Ep 12 – Black Power in rural NSW: the 1973 Aboriginal cotton chippers’ strike

Wee Waa, in northern New South Wales, is at the centre of the cotton industry in Australia. Tens of thousands of hectares of cotton crops surround the town, which describes itself as “the cotton capital of Australia”.

During the twentieth century, each year Wee Waa would see an influx of more than a thousand predominantly Aboriginal workers over summer to perform the vital work of chipping the cotton crops to ensure they weren’t overgrown with weeds. These workers, who the entire town’s economy depended upon, were treated with brutality and intense racism – they were denied any accommodation by the cotton-growing businesses and forced to sleep in tents or in their cars, wages were miserably low, working hours were extreme, child labour was rife, and planes would fly over fields and douse them with toxic pesticide while workers were still in them. In a final insult, Wee Waa itself was blatantly segregated, and Aboriginal workers were refused access to many of the town’s facilities, while at the end of the cotton season the council and local police would break apart the workers’ temporary campsites and drive them from the town, arresting any who remained behind.

In early 1973, Wee Waa’s cotton chippers rose up. They rallied and marched through the town, faced down police repression and vigilante violence, and went on strike at the height of the cotton season and threatened to ruin the entire year’s crop, driving the local establishment into a state of hysteria. Within days, the cotton-growers had capitulated and granted an instant pay rise of almost 50%.

To tell this inspiring story, we’re joined in this episode by Jordan Humphreys, who’s researched and written widely about Aboriginal workers and the union movement.      

You can read Jordan’s account of the Wee Waa struggle here, while his other writings on Aboriginal workers can be found in Marxist Left Review here and here. Film footage of the strike is available here.

Opening and closing music courtesy of Glitter Rats. People’s History of Australia logo design courtesy of Nissenbaum Design.