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 and payment of fair wages and working conditions. The strike involved at least 800 Aboriginal pastoral workers 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. The strike did not end until August 1949 and even then many indigenous Australians refused to go back and work for white station owners.
Working conditions for Aboriginal pastoral workers
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. The pastoral stations treated the Aboriginal workers as a cheap slave labour workforce to be exploited. If they tried to leave the station, they were found and brought back by the police, according to Don McLeod, Aboriginal rights activist in the Pilbara during the 20th century.
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 near Barrow Creek in the 1870s, which resulted in the bleached bones and thus the name for the place. There is a well documented report of a massacre in 1926 by a police party on the Forrest River Mission (now 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 East Kimberley, the police allegedly involved were brought to trial and acquitted. (see List of massacres of Indigenous Australians).
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. Succeeding colonial and state Governments legislated to remove the funding provisions for "native welfare". Aboriginal plaintiffs from Strelley Station finally commenced an action in the Supreme Court of Western Australia in 1994, seeking a declaration that the 1905 repeal was invalid. In 2001, after protracted litigation, the High Court of Australia held that the 1905 repeal had been legally effective.
The strike was coordinated and led by Aboriginal lawmen Dooley Bin Bin and Clancy McKenna; and Don McLeod, an active unionist and member of the Communist Party of Australia for a short period. According to McLeod in his book, How the West was Lost, self-published in 1984, the strike was planned at an Aboriginal law meeting in 1942 at Skull Springs (east of Nullagine), where a massacre had previously occurred. The meeting was attended by an estimated 200 senior Aboriginal law-men representing twenty-three language groups from much of the remote northwest of Australia. Discussions were protracted with the meeting lasting six weeks. McLeod was given the task of chief negotiator. The strike was postponed until after the Second World War had ended.
Crude calendars were taken from one station camp to another in early 1946 to organise the strike. The efforts, if noticed by the white people present, were dismissed and laughed at. When 1 May 1946 occurred hundreds of Aboriginal workers left the pastoral stations and setup strike camps.
The strike was most effective in the Pilbara region. Further afield in Broome 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.
At the commencement of the strike in 1946, Don McLeod was an Australian Workers' Union delegate 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. Nineteen unions in Western Australia, seven federal unions and four Trades and Labour councils supported the strike. The strike stimulated support from the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, who helped establish the Committee for the Defense of Native Rights. 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.
Many of the Aboriginal strikers served time in jail; some were seized by police at revolver point and put into chains for several days. At one stage in December 1946 Don 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 and McLeod was freed. McLeod was gaoled a total of seven times during the period, three times for being within five chains (100 m) of a congregation of natives, 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 Aborigines was considered by some frontier Europeans as a sport. 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.
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. 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."
The strikers were forced to sustain themselves by their traditional bush skills, hunting kangaroos and goats for both meat and skins. 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.
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. One woman activist Daisy Bindi, a woman from the Nungamurda people, led a walk-off of 96 workers at Roy Hill Station to join the strike. 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.
Wages and conditions were eventually won by the strikers on Mt. Edgar and Limestone Stations. 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.
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. A week after the strike ended and the ban was lifted, the government denied making any such agreement.
After the strike concluded many Aborigines refused to go back to working in their old roles in the pastoral industry. 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.
The poet Dorothy Hewett visited Port Hedland in 1946 and wrote the poem Clancey and Dooley and Don McLeod about the strike, which was subsequently put to music by folk musician Chris Kempster and recorded by Roy Bailey. The 1959 documentary novel Yandy by Donald Stuart deals with the strike. In 1987 a documentary film was made about the strike by director David Noakes, titled How the West was Lost.
Kangkushot, The Life of Nyamal Lawman Peter Coppin, by Jolly Read and Peter Coppin, 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.
Yandy, a play written by Jolly Read, commissioned by Black Swan State Theatre Company, tells the story of the strike and its leaders and families. It won the 2004 Western Australian Premier's Book Award for best script and is published in Collection #6 by the Australian Script Centre.
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.
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