Aboriginal rail labourers fight for equal payments
In 1949, Aboriginal railway labourers who had been denied Unemployment Benefit successfully lobbied the government for financial support.
The Australian Coal Strike of August 1949 affected workers from other industries, including railway labourers. When coal miners went on strike, a group of Aboriginal railway labourers were out of work and turned to the government for help.
At the time, Aboriginal people, especially those who lived on state government reserves or missions, were generally not eligible for payments under the Social Services Consolidation Act 1947.
Labourer advocates for payments
In these letters, Aboriginal railway worker, Alex ‘Ned’ Ridgeway, advocated for the right of affected labourers to get Unemployment Benefit during the coal strike. He said they were ‘stood down through no fault of our own’ and were deserving of government payments because they were taxpayers.
Ridgeway was from Purfleet Mission near Taree, New South Wales, which meant he should have been receiving rations from the manager who ran the mission. However, he said that he and the other labourers received ‘no assistance of any kind from the mission’ during the strike.
Ridgeway wrote to the Department of Social Services (DSS) and through the Australian Railways Union (ARU) to Nick McKenna, Minister for Health and Social Services, asking for Unemployment Benefit.
Ridgeway’s case was convincing. The Social Services Act 1947 denied Aboriginal people living on missions eligibility for Unemployment Benefit. But these letters show a DSS officer expressing internally that it would ‘hardly be equitable for benefit to be denied’.
Minister for Social Services grants Special Benefit
In February 1950, the newly appointed Minister for Social Services sent a letter to the ARU Secretary stating that Special Benefit would be paid to Ridgeway and his fellow workers. This was paid at the same rate as Unemployment Benefit.
This is an early instance of DSS deciding in favour of Aboriginal mission residents’ eligibility for payments. Officials considered the men’s living circumstances and they recommended avoiding applying the exclusions contained in the Social Services Act.
In this case, there was also bipartisan political interest to support workers, including ARU members, who weren’t part of the strike.
Signatories to the letter were members of families who also had connections to Purfleet. Names of other people were not included in this excerpt as it was not possible to gain permission from all descendants.
The original letter and associated correspondence was kept in a file by the Department of Social Services. The file was later transferred to the National Archives of Australia, which holds it as part of the national archival collection.
You can access the letters sent by Alex ‘Ned’ Ridgeway and associated correspondence through RecordSearch, the online catalogue of the National Archives of Australia. Go to pages 248–254 and 256–258.
Permission to include this letter and additional family history was granted by Ridgeway family members. Professor John Maynard and Ms Sandra Ridgeway provided valuable guidance about this source.
National Archives of Australia: Department of Social Services; A887, Correspondence files, single number series with ‘D’ (Unemployment and Sickness Benefit) prefix, 1909–1974; D512 PT1, Aborigines – Eligibility for U.S.B. [Unemployment and Sickness Benefit], 1947–1966.