NT protest house: union solidarity with Aboriginal struggle

February 12, 2010

From February 1-14, in a remote part of the Northern Territory, a group of trade unionists and Aboriginal rights activists from Victoria, New South Wales and the NT joined forces with the Alyawarr people from Ampilatwatja community to help make history.

Many people around Australia have already been inspired by the Alyawarr people's walk-off. On July 14, following a great tradition from Aboriginal struggles of the past century, they walked off their community and set up a protest camp.

Their community had been compulsorily "acquired" for five years by the federal government, through powers granted to it through the NT Emergency Response legislation (the NT intervention).

The welfare recipients of Ampilatwatja all had their income "quarantined" — half their income replaced with a "basics card" that can only buy specified things at specified shops. This even applies to the aged pensioners who worked hard all their life, for rations and a little cash, opening up the country so the pastoral industry could exploit it.

With their pensions now quarantined, the elders felt they'd been returned to the rations days.

The NT intervention was supposedly about protecting children from abuse and neglect. One of the main factors contributing to child neglect — and the potential for child abuse — was the massive overcrowding experienced in most Aboriginal communities.

Two-and-a-half years after the intervention began, not one new house had been built for Aboriginal communities, despite the $672 million the federal government has put aside for Aboriginal housing.

However, on February 8 Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin announced the completion of two houses in Wadeye, one of the small number of communities the government wants to make "hub towns".

Under the government's plan, all new housing and other infrastructure will be concentrated in these "hub towns", the intention being to close down 73 smaller communities, separating the Indigenous people from their traditional lands.

For the people of Ampilatwatja, the final straw came in July last year when their community housing had fallen into such disrepair that sewage was leaking over the floors and the ground. Calls to the government department now in charge of what had been Aboriginal-run housing were falling on deaf ears.

So the people decided to walk out. "You can have the community", they said to the government. "We don't want it."

Last year, on an east coast speaking tour to raise awareness, Alyawarr spokesperson Richard Downs inspired unionists and others with his people's struggle. He drew links to the great Gurindji and Pilbara struggles from last century, and reminded people of the important role unions played in them.

An idea was born. "Wouldn't it be amazing", a Wollongong unionist said, "if we — unionists and solidarity activists together with the community itself — could build a house where the government has failed?"

That idea became a reality. Unionists from the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU), the Australian Workers Union and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, as well as activists and a film crew, took part in the protest house work brigade.

A pre-fabricated house had been donated. The community wanted the house finished in time to launch it on February 14, the day after the national day of action against the intervention.

Money was quickly raised, with several unions that weren't sending members on the brigade sending money, including the National Tertiary Education Industry Union and the Maritime Union of Australia. The MUA also donated a generator to run the power tools, and it was all go.

"On Saturday, February 6 the last of 17 cubic metres of concrete was poured", Tim Gooden, secretary of the Geelong and Region Trades and Labour Council and brigade participant, told Green Left Weekly. "There was lots of yelling and shouting and lots of photos taken because it was a major feat to get the concrete slab out and poured in four days by hand.

"The slab has steel plates set in it for the house to fit on and be welded to. The CFMEU bought the last building supplies needed in Alice, before we travelled for half a day north west. All the concrete had to be burrowed in to two small 'brickie's mixers' and then taken out onto the slab.

"The mixers nearly did not arrive — the truck carrying them flipped on its side about 200km from the camp. No-one was hurt, but it delayed the start of the pour by half a day."

Gooden said that half of the dozen unionists on the brigade were women, including three German construction workers who heard about the NT intervention while visiting Sydney. Twelve young men from the Ampilatwatja community joined the construction team. "Because it was so hot — about 40°C at 10 in the morning — and the water had to be bucketed in, we would start at 5 in the morning and finish at noon. After lunch, which was prepared by the Alice Springs team of Nat [Wasley] and Paddy [Gibson], we would head out with elders to the local water hole about an hour away to cool off and then return to start pouring again at 4pm."

The team would work till dark then "sit with the community watch a film with a noisy generator [then] go to bed on the ground, which was still nearly 40 degrees at midnight, and start all over again the next day".

Downs told Green Left Weekly he was happy with how well the union brigade had been received by the community, and how well the participants had taken community concerns and priorities on board. "There was lots of engagement with the local community, young fellas helping out with the building", he said.

The work team built other structures for the camp. The housing in Ampilatwatja has been neglected for years. The community had decided that two houses pegged for demolition should be taken down and reconstructed at the walk-off camp.

Two work teams — a men's and a women's — spent a few days relocating the structures so the old people at the camp had more comfortable shelters.

Unionists worked alongside community members to reclaim the houses that had been neglected by the government. The Government Business Manager (GBM), sent to "administer" the community as part of the intervention, wasn't too impressed with it, but the elders and others in the community pointed out that they were supposed to be demolished anywayt.

Downs told GLW the walk-off camp had boosted the people's pride and confidence. This was evident at a February 8 Ampilatwatja community meeting. The meeting was to discuss the store, which had historically been community-owned, providing employment as well as profits to fund other community programs.

Under the intervention, the store was seized and handed over to new administrators. At the February 8 meeting, the community demanded it be handed back.

Work brigade participants sat alongside community members as they negotiated with the GBM, telling him that he had a fortnight to return the store to community control or they would all start shopping at a nearby community. The GBM eventually backed down and agreed.

The walk-off camp has provided a new focus for unions to engage with the Aboriginal rights movement. Kara Touchie, elected Indigenous representative on the ACTU executive told GLW that Downs and Yuendumu leader Harry Nelson had inspired many unionists when they toured the east coast in 2009.

"Union officials were quite taken with what Richard and Harry were saying and realised it was time to re-engage [with the movement]. We wanted to know what practical ways we could support them. Coming to the walk-off camp, donating our labour, was one way … I think it's awesome that they're not waiting for the government", she said.

The unions, she said, were keen to support the campaign, but they would take their lead from the walk-off camp and see what the Alyawarr people wanted unions to do. For Downs, that was the "icing on the cake. It gives me real heart … The unions are making a commitment to come on board".

Adam Leeman, an AMWU and Socialist Alliance member from Sydney, told GLW: "This brigade has been a great inspiration — to see that the Ampilatwatja community is directly fighting against the intervention. But seeing the inspiration that this protest house has given the people round here — the confidence to take control — has made the experience even greater for me."

On February 14, the house was launched with traditional Alyawarr songs and dancing as well as speakers including MUA Sydney branch secretary Paul McAleer. A bus load of Anangu from the APY lands in South Australia joined the celebrations.

Elder Banjo Morton told GLW: "That's the way we wanted it with the unions helping us. All different people working here together, helping us with the walk-off."

[For more information about the walk-off, visit interventionwalkoff.wordpress.com.]

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