Big boost in union support to Indigenous Australia

Dick Nichols Green Left October 2, 2010

On October 8, the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), Queensland branch of the Electrical Trades Union and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union will sign a "social compact" with the North Queensland Lands Council (NQLC).

The compact will mark a new stage in collaboration between trade unions and Indigenous organisations, especially in those regions targeted in the mining and resources boom.

Under the compact's terms, unions and Aboriginal communities "will approach new industrial development negotiations in cooperation with each other and will do their best to ensure that all issues including industrial and safety issues are adequately addressed".

The compact aims to consolidate a union-Indigenous alliance that can bring energy to the job of "closing the gap" of Indigenous disadvantage. Ian Bray, MUA assistant national secretary spoke to Green Left Weekly's Dick Nichols.

How did the social compact between the MUA and the NQLC come about?

Nearly two years ago now, when Indigenous communities that come under the Kimberley Lands Council (KLC) were celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Noonkanbah dispute in Western Australia, a conversation arose among some of the elders. They noted that unions and Indigenous people always work well together in times of crisis, but that both sides tend to "pack up" until the next crisis, and have not had a sustained, ongoing relationship.

The MUA and likeminded unions thought there was merit in that point and started thinking about how to create, with Aboriginal Australia, relationships that are ongoing and constantly evolving.

How come this initial agreement is with the NQLC?

A pioneering agreement was developed with the KLC. But the alliance with the KLC, albeit with good intentions, was basically confined to looking at how the union could help enforce government policies for "closing the gap" - guaranteeing proper education for Indigenous communities and vocational training leading to real jobs and careers, not just sending 10 Indigenous people out on gardening courses.

The agreement never really focused on the political consciousness of the union movement and the Indigenous communities.

It was only by pure chance that we ended up engaging with the NQLC. In December 2009, I was visiting Northern Queensland and explaining the work that we had done with the KLC. One of our activist members, who is also a member of the NQLC, said we should do something like the Kimberley agreement in North Queensland.
In January, the MUA and AMWU met with the full board of the NQLC. They said they wanted a bit more than an attempt to look at education, training and jobs. They wanted to look at how we could cement a political alliance to help advance Indigenous self-determination on all fronts.

We started talking about how the NQLC could bring the union into negotiations with the employers on major projects.

The council decided that it would announce the unions would be at the table in these, and that part of the settlements over land use would involve union collective agreements on new projects.

That would effectively put the unions in the position where we could become the "coppers on the beat", making sure all relevant policies for Indigenous advancement were actually being met by any project.

How do you see this developing? Is this first social compact a pilot project? How do you bring the rest of the trade union movement in?

We don't see it as a pilot project. We see it as creating the checks and balances that will underpin the on-the-ground changes that Indigenous communities want. I can't describe enough the positiveness around this from the NQLC, as well as from the unions that are already involved.

They're all saying that if we go into the compact with the intent for which it was designed, it could finally deliver positive results where there has been little but failure for 200 years since white settlement.

We see the compact as a distinct relationship that's going to be built over the coming generations and as a live document that will evolve with the relationship. As the trust within the relationship strengthens so too will the document develop.

On the union side, after the October 8, there are going to be briefings with other like-minded unions-the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union, for example - and they'll consider whether it's a worthwhile cause to get involved in.

The big problem of the official "closing the gap" projects, especially when they go along with the Northern Territory intervention, is that they disempower Indigenous people - despite all the lip-service given to consultation. "Closing the gap" surely must be determined by Aboriginal people, with supporters like the trade union movement being guided by the desires of the Indigenous communities. How does the social compact fit in here?

It's about opting in, about appropriately representing traditional landowners. Do the local communities want to be empowered, and, if so, how can we in the unions help empower them? If an alliance can bring our two collectives together to create better outcomes for Indigenous Australia then obviously it's a matter that needs to be considered.

The proof of the potential both sides see is that we've already been in discussion with the Northern Lands Council (NT) and hopefully we'll also be engaging the NT Central Lands Council too.

How do you see this as part of a broader political struggle in this country, a struggle for the hearts and minds of Aboriginal people? There's big capital, represented by people like Andrew Forrest and Clive Palmer, saying "Look, we're creating jobs and careers for Indigenous people in our mines. Indigenous development can be a by-product of the mining boom." But there are already divisions within Aboriginal Australia over "development", as over the Wild Rivers of Cape York.

I think both sides in the Indigenous debate are asking questions about how to develop self-determination and empowerment of Indigenous communities. They are trying to get to the same goal, but proposing different avenues. The issue for us in the MUA is that nothing successful for workers - or for groups that struggle in general - has ever been achieved unless it's born out of struggle itself.

It's the very struggle that engages the communities to embrace a concept, a social goal, and make it their own. That's what we're offering from the union side: if you want to struggle, we are with you.

This alliance is being formed from the grassroots. We didn't start negotiating this document with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), or with government. We started negotiating with the land councils on the basis that they represent the traditional landowners.

If the traditional landowners don't want to be part of this, that's their choice, and they choose to opt out. If they do, they have ownership of a process where they get the direct say in determining how campaigns are run.

This has never been about placing the union movement in the position of authoritative partner, about dictating policy. It is about trust and mutual respect. Anything else would be self-defeating.

But if an Indigenous community that has an agreement with a mining company and says this has been violated, and asks for help, that would be an obvious and legitimate cause for the union to take up?

Of course, and it goes one step further. If a community doesn't want to be part of the social compact, it does not in any way diminish the union's - any union's - right to go to that employer and seek to get a collective agreement. Because if we don't want to impinge on the decision-making processes of Indigenous communities, nor has the land council got any desire to interfere with or dictate what the union does.

Will the unions who are parties to these compacts be making judgments about how much they support the specific proposals for Indigenous communities that are going to be coming out of government, or will you wait for the call from the communities?

This is an issue of sensible governance. Our view is that we'll take counsel from the local communities and take into account what is being achieved or not, and then make the decision based on that. But obviously we would also liaise closely with the ACTU and, in particular, with the ACTU Indigenous committee, to see what their take is on any government policy and action.

When you take in all the information, then you can make a sensible decision.

Do you envisage any union-specific projects as part of the compact?

There'll be a well-established work plan. After the signing, NQLC chair Terry O'Shane is meeting with the people at the Abbot Point [coal port expansion project] in Bowen and the negotiations with the state government and the Abbot Point expansion project's principal [partners] will then take place.

O'Shane will explain quite categorically what the intention of the compact is, and how the negotiations for the project have got to continue - with the unions at the table.

Likewise, the unions in Western Australia, in support of the KLC, have sent a very clear message to the Barnett government that they strongly advise that it reconsider the threat of compulsory acquisition of land for the James Price Point port project.

They're offering the KLC support to make sure people get back to the table and genuinely negotiate with it, as the representative of the local communities.

Have union members questioned the legitimacy of what the unions are doing with this compact?

I can't speak for every union, but I can certainly speak for our own. During the negotiations with the NQLC we briefed our membership wherever we could and the feedback has been nothing but positive.

There's nothing but respect from the broader rank-and-file of the union for our Indigenous members. This move was just a natural step for the MUA, part of our political and social consciousness and awareness. And many comments have been to the effect that it was about time.

The MUA and its rank and file have never, ever been shy to take up an issue before it became popular. We have supported Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders long before it was fashionable to do so and we'll be there at the end, when some of the rich and famous get a bit bored with it.

Are there any gains from the social compact that you can already point to?

Not only has it helped unite the unions within the movement around a specific goal, which the MUA forever works tirelessly at doing, but the land councils are now saying it will help them work more closely together as well.

There already seems to be a stronger relationship developing between the KLC and the NQLC.