Union support grows for Aboriginal housing on The Block

For fourteen months, the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy (RATE) has held up a commercial development on The Block, an historic patch of Aboriginal land in the heart of Sydney. As the possibility of eviction and development looms, activists are working on winning critical union support.

Aboriginal housing on the Block was won through the struggles of the 1970s, but the Aboriginal Housing Corporation (AHC) is now working hand-in-glove with developers on a major commercial housing project. The AHC claims they plan to rebuild Aboriginal housing, demolished nearly a decade ago as part of their commercialisation plans—but there is no funding and no evidence of any plan to build it.

Aboriginal people already represent one third of the total homeless population and the situation is getting worse. Last year, an investment company shamelessly advertised Deicorp’s flats, claiming that “all the Aboriginals have already moved out of Redfern”.

On Thursday 10 July supporters of RATE rallied outside the NSW Supreme Court in Sydney against continuing attempts by the developers’ legal team to evict the Embassy from its occupation of the Block in Redfern.

Union power

Support for RATE is growing in the union movement. The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) have passed motions, spoken at rallies and are encouraging members to do shifts at the Embassy itself.

RATE spokesperson Jenny Munro appealed for support at a meeting of Unions NSW affiliates in June, pointing out the importance of union support in winning gains for the Aboriginal movement (including the initial struggle for the Block): “It’s something that both groups can be proud of, the struggle for equality over a wide range of areas”.

As a result of this appeal, Unions NSW passed a motion declaring that “Unions NSW supports the call of the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy (RATE) for assurances from state and federal governments to secure affordable housing guaranteed for the ongoing use of Aboriginal people, including at the Block in Redfern.”

This important call for public funding should be matched by union opposition to the plans for commercial development that currently include no plans or funding for Aboriginal housing.

The CFMEU (Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union) in particular has the capacity to put on ban on its members working with Deicorp to redevelop the Block. A ban would make it much more difficult for the company to go ahead, and deal a huge blow to the legitimacy of the project.

As Felon Mason from RATE told a recent rally of MUA supporters at the Embassy: “We want black bans on the Block. They can’t do anything without transport, plumbing or workers, so if those unions pull out Deicorp’s stuffed”.

While the CFMEU have provided some practical support to the Embassy, the union leadership has ruled out bans, offering instead to “mediate” between RATE, Deicorp and the AHC. Appealing to CFMEU rank-and-file members to shift this position will be an important part of the broader community campaign for Aboriginal housing on the Block.

On August 11, RATE is planning a demonstration outside the NSW Parliament to demand funding for housing. This parliament helped to plan and fund the demolition of the Block on the promise of “renewal”, but have thus far refused to commit any funds to Aboriginal housing.

Indeed, under current assimilation policies, Commonwealth and state governments are refusing to fund Aboriginal community controlled housing projects anywhere. Aboriginal people are being forced to sign over control of their land to receive any housing or being denied resources and told to relocate or, as with the AHC, being told to sell existing lands and assets to fund what should be a basic right.

The fight at the Block comes at a time when remote communities are facing closure, particularly in WA, as well as through the ongoing Northern Territory Intervention. Thousands have demonstrated around the country as part of national actions against community closures.

In July, RATE also initiated a picket of a meeting between Tony Abbott, Bill Shorten and hand-picked Aboriginal leaders discussing the farce of “constitutional recognition”, which offers no rights to Aboriginal people—and provides cover while destructive and racist policies continue around the country.

By Danny Hardiman

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