1946 Pilbara strike

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.[1]

It is regarded as one of the longest industrial strikes in Australia, and a landmark in indigenous Australians fighting for their human rights, cultural rights, and Native title.

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.[1] 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.

European attacks and brutal shootings of whole family groups of indigenous Australians are part of the history of the region, though often not well documented. One attack took place at Skull Creek near Barrow Creek in the 1870s, which resulted in the bleached bones and thus the name for the place[2] 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 Aborigines in East Kimberley, the police allegedly involved were brought to trial and acquitted.[3] (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.[4] 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 State Supreme Court in 1994,[5] seeking a declaration that the 1905 repeal was invalid. In 2001, after protracted litigation, the High Court held that the 1905 repeal had been legally effective.[6]

The strike

The strike was coordinated and led by Aboriginal lawmen Dooley Bin Bin and Clancy McKenna; and Don McLeod, an active unionist[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10] Before the strike commenced, Bindi organised meetings in south-eastern Pilbara, which attracted police attention, and authorities threatened to remove her from the area.[9] 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.[9]

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,[11] 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.[12] In 1987 a documentary film was made about the strike by director David Noakes, titled How the West was Lost.[13]

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.[14]


  1. ^ a b "1946 Pilbara strike - Australia's longest strike". Creative Spirits. 2012. Retrieved 27 July 2014.
  2. ^ Diane Bell (2002). Daughters of the Dreaming. Spinifex Press. ISBN 9781876756154. Retrieved 13 January 2014.
  3. ^ "Of Massacres, Missionaries, Myths and History Wars" (PDF). Aboriginal Studies Press. 2000. Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 January 2014. Retrieved 13 January 2014.
  4. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 15 May 2006. Retrieved 2006-05-26.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  5. ^ "Aboriginal Citizens and the Western Australian Constitution: Judamia & Ors v State of Western Australia". (1996) 3(83) Aboriginal Law Bulletin 12.
  6. ^ Yougarla v Western Australia [2001] HCA 47, (2001) 207 CLR 344 (9 August 2001), High Court.
  7. ^ "Pilbara: Australia's longest strike". Green Left Weekly. 6 May 2006. Retrieved 27 July 2014.
  8. ^ "NAIDOC profile: the Pilbara pastoral workers' strike". Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation. 7 July 2011. Retrieved 27 July 2014.
  9. ^ a b c Hess, Michael (1994). "BLACK AND RED: THE PILBARA PASTORAL WORKERS' STRIKE, 1946". Aboriginal History. 18 (1/2): 65–83. JSTOR 24046089.
  10. ^ Willey, Keith (1977). "Review of The Black Eureka". Labour History (33): 110–112. doi:10.2307/27508287. JSTOR 27508287.
  11. ^ Hewett, Dorothy. "Clancy and Dooley and Don McLeod". Union Songs. Retrieved 7 February 2013.
  12. ^ Stuart, Donald (1959). Yandy. Melbourne: Georgian House. Retrieved 7 February 2013.
  13. ^ "How the West was Lost (1987)". National Film and Sound Archive. Retrieved 27 July 2014.
  14. ^ "The 1946 Strike". Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre. 2014. Retrieved 27 July 2014.


  • McLeod, D. W.(1984) How the West was lost : the native question in the development of Western Australia Port Hedland, W.A. The author.
  • Roberts, Janine (1978) From Massacres to Mining ISBN 0-905990-05-6

Further reading

  • Brown, Max; Hewett, Dorothy (1976). The Black Eureka. Sydney: Australasian Book Society. ISBN 978-0909916763. Retrieved 7 February 2013.

External links

Australian labour movement

The Australian labour movement began in the early 19th century and since the late 19th century has included industrial (Australian unions) and political wings (Australian Labor Party). Trade unions in Australia may be organised (ie., formed) on the basis of craft unionism, general unionism, or industrial unionism. Almost all unions in Australia are affiliated with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), many of which have undergone a significant process of amalgamations, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The leadership and membership of unions hold and have at other times held a wide range of political views, including communist, socialist and right-wing views.

According to ABS figures, in August 2013, there were 1.7 million members of trade unions in relation to their main job (17% of all employees). A further 4% did not know whether they were trade union members or not, while 1% were trade union members not in conjunction with their main job. Of those who were a trade union member in relation to their main job, over two thirds (68%) had been members for five years or more. Trade union membership has steadily declined over recent years, with 2013 being the lowest proportion in the history of the ABS series. According to ACTU figures, the number of members of trade unions in 1983 was 2,376,900 but by 2002 it was 1,833,700, and declining.

The Australian Labor Party at both a federal and state/colony level pre-dates, among others, both the British Labour Party and the New Zealand Labour Party in party formation, government, and policy implementation. In particular, the 1910 federal election represented a number of firsts: it was Australia's first elected federal majority government; Australia's first elected Senate majority; the world's first Labour Party majority government at a national level; after the 1904 Chris Watson minority government the world's second Labour Party government at a national level; and the first time it controlled both houses of a bicameral legislature.

Daisy Bindi

Daisy Bindi (1904 — 1962), also known as Mumaring, was an Australian Aboriginal indigenous rights activist and a leader in the landmark 1946 Pilbara strike in Western Australia.

Donald Stuart (novelist)

Donald Stuart (13 September 1913 – 25 August 1983) was an Australian novelist whose works include stories with Aboriginal backgrounds, and a series recounting his experience as a prisoner of war in Burma in World War II.

History of Indigenous Australians

The History of Indigenous Australians began at least 65,000 years ago when humans first populated Australia.The origin of first humans to populate the southern continent remains a matter of conjecture and debate. Some anthropologists believe they could have arrived as a result of the earliest human migrations out of Africa. Although they likely migrated to the territory, later named Australia, through Southeast Asia they are not demonstrably related to any known Asian or Polynesian population. There is evidence of genetic and linguistic interchange between Australians in the far north and the Austronesian peoples of modern-day New Guinea and the islands, but this may be the result of recent trade and intermarriage.At the time of first European contact, it is generally estimated that between 315,000 to 750,000 people lived in Australia, in diverse groups, but upper estimates place the total population as high as 1.25 million. A cumulative population of 1.6 billion people has been estimated to have lived in Australia over 65,000 years prior to British colonisation. The regions of heaviest Indigenous population were the same temperate coastal regions that are currently the most heavily populated. In the early 1900s it was commonly believed that the Aboriginal population of Australia was leading toward extinction. The population shrank from those present when colonisation occurred in 1788 to 50,000 in 1930; this was primarily due to an outbreak of smallpox and to a lesser extent from other diseases.Post-colonisation, the coastal Indigenous populations were soon absorbed, depleted or forced from their lands; the traditional aspects of Aboriginal life which remained persisted most strongly in areas such as the Great Sandy Desert where European settlement has been sparse. The greatest population density was to be found in the southern and eastern regions of the continent, the Murray River valley in particular. Although the Indigenous Tasmanians were driven to extinction, other Aboriginal Australians maintained successful communities throughout Australia. Technologies, diets and hunting practices varied according to the local environment.

It is believed that the first early human migration to Australia was achieved when this landmass formed part of the Sahul continent, connected to the island of New Guinea via a land bridge. It is also possible that people came by island hopping via an island chain between Sulawesi and New Guinea and the other reaches North Western Australia via Timor. The exact timing of the arrival of the ancestors of the Aboriginal Australians has been a matter of dispute among archaeologists. The most generally accepted date for first arrival is between 40,000–80,000 years BP. Near Penrith in New South Wales, since 1971 numerous Aboriginal stone tools have been found in Cranebrook Terraces gravel sediments having dates of 45,000 to 50,000 years BP. When these results were new they were controversial, but more recent dating of the same strata in 1987 and 2003 has corroborated these dates. A 48,000 BCE date is based on a few sites in northern Australia dated using thermoluminescence.

A large number of sites have been radiocarbon dated to around 38,000 BCE, leading some researchers to doubt the accuracy of the thermoluminescence technique. Radiocarbon dating is limited to a maximum age of around 40,000 years. Some estimates have been given as widely as from 30,000 to 68,000 BCE. Earlier dates are requiring new techniques such as optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) and accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS), and the evidence for an earlier date of arrival is growing. Charles Dortch has dated recent finds on Rottnest Island, Western Australia at 70,000 years BP. The rock shelters at Malakunanja II (a shallow rock-shelter about 50 kilometres inland from the present coast) and of Nauwalabila I (70 kilometres further south) show evidence of used pieces of ochre – evidence for paint used by artists 60,000 years ago. Using OSL Rhys Jones has obtained a date for stone tools in these horizons dating from 53,000–60,000 years ago.Thermoluminescence dating of the Jinmium site in the Northern Territory suggested a date of 116,000 plus or minus 12,000 BCE. Although this result received wide press coverage, it is not accepted by most archaeologists. Only Africa has older physical evidence of habitation by modern humans. There is also evidence of a change in fire regimes in Australia, drawn from reef deposits in Queensland, between 70 and 100,000 years ago, and the integration of human genomic evidence from various parts of the world also supports a date of before 60,000 years for the arrival of Australian Aboriginal people in the continent.Humans reached Tasmania approximately 40,000 years ago by migrating across a land bridge from the mainland that existed during the last glacial maximum. After the seas rose about 12,000 years ago and covered the land bridge, the inhabitants there were isolated from the mainland until the arrival of European settlers.Short statured aboriginal tribes inhabited the rainforests of North Queensland, of which the best known group is probably the Tjapukai of the Cairns area. These rainforest people, collectively referred to as Barrineans, were once considered to be a relic of an earlier wave of Negrito migration to the Australian continent, but this theory no longer finds much favour.Mungo Man, whose remains were discovered in 1974 near Lake Mungo in New South Wales, is the oldest human yet found in Australia. Although the exact age of Mungo Man is in dispute, the best consensus is that he is at least 40,000 years old. Stone tools also found at Lake Mungo have been estimated, based on stratigraphic association, to be about 50,000 years old. Since Lake Mungo is in south-eastern Australia, many archaeologists have concluded that humans must have arrived in north-west Australia at least several thousand years earlier.

In 2012, the results of large-scale genotyping has indicated that Aboriginal Australians, the indigenous peoples of New Guinea and the Mamanwa, an indigenous people of the southern Philippines are closely related, having diverged from a common origin approximately 36,000 years ago. The same studies show that Aboriginal genomes consist of up to 11% Indian DNA which is uniformly spread through Northern Australia, indicating a substantial gene flow between Indian populations and Northern Australia occurred around 4,230 years ago. Changes in tool technology and food processing appear in the archaeological record around this time, suggesting there may have been migration from India.

History of Western Australia

The human history of Western Australia commenced between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago with the arrival of Indigenous Australians on the northwest coast. The first inhabitants expanded the range of their settlement to the east and south of the continent. The first recorded European contact was in 1616, when Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog landed on the west coast.

Although many expeditions visited the coast during the next 200 years, there was no lasting attempt at establishment of a permanent settlement until December 1826 when an expedition on behalf of the New South Wales colonial government, led by Major Edmund Lockyer, landed at King George Sound. On 21 January 1827 Lockyer formally took possession of the western third of the continent of Australia for the British Crown. This was followed by the establishment of the Swan River Colony in 1829, including the site of the present-day capital, Perth. The harsh conditions faced by the settlers resulted in population growth being minimal until the discovery of gold in the 1880s. Since the gold rush, the population of the state has risen steadily, with substantial growth in the period since World War II.

Western Australia gained the right of self-government in 1890, and joined with the five other states to form the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. The desire of Western Australians to revert to complete self-governance, separate from the Commonwealth, culminated in 1933 with a successful referendum for secession supported by 68% of electors. In 1935 the British parliament declined to act since secession would require the assent of the Australian parliament, and the movement lapsed with an improving economy and generous federal grants.

List of strikes

The following is a list of specific strikes (workers refusing to work in an attempt to change their conditions in a particular industry or an individual workplace, or in solidarity with those in another particular workplace) and general strikes (widespread refusal of workers to work in an organized political campaign on a broader national or international level).

Max Brown (novelist)

Maxwell MacAlister "Max" Brown (21 March 1916 – 19 September 2003) was an Australian novelist and journalist.

Warralong Community

Warralong is a small Aboriginal community, located 120 kilometres (75 mi) south east of Port Hedland and 50 kilometres (31 mi) north of Marble Bar in the Pilbara Region of Western Australia, within the Shire of East Pilbara. The community lies between the Shaw and De Grey Rivers.


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