1972 Black Moratorium: How unions walked out for Aboriginal rights

The Black Moratorium marches in 1972 were amongst the most successful protests for Aboriginal rights ever in this country. Paddy Gibson explains how the unity between Aboriginal activists and organised workers was central to their success.

On July 14 1972, 500 Aboriginal people led a 6000-strong demonstration from Redfern into central Sydney under the banner “Ningla-na—we are hungry for our land”.

A sizeable chunk of this crowd were workers including builders’ labourers, ship painters and dockers and teachers, who had voted to take a half-day strike demanding Black rights. More than 2000 students had rallied at Sydney University then marched to Redfern to join the demonstration.

The demonstration was part of a national “Moratorium for Black Rights”. Marches were also held in Darwin, Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and NSW regional centres.

The Moratorium was the biggest protest that had been held in Australia around Aboriginal issues and it will always remain among the most historically significant. It helped put justice for Aboriginal people squarely at the centre of the political agenda in Australia, in the lead up to the election of the reformist Whitlam government.

The last major national political mobilisation had been for the Referendum in 1967, which won formal citizenship rights long denied to Aboriginal people. It was run by the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), a coalition of Aboriginal community advocates, churches, unions and other progressive organisations.

Politically, the campaign had been dominated by liberalism, aiming to educate mainstream Australia about the abuses suffered by Aborigines—but steering clear of protest.

It achieved a real breakthrough and laid essential groundwork for the fight that was to come. But by the early 1970s Aboriginal people had seen none of the “equality” promised by the referendum and conditions were ripe for radicalisation.

In Queensland a system closely resembling apartheid was still in operation, with Aboriginal movement and income totally controlled by the government. In NSW assimilation policies similar to today’s NT Intervention proceeded apace—Aboriginal reserve land was being revoked and housing and resources were being denied to Aboriginal settlements in an attempt to force people into the “mainstream”. In swelling city ghettos like Redfern, Blacks faced intense persecution at the hands of police.

Everywhere across Australia, Aboriginal people languished in crippling poverty. And everywhere, isolated skirmishes trying to win Aboriginal control of land were becoming more organised and more confrontational.

In NSW, a Lands Board to log claims and lobby government united Aboriginal activists from the coast to the far west. Woodenbong saw one of many rent strikes over terrible housing conditions on what people knew to be their own land.

In the NT, a strike by Gurindji stock-workers for equal pay had transformed into a full-blown battle for land rights. In Yirrkala, the struggle by the local Yolngu people against a Nabalco bauxite mine had forced the High Court to consider the issue of ongoing native title rights to land.

In the cities of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne young Kooris and Murris were moving amongst anti-capitalist student and union networks. They were immersed in the literature of the anti-colonial rebellions across the world.

It was not enough to simply draw attention to racism in Australia and put the case for reform. The system had to be fought back and eventually dismantled.

When the courts ruled against the Yirrkala land rights claim in late 1971 NSW Kooris recognised this as a major setback for the national movement. Clearly, justice could not be won within the confines of the Australian legal system.

A statement by the Conservative McMahon government released on January 25 1972 about the implications of the Yirrkala case repudiated any possible recognition of land rights by the federal government. In response, Redfern activists dispatched four young Kooris to Canberra. Driven by a Communist Party photographer, they established the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the front lawns of Parliament house on January 26.

Union support grows
The Aboriginal movement was growing, and becoming increasingly militant. But it was the unity forged between Aboriginal activists and organised workers that was responsible for the gains won in the period, the most far reaching in the history of the Aboriginal rights movement.

After years of persecution through the Cold War, socialists within the labour movement had begun to successfully re-establish strong, militant networks. After the election of the Menzies government in 1951, days lost to strikes rarely rose above one million a year. By 1972 the figure had risen to three million and continued to escalate until 1974, when there were six million strike days—one of the high points of union struggle in Australian history.

Accompanying this increase in industrial militancy was a rapid growth in working class participation in social justice movements. Tens of thousands of workers participated in strike action to support Moratoriums against the Vietnam War. Mass union delegates’ meetings held in Victoria after the 1971 Moratorium called on Australian troops to defy orders in Vietnam and refuse to fight.

When the South African Springboks rugby team toured Australia in 1971, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) backed calls for union bans in protest against apartheid. The Springboks, refused a place on all planes, restaurants and hotels, had to buy a private aircraft to fly around the country and were billeted with supporters. At the height of the controversy surrounding the tour, before games scheduled in Brisbane, conservative Premier of Queensland Jo Bjelke-Peterson declared a state of emergency, busing thousands of police in from around the state to confront protests by students and unionists.

Aboriginal activists played a prominent role in these anti-Apartheid mobilisations. Their militancy and passion helped convince many on the broader left of the need to confront the apartheid-style conditions oppressing Aboriginal people within Australia. And the real social power of the working-class in action made a strong impression on the Black activists. It was in the wake of the Springboks tour that the idea for the Black Moratorium was born.

The tactic of a Moratorium was lifted directly from the campaign against the Vietnam War. Holding the demonstration on a weekday meant that supporters would need to carry a serious argument in their workplace about why solidarity with Aborigines was an important issue for the working class movement. Skipping work alone to attend the march could mean victimisation by your boss. But successfully convincing others to strike with you both disrupted the economy and demonstrated a depth of understanding and conviction.

Union involvement in Aboriginal struggle had a long history in Australia. Many generations of Black activists had been schooled in politics through the union movement—from Bill Ferguson in the 1920s and 1930s through to Chika Dixon, who had a strong influence over the movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

Patient work had been done over decades building consciousness within the broader union movement about Black oppression. Union delegations had followed student “Freedom Rides” organised by Charles Perkins and Chika Dixon into segregated rural NSW towns in the mid-1960s. Speaking tours by the striking Gurindji had addressed countless stop-work meetings across the country. Union affiliations to FCAATSI had provided a substantial bulk of the funding and activist base for the 1967 referendum campaign.

Preparations for the Moratorium in 1972 took this to a new level. In Wollongong and Shell Harbour, more than 400 council workers took their first ever decision to stage a political strike.

In Sydney, one BLF delegate was sacked for hanging a massive banner advertising the Moratorium off the central crane on a major Sydney building site. The whole site came to a standstill as workers demanded his reinstatement.

The NSW Teachers Federation was compelled to threaten similar industrial action, after five teachers were victimised by the education department for their role in the Moratorium. The demonstration had pushed the debate about Black rights into hundreds of staff rooms and classrooms.

On July 20, less than a week after the moratorium, police moved in to take down the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the front lawns of parliament house. Three days later hundreds of Aboriginal people and supporters rallied to defend the embassy. Big numbers came from Sydney and off reserves from across NSW. A bus paid for by the Queensland Trades and Labour Council brought “Black power” militants down from Queensland. The ACT Trades and Labor Council swelled the ranks of defenders. The rally was brutally attacked by police.

Calls went out for further support, co-ordinated through the networks established by the Black Moratorium. On July 30, more than 2000 people successfully defended the embassy in another showdown with police. Union funds helped keep the embassy running.

In an interview in 1972 Chika Dixon summarised the new mood:

“Even up until 1968, when we tried to March down George St to support the Gurindjis, you could count the Blacks on your fingers. Now we can muster 600 or so, so the pendulum has swung… You’ve got to link up all the things together – bad housing, land rights, infant mortality, bad education facilities, all the things we’d bashed at for years while nothing was done. Yet, when the Blacks stood up on their feet, then things started moving. And I believe that we’ve only scratched the surface”.

The confidence of Aboriginal people to move into action came as thousands of workers across Australia were doing the same. The extent of union involvement in the Moratorium showed that organised workers were among the strongest potential allies in the fight for Aboriginal rights. This remains an important lesson in rebuilding the strength of the movement today.


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