Posted: April 20th, 2021
2021 marks the 75th anniversary of the landmark Pilbara pastoral strike which is now recognised as Australia’s longest strike.
On May 1, 1946 around 800 Aboriginal workers and their families walked off stations across the Pilbara where they were being forced to work. This action was despite great danger and lasted for months following, to protest poor wages and living conditions, and their battle for justice.
They had been disinherited of their land by the squatters and government and forced to work for decades on the 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 no better than slaves.
A large number of workers and their families joined the strike during the Port Hedland races weekend in August 1946, after they travelled to the track on the horse trucks and by train. When the races finished, they refused requests by the squatters to return to the stations. Peter Coppin had a gun pulled on him by a policeman during one stand-off. Another strike leader, Ernie Mitchell was arrested but later released.
The legendary Daisy Bindi led around 90 people off Roy Hill station in a courageous quest to join the strike.
How it happened:
The idea to strike was first proposed by Don McLeod, a white miner and fencer who witnessed the treatment of Aboriginal workers and became increasingly disturbed by the inequality and exploitation. He made strong connections with the Aboriginal men working for him, and he paid them good wages for their work. Word spread among station workers about the difference in their treatment and an undercurrent of discontent grew.
McLeod explained the strike concept to a large Law meeting held at Skull Springs in 1942, where it was proposed to hold a mass station walk-off when the Second World War was over. An ingenious plan was hatched to spread the strike date to the station workers. May 1 was chosen because it was International Workers’ Day. This date was marked with a cross on hand-drawn calendars, and secretly delivered to the station workers by Lawmen and strike leaders, Dooley Bin Bin and Clancy McKenna.
For three years the strikers endured great hardship, physical danger, violence and threats. There were chainings and gaolings of strikers, including Clancy McKenna and Dooley Bin Bin, and McLeod was fined for ‘inciting natives’.
During this period they set up camps across the Pilbara, including at Two Mile, Four Mile, Twelve Mile (Tjalku Wara) and Moolyella, where families and groups lived and ‘yandied’ or mined for tin and minerals, such as beryl and tantalite, to sell for food and clothing. They also collected and bagged oyster shell along the coast, buffel seed and goats skins to earn enough money to survive.
At the same time as protesting against their treatment by the pastoralists, the strikers were questioning the laws that governed their lives; laws that meant they had no right to marry without permission from the ‘Protector of Natives’, no right to demand wages for their work, no right to education, no right to enter towns after dusk, and no right to vote.
The strikers received moral and financial support for their cause from a number of organisations. Don McLeod enlisted the help of the Communist Party of which he was a member, and the Seamen’s Union which placed a black ban on the loading of wool, putting pressure on the pastoralists to pay a minimum wage to their Aboriginal workers. Churches and women’s Christian groups in Perth also helped raise funds and awareness of the strikers’ purpose. The issue was raised at the United Nations as well.
What was achieved?
The strikers stood firm, and their bravery and determination finally forced changes that helped initiate the restoration and recognition of their basic human rights.
In 1959, the strikers formed two groups – the Nomads and the Mugarinya group – these groups went on to own stations, including Strelley, Warralong and Yandeyarra.
While the strike is recognised as concluding in 1949, there was no official ending. There are people who still claim to be on strike as they never went back to work on the stations.
The strike – sometimes called the ‘Black Eureka’- has been described by Senator Pat Dodson (former Chair of the Council for Reconciliation), as “an important and inspiring milestone in the national battle for justice, rights, equality and recognition for Indigenous people”.
In 2010, the new suburb of ‘Bonner’ (after Senator Neville Bonner) was created in Canberra – it has four street names of some of the famous strikers to honour the 1946 Pilbara station strike – Clancy McKenna Crescent, Dooley Bin Bin Street, Peter Coppin Street, and Don McLeod Lane.
Words from those who led:
“We didn’t live in houses or anything. We had to go down to the creek like kangaroos. We just want to be treated like human beings, not cattle.” Nyangumarta woman and strike leader, the late Daisy Bindi, who led the walk-off from Roy Hill station.
“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.” Nyamal Lawman and strike leader, the late Clancy McKenna.
“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. Things are different now but that’s because of the fight we had…that bloody big battle.” Nyamal Lawman and strike leader, the late Peter Coppin.
“We will have hard times, but for our own people, not like now, hard times, for the whitefellas with their cattle stations and sheep stations. We will win.” Nyangumarta Lawman and strike leader, Dooley Bin Bin.
“…the road will be hard and very long, but don’t ever despair. The Police will be against us, the squatters, perhaps Government, and there will be gaol and chains and all sorts of rough times but we can do it.” The miner and fencer, the late Don McLeod, who helped the strikers.
Words from family members:
“When I found our family and took my Mum home to meet everyone, we were so proud to learn about the strike. We heard great stories about the mob working around the Pilbara. I remember our old people saying, ‘We still on strike.’ We can’t forget their bravery and my grandchildren need to know more of this story.” Rose Murray, Nyangumarta woman, former Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation member.
I think what was remarkable was the way our mob were so super organised – the bike story is incredible! What’s been handed down to us and our pride in our forefathers and mothers, crosses the Pilbara. It is powerful but quiet – it connects all the mobs. It drives us forward. Michelle Broun, Yindjibarndi women and curator, Australian First Nations Art, John Curtin Gallery.
YMAC thanks Working Group member, writer and playwright Jolly Read for her contribution to this story.
Want to know about Anniversary events?
Join the ‘Remembering the 1946 Pilbara Strike’ Facebook page,
Quotes referenced from:
 Somewhere Between Black and White, Kingsley Palmer, Clancy McKenna, The MacMillan Company, 1978
 Kangkushot, The Life of Nyamal Lawman, Peter Coppin, ASP- AIATSIS, 1998, Revised 2014.
 Yandy, Donald Stuart, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1959.