ACTU President, Jennie George speaks on reconciliation in industry from a worker and trade union perspective.

Trade Union Perspective

I have been asked to talk on this panel, which is dealing with reconciliation in the community, about the more specific area of reconciliation in industry.


I will do so from a worker’s perspective and from a trade union perspective.


Trade unions are organisations that have been created to protect workers’ rights at work. They were established as a direct response to the exploitation and unfair treatment of workers in their working lives.


Unions are also collective organisations committed to using collective negotiating strength to achieve common outcomes for all workers both weak and strong. As such unions have needed a strong commitment to consultation and collective decision-making.


This means that unions by their very nature have an affinity for both the struggles of indigenous peoples to achieve justice and self determination.


This is not to say that unions have always understood and supported the aspirations of Australia’s Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


Unions have been products of their times and have sometimes reflected the ignorance and, in some cases, racist views of society at large.


For many years, for instance, unions supported a “White Australia” policy. And initially many unions, being both craft-based and city-based, were not very aware of either aboriginal employment issues or the broader social justice issues facing indigenous Australians.


Nevertheless at different times in our past unions have, because of our commitment to fairness and equity, supported various Aboriginal groups in their struggles. Often at a time when such struggles were not receiving support from “middle” or “mainstream” Australia.


Initially, given the nature of unions and the fact that our concerns are predominantly workplace oriented, this support has focussed on wages and working conditions.

Industrial Issues

And so in 1947 there was union support for an Aboriginal cattlemen’s strike in the Pilbara in Western Australia. This was the first of the disputes of these workers for wage justice and was a lengthy struggle – over three years. It had a major impact on industry at that time. W.A. unions and the TLC gave both financial and political support to the strikers.


Later in 1965-66, an equal pay case was brought by the N.A.W.U. for Aboriginal stockmen in the Northern Territory – to bring them under proper award regulation through the Cattle Station (N.T.) Award. This finally resulted in these workers being given wage parity with white workers.


In the cities unions were also supporting Aboriginal workers. For instance in 1955 during the filming of the feature film “Jedda”, Actors Equity was involved in a dispute to ensure Aborigines brought to Sydney from the Northern Territory for studio sequences were given proper accommodation and not the tents which is what the producers claimed they were used to.


Again in 1986 a number of unions were actively engaged in a highly publicised dispute to get an Aboriginal crane driver in Queensland paid award wages.


These are not the only instances of union support but they illustrate the general point that unions have been supportive of Aboriginal claims for industrial protection when these instances have arisen.


In more recent years unions have been concerned with broader issues going to the amount of aboriginal employment and equal opportunity issues.


A number of individual unions and State Trades and Labor Councils have appointed specific Aboriginal industrial staff to look more broadly at Aboriginal industrial issues. These have related to access to jobs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and training places in new projects.


For example, ACTU Lendlease housing projects in New South Wales and various mining and tourism projects. In addition, cultural awareness issues have been raised including access to cultural/ceremonial leave in awards. For example, in the Australian Public Service and WA Local Government awards.


More unions are establishing networks of Aboriginal delegates. For example, the Australian Education Union. And it is particularly pleasing to me to say that at this conference we have aboriginal delegates from some 14 unions representing all of the major industry groups.

Broader Issues

In addition to industrial concerns unions have also been concerned with the broader issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.


This started as far back as the 1966 Northern Territory Award wages Case, which involved the walk off the Vestey owned station, Wave Hill.


Between 1965 at the start of the NAWU’s claim and the early 70’s, the central issue changed from wages to land rights.


In the course of the fight by the Gurindjis of Wave Hill for their land, unions such as the Waterside Workers and Actors Equity funded speaking tours by Vincent Lingiari and others publicising and generating support for the broader claim of Aboriginal people to their own land. A large number of ACTU affiliates provided financial support for the Gurindjis.


This claim eventually of course culminated in Gough Whitlam’s hand-over of leasehold title for the Wave Hill station to the Gurindji people represented by Vincent Lingiari on 16th of August 1975, and ultimately led to the Northern Territory Land Rights Legislation.


Similarly, in the late 1970’s unions were active in their support of the Noonkanbah people in their dispute with the Western Australian Government and mining companies Amax and CRA.


This project was blackbanned and only proceeded when non-union labour was enlisted to drive the drilling rig and trucks to the site. Unions were active in supporting and publicising the fight of the Noonkanbah people for the right to control their own land including any mining activity undertaken on it.

ACTU Policy

Over these years ACTU policy has also been developing in breadth and scope.


In 1983, the ACTU Congress adopted the most comprehensive policy in relation to Aboriginal issues than had been the case in the past. It identified eight areas requiring specific attention. These were wage discrimination; employment; education and training; general welfare; housing; land rights and collective enterprises; the right to self-determination; and the restoration of the National Aboriginal Council.


In June 1993, the ACTU hosted a major Conference prior to the ACTU Congress of that year entitled, “Partners for Justice”.


This Conference was part of the trade union movement’s celebration of the United Nation’s International Year for the World’s Indigenous People.


It brought together Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal unionists to review past trade union action and develop policies and strategies for the future.


As a result, a very detailed policy and strategy was put to the 1993 Congress.


Part of that policy stated:-


“The ACTU recognises its responsibility to show leadership on national issues concerning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities. This includes playing an active role in public debate concerning the High Court of Australia’s decision on Native Title and Reconciliation” [Para. 2.3]


I believe that this role of public advocacy in support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is an important one for the ACTU – especially at the present time.


At the same Congress in 1993 the ACTU commended the then Labor Government and Prime Minister Keating on “their determination to reach a just and appropriate basis of reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the Australian community.” [1.1 Mabo Resolution]


Congress also noted “the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation has acknowledged the High Court decision (referring to the Mabo decision) as a landmark on the road to reconciliation.” [1.2]


And of course, since then we have had the Wik decision which has also been acknowledged by the Council as fundamental in the process of reconciliation.


So where does this take us in making reconciliation a reality among working people?

Response To Mabo And Wik Decisions

We saw in response to the Mabo decision an ugly debate emerging in which State Governments and vested mining interests sought to emphasise development rights at the expense of indigenous rights and sought to engender fear amongst middle Australia about the consequences.


In 1993, we saw how a strong, decisive Government, and one morally committed to equity and justice, can put an end to such scaremongering.


In response to that earlier decision the then Prime Minister undertook a comprehensive round of consultations engaging all of the stakeholders on an equal footing – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives, the National Farmers Federation (we remember the constructive role played by Rick Farley) and so on.


The result was a negotiated outcome that all parties were able to live with once the hue and cry died down.


Speaking today we have seen a far different approach and one which will have a far different outcome.


The Prime Minister has presented from on high a so-called 10 point plan which he is now going to seek to impose on all of the stakeholders.


Not only was this plan drawn up in secret, and then changed in contentious circumstances, so far as its meaning is concerned according to the National Party, it manifestly does not meet the just expectations of one of the critical stakeholders – Australia’s indigenous people.


Nor have Aboriginal representatives been treated as equal parties in the negotiating process.


In addition to this marginalisation of Aborigines from the actual negotiations, we have seen a campaign of lies and distortions unparalleled in this country including unprecedented attacks on the High Court by politicians in particular. We are seeing vested interests, i.e., pastoralists launch an intensive campaign seeking to extend their rights at the expense of native title holders.


It is astonishing how this campaign has been treated by the media which has largely taken the “Prime Minister versus the Nationals” conflict line rather than analyse just what is happening to native title and the rights of indigenous people.


The position of indigenous negotiators has been swept aside in the frantic pursuit of this single news angle.

Response To “One Nation”

In this environment where such a campaign has been given its head by a weak Prime Minister and Government the ideas of someone like Pauline Hanson and her “One Nation” Party fall on fertile ground.


It has been suggested that many of my constituents – blue collar, manual workers, find her ideas attractive. Ideas about advantages being given to Aboriginal Australians that are not available to so-called “ordinary” Australians.


I don’t believe this has been confirmed and I take exception to its stereotyping of working class ‘blue collar’ workers – many of whom have a very strong sense of fairness and strongly support moves to redress past injustices once the issues are fully described and understood.


Trade unionists individually and together through their unions will be seeking to highlight the inadequacy of Pauline Hanson’s ideas in dealing with the issues that face us.


These are real issues which are affecting and concerning working people. They include young peoples access to jobs and education, training opportunities, long-term job security, the pursuit of wages that enable workers to live decent lives, i.e., a “Living Wage” for all of us and how we are going to fund our retirements in an era of less reliance on social security.


These are very real issues facing Australian workers and their families today.


The tragedy is the current Federal Government and Prime Minister Howard are not dealing effectively with the substance of these issues.


All of this is unlikely to alleviate the fears and insecurities of middle Australia and is clearly making populist victim-blaming rhetoric more attractive.


It will all make reconciliation harder – everywhere – at a Government level, and at a community level including in our workplaces. Nevertheless, we, as unionists, will take the message of reconciliation out to our members.


One place that does give me great hope for the future are our schools and young people.


It is interesting to see that young Australians recognise the need for justice for indigenous Australians and true reconciliation based on mutual understanding and respect.


I am hopeful that unions can make the necessary links with young people to ensure that this view prevails in the Australian community.


In conclusion let me quote from an article by the academic commentator Bain Attwood which was published in the Australian earlier this month. In which he refers to the Howard Government’s wish to minimise its responsibilities for dealing with the consequences the Wik decision.


He concludes that inaction or a failure to negotiate a settlement that is accepted by all parties “will only cost Australia in the long run. There cannot be any escape from the burden of the past: our collective responsibility to the first Australians.” (Australian, 2.5.97)


Address By ACTU President, Jennie George to the Australian Reconciliation Convention, 26th May, 1997.