Working together for voice to be heard

On May Day, Dale Beasley explains why unions are rallying behind the reasons for a national referendum later this year.

May 01, 2023, updated May 01, 2023
Photo: SA Unions

Photo: SA Unions

Every year at the start of May, unions here and around the world gather to mark International Workers Day and celebrate the progress we’ve made on building a world of fairness, respect, and dignity for all people.

On Saturday, despite the pouring rain, over 2000 South Australians came together and marched through Adelaide for May Day.

This year we gathered to raise our voices about huge challenges for working people: growing wealth and pay inequality, too many of us unable to keep a roof over our heads, climate change and greed sending our quality of life backwards.

But we also rallied ahead of an incredible opportunity for our nation to heal and grow together. This year we rallied as a united union movement to support our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters to be recognised in our constitution and have a real voice on the matters that affect them.

The crowd was full of hope and unity.

Since announcing the union movement’s strong support for the Yes campaign, it’s not been immediately clear to some why workers and their unions feel so strongly about this debate. So here it is.

Unions don’t just exist to create better workplaces; we strive to create better and fairer communities for all. Our solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people goes back many years, including the longest strike in Australia’s history; one for pay and human rights for workers in the Pilbara on May 1, 1946.

We are a nation whose prosperity today is built on a history of land and labour being taken from First Nations People and never properly compensated. And even now, the Australian Bureau of Statistics finds that Aboriginal workers earn around half the average wages when compared to non-Aboriginal workers (statistics from 2018-2019).

I don’t doubt that the overwhelming majority of Australians want to see those problems set right. But that won’t happen unless we listen to Aboriginal people about how to do it.

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In South Australia 160,000 people are members of unions, and something that we believe at our core is that people should be given the dignity and standing to have input into decisions that are made about them. That goes for whether those decisions are made in the workplace, or in houses of Parliament – when workers have a voice, they get higher wages and better rights.

South Australian unions have a proud legacy of pushing our state forward to lead on social progress. In 1876 we were the first part of the British Empire to recognise and legalise trade unionism. In 1894 South Australia was the first electorate in the world to give equal political rights to both men and women, including Aboriginal women.

I don’t doubt that the overwhelming majority of Australians want to see those problems set right. But that won’t happen unless we listen to Aboriginal people about how to do it

In 1966 the Aboriginal Affairs Act repealed many regulations that restricted the civil liberties of Aboriginal people. That same year our state established the Aboriginal Lands Trust and in 1976 we made discrimination on the grounds of race illegal. We’re now the first state in the country to legislate for a First Nations Voice to our state Parliament.

Despite this progress, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers, remain the most disadvantaged in the nation.

Generations of decision makers have made laws and policies about Aboriginal people without their voices being heard in the process, and those laws and policies have failed Aboriginal people. Union members and the 80% of Aboriginal people supporting the referendum know why – because decisions made about us, need to be made with us, or they won’t work.

Unions understand the power of unity and collective, and the opportunities that present themselves when people work together. In workplaces, it delivers productivity and higher pay. For our nation, saying yes at the referendum provides us a real opportunity for meaningful reconciliation, to close the gap, and move into a brighter future together.

That’s why unions are putting our shoulder to the wheel in the campaign for a Yes at the referendum. That’s why union members, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal together, poured down Wakefield Street on Saturday. And that’s why we’re going to be talking to as many people in our community as we can and convincing them to vote yes.

Dale Beasley is SA Unions secretary

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