Sally McManus spoke on the life and times of Juanita Nielsen. Sally is the Executive President of the Australian Services Union. She was the first environmentalist elected to Macquarie University Students Union. She was the President of the Union. Her activism is extensive including campaigns for an Australian republic, the rights of refugees and general social justice issues. She has been involved in some spectacular feminist direct actions.
Juanita’s work within the political context of the time
The story of Juanita Neilson’s life, her death and disappearance is the white noise heard in the background across various movements, political circles and in pubs across Sydney where activists meet. For those who don’t know, Juniata was actually from the “ruling class” – she had money and was set to inherit more. She ran a local newspaper and become a leader in the fight against developers who wanted to destroy the unique environment of Victoria Street Potts Point. Juniata formed the Victoria St Rate Payers Association and campaigned against the interests of those who were the wealthy and powerful of Sydney in the 1970s.
Over 29 years this background noise has not gone away like the powerful had hoped – the noise endures even though the original cause, the fight to stop development on Victoria Street is over. It endures even though Frank Theeman, the developer who lost over $3 million because of the action of residents like Juanita and unions like the BLF are dead. It endures despite many enquires, royal commissions and thousands of written words.
The struggle to assert the interests of the people over the greed of the powerful – Juniata’s fight - was a struggle across classes. Her struggle is a story about the power of union solidarity and green bans. It’s a story of police corruption and political corruption at the highest level. It’s a story about the underworld of Kings Cross. It’s a story about one woman’s determination and bravery. It’s a story of Junita’s organizing abilities. It’s also a story about what is at stake when the rich and powerful are frustrated in their goals. The white noise was created in 1975 when the histories of different movements and the lives of normally disparate groups converged. However, there is still no end, no resolution to Juanita’s story and her struggle. Maybe this is why time as not dissipated the sound of the noise. The publishing of “Killing Juanita”, written by Peter Rees which beautifully tells Juanita’s story and investigates her murder and gets far closer than any police investigate – all the resources of the state – makes the white noise of outrage even louder.
I was not even old enough for school in 1975. But as I became an activist, I too heard the noise. But it was not until I read Peter Rees’s book that I found out that Juanita’s lover at the time of her murder was my predecessor. John Glebe was the Secretary of the Water and Sewerage Employees Union which 29 years later is our Branch of the ASU. Juniata single-handedly got our union to strengthen it’s green ban of the Victoria Point development by refusing to connect the water and sewerage. John Glebe when out to dinner and drank at Juanita’s house the night before she was killed. It wondered about John and the type of man he was. I’ve spoken a bit now to those around in the union at the time and was a bit disappointed that the accounts were not all glowing and John wasn’t necessarily always the tradie working –class hero I had hoped. I think I found out more about Juniata – Rees’s account not too subtlety told me what my own investigations about John were leading to.
So – what I learnt about Junanita was that she was a good organizer who knew how to organize some male union leaders in the 1970s.
However, it appears that Juanita’s alliance with our union lead to the organizing of her murder.
On the 4 July 1975, Juanita Neilson was murdered for standing up to money and power. She was murdered for campaigning against a property development in her street. She was murdered because she used her newspaper to campaign. She was murdered because of her relationship and support she gained from unions. She was murdered because she would not give in and she could be bribed or intimidated. She was murdered because she believed the lives of people were more important than money. She was murdered for $25 000. She was murdered because in 1975 in Sydney the people who organize, paid for and pulled the trigger knew they could get away with it.
Most activists have had threats made against them, but most do not expect to be killed for their work – at least not in Australia. People who stand up to the powerful today in the Philippines, Iran, Zimbabwe or Palestine are murdered. The reason why activists in these countries are killed is because those who kill them know they can get away with it - their murders are to one degree or another state sanctioned. The same was true in Sydney in 1975. And it was still true ten years later where another woman, who in so many ways couldn’t be more different Juniata, was also murdered in Sydney. She too was murdered because she threatened the interests of the powerful. In ten years not much had changed. Sally-anne Hudstepp was also murdered because those who killed her knew they could get away with it.
Juanita’s struggle tells us what life can be like when big money interests and political parties become too close. It tells us that such relationships produce the shit that allows police corruption to flourish. It tells us that should we let this happen, these forces will work together to destroy trade unions, individuals and whoever stands in their way.
However, Juanita’s organizing work also tells us how powerful we are when we work together. It tells us of the value and power of alliances and of local campaigns. It tells us of the determination, energy and principles needed to be a good activist. It tells us the value of friendships in struggle and of solidarity. It tells us that movements for what is just cannot be defeated by the assassination of their leaders. It tells us that we who continue to fight do not forget our hero’s. It tells us that the footprint left (probably the imprint of a high-heel boot) by Juanita, 29 years later is bigger than the footprints property developer Frank Theeman, bigger than underwood thug Jim Anderson and bigger than the then police commissioner Fred Hanson. This is why we remember, and pay tribute to, the life and work of Juanita Neilson and why the white noise of anger will not let those who are complicate in her death get away with it.