Australian Unions and the fight against Apartheid
Trade unions were at the forefront of the struggle in Australia against Apartheid in South Africa from the 1950s and they made significant contributions to that struggle.
In the 1950s, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and Australian unions forged solidarity links with South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and the ACTU was vocal in condemning Apartheid. Following condemnation of the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960 anti-Apartheid statements were made at many of the triennial ACTU Congresses, at its quarterly Executive meetings, and significant decisions were taken including calling for mandatory sanctions against South Africa in May 1985. Prior to the Springbok Rugby Union toured to Australia in 1971, the ACTU urged union affiliates
take whatever action is necessary as an act of conscience to obstruct the tour.
As President of the ACTU in 1969 Bob Hawke, and subsequent Presidents strongly denounced and opposed Apartheid urging among other actions a complete consumer boycott of South African goods. In December 1983, Cliff Dolan, the ACTU President of the ACTU, as a founder of the African Liberation Trust Fund helped establish the new ANC Office in Australia. And Cliff and Helen McCue as co-founders of Union Aid Abroad APHEDA, oversaw APHEDA’s key role providing support for the ANC through the Australian ANC Support Committee (AANCSC), and APHEDA’s multi-million dollar program of development assistance with the ANC from 1984 and post the 1994 democratic election.
Some of the most active unions in Australia that opposed Apartheid were the Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA) and the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF), now the Maritime Union of Australia. Under the leadership of E. V. Elliott the SUA had opposed Apartheid and condemned racial oppression in 1949. In 1959, when SACTU called for sanctions against the Apartheid regime, the SUA and the WWF, under Jim Healy, embargoed South African ships, despite attempts by Menzies to make union sanctions a criminal offence. The SUA was also at the forefront of implementing the United Nations arms embargo. While attempts to implement an oil embargo were thwarted by USA and UK leaders, international shipping unions formed the Maritime Unions against Apartheid (MUAA) with Australia’s Pat Geraghty and Wally Pritchard (SUA) key founding members who helped mastermind the international oil embargo. Shipping unions represented in the MUAA also adopted industrial action against ships trading with South Africa.
The Building Workers Industrial Union now the Construction, Forestry, Mining & Energy Union was also active over many years including founding the progressive Friends of Africa (FOA) organisation in 1967.The BWIU’s Ernie Boatswain and (SUA) John Benson’s work strengthened unions contact with SACTU in the 1970s-1980s. The BWIU, Seamen, Waterside Workers, Printing Trades, Fire Brigades and others supported establishing the ANC Support Group (Sydney) 1983. Pat Clancy, BWIU National Secretary, negotiated with ACTU for Andrew Moletsane ANC Student representative to address the 1983 ACTU Congress that was a turning point in ACTU recognition for the ANC. The BWIU also provided office space and support for anti-Apartheid groups in Australian cities and organised an office in the Sydney Trades Hall when the ANC’s Chief Representative Eddie Funde arrived in December 1983 giving material support and helping to establish an anti-Apartheid library.
The Amalgamated Metal Workers Union now the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union worked closely with the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) including sending Chris Lloyd to work for NUMSA. Leaders including Laurie Carmichael and John Halfpenny supported anti-Apartheid education at workplace meetings and union members attended demonstrations and rallies in great numbers including against the 1971 Springboks tour. Other unions including transport unions, especially Qantas staff, refused to carry the South African Springboks team and members of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union (LHMU), now United Voice, made life difficult and uncomfortable in hotels for both players and travellers with the Springbok tour team. The Builders Labourers Federation’s Bob Pringle cut down the goal posts just before a game in Sydney. The protests against the 1971 rugby union tour were so successful that the proposed 1972 cricket tour was cancelled and in 1977 Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), Marion Jacka, organised protests against the South African cricketers on Kerry Packer’s rebel cricket tour. The Food Preservers Union led by leaders such as Tom Ryan and Bill Hartley in Victoria were also active as was the ACT Trades and Labor Council who led regular pickets against the South African Embassy. Actors Equity were involved with the International Federation of Actors (FIA) which worked with the Performing Arts Workers Equity (PAWE) the non-racial performers union in South Africa.
Teachers throughout Australia, represented by The Australian Teachers Union now the Australian Education Union, assisted with education and awareness raising about Apartheid and human rights. Among notable activist teachers were Denis Freney who helped organise the campaigns against the 1971 Springboks Rugby Union tour, Peter McGregor who supported the South African Defence and Aid Fund (SADAF) and John Myrtle who headed the Campaign Against Racism in Sport (CARIS). Many Australian teachers were also active in the Campaign Against Racial Exploitation (CARE). In Sydney, Pat Wagner helped establish an ANC Support Committee within the NSW Teachers Federation in 1977. Two Australian teachers, Donna Burns and Ailsa Purdon, worked in the ANC’s school for exiles in Mazimbu, Tanzania, through the ACTU’s overseas aid arm, Union Aid Abroad APHEDA.
The Union of Australian Women (UAW) supported Union actions against Apartheid over decades. The UAW and ANC Women’s Section worked closely together as affiliates to the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) that had affiliates in 130 countries campaigning for ANC Women. The UAW hosted many ANC women leaders like Ruth Mompati, Gertrude Shope, Marko Njobe to speak about women and Apartheid in South Africa and with union support organised aid for ANC women and children in exile. In 1983 Audrey McDonald (UAW) initiated the Sydney ANC Support Committee, introduced Eddie Funde to key unions and MPs, and helped develop the AANCSC and support for the ANC Office.