Pilbara: Australia's longest strike

30 April 2021
Nick Everett

Seventy-five years ago, on May Day 1946, the longest recorded strike in Australian history began. Over the following three years, hundreds of Aboriginal pastoral workers walked off cattle stations across Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

The Pilbara strikers’ demands were straightforward: a 30 shilling per week minimum wage, the right to elect their own representatives and freedom of movement. Yet their actions directly challenged Western Australia’s Aborigines Act 1905, which controlled every aspect of Aboriginal people’s lives. Consequently, they confronted not only the wealthy station owners, but also a regime of colonial servitude enforced by police and the Department of Native Affairs.

Though the strike officially ended in 1949, much of the workforce never returned, instead building self-sufficient communities through cooperative mining and other ventures. Their struggle inspired a national campaign for Aboriginal rights, spearheaded in Perth by the Committee for the Defence of Native Rights (CDNR).

On Sunday 19 May 1946, the Perth Esplanade was the site of a 200-strong demonstration demanding the release of two of the strike leaders, Clancy McKenna and Dooley Bin Bin, arrested at the strike’s beginning on the charge of “enticement to strike”. Those gathered were outraged by the jailing and cruel treatment of strike leaders under a Labor state government. Dooley had been chained by the neck for the last six days while held in Marble Bar lockup.

A unanimously adopted resolution condemned this “victimisation of the most brutal kind”. “We consider that the Native Administration Act is administered, not for the benefit of the natives, but for the squatters, to provide them with a supply of cheap labour”, it said.

Two days later, a small group met at the offices of the Society of Friends (Quakers) to form the provisional committee of the CDNR. A leaflet, authored by Communist writer Katharine Susannah Prichard, urged supporters “to prevent the continuation of glaring injustice” by attending a public meeting at Perth Town Hall the following Tuesday.

28 May 1946 was a stormy night. Heavy downpours and blackouts caused havoc with tram services. Yet 300 people turned out to launch the CDNR in the Perth Town Hall. Present were Noongars, trade unionists, students and other supporters of Aboriginal rights. Prichard addressed the meeting alongside representatives of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Tramways Union and the Quakers. Noongar elder and activist Tommy Bropho defiantly announced: “Today we are demanding at least similar privileges to the white man and our freedom. These concessions have been too long delayed”.

The meeting set about planning a solidarity campaign appealing to everyone from local trade unionists to the London-based Antislavery Campaign and the United Nations. Commissioner for Native Affairs Francis Bray, in a letter to state Premier Frank Wise, was quick to dismiss the meeting, which, he claimed, “achieved very little except that the Communists enlist[ed] some dupes or marionettes for the purpose of Communist propaganda”.

Yet, as news of the strike spread, the state government began to feel the pressure. Five weeks into the strike, the justice minister was forced to order Clancy and Dooley’s immediate release. However, the pair’s reprieve was short-lived: strikers were repeatedly jailed over the following couple of years.

The Communist Party of Australia, which had initiated the CDNR, was uniquely placed to build solidarity with the strike. It was at the time the only political party in Australia to campaign actively for Aboriginal rights. From the early 1920s, the party’s national newspaper, Workers’ Weekly, accused pastoral industry employers of “chattel slavery”, demanded equal wages for Aboriginal workers and vehemently opposed the North Australian Workers Union’s exclusion of Aboriginal workers from its membership.

In 1939, the party published a pamphlet, New Deal for Aborigines, which called for land rights for Aboriginal people, including rights to minerals, water and timber; special courts for “native offences”; the abolition of police acting as Aboriginal “protectors”; and full citizenship rights for all Aboriginal people.

Additionally, the party held strategic leadership positions within two important trade unions. In 1948, Paddy Troy, a Communist, was elected secretary of the Fremantle branch of the Coastal Dock, Rivers and Harbour Works Union of Workers, popularly known as the “Lumpers Union”. That same year, another Communist, Ron Hurd, a veteran of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, became secretary of the Fremantle branch of the Seamen’s Union. In 1949, Troy and Hurd were instrumental in imposing a black ban on union crews’ handling of wool bales awaiting export on Port Hedland wharf at a critical juncture in the dispute.

Perth-based Communists had long been critical of the apartheid regime maintained by a succession of state Labor governments over the previous decade. In 1936, following accusations of child slavery, abuse and mistreatment at the Moore River Native Settlement, the state Labor government established the Moseley Royal Commission. In the pages of the Communist Party paper, Workers’ Star, Katharine Susannah Prichard condemned Labor’s adoption of Chief Protector A.O. Neville’s recommendations, which included powers to remove Aboriginal children from their families to state-run native settlements, where they were groomed for low-paid rural and domestic work.

In 1943, Communist Party branches in Perth’s working-class eastern suburbs campaigned for housing for the Aboriginal “fringe dweller” community evicted from the South Guildford reserve by the army. By the time of the start of the Pilbara Strike, the party had established a strong reputation for championing Aboriginal rights, both in Perth and nationally.

The CDNR was by no means solely a Communist affair. Local Noongar people played an important role in the committee, alongside Quakers, Labor Party members and prominent members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Methodist Ladies Guild. During the strike, Tommy Bropho toured Noongar communities in the south-west to revive the work of the Native Union, which during the Great Depression campaigned for equality for Noongars of mixed descent. Elders, such as Bropho, Bertha Isaacs and Bill Bodney, as well as younger activists, such as Helene Clarke and Jack Poland, rallied alongside Communists on Perth’s Esplanade to demand the release of imprisoned strikers.

Critical to the solidarity campaign’s success was Don McLeod, the Port Hedland-based trade union militant who represented the strikers in their dealings with the Department of Native Affairs. Throughout the strike, McLeod maintained close ties with both the CDNR and Perth-based members of the Communist Party, which he joined in 1944. Workers’ Star reporter Joan Williams recalled in her autobiography, Anger & Love, that McLeod attended a party school in April 1945 and told those present of “the Aborigines’ poor pay, the squalid camps on the stations [and] the plundering of issue rations by some station owners”.

At the time of the strike, not only were town centres off limits to Aboriginal people, but non-Aboriginal people were barred from entering Aboriginal town camps. This enforced segregation presented significant challenges to the Pilbara strikers and their supporters.

At the beginning of the strike, McLeod was arrested for entering a “native camp” outside Port Hedland. During the dispute, he was arrested another six times for offences such as “inciting natives to leave their lawful employment”. Even the CDNR’s chair, Anglican minister Peter Hodge, found himself on the wrong side of the law, arrested, ironically, on the charge of “being within five chains [100 metres] of a congregation of natives”. Hodge got off lightly with a fine of £10; McLeod was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment.

With the strong arm of the law bearing down upon the strikers, and rations being withheld to starve them out, the CDNR mounted a legal defence of those jailed, used all available avenues to publicise the strike and raised funds to sustain the strikers. Yet it was the CPA’s influence within the labour movement that ultimately proved most decisive.

When, in October 1946, the Court of Criminal Appeal rejected appeals by Clancy, Dooley, McLeod and Hodge against their convictions, the decision “arouse[d] public indignation throughout the land”, recalled Davies. The British anti-slavery society raised funds and sent messages of support and protest. The CDNR appealed to the High Court (and to the UN), alleging that the strike leaders’ arrests amounted to “feudal treatment of Aborigines in Northern Australia”.

The High Court upheld the appeal on the grounds that the intent of the law was “better protection of natives” and not criminalisation of McLeod’s and Hodge’s contact with them. While this victory boosted the strikers’ morale and secured publicity for their cause, it did not end punitive legal action against them. In 1947, dozens of strikers were jailed in two separate incidents.

While mainstream media largely ignored the strike, Workers’ Star consistently championed the strikers’ cause. Williams recalls that when the Workers’ Star published a photo of Aboriginal people chained by the neck, it caused a public uproar, both in Australia and overseas. According to Davies, daily newspapers in other states were forced to rely upon Workers’ Star for information and “often quoted from its articles”.

As news of the strike spread, support poured in. Students at the University of Western Australia marched in support of the strikers. Donations came in from local and interstate union and ALP branches. With the funds it received, the CDNR printed and distributed 20,000 copies of a four-page leaflet outlining the history of the strike and the committee’s policy on Aboriginal rights.

In March 1947, less than a year into the strike, the Liberal-Country coalition defeated Labor to form government. The following year, Stanley Middleton—fresh from administering the “natives” in colonial New Guinea—was appointed the state’s new commissioner for native affairs. Applying what he had learned, Middleton advocated the assimilation of the state’s Aboriginal population.

At two strike camps—one on the outskirts of Port Hedland and another at Moolyella, near Marble Bar—hundreds of Aboriginal families were sustaining themselves by collecting pearl shell, kangaroo and goatskins. The state government attempted to thwart these efforts by denying them permits to use hunting rifles. Eviction orders were issued on the pretext that the camps were unfit for habitation. Middleton hoped that the strikers could be coaxed into abandoning their self-managed camps in favour of accepting the charity of the White Springs Mission, recently established with a generous land grant from the state government.

The strikers refused to move.

Ultimately it was trade union support, coordinated closely with the CDNR in Perth, that helped break the deadlock. When, in April 1949, 43 strikers were jailed for “enticing natives to strike”, the Seamen’s Union called for the prisoners’ immediate release and threatened a ban on the shipment of wool from stations where “slave conditions” applied. The union’s intention was to squeeze the handsome profits of Pilbara’s wool growers.

On 20 June, when police arrested another ten strikers at Nullagine, the scene was set for a showdown. Bales of wool now sat idle on Port Hedland wharf. The black ban had its intended effect: by mid-July, jailed strikers had all been released. Over the following months, most Pilbara stations conceded to the strikers’ demands. Many strikers instead chose not to return, preferring to work cooperatively to mine alluvial tin.

McLeod observed that, despite the “ringleaders” having “been in and out of jail like clockwork ... the Blackfellows never wilted. Nothing that either the state or police did could shake their solidarity”.

The CDNR played no small part in the struggle for Aboriginal rights. Workers’ Star editor Graham Alcorn observed that while it was the use of the “strike weapon” and the strength of organisation among the Pilbara workers themselves that was most decisive, the CDNR's national campaign “held the government’s hand and enabled [the workers] to continue their campaign”.

There were at times sharp debates within the CDNR. Liberals within the committee expressed unease about its close association with Communist-led trade unions. By the 1950s, the CDNR, renamed the Native Rights League, began to adopt the assimilationist approach now advocated by Middleton.

Nonetheless, Alcorn concluded, had the CDNR not built a powerful solidarity campaign with the Pilbara strikers, “there is little doubt that Don [McLeod] and the native leaders would have been jailed indefinitely, their organisation smashed and the rank-and-file terrorised back to work”.

This is an edited version of a chapter in the book Radical Perth, Militant Fremantle, published by Interventions.

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