On May 1, 1946, Aboriginal pastoral workers in the Pilbara commenced an organised strike demanding better pay and working conditions. Hundreds of workers walked out of more than 20 stations, affecting over 10,000 square kilometres of farming country (Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, 2020).
Spanning three years, the Pilbara strike is the longest organised strike in Australian history, with 800 people on strike in its peak. The strike led to negotiated award rates in 1949. After the strike ended, many people refused to return to work and instead found income from surface mining for tin as well as trading pearls and animal skins (Liveris, 2020).
Aboriginal labour was central to the colonial project in the Pilbara which saw European settlers establishing sheep and cattle stations in the 1860's (Pilbara Strike, 2018). Aboriginal workers were often mistreated, underpaid, and abused in their roles as workers at these stations (Liveris, 2020). Low pay, or even rations in place of pay, lack of personal freedom, and sub-standard living conditions were of particular concern to the workers and community (Museum of Australian Democracy, 2012).
Clancy McKenna, a Nyamal man, pastoral worker, and key organiser of the Strike is quoted as saying, 'sour bread and kangaroo, old tea and no pay, that's not right Jack. Striking is the only way, we don't want to be treated like dogs anymore' (Pilbara Strike, 2018).
The Strike was conceived in 1942 at a six-week gathering of 200 Indigenous lawmen representing 23 language groups (Unions Western Australia, 2016). The Strike was postponed until after World War 2, and May 1 was chosen as an internationally recognised day for workers, as well as the beginning of the shearing season in the Pilbara.
Key organisers of the Strike included Nyamal man, Clancy McKenna, Nuyangumarta man, Dooley Bin Bin, and Nyamal man, Peter Kangkushot Coppin. Between 1942-46, these lawmen, amongst others, travelled around the stations of the Pilbara, talking to workers and spreading word of the May day Strike.
One of the demands of the Strike was that Don McLeod, a white member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) known to police in the area as a 'white stirrer' (Museum of Australian Democracy, 2020) should become the official representative of the Aboriginal workers in the Pilbara, rather than the 'protection officers' prescribed under the Aborigines Act 1905 (WA) (Bloodworth, 2014). McLeod was also central to the organisation of the strike, especially in gaining the support of relevant unions such as the Seamans' Union (Unions Western Australia, 2016).
Under the Aborigines Act 1905 (WA), pastoralists were granted permits to employ Aboriginal workers who were then legally unable to leave the station without a permit. These employers were also not under any obligation to pay or compensate Aboriginal workers (Government of Western Australia, 1905).
The strikers were mistreated and harassed by local law enforcement, and many were jailed (Bloodworth, 2014). Throughout the strike, some stations raised their wages and working conditions, however it was not until August 1949 when the Seamans' Union banned the shipment of wool from Pilbara stations that the Government notified McLeod that strikers demands would be met if the ban was lifted (Bloodworth, 2014).
In spite of the Government stating that no agreement was met, the strike resulted in significant victory. Many strikers never returned to the stations, instead living and working on cooperatives set up under Aboriginal control. The Pilbara Strike is thought to be one of the first land rights movements, and is an incredibly important event in Australian history.