AS an Autumn sun heralded day break across the vast Pilbara on a May morning 75 years ago, dozens of Aboriginal station workers woke to a new dawn.
The day had finally come – May 1, 1946. The day to walk.
The workers and their families had secretly prepared for months, but that did not make it any easier. They were about to embark on an heroic and unparalleled strike against their slavery.
What grew from those first tentative steps was a resistance movement that today remains Australia’s longest-ever strike, and which next week celebrates its 75th anniversary.
Despite great danger on that day and for many months following, around 800 strikers began walking off 27 pastoral stations demanding proper pay and better living conditions in their battle for justice. It was the start of a strike with such far-reaching social and industrial consequences that it became known in some circles as the “Blackfellas’ Eureka”.
However, for the wider community it has remained largely unknown or acknowledged in the nation’s colonial history.
The first squatters and explorers staked their claims over the Pilbara lands in the 1860s; land that for millennia had belonged to 31 traditional language groups living within sophisticated social, religious and cultural systems.
In the next 80 years, Aboriginal people were disinherited of their lands and forced to work on the sheep – and later cattle – stations for meagre rations and little or no wages; their lives subject to the exploitation and whims of the pastoralists, government agents and legislators.
Many strikers said they lived like slaves.
One strike leader, Nyamal lawman, the late Peter Coppin, observed that: “We lived no better than the cattle but we worked all day for the right to do even that! We were skinny people back then and we lived through plenty of starvation times.”
Another leader, legendary Nyangumarta woman, Daisy Bindi, who led the walk-off by 90 people from Roy Hill station said: “We didn’t live in houses or anything. We had to go down to the creek like kangaroos. We just wanted to be treated like human beings, not cattle.”
The discontent festered with the arrival in the region of Don McLeod, a white man with a permit to employ Aboriginal labour for his contract fencing and well digging work. McLeod witnessed the treatment of the Aboriginal workers and became increasingly disturbed by the inequality and exploitation.
He noted they “had no houses, they had no water supply, they had no sanitation or anything of that nature, and they had no minimum standard of wage”.
He made strong connections with the Aboriginal men working for him and paid them good wages, in some cases 11 times more that they were receiving from the station bosses. Dissatisfaction grew as word of the disparity spread across the spinifex plains from station to station.
As a result, McLeod was invited in 1942 to explain the concept of a strike to a large lore meeting at Skull Springs where, he said, it was agreed to hold a mass station walk-off once World War II was over.
May 1 was crucially the start of the shearing season and coincidentally also International Workers’ Day.
An ingenious plan was hatched to spread the strike date to the station workers with it marked with a cross on hand-drawn calendars on food tin labels, and secretly delivered by strike leaders Dooley Bin Bin and Clancy McKenna.
As McKenna told his fellow workers: “We want to better ourselves. We just want better conditions. We’ve been working for the squatters long enough and all we get is a chunk of meat, corned beef, dry bread. We want to walk off all that.”
On the walk-off day, media reported that De Grey station and “at least 11 others” had struck on time.
Many were initially fearful of joining because by law they could be arrested for leaving.
But by August, as word spread, many dozens more workers joined during the annual Port Hedland races meeting after they travelled to the track on the horse trucks and by train.
They refused the squatters’ and police requests to return to the stations after the event finished.
Peter Coppin had a gun pulled on him by a policeman during one standoff. Another strike leader, Ernie Mitchell, was arrested but later released.
In the next three years, the strikers set up camps across the Pilbara where families lived and “yandied” for tin and mined minerals such as beryl and tantalite to sell for food and clothing.
They also collected buffel seed, goat skins and oyster shell at coastal camps to earn enough money to survive.
Alongside the strike movement, they were openly questioning the laws that governed their lives; laws that meant they had no right to marry without government permission, no right to demand wages or education, no right to enter towns after dusk, and no right to vote.
They were not counted as citizens of the country, despite being its first peoples.
As McLeod said: “The West Australian blackfellows are virtually slaves…they couldn’t leave the master without permission…they worked on their own land to make an alien person rich and they couldn’t leave. They were as tightly tied as any medieval villain or serf to the lord of the manor.”
As the strike settled into a war of attrition, families endured great hardship, physical danger, violence and threats. Dozens of strikers were chained and gaoled, including McKenna and Bin Bin. McLeod was arrested and fined for “inciting natives” and being within five chains of a “congregation of natives”.
Support for the strikers gathered momentum, however, with financial and ideological backing from the WA Communist Party, some unions, church, student and women’s groups, and it was even raised at the United Nations.
Fremantle played a pivotal role when the port branch of the Seamen’s Union placed a black ban on the loading of Pilbara wool out of Port Hedland in 1949.
The union’s secretary, Ron Hurd, gave the government two months warning before imposing the ban on July 1 in protest at the gaoling of 43 men at Marble Bar.
He told the government that the treatment of Aboriginal workers was “inhuman” and the “working conditions forced upon them by the big squatters” intolerable.
The ban forced the government and pastoralists into negotiations to pay a minimum wage of “30 shillings a week” to their Aboriginal workers for the shearing season.
However, it was a short-lived victory for the strikers.
Soon after shearing was over and the wool clip shipped, the Department of Native Affairs reneged on its earlier assurances that this rate would be applied for Aboriginal workers across the Pilbara. It did, however, begin the move to better wages being paid across the board.
Still on strike
While the strike is recognised as concluding in 1949, there was no official ending. There are some old people today who still claim to be on strike because they never went back to work on the stations.
Instead, for more than a decade, hundreds of people continued their mining operations and intermittent station work.
In 1959, the strikers formed two groups, the Nomads and Mugarinya, with both eventually acquiring their own stations including Strelley, Warralong and Yandeyarra that still run today.
The 1946 Pilbara pastoral strike was a seminal event in WA’s history when Indigenous workers and their families stood strong against their slavery and won freedom. It was a watershed moment that underpinned the modern Aboriginal rights movement.
Senator Pat Dodson, former Chair of the Council for Reconciliation, described it as “an important and inspiring milestone in the national battle for justice, rights, equality and recognition for Indigenous people”.
It was the forerunner to the more famous 1966 Wave Hill walk-off and the beginning of an industrial movement that eventually saw Aboriginal station workers throughout Australia achieve award wages in the 60s.
As Peter Coppin recalled: “It was a big story all right, that strike. We were just blackfellas to be used as slaves on the stations. We got no proper pay, no proper houses – just a bit of tin, a bit of paperbark, a bit of blanket, down in the river.
“That’s how we lived then. Things are different now but that’s because of the fight we had. That bloody big battle.”