Proud Wharfie, Proud Indigenous Man

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Patrick ‘Paddy’ Neliman

“I work for a company called Northern Stevedoring Services, or NSS. I’ve worked for these guys in Townsville for 19 years, beginning in 1994, and now I’ve been a permanent for close to 10 years. I drive the cranes, the big Portainer gantry cranes, and the skill level that I do at work is we discharge the boxes and bulk and all of that kind of stuff and loading of ships as well.


“It’s a challenge every day. Our workforce distributes over Cairns and Mackay and Gladstone as well, but here in Townsville, we have 82 on the floor, not counting the office, 75 of them are members which is good.


“Size-wise, we’re just a small port. But volume wise we’re up there with Brisbane. It is a container and bulk handling port, they load stuff like sugar, fertiliser, cement. We do containers as well. Clive Palmer’s nickel, it gets discharged here in Townsville too, mainly stuff like that.


“I got the job when I was 20, turning 21. Before that I was in the Queensland Police Service. I was trained to be a police officer but I didn’t like that too much, so I came back to Townsville and my brother woke me up one day and got me down to the CES, I applied for a job, didn’t know what stevedoring meant, something to do with wharves, but anyway, I applied for a job.


“Back when I started, it was almost a sin if you weren’t union. I’ve been a delegate for about six years now. I put my hand up because blokes were retiring and I ended up being in the next lot to do the EBA talks.’’

Leadership role


“[As a delegate], I think I’ve found myself develop to become a better listener, and also a bit of a problem solver. I’ve generally taken on a counseling type of thing: let people talk, find out what the problem is and try to guide them with the best advice or experience I have. I’ve found myself to be a bit better at that stuff, where before if somebody told me something it went straight over my head and I didn’t know what was going on. Now I have an understanding of what’s going on and more care about how we can make a change.


“Back when I started, it was almost a sin if you weren’t union.’’


“Then the union deputy secretary advised me of this ACTU [Indigenous] committee, and recommended I should have a go at it. He thought I would be beneficial. I just wrote out a little resumé and handed it in and he came back to me at next negotiation talks and told me I got in. Since then, that’s when I got to understand about how unions work on that level with Indigenous communities for better conditions and pay and all that. And then as it panned out it didn’t just stop with our worksites and all of those kinds of policies and negotiations, it got to issues in our community regarding Stolen Wages and other things like that.


“I found out more about the Stolen Wages through working with the ACTU and becoming a delegate, and through the QCU in Queensland, their role in standing up to do things for the Stolen Wages campaign. I was shown how they developed the campaigns and the process to get the ball rolling and address it to the community. And that’s when I was made aware that if it works for that issue, there are a whole lot of other issues about people’s jobs and lifestyles on the islands and through areas.’’

Stolen wages and social compacts


“From 1908 until the 1960s, 80% of indigenous wages were kept in state trusts. I don’t know why. They probably thought Indigenous people couldn’t budget or understand the value of money. So now we’re fighting to get those stolen wages back. It’s a really hard sell but we keep pushing. I march every year with the Stolen Wages banner and I grab any wharfie who’s beside me, anyone in the community to hold the banner and march beside me. Yeah, so it’s alright. We’re still going and we’re a voice for the elders out there, so there’s no stopping yet.


“Now we’re developing social compacts between the unions and the land councils when there is development on the traditional lands. The idea is to give jobs to Indigenous people and they become union members. So memberships should grow and also the conditions and pay should be fair and reasonable for Aboriginal people.


“Out of the 82 in my port, there are only six blacks. We haven’t formulated ourselves to be an Indigenous committee amongst ourselves. But if there’s any issues I raise them with them and they give me a yes or no vote whether they feel strongly about stuff. They’re not identified as being Aboriginals or Torres Strait Islanders because of their fair complexions, but they’re happy to tell me what they think, they don’t really worry about being identified or not.


“In our last EBA, we put in a clause that we’d get a percentage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders in our workforce. It’s never been done before, except in WA I think they have 20%. That helped us to put in the clause and hopefully from that we’ll feed in a certain number, a percentage. We’ve got to get more Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders on wharves and hopefully it’ll work out good.”