Australian Dictionary of Biography

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The Quest for Indigenous Recognition

1946 - The Pilbara Pastoral Workers’ Strike
by Ann Curthoys
West Australian, 23 April 1949, 7.

T he Pilbara Pastoral Workers’ Strike (1946–49) was an important milestone in the history of Aboriginal protest, self-determination, and political claim-making. As well as being as one of the longest strikes in Australian history, the self-sufficient co-operatives that emerged during and after it became an inspiring example of Aboriginal self-determination in action. The strike and its associated independent communities became well known across Australia, inspiring subsequent generations of Aboriginal activists and their supporters.

The Aboriginal people of the Pilbara region in north-western Australia included several groups, such as the traditional owners of the region, the Ngarla, Nyamal, and Kariyarra, together with others who had migrated to the area from the east and north. The mix of people in the regions called themselves marrngu. During World War II, when Aboriginal people were witnessing huge changes, marrngu began to discuss how to take action to improve their wages and conditions. Don McLeod, a sympathetic white local contractor, suggested to the marrngu that they could press their case by withdrawing their labour. Led by Nyamal man, Clancy McKenna, and Nyangumarta man, Dooley Binbin, marrngu decided to organise a strike.

The first strike action, which began on 1 May 1946, seemed to be unsuccessful, as police and pastoralists either threatened workers or persuaded them to return to work. The tide turned when, in late July 1946, the strike became a walk-off; marrngu began congregating at two camps outside Port Hedland and refused to return to the stations. As more workers left the Pilbara sheep stations to join the camps, many employers offered better wages and conditions to get them back. Many workers returned, but others stayed on the communities and established co-operatives based on alluvial mining, seed collecting, and other economic activities.

West Australian, 28 April 1949, 27.
By 1949 the strike had ended, but the co-operatives continued. For some years they flourished, as a result of McLeod’s knowledge of minerals and marketing combined with marrngu knowledge of Country. Their company, Northern Development and Mining, was able to purchase Yandeyarra station in 1951. A few years later, however, the company was facing bankruptcy, and in 1955 McLeod and several marrngu leaders formed Pindan Pty Ltd in its place.

Both the strike and the co-operative movement became very well known nationally. Campaigns in Perth in support of the strike not only restrained government and police action against the strikers, but also helped increase public knowledge of Aboriginal concerns. McLeod spoke to a wide range of audiences, inspiring many to support Aboriginal struggles. Most notably, he influenced Jessie Street, an Australian feminist member of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society in London. Street conducted a survey of Aboriginal conditions in Australia in 1957 and began advocating for constitutional change to enable the Commonwealth government to act on Aboriginal affairs.

McLeod and marrngu also sought constitutional change in Western Australia, specifically the restoration of a clause in the State’s Constitution, known as section 70, which had been repealed in 1897. This clause, included by Westminster in the Constitution in 1899 against the wishes of colonial politicians, had stipulated that 1 per cent of the colony’s revenue be reserved for Aboriginal welfare and support. Once it was repealed, Western Australian governments were free to limit the amount spent on Aboriginal welfare, and they did. McLeod, the marrngu, and others also campaigned for the revenue to be paid into a fund directly controlled by Aboriginal people. Decades later, in 1993, McLeod filed a legal challenge to the repeal of section 70 in the Western Australian Supreme Court. When the case eventually came before the High Court of Australia in 1998, the leading plaintiff was Crow Yougarla, an Elder of the Strelley mob in the Pilbara. This was the group McLeod had remained connected to after marrngu ousted him in 1959 from a leading role in Pindan. The legal challenge failed when the High Court ruled in 2001 that the repeal was constitutional after all. The campaign, nevertheless, had highlighted once again the long history of government failures in Aboriginal policy.


left arrow 1938: Day of Mourning and Protest
1957: Petition to Change the Australian Constitution right arrow