Vale 'Chicka' Dixon: wharfie and Aboriginal activist

Published: 22 Mar 2010

Waterside worker and long time Aboriginal activist Charles "Chicka" Dixon has died in Sydney aged 81 - struck down by asbestos he contracted working on the wharves.

Chicka Dixon Aboriginal of the Year, tent embassy activist, builders labourer, wharfie, university lecturer, recovered alcoholic,  and former chair of the Aboriginal Arts Board - a man who has represented his people around the world, studied with the Canadian Native Americans, done a bit of gaol, been mate with prime ministers Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke and addressed 10,000 Chinese in the Great Hall of the People - has died.

MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin paid tribute to Chicka Dixon's as political and labour warrior.

"The MUA adds their sympathies and condolences to the many voices in our national and the international labour movement on Chicka's passing," he said.  "A man of character, substance and unwavering courage he reflected the finer traits Australians aspire to and seek after for a society that is decent inclusive and fair to all.

"Chicka was a worker, leader and activist who was determined to turn around racism and elitism and gain proper recognition for the extraordinary culture and character of his people and the great injustice done to them.

"His asbestosis related death brings into even clearer focus this great injustice to working men and women in this country and the long campaign led by the MUA in many ways to find remedy and restitution.

"Our membership officials and staff in particular farewell one of our own. Vale comrade."


In an interview with the union in 2001 "White plague strikes Black elder" Chicka recalled his exposure to asbestos on the Sydney wharves in the sixties.

"It would fly all over the place," he said. "Heaps of it.  My gang, we'd sit on the bags and eat our lunch.  bangs and bags of asbestos.  No one knew.  We usen't to take any notice.  Forty years down the road, in 1997 I collapsed.  Whey they examined me they said you've got duste lungs.  All those years I'd never been sick in my life.  I've been 12 times in hospital in teh last two years.  Seven days to pump my lungs out."

When he first got involved in politics his Mum warned him they'd call him a Red.

"Well, I said, they've been calling me black for years."

Chicka was a builders labourer before getting a job as a wharfie.

He rose to political prominence as a member of the Waterside Workers Federation.

"I got on the waterront and become a wharfie and that's where I learned the politics.  The Communist Party Moscow liners were masters of organising.  And I learned a lot about other people's struggles.

"That was my best political education. No doubt about that.  Iw as very politically naive when I started.  They taught me how to organise.  We'd be talking politics all the time. It was second nature."


Harry Black, MUA Veterans, worked alongside Chicka at Darling Harbour.

"Chicka was very active as an Aboriginal activist and as a unionist," he said. "He played a very significant role on wharves continually putting forward Aboriginal cause and working closely with the union to bring about support.  Under his influence quite a few Aborigines came to the waterfront and became members of the waterfront.  Chicka was dedicated to the struggle for betterment of his people."

Under the Whitlam Government Chicka was sent to Canada to study, employing him alongside Charles Perkins in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, established by the Whitlam  in 1973.

 Hawke appointed him Chair of the Aboriginal Arts Board in 1983.  The following year he was made Aboriginal of the Year.

Chicka Dixon was  one of the main campaigners in the 1967 referendum, an active participant of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in the 1970s and a founder of the Aboriginal Legal Service, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders(FCAATSI).

He died on Saturday surrounded by his family at a nursing home in Sydney's east.

He is survived by his two daughters, Rhonda and Christine, and a large extended family.

ABC reports a state funeral is expected to be held next week.

Hear his story on ABC radio VERBATIM.  In the first of two programs, Chika Dixon recalls the 1950s and 60s, and the struggles he and other Aboriginals underwent to highlight the many areas of disadvantage for Aboriginal Australians, including the campaign for a referendum on citizenship.





Authorised by P Crumlin, Maritime Union of Australia, Sydney