Racism, White Australia and the union movement

Jasmine Ali examines how racism has affected the history of the union movement in Australia, as well as the history of anti-racism within the movement

The furore over overseas workers employed on 457 visas has generated an important political question for the labour movement and the left. Some of the best organised sections of the union movement in Western Australia have adopted a campaign that is calling for the exclusion of 457 workers from Australia and preference for “local workers first”.

When such arguments were uttered by John Howard and Pauline Hanson (and it is instructive that Hanson has given support to the unions’ campaign), the refugee movement, the unions and the left attacked them for whipping up racism. But this time, the nationalist “Aussie first” slogans are accepted and even endorsed by union leaders and many on the left as if it is a way to fight for working conditions and against job cuts.

While there is a strong tradition of internationalism in Australian trade union history, there is also a history of racism that has involved trade union leaders advocating for immigration controls, racial exclusion and anti-migrant campaigns.

Some stark examples include the anti-Chinese campaign that was part of the Seaman’s strike in 1878, the exclusion of Kanakas (indentured Pacific Island labourers) from attending the strike camps of white sugar workers in Queensland, and the notorious colour bar of the Australian Workers Union which excluded “coloured” labourers from membership.

The history of racism and anti-racism in the unions needs to be discussed in order to understand how racism can influence the unions and how this can be fought.

Trade unions and White Australia

Trade unions in Australia developed in the context of the White Australian nationalism that dominated Australia’s ruling elite from its origins in the colonial settler state to Federation and beyond.  Most historians attribute the adoption of the White Australia policy to working class racism. But that is a myth.

Historian Verity Burgmann has shown that the idea that the working class had the power and influence to determine immigration policy during the late nineteenth century is quite unrealistic. Even the anti-Chinese seafarers strike of 1878—when sailors struck to prevent the use of Chinese labour to replace European seafarers—was unable to force the NSW parliament to pass legislation  restricting Chinese immigration. The labour movement in Queensland was terribly weak when it became the first colony to implement a White Australia policy in 1877.

The ruling class had its own interests in pursuing White Australia—in particular concerns that Chinese immigrants would sympathise with imperialist rivals in the region. Racism was also used to justify the brutal dispossession of the Aboriginal population.

Fear of the “yellow peril” was an explicit feature of Australian politics until the end of the Vietnam War. But it lives on in the anti-refugee policies of the Labor and Liberal Parties.

While the ruling class was responsible for White Australia, some of its staunchest supporters were among the trade union and Labor Party leaders. The first NSW Labor Premier, J.T. McGowan, declared, “While Britain is behind us, and while her naval power is supreme, Australia will be what Australians want it—white, pure and industrially good.”

Even the left of the labour movement accepted racial discrimination. Andrew Markus records that the Australian Socialist league called for the, “exclusion of races whose presence under present competitive conditions might lower the standard of living of Australian workers”.

Historian Julia Martinez has looked at White Australia and the unions in the first half of the 1900s.

She describes how in 1911, Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher made it government policy to grant “absolute preference” to white unionists in workplaces—and to encourage employers to fire “coloured” workers. In 1914, when Fischer lost to the Liberals, the incoming government granted exemptions to Japanese workers in Queensland. But when Fischer was re-elected that year, the unions campaigned for the Japanese workers to be sacked.

More graphically, in 1914 the Australian Workers Union (AWU) in Darwin successfully appealed to the Federated Waterside Workers, “to assist in the fight against the employment of Asiatics and for a ‘White Australia’ by refraining from landing any cargo for Port Darwin”. The campaign was successful, and the AWU was granted preference on the wharf, including unloading the ships, which had previously been done by the ship’s so-called “coolie” Asian crews.

In Darwin in the 1920s, the newly formed NAWU (North Australian Workers’ Union) maintained the racial discrimination of the AWU, which excluded Chinese, Japanese, Kanaka, Afghan and any “coloured race” from joining the union.

So why did trade union and Labor leaders become agents of such nationalist ideology?

Divide and rule weakens the unions

The arguments made by the AWU in the early 1900s against organising non-white workers and in 2012 for immigration controls to exclude 457 workers, are underpinned by the same false assumptions. Racial exclusion, or exclusion of workers on temporary visas, is sold to the working class by linking their experience of job insecurity—the competition to find jobs and maintain decent pay—with racist ideas about Asians.

Migrant workers are often regarded as “cheap labour”. But bosses seek to exploit whomever they employ. Whether they are successful depends on union organisation and struggle.

From the militancy of Vietnamese workers at the Redfern Mail Exchange in the 1980s to the Ford Broadmeadows strike of 1973, to recent examples of 457 workers standing up to unscrupulous bosses, migrant workers have shown themselves to be as determined, if not more determined, than “Aussie” workers, to fight for their rights.

The recent attack on conditions and jobs has come from the Australian bosses who run companies like Hasties, Qantas, Bluescope Steel and Westpac. At the Toll warehouse in Melbourne, 600 workers from many different nationalities recently took strike action to stop Toll’s attempt to pay them less than warehouse workers in the rest of the country. This situation confronts workers across the world, from Sydney to Beijing to the Philippines.

Another claim is that increased immigration will lead to higher unemployment. The facts shows this is not true.

But the fear about unemployment and wage cuts can be easily misdirected at immigrants rather the bosses who control the economy. That’s why any attempt to use racism has to be vigorously resisted.

The trade union leaders, while seeking to represent workers’ interests, do so within the framework of the system. This means they ultimately accept the framework of capitalism and the idea that companies will only provide jobs if they can make a profit. So they often fall for the idea workers have a common interest with Australian bosses to protect “our” manufacturing jobs or “our” resources, against foreign competition. But “our” bosses are only interested in profits not maintaining jobs.

The trade union bureaucracy’s reluctance to organise industrial action also means that it is easier for them to go along with the idea that the problem is foreign workers, rather than lead a fight for jobs.

An example of this was on display in the recent Qantas lockout, when Transport Workers Union official Tony Sheldon complained about Qantas’ industrial relations tactics, but instead of organising any industrial action simply said that his union would, “stand by the workforce, the Australian brand of Qantas and not have it Asianised”.

A history of anti-racism

But racism in the unions has also been contested by left-wing militants who have fought to include migrant workers in the unions, or encouraged them to set up their own unions when excluded.

The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), founded in 1907, regarded White Australia as a strategy by the bosses to undermine class struggle and unionism. The Wobblies attacked the AWU for excluding Asian workers, which resulted in them forming their own union organisations. The IWW campaigned actively to recruit Asians to their own organisation, and published leaflets in multiple languages.

The early Communist Party, too, opposed White Australia and participated in the Pan Pacific Trade Union Federation based in China. Typically, the more conservative trade union and Labor Party leaders attacked the Communist Party saying, “the Reds are soft on the yellows and the browns”.

The examples of the IWW and Communist Party putting internationalism and solidarity—emphasising that workers in any one country have the same exploitation, oppression and employers as anywhere else—is important. From the period of the colour bar in the AWU, to today’s debate about 457 visas, there has been another tradition, of support for open borders and challenging racial divisions to more effectively fight the bosses who want to exploit both local and migrant workers.

There is a contradiction between the recent efforts of many of the trade unions to actively fight racism—in backing the refugee movement and organising to defend 457 workers for example, and the politics of the “Aussie jobs first” campaign. The ACTU recently carried a resolution opposing any asylum seeker deportations to Sri Lanka, Afghanistan or any other dangerous country. Hundreds of 457 workers have joined the CFMEU and the AMWU (and others unions like the nurses’) who have defend them from ruthless bosses trying to rip them off or even deport them.

The MUA has a fine tradition of defending the rights of overseas workers so often exploited on “ships of shame”.

Our argument with Gina Rinehart is not about 457 workers; it is about union rights and union conditions, individual contracts and permanency. A united union movement—with 457 and local workers fighting together—can be a formidable force in fighting racism and Gina Rinehart.


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