Sydney Maritime Union: ‘Solidarity with First Nations communities is vital’

July 31, 2020
Gurindji strike leader Vincent Lingiari by Frank Hardy.

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) Sydney branch has thrown its support behind the Black Lives Matter movement by assisting First Nations families who are demanding justice for the deaths in custody of their loved ones. Green Left’s Liv Adams and Rachel Evans spoke to MUA Sydney secretary Paul McAleer and deputy secretary Paul Keating about their union’s solidarity with First Nations communities.

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What sort of solidarity is the MUA providing for First Nations families?

Paul Keating: Losing your child or nephew or cousin and then having to take the system on is very hard. The stronger the Black Lives Matter movement becomes, the more working-class people will understand that this colonial system can’t be rehabilitated. It must be understood for what it is: it is designed to try and destroy the rights of First Nations peoples.

The MUA Sydney branch has a history of connecting with working-class struggles and Indigenous communities. We bring this to our membership by taking our Indigenous friends onto job sites and workplaces so that they can tell the story of a system that has not given any justice to their communities. It’s a powerful story. The families have our full support.

Paul McAleer: Truth is very important for us. We are aware of how stigma, power, authority and domination impact the ability for the truth to come out. It’s in the nature of this society that those in power are heard, rather than the truth.

So, it is very important for our union that we allow people the space to have that truth heard. That is how we are assisting our First Nations sisters and brothers who are victims of this system.

We’re a small union and we are not miracle providers. We face a very similar attitude from the ruling powers: they say we’re a bunch of riffraffs, thugs, vermin and industrial terrorists. Because we stand with people, seeking justice, we get labelled.

Solidarity is about mutual love and unity and respect. We don’t judge anyone based on the way others view them. There are ways in which the MUA Sydney branch goes about that work to help campaigns beyond protests. It is essential that everyone is able to use what strengths they have.

MUA Sydney is highlighting police and prison officer abuses: these acts of violence and injustice are never acceptable. The entire system needs to change to create better outcomes for our Aboriginal friends who are being incarcerated at rates that no other community on Earth experiences.

But showing solidarity is always under the direction of the First Nations families. We can also raise the issues in forums such as Unions New South Wales and the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Thomas Mayor, the MUA’s national Indigenous officer, has also led solidarity with the Black Lives Matter campaign within the International Transport Workers Federation.

How do you view the NSW government and NSW Police efforts to declare the BLM protests in Sydney illegal?

Paul Keating: The leadership shown by the organisers, the families and First Nations Elders at the rallies have instilled disciplined COVID-19 protocols. Meanwhile, it has slackened off in the broader community — shopping centres and parks. Health department protocols have been relaxed. The protests should and must go ahead.

MUA Sydney will always highlight the higher incarceration rates of First Nations communities and the discrimination because of the capitalist system. We will continue to stand alongside our comrades because Black deaths in custody are a national and international shame.

Paul McAleer: We support marginalised and brutalised communities in struggle. We also fight for people’s health and safety. We want people to protest and we want them to do it safely.

Everything we’ve done to assist these rallies has been about promoting the issues, while taking care to ensure people’s health and safety.

Police, or anyone else, have the ability to facilitate the protests to ensure they are safe for attendees and to comply with the health restrictions. But the NSW government prevents these rallies from being peaceful. It prevents them from being able to comply with health and safety outcomes and the MUA condemns that.

We want to ensure that people can come together safely. We don’t want further pain for vulnerable communities. We’ve been very conscious of health and safety imperatives during the COVID-19 crisis.

First Nations peoples have won significant gains and in some cases had support from communists and socialists. The nine-year Gurindji /Wave Hill strike from 1966 to 1975 is a case in point. What are your thoughts about these alliances?

Paul Keating: The MUA and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union attended the 50th anniversary of Wave Hill walk off [in the Northern Territory]. It was an incredible experience. The Gurindji strike is one of the greatest struggles, historically, in this country and it shows the power of the working class.

We are talking about a strike that lasted nine years! The Gurindji people were only demanding to be paid the same wage as white workers on those cattle stations. The strike was against the indignity of slavery [by the British-based Vestey Brothers], one of the most powerful multinationals of the time.

The vast expanse of Wave Hill in the Northern Territory showed the [Vestey Brothers’] power. Apart from the Gurindji people’s courage, the strike sparked support from working-class people, including waterside workers, and from students. The Communist Party of Australia was at the forefront of generating support for that strike.

Vincent Lingiari and other courageous leaders said: "We will stay on strike until we bring them to their knees". They moved from industrial demands to a movement for land rights. They said: "This is our land, we want to live our lives the way we decide, not the colonial system that has destroyed our history, culture and people". They inspired more a generation. It shows that nothing stops the working class from achieving its aims if we are prepared to fight.

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