The 1966 Gurindji Strike (also known as the Wave Hill Walk-Off) was a defining moment in the struggle for Aboriginal rights. A protest that started demanding equal wages and conditions inspired a united black and white national campaign for Aboriginal rights over land.
The Gurindji drew much inspiration from the Pilbara strike of the 1940s. Aboriginal stockmen in Western Australia’s Pilbara region had shut down the pastoral industry in a strike that lasted three years. The seaman’s union had put a ban on shipping wool from the station in solidarity with the Aboriginal workers, demonstrating the capacity for black and white workers to unite against racism.
The Gurindji strike began at Wave Hill Cattle Station, which employed the largest number of Aboriginal workers of any station in the Northern Territory. The station was run by the infamous Lord Vestey and the living and working conditions were appalling. Pay, when it was received, amounted to $6 a week. Stan Davey of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement described, “living structures no bigger than dog kennels… no sanitation provisions and no readily accessible water supply”.
On August 22 1966, 200 Gurindji people participated in a strike that demanded equal rights for Aboriginal workers.
United activity was central to the struggle. Key Aboriginal figures such as strike leader Vincent Lingiari and union organiser Dexter Daniels joined forces with Communist Party members like author Frank Hardy.
They were able to convince unions about the importance of fighting racism and supporting the struggle for land rights and self-determination. These political forces were central in cementing what was a struggle for equal rights into a conscious political struggle for land.
The Gurindji workers originally expressed their demands for land rights in a petition to the High Court. The petition, signed by 275 workers, expressed, “our earnest desire to retain tenure over tribal lands… our prior claim to this country in which we are a depressed minority”. Yet the Australian government continued its blind indifference to their plight. After two months the petition was rejected.
But the fight was far from over for the Gurindji. The Actors Equity Union and the Building Workers Industrial Union organised a national speaking tour in October 1966. Gurindji leaders were able to speak out about their strike at workers’ meetings all around the country.
Union support was huge. The Waterside Workers Federation donated $10,000 to the strike fund, and carpenters in Sydney contributed a weekly levy to help the strikers. In Wollongong miners levied their wages to support the Gurindji strike camp (and were reluctant to cancel that support even when the campaign won). The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union declared a black ban on the handling of Newcastle Waters and Wave Hill Cattle.
In March 1967 the Gurindji people staged their historic walk-off to their traditional country Wattie Creek, backed by this political and material union support.
This was the spark for a national campaign for land rights, first taken up by Aboriginal people across the Northern Territory and then supporters in the major cities. Mass marches took to the streets of major cities and moratoriums in solidarity with the struggle shut down worksites.
It was these struggles that were able to put land rights on the agenda. The 1967 referendum reflected the massive ideological shift in society. Ninety one per cent of Australians voted to amend the constitution in favour of equal rights for Aboriginal People. 1975 saw the implementation of a Racial Discrimination Act. And in 1976 the Whitlam government finally passed the Northern Territory Land Rights Act. This placed 42 per cent of the Northern Territory under Aboriginal control, including the land of the Gurindji people.
But the NT Intervention has seen the reversal of many of these victories. Land has been compulsorily acquired under land leases and communities put under the control of Government Business Managers. Labor has extended these leases from five years to between 40 and 99. Once again, Aboriginal people are denied control over their communities and lives.
Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory are resisting once again.
John Leemans, who led a strike last year in Kalkaringi against the Intervention, explained the need to take up the fight again today during his recent tour of capital cities (see page 9): “Today what we the First Nations people are facing is more serious than ever before… We need support to stop this Intervention which is preventing us from being self-sufficient, blocking our self-determination and removing our human rights.”
The inspiring stories of the Gurindji strike and the land rights movement are rich with lessons about how we can rebuild the fight again today.