Have unions healed their racist past?

When Australia’s British colonies became a federation in 1901 trade unions and conservative politicians were agreed on one thing – keeping Australia white

26 March 2021 | Noel Turnbull (Pearls & Irritations)

Today trade unions are in the forefront of fights against racism and support for Indigenous causes while the descendants of those old white pollies are raising scares about refugees, Muslims and any other others they can think of to scare voters.

The Maritime Union Australia (formed out of what was The Waterside Workers Federation and the Seamen’s Union and now part of the CFMMEU) was at the forefront of the fight against racism for decades along with their international counterparts as well.

Today the union is also playing an ongoing and important role in promoting the Uluru Statement and campaigning for an Indigenous Voice in Parliament.

In the 1930s the International Longshore and Warehouse Union supported African Americans; and, boycotted scrap iron shipments to Japan in the mid-1930s just as our WWF did when Robert Menzies was earning his Pig Iron Bob nickname.

Its International Constitution contained clauses condemning discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin or political belief. Outside the  African American Brotherhood of Railway Sleeper Porters it was among the first US trade unions to appoint a African American  to a senior position.

In 1959 the WWF hosted Paul Robeson, visiting Australia for the peace movement, who sang at WWF stop-work meetings.

Legendary African America singer and political activist, Paul Robeson (r) visits the
Opera House building site on his visit to Australia (NFSA)

In 1964 Martin Luther King thanked the WWF for its support writing to the Union: “Your encouraging words are of inestimable value for the continuance of our humble efforts. Our struggle is difficult and the moments often frustrating, but we gain new courage to carry on when we realise that people of goodwill all over the world are supporting us. Although the days are now dark, I am convinced that we stand on the threshold of our world’s bright tomorrows. We are deeply grateful to the WWD for this strong, forthright statement. Such moral support means more to us than words can express.”

At home the union was supporting the Gurinji strikers; Torres Strait Island Indigenous businesses banned by the Queensland Government; scholarships for Indigenous students; and full award payments for Indigenous stockmen

In the WWF tradition of Touch one, Touch all the union has supported, Thomas Mayor, the Union’s National Indigenous Officer in touring the original Uluru Statement copy around just about every city and town in Australia.

His children’s book, Finding our Heart, is now a best-seller among adults as well.

Much of the campaign he is heading started with the first Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union conference –  a First Nations members conference.

“One of the resolutions was to support the proposals in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This year, the National Aboriginal and Islander Day of Celebration (NAIDOC) theme is from those proposals – Voice, Treaty, Truth, ” he said.

“The proposals are in sequence – Voice first, then Treaty and Truth – for good reason. Voice is first because, as we would understand as unionists: the first thing a collective must do to negotiate greater rights is to set up our representative structure. There are more than one hundred First Nations that have been terribly divided by corporate interest and government bastardry. First Nations advocacy is weakened because First Nations lack the structure and democracy that is important to unity.

“The Uluru Statement proposes to set up our representative structure, though further, it also proposes that we protect it by constitutional enshrinement. Constitutional enshrinement of the voice guarantees a say in the decisions that are made about us, because the constitution is the rule book of Australia – the legal document that takes precedent over all others. If our Voice is not in the rulebook, it will suffer the same fate of our previous national representative bodies that have all been replaced, repealed or defunded by hostile governments.

“Australia is built on a lie: Terra Nullius, which simply means that the British invaders deemed First Nations lands to be unoccupied or uninhabited. Constitutional enshrinement of a First Nations Voice is not only practical by setting up structural empowerment, it is also a strong form of recognition that we were here when the British arrived, we had complex, advanced social and political structures, and we have not died out as was the expectation in 1901 when Australia moved from being a collective of British colonies to being a Federation.

“A Voice is the first and most urgent reform because it will start to address the political disempowerment (entrenched in the Constitution), setting us on the path for the future reforms of Treaty and Truth. These are the reforms that will lead to closing the gap.

“Another resolution from the inaugural meeting of First Nations members was to support the campaign against the Community Development Program …a discriminatory program only applied to Indigenous communities (in which) there are greater penalties if there in non-compliance, including completely cutting a person from any payment, causing great stress to the person, and also their families. This disgraceful LNP policy is one of the causes for Indigenous people in Australia being the most incarcerated people on the planet.”

The ILWU was not alone among unions in its attitudes to US race discrimination. A paper in the American Journal  of Political Science by Paul Frymer and Jacob. M. Grumbach (Labor Unions and White Racial Politics 29 June 2020) reported that union membership in the US reduces racism.

They argue that “historical research has suggested that the advent of unions created social ties that may have reduced white workers’ racism toward their African American co-workers.”

They used national survey data in the United States to show that union membership is associated with reduced negative racial attitudes among white workers toward African Americans and that gaining union membership predicts reductions in negative racial attitudes.

Compared with non-unionized workers, unionized workers also support more policies that would benefit African Americans – consistent with observations by others that associate declining union membership with the profound changes in American politics white identity politics are causing.

Noel Turnbull has had a 40-year-plus career in public relations, politics, journalism and academia. This story was published by John Menadue’s Pearls & Irritations, and at http://noelturnbull.com/blog/ Research assistance was provided by Kevin Bracken, former MUA Victorian Secretary, and John Spitzer.