects a wider narrative which has been almost completely silenced.


In Aboriginal Worker, a special edition of Labour History, Ann Curthoys and Clive Moore discussed the slow development of a distinct Aboriginal labour history. However, their historiographical overview reveals a gap which still exists. As they argue, there has been some valuable work done which documents and attempts to understand the way Aborigines related to the invasion of their land. This work has given rise to debates as to the degree to which Aboriginal communities and individuals were active agents in the process of colonisation – how much control they exercised over the changes to their culture, how much they attempted to turn the new situation to their advantage, and how much they were victims of an irresistible force which engulfed them. The overwhelming impression created by this collection of essays is that Aborigines were never involved in any process of trade union organisation, or alternatively that the unions have never, even in the most recent times, impacted on the development of an Aboriginal movement. Post-modernist influences and a general shift to the right in academia since the decline of the 1970s radicalism have produced an incomplete account of working class history over the last two decades.


Aborigines (and women, when they are the subject) are studied more as if they are interesting sociological subjects, rather than as potential participants in attempts to change the world. Only one of the articles in this volume is concerned with a strike, and it makes a point which illustrates why this aspect of Aboriginal labour is of central relevance for any explanation of the emergence of a radical movement for Aboriginal rights by the early seventies. Joanne Watson argues that the “less tangible results” of a strike on Palm Island in 1957 are still evident today:


a legacy of living memories, both of the hope and integrity that come with struggles for social justice…Alongside [the] wisdom regarding the role of the State and its instruments, came a growing acknowledgment that potential allies were now becoming available in the trade union and left-wing movements, and that the community was capable of enormous solidarity.[12]


However, the reverse process is possibly even more important: that many white workers heard of the need for a struggle for Aboriginal rights when protesting Aborigines asked for their support. Strikes could spark an even stronger response than other methods of struggle, simply because they spoke easily and naturally to workers in a language they understood. Race and racist attitudes could be over-ridden by learned notions of class solidarity. Even in relation to struggles other than strikes, or simply information of the terrible conditions many Aborigines had been reduced to, could elicit a response learned in the class struggle: support for the oppressed, and hatred of their exploitation by governments, employers and others in positions of authority. Trade union organisation, while its main reason for being was defence of economic conditions, nevertheless helped school generations of militants in this basic sense of solidarity against injustice.


So on the one hand, there are many examples of racist attitudes to both Asian and Aboriginal workers, often because of fears of “cheap labour”. However, the degree to which such ideas could be challenged depended on two things: the level of combativity and confidence among workers and the politics of those in positions of leadership. The extent of the awareness of racism and support for Aborigines depended on many factors, not least the influence of the left, who tend to foster and encourage generalisation from the economic to the political struggles, or conversely, the right wing of the labour movement who seek to limit it. It is no accident that it is where the CPA had influence, that unions were often the most active around Aboriginal issues. For instance, the North Australian Workers’ Union (NAWU), which is often referred to by historians as the example par excellence of white workers’ racism. At times it had tried to exclude Aboriginal stockmen from the pastoral industry, and even after equal pay was granted, they agreed to clauses to make it easier for pastoralists to discriminate against Aborigines. However, during the period 1946-1952, under CPA influence, they campaigned for equal pay, and organised a determined, national campaign to support strikes by Aboriginal workers.


The marginalisation of Marxism has resulted in histories which ignore the rich records of the struggles as opposed to the detail of work experience, and the backwardness of the labour movement. It even leads to labour historians mocking the achievements of the movement, to highlight the inevitable weaknesses. All accounts of the Gurindji strike of the late sixties point to the inspirational role it played, first in mobilising essential material support from trade unions, and then in establishing land rights as the demand of the Aboriginal movement. A striking example of the interconnections between working class struggle, and building confidence among oppressed groups who do not possess significant social power to fight for their rights.


Ann McGrath, in her article in Aboriginal Worker assumes that to show that questions of sexual exploitation of black women by white men played a role in the black men’s discontent justifies her ironical put-down of the “traditional interpretation”, referring to the supposed “noble gesture” of white unionists who “backed the unfortunate exploited Aboriginal workers”. However, part of her critique is not based on serious archival evidence, but her assumption that Communist Party activist Frank Hardy “probably” “did not want to totally set himself apart from white male culture”. Her account of the sexual oppression and abuse of Aboriginal women by white men on the Vesteys’ station does not lessen the importance of the strike. It highlights how the ideas of the ruling class infect the workers’ movement. The point is, workers create the conditions in which those ideas can be challenged once they struggle in solidarity with the oppressed. In view of the hysteria about sexual abuse of children in Aboriginal communities in early 2006, her account of the traffic in women and children as young as seven by whites on the station indicates where some of this violence and abuse was learnt.[13]


This is not to minimise the fact that white trade unionists may have been involved in racist and sexist behaviour. It is to reject the idea that the fact that workers act on the ideas propagated by capitalism minimises the significance of trade union struggle. In this case, McGrath’s emphasis on racism and sexism serves to partially denigrate the Aborigines’ struggle as well, robbing it as she does of its perceived and real significance. Such an emphasis denies that workers can take up struggles which have implications beyond their consciousness. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian revolutionary Marxist, built on Marx’s concepts of materialism when he explained this phenomenon: that actions can be well in advance of the participants’ ideas:


“[the worker’s] theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicitly or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed[14]


The significance of struggle is the potential for ideas and attitudes to be challenged. And the stronger the confidence engendered by the struggle, the more likely it is that racist and sexist ideas (to name just two) will be challenged. Trade unions and their willingness or otherwise to engage in industrial struggle are central. And the historical records (as opposed to academic histories) indicate that the left wing trade unions, most of which were heavily influenced by Communist Party activists, were of great importance in laying the basis for the developing radicalism of the Aboriginal rights movement during the sixties.


The astonishing thing is not to find that many workers, and even union officials who led struggles, had an inadequate analysis of the position of Aborigines, or had only partially begun to challenge racist assumptions. What is surprising is the readiness with which workers, once asked, gave willing support to the struggles for Aboriginal rights, in spite of the institutionalised racism of this country. The irony exists not in the weaknesses which can be found in the struggle, but the fact that, in spite of their original important role, the struggle was to outstrip the radicalism of the CPA – influenced as it was by the inevitable conservatism of Stalinism. And it exists in the fact that modern historians can speak from a position of what we regard as enlightened anti-racism because of past struggles, many of which have their origins and roots in the very white trade unions which are now dismissed as at best irrelevant, at worst, part of the problem.


Working Class Consciousness – An Alternative View


The accounts of the struggle for Aboriginal rights collected by Faith Bandler and Len Fox refer repeatedly to the strong role of trade unions in helping build a confident movement. In their chapter aptly subtitled “Events That Woke People Up”, they begin with the 1945 strikes by Aborigines in the pastoral industry in the Pilbara district. Second come the strikes of 1951 in Darwin by Aborigines organised by Fred Waters, an Aboriginal official of the NAWU. When Waters was arrested and banished to Haasts Bluff, nearly 1000 miles from his family and his land, the Labour Movement responded with “wide protests all over the continent” and Aboriginal Rights Councils were formed within both the Sydney Trades and Labour Council and Melbourne Trades Hall Council. This was a significant step towards Aboriginal struggles gaining support and understanding in the institutions which could deliver very substantial, as opposed to moral, support.


Other memoirs and the records of the time bear out the substance of Bandler and Fox’s accounts. Joe McGinness – an Aboriginal activist from the 1930s to the late 1970s – in his memoirs, mentions a number of times how important various unions were in establishing Aboriginal organisations and getting the issues onto the public agenda. Referring to the work of the Aboriginal Advancement League in Cairns in the early sixties, he says:


Without the support of trade unions and a few parliamentarians who believed in the principle of a fair go, it’s extremely doubtful whether any of the cases reported by the League to the protection authority would have got to the stage where a public inquiry was held, followed by action of some sort to punish offenders.”[15]


An unsigned “History of the Darwin Aborigines Struggle” lying in an ACTU file dated 1949-1951 says the strike in Darwin 1951 was “led entirely by the natives”. And a letter from the NAWU says there was a huge response when Waters was arrested.[16]


Throughout the late fifties and the sixties, Aboriginal organisations approached the left wing unions with a confident expectation of support, often referring to the generosity and solidarity they experienced from them. Stan Davey, secretary of Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines (FCAA)[17], in a letter dated 3 April 1963 asked Charlie Fitzgibbon, General Secretary of the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF), for assistance for fares to get Joe McGinness down from North Queensland to the FCAA AGM. In it he mentioned he was embarrassed to ask “after the generous assistance given when we launched the National Petition in Sydney last year.”[18] Later that year, the WWF affiliated to FCAA after McGinness addressed the Federal Council. And in 1964 they donated one hundred pounds (worth hugely more than today) for the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI)[19] expenses plus another three hundred pounds to scholarships for Aborigines. Faith Bandlers’ later recollections of the unions’ contribution does not differ substantially from things she wrote at the time. As NSW Secretary of FCAATSI in 1964, in a letter to the WWF thanking them for these donations, she wrote:


The main support for the FCAA in this struggle comes from the Trade Unions and among the Trade Unions the WWF has a special place in my heart because it has so often been the first and most generous in response to our appeals.[20]


Eighteen months later, she indicated that she took for granted the leading role of the unions. She wrote to Fitzgibbon to say that while the WWF had done a lot, they may not know which things were the most important. Could she come and speak to them “so that Trade Union efforts may be directed to vital areas where less politically advanced organisations cannot be expected to help”. An invitation for her to address the Federal Officers was returned within days.[21] In 1966, Jean Horner, Treasurer of FCAATSI in Sydney, in a letter to F. Purse, Federal Secretary of the Building Workers’ Industrial Union (BWIU), which organised trades people such as carpenters, thanking them for a 20 pound donation, wrote:


The BWIU has been one of the most consistent of our supporters for many years, and I sincerely hope that this support will continue[22]


Individual branches of the WWF such as Grafton, NSW South Coast, Sydney, Melbourne, Port Adelaide, Albany, Fremantle, Bowen, and Cairns, at times affiliated to FCAA/TSI, demonstrating the advanced political consciousness of waterside workers. However, in 1965, the list of affiliates to FCAATSI is dominated by a range of unions – the BWIU, Builders Labourers, the Australian Railways Union, the metal industry unions such as the boilermakers and sheet metal workers, Miscellaneous Workers’ Union, Teachers, plumbers and engine drivers, and some state Trades and Labour Councils. And invariably, left wing unions have special files of material to do with Aboriginal issues preserved in their archives. For instance, the Seamen’s Union Federal Office files reveal on-going activity from the early sixties around such issues as equal wages, opposition to mining on Aboriginal land at Gove, support for the Gurindji, affiliation to FCAA/TSI, donations for things such as a car for use in North Queensland by Aboriginal activists, and the sponsorship of Aboriginal children as seamen. Their files hold circulars on Aboriginal issues from the BWIU and BLF, reports from FCAA/TSI, and material on Mapoon, Cummeragunja and Yirrkala Aboriginal communities.[23]


Small committees and conferences in which either individual unions were involved at an official level, or trade union and CPA activists were prominent, played a role in establishing the basis for unity between Aboriginal struggles and increasing numbers of unions. In the early sixties, the Newcastle Trades and Labour Council  had established an Aboriginal Advancement Committee. Barbara Curthoys, a well-known CPA member, was secretary. It campaigned around issues such as the removal of discriminatory clauses from the Aborigines’ Protection Act.[24] In Victoria, the meat workers’ union (AMIEU) participated in an Aboriginal conference in 1961.[25] The friendly relations between Aboriginal groups and some unions is reflected in things such as the FCAATSI holding its conferences in the BWIU hall in Sydney in the early sixties. Other organisations which gave some support such as churches were far more reluctant to be openly identified with the Aboriginal activists’ political activities. So when the student “Freedom Riders” caused a stir in Walgett in 1965, they were hastily thrown out of the church hall in which they had hoped to sleep.


At the first meeting of the Equal Wages for Aborigines Committee in NSW in 1964, apart from Aboriginal groups and one or two church organisations, most of those present represented unions – from the BLF, Clothing Trades, Miscellaneous Workers Uunion, Tramways and  engine drivers (FEDFA), to the Association of Architects, Engineers, Surveyors and Draftsmen. The President elected was D. Scott, from the Sheet Metal Workers of NSW. [26] Because of FCAA and other Aboriginal organisations’ approaches, and the work of CPA and other left wing militants in the unions, the ACTU felt sufficiently pressured, in spite of their prevarication over most political issues, to adopt a policy supporting the main demands of the growing Aboriginal movement at its biennial conference in 1963. In 1962 white workers at Weipa had opposed lower wages for Aboriginal workers at the bauxite mine. Attitudes were changing, reflecting the gradually emerging confidence of workers and the results of campaigns in the unions to heighten awareness of the need and responsibility for solidarity between black and white.


So by 1964 a number of unions were involved in industrial matters concerning Aboriginal working conditions. Actors Equity took action to get award wages for Aboriginal performers at the Elizabethan Theatre in Sydney as well as demanding they be paid directly to them (not into a trust account as was common practice). In WA, the Australian Workers Union (AWU) was trying to have clauses which discriminated against Aboriginal workers removed from the Pastoral Industry Award.[27] In 1967, after Aborigines gained citizenship rights, the postal clerks’ union was trying to get a better deal for the Aborigines they served across the Post Office counters in social service payments and over electoral rights.[28]  These examples were turned up with very minimal research in union archives, so undoubtedly there are many more to be unearthed.


But support for Aboriginal needs and demands was not always restricted to industrial battles. Much of what unions did involved propaganda aimed at union members. For instance, the NSW Builders Labourers began producing a leaflet for Aborigines’ week in 1963. The one in 1964 showed a photo of “400 men, women and children from Northern Territory reserves, who made history by marching with the trade unions in Darwin’s May Day parade”. The Aboriginal Worker, as it was called, was “a trade union publication written by Aboriginal industrial workers and other Australians active in the cause of full and equal rights for Aborigines”. The lead article was written by Herbert Groves. Some unions took up appeals for help and tried to fill the gaps left by negligent governments. In 1965, several unions such as the WWF, the Newcastle branch of the Operative Bakers, Seamen and transport workers, organised to build a bakery on the Torres St Island of Moa. Following the request of the Sydney branch of the WWF for the union to back the project, the branches overwhelmingly voted to endorse a national levy of five shillings per member to raise 5,500 pounds to cover all costs.[29] E. Hattley, the Newcastle Secretary of the bakers’ union went to Moa to set up the ovens correctly while other unions organised the purchase and transport of the necessary equipment.[30]


And it wasn’t just all campaigning by officials. Neither was their support based on assumptions that Aborigines needed the same conditions as white, as alleged by some historians. Propaganda and educational material reached into the rank and file and carried the arguments being made by the leading Aboriginal activists. In 1957, the Eveleigh News, published and distributed by the Eveleigh Loco Central Shop Committee in Sydney ran an article “New Deal for Aborigines” as its main feature. It began, “No ‘dinkum’ Aussie can deny that one of the most shameful features of our Australian history has been the tragic treatment of our Aborigines”. It called for the Federal Government to be given powers to find solutions, which could be established by referendum, and referred to the AAF meeting in Sydney Town Hall where a petition to that end was launched. It reported that the petition was “already being circulated and being solidly supported in many Railway Workshops”. The Shop Committee was negotiating for a speaker on the issue to address the workshops. The Carriage Workshop Committee had organised a successful “Black & White” concert, and issued an appeal for financial support for the Fellowship. Donations totalled fifty pounds. The writer did not resile from making the reader feel uncomfortable:


Although we all have a very bad conscience about our inhuman behaviour towards the original Australians, our authorities continue to deny them economic, social and political equality, & enforce their existence as an underprivileged minority in their own country.


They referred to the “plight of the Tribal Aborigines”, and the fact that “vast areas of Tribal lands have been violated by the establishment of Rocket & Nuclear weapon testing ranges” at Maralinga. The article concluded with a reminder that “The Aboriginal people are Australians – much more so than we are ourselves – they deserve all the help and assistance we Railwaymen and others can give them in their fight for full Citizenship.”[31]

The 26 June edition carried a drawing of the Woomera explosion, and the threat it posed to the Aboriginal inhabitants with this poem:


Driven from their Tribal lands
By men who plan for war
Into arid lands around them
To hunger pain & more

Proud in Tribal Legend
On sacred ground they tread
Commuting with their spirits
Their totems and their God

So let us raise our voices
In answer to their pleas
To make them equal Citizens
In this country of the free.


In 1957 in response to a call by the NSW Trades and Labour Council to hold workplace meetings to protest the nuclear tests, Eveleigh held a mass meeting on 13 September and sent off a telegram to Prime Minister R. G. Menzies.[32]


Each issue or event which the interviewees in Bandler and Fox’s oral history list as landmarks in the developing consciousness and struggle were the subject of meetings, protests, sometimes collections of money, in many workplaces and union meetings. The scandal of Aborigines suffering from starvation in the Warburton Ranges and the case of Albert Namatjira, the Aboriginal artist, jailed for giving “grog” to his friends and relatives in the mid-fifties, and a similar jailing of actor Robert Tudawali (star of Jedda) in 1959 provoked protests. During this year, workplaces sent protests to many government figures opposing the death sentence passed on Rupert Stuart, a black man convicted of murdering a young white woman in South Australia, with many of their motions and letters indicating a grasp of both the details of the case and wider issues raised by it. Add to that protests and messages of support for as well as visits by delegates to places such as Lake Tyers, the Aboriginal Reserve in Gippsland, and the Lutheran Aboriginal Mission at Hopevale north of Cooktown, Queensland, which often resulted in reports to mass meetings, or guest speakers at meetings such as the THC. In 1962, the Victorian THC heard speakers such as one from Lake Tyers and the veteran Aboriginal leader, Bill Onus for the Council for Aboriginal Rights, fairly regularly.[33] And protests greeted the development of mining on Aboriginal land at Gove Peninsular.


A typical chain of events was the investigation during 1956 by the Cairns and District TLC of the Yarraba Aboriginal mission 10 miles from Cairns. Delegates were sent there and their report was circularised. In part it pointed out that there was plenty of excellent building timber on the property, but none to build or repair houses for the people living there. They criticised the practice of allocating food as though traditional foods were still available, when it was clear the community could no longer sustain itself by traditional means. Their recommendations were typical of the proposals many unions made: provision of a timber mill, a grant of 50,000 pounds for new homes, the election of a council to run their own affairs, building of a deep sea jetty and a decent road. They protested the fact that the child endowment was not paid to Aboriginal mothers, but had to be taken out in kind from the local store. No aspect of life in the mission appeared to escape their notice. They concluded that the Mission “is a shocking example of deliberate criminal Government and semi-Government neglect”. A people once proud are now “frustrated, starved, uneducated and hopeless”. This situation, the reporter wrote, was a challenge to the government and also to the trade union movement and lent weight to the argument for trying to force those responsible to lift the standards of the Aborigines. [34]


When I came across the minutes book for the Amalgamated Engineering Union Darwin Branch for some years in the sixties, I turned to 1966, and sure enough, the branch voted to give a donation to the Gurindji strike and passed a motion “that this branch give them full support in their struggle for equal rights”.[35]


Of course, not all these protests were based on ideas as enlightened as we like to think we are today. But the point here is not to judge on a moral basis. Neither is it to assess the political strategies adopted by the CPA or any unions. It is simply to establish the fact that trade union organisations played quite a significant role in the developing radicalism of some Aboriginal organisations during the late fifties and the sixties, and the growing sympathy for them from white workers. It is unthinkable that a group of such small numbers and such marginal economic and social power as the Indigenous people of Australia could develop a confident, radical stance without the knowledge that at least some groups with some power would back them.


It is true that a number of church leaders were involved in the struggle during the period of my study. However, their prominence is often emphasised out of proportion to the support they could deliver. The CPA had a strategy of gaining the support of any “respectable” figures they could – partly to counteract cold war anti-Communism, thereby hoping that they would be taken seriously by wider layers of people. Often they would promote church speakers with very little or no support from their institution or parishioners. In fact, the CPA, by virtue of its roots in the unions, gave them platforms they would otherwise never have had – certainly not from their own organisations. However, the CPA’s belief that these people would gain more favourable publicity than well-known union militants contained a grain of truth – illustrated by the fact that historians are inclined to promote their participation over that of union militants, certainly if they were CPA. And, of course, workers who “only” held mass meetings are easily forgotten.


An Assessment of unions’ campaigns


If we are to weigh up the overall contribution of the unions as compared to say the churches, we need to look not just at the stance taken by prominent individuals. While some church representatives were trying to foster sympathy for Aborigines, many of their churches were participating in the practice of stealing Aboriginal children from their families and holding them as virtual prisoners in their missions and homes and arranging for the children to be used as virtual slave labour in urban middle class and pastoral families.[36] And, during the years of the AAF in NSW, the church leaders were only able to establish “citizens” committees which were not officially part of the churches’ institutions because of hostility from many of their parishioners. In contrast, I have not encountered one instance where the rank and file of a union or a work place rejected the appeals for support brought before them in shop stewards’ or mass meetings.[37]


Neither is it the case, as historians such as Heather Goodall and Curthoys and Moore assert, that the white organisations which joined the struggle did not support the demands for land, or only supported those demands which fitted with their own campaigns. In 1962, during the agitation surrounding Lake Tyers in Victoria, the ARU, when it protested at the closure of the settlement, demanded it be given to the Aborigines.[38] The demands of the report on Yarraba outlined above indicate that issues quite removed from the direct interests of the unions caught the attention of contingents sent to talk to the Aboriginal communities. And in 1963 the ACTU Congress adopted a policy which included the following clauses:


·         “Aboriginal people while forming part of the Australian population are at the same time distinct viable national minorities entitled to special facilities for self development.”

·         “Congress further declares that there should be an enquiry into the allegations concerning the removal of Aboriginal communities from their traditional lands at Mapoon, North Queensland, the closing down of the settlement at Lake Tyers, and threatened removal of Aboriginals at Yirrkala, Gove Peninsular, N.T., in the interest of foreign investors which lands have been regarded as inviolable Aboriginal lands.”

·         “Congress believes that where Aboriginal lands have been violated completely adequate re-settlement and compensation should be provided …”


It called for an accounting of the money owed to Aborigines and that all payments of wages and social services be paid directly to them, putting an end to the practice of keeping the money in so-called “trusts”.


I found numerous schemes taken on by left wing unions designed to back requests for help and support of various Aboriginal communities, which indicates there is a much richer history to tell than is usually assumed. And the role of CPA activists cannot be understated. For instance, the above report from north Queensland is in the CPA records in Sydney. Such a report would have provided ammunition for many union delegates to raise the issue of Aboriginal rights in their shop committees or at meetings of officials. On an undated loose sheet in the front of a minutes book of the Combined Union Shop Committee at the Williamstown Naval Dockyards which begins 27 September 1956, “Tulloch”, a CPA member,[39] is recorded as raising the issue of racial discrimination. He wanted the shop committee to ask the Metal Trades Federation to approach the government to enact anti-racial vilification legislation. Another worker, Wilson, raised the demand of full citizenship rights for Aborigines, and moved that “Stewards who have not had a mailing on this matter to do so and raise these [questions] on the shop committee”. This kind of low-level campaigning and propaganda is essential for any mass movement to develop. And it appeared in every union archives I examined.


It is the case that very little industrial action was taken to force the issues, but that could be said about any number of issues which affected non-Aboriginal unionists more directly. The fact was, the Penal Powers were a genuine disincentive to action, given the increasing amounts of fines hanging over many of the unions. They were also a screen behind which more officials of both right and left could hide. However, there is the occasional glimmer of tension over this issue between left and right, or sometimes the higher rungs of the union bureaucracy and officials closer to the rank and file. For instance, in March 1963, the VTHC Executive refused permission for R. Ockenden to address Trades Hall Council about the industrial conditions of Aborigines. Instead, they typically shunted the issue off for the ACTU to consider – a guaranteed way to bury an issue. A couple of weeks later, the plumbers’ union was writing to the THC demanding action over just this issue.[40]


By the end of 1964, some commentators were talking of a significant shift in workers’ consciousness, and one of the most important aspects of that was an awareness of the demands of Aborigines.[41] This is a remarkable observation, given it would be another three years before Aborigines gained any citizenship rights. However, there are events in the 1964 trade union calendar which appear to have made a significant impact on events which led to the so-called and now famous Freedom Rideby Sydney Uni students in western NSW which made such an impact on public awareness.


Writers today are often dismissive of the CPA’s assumption that Aborigines were part of the working class. However, the CPA’s experience was that the vast majority of Aborigines who had gathered in the cities and rural towns were working class – even if they suffered higher rates of unemployment than white workers. There was virtually no black middle class before the seventies.[42] And it is significant that many of the early Aboriginal activists developed their knowledge of politics and gained organisational skills as working class militants in unions such as the AWU as shearers and rural labourers, on the waterfront, and in the building industry. This is a neglected area of research. There is a substantial list of well-known and not so famous leaders who contributed to the campaigns of the late fifties and sixties, and who gained experience and confidence as trade union militants and delegates. Dexter Daniels, an Aboriginal man working in the pastoral industry in the NT, was an organiser for the NAWU for some time; Ted Duncan was a tram driver who was present at the first AAF meeting in Sydney in 1957. By the time the students arrived at Walgett on their Freedom Ride, Harry Hall had worked closely with a trade union delegation, initiated by the NSW BLF, which visited the town in July 1964. He was established as a community leader of the local Aborigines well before the Freedom Riders arrived. Jack Hartley and Jack Hassen were both Aboriginal delegates to Walgett in mid-1964, as a National Councillor and delegate of the WWF respectively. George Rose was a shearer from the AWU.


Alan Wood, a long-term Aboriginal trade union militant, went as a delegate to Walgett in July, and then addressed mass meetings around Sydney. Chicka Dickson, a wharfie and a Communist went to places like Walgett in subsequent trips. The significance of their activities in the unions are twofold: firstly, it indicates that whatever the latent racist ideas held by some workers, sufficient numbers accepted these Aboriginal men as militants. This in turn gave those men the opportunity to influence wider numbers of workers’ attitudes and ideas. Women are strikingly absent from this list of activists. But it is not hard to see why there would be fewer of them, and why even those who existed are difficult to find in the historical record. This imbalance exists in the history of white workers, and can be expected to be even worse among oppressed groups. Aboriginal women worked mostly as domestics or in other areas where unions were weak or non-existent. Even white women involved in unions are often written out of history by historians, so Aboriginal women are even more invisible. The men mentioned above are reasonably well known, or not too difficult to find because of the unions they were in.


The activist role played by many Aboriginal men in a range of unions and the impact they had on white workers’ consciousness needs more investigation, but it seems evident it must have played some role in a developing consciousness of the oppression of Aborigines and the possibility of doing something about it. In fact, McGinness writes of it a number of times. This is a typical statement by him:


No doubt it was my working with organised labour…that caused me to be more aware of these matters [restrictions on access to liquor etc]; and the full realisation that these protection laws did not really protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ working conditions but in fact had the opposite effect.”




it was my early experiences with the Waterside Workers’ Federation in the 1950s which helped me understand the system of organised labour much better. From this experience I also became more aware and conscious of the deplorable conditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island workers.”[43]


Historical Context


Events such as the Freedom Ride are often recorded as if they were discreet events, with their own simple logic. Charles Perkins, in his account, as well as Peter Read, gives the impression that events at Sydney University were the catalyst for actions over racism. However, they occurred in a historical context which had been developing for some years. As I have shown, some unions had been gradually taking up Aboriginal issues since the early fifties. However, just as with the students, solidarity with overseas struggles against racism played an important part in a growing awareness of the need to take a stand on these issues. During 1963 and 1964, the campaign against apartheid in sport which had begun during 1962 grew in influence and activity. Many unions were involved alongside students in the campaign against the South African rugby and cricket teams, giving their endorsement to leaflets which appear to be written by students and sometimes buying thousands of them for distribution.[44] In May 1963, union bodies protested at the jailing of trade unionists in South Africa.[45] In July at least one union was urging a boycott of South African goods.[46]


By early 1964, the Department of Labour regarded 1964 as “the most critical year…for a long time”. A report listed “unprecedented” postal strikes in NSW, GMH, Mt Isa, government instrumentalities, and waterfront protests against apartheid as “just some” of the disputes in which “labour generally sought to exploit its strong position…”[47] Then in 1964, the daily press was dominated by reports of black riots in the US over civil rights.[48] If we put all of this beside the fact that there was considerable discontent expressed with the union officials at the ACTU Youth Conference during 1964, it helps to understand the students’ actions not as isolated incidents, or simply reflecting some new response to society by students per se, but a growing restlessness about issues of racism and a growing impatience among youth with the plodding campaigning their seniors took for granted.


In fact, many of the activists responsible for a rally supporting the US civil rights movement on Commemoration Day at Sydney University and the subsequent Student Action for Aborigines and the Freedom Ride had parents who had participated in these union activities. Patricia Healy’s father was in the WWF and attended the Commemoration rally as an observer, Ann Curthoys was Barbara’s daughter, and Jeannie Lewis’s father was Sam, President of the Teachers’ Federation.[49] Also, significantly, in terms of the importance of these events, Hall Greenland, one of the students on the Ride, said of it 30 years later, that it was the first action of the sixties, and the last act of the fifties.[50]


The Freedom Ride of 1965


The Freedom Ride is an interesting case study of how the student movement has been established as more important in social movements than the labour movement in the historical accounts and therefore in political science. Not only does Charles Perkins present the Freedom Ride as simply springing from the student movement, he completely ignores the close ties with and offers of support from left wing unions. His well-known anti-Communist stance and others’ fear of being tarred with the stigma of being a front for the CPA affected where they looked for support at the time as well as the way it has been portrayed since. In a document “Student Action for Aborigines” Report prepared by Charles N. Perkins (Chairman) in 1965, he lists the organisations approached: several Aboriginal groups, “most Churches, Town and Shire Councils and people of prominence in the towns.” His emphasis in the telling years later indicates who were regarded as “people of prominence”.


To read Perkins’ account, you would think that the Aborigines of Walgett had never raised a whisper in protest – and were propelled into action simply by the students’ presence. He doesn’t even mention Harry Hall, the activist who worked with the union delegation six months earlier, and who was by then widely known, even though he gives credit to Hall’s son and daughter – for becoming activists under the influence of the Ride. He doesn’t mention the protests at the treatment of the two Aboriginal children and their mothers which had already been organised by Hall and others, and associated with the unions’ delegation to Walgett in July 1964, or the catalogue of racism the unions had noted and used as a basis for a list of demands.


That sojourn into the rural towns of NSW to investigate racism by union delegates was ignored by the mainstream press. Its importance lay in the information collected by the delegates and reported to mass meetings around Sydney plus the prominence in some unions this gave the Aboriginal delegates. Dick Prendergast, an organiser, represented the BLF, and Jim Hill represented the BWIU. So apart from the unions represented by Aboriginal activists, the building industry would have held meetings on the job. The CUSC at Eveleigh held a meeting which Alan Woods addressed, indicating it was not only unions represented on the delegation who took up the issues. Unionists heard how two Aboriginal children were sent to jail for “stealing” a couple of ping pong bats and some chalk from the Church of England hall. Even when one of the mothers replaced all the goods the church demanded the police proceed with punitive action. The fact that the goods were returned was not even raised in the court hearing. Trade unionists heard about appalling conditions in which the two mothers coped, and how their children had been removed from their care.


As with other delegations to Aboriginal communities, a range of issues were noted. In this case, the racism of the manager of the Aboriginal Reserve, and his discrimination against Catholic children, racist police harassment and racist attitudes of the headmaster at the school. All of this incensed the meetings which were addressed, sometimes by the Aboriginal delegates. None of this got a mention in the press, as far as I can tell – if it did, it must have been marginal. So unless union records are checked, the impact this story had on quite wide layers of workers is missing entirely from the context in which the students began to organise for Aboriginal rights.

There is a suggestion (but disputed by Ann Curthoys) that Perkins and Jim Spigelman, another of the leading activists, discouraged the CPA youth group, the Eureka Youth League (EYL), from sending all the members who were willing to go on the Ride. If this is true, it means the representation of students influenced by union and CPA activity is understated by the list of students who did participate. Perkins omits to even mention that the WWF offered to supply a speaking system and an organiser to go with them, but their offers were rebuffed for fear of being tarred with the “Commie” brush (they were anyway, at least in the Bulletin), which raises the question of how many other unions may have offered help and were refused – only further research will tell.[51]


Perkins’ account, which emphasises the student activism, isolated from any union or CPA influence, or by any previous campaigning and consciousness of the issues, is reinforced by the way the press covered the issues. After ignoring the union delegation and the scandal they publicised during 1964, the press gave quite prominent coverage to the student “Freedom Ride” – insisting on this title, even though the students themselves rejected it as pretentious. Thus it was established that a handful of students put Aboriginal rights on the agenda, a very useful picture for historians who followed, wanting to show how irrelevant unions and working class activity were to the development of the social movements of the seventies.




The growing student radicalism was crucial in breaking the hide-bound traditions of the CPA and the unions where issues could be the subject of campaigning for years with little result other than a heightened awareness of many workers of the issues. The growing discontent in the unions was very tentative before 1964. However, as the rank and file became more restless, demanding their unions fight for more gains than they were getting from the post war boom challenged the officials, and began to outstrip the CPA.


As I said earlier, the Aboriginal movement could not have taken off without the efforts by Indigenous people themselves. To document their history is another task altogether. All I have tried to do here is illustrate the interactions between them as an oppressed group, and the unions. My focus on the role of working class involvement and activity arises directly from my stance as a Marxist. But that is not to deny the role played by many individuals not from the unions. However, their contribution is more likely to be acknowledged, as it fits with the more dominant views of history more easily than that of trade unionists.


If we put the activities of the unions and left wing workers together with other campaigning, it is evident that 1964 was a turning point for the growth of a national Aboriginal movement, and in the previous few years, agitation about their rights and needs contributed to a growing sense that all was not well with this society, in spite of the economic boom. It would be another five years before this exploded into industrial activity and student militancy on a mass scale. However, the seeds can be seen clearly by this time, many of them sown in the working class. My account is based on quite limited research while enrolled as a PhD student at Melbourne University for a thesis never written. It is an area just waiting for further research by anyone who wants to contribute to a more complete history of both the struggle for Aboriginal rights, and of the working class of this country.

[1] Faith Bandler and Len Fox (eds) The Time was Ripe. A history of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship (1956-69), Alternative Publishing Co-operative, Chippendale, NSW, 1983, pp. 13-14.

[2] Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation, Beacon Press, Boston, 1969.

[3] Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, Monopoly Capitalism,

[4] quoted in Chris Harman, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After, Bookmarks, London, 1988, p.4.

[5] Alain Touraine, The Post-Industrial Society. Tomorrow’s Social History: Classes, Conflicts and Culture in the Programmed Society, translated by Leonard F.X. Mayhew, Wildwood House, London, 1969, pp.5-18.

[6] G.S., in Arena, no 11, Summer, 1966, p.3.

[7] Rex Mortimer, “The New Left”, in Arena, no 13, Winter 1967, p.23.

[8] G.S. and D.W., “Features of the Intellectually Trained”, in Arena, no 15, 1968, pp.30-33.

[9] Verity Burgmann, Power and Protest. Movements for Change in Australian Society, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1993, pp. 2-3.

Karl-Werner Brandt, “New Social Movements as a Metapolitical Challenge”, in Thesis Eleven, no 15, 1986.

[10] Barbara A. Misztal, “New Social Movements: Plurality of the Forms of Struggle”, Arena, vol 6, no 3, August 1987, p. 13.

[11] R.W. Connell and Terry Irving, Class Structure in Australian History, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1980, p. 24.

[12] Joanne Watson, “’We Couldn’t Tolerate Any More’: the Palm Island Strike of 1957”, in Ann McGrath & Kay Saunders with Jackie Huggins, Aboriginal Workers, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Sydney, 1995, p. 165.

[13] Ann McGrath, :’Modern Stone-Age Slavery’: Images of Aboriginal Labour and Sexuality” in Aboriginal Workers, pp. 44-45.

[14]  Antonio Gramsci, Selections from The Prison Notebooks, International Publishers, New York, 1971, p.333.

[15] Joe McGinness, Joe McGinness. Son of Alyandabu – My Fight for Aboriginal rights, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1991, p.47.

[16] ACTU – Secretary’s Files, Subject Files, N21/625 at NBA.

[17] FCAA was formed out of a meeting in Adelaide held in 1958.

[18] Letter FCAA to C.H. Fitzgibbon, General Secretary, WWF, 3.4.63, WWF Federal Office – Subject Files, FCAATSI/Aborigines 1963-1966, at NBA.

[19] This was FCAA renamed in 1964

[20] Letter C. Fitzgibbon to Stan Davey, FCAA, 22.11.63, WWF Federal Office – Subject Files, FCAATSI/Aborigines 1963-1966, NBA, N114/489, at NBA.

   FCAA report to Annual Conference March 1964 and Letter FCAATSI to General Secretary, WWF, 31.10.64, ditto.

[21] Letter from Faith Bandler, NSW Secretary FCAATSI to WWF 19.4.66 and Letter C. Fitzgibbon, Secretary WWF to Faith Bandler, 6.5.66, WWF Federal Office – Subject Files, FCAATSI/Aborigines 1963-1966.

[22] Letter Mrs J. Horner to F. Purse, 17.6.66, FCAATSI Records, MLMSS 2999 Box 1.

[23] Seamen’s Union Federal Office, Political and Industrial Files – Aborigines 1961-1969, N38/61 at NBA.

[24] VTHC exec mins 1/2/1/34 - UMA

[25] VTHC exec mins 1/2/1/34 – UMA.

[26] Legislative Reform Committee Annual Report, March 1964; report from first meeting of the Equal Wages for Aborigines Committee, WWF Federal Office – Subject Files, FCAATSI/Aborigines, 1963-1966, at NBA.

[27] FCAA Report 7th Annual Conference, March 1964. WWF Federal Office – Subject Files, FCAATSI/Aborigines 1963-1966, at NBA.

[28] Letter J.S. Baker, ACSPA, to Pastor Nicholls, UPCTU Arbitration Files 1960-1966, E226/288 at NBA.

[29] As an indication of what these amounts were worth, average wages of full time male workers were 25-30 pounds ($50-60). And most union levies were compulsory.

[30] Reports on Moa Is Bakery May-July 1965; Letter from Rev W.A. Clint, General Secretary of the Co-op for Aborigines Ltd Narrabeen, NSW, 21.7.65; Minutes Newcastle THC 6.5.65, WWF Federal Office – Subject Files, FCAATSI/Aborigines 1963-1966.

[31] Eveleigh News is held in the Mitchell Library.

[32] Eveleigh News, Wednesday 30 October, 1957, p.2.

[33] AMIEU ltr re flogging of an Aborigine at Hopevale Mission (VTHC exec mins 1/2/1/34 - UMA).

Spkr from Lake Tyers to address THC March 1962(VTHC exec mins 1/2/1/35- UMA).

Dr Christopher & W. Onus to address THC 12 Apr, 1962 for Council for Aboriginal Rights (VTHC exec mins 1/2/1/35- UMA).


[34] CPA Archives, MLMSS 5021 Box 73, "Aborigines”, Report of a Delegation of the Cairns and District Trades and Labour Council on the Yarraba Mission, 26.3.56.

[35] AEU Branch Minutes Book, Darwin Branch, September, October, 1966.

[36] Bringing them Home. Report from the Royal Commission into the Stolen Generations

[37] This includes TLC meetings in Melbourne, Newport Railway Workshops, Williamstown Naval Dockyards, Eveleigh Railway Workshops in Sydney, and the minutes of the Amalgamated Engineering Union plus some records of the Waterside Workers’ Federation, the NSW Teachers’ Federation, reports from FCAATSI.

[38] VTHC exec mins 1/2/1/35, May 1962- UMA

[39]  The spelling is probably incorrect and should be “Tullock”. His name is spelt both ways throughout the records.

[40] VTHC exec mins 1/2/1/36, March – April, 1963 - UMA.

[41] Bulletin 8.12.64.

[42] And, as Mick Armstrong points out, even in the nineties, it remains tiny – Mick Armstrong, 'Aborigines', in Rick Kuhn (ed), Class and Struggle in Australia.

[43] Joe McGinnes. Son of Alyandabu, pp. 27 & 35.

[44] CPA Archives, MLMSS 5021, Box 112 folder “Apartheid leaflets”.

[45] VTHC exec mins 1/2/1/36, 16.5.63 - UMA

[46] Coal miners union moved a motion at VTHC Executive meeting, VTHC exec mins 1/2/1/36, July 1963 - UMA

[47] Filed in Industrial Disputes ****

[48] Sydney Morning Herald, Jan – Sept 1964.

[49] Ann says a no of them were sons & daughters of CPA and/or union militants – email correspondence, February, 1999.

[50] Hall Greenland, “On the Road to Prejudice”, in Australian magazine, 4-5 February, 1995.

[51] Perkins account is given in Charles Perkins, “The Freedom Ride”, in Irene Moores (ed), Voices of Aboriginal Australia. Past, Present, Future, Butterfly Books, Springwood, 1995.

Alternative views were gleaned from:

Hall Greenland, “On the Road to Prejudice”, in the Australian magazine, 4-5 February, 1995; Bulletin, 1964; records Eveleigh Railways Workshop Combined Union Shop Committee, 1964.

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