Passing of an Aboriginal rights activist

Issue 

Passing of an Aboriginal rights activist

By Margaret Allum

Don McLeod has died in Perth, aged 91. Although non-Aboriginal, McLeod was a dedicated fighter for Aboriginal rights long before reconciliation became the word of the moment, espoused even by right-wing prime ministers.

A member of the Communist Party of Australia, he was imprisoned for his leadership role in the 1946 Pilbara strike in Western Australia. McLeod was charged with "inciting Aborigines to leave their place of lawful employment".

In the mid-1940s, many Aboriginal station workers were still not being paid wages, and conditions were far worse than those of their white counterparts. It was only 20 years after the last recorded massacre of Aboriginal people by white pastoralists in the Northern Territory.

McLeod and Aboriginal leaders Dooley Bin Bin and Clancy McKenna organised a strike for wages and improved conditions for Aborigines employed in the Pilbara region, a wool growing area. To the pastoralists' amazement, by May 5, 1946, hundreds of workers on 20 of the 22 Pilbara stations were on strike.

Though unsuccessful, the strike remains a model of organisation, solidarity and determination for black and white unionists. It sparked a series of similar actions for Aboriginal rights in Victoria and the NT in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Though still well below the award wages paid to whites, wages were finally introduced for Aboriginal workers in the late 1940s, and some of the worst abuses of Aboriginal labour ended.

These actions inspired the establishment of Aboriginal rights organisations and were the beginnings of the early land rights movement. The power of this movement, and the efforts of Communist Party members and Aboriginal workers within the unions, forced unions which had not previously taken a progressive stance on Aboriginal issues, such as the Australian Workers Union, to change their policies. The AWU covered many of the station and other workers in rural areas.

McLeod went on to support other actions for justice for Aboriginal people, including the fight against oil drilling on Aboriginal land at Noonkanbah in the Kimberley region of WA in the late 1970s.