Labour Day march in Brisbane

I marched in Brisbane’s Labour Day parade today – only the second time I’ve done so. I was part of a group marching in support of justice for the group of Queenslanders who were the most exploited and ripped-off workers throughout most of the Twentieth Century – Aboriginal workers whose wages were taken by governments and never given back.

This is known as the Stolen Wages issue. It is a sad irony that a Labor government, which is intertwined with and institutionally supported by the union movement, has knowingly and deliberately chosen not to pay back those workers, or their descendants, who had their wages stolen. Anna Bligh, the head of the government which continues to deny wage justice for these workers, led the march today.

Indeed after an initial package of 55 million dollars was put forward by the Queensland Labor government in 2002, which represented a fraction of what was taken and only provided for a token offer of 4000 dollars for a restricted group of people – who had to sign away all other legal rights before they could access it – the state government has even taken back a large chunk of that money.

The union movement has achieved a lot of good for huge numbers of people over many years. In my view their biggest collective flaw is their partisan alignment with the Labor Party, which results in continual acquiesce to unjust actions by Labor governments. There are a lot of individual unionists and unions who support the Stolen Wages issue, as evidenced by the fact people were marching in support of the issue in the Labour Day parade today. The peak union body, the Queensland Council of Unions, has also voiced some support for it.

But there is a difference between just saying you’re in support of an issue and making it a major public issue, and I have not seen anywhere near enough public or political pressure being applied by the union movement on this most clear cut example of institutionalised worker exploitation. It’s hard to think of a more fundamental industrial relations issue than someone’s lawfully earned wages being taken against their will and not given back.

I readily accept that it is a very difficult and complex task to resolve all the inequalities faced by Indigenous Australians. But that makes it all the more outrageous when a clear cut and undeniable injustice like this is just ignored – indeed is perpetuated – just because there’s no political pressure to address it.

I suppose given that the union movement is usually prepared to let their own rights be significantly reduced as long as it’s a Labor government that’s doing it, I shouldn’t be so surprised they have put so little public pressure on a Labor government on this issue, but it still frustrates the hell out of me.

In the industrial relations arena, the mostly uncritical support for Labor’s misleading slogan to ‘abolish’ Workchoices has led to unions basically now accepting a set of federal laws which will actually entrench key aspects of Workchoices, including some measures they loudly railed against through the life of the Howard government.

To use just one example, the union movement strongly opposed the Howard government’s efforts from 1996 onwards to remove any unfair dismissal protections for workers in small businesses. Until 2004, the Democrats blocked all efforts to remove these protections in the Senate, probably losing some votes as a result. But the union movement have now accepted with barely a murmur the Rudd government’s decision to adopt the same policy on unfair dismissals as John Howard repeatedly tried to get through the Senate up until 2004. Regardless of views on what might be the best policy approach on this issue, I find the selective outrage hard to stomach sometimes.

Click on these links to read some personal stories of Aboriginal people whose wages were stolen – Margaret Lawnton, Vincent Reid, Fred Edwards, Vera Hill, Yvonne Butler.

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  1. I can’t comment here – I’m so f**king angry at the endless arrogance of ‘we’ people towards those who were once free here, who have given we foreigners our ‘Ozzie sense of humour’, that I don’t know where to start.

    Get off my bum, I guess.

    Thanks, Andrew.

    Sorry, folks.

    Will try harder.

  2. Andrew:

    If what you’re saying is true about the unions accepting changes to unfair dismissal laws now that they’re coming from Rudd, I’m feeling fairly disgusted.

    I’m even more disgusted that only 20% of people belong to unions, even after experiencing the rubbish dished up by Howard.

  3. I could go completely off subject,to consider what those at consider whats wrong with May Day and only really celebrated in Queensland,which seems rather telling.I could almost,become completely bewildered,by other matters May Day,that maybe, in some way ,never letting me feel the courage of conviction, on days such as May Day,ever again.AS I have felt really alarmed by the issue the Senator has brought up here,and easily juxtapose ,my memories of the ALP before today,and Unions,there is little point,in me suggesting once again,in some way,I havent trusted Labor at anything, at all ,I cant even say.. years,because of only voting once,to get the Cain Government out.It will sadden me very deeply,as the exercise in honesty and concern that Andrew Bartlett has continued to display,becomes another walker amongst the wounded,as he had some power,and now has to selectively use his presence in that diminishment.There is hardly any way of describing what this type of injustice really is..accept,maybe,comparing the early days of General MacArthur,and the shooting of Black American Returnees so the Government of the U.S.A. didnt have to pay out monies that were rightfully the ex-Servicemen’s in times of economic hardship between the so-called major wars of lat century.Labor gets away with this,because those who should get angry about this injustice to Aboriginality,are smart-arses fighting battles of retaining status.The Professional guttersnipes who vote,and add value to the ALP,by whatever means,but remain in the most selfish of domains..self-protection.

  4. Philip,

    Lets leave the lizard man (David Icke)out of this argument. Dont get too upset, and no shape shifting.
    There’s now doubt that the two major parties have become one body with 2 heads, Turnbull has a Wife in the labor Party and Nelson was a member of the ALP for twenty years.
    Both their policies and members seem to be joined at the hip and thats why we support the minor parties where members put all their heart and soul into trying to save out great nation without ever taking from it.
    The Unions have a lot to answer for in recent times and having been in small business during the last recesssion I learnt how over the top they were.
    But in NSW we are starting to see some sense return with the pressure they are putting on Morris Iemma in trying to save what little income bearing assets this country’s people still retain.
    Lets hope they are learning, and I’ll give them my support on this one.


  5. Andrew-“I readily accept that it is a very difficult and complex task to resolve all the inequalities faced by Indigenous Australians. But that makes it all the more outrageous when a clear cut and undeniable injustice like this is just ignored – indeed is perpetuated – just because there’s no political pressure to address it.

    I suppose given that the union movement is usually prepared to let their own rights be significantly reduced as long as it’s a Labor government that’s doing it, I shouldn’t be so surprised they have put so little public pressure on a Labor government on this issue, but it still frustrates the hell out of me.”

    Says it all really! Couldn’t agree more!This is an outrage and the labour movement has proven to be just as racist as many members of the general community. Governments shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it!We are all shamed and diminished by this injustice!

  6. I agree the unpaid wages issue is outrageous.
    Since I believe it amounts to fraud couldn’t a legal challenge or prosecution be considered? Statute of limitations (so long ago) I guess makes it difficult. Governments (Queensland and NSW) makes it so embarrassing but I would love to see it taken up if only to get some movement before all these poor bastards die.

  7. Gee Andrew,
    Maybe if you had the guts to stand up to people in your own party like Andrew Murray, perhaps the union movement would not be in such trouble now.

  8. Gee Padric

    Maybe if you gave some actual examples of how it could b Andrew Murray’s (or the Democrats’) fault that the “unions are in such trouble”, I might have a clue what you’re talking about.

    I don’t think ‘the unions’ are in particularly big trouble; but in any case my interest has been exaamining what’s best for workers and the wider community, rather than what’s best for unions – there is a fair bit of overlap bt they’re certainly not ientical.

  9. I had the distinct impression that union membership (if that’s what you’re implying Padric) has been dropping for some time. Certainly much longer than Andrew Murray was elected as a Democrat Senator. (or perhaps he was secretly working behind the scenes for many years now)

  10. It is highly disappointing that the Queensland government is continuing to hold back stolen wages of Indigenous Queenslanders.

    Mr Bartlett, how can reconciliation occur when their money is going from one fund into another?

  11. Union membership began to drop in direct proportion to increasing competition for available work.

    This began when married mothers with children re-entered the workforce in droves, in the mid to late 1970s.

    Since then, conservative governments (both state and federal) have done their level best to break the unions over an extensive period of time, with John Howard being no exception.

  12. Lorikeet, the issue of TU membership is not a simply about the greater entry of women into the workplace. Since 1988 ABS data shows membership has dropped from around 42% of the workforce to about 17% currently. This is an international trend.
    In fact females in the workforce is not a correlating factor. Membership by sex has not varied over this time apart from consistently trending in the same direction.
    The decline is far more complex and involves the interrelation between three key factors.
    The composition of the labour market, with job growth tending to occur in industries (particularly in the services sector) where membership rate has always been relatively low, and a decline in jobs in industries and the public sector which were traditionally highly unionised, such as mining and manufacturing.
    The employment contract with an increase casual and part-time employment and outsourcing of services to small business contractual labour all of which have lower or non-unionisation rates.
    The third factor has been the substantial changes to the industrial relations environment since the 1980s, characterised by more decentralised arrangements for labour-employer bargaining, the opening up of both collective and individual bargaining to workers not represented by unions and the demise of centralised wage fixing.
    Age is the most consistent variable that defies the trend, us oldies are more likely to be Union members rather than the young, perhaps more reflecting societal and economic change – will be interesting to see how this goes in the next few years as workchoices filters through although initial data August 2007 indicated nil effect.
    There is little evidence that any particular government has overtly influenced this trend, while some may have talked it up, it is the above factors that matter. The decline line is fairly straight irrespective of who has been in power despite all the blustery rhetoric to the contrary.

  13. Ken:

    In the 1970s, it was compulsory for public sector workers to belong to unions. Sometime between then and 1985, compulsory unionism was phased out, resulting in a huge loss of membership.

    This seemed (to me at least) to coincide with large numbers of married women with children entering the workforce, also making it hard for younger people to get a job.

    When I was offered a position by a large university in 1977, the professor said I could either join the union, or become a conscientious objector and give an equal contribution to the employer. (Who did he think he was kidding?)

    In the Department of Social Security in the mid-1980s, we had very few young people at all, and the percentage of men had decreased markedly.

    I think the difficulty in obtaining work in the 1980s and 1990s contributed to the demise of union membership as well. Employers became more likely to choose non-union labour.

    My father belonged to one of the most powerful unions in the country. It was eventually broken by the government, under Joh Bjelke-Peterson, I think – luckily not while my father was still working.

    If John Howard wasn’t also out to break the unions, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.

  14. Be that as it may Lorikeet, as I said it is a complex interplay of a number of things but the bottom line is a stright line trend heading north with barely a glitch in the gradient for 25 years – despiet your inherent mistrust of any braod data v individual anecdote the trend is not arguable and nothing has casued it to vary in its degree of descent.

  15. So now I understand, at last, why we do not see any Aboriginal check out chooks in our supermarkets; they would not be allowed to get paid!
    I know that i.e. trackers helping police were not paid, either.
    Australia must be one of very few countries where you do not see native population employed in retail, restaurants, airports, business services, etc.,although we have quite a few capable vernacular academics, and professionals; social workers, researchers, sportsmen,etc.
    I am just wondering whether it is a deliberate policy not to present native population other than members of ‘dysfunctional communities’.

  16. Ken:

    The decline in union membership probably has quite a lot to do with the fact that an employee has, for more than 20 years, been considered to be worth little more than a discardable paperclip.

    Your figures start in 1988 – after compulsory unionism was abolished – and after married women with children started returning to the workforce in droves – a trend that has also continued.

    We have also had a continuum of union bashing, starting well before 1988, and getting worse as time has progressed.

  17. There is a compulsory unionism in Australia. One cannot practice as a nurse, doctor, lawyer, teacher, without being a member of a professional body: Law Society, Nurses Board, Medical College, etc.. It looks that no Australian government recognise documents/diplomas issued by Australian government education institutions. You have to be a union member to have your Australian diploma recognised. In most countries, diplomas or certificates suffice to practice your profession or trade.
    The professional associations I had to belong to in Australia were doing no good to me at all. It seems that the unions’ only area of interests are awards and compensation cases, which should be a national system, anyway.
    Back in Europe I was a member of Teachers Union which gave me a lot of privileges: discount holidays (50%), discount transport, our Unions had holiday homes in attractive resorts, we had discount on cinema, opera, theatre tickets, etc, etc. I was proud to be a union member not because they ‘had to fight for my salary’ as it was a national award system, but because we had a full support with professional development, interstate and international conferences and teaching methods workshops.. In Australia, Teachers Unions is a crap. My friends of legal and medical professions have the similar opinion about theirs. My cousin (electrician) says: ‘All they need from you is money and no individual union member really matters. It is still a 19century attitude (and probably rightly so) of class struggle with oppressive governments. Yesterday at Harvey Norman I saw a young salesgirl helping an elderly couple to the car down the stairs with a very heavy parcel. Three young gents behind the counter were ‘on a display’. My question: Where are the unions or national standards monitoring work practices? Women have (biologically) limited capacity to be used as beast of burden. Check-out girls are not allowed to use stools or chairs at the cashier. Wake up Australia!

  18. zen:

    A professional body is quite a bit different from a union. It is more about registration to practise, and may provide ongoing education and training.

    Nurses with higher qualifications have to be registered by a board, to which they are answerable for malpractice concerns.

    Doctors belong to the Australian Medical Association for the same reason. They approach a defence unit if someone tries to sue them, but they can also be struck off for malpractice.

    A woman working at Millers Fashion Store said she was not allowed to use a chair or stool. I wish I could remember the reason.

    You’re right about a lot of young males having no manners or thought for others, but there are still some good ones out there.

    Some matters of gender equality are unfavourable in some respects.

  19. Surely if employees are treated badly, this is an incentive to join a union – to stand together with fellow workers for better conditions – rather than not join one.

    Or perhaps people are stupid?

  20. Yes, Muzz, people are stupid. They’re so out for themselves, they find no unity in anything.

    When an employee has the status of a paperclip, the employer simply discards dissenters and hires new people.

  21. Women should not be allowed to carry heavy things by LAW, and not because of ‘chivalry’ or ‘equality’ or union membership, but because of biology. In some countries women are not allowed to be employed at petrol stations because petrol fumes may cause infertility.
    A salesgirl may be in her early pregnancy, may be timing or breastfeeding or whatever; biologically, women are not equal to men! In Soviet Russia, during and after the war, women were employed on building sites, carrying bricks and heavy equipment which resulted in numerous miscarriages and internal bleeding.
    People should be protected by law regardless of union membership and people argue that too often union organisers jump to bed with the management.
    Professional associations ARE unions, and trades like i.e. electricians must be union members for whatever reasons.
    When I was working at TAFE- Adelaide, my direct supervisor was a … union rep. And I did not like the Teachers Unions because they were spending my money on political campaign supporting Labour Party and I was never a Labour supporter.

    Perhaps people are not stupid but a bit more careful – remember shearers’ unions?
    Simon Crean as ACTU leader was on the Qantas Board.
    And ‘great Australian mate’ Bob Hawke betrayed the entire working class when became PM.
    Unions are important in any society providing they are relevant.

  22. Fair point zen. But Hawke and Keating did provide a raft of benefits for working people that still exist, even though many of them weren’t in the form of cash in the weekly pay packet.

    I’m thinking superannuation, Medicare, other workers benefits for a start.

  23. Zen:

    If you ask men to help you with anything, they sometimes expect sexual favours in return, or try to treat you as a subordinate. I ask no one for help unless desperate.

    Sometimes incompetent teachers become union reps to make it impossible for THEMSELVES to be fired.


    Bob Hawke fired his own injured workers and gave them little or nothing. Some were in unions and some were not. All of the ones I knew were women.

  24. Indeed, muzz they also provided the foundatiosn for the economy we have today – unfortuantely that I suppose has come with some downsides.

  25. Lorikeet:
    You seem to have quite an opinion on unions, so I was wondering, what exactly is your opinion on the stolen wages?

  26. Actually, what is everyones opinion on the stolen wages?

    Personally, I believe that it is up to the government to give back the wages to their rightful owners. A simple ‘sorry’ from the PM will never be enough when there are stolen wages floating from one pocket to another. It’s not the Unions responsibility to get the matter noticed; although that would help out. It is purely the governments responsibility.

    Australia pays taxes, because the government demands it. It goes two ways! The Queensland government needs to pay up, because the rightful owners demand it!

    What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?

  27. Studen Logic:

    If the government owes the aboriginal people wages, they should pay up forthwith, with interest. They could try closing down Uluru and other tourist attractions. How will the government know which workers to pay?

    My experience of the government is that they don’t care how unjustly anyone is treated, regardless of race – worse if they are female. They have the taxpayers’ money to fight us.

    I always hear people complaining about working more hours than they are paid for. The latest complainants are from a coffee and cake franchise.

    I told them to approach the boss together, since there is strength in numbers. He can hardly fire them all on the spot, without his business suffering. He also has a sign up for more staff. What better time to give it a go?

  28. IOW, you’re opinion suggests Aboriginal people need to rally together to form a large enough group to support themselves in their case against the government?

    I presume you’re refereeing to some sort of public sphere be established in order to evoke public discussion on the issue in order to gain better attention on the matter from the state. Obviously the demonstration marches and campaigns are not working as well as they had hoped it would. I think it requires a nation to shift cases like this; however, not many people within the wider community are aware of the problem. Having said that, what do you think would be most effective form of public sphere?

  29. Student Logic:

    I’m not sure I’m knowledgeable enough to give an answer to your question.

    The women from the coffee and cake shop are in a position to damage the franchise holder’s business by withdrawing their labour and leaving him without ANY workers.

    Perhaps the aboriginal people who are owed money could get that fellow who represented the NT Land Council at the National Press Club to represent them in a court case (class action). He said he was a lawyer.

    I don’t know what evidence they would have to present. Perhaps they have already tried this before and not succeeded.

    I’ve found that once the government has decided a particular class of people isn’t going to get anything, the judge doesn’t even listen to the evidence, because an “executive decision” has already been made on the matter.

    I’ve been in the Supreme Court and seen it.

    On Monday night at 9.30 pm, some aboriginal people will give their views to Andrew Denton on “More Than Enough Rope”.

    This has to be better than marching down the street. It has a much bigger audience.

  30. Lorikeet:

    Well that would be interesting to watch and hear the opinions of those Aboriginal people. It might have a bigger audience, but only a select audience will watch a program like Enough Rope. Thus, not all of the wider commmunity will be in the know.

    Another part of the issue that strikes me is that more than 3200 people who applied for the Stolen Wages Reparation Scheme were refused because government records, many that have been lost or destroyed, did not exist to back their claim. Now that is quite disappointing really.

    $55m was placed into the scheme, yet, $15m of it is being placed into scholarship funds. It shouldn’t be placed into scholarship funds! The money belongs to them. I really think the whole lot should have been paid to Aboriginals who had their wages stolen.

  31. Student Logic:

    Yes, I’m familiar with the government selectively culling files also. They did it to mine, right before I accessed it under FOI.

    How many people applied for the Stolen Wages Reparation Scheme? Was it the 3200 mentioned, or were there more?

    It would be hard to split the $15m between those without records, because there is no proof – a bit of a Catch 22.

    Anyone could turn up asking for a share.

  32. zen – it depends on where you go, apparently. In the last 10 years many rural town in South Australia have had pushes to employ local youth in shops, and other businesses, led in the case of Port Augusta by outspoken Mayor Joy Baluch, who has presided over the council there for many years, and where many council employees are of aboriginal descent. The SA government also has a policy of actively encouraging Aboriginal people to apply for Public Service jobs, in fact where I work there would be about 15% of aboriginal people in the workforce, from cleaners to managers. In the past it was said that food shops would not employ aboriginal people as customers would go elsewhere, and in fact I still don’t see many in food shops, but a large proportion of aged care workers around here are aboriginal, as wella s trainees in the library, the local information centre, and now they are starting to be seen in Woolies and Coles. Still further north aboriginal people can be found in some retail businesses, but you need a critical mass of custoemrs prepared to ‘tolerate’ being served by an aboriginal person, and many only a decade ago would not allow it. We have come a long way, but there is along way to go. This sad case in Queensland doesn’t surprise me – they would be among the most concentrated population of racists in tis country, though hte WA mob are nearly as bad, htough I recognise many decent folk there there too.

    And yet Queensland can take the credit for having voted in the only Communist member of Parliament Australia has ever had, relevant ot this issue because Communists were in the fight for human rights for aboriginal people long before it became a popular cause.

  33. Student Logic:

    When you divide $15m amongst 3200 people, that’s less than $5000 each.

    It might be worthwhile applying for your share of the education money, before they renege on the deal or apply some kind of respective legislation.

    The money might pay for a TAFE course which would lead to employment for those currently living on unemployment benefits.

    That would be 2-1/2 times the income (even on the minimum wage for an adult worker), taking into account taxation and other work related costs.

    I think aboriginal people are getting more air time on TV, especially on the ABC.

  34. Apprentice,
    Have you been to Pt. Augusta, recently?
    I have. And I have met Joy Baluch personally on several occasions. Joy Baluch actually forced the Aboriginal population out of town to kind of ‘townships’ – my friend who was there as an interpreter calls them ‘segregation camps’.
    As for the ‘getting more air time on TV’ I think Aboriginies cannot compete with Americans.

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