‘Blackfellas to be used as slaves’

Daisy Bindi led a walkoff of 90 people from Roy Hill Station.

THIS is part 2 of JOLLY READ’s history of the 1946 Pilbara Strike by Indigenous workers. As reported last week, there’s to be a two-day festival commemorating it’s 75th anniversary, but thanks to Covid, organisers have had to delay things by a couple of weeks. The screening of How the West Was Lost at DADAA is now on Friday May 28, while Stories in Fremantle Park behind the tennis club is on Saturday May 29 from 3-5pm and the concert later that evening at the new Fremantle Park Centre from 7-9pm.

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.

Lawman Peter Coppin, one of the strike leaders.

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.”

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