Labour History

“There’s No Flies at Noonkanbah but the Scabs Are on the Way”: Trade Union Support for Aboriginal Rights during the Noonkanbah Dispute, 1979–80

Labour History (2016), 110, (1), 77–95.


In the late 1970s the Noonkanbah Aboriginal community in the Kimberley region of Western Australia took a determined stand against oil exploration on their land. The exploration was to be carried out by a US-based multinational, and had been approved by the Liberal government of Charles Court. The campaign found many allies, including the trade union movement. Trade union support included an official Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and Trades and Labor Council of Western Australia (TLC) ban placed on drilling for oil which was actively supported by members of the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) and Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), who refused to transport cargo and drill for oil respectively. This case study of union industrial action taken in support Aboriginal rights has not been adequately documented or analysed. The evidence shows that important preconditions for this labour movement contribution were a high level of industrial militancy and confidence among unions, and political leadership from some activists within the movement who supported a broader agenda of social change.

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*This article is dedicated to the memory of Amber Maxwell, socialist, activist and budding labour historian, who died tragically on 24 August 2013, aged 20. The author would like to thank the anonymous referees for their helpful comments on an earlier draft, as well as Sarah Gregson of theLabour HistoryEditorial Working Party for further work on the manuscript. Most of the research for this article was done as part of a History Honours dissertation completed at the University of Western Australia in 2012. “There’s no flies at Noonkanbah but the scabs are on the way”: this was written on a placard at the Broome protest in support of the Noonkanbah community and quoted in theWest Australian, 12 August1980, 1. Google Scholar

2.Day was convicted of “disobeying a lawful order.” Workers in Port Hedland and Cape Lambert held a 24 hour stoppage in solidarity with their organiser when Day was jailed. Denis Day to AMW&SU Secretary, 26 February 1981, Trades and Labor Council of Western Australia (TLC), File 1“Aborigines,”1981, Box 163, Acc 3492A, State Library of Western Australia (SLWA). Google Scholar

3.For the ACTU motion: Meeting of ACTU Executive, 19–22 August 1980, Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), File D 80/80, D134/80, Box 7, Acc S886, Noel Butlin Archives (NBA), Australian National University. The motion “firmly and unequivocally” endorsed the TLC’s bans. For the TLC motion: Meeting of TLC, 25 March 1980, TLC, File 1“Aborigines,”1981, Box 163, Acc 3492A, SLWA. Google Scholar

4.Peter Cook,Memo toRon Reid, TLC, File 1“Aborigines,”1981, Box 163, Acc 3492A, SLWA. Google Scholar

5.See for exampleKevin Cook andHeather Goodall, Making Change Happen: Black and White Activists Talk to Kevin Cook about Aboriginal, Union and Liberation Politics(:ANU ePress, 2013), ch. 2. Google Scholar

6.Cook andGoodall, Making Change Happen, contains the recollections of many Indigenous unionists, including Kevin Cook himself. Cook was an organiser for the NSW BLF during the Redfern Block demolition bans. Google Scholar

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26. Ibid., 146; TLC, File“Aborigines 1979,”Box 121, Acc 3492A, SLWA. Google Scholar

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28.Steve Hawke toPeter Cook, 10 December1979, TLC, File 1“Aborigines,”1979, Box 163, Acc 3492A, SLWA. Google Scholar

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49.By way of contrast, in the early 1960s, WWF members (a union that contributed significantly to Noonkanbah) defied their leadership and took industrial action in protest at the Vietnam War.Margo Beasley, Wharfies: A History of the Waterside Workers Federation of Australia(:Halstead Press, 1996), 218. Google Scholar

50.Bramble, Trade Unionism in Australia, 114. Google Scholar

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53. Construction Worker, newsletter of the ABCE & BLF WA branch, no. 48, 28 July1980(date-stamped). Google Scholar

55.State Library of Western Australia and Parliamentary History Advisory Committee Western Australia, transcript of an interview with Sir Charles Court (1911–2007) byRonda Jamieson, undated, 1532, Oral History Collection, Battye Library. Google Scholar

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58. Ibid., 1804. Google Scholar

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63.Donohoe, interview. Google Scholar

64.Clarke, interview;Direct Action, 13 August1980. Google Scholar

65.Clarke, interview;Direct Action, 13August1980. Clarke said that seamen from Wickham attended the protest, while Bill Donohoe recalls that Darrell McClusky of the AWU was the only rank-and-file worker. Donohoe, interview. There is no way to ascertain who was there to watch, and who was participating more actively, especially given the police stopped the picket line from forming. Google Scholar

66.Clarke, interview; Donohoe, interview. Google Scholar

67. Direct Action, 13 August1980. Google Scholar

68. West Australian, 11 August1980, 1. Those arrested included Colin Saunders (FEDFA), Colin Hollett (AMW&SU), Bill Donohoe (ETU), Darrell McClusky (AWU) and James Bacon (BLF). All were local organisers, apart from Darrell McClusky, who was a rank-and-filer. All unions had members in the Pilbara. Note: In Western Australia, FEDFA was known as FEDFU, the Federated Engine Drivers’ and Firemen’s Union. For the sake of simplicity, FEDFA has been used to cover both. Google Scholar

69. West Australian, 11 August1980, 1. Google Scholar

70.Donohoe, interview. Google Scholar

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72.Clarke, interview. Google Scholar

73. Ibid. Google Scholar

74. Ibid. Google Scholar

75.Federal Management Council meeting of the BLF, 26 September1980. The motion was moved N. Gallagher, seconded R. Owens: Builders Labourers’ Federation, Acc N130/103, NBA. Google Scholar

76.Hawke, andGallagher, Noonkanbah, 258. Google Scholar

77.O’Connor, interview. See alsoBowden, Driving Force. Google Scholar

78.“Unionists Arrested as Convoy Blockade Fails,” The Age, 11 August1980. Google Scholar

79.This was Midland Brick, owned by staunch anti-unionist and Liberal party member, Rick New.Hawke andGallagher, Noonkanbah, 270;O’Connor, interview. Google Scholar

80.“Aboriginal Sacred Site ‘is Now Worthless,’” Advertiser, 9 August1980. The cost of the convoy was also very high; according to Lorna Lippman, it was $500,000. The cost of the drilling itself was $1 million. SeeLippman, Generations of Resistance, 190. Google Scholar

81.Hawke andGallagher, Noonkanbah, 272. Google Scholar

82.“We Know Says TWU,” West Australian, 11 August1980, 11;O’Connor, interview. Google Scholar

83.Stephens, interview. There appears to be no surviving copy of this song, byR. U. Ready, in libraries across Australia. Despite appearing on the State Library of WA catalogue, staff were unable to locate it. Google Scholar

84.Stephens, interview. Google Scholar

85. Ibid. Google Scholar

86.O’Connor, interview. Google Scholar

87. Ibid. Google Scholar

88.“Paddy Hartnett: The Nookenbah Man,” WA’s Irish Scene, July-August2003, 16. Google Scholar

89.Bullen, interview. Google Scholar

90. Maritime Worker 64, no. 9(October1980):23–25. Google Scholar

91.Bullen, interview. Information in the above paragraph taken from this source. Google Scholar

92. Ibid. Google Scholar

93.Numbers vary in the accounts from:Maritime Worker 64, no. 9(October1980):25;West Australian12 August1980, 1;Hawke andGallagher, Noonkanbah, 277. Google Scholar

94.Bullen, interview. Google Scholar

95. Maritime Worker 64, no. 9(October1980):23. Google Scholar

96.Bullen, interview;West Australian, 12 August1980, 1. Google Scholar

97. West Australian, 12 August1980, 1. Google Scholar

98.Photo and caption inMaritime Worker 64, no. 9(October1980):25. Google Scholar

99. West Australian, 12 August1980, 1;Maritime Worker 64, no. 9(October1980):23, 25. Google Scholar

100. West Australian, 12 August1980, 1. Google Scholar

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106.Joe Isherwood, interviewed by author, 14 April2012. Google Scholar

107.Gil Barr toPeter Cook, 9 April1981, TLC, File 1“Aborigines,”1981, Box 163, Acc 3492A, SLWA. Google Scholar

108. Ibid. Google Scholar

109.Hawke andGallagher, Noonkanbah, 290. Google Scholar

110. Ibid., 290. Google Scholar

111.Isherwood, interview. Google Scholar

112. Ibid.See alsoGil Barr, interview withStuart Reid, 81. Google Scholar

113.See for example“Drilling Ban on Blacks’ Land,” Courier-Mail, 13 August1980, 1;“Drillers Ban WA Oil Rig,” Sydney Morning Herald, 13 August1980, 1;“Rig Through But Union Bans Drilling,” West Australian, 13 August1980, 1. Google Scholar

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125.Markus, “Talka Longa Mouth,” 138. On this, Ross Martin and others are simply wrong. Martin states that they were excluded until 1964 without providing any evidence:Ross Martin, Trade Unions in Australia(:Penguin, 1975), 63. Google Scholar

126.Markus, “Talka Longa Mouth,” 140–41. Google Scholar

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136. Ibid.By then it had been re-named“Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.” Google Scholar

137. Maritime Worker 64, no. 7(August1980):19. This was paid for by levying union members. Google Scholar

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Author details

Vassiley, Alexis