Equal pay strike pioneered land rights
Half a century ago, Aboriginal stockmen and their families in the Northern Territory took a historic stand in support of equal pay and land rights. Support from the Australian union movement was vital to their success.
Fifty years ago, in August 1966, a handful of union volunteers in Darwin loaded a small Bedford truck with food destined for a remote cattle station known as Wave Hill.
The food was a donation from the North Australian Workers Union (NAWU) to Aboriginal stockmen and their families who were on strike demanding equal pay with white workers.
The strike developed into a nine-year struggle by the Gurindji people to gain rights over their ancestral land. It had been occupied as a cattle farm by the family of British Lord Vestey since 1914.
The Bedford truck belonged to waterside worker Brian Manning, who died in 2013.
He was accompanied on the gruelling 750km drive by the NAWU’s Aboriginal organiser, Dexter Daniels, and another Aboriginal man, Robert Tudawali, a former top football player who starred in Charles Chauvel’s pioneering 1955 film Jedda.
Manning drove the truck on about 15 trips to support what is now known in Australian history as the Wave Hill walk off.
Manning said much of the road to Wave Hill was “a horror stretch consisting of a series of temporary, heavily corrugated diversions which could not be driven at great speed with my overloaded small truck. We crawled along most of the way between 15 and 20 mph.”
Denied equal wages
In a 2002 speech, Manning explained how Aboriginal workers on white-owned stations were “arbitrarily bound to employers by a system of institutionalised poverty.”
“For a seven-day week, working from sun-up to sun-down, Aboriginal pastoral workers in the NT were paid around 3 pounds 6 shillings ($7) when white workers were paid around 23 pounds ($46),” he said.
“In addition, Aboriginal workers were to be fed in accordance with a schedule in the Wards Employment Ordinance, which provided for an adequate and varied nutritious diet. Daily fare in the Wave Hill stock camps consisted of dry salted beef, dry bread, tea and sugar.”
In March 1966, the Arbitration Commission ruled that Aborigines should be paid equal wages but not for almost three years, to allow station owners time to prepare for the change.
The delay sparked widespread anger among Aboriginal workers. At one of the largest stations in the Northern Territory, Wave Hill, Gurindji leader Vincent Lingiari asked the station master for equal wages and was refused.
The Gurindji and other Aboriginal stockmen, domestic workers and their families collected their belongings and quietly walked away from Wave Hill station to camp at a dry river bed about 16km away.
This event has become part of Gurindji folklore and is annually re-enacted as ‘Freedom Day’.
“Relief in the realisation that they were no longer on their own”
Manning remembered that the arrival of the Bedford truck at the strikers’ camp was greeted with “loud and excited cheers from a swelling crowd… I could actually sense their relief in the realisation that they were no longer on their own.”
Vincent Lingiari told Manning that all Aboriginal workers were on strike except the pumpers – maintenance workers who camped out at water bore sites where windmills and diesel motors continuously pumped water into troughs for the cattle.
When Manning suggested the pumpers should walk off too, “Vincent hastened to assure me that they wouldn’t call out the pumpers because they had to look after the cattle.”
“Here was another insight into this quiet, unassuming and responsible leader who understood his priorities.”
Unions sponsored Aboriginal strikers on trips to the southern states so people could hear their case first hand.
Donations from union members provided the strikers’ campsite with a Toyota truck, fencing materials, a brick-making machine, roofing iron and a water pump.
In October 1968, equal pay became law in the pastoral industry and the Gurindji struggle advanced beyond a claim for equal wages to a demand for their ancestral land.
In August 1975, nine years after the walk off, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam presented the Gurindji with leasehold title over part of their land.
And in 2016, the National Museum of Australia decided to acquire Brian Manning’s historic Bedford truck.