1946 Pilbara strike - Australia's longest strike

Hundreds of Aboriginal pastoral workers left their work for better pay and conditions in May 1946, paralysing sheep stations. The strike was organised with no phones or radios and lasted until 1949, the longest strike in Australia's history.

Close this Cover of Aboriginal Culture Essentials

Wishing you knew more about Aboriginal culture? Search no more.

Get key foundational knowledge about Aboriginal culture in a fun and engaging way.

This is no ordinary resource: It includes a fictional story, quizzes, crosswords and even a treasure hunt.

Stop feeling bad about not knowing. Make it fun to know better.

Sold! Show me how No, thank you

Pilbara strike summary

On May 1, 1946, 800 Aboriginal pastoral workers from 27 stations in Western Australia walked off the job for better pay and conditions.

This was the first industrial action by Aboriginal people since colonisation in 1788 and predates the famous Wave Hill strike in the Northern Territory by 20 years.

The Pilbara strike lasted until 1949, making it the longest strike in Australia's history.

History leading to the 1946 Pilbara strike

Peter 'Kangushot' Coppin, one of the leaders of the 1946 Pilbara strike.
Peter 'Kangushot' Coppin, one of the leaders of the 1946 Pilbara strike. Image: melbourne.indymedia.org

From the 1890s to the 1920s it was common for Aboriginal workers to be paid only in rations of food and clothing. During the 1920s some workers began to receive minimal wages. The 1936 Native Affairs Act legally compelled pastoralists to provide shelter and meet the medical needs of their workers, but this was never enforced by the government.

Aboriginal stockmen were housed in corrugated iron humpies, without floors, lighting, sanitation, furniture or cooking facilities. It was illegal for the Aboriginal people to leave their place of employment, and it was even illegal to pay them wages equal to the white people's.

In 1942, there was a secret Aboriginal law meeting to discuss a strike proposal, an idea first discussed by white labourer and prospector Don McLeod and Aboriginal people Clancy McKenna, Dooley Bin Bin and Nyamal Elder Peter "Kangushot" Coppin from the Pilbara community who were instrumental in calling together the 1942 meeting.

200 law men from 23 Aboriginal groups gathered, and after six weeks a consensus was reached to begin a strike on May 1, the international day of workers' struggle and the beginning of the shearing season, thereby putting maximum pressure on the squatters. However, the strike was postponed until after the Second World War had ended.

Video: Clancy, Dooley and Don McLeod and The 1946 Pilbara Strike

Watch Australian singer-songwriter Shane Howard tell about the 1946 Pilbara walk-off by Aboriginal station workers (about 14 mins).

How the Pilbara strike was organised

On the stations there were no phones or radios and the Aboriginal workers couldn't read or write English.

Dooley was responsible for spreading word of the strike. He visited each station pretending to be a "visiting relative just passing through" to avoid any suspicion.

Dooley distributed calendars to the workers on all stations, made from labels from jam tins, on which they marked off each passing day so they would all go out at the same time.

The strike begins: Outback stations are paralysed

The strike began on 1 May 1946, at the beginning of shearing season, when the pastoralists were most vulnerable to a loss in Aboriginal labour. Hundreds of Aboriginal workers left 20 stations, affecting 10,000 square kilometres of sheep farming country. They gathered at strike camps – Twelve Mile outside Port Hedland and Moolyella near Marble Bar – where they would spend much of the following three years.

At its height, at least 800 people were on strike. The sheep stations were paralysed without Aboriginal labour.

In order to survive, the strikers coordinated the collection of bush food and pearl shells and hunted kangaroos and goats to sell the skins. Many Aboriginal people got their first taste of economic independence. However, many Aboriginal strikers were jailed for their participation in the strike, some even put in chains for several days.

Although the striking stockmen won award rates in 1949 many never returned to the stations and instead earned their own money with their new-found economic independence.

Measured against the workers' initial demands, the 3-year Pilbara strike was not a complete victory. But the strike was of great historical significance, providing a powerful example of Aboriginal people's resolve to struggle against their slave-like conditions.

The struggle for equal wages was finally won in the wake of the 1966 Gurindji strike in Wave Hill, Northern Territory.

Some families saved enough money to purchase stations in the 1950s. In 1959 a group of Aboriginal people around Ernie Mitchell and Peter Coppin purchased Yandeyarra Station and operated successfully for many years. Another group, led by Don McLeod, purchased Strelley Station (Njamal country, still Aboriginal owned today), Warralong Station and others.

Others re-gained the lease of the Yandeyarra Station in 1967 and set up an Aboriginal-run community and a community and pastoral enterprise. After losing control of the station to the banks, they negotiated a perpetual lease from the Department of Native Welfare in 1974 and live there to this day.

The 1946 Pilbara strike in the arts

Movie poster: How the West was Lost

In 1987 David Noakes turned the 1946 Pilbara strike into a feature film called How The West Was Lost.

In 1993 folk musician Chris Kempster put the poem to music on his album "The Songs Of Chris Kempster".

Don McLeod documented the Pilbara strike in his 1984 self-published book: 'How the West was lost: the native question in the development of Western Australia'.

A poem about the Pilbara strike

The poet Dorothy Hewett visited Port Hedland in 1946 and wrote the poem "Clancy and Dooley and Don McLeod" about the strike. Here is an extract:

...The sheep's wool dragged and the squatters swore
And talked nice words till their tongues got sore
And their bellies swelled with so much lies
But the blackfellers shooed them off like flies.

The sheep got lost on the squatters' run.
The shearing season was nearly done.
Said the squatters eaten up with greed,
"We'll pay good wages and give good feed."

The blackfellers sheared the wool and then
Got their wages like working-men.
The squatters' words were stiff and sore,
"We won't pay wages like that no more."...


View article sources (3)

[1] 'Pindan Group', National Museum of Australia, www.nma.gov.au/indigenous/organisations/pagination/pindan_group, retrieved 9/9/2018
[2] 'NAIDOC profile: the Pilbara pastoral workers’ strike', Yamaji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, 8/7/2011
[3] 'Located Stories: Theatre Makes Place With the Body', Angela Campbell, PhD thesis, Perth 2008, pp75–76, researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/id/eprint/1660/2/02Whole.pdf, retrieved 9/9/2018

Cite this page

Korff, J 2019, 1946 Pilbara strike - Australia's longest strike, <https://creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/1946-pilbara-strike-australias-longest-strike>, retrieved 25 May 2024

Creative Spirits is a starting point for everyone to learn about Aboriginal culture. Please use primary sources for academic work.

Join thousands of Smart Owls who know more!