1996 is the special anniversary of two very important events in Australian history - the 1946 Aboriginal Stockmen's Strike in Western Australia and the 1966 Gurindji Land Rights strike in Northern Territory.
The 1946 Aboriginal Stockmens Strike In Western Australia
On the 1 st of May, 1946, an estimated 600 Aboriginal stockmen throughout the north of Western Australia refused to work until they had been guaranteed a minimum wage of thirty shillings a week. Some had previously been receiving food and clothing but no pay; others had been paid up to twelve shillings a week.
In the history of strike action, this ranks as one of the most unique and most brilliantly engineered strikes. It was organised by Dooley Bin Bin with his friend Don McLeod acting as consultant. The organisation was a mammoth task. Dooley with no means of communication other than way of mouth, had to organise people scattered over a huge area, people who knew that to follow him would put them outside the law: they would be leaving their place of employment without permission, breaking one of the laws made for them alone in this country. They knew the police and pastoralists could and would arrest them, that they would be brought back chained together by their hands and necks on the back of the station trucks and put to work again, and they would have to leave again and go on until there was some change. Yet upward of 800 people left work that day and 600 refused to return unless their requests were met.
Dooley Bin Bin and some of the striking stockmen were arrested , chained by hands and necks and tried time and time again by local J.P.'s, who McLeod claims were either station owners whose striking stockmen were now brought before them on the bench, or men involved financially or by relationship with forces opposing the payment of wages to Aborigines.
Don McLeod was also tried on seven occasions, sometimes for counselling natives sometimes for being within five chains of two or more natives for which the penalty was a fine of $400 or two years gaol or both.
The numerous arrests, food problems and evictions from tribal land did not break the people's spirit. The strike continued for a year. In the end the Aborigines won their demands.
The strike experience led some of the Aborigines to form the North - West workers co-operative, whose success with specialised mining ( the use of Aboriginal dish, yandy, for separating minerals ) and buying of their own land, was soon frustrated and destroyed by Government interference. But in spite of all these obstacles, the community, known now as the Streley community, is still continuing with its fight for justice and Aboriginal Rights.
( based on " Don McLeod's Mob " by Patsy Adam Smith in " No Tribesman", Rigby 1974. )
For detailed account see:
1. Don McLeod, " How the West was lost ", Mcleod, 1984;
2. Donald Stuart, " Yandy ", George House, 1959;
3. Max Brown, " The Black Eureka ", Australia Book Society, 1976;
4. Frank Stevens, " Aborigines in the Northern Territory Cattle Industry " A.N,U.P., 1974.
Also see the "Age" feature 2/5/96 " Rebel of the Pilbara" by Duncan Graham; a report and interview with Don McLeod.
The 1966 Gurindji Land Rights Strike.
In August, 1966, the Gurindji withheld their labour from the Wave Hill cattle station and ensconced themselves in a make-shift village in close proximity to the most sacred of their religious sites at Wattie Creek. Initially their action was misinterpreted as purely a strike against the appalling work conditions of the Aborigines in the cattle industry.
Up to 1968 it was against the law to pay Aboriginal worker more than a specified amount in goods and money. They were housed in corrugated iron humpies with corrugated iron shatters for windows, without floors, lighting, sanitation, furniture or cooking facilities. Social service payments ( old age pension etc. ) were paid into the pastoral company's funds together with a Federal Government subsidies for the worker's dependents. In contrast, non-Aboriginal workers worked under the minimum wage security with no legal limitations on the upper limit to what they could be paid. They were housed in comfortable homes with gardens and had full control over their finances. Thus the interests of non Aborigines were fully protected by law at the expense of the Aborigines on whose land and labour the cattle industry was built and flourished.
It took a few months before the supporters of the Aborigines understood that the Gurindji's demands were not restricted to improved working conditions and that their primary demand was for return of their tribal lands. " This bin Gurindji country long time before them Vestey mob " was what Vincent Lingiari told Frank Hardy. This was re-emphasised to him by Pincher Manguari's " We want them Vestey mob all go away from here. Wave Hill Aboriginal people bin called Gurindji. We bin here long lime before them Vestey mob. This is our country, all this bin Gurindji country. Wave Hill bin our country. We want this land; we strike for that."
When the Gurindji demands were understood, they attracted a strong support from the public both overseas and in Australia and opposition from the pastoralists and the Government. In spite of all the efforts by the Government to break them, efforts which included moves to cut off means of obtaining food supplies, threatening evictions and bribery with offers of relatively attractive houses which the Government build specially for them at Wave Hill Welfare settlement, the Gurindji persisted with their protest and stayed put at Wattie Creek until they got a freehold title to a substantial part of their tribal land.
The Gurindji strike was not the first or the only demand by Aborigines for the return of their lands - but it was the first one to attract wide public support within Australia for Land Rights. It led to the 1972 Labour Party's policy on Land Rights and the enactment of the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights ( NT ) Act.
For details see:
1. Frank Hardy, "The Unlucky Australians ", Gold Star, 1972;
2. Frank Hardy, "This Bin Gurindji Country " in " The Aborigine Today " edited by Barbara Leach, Paul Hamlyn, 1971;
3. Frank Stevens, " Aborigines in the Northern Territory Cattle Industry ", A.N.U.P., 1974, esp. p 13 and p 18-25.
4. Also see Paul Kelly's song...."From Little Things Big Things Grow".
23rd April, 1996.
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