The trade union and Aboriginal rights movements have been shocked by news of Mark Fordham’s death on February 2. Mark, the proud father of two young sons, died of a heart attack in Darwin at 37 years of age.
Mark was an Aboriginal fighter with a brilliant instinct for class struggle and an even better sense of humour. Born in the Northern Territory, he had travelled throughout northern Australia working on mines, wharves, construction sites and in remote communities.
In recent years, Mark had searched for jobs that allowed him to fulfil his passion—teaching young Aboriginal people in remote areas the skills he had learned and building up their confidence to participate in the workplace.
But Mark’s efforts consistently ran up against destructive government policies that tie his people down.
Mark’s first experience speaking out to the national media saw him sacked from his job as works manager at Ampilatwatja, 350 kilometers north east of Alice Springs.
Recent policies such as the NT Intervention had taken away many of the waged jobs in Ampilatwatja, and locals were being forced to work for a “BasicsCard” which can only be spent on “essential items” at government-approved stores. This was creating a crisis in the community, with the near collapse of basic services such as waste management.
Mark led a group of local workers who refused orders from the Shire council to dump raw sewage at the local tip, about 800 meteres from the community school and demanded the Shire increase its workforce and pay for proper sewage disposal.
The LHMU ran a successful unfair dismissal case for Mark. Building on this stand, Mark began to play a crucial role building support amongst trade unionists for the campaign against the NT Intervention. He helped found the “Jobs with Justice” campaign.
In October 2010, Mark travelled to construction sites, wharves and university campuses in Sydney and Brisbane raising awareness about the Intervention and pressing demands for proper investment in jobs and basic services in Aboriginal communities.
His outspokenness saw Mark forced out of another job, this time as an employment consultant at the Ti Tree community.
Mark never regretted taking these strong stands, despite the considerable personal costs he had to bear. He never expected any gratitude and was always looking forward to “the next blue”.
In November, Mark took a job training people in remote communities in construction and work readiness. He was in the middle of designing a course and preparing more remote trips when he passed away. He was also set to attend the upcoming ACTU Indigenous workers conference as a delegate for the CFMEU.
In a recent interview, Mark described how a dispute as a member of the MUA at the port of Wyndham in WA had taught him that union power is central for fighting for the rights of all people, no matter what nationality or race. Wyndham workers refused to unload cargo from a Malay ship until they got guarantees the workers would be paid properly. “That taught me we can fight so no one is left behind”, he said. “We are all workers and we should all be treated equally”.
Mark has showed us the way to fight for Aboriginal rights—build up power and awareness amongst workers and never back down. We need to finish what he started.
By Paddy Gibson