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North Australian Workers Union

Until the mid 1960s the North Australian Workers Union (NAWU) had paid little regard to the position of Aboriginal workers in the pastoral industry in Northern Territory. These workers were controlled by the Welfare Ordinance and the Wards Employment Ordinance and were thus ineligible for the award wages received by non-Aboriginal workers.

The formation, in late 1961, of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights, which had equal wages central to its platform, led to pressure on the Union in this regard. In September 1964, the Social Welfare Ordinance replaced the old Welfare Ordinance, making possible the introduction of award wages. The following month, the Central Council of the NAWU took the decision to appoint an Aboriginal organiser. Sydney James Cook was the first to hold this post but he was successfully challenged by Dexter Daniels, a Roper River man whose brother Davis was secretary of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights. The stage was set for action on equal wages in the industry.

The NAWU applied to vary the Cattle Station Industry (Northern Territory) Award to include Aboriginal workers. Throughout 1965 Conciliation and Arbitration hearings were held on this matter. The Union did not bring any Aboriginal workers forward as witnesses in arguing for their inclusion in the award, treating the issue rather as a matter of principle. The Commission ruled in favour of equal wages, but gave the industry until December 1968 to implement the decision.

In response, workers walked off stations at Newcastle Waters, Wave Hill and other pastoral properties in the Northern Territory in protest, beginning an action which culminated in the return, a decade later, of land to the Gurindji people.

Due to a downturn in the cattle industry as well as the introduction of road trains and helicopter mustering, the equal wages decision was never particularly beneficial to Aboriginal pastoral workers.


Bernie Brian, 'The Territory's one big union: The rise and fall of the North Australian Workers Union', PhD thesis, Northern Territory University, 2001

Andrew Markus, 'Talk longa mouth' in A Curthoys and A Markus, Who Are Our Enemies? Racism and the Working Class in Australia, Hale and Iremonger, 1978