On 1 May 1946, over 800 Aboriginal stockmen walked off their jobs in a coordinated strike against their employment conditions on pastoral stations across the Pilbara. While the strike officially lasted until August 1949 many stockmen never returned to their former employment in the pastoral industry.
The impetus for the strike grew out of the lack of freedom and the poor working conditions of Aboriginal pastoral workers who were systematically denied cash wages and paid instead in tobacco, flour and other supplies. Many were also denied adequate housing, instead forced to live in corrugated iron humpies without lighting, sanitation or cooking facilities.
Historian Deborah Wilson pointed to the need for ‘white-level wages’ during World War Two as a factor which also encouraged the strikes. ‘When the war finished there was knowledge…. the Aboriginal workers were acutely aware that they were just as entitled to an equal wage as the white man was in the workplace,’ she told the ABC.
In 1942, a meeting of representatives from twenty-three different language groups resolved to take positive action in order to improve the circumstances of the pastoral workers. They appointed Nyangumarta man Dooley Bin Bin and Nyamalmen Clancy McKenna and Peter ‘Kangkushot’ Coppin as representatives. They also authorised white unionist Don McLeod to negotiate on their behalf.
The timing of the strike was chosen for its symbolism and effect. The 1 May marks International Workers’ Day and falls at the beginning of the shearing season, one of the busiest times on the Pilbara stations.
In 1945 Dooley Bin Bin journeyed from station to station by foot, rail and even bicycle to organise the official action, distributing calendars so that illiterate workers could effectively and consistently time their strike.
Nyamal elder, Peter Kangkushot Coppin spoke for the strikers when he proclaimed: "We said, ‘No. We’re not going back to the station no more. No more. We’re not going back.’"
The strikers lived in camps for three years, surviving off the land and subsidiary income from selling skins and surface mining.
By 1949, two of the 25 stations agreed to improve workers conditions and increase their pay, which became a standard that other stations were eventually held to.
While the strike itself was only the beginning of the fight for fair wages for Indigenous Australians, it is seen as a landmark event in the Australian labor movement. It is also believed to have inspired the later and better-known Wave Hill walk-off of the Gurindji people in the Northern Territory in 1966.