Rights and freedoms Defining Moments, 1945–present
Investigation 1: Exploring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights through key Defining Moments
1.2 1946 Pilbara strike
It is 1946.
A group of 200 elders representing 23 Aboriginal groups in the Pilbara area of Western Australia have agreed that Aboriginal pastoral workers will go on strike in response to suffering very poor working conditions.
They cannot know that the strike will become the longest in Australian history.
How will this strike influence the path towards equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia?
Read the information below on the strike and answer the questions that follow.
From the 1890s to the 1920s it was common for Aboriginal workers to be paid only in rations of food and clothing. During the 1920s some workers began to receive minimal wages. The 1936 Native Affairs Act legally compelled pastoralists to provide shelter and meet the medical needs of their workers, but this was never enforced by the government.
Aboriginal stockmen were housed in corrugated iron humpies, without floors, lighting, sanitation, furniture or cooking facilities. It was illegal for the Aboriginal people to leave their place of employment, and it was even illegal to pay them wages equal to white workers.
In 1942 there was a secret Aboriginal law meeting to discuss a strike proposal, an idea first discussed by Aboriginal elders Clancy McKenna and Dooley Bin Bin, Nyamal Elder Peter ‘Kangushot’ Coppin, and white labourer and prospector Don McLeod.
200 law men from 23 Aboriginal groups gathered, and after six weeks they reached an agreement to begin a strike on 1 May 1942. This was the international day of workers’ struggle and the beginning of the shearing season, so would put maximum pressure on the station owners. However, the strike was postponed until after the Second World War had ended.
In 1946 plans for the strike began to take shape. Dooley was responsible for spreading word of the strike. On the stations there were no phones or radios and the Aboriginal workers couldn’t read or write English. So he visited each station pretending to be a ‘visiting relative just passing through’ to avoid any suspicion.
Dooley distributed calendars to the workers on all stations, made from labels from jam tins, on which they marked off each passing day so they would all go out at the same time.
The strike began on 1 May 1946, at the beginning of shearing season, when the station owners were most vulnerable to a loss in Aboriginal labour. Hundreds of Aboriginal workers left 20 stations, affecting 10,000 square kilometres of sheep farming country. They gathered at strike camps — Twelve Mile outside Port Hedland and Moolyella near Marble Bar — where they would spend much of the following three years.
At its height, at least 800 people were on strike. The sheep stations were paralysed without Aboriginal labour.
In order to survive, the strikers coordinated the collection of bush food and pearl shells and hunted kangaroos and goats to sell the skins. Many Aboriginal people got their first taste of economic independence. However, many Aboriginal strikers were jailed for their participation in the strike, some even put in chains for several days.
Although the striking stockmen won award rates (i.e. the same terms and conditions of employment that applied to non-Indigenous employees) in 1949, many never returned to the stations and instead earned their own money with their new-found economic independence.
Measured against the workers’ initial demands, the 3-year Pilbara strike was not a complete victory. But the strike was of great historical significance, providing a powerful example of Aboriginal people’s resolve to struggle against their slave-like conditions...
Some families saved enough money to purchase stations and other ventures in the 1950s. In 1955 some of the former strikers, with the help of Don McLeod, established Pindan, an Aboriginal-owned mining company located in the Pilbara. In 1959 a group of Aboriginal people around Ernie Mitchell and Peter Coppin purchased Yandeyarra Station and operated successfully for many years. Another group, led by Don McLeod, purchased Strelley Station (Njamal country, still Aboriginal owned today), Warralong Station and others.
Others re-gained the lease of the Yandeyarra Station in 1967 and set up an Aboriginal-run community, and a community and pastoral enterprise. After losing control of the station to the banks, they negotiated a perpetual lease from the Department of Native Welfare in 1974 and live there to this day.
Creative Spirits, 1946 Pilbara strike — Australia’s longest strike, https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/1946-pilbar…, viewed 1 October 2020
1. What conditions led to the Aboriginal workers’ decision to strike?
2. How was the strike organised?
3. How extensive was the strike activity?
4. How was the timing of the strike both symbolic and strategic?
5. How were the strikers and their families able to survive?
6. What was the outcome of the strike?
7. What was the significance of the Pilbara strike for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s rights?
8. How would this event have influenced the development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s rights over time?