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The Pilbara: From the Deserts Profits Come
by Bradon Ellem
The Pilbara has become central to the Australian economy and imagination. With millions of tonnes of iron ore being shipped out to China, the Pilbara is a media staple, through stories of mining companies’ profits, the earnings of fly-in-fly-out workers and the wealth of new entrepreneurs.
For all this, what we know about a vital region such as the Pilbara remains incomplete. The boomtime stories do not reveal much about the Pilbara itself, a place completely transformed across fifty years of mining. In the focus on the immediate, no-one acknowledges the Pilbara’s ancient history or the men and women who worked there from the 1960s, building unions and making communities as they worked the mines. In those days, the Pilbara excited both hope and dread about its workers and their power. ‘From the deserts prophets come’, AD Hope had written years before in his poem, ‘Australia’. And it appeared that the Pilbara might be the site of a novel kind of unionism, with workers winning not only high wages but control of the places where they worked and the towns where they lived. It was not to be: from the 1980s, the companies fought back, defeating the unions and remaking the Pilbara. The managers were now the prophets, with new ways of organising work and managing workers. The companies went on to reinvent the Pilbara through workplace control, fly-in-fly-out labour and twelve-hour shifts. Their vision reshaped not just the desert but the cities, not just work in mines and ports but in offices and shops.
When the biggest boom in mining history came along, it unfolded across a Pilbara landscape very different from a generation earlier. The union prophets were gone; the companies’ profits grew. The story behind the boom is revealed in this book: the story of fifty years of conflict about work and life in the Pilbara and how it has affected the rest of Australia.