Labour History

Robe River Revisited: Geohistory and Industrial Relations

Labour History (2015), 109, (1), 111–130.


In August 1986, the new owners of the Robe River mining company locked out the workforce to begin one of the most high-profile industrial disputes of the 1980s. For all the immediate controversy the conflict generated, Robe River had faded from public attention by the middle of 1987, the unions apparently brought to heel and managerial control re-asserted. The dispute continued, however, for some years in Robe’s worksites and the Pilbara’s towns, until legislative change allowed management to complete its victory. This long dispute was the basis for the de-unionisation of the Pilbara’s iron ore industry and contributed to the weakening of unionism across the country. Only by reading the geography of the Pilbara as central to industrial relations and connected to global transformations – not as a remote or unique conflict – and by reading the Robe River dispute as a decade-long struggle can its nature and legacy be fully appreciated.

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Author details

Ellem, Bradon