Peko Pilbara Pirates

Australian Workers Film Guide


Produced for the Trades and Labor Council of Western Australia, this short documentary recounts the early stages of one of the most important industrial battles of the 1980s, the 1986 Robe River iron ore mine dispute in the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia.

With one of the most militant workforces in the country, the Robe River dispute was seen as a direct attack on Australian unionism by the political right in its attempt to defeat union power and de-unionise workplaces in an era of industrial relations co-operation under the Accord. [1] 

Peko-Wallsend, the new owner of the mine, had sacked 60 workers who refused company directions after the CEO Charles Copeman axed over 200 workplace conditions. When the Industrial Relations Commission of Western Australia ordered the re-instatement of the 60 workers, the company responded by locking out the entire workforce of 1160.

The film shows the locked out workers meeting at the mine’s gates on a daily basis to protest and hold union meetings. This is intercut with interviews from union officials, workers and their families as they detail the injustices visited upon them by the company. They talk of the company’s unwillingness to negotiate and the general bias of the media in reporting on the dispute. With some families starting to move out, one miner explains how the good wages are compensation for the remoteness of the Pilbara, where there is only one store, few amenities, limited education infrastructure and no hospital for 200 kilometres. Union officials describe the dispute as an attempt to smash unions across the country and impose individual contracts, a direct attack on the working class. 

The film was made during the early part of the dispute and consequently does cover the subsequent months of arbitration, strikes and legal proceedings. The dispute was resolved 6 months later when ACTU President Simon Crean brokered a deal to halt the company suing the unions in the courts. [2] However, the dispute was seen as a defeat for unionism in the Pilbara, with the company slashing its workforce, prohibiting union activity during company time and excluding workers from consideration in a wide range of matters, including safety, staff appointments, work processes and intensity as well as overtime and workplace demarcations. [3]

[1] Vassiley, A (2022), ‘Rethinking the Robe River dispute 1986-7 – de-unionisation in Australia’s Pilbara iron ore industry in the early neoliberal period.’, Labor History, 63.2, pp248-266.

[2] Ibid, p260

[3] Ibid, p263

Special Notes/Achievements

Funded by the A.W.U., A.M.W.U., B.I.W.U., E.T.U., F.E.D.F.U., O.P.D.U. and P.G.U.

Produced for the Trades and Labor Council of Western Australia.

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 14 mins 22 secs

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Film Producer: George Karpathakis, Peter Strain,

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