In 1946, Aboriginal Workers in Western Australia Struck Against Racist Hyperexploitation

Twentieth-century Aboriginal workers laboring for sheep and cattle stations in Western Australia’s Pilbara region endured conditions comparable to slavery. In 1946, they walked off the job — and founded the modern land rights movement.

The Pilbara strike was the first strike organized by Aboriginal people, and both marked a turning point in their struggle for labor and land rights and laid a foundation for decades of indigenous organizing and resistance. (Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

On May 1, 1946, several hundred Aboriginal stockmen stopped work across two dozen sheep and cattle stations in the Pilbara region of Western Australia (WA). It marked the beginning of the Pilbara strike — also known as the Pilbara walk-off — which continued for three years. The strike was so well organized and coordinated that it stunned and infuriated white pastoralists and the WA state government. Indeed, it was also the first strike organized by Aboriginal people, and both marked a turning point in their struggle for labor and land rights and laid a foundation for decades of indigenous organizing and resistance.

Many different Aboriginal nations and language groups took part in the strike, including the Ngarla, Nyamal, and Kariyarra traditional owners of the Port Hedland and Marble Bar areas, as well as Nyangumarta, Mangarla, Warnman, and Western Desert speakers. As Nyangumarta has become a lingua franca in the region, Aboriginal people in the Pilbara refer to themselves as marrngu, the Nyangumarta word for person.

Coerced Labor in the Pilbara

Coerced Aboriginal labor was integral to the development of pastoralism in WA, which was the result of the state’s immense size, sparse population, and the limited supply of convict labor. This fact was never concealed. For example, in 1888, pastoralist and future WA premier Sir John Forrest stated:

Our Northern Territory [has] been settled and developed largely through the instrumentality of the native population; and many of us, including myself, would not be in the position we are today, if we had not been able to avail ourselves of native labour on our stations.

Although some in London and Australia’s urban centers voiced concerns over the working conditions forced upon Aboriginal people in remote WA, pastoralists and the colonial government ignored them. Instead, WA came to depend more on forced Aboriginal labor in the early twentieth century, transforming reserves set up by the 1905 Aborigines Act into depots that allocated Aboriginal workers as pastoralists required. Frontier violence accelerated this process by driving people off their lands and denying them traditional sources of food and shelter.

The 1907 laws governing minimum wages and conditions did not apply to Aboriginal workers and consequently, when Aboriginal workers received wages, they were vastly lower than those paid to non-Aboriginal workers. The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) — the main union covering mining and pastoral workers — was an enthusiastic supporter of the White Australia Policy. It frequently negotiated deals with pastoralists locking in lower wages for Aboriginal workers. Some marrngu received as little as $1 per week in today’s currency.

Mostly, however, marrngu station workers received rations. Initially distributed by police officers, government officials, and church missions, by the end of the nineteenth century, the authorities had outsourced this task to station management. This suited the pastoralists who used their control over rations to force Aboriginal people to settle in camps close to station homesteads, creating pools of resident laborers. Unsurprisingly, the rations were very poor in quality. Indigenous workers and their families were often given rotten meat. One item of clothing was to last the whole year.

The pastoralists of WA cast themselves as protectors of Aboriginal people, treating them as dependents rather than employees. To entrench their power and control, pastoralists often used physical punishment and formed agreements between themselves not to employ Aboriginal workers from other stations. When marrngu left to look for work elsewhere, the police would escort them back.

The wives of station managers enforced a similar regime of physical and economic coercion over marrngu domestic servants. Station managers and the authorities defended this with a specific type of racism that denigrated Aboriginal women as laughably incompeten and as requiring constant training and supervision. By casting Aboriginal women as children and presenting their employment as an act of compassion, the white wives of station managers justified paying them vastly lower wages — or not paying them at all.

In addition to this, station managers’ wives kept marrngu families fearful by threatening that their children would be taken under the authority of the commissioner for Native Affairs, the official legal guardian for all Aboriginal children under twenty-one. Perversely, this also gave pastoralists the power to prevent the removal of children, further reinforcing their power over marrngu families.

Strike Discussions Begin

The decision to conduct a strike grew out of discussions between marrngu and a non-Aboriginal prospector, Don McLeod. McLeod was a member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), and the authorities were convinced that he was the strike’s instigator. However, as oral histories have revealed, the idea originated among marrngu themselves, who had discussed it as far back as 1942. Nyamal man Clancy McKenna and Nyangumarta man Dooley Binbin were among the marrngu’s strike leaders. McLeod helped to organize support and solidarity for the marrngu people among the labor movement and the Left.

Eventually, the marrngu chose May 1, 1946, as the date to begin striking. In addition to the date’s symbolism, the first of May also marked the beginning of the shearing season, when demand for Aboriginal labor was highest. To prepare for the strike, McKenna and Binbin traveled to stations across the Pilbara, distributing calendars written on food tin labels marking the number of weeks until the strike.

The strike demanded a minimum wage of thirty shillings per week for Aboriginal station hands, roughly equivalent to $111 in today’s currency. Marrngu also demanded that McLeod be appointed as their representative to the government. Pastoralists and station managers responded cynically, claiming that if they had to pay the minimum wage, they would be unable to provide rations or clothing. The WA government refused to recognize McLeod as an official spokesman and effectively denied marrngu the right to strike.

Although accounts claim that eight hundred Aboriginal people walked off Pilbara stations on May 1, in fact, the strike began as a sit-down strike. It also begun far more tentatively than its mythology suggests, partly because of surveillance by station owners and the authorities. For example, on April 29, the manager of a large station contacted Constable Gordon Marshall to inform him that workers had given notice of their intention to strike. Marshall and other policemen traveled to various stations warning marrngu not to cease work. The isolated conditions in the region meant workers had no way of determining whether other workers were striking.

Despite its slow start, the strike sent the commissioner of Native Affairs, Francis Bray, into an immediate panic. On May 3, Bray sent a telegram to the native inspector for Fitzroy Crossing, Laurie O’Neill, that read: “Proceed First Plane Port Hedland Native Labour Situation Now Very Disturbed and Strikes Taking Place Because of McLeod’s Insidious Anti Fascist Communistic Activities Cooperate With Police. . . . Press For Full Term Imprisonment.”

The Walk-off

After a hesitant beginning, organizers planned a meeting for May 25 bringing together delegates from each station to report on the strike’s progress. Before the meeting could be held, however, the authorities arrested McKenna and Binbin. The pair were charged with a breach of Section 47 of the Native Administration Act, which made it illegal to entice or persuade a “native” to leave their place of employment.

The courts found McKenna and Binbin guilty and sentenced them to three months in prison with hard labor. However, the authorities remitted their sentences after laying the blame on McLeod who was convicted of three counts of “enticement.” After paying a substantial fine, McLeod was later released.

After these setbacks, the marrngu adapted their tactics. The opportunity to continue the strike presented itself at the end of July, when people across the Pilbara region gathered in Port Hedland for annual horse races. Among the attendees were 150 marrngu. In a show of strength, all but seven of them agreed to walk from Port Hedland to Two Mile Creek, a trip of over eight hundred kilometers, where they established a camp.

Over the following months, the number of strikers grew steadily to four hundred. To sustain themselves and reduce their reliance on rations, they formed working parties to fish, hunt kangaroos, and dry shell beans. Self-taught strikers Tommy Sampie and Gordon McKay established schools for marrngu children. Later, marrngu established additional camps at Twelve Mile and Moolyella, allowing the strikers to support themselves by mining alluvial tin.

For many marrngu, establishing independent communities away from the control of pastoralists was a victory in and of itself. This, however, led to a debate among the strikers. Some marrngu saw their action as a temporary withdrawal of labor and became frustrated as the dispute dragged on. They pushed for more direct negotiations as a way to win. Others hpped to establish economically independent communities, to free themselves from the ration system, and to live in accordance with Aboriginal legal and cultural practices. They wanted to hold out. Even when wages and conditions on stations began to improve thanks to the strike, many showed little interest in returning.

By 1947, the strike had settled into a war of attrition. Parties of strikers risked imprisonment by traveling to other stations to bring more workers to their camps. Whenever the police arrived to try to shut down the camp, however, marrngu would crowd around, preventing arrests with their strength in numbers. As striker Sam Coppin recalled, “Police come every day, want us to go back; they reckon they’re gonna put us in jail, we keep telling them we’re not going back.”

Domestic Laborers Join the Fight

It wasn’t just Pilbara stockmen who struck in 1946. When the strike created an opportunity to escape to self-managed communities, many Aboriginal domestic workers took it gladly. For example, Nyungumarta woman and unpaid “housegirl” Daisy Bindi was one of many domestic workers who joined the strike camps. She didn’t go alone — Bindi lead almost a hundred people from Roy Hill station to join the strike camps.

When indigenous domestic workers joined the strike, it had a profound effect on station managers’ wives who found themselves obliged to carry out chores usually performed by their servants. Benja Sherlock, for example, wrote to her sister to complain.

Just another short note as I am so tired I can hardly sit up and my back and feet ache! I’ve been on my feet since 6 AM, and it’s now 8:30 PM. Well, the natives are on strike again, and this time for two pounds a week!

Convinced by their own maternalistic racism, many white mistresses believed their domestic servants had been misled by communist agitators. On the contrary, marrngu women joined the strike both in solidarity with the stockmen and to demand payment for their own labor.

This bolstered the strike’s impact considerably. Station managers were sometimes able to replace striking stockmen with jackaroos: young, inexperienced white workers brought up from the south. By contrast, housemaid work in the remote North West was extremely unattractive to white working-class women from urban centers.

Communists Build Solidarity With the Strikers

Thanks to McLeod’s involvement, the strike quickly gained the attention and support of parts of the labor movement in Perth. Alec Jolly and Katharine Susannah Prichard — prominent local members of the Communist Party of Australia — formed a Committee for the Defence of Native Rights to raise strike funds. Although its most active participants were members of the Communist Party of Australia, other groups, like temperance societies and the Tramway Union, also sent members and expressed their solidarity. Solidarity also spread beyond the labor movement. For example, the University of Western Australia student guild staged a march in support of the strikers.

By 1947, the station owners’ resolve had already begun to falter. As the new shearing season approached, the pastoralists sent a delegation to the minister for native affairs admitting that without Aboriginal workers, they would be unable to muster sheep. By the beginning of the 1949 shearing season, stations at Mount Edgar and Limestone buckled first and agreed to extend legal minimum wages and conditions to Aboriginal workers. Other pastoralists, however, attempted to hold out.

To break the station managers’ resolve, the strikers sought to apply pressure in other ways. They appealed to the Seamen’s Union to place a ban on handling wool shorn at the stations that were still holding out. The secretary of the Fremantle branch of the union was a prominent local communist named Ron Hurd. He had no trouble convincing members to impose the ban. The union also demanded that authorities release strikers imprisoned for “enticement.” Shipping agents tried to circumvent the bans, including by lying to waterside workers, claiming that the wool they were supposed to load came from the Mount Edgar and Limestone stations, where the strike was over. The Seamen’s Union, however, was not so easily duped.

The prospect of communists and Aboriginal workers coming together was the WA state government’s worst nightmare, and both Labor and Liberal administrations shared these fears. Indeed, the response of Labor premier Frank Wise was so hostile that McLeod often claimed the movement received better treatment from Liberal governments.

By late 1949, the remaining station owners and the state government were unable to hold out. The deputy commissioner for native affairs gave McLeod an assurance that the wages and conditions negotiated at Mount Edgar and Limestone would be applied throughout the Pilbara. In response to this concession, the strike came to an official end, and many workers returned to their stations.

Other strikers, including Binbin, refused to go back to station work. Some of them joined with McLeod to establish the mining cooperative Nomads Pty Ltd. As a result, for decades after 1949, some of the original Pilbara strikers claimed they were still on strike.

The Struggle for Stolen Wages Continues

Once the 1949’s shearing season was over, it became clear that the station owners had no intention of honoring the deal and that the government had no intention of enforcing it. The government also refused to recognize the right of Aboriginal workers to appoint their own representatives or negotiate their own labor conditions.

Consequently, the Pilbara strike did not end hyperexploitation of marrngu workers in WA. It did, however, limit the extent to which they could be taken for granted. For example, following the strike, the manager of the large Corunna Downs station Mr K. Bligh conceded that a “mild form of slavery” had existed in the North West and insisted that wages and living conditions were now improving.

Marrngu workers remained indispensable to WA’s pastoral industry until 1968, when new struggles for equal rights forced the Arbitration Commission to remove racially discriminatory clauses from the Federal Pastoral Industry Award. Pastoralists responded to this decision by firing Aboriginal laborers and driving them out of the industry.

Shamefully, Western Australia’s debt to the marrngu community remains enormous. The state and corporate groups still owe the traditional owners of the land vast sums in stolen wages. These are still the subject of ongoing class actions.

Ultimately, however, the most enduring achievement of the Pilbara strike was that it created a tradition of organizing and resistance. Powerful echoes of the Pilbara strike could be heard in the 1966 Gurindji walk-off which, after nine years, won the first major victory for the Aboriginal land rights movement. Although the Gurindji walk-off was the first land rights struggle to attract widespread attention in Australia, it built on a foundation laid by the Pilbara strike.

The Pilbara strike is a powerful example for today’s Aboriginal sovereignty movement. By establishing self-sufficient, self-managed strike camps, marrngu challenged the doctrine of “terra nullius” that denied the law and culture of First Nations people as well as the ways they cultivated the land to sustain themselves. And by building solidarity with the radical wing of the labor movement, marrngu adapted the most powerful weapon in workers’ struggle — the strike — and proved that it could be used to win both equal rights for Aboriginal people and self-determination.