The role the early Communist Party of Australia (CPA) played in fighting for Aboriginal rights provides clear examples of the way that a joint “black and white” challenge to the oppression of Aboriginal people can build the radicalism, consciousness and strength of the working class movement in Australia.
The establishment of the Australian Communist Party in 1920 took place alongside the formation of the “Third International” (Comintern). This organisation united communists globally around the politics that had led to a successful socialist revolution in Russia. Anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles that were breaking out across the world were understood as central to challenging capitalism.
In Australian the CPA stressed the necessity of fighting for civil and political equality for Aboriginal people, as well as to support Aboriginal demands for self-determination and communal rights to land and culture.
In the first decade of the CPA’s existence the plight of Aborigines was in the public eye with the outcry at the shocking massacres at Forrest River in the Kimberleys in 1926 and at Coniston in the NT in 1928. During this period the CPA developed a radical platform for Aboriginal rights (although some of the language used reflects the predominant colonial view of Aboriginal people):
– The release of all Aboriginal people from jails until they have been tried by Aboriginal juries,
– Abolition of the Protection Boards (“Capitalism’s slave recruiting agencies and terror organisations against aborigines”),
– Absolute prohibition of the kidnapping of aboriginal children by the A.P.B., whether to hire them out as slaves, place them in “missions,” jails or “correction” homes.
– Full right of the Aborigines to develop native culture. Right to establish their own schools, train their own teachers, for the children of the aborigines and half-castes (sic). The Australian Government to make available sums of money for such purposes, to be paid into and controlled by committees comprised solely of aborigines and half-castes (sic).
– The handing over to the Aborigines of large tracts of watered and fertile country, with towns, seaports, railways, roads, etc., to become one or more independent Aboriginal states or republics. The handing back to the Aborigines of all Central, Northern, and North West Australia to enable the Aborigines to develop their native pursuits. These Aboriginal republics to be independent of Australian or other foreign powers. To have the right to make treaties with foreign powers, including Australia, establish their own army, governments, industries, and in every way be independent of imperialism.
The rise of Stalin in Russia signaled not only the defeat of the revolution there, but also saw the Communist Parties globally, including the CPA, increasingly become slaves to the Russian foreign policy of the day. Yet for all the mistakes that this lead the CPA to make, for many years it was the organisation that brought together many of Australia’s industrial and political radicals, both black and white.
Militant unionism and Aboriginal struggle
Alongside the CPA’s theoretical positions and its platform went active support for Aboriginal resistance. This support was not just something for party members, but was to be encouraged in workers everywhere. The early work of the CPA led to a proud tradition of mass working class participation in Aboriginal struggles.
Industrial and Aboriginal militancy became linked together. Aboriginal activists in unions began to influence the awareness and activity of the unions. Where the Communists were able to build rank-and-file organisations such as the Militant Minority Movement in the 1930s, or where they influenced labour councils, a constant stream of education, fund-raising and industrial activity in support of Aboriginal campaigns can be found.
One example is the work of Tom Wright, the CPA General Secretary from 1925-1929. Wright was active in the Unemployed Workers Movement during the Depression, and the Militant Minority Movement that was built as economic recovery followed the Depression. In 1936 Wright was elected the NSW Branch Secretary of the Sheet Metal Workers Union and also became the Vice President of the NSW Labor Council.
Wright organised for Aboriginal activist and unionist William Ferguson to address Labor Council in 1937 which prompted the Council to pledge full support for the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), and to adopt “a detailed policy on Aborigines … calling for full social and political rights, award wages, full unemployment benefits, abolition of all indentures, and homes and missions ‘which are exterminating the aboriginal race by segregating the sexes and sending the girls to domestic slavery’, full representation on the Aborigines Protection Boards… and land rights.”
Aboriginal communities had fiercely resisted colonisation since the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. But as a layer joined the workforce on the wharfs, in mines or on pastoral properties they gained experience of collective, industrial organisation through trade unions, and exposure to explicit anti-capitalist politics. Many became members of the CPA.
From the Torres Strait Island strike in 1931, to the Pilbara, Wave Hill, and many more, Aboriginal leaders began to arise that had previous experience of union militancy, and often contact with socialists.
The CPA as an organisation played a crucial role in taking Aboriginal struggles to the heart of capitalist Australia—the industrial centres of Sydney and Melbourne. The CPA’s influence opened hundreds of thousands of workers to the campaigns of Aboriginal communities in the remotest parts of the country.
Pilbara Strike Struggle 1942-1949
Twenty years before the Wave Hill walk-off Aboriginal stockmen in Western Australia’s Pilbara region shut down the pastoral industry in a strike that lasted three years. Preparation for the strike began in 1942 when leaders of Aboriginal stockman who were working for rations approached CPA activist Don McLeod, who had been organising meetings against war-time restrictions on Aboriginal freedom of movement.
When stockmen began walking off in April 1946 McLeod swung into action organising solidarity in Perth. A Committee for the Defence of Native Rights (CDNR) was set up. The CNDR organised a meeting of over 400 people in Perth that endorsed the strikers’ claims and protested the jailing of strike leaders. The committee organised support amongst unionists, churches and women’s organisations, took motions to the World Federation of Trade Unions and printed a pamphlet on the struggle.
When McLeod was himself jailed in the Pilbara 400 strikers marched on the prison with hammers and crowbars and won his release!
The success of winning deep and genuine support for Aboriginal people within unions can be best judged by what happened when striking Aboriginal stockmen took some work on the wharves.
Police ordered them off, but the wharfies refused to work until the stockmen worked alongside them. At the end of the strike in 1949 the Seamen’s Union put a ban on shipping wool from the stations where, as The Seaman put it, “the slave conditions still apply that brought about the present strike”.
Gurindji Wave Hill walk-off
The story of the Gurindji strike against beef baron Vestey is a pivotal point in Aboriginal struggle. What began as a strike for equal wages became the first successful fight for land rights in the modern era.
Like the Pilbara strike, key figures such as Dexter Daniels, an Aboriginal organiser with the NAWU, had been in contact with the CPA through union networks in Darwin.
Despite the wealth and political connections of Lord Vestey, the Gurindji were able to defend their strike camps and claim prime land at the heart of Vestey’s estate (Daguragu) because of the moral and material support they received from the union movement.
With encouragement from the Communist Party, the Actors Equity union organised a national tour in October 1966 that allowed Aboriginal leaders to speak about the strike at workers’ meetings around the country.
The Waterside Workers Federation donated $10,000 to the strike fund, and carpenters in Sydney contributed a weekly levy to help the Wave Hill strikers. In Wollongong miners levied their wages to support the Gurindji strike camp, and were reluctant to cancel that support even when the campaign won.
The CPA newspaper, The Tribune, helped create momentum with regular reports of solidarity actions around the country. On 17 July 1968 they reported:
“In an outstanding example of trade unionists’ support, workers at Oxley (Brisbane) meatworks voted from their Welfare Fund a donation of $800 for the Wave Hill Aborigines.
“A Melbourne march of over 1000 students, unionists and others and an Adelaide march of a hundred students last week protested the Government’s rejection of the Gurindjis’ land claim.”
An editorial from The Australian read: “There is talk in Government circles of the Aborigines being encouraged to tackle their inferior status more militantly by the communists … we have only ourselves to blame if the vacuum we have left in Aboriginal welfare and education is capitalised upon by the communists.”
The work of organised socialists encouraged some of the best examples of broad and genuine working class support for Aboriginal rights. The history of these struggles against protectionism and assimilation are a crucial chapter of both the Aboriginal rights movement, and the radical labour movement in Australia.
From Mapoon in 1963, to the Black Moratorium in 1972, to Nookanbah in 1980, to the Bicentenary demonstrations and the fight for land rights, trade union support has been crucial to countering the racism of our rulers and helping to push Aboriginal rights onto the national agenda.
This history of Black and white fighting together points to the work that is needed again to mobilise the power of organised workers in the fight against the racist government policies that continue to be imposed on Aboriginal people.
By Jean Parker