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Pilbara strike summary
On May 1, 1946, 800 Aboriginal pastoral workers from 27 stations in Western Australia walked off the job for better pay and conditions.
This was the first industrial action by Aboriginal people since colonisation in 1788 and predates the famous Wave Hill strike in the Northern Territory by 20 years.
The Pilbara strike lasted until 1949, making it the longest strike in Australia’s history.
History leading to the 1946 Pilbara strike
Peter ‘Kangushot’ Coppin, one of the leaders of the 1946 Pilbara strike. Image: melbourne.indymedia.org
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 the white people’s.
In 1942, there was a secret Aboriginal law meeting to discuss a strike proposal, an idea first discussed by white labourer and prospector Don McLeod and Aboriginal people Clancy McKenna, Dooley Bin Bin and Nyamal Elder Peter “Kangushot” Coppin from the Pilbara community who were instrumental in calling together the 1942 meeting.
200 law men from 23 Aboriginal groups gathered, and after six weeks a consensus was reached to begin a strike on May 1, the international day of workers’ struggle and the beginning of the shearing season, thereby putting maximum pressure on the squatters. However, the strike was postponed until after the Second World War had ended.
Video: Clancy, Dooley and Don McLeod and The 1946 Pilbara Strike
Watch Australian singer-songwriter Shane Howard tell about the 1946 Pilbara walk-off by Aboriginal station workers (about 14 mins).
How the Pilbara strike was organised
On the stations there were no phones or radios and the Aboriginal workers couldn’t read or write English.
Dooley was responsible for spreading word of the strike. 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.
Outback stations paralysed
On May 1 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 in 1949 many never returned to the stations.
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.
The struggle for equal wages was finally won in the wake of the 1966 Gurindji strike in Wave Hill, Northern Territory.
The West Australian government awarded the Nyamal people the abandoned Yandeyarra pastoral lease in 1974 where they live to this day.
The 1946 Pilbara strike in the arts
In 1987 David Noakes turned the 1946 Pilbara strike into a feature film called How The West Was Lost.
A poem about the Pilbara strike
The poet Dorothy Hewett visited Port Hedland in 1946 and wrote the poem “Clancy and Dooley and Don McLeod” about the strike. Here is an extract:
...The sheep's wool dragged and the squatters swore And talked nice words till their tongues got sore And their bellies swelled with so much lies But the blackfellers shooed them off like flies. The sheep got lost on the squatters' run. The shearing season was nearly done. Said the squatters eaten up with greed, "We'll pay good wages and give good feed." The blackfellers sheared the wool and then Got their wages like working-men. The squatters' words were stiff and sore, "We won't pay wages like that no more."...
In 1993 folk musician Chris Kempster put the poem to music on his album “The Songs Of Chris Kempster”.
Don McLeod documented the Pilbara strike in his 1984 self-published book: ‘How the West was lost: the native question in the development of Western Australia’.