1946 Pilbara strike

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The 1946 Pilbara strike was a landmark strike by Indigenous Australian pastoral workers in the Pilbara region of Western Australia for human rights recognition, payment of fair wages[1] and working conditions.[2][3][4] The strike involved at least 800 Aboriginal pastoral workers[2] walking off the large pastoral stations in the Pilbara on 1 May 1946, and from employment in the two major towns of Port Hedland and Marble Bar.[5] The strike did not end until August 1949 and even then many Indigenous Australians refused to go back and work for white station owners.[5][2][3]

It is regarded as the first industrial strike by Aboriginal people since colonisation[2][4] and one of if not the longest industrial strikes in Australia,[2][5] and a landmark in indigenous Australians fighting for their human rights, cultural rights, and Native title.[3][5]

Working conditions[edit]

For many years Aboriginal pastoral workers in the Pilbara were denied cash wages and were only paid in supplies of tobacco, flour and other necessities.[2][6][7][4] The pastoral stations treated the Aboriginal workers as a cheap slave labour workforce to be exploited.[5][6][4] Many tried to leave the stations on which they worked but were met with legal resistance;[2][5] those who were unsuccessful could be whipped[3] and those who escaped were hunted by police and returned. The situation was that "while Aboriginal labour was required, Aboriginal people were treated as if they were expendable".[8]

European attacks and brutal shootings of whole family groups of Aboriginal Australians are part of the history of the region, though often not well documented. One attack took place at Skull Creek in the Northern Territory a few kilometers north of Ti-Tree in the 1870s, which resulted in the bleached bones and thus the name for the place.[9] In 1926 the Forrest River massacre was carried out by a police party on the Forrest River Mission (later the Aboriginal community of Oombulgurri), in the East Kimberleys. Though there was a royal commission into the reported killing and burning of Aboriginal people in the East Kimberley, the police allegedly involved were brought to trial and acquitted.[10]

As well as proper wages and better working conditions, Aboriginal lawmen sought natural justice arising from the original Western Australian colonial Constitution. As a condition for self-rule in the colony, the British Government insisted that once public revenue in WA exceeded 500,000 pounds, 1 per cent was to be dedicated to "the welfare of the Aboriginal natives" under Section 70 of the Constitution.[5][6] Succeeding colonial and state Governments legislated to remove the funding provisions for "native welfare".[5][6]

The strike[edit]

The strike was coordinated and led by Aboriginal lawmen Dooley Bin Bin and Clancy McKenna; and Don McLeod, an active unionist[6][7] and member of the Communist Party of Australia for a short period.[4] The strike was planned at an Aboriginal law meeting in 1942 at Skull Springs (east of Nullagine),[2][3][5][7] where a massacre had previously occurred.[4] The meeting was attended by an estimated 200 senior Aboriginal representatives representing twenty-three language groups from much of the remote north-west of Australia.[2][5][7][4] 16 interpreters were needed for the meeting. Discussions were protracted with the meeting lasting six weeks.[2][5] McLeod, the only European-Australian present,[7] was given the task of chief negotiator.[5] While not present, Bin Bin was elected to represent the Aboriginal peoples from unsettled desert lands.[5] Later McLeod and Bin Bin chose McKenna to represent those from the settled areas.[5] The strike was postponed until after the Second World War had ended in 1945.[11][4]

Peter Coppin, also known as Kangushot, (1920–2006) was another one of the strike leaders.[12] Regarded as a pioneer of the Aboriginal rights movement in the 1940s,[13] he was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1972, and appointed NAIDOC Elder of the Year in 2002.

Crude calendars were taken from one station camp to another in early 1946 to organise the strike.[2][5][4] The efforts, if noticed by the white people present, were dismissed and laughed at.[4] The date of May 1st was chosen not only because it was International Workers' Day but also because it was the first day of the shearing season.[2][7] On 1 May 1946, hundreds of Aboriginal workers left the pastoral stations and set up strike camps.[1][5][4]

The strike was most effective in the Pilbara region. Further afield in Broome[5] and Derby and other inland northern towns, the strike movement was harshly suppressed by police action and was more short lived. Over the three years, occasionally strikers went back to work, while others joined or rejoined the strike.[citation needed]

At the commencement of the strike in 1946, McLeod was an Australian Workers' Union delegate[citation needed] at Port Hedland wharf who motivated support by the Australian labour movement. The Western Australian branch of the Seamen's Union of Australia eventually put a blackban on the shipment of wool from the Pilbara.[citation needed] Nineteen unions in Western Australia, seven federal unions and four Trades and Labour councils supported the strike.[3] The strike stimulated support from the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, who helped establish the Committee for the Defence of Native Rights.[5][14] This organisation raised funds for and publicised the strike in Perth including organising a public meeting in the Perth Town Hall attended by 300 people.[5]

Many of the Aboriginal strikers served time in jail;[5] some were seized by police at revolver point[citation needed] and put into chains for several days.[2] At one stage in December 1946, McLeod was arrested in Port Hedland during the strike for "inciting Aborigines to leave their place of lawful employment"; the Aboriginal strikers marched on the jail, occupied it and freed McLeod.[7] McLeod was gaoled a total of seven times during the period, three times for being within five chains (100 metres (330 ft)) of a congregation of "natives",[1][5][4][6] three times for inciting natives to leave their lawful employment, and once for forgery.

In one incident during the strike, two policemen were sent out to the Five Mile Camp near Marble Bar. When they arrived they commenced shooting the people's dogs, even when they were chained up between their legs. Shooting the dogs of Aboriginal people was considered by some frontier Europeans as a sport.[citation needed] On this occasion the endangering of human life angered the strikers, who quickly disarmed the two policeman. The local strike leader, Jacob Oberdoo, and other strikers held the policemen until they had regained some composure and then arranged their own arrests, insisting they be taken into custody.[citation needed]

Oberdoo was jailed three or four times and suffered humiliations and deprivations of many kinds during the strike, but maintained his dignity and solidarity for the length of the strike.[citation needed] In 1972 he was awarded the British Empire Medal but turned it down. McLeod described Oberdoo's reply to the Prime Minister rejecting the medal:

"...he was unable to do business with, or accept favours from Law-carriers in bad standing. 'You pin medals on dogs' was how he explained the real message underlying the award".[citation needed]

The strikers sustained themselves with their traditional bush skills, hunting kangaroos and goats for both meat and skins.[2][5] They also developed some cottage industry which brought some cash payment such as selling buffel grass seed in Sydney, the sale of pearl shell, and in surface mining.[2][5]

Aboriginal women played a vital role in the strike, both as workers on strike and in the establishment of strikers' camps, though their involvement has not been documented to the same extent as that of the men.[5] Daisy Bindi,[4] a Nyangumarta woman, led a walk-off of 96 workers at Roy Hill Station to join the strike.[3] Before the strike commenced, Bindi organised meetings in south-eastern Pilbara, which attracted police attention, and authorities threatened to remove her from the area. During the strike she transported supporters to the strikers' camps, talking her way through a police confrontation. Her efforts played a large part in spreading the strike to the further stations in inland Pilbara.[5]

Wages and conditions were eventually won by the strikers on Mount Edgar and Limestone Stations.[5] These two became a standard, with the strikers declaring that any station requiring labour would have to equal or better the rates of pay and conditions operating on these two.[citation needed]

By August 1949, the Seamen's Union had agreed to blackban wool from stations in the Pilbara onto ships for export. On the third day after the ban had been applied, McLeod was told by a government representative that the strikers' demands would be met if the ban was lifted. Weeks after the strike ended and the ban lifted, the government denied making any such agreement.[5]

After the strike concluded many Aboriginal people refused to go back to working in their old roles in the pastoral industry.[2] Eventually they pooled their funds from surface mining and other cottage industry to buy or lease stations, including some they had formerly worked on, to run them as cooperatives.[2][5][3][1][4]


Aboriginal plaintiffs from Strelley Station finally commenced an action in the Supreme Court of Western Australia in 1994,[15] seeking a declaration that the 1905 repeal of section 70 was invalid.[6] In 2001, after protracted litigation, the High Court of Australia held that the 1905 repeal had been legally effective.[6][16]

Four streets in the Canberra suburb of Bonner were named after the strike leaders in 2010. Clancy McKenna Crescent, Dooley Bin Bin Street, Peter Coppin Street and Don McLeod Lane were all named after the men instrumental in organizing the strike.[17]

In the arts[edit]

  • In 1987 a documentary film was made about the strike by director David Noakes, titled How the West was Lost.[2][1]
  • Kangkushot, The Life of Nyamal Lawman Peter Coppin, by Jolly Read and Peter Coppin,[20] tells the story of Kangku's life including his leadership in the strike and after in setting up Yandeyarra station which still runs today. It was shortlisted for the 1999 Western Australian Premier's Book Awards.
  • Artist Nyaparu Gardiner, who was born into the strike, has portrayed it many times in his work.[21]

See Also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "How the West was Lost (1987)". National Film and Sound Archive. Archived from the original on 26 February 2014. Retrieved 27 July 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t "1946 Pilbara strike – Australia's longest strike". Creative Spirits. 2012. Archived from the original on 18 July 2014. Retrieved 27 July 2014.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Willey, Keith (1977). "Review of The Black Eureka". Labour History (33): 110–112. doi:10.2307/27508287. JSTOR 27508287.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Graham, Duncan (2 May 1996). "Rebel of The Pilbara". The Age. Archived from the original on 15 March 2005. Retrieved 30 June 2021.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac Hess, Michael (1994). "Black and Red: The Pilbara Pastoral Workers' Strike, 1946". Aboriginal History. 18 (1/2): 65–83. ISSN 0314-8769. JSTOR 24046089. Archived from the original on 7 November 2020. Retrieved 29 June 2021.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Churches, Steven (2006). "Put not your faith in princes (Or courts) – agreements made from asymmetrical power bases". In Read, Peter; Meyers, Gary; Reece, Bob (eds.). What Good Condition?. Aboriginal History Monograph. Vol. 13. ANU Press. pp. 1–14. ISBN 978-1-920942-90-8. JSTOR j.ctt2jbkr2.5. Archived from the original on 29 June 2021. Retrieved 29 June 2021.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g "Pilbara: Australia's longest strike". Green Left. 6 September 2016. Archived from the original on 28 November 2020. Retrieved 29 June 2021.
  8. ^ Rose, Deborah Bird (1991). Hidden histories : black stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River, and Wave Hill Stations. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press. p. 151. ISBN 0-85575-224-6. OCLC 24405276. Archived from the original on 29 June 2021. Retrieved 29 June 2021.
  9. ^ Diane Bell (2002). Daughters of the Dreaming. Spinifex Press. ISBN 9781876756154. Retrieved 13 January 2014.
  10. ^ Loos, Noel (2007). White Christ black cross : the emergence of a Black church. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press. ISBN 978-0-85575-688-8. OCLC 671648394. Archived from the original on 29 June 2021. Retrieved 29 June 2021.
  11. ^ "NAIDOC profile: the Pilbara pastoral workers' strike". YMAC. 8 July 2011. Archived from the original on 31 March 2021. Retrieved 29 June 2021.
  12. ^ "Original Indigenous strike leader dies in Pilbara". ABC News. 12 September 2006. Retrieved 30 June 2021.
  13. ^ "Thousands to attend Coppin tribute". ABC News. 28 September 2006. Retrieved 30 June 2021.
  14. ^ "Committee for Defence of Native Rights". PilbaraStrike. 28 May 1946. Retrieved 30 June 2021.
  15. ^ Bulletin, Aboriginal Law (1996). "Aboriginal Citizens and the Western Australian Constitution: Judamia & Ors v State of Western Australia". Aboriginal Law Bulletin. Archived from the original on 16 May 2017. Retrieved 5 March 2018. (1996) 3(83) Aboriginal Law Bulletin 12.
  16. ^ Yougarla v Western Australia [2001] HCA 47, (2001) 207 CLR 344 (9 August 2001), High Court.
  17. ^ "The 1946 Strike". Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre. 2014. Archived from the original on 27 July 2014. Retrieved 27 July 2014.
  18. ^ Hewett, Dorothy. "Clancy and Dooley and Don McLeod". Union Songs. Archived from the original on 10 May 2013. Retrieved 7 February 2013.
  19. ^ Stuart, Donald (1959). Yandy. Melbourne: Georgian House. Archived from the original on 21 December 2015. Retrieved 7 February 2013.
  20. ^ Read, Jolly; Coppin, Peter (1999). Kangkushot : the life of Nyamal lawman Peter Coppin. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press. ISBN 978-0-85575-594-2. OCLC 671656050. Archived from the original on 30 June 2021. Retrieved 30 June 2021.
  21. ^ Jorgensen, Darren (2 January 2020). "Slow Time: Nyaparu (William) Gardiner and the Strike Camps of the Pilbara". Journal of Australian Studies. 44 (1): 82–96. doi:10.1080/14443058.2020.1716044. ISSN 1444-3058. S2CID 213909096.

Further reading[edit]

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