In 1946, Aboriginal pastoral workers embarked on the longest strike in Australian history, which was also the first industrial action by Indigenous Australians. They demanded better pay and working conditions, in a time when many Aboriginal stock workers received no cash wages at all, and were not free to leave their employment when they chose.
The strike began on May 1, 1946, at the beginning of shearing season, when the pastoralists were most vulnerable to a loss in Aboriginal labour. It had been planned years earlier by Aboriginal leaders Clancy McKenna, Dooley Bin Bin and Nyaparu Coppin, with white prospector Don McLeod. A group of about 200 elders from 23 different Aboriginal groups met and decided on a strike in 1942, but agreed to wait until the War ended before commencing action.
Hundreds of people walked off more than 20 stations, affecting about 10,000 square kilometres of sheep farming country in the Pilbara. Many of them gathered at different strike camps where they hunted, gathered bush tucker, gathered skins and pearl shell and engaged in mining activities to provide food and money for supplies for all those people in the camps.
For many of the strikers, this was their first experience of economic independence, and it proved life-changing. Many of them never went back to the stations, and instead pursued these money-making activities until some families saved enough to purchase their own stations in the 1950s. Strelley Station, in Njamal country, was one of those, and is still Aboriginal owned today.
Many Aboriginal people were put in chains or jailed for their participation in the strike. Despite the danger they were in and the pressure they faced, the strike continued on until 1949, making it the longest strike in Australian history. Don McLeod said of his fellow organiser Dooley Bin Bin,
“It is difficult to exaggerate the intelligence and courage of men like Dooley. He was a highly motivated man who dedicated himself utterly to his task. What he may have lacked in knowledge of the white man’s system he made up for by his absolute resolve and fearlessness.” (McLeod, D. How the West was Lost, self published, Port Hedland (WA), 1984. p.51)
The Pilbara strike paved the way for later protests and industrial action such as the 1966 Gurindji strike that led to equal wages for Aboriginal Australians. The courage and determination of the men and women of the Pilbara who stood up for their human rights in 1946-49 is an inspiration today to the many people who continue to pursue justice on their traditional homelands.
Across Australia every July, NAIDOC Week celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In honour of NAIDOC 2011 YMAC is featuring a series of Aboriginal people, organisations and events that contribute to the vibrant Aboriginal culture of the Midwest and Pilbara. For more information on NAIDOC including its history and events happening near you, visit http://www.naidoc.org.au/.