Indigenous unionism across the ditch

Our Rūnanga has a strong relationship with indigenous unionists in Australia. Two of them, Kara Keys and Lance McCallum, attended PSA Congress in September, and spoke to Working Life about their experiences.

Mike Lance and Kara web res

What are the key challenges facing indigenous unionists in Australia at the moment?

LANCE: Addressing the ‘careers gap’ that exists between the indigenous and non-indigenous workforce. Indigenous job opportunity, wages, superannuation and career progression is well below that of non-indigenous Aussies. Addressing these issues is our top priority which will in turn promote greater number of indigenous workers to join their union.

KARA: The key challenges facing Indigenous workers? Equal pay, equal rights, direct and indirect racism in the workplace, moving towards a relationship of recognition and self-determination of our future and the policy that effects the day to day lives of Indigenous workers and their families.

The Australian government have introduced an “employment” program: Community Development Program (CDP) which basically forces Indigenous workers in remote communities into indentured labour. They receive no minimum wage, no employment conditions, no superannuation, to leave entitlements and are not covered by federal OHS & Workers’ Compensation. It beggars belief that in 2016 we can have a government that thinks it’s ok to force people into labour and not provide the basic minimum standards afforded to every other Australian worker.


How supportive are Australian unions for indigenous workers?

KARA: Australian Unions have always been incredibly supportive of Indigenous workers. Through many historical disputes, particularly during the 40’s, 50’s & 60’s when Indigenous workers fighting for equal wages, the Australian trade union movement have stood shoulder to shoulder with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers. It is a rich history and one that we, particularly Indigenous unionists, are very proud of.

LANCE: I’m very lucky that my union, the Electrical Trades Union, is extremely supportive of our indigenous member and officials. More broadly, unions are a major progressive voice and force for change in Australian society and have been, and continue to be, at the forefront of driving progress on wage and workplace justice for indigenous workers. The ACTU has just recently committed to a major national indigenous wage campaign. People can check it out via


At PSA Congress you mentioned that you’ve learned a lot from NZ Māori unionists. Can you expand on this?

LANCE: The strength of Māori culture is so strong in society in general, as compared to indigenous cultures in Australia, and that really struck me at Congress where Māori language, song and custom is an essential part of the event. I was also really impressed with the establishment of the Nga Kaupapa and took a lot of learnings from that back to Australia about the dynamic between indigenous peoples and unions and how that could be formalised.

KARA: NZ Maori unionists are very advanced in progressing agreements/principals of self-determination based on your Treaty. Perhaps because Australia still doesn’t have a Treaty this has hindered our progression in this area, but it has been invaluable to have NZ Maori unionist work with us and guide us, as Indigenous unionists in Australia about how we can progress the work of self-determination based on our principals.

The ACTU Executive have recently endorsed the establishment of the ACTU Elders’ Council which will start developing – 2017 – a Treaty/Social Compact between the Australian Union Movement and Indigenous workers and their communities. Exciting times! Thanks NZ Maori comrades….we couldn’t have done it without you!


What do you think are the most important achievements for indigenous unionists in the last decade?

LANCE: Without a doubt in Australia, the most important moments and achievements are the Wave Hill Walk Off and the establishment of indigenous land right. Protesting for equal wages Aboriginal stockmen walked off Wave Hill pastoral station in the Northern Territory in 1966. It was a seminal moment in indigenous union history and led to legal land rights in Australia.

KARA: Probably too many to list, but the highlights have been supporting community driven campaigns: Stolen Wages/Stop the Forced Closures/Redfern Tent Embassy.

More recently, the Australian Union movement have endorsed the establishment of the First Nations Workers’ Alliance which will be hosted by the ACTU and be a voice for the 31,000 Indigenous workers who are being exploited under the CDP – this will be one of the largest national campaigns we have done in many years.


How do you plan on building indigenous leadership in Australia?

LANCE: To drive increased and thriving leadership, we need to keep pushing for better indigenous education and job opportunities – and the best way to do that is to drive public opinion and policy through activism and unionism.

KARA: Through the First Nations Workers’ Alliance we will build the capacity and leadership of our existing Indigenous union members and community leaders. We firmly believe that one of the best things the union movement does is build capacity and leadership through training and by empowering people and giving them tools to advocate and campaign we build strong leaders and communities who can campaign, not just on workplace or industrial issues but use those skills and leadership for local issues important to local peoples.


How would you respond to white audiences asking you why indigenous unionism is important?

LANCE: Anyone that joins a union knows the power of the collective and the need for social equality. Unions are critically important to ensuring fair and safe workplaces and communities.

So it flows naturally that it is even more important that those who have been subjected to hundreds of years of systemic disadvantage that was founded on racism, be able to establish and exercise their collective throughs and actions in a space that is safe and supportive – unions provide that. Ultimately, whether you are white or black – you are better off in a union.

KARA: I would say two things: One is pragmatic and the other is about how we want to be as a nation:

Indigenous unionists and their communities were already unionised, it is the way we have structured our communities, lore and beliefs for thousands of generations. We are a natural collective. Further, we are a powerful collective.

We may not be the majority of the population nationally, but where we live in discrete and collective communities, we have the power to change governments. When our agenda is respected, our leadership developed and our peoples and communities are confident, we campaign with, by and for issues, we have the power to affect great change.

I firmly believe that a positive, self-determining future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is fundamentally entwined with a strong, progressive trade union movement. And these two things: positive future & strong trade union movement ARE necessarily entwined.

We must all work together to build a better future for all peoples who live on our lands. We need to ask ourselves, what is our vision for our union movement? What is our vision for a better, fairer, more equal and positive future for our country?

We cannot have a strong trade union movement without strong first nations people, this is at the heart of who we are as unionists: fairness, equality, respect and solidarity.