'Blackfellas' Eureka', The Pilbara's Aboriginal pastoral slaves strike

Brett Derchow from Port Headland in the Pilbara region spoke with ABC's Tangiora Hinaki about the conditions of his people working in the pastoral industry during the 1940s.

Between 1946 and 1949, at least 800 Aboriginal workers walked off stations across the Pilbara led by Nyamal lawman Peter Coppin. Supporting the worker's strike action was a small group of non-indigenous unionists and radicals and it's these activists, in particular Don McLeod, that supported the people in fighting for their rights for wages and freedom of movement.

Aboriginal women sorting fleece in the shearing shed, Upper Liveringa pastoral station (1916). The pastoral holdings in the Pilbara and the Kimberley made fortunes out of damaging 'country' and Aboriginal slave labour.

(State Library of WA)

Pilbara 1946: Australia's longest strike

Sarah Stephen 3 May 2006 (article edited)

The first day on May 2017 marks 71 years since the beginning of the Pilbara Aboriginal pastoral workers' strike, sometimes referred to as the "Blackfellas' Eureka". The strike started on May 1, 1946, and lasted until 1949, making it the longest strike in Australia's history.

The Aboriginal strikers, who worked on dozens of stock and sheep stations throughout north-west Western Australia, wanted 30 shilling a week minimum wage, the right to elect their own representatives and freedom of movement. The strike was about Aboriginal people gaining more control over their lives.

In 1946, Aboriginal workers had no state or federal industrial award coverage. In 1944, an Industrial Relations Commission judge refused to even hear a case for the inclusion of Aboriginal workers in the Federal Pastoralist Award as station workers.

From the 1890s to the 1920s (and beyond) 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.

'Corunna Downs natives', 1905. The Pilbara station was owned by members of the Brockman family. They all look pretty black but it was a general rule at this station and others, the white pastoral workers regularly made babies with the First Nations women but they were all 'shipped out' to orphanages over thousand kilometers away.

(Ailsa Smith, Claremont WA).

In 1944, the Bateman royal commission into the pastoral industry reflected the racist prejudice that prevailed. Bateman stated in his report: "There is an advantage in native labour ... they are not sufficiently advanced to appreciate white conditions ... I [therefore] doubt whether any monetary increases will help them much."

Until 1968 it was illegal to pay Aboriginal workers more than a specified amount in goods and money. They were housed in corrugated iron humpies, without floors, lighting, sanitation, furniture or cooking facilities. On some stations, Aboriginal workers were expected to sleep on the wood heap. It was illegal for them to leave their place of employment, making them virtual prisoners on the stations.

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 Aborigines Clancy McKenna and Dooley Bin Bin. McLeod told McKenna: "These squatters been riding along on your back for too long now. It's about time your people did something about it."

McKenna and Dooley were instrumental in calling together the 1942 meeting, held on the isolated edge of the Western Desert, at Skull Springs. The meeting of 200 law men from 23 Aboriginal groups required 16 interpreters. McLeod was the only European present. After six weeks a consensus was reached about a course of action.

They agreed 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. Dooley, a Nyanamba man, was chosen to represent the strikers from the inland desert. McKenna was elected to represent the strikers of the coastal region. McLeod was elected to speak to the government and the squatters on their behalf.

There were no phones or radios and the workers couldn't read or write English. Dooley was responsible for spreading word of the strike. Striker Billy Thomas recalls how Dooley would ride from station to station on an old bicycle posing as a "visiting relative just passing through" to avoid arousing station owners' suspicion. He distributed calendars to the workers on all stations, on which they marked off each passing day so they would all go out at the same time.

Don Mcleod was chosen as the key negotiator. At the time he was a delegate for the Australian Workers Union in Port Hedland. The strike was planned as far back as 1942 at an Aboriginal law meeting attended by 200 senior Aboriginal law men representing twenty three language groups from much of the remote north west of Western Australia. The meeting lasted six weeks.

Despite the squatters' dismissal of the ability of the Aborigines to carry out a strike, 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.

Police visited the camps daily and the squatters tried to starve the strikers back to work, withholding their war-time food-ration coupons, which were issued to the stations, until they returned to work.

In December 1946, McLeod was arrested while demanding that the strikers be given their ration books. Some 300 strikers marched into Port Hedland to demand his release.

They outnumbered the white locals two to one and took the occupants of the police station hostage. There they discovered that the police, panicking at the sight of hundreds of Aborigines approaching, had freed McLeod through the back door.

An Aboriginal mission set up to curb McLeod's influence and operate as a recruiting centre for strike breakers failed to find one recruit and was forced to close.

In order to survive, the strikers coordinated the collection of bush food and pearl shells, and hunted kangaroo and goats to sell the skins. Mining also became a source of income; the yandy dish, traditionally used to carry food and children, became a tool to separate minerals from the soil. Many Aborigines got their first taste of economic independence.

Over time, some strikers returned to work, but workers from other stations joined the strike. In 1949, at the beginning of another shearing season, the government and squatters expected that the strikers would capitulate or make some compromise. Instead, the strikers travelled to outlying stations and called out the remaining workers.

They knew they would be arrested, but wanted to escalate the strike to force a resolution. Thirty-two strikers arrested at Warragine station were chained together by the neck, like animals, for 10 days. Arrests were made on other stations and strikers filled the jails.

The 1987 documentary How the West was Lost, directed by David Noakes, interviewed strikers who recalled how those arrested had a great time, singing songs and talking.

Dooley and McKenna each spent three months in jail at the beginning of the strike. McLeod, who was considered the strike leader, was charged and tried seven times, either for being within 100 metres of a group of Aborigines or counselling natives to leave their place of employment, offences under the Native Affairs Act. The authorities' failure to acknowledge the Aboriginal workers' ability to organise themselves meant that when McLeod was in jail the strike went on.

In August 1949, the Seamen's Union agreed to refuse to load wool from stations in the Pilbara onto ships for export. The union was fined £1 for the first day of action and £5 for every subsequent day.

On the third day, a government representative notified McLeod that the strikers' demands would be met if the ban was lifted, which it was. A week later the government denied making any such agreement. McLeod wrote: "Our inexperience and basic honesty cost us dearly".

Solidarity from unions and the broader community in Perth and across Australia contributed to the effectiveness of the strike. The Communist Party of Australia gave prominent coverage to it in its newspaper, the Workers Star, including articles written by McLeod. The CPA, along with the Women's Christian Temperance Union, also helped establish the Committee for the Defense of Native Rights, which raised funds for and publicised the strike, and in 1949 organised a 300-strong public meeting in the Perth Town Hall.

The Pilbara strikers never went back to the stations. They specialised in surface mining, then pooled their funds to buy or lease stations, including some they had formerly worked on, and ran them as cooperatives.

Aboriginal women wash wool in the river at Mt Anderson Station (1915)

In 1951, the Northern Development and Mining Company Pty Ltd was set up as the first Aboriginal-owned company in WA. It was liquidated in 1953, followed two years later by Pindan, then the group split in 1959. One group set up Yandeyarra station, while the other, Nomads Pty Ltd, purchased Strelley and Warralong stations. Many of these cooperative ventures never had a chance to really get going, frustrated and destroyed by government interference.

In 1949, the High Court found that Aborigines had the right to organise, to elect their own representatives and have them recognised by the authorities. That year, strikers at Mt Edgar and Limestone stations negotiated suitable wages and conditions, however there was no uniform wage increase across the industry.

Measured against all of the workers' initial demands, the three-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 and opening the way for the Aboriginal land rights movement. The struggle for equal wages was finally won in the wake of the 1966 Gurindji strike in Wave Hill, Northern Territory.

The spirit of the Pilbara strike will be remembered at the Perth May Day rally this year on May 7 and is an inspiration in the current struggle against the Howard government's new anti-worker laws.

First published by Green Left Weekly, May 3, 2006. (Minor editing by SU)