The Pilbara region of Western Australia is one of the remotest places on the planet. It’s also one of the most economically significant regions not just in Australia, but the world, with almost indescribably vast quantities of high-grade iron ore which power steelworks across the globe and generate tens of billions of dollars in profits every year.
The Pilbara was opened to mining in 1960, and the story of mining unionism there is one of the most epic, and most tragic, in Australian history.
When the industry began in the 1960s, working conditions were terrible, pay was low, amenities were appalling, and the workforce lived in fear of management. But over the course of a decade workers completely turned things around, building 100% union membership, powerful on-the-job organisation, and frequent strikes. By the 1970s, the Pilbara was synonymous with union militancy, with workers spending an average of more than ten days on strike per year, high wages, and a workforce that fought not just for better wages and conditions, but for control over the workplace itself.
In the 1980s and 1990s however, unionism in the Pilbara was annihilated. In a series of key battles, unions were destroyed in one mine after another, and the region was transformed. Today, the Pilbara is one of the least unionised areas of Australia, with authoritarian management, intense surveillance, grueling shift work, relatively low wages, and an epidemic of mental illness and suicides. Profits, however, have soared.
In this episode, we talk with Alexis Vassiley, an academic, labour historian and unionist, who’s researched extensively on the history on unionism in the Pilbara. Alexis talks about the rise of mining unionism in the 1960s, the peak of union power in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the total destruction of Pibara unionism in the late 1980s and 1990s.
You can find some of Alexis’ academic articles listed here, most of which can be read for free via university databases or through membership of most State Libraries.