The Original Activists

Thomas Mayor opened the section of the conference on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander struggles by paying tribute to the many longstanding ATSI activists in the union, such as Chicka Dixon, Kevin Cook, and Terry O’Shane, who is now the National ATSI co-ordinating officer. 


“These people paved way for the MUA’s ATSI committee, which was established four years ago just before last national conference. There is so much for us to do as our people are way behind and the gap is far too big,” Mayor said.

Longstanding Queensland MUA member Terry O’Shane spoke about the union’s current efforts to support a fully qualified Aboriginal seafarer in Gladstone. The company encouraged ATSI and local applicants, but did not hire one.  Under human rights legislation, companies are required to explain such a decision, and we are pursuing this. 

O’Shane told the Conference how he had started work as a seafarer in unsafe non-union jobs. Eventually he was sacked for raising safety issues and spent two years unemployed. With the MUA’s support, he got a job again. He and his workmates unionised the port of Cairns, and from there up the coast around to Weipa. O’Shane said that thing he was most proud of was that he was able to come back, and that he had a union book in his pocket. With considerable emotion he described how proud he was to be part of the union, and the conference gave him a standing ovation.

Kevin Tory told conference that he came from the NSW north coast. His father was a boxer and a cane cutter who told him “stick with the militant unions, they will help you.” His uncle was a wharfie who was close to former WWF Secretary Jim Healey and Sydney branch secretary Barney Mullins. He had huge respect for them because of their support for Aboriginal people.


Tory told Conference that he always refers to Australia as an illegal colonial, racist society. “But you folks are the best part about it. I’ve always believed in the class struggle, there is a struggle between labour and capital. They put Aboriginal people on ‘missions’ that were really concentration camps and treated us worse than animals. We have never colonised or enslaved anyone. One of the Christian principles is ‘tho shalt not steal’, but they stole everything here.”

Torrey was part of the land rights movement. He told Conference, “whenever we wanted support or wanted to get a resolution up, we could always go to the maritime unions. You never knocked us back, you always supported us. Thank you.”

MUA ATSI Committee Chair Paddy Neliman told Conference that the MUA’s ATSI committee had elected Terry O’Shane and Kevin Tory to be elders for this committee. “They paved the way and stood on picket lines for us,” he explained.

Neliman told Conference about the collective movement of Torres Strait Islanders in the 1930s. At that time Torres Strait Islanders needed to get government permission to go from island to island. People had had a gut full. They managed to meet, and decided they would do no more work for them. They were all divers, and they coordinated the meeting by leaving messages on rocks on the bottom of the sea.

There is a struggle now in Townsville with businesses shutting down. In many places now, Aboriginal people are being asked to work for the dole, and getting paid below the minimum wage, no superannuation or other rights. We have to fight this.

MUA member Grant Syron said he had been in the maritime industry for five years. He reminded Conference that when the Commonwealth was formed in 1901 Aboriginal people were excluded.

“We were not able to vote until 1962. Some indigenous communities still don’t have access to the vote,” Syron said

He was pleased that today, MUA supports indigenous employment and campaigns like the Redfern Tent Embassy and the West Papuan struggle.

NT Branch Secretary Thomas Mayor told Conference that when Inpex began building their gas plant in Darwin, they said they would employ Larrakia people.

“Yet there are very few. We have a campaign for Larrakia employment in the project and on the ships.  We push for solid clauses for Aboriginal employment in all our agreements, but it is often harder than it should be to get employers to agree.,” Mayor said.

He concluded that the union movement empowers people and that contributes to campaigns for land rights and better pay and conditions. Many of those pearl divers that organised in the Torres Strait had sailed on ships with SUA members. People learned from each other.

Members of the MUA ATSI Committee introduced themselves. Many described the racism that they experienced on a daily basis, and that these attacks were what lead to them becoming union activists. Robin Hajinoor from Broome contrasted the great wealth of West Australia with the poverty and high suicide rate of Aboriginal communities. Both he and other Committee members described the very low levels of Aboriginal employment in their workplaces. Jimmy Cusick from Newcastle said the MUA saved his life by helping him get a job as as a seafarer, and it was the only organisation he had never felt racism in. Steve Taylor from Adelaide said he became a union activist because of what the MUA did for indigenous people all over Australia. “It touched my heart,” he said.

Assistant National Secretary Ian Bray said that the MUA did not want committees, we want a movement.

“We have made great progress since last conference in the participation of women, youth and Aboriginal people in the union and its structures. The union is now fighting on all fronts. If you want to advance rights of workers against capital cannot just tick boxes. We need to be united across the working class and the union movement. The MUA can’t survive on its own,” Bray said.

Bray described the work the MUA has done to build social compacts with Aboriginal land councils. Mining and oil companies will make any promises when they are applying for resources licences, but they often do not deliver. The MUA made agreements that we would push for Indigenous employment as part of any union agreement, and that our Indigenous partners would make sure the union was part of any agreement they signed with a company.

“We’ve done this in Gladstone, Darwin and we are working on Broome. This is not about charity, we benefit from these agreements too,” he said.

The MUA played a role in the Pilbara strikes, in the Nookoomba blockade, and the Wave Hill walk off. MUA member Brian Manning made an incredible contribution to that struggle, with his truck that kept supplies running throughout that dispute. As the 50th anniversary approaches, Bray said that it was important to get that truck refurbished as part of our history. And the MUA will continue to support the struggle for rights and employment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.