The marvel of the Pilbara cooperative movement
The marvel of the Pilbara cooperative movement
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In 1946, Aboriginal station hands and domestic workers across the Pilbara region launched the longest strike in Australian history, demanding better wages and conditions in a watershed moment for Indigenous and workers’ rights. After their victory, many strikers decided that they were better off continuing to work for themselves in mining cooperatives, which gave people more control of their lives and allowed them to launch political campaigns against Indigenous oppression.

Aboriginal labour was the backbone of the Western Australian pastoral industry. As historian Anne Scrimgeour documents in her book On Red Earth Walking, the conditions of Aboriginal workers in the Pilbara in the 1940s were awful. Women were normally not paid at all, and if men were paid, it was only a fraction of the white male wage. One woman who later joined the strike, Nyirrarlpi (Maggie Ginger) told Scrimgeour that on the station they slept outside, were given poor quality food and had no amenities.

Pastoralists argued that providing for the children and old people who lived on the station made hiring Aboriginal people more expensive than it was worth. Far from needing Aboriginal labour, they claimed, they provided for them as an act of charity. The station owners were proven wrong when pastoral and domestic workers left their stations right across the Pilbara; without this labour, the work could not be done.

“Blackfellas were doing all the work”, one of the strikers, Pitpit (Billy Thomas) told Scrimgeour. “When Marrngu [Nyangumarta word for person, which came to mean Aboriginal person] walked off the stations, they broke down, you saw every station went broke.”

Scrimgeour, in a 2013 article for the Aboriginal History journal, explained how strikers established mining camps to support themselves without station wages. According to many of the strikers, such as Kujupurru (Cranky Iti) and Pirntilkampanyaja (Mac Gardiner), they made a living by adapting a traditional implement—the yandy, used to separate seeds—to separate tin and other metals from dirt. Kulyu (Molly Williams) described how they also caught and sold kangaroo and goat skins and collected pearl shells to sell for button making.

Anthropologist John Wilson, who lived with the community, noted in his 1961 PhD thesis that, unlike on the stations, where the bosses controlled every aspect of their lives, people were able to run the strike camps collectively and democratically, usually through community meetings. They won most of their demands after three years of striking, but the cooperative movement continued.

The movement was made up of different mining camps, spread across the Pilbara, where people would live and work together. There was also an administrative camp, Two Mile, where elderly people lived, and where people gathered for large community meetings. The camps organised cooking and child care, which enabled women to engage in mining and political life. Children lived in a special kids’ camp, which was supervised by a group of adults but politically run by a committee of teenage women, preparing them to take on leadership roles when they moved to the general mining camps.

Marrngu pushed for equal rights between men and women. As one man later recalled to Wilson, “At strike time we decide, ‘women got the power’”. Women were encouraged to be politically active: both John and Katrin Wilson recalled how at the beginning of important meetings, the chair would encourage women to speak up. Max Brown and Don Stuart, both authors who visited the community, describe situations in which women would discuss political decisions among themselves in a women’s committee, and if they felt that their opinions had not been heard in the general meeting, they would take this back to the rest of the cooperative.

In another article, “‘Battlin’ for their rights’: Aboriginal activism and the Leper Line”, Scrimgeour explores how the collective campaigned against the Leper Line law, which restricted the movement of Indigenous people across the twentieth parallel. The law was designed to prevent the spread of leprosy from the Kimberley south into the rest of Western Australia, but was used by pastoralists to stop the spread of industrial action. Pastoralists could gain permits for their workers to cross the line, but Indigenous people were in effect barred from getting their own permits, as the application had to be in writing, and most had been denied access to education.

While the strike wave spread, pastoralists at Anna Plains, Wallal Downs and Mandora stations on the Eighty Mile Beach used the Leper Line to shield themselves from the achievements of the Pilbara strikers. This meant that wages and conditions in the Kimberley remained far below those achieved in the Pilbara, with Aboriginal workers, who were unable to leave, getting little or no wages well into the 1950s.

In May 1957, the cooperative received a message from workers on the Wallal Downs station asking for assistance in crossing the line. They chose the closest weekend to May Day to bring a truck to pick up the Wallal workers and take them back to the cooperative, marking the anniversary of the first action in the Pilbara strike. The cooperative continued to break the law, sending members up to convince workers to leave their stations. The police responded by threatening to arrest all the Eighty Mile Beach workers who did not return to their stations within 30 days. The workers ignored the threat and continued to cross back and forth to set up shelling camps along the shore.

Instead of breaking the law in secret, the cooperative wrote to unions and activist groups in Perth so that when the police cracked down, they would have to do it under public scrutiny. When the 30 days were up, the police attempted to arrest five people who were still on the Pilbara side of the line. The 30 or 40 other cooperative members told the police that they had all crossed the line, so if they wanted to arrest the five Wallal workers, they would have to arrest all of them. They surrounded the police, physically separating them from the five people, and due to the remote location and the unavailability of backup, the police had no choice but to back down.

By repeatedly crossing the Leper Line, the cooperative made the restrictions unenforceable, and Wallal, Anna Plains and Mandora stations soon had to start offering better wages and conditions to maintain a workforce.

The cooperative campaigned to engage workers from other stations who had not yet joined the strike. They found an audience at the Roy Hill Station, where most workers were still unpaid and lived in terrible conditions. Daisy Bindi, who would become one of the leading figures in the Roy Hill walk-off, worked unpaid as a domestic servant. As she recalled to anthropologist Katrin Wilson:

“I did all this, I worked in the kitchen, but I didn’t get paid properly. I want to tell you that we people want a home to go to when we were finished work, like white people. We’re human beings, not cattle ... We just want to be treated like human beings.”

In September 1951, the cooperative organised a meeting with the Marrngu Roy Hill Station workers, inviting them to join, according to a Carnarvon police report from the time. The Roy Hill workers refused the offer, instead returning to the station and threatening strike action if the owner, Alexander Spring, did not sign a labour agreement, negotiated with the help of the cooperative. Once the group had raised enough money to fund a strike, Daisy Bindi told Katrin Wilson how she and her husband approached Spring, demanding: “How about more money? We don’t think we’re paid properly. We do the work, so we should get paid”.

Spring refused, sparking a sit-down strike of domestic workers. Daisy Bindi recalled: “I said, ‘No more of this talk. Are you going to pay the girls?’. He said, ‘Oh no! we can’t do that’. So, we said, ‘All right, we all stop work’, and all the girls went down the creek and sat down”.

Spring called a meeting of all married men and offered to increase their wages to pay for their wives, which they agreed to. Daisy Bindi criticised the men for accepting this. When Spring asked Bindi’s husband whether the women would go back to work, he objected to being asked to speak for the women. “Why ask us?”, he replied. “Why not ask the girls? ... don’t ask me, you’d better ask Daisy.” Don McLeod, a Communist leader of the strike, later recalled in a statement to the 1952 Committee Investigating Native Labour that Daisy and her husband contacted the cooperative and organised a truck to be sent out to pick up the workers. The Roy Hill workers joined the cooperative camps, and Roy Hill Station had to increase its wages and conditions in line with the rest of the Pilbara stations to attract more workers.

The main limitation of the cooperative movement was the economic environment in which they were operating. The competition inherent to the capitalist economy means that even the most democratic company must squeeze its workers to remain in the market. The fortunes of the group ultimately depended on the market prices of minerals. Marrngu told John Wilson that they had a good quality of life when prices were high, but severe hardship and hunger when the prices were low.

In 1959, Wilson observed how divisions began to emerge between the “doers”, the people who mined the minerals or conducted other work for the community, and the “talkers”, the leaders who spent more of their time moving between the camps and going to Perth to negotiate with mineral purchasers. Some of those who had been the staunchest fighters against the station owners, such as Dooley Binbin and Daisy Bindi, began to lose influence, as business skills, rather than organising skills, became more important for the leadership. The “talkers” wanted to buy more mining equipment so that they could keep up with the industry, while the “doers” wanted the money spent on food, clothes and other consumer goods.

Workers at the Mount Frisco mining camp went on strike, demanding cash payment for their labour, more money spent on clothing, a car for each camp and a school to be set up for the children in the cooperative. Workers had not forgotten the lessons they learned in the strike. Not long afterwards, the movement split into two smaller cooperatives. Although people continued to live and work together until the 1990s, neither group reached the size, success or influence that the cooperative had enjoyed.

The Pilbara Cooperative was more progressive than contemporary cooperative cafes or bookshops that pop up in cities, because it grew out of a major strike. Scrimgeour, in a 2016 article, explains that it was an early example of independent Aboriginal organising in a period when the main approach to Aboriginal policy was assimilation: Indigenous people were seen to need the guidance of missions and the Native Welfare Department to be “civilised” into white society. The cooperative proved that Aboriginal people fared much better without the guardianship of the white church or state.

The level of gender equality achieved within the group was also unprecedented for the time. Women played an important role within the Pilbara strike, and this gave them the experience, confidence and authority to demand more respect within the cooperative. Relationships were freer. Both Caroline Jula and Nyirrarlpi told Scrimgeour how they left arranged marriages they had entered on the stations and chose new partners. Child care was organised communally, which enabled women to participate more fully in cooperative politics. Women were encouraged to participate in community decisions and take on certain roles within the leadership structures. This was all achieved in 1950s Australia, an era infamous for stifling gender roles and conformity.

A group of workers breaking out of this mould and creating a more equal community is an achievement to be celebrated.

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