JP Walker 1945

The first hundred years of strikes in Australia. 1820-1920

Source: Industrial Printing and Publicity, Carlton, Victoria, December 1945
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter


The First 100 Years of Strikes Within AustraliaFor this reminder that the activities of today shape our tomorrow, we are indebted to Mr JP Walker.

It is not untimely; for what will happen in the near years ahead depends on how we succeed in furthering the practical development of the ideals that earlier unsatisfied industrial and political reformists set in motion.

This very abridged history of 100 years of industrial struggle allows us to view the efforts to make better the working conditions the early colonials had worked under in Great Britain. It shows very clearly that initial failure shouldn't end the attempt to "catch up to the rainbow picture of possibility", and that concurrently with economic development we should be able to achieve in social life the conditions that are more akin to our ideals. It also shows us that ideals develop with our capacity to like a fuller co-operative social life.

A comparison of yesterday and our own knowledge of today should help us to better things. We should know ourselves. Mr Walker shows us our industrial yesterday. We should thank him for his industry. His booklet will serve us as a record of industrial events from which we should profit in the future.

JV Stout

Part One, 182O-19OO

The present conditions of the Australian workingman compare favourably with the workingman’s conditions in every other country except the USA and Canada. These conditions, it has been admitted, have been obtained mainly through the hard way of strikes. The ambitions of the earlier employers and their desire to broaden, rather than to narrow, the class distinction differences between employer and employee have been one of the principal causes of strikes.

Many of the directors of Australia’s greatest financial and industrial institutions are imbued with this outworn tradition and there is no remedy for the “die-hard” outlook.

The common hardships and sufferings in Britain during the war, together with the billeting of evacuee children and mothers from the big cities to large country estates and homes, has done much to dissolve the idea of superiority inbred in the average employer and his family for the employee and his family. The same conditions have applied only in a negligible extent in this country.

The vastness of Australia, its climate of sunshine, breeding within the minds of many Australian voluntary and involuntary settlers a sense of freedom and a desire to improve their living conditions, better their education in what they rightly considered “a land of plenty”, created a temper that would brook no denial of the aspirations. The first recorded effort made within Australia to improve the conditions of the workingman was made in 1822, when an assigned convict in the Liverpool district, together with his fellow servants, struck for higher wages and increased rations.

The ringleader of this strike was sentenced to solitary confinement for one month, on bread and water, 500 lashes, and re-transportation for the rest of his original sentence.

The coopers in 1824 also made an effort. They conspired against their employers and prevented other mechanics from going to work. They were tried before a court. (Sentence not recorded.)

Sydney’s journalism was also early in the picture. The compositors of the Sydney journal, Australian, struck in 1829, and the publication was suspended.

In the 1820s the assignment of convicts to settlers, and the penalties inflicted on the convicts for refusing work, made any combined effort to improve conditions impossible. Also in the 1830s the land grant system made it comparatively easy for a servant or an assigned convict to become a landed proprietor.

The abolition of free land grants and the arrival of more immigrants permitted in 1830 a small trade nucleus to be formed, and in 1833 a cabinetmakers’ society was formed. This was followed in 1835 by the typographists organising. In 1837 a “systematic organised body” of seamen went on strike.

Tailors organised in 1840, and the building trades formed a union later the same year. By September of that year there were 10 trade unions in Sydney with a membership of about 30 to 40 each, and it is estimated at this time that there were 10,715 mechanics and labourers in the colony, including 4078 in Sydney. The Sydney Gazette reported that “the striking mania seems to be gaining ground in Australia”. That year the trade union movement secured the signatures of 3000 operatives against the Masters and Servants Act of 1840, and the Sydney compositors complained to the compositors in Britain that the master printers of Sydney had been circulating false reports abroad concerning wages paid in the colony.

In 1843, the first trade unionist, or “liberal” as he was then called, was a candidate at the elections.

The trade union movement expanded in the 1850s, the Typographical Association was formed in 1851, Amalgamated Society of Engineers in 1852, Operative Stonemasons’ Union in 1853, and the Australian Society of Progressive Carpenters and Joiners in 1854; plasterers, bricklayers, shipwrights, bakers and coal miners soon organised.

In 1854 the printers of the Empire newspaper went on strike without giving notice, and were sentenced to short terms of imprisonment, it being held that they could not do as a body an act (leaving without notice) that it was illegal for them to do as individuals. Henry Parkes was the owner of the paper, which later was a financial failure.

The same year one of the first trade union journals commenced publication. The policy of the Operative included better education, higher wages and to prevent the introduction of large numbers of cheap coolie labour into the colony. Through lack of funds and dissension, the life of this paper was only a few months.

The gold discoveries temporarily crippled the trade union movement, and later, when the gold yields failed, the labour market was swamped and depression followed. The Democrat, a weekly paper first published in 1855, strongly supported the cause of the workers.

In 1874-5, after a series of minor disputes in the iron trades in NSW, the employees became involved in a big strike over the “one-break” system.

After a very severe conflict, a compromise was made. The men returned to work agreeing to take two meal hours in summer and one in winter.

Quite a number of the employees were victimised, and some time elapsed before they again found themselves engaged in the industry.

The Seamen’s Union called its first big strike in 1878, when the Australasian Steam Navigation Company proposed to use Chinese labour on vessels on the Queensland coast, and 100 Chinese were transferred to Sydney from the company’s island trading vessels.

Union members in that company struck, and 17 ships were tied up. Other unions in Australia and New Zealand, and the general public, gave the strikers financial assistance. The coal miners refused to supply coal to the company’s ships, and the Queensland government refused to continue its mail subsidy while coloured labour was employed on the ships. A settlement was not effected until January 1879, but the Chinese crews were not all discharged until September 1882.

In 1882 the women of Australia played their part and assisted in securing better conditions and the curtailment of sweating. In Melbourne, women employed in the tailoring industry struck. These strikers received financial and other help from the Trades Hall Council. The strike revealed the sweating prevalent in this industry, and increased pay and an improvement in conditions were obtained. A commission was also appointed to inquire into the sweating.

Important history was made in the settlement of industrial disputes in 1886 during a wharf labourers’ strike. After the strike had been on for a fortnight, it was referred to arbitrators, consisting of the Employers’ Union and the Trades Hall Council. Professor Kernot was appointed an independent chairman, and the award — the first arbitration award issued — favoured the strikers.

Trade unionism extended to the pastoral industries in 1887, and in 1891 there were 124 unions in Australia with an estimated membership of 54,900. Seventy-two of these unions had more than 31,800 members.

Maritime officers were the next section of the workers to become involved in a strike. These officers, engaged in the intercolonial (interstate) and coasting trades struck on account of lack of accommodation for junior officers and insufficient pay. The shipowners refused to recognise this association, and demanded its complete breakaway from all other maritime unions. The officers refused, and the trouble spread to NSW and Queensland. A few days later the wharf labourers came out, and an intercolonial strike organising committee sat continuously in Sydney.

The employment of non-union labour and the handling of non-union wool were added points of this dispute. The miners refused to supply coal to “black” ships, and the colliery owners closed their mines.

The NSW shearers also struck. However, this move was considered poor strategy, as it deprived the maritime unions of much financial assistance, and the shearers resumed work after being out about a fortnight. Again other unionists in Australia and New Zealand supported the strike. Assistance was again given by the general public, and this is the first recorded occasion of assistance being given Australian strikers by unionists in England.

Spreading unemployment increased the difficulties of the strike committee, and street fighting took place when government protection was given to non-union labour on the coalfields. After the strike had depleted union funds to the extent of £190,000 excluding loss of wages, the distress from unemployment and the failure of the strike committees in other colonies (states) to continue to co-operate and co-ordinate their efforts, also the breaking away of the Marine Officers’ Association from the Seamen’s Union, the strike collapsed and was admitted a failure.

Henry Parkes appointed a Royal Commission to report on the strikes, and on May 22, 1891, a board of conciliation and arbitration was proposed. Unrest continued in the shearing industry, and in 1891, after the Queensland and NSW squatters had decided to ignore the union, the shearers struck, and non-union labour was engaged. Unionists intercepted non-union labour on their way to the sheds at Logan Downs station in Central Queensland. Rioting occurred, and union leaders were arrested and imprisoned. Mounted police and troops were sent to the area, and shearing was completed with non-union labour.

The dispute spread to NSW and Victoria and a conference was arranged, union and non-union labour working together until April, 1894. The squatters then decided the present conditions were unsatisfactory. The new terms were unacceptable to the Queensland unions and the Australian Workers’ Union. However, these unions were now unfinancial, and the squatters refused a conference and the machinery for voluntary arbitration. Non-union labour was again used for the shearing.

Non-unionists were again intercepted, sheds were fired, and strikers were arrested and imprisoned. The strike was called an “insurrection” by the Queensland Colonial Secretary, and an act to preserve the peace was hurriedly passed. The official selected to enforce this act, however, was most tactful and succeeded in dispersing the strikers without bloodshed.

This strike was a complete failure, and left unions powerless and with empty treasuries. The failure of the maritime and shearers’ strikes in 1890 proved that the trade union movement could not by strikes alone hope to effect a permanent improvement, and the movement decided to enter parliament as a political body.

One of the earliest instances recorded of a trade unionist being assisted while in parliament by the unions was when Angus Cameron was elected in New South Wales in 1875. An allowance was made, and the election expenses were paid by the unions.

Part Two, 1900-1920

It was 10 years later, in 1904, when the Amalgamated Workers’ Association of Queensland (shearers and bush-workers’ union) joined the Australian Workers’ Union, that the application of the arbitration system was found to be more effective than strikes.

Trouble developed in 1902 in the Broken Hill mining industry, and 5000 men asked for arbitration under the 1890 system. When the owners refused this arbitration, the miners struck, stating that the owners were determined to crush the Amalgamated Miners’ Association. The owners threatened to introduce non-union labour, and there was rioting and arrests.

The strike was declared off, and the owners’ terms accepted. Much victimisation and great distress occurred, and strikers were given free railway passes to convey them to other work.

The same year the shearers struck again, and union shearers intercepted a large party of non-union labour escorted by a number of pugilists. WM Keogh applied for an injunction against picketing, which was granted, and after the unions’ funds were sequestrated the strike collapsed.

The Victorian railwaymen were next concerned, in the serious strike of 1903. Immediately prior to this event Victoria witnessed a great revival of trade unionism. Many dormant unions were resuscitated, others formed, and more than 10,000 in a period of 12 months joined the ranks of the unions of their trades.

The affiliates of the Trades Hall Council included several railway unions. This was objected to by the railway commissioners.

The political forces of the employers had triumphed at the polls, but viewed the rapid growth of trade unionism with dismay.

The conservative government, led by WH Irvine (Premier) and Thomas Bent (Minister of Railways) resolved upon a policy of maiming, if not destroying, the power of trade unionism.

“I will repeal the title of the Trades Hall,” declared the arrogant Mr Bent upon one occasion. A bill was passed that disfranchised members of all branches of the public and railway services in the electorates where they were enrolled, and substituted a form of “special representation”. The servants were deemed a political danger to existing authority.

This was followed by a vicious policy of retrenchment of wages and salaries, and the issue of an order that all railway unions should forthwith withdraw their affiliation from the Trades Hall Council. To this unparalleled tyrannical policy the Locomotive Engine Drivers’ Union replied by the declaration of a strike, which paralysed the state transport system.

The government directed an early meeting of parliament, and introduced a Strike Suppressment Bill, which was rightly described as “the most brutal coercion bill that ever defamed a parliamentary institution”.

Civil liberties were abrogated, pension rights destroyed, and the leaders of the trade unions made the victims of lifelong boycott. The eleven pledged Labor members, and a few others, fought a great fight exposing the contents of the measure, and used all the forms of the House of Representatives to “stonewall the bill”. The viciousness of the clauses was such that although they had the support of a large majority of members of parliament, before the second reading of the bill had been carried the strike collapsed.

In the great oration of the occasion, Frank Anstey warned the enemies of Labor of the price they would have to pay for their policy.

“You can strike away their votes,” he declared, “but there is an influence which is far greater than the vote — the influence of an active-minded citizen awake to his duty as a citizen.”

Twelve months later, Labor went before the people with 11 pledged sitting members. The Liberals had 19, and the Conservatives 65. The House was reduced to 68 before the election, including three special representatives. The result of the poll was that Labor gained a record percentage increase, being returned with 19 members, thus becoming for the first time the official opposition in the state parliament. Anstey’s warning proved sound, and the inevitable reaction of tyranny was made manifest.

The railway commissioners were permitted to reinstate most of the strikers, but could also engage the non-union labour taken on during the strike. The strikers who were re-employed suffered under this act for several years.

The next serious strike was in 1908, when the NSW tramwaymen complained against a system of espionage carried on by inspectors in plain clothes. Heavy rain hastened the collapse of this strike, and although the strike was extended to Newcastle and Broken Hill, it lasted only six days. The railwaymen refused to join this strike.

In the same year the local branch of the Amalgamated Miners’ Association and most of the Broken Hill mining companies arranged to continue a working agreement arrived at in 1908. However, the Proprietary and Block 10 refused to comply, and locked out the workers.

The Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration issued an award. However, an appeal by the Proprietary to the High Court was upheld, but it did not alter the rates of pay, which favoured the men. The Proprietary refused to carry on, and for a year no underground operations were undertaken. Only 500 men out of the 2000 originally employed were restarted.

During this lockout 287,000 working days and £266,000 wages were lost by the men affected. Rioting occurred during the strike, and several arrests were made, including Tom Mann, a visiting socialist. Three strikers were convicted, but Mann was acquitted.

In 1909, the owners of the northern collieries refused to accept the industrial legislation of 1908, and were reprimanded by the Industrial Court, but the employees of the northern collieries struck. Although the owners of the southern and western collieries had accepted the legislation without question, their miners were induced to join the strike. An open conference with recourse to the Federal Arbitration Court was demanded by the men, but a closed-door conference with recourse to the State Court was insisted on by the owners.

A compulsory conciliation board was appointed under the state act, and the chief strike leader, Peter Bowling, was arrested the following day. There were other arrests, and the wharf labourers demanded a general strike. Prime Minister William Morris Hughes appealed for moderation and mediation, and finally induced the southern and western miners to resume work. Then the state parliament rushed through an act giving it drastic powers of repression, the strike collapsed, and the miners returned to work.

A strike involving the loss of 115,000 working days and lasting nine months occurred at Lithgow in July 1911. A miner was absent from his work on union business, and the manager of the Lithgow Ironworks Colliery dismissed him. After the strike, the union delegate was reinstated, and all non-union labour employed during the strike left Lithgow.

Because the manager of the Brisbane Tramway Company refused permission to his employees to wear their union badges, a general strike commenced in January 1912.

Both sides were obstinate, and 43 unions agreed to participate. After the same request had been refused to the South Australian tramwaymen, the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Court permitted the men to wear their badges.

During 1914 the coal industry was restless and, in May, miners at six of the northern NSW collieries struck. After 523,000 working days and 259,000 in wages were lost, an agreement was reached, the men being paid extra for the afternoon shift. During this strike the officials of the Colliery Employees’ Federation were heavily fined.

Discontent still continued on the coalfields, and in November 1914 the collieries of NSW, Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania were involved in a dispute for an “eight-hour bank-to-bank” system of working. Australia was at war, and WM Hughes proposed an immediate return to work under pre-strike conditions, and that the dispute be referred to the Commonwealth Arbitration Court. The miners would not agree to this proposal.

Hughes immediately appointed a special commission with wide powers, and the following day the men agreed to return to work on the eight hours bank-to-bank principle. During this strike 50,000 workers were idle in NSW and Victoria alone.

Perhaps the most serious wartime strike commenced in August 1917, and it has particular interest to the community of today, as our Prime Minister (JB Chifley) was one of the strike leaders.

In the NSW railways a new card system had been introduced. The men claimed that there was no check on the cards and wrong time-recording entries could be used against them. On July 27 the Amalgamated Society of Engineers refused to work under the card system. Miners, seamen and waterside workers commenced a sympathetic strike. “Black” goods would not be picked up by other unionists.

Soon more than 100,000 workers were idle, and it is estimated that more than 3,982,250 working days and £2,233,000 in wages were lost, and 79 disputes throughout the commonwealth were involved.

The men rejected an offer that a public inquiry be held in three months to determine whether the card system was unfair or being used for speeding up.

Owners of motor cars and horse vehicles were instructed to hold themselves in readiness for public service. Emergency legislation gave the government control of essential services, and the Victorian government took over control of two NSW collieries and engaged non-union labour.

Under the War Precautions Act the government controlled coal supplies, shearing operations, transport of wool and the loading, coaling and discharge of all ships. Power was taken to deregister any union registered under the Arbitration Act, and to cancel preference clauses in awards.

After conferences on September 6 it was agreed to accept the NSW government’s terms, and the men could daily inspect and initial their cards. Full particulars regarding all the disputes were submitted to a special commissioner.

The non-union labourers who had taken the place of strikers were retained in employment. Most of the strikers were re-employed, but lost their seniority, which was not restored until 1926, and then only on the condition that “loyalists” displaced should not suffer loss of wages.

During the strike an application was made to the Commonwealth Court to deregister the Waterside Workers’ Federation. The application was refused, but preference clauses in a number of awards were cancelled. Under the state act several unions were deregistered, and rival unions formed.

Strikes during the year 1919 were the most serious in the history of Australia to that time. At Broken Hill the carpenters went on strike against arbitration delays, and other unions applied for increased rates of pay, reduction of hours, and improved working conditions. These were refused, and 7000 stopped work, and more than £2,500,000 in wages was lost.

In February of the same year some shipping companies refused to consider demands for increased rates of pay, insurance against death, better accommodation and reduced hours. These claims were partly in consequence of the influenza epidemic, and a seamen’s strike began in Queensland ports. In May, seamen in other states were involved, and a general demand was made on all coastal companies and the government-owned Commonwealth Line.

Excessive unemployment and distress soon followed, and relief depots were opened in Melbourne to help the distressed, especially women in the clothing industries.

All compulsory conferences failed to bring about a settlement. War Precautions Regulations for the distribution of coal were reinstated.

Thomas Walsh, general secretary of the Federated Seamen’s Union, was fined £100, and on July 22 Walsh was fined £200 and sentenced to three months imprisonment. Mr P Cohen, PM, in delivering judgment, said “Walsh had not said a word about the condition of the unfortunate people who were starving and going without fuel. Had Walsh been in earnest in his endeavours to assist seamen he might have considered whether the sentence could not be mitigated, but Walsh was not sincere.” William Raeburn was secretary to the Sydney branch of the Seamen’s Union at this time. The additional sentence of imprisonment passed on Walsh was not anticipated by the union, for on July 17 it was decided by all branches of the Federation that so long as any member remained in gaol because of anything that might have occurred during the strike, the men would not return to work. The section of the act under which Walsh was being prosecuted, however, did not provide for imprisonment.

At the end of August the men agreed to man the ships and meet the companies in conference, and the strike terminated in favour of the men. Thirty-five shillings per month increase was granted, working time eight hours, accommodation improved, better holiday conditions and sickness payments were also granted.

Just before the Christmas of this year the marine engineers demanded higher rates of pay, and all vessels as they arrived at their home ports were tied up. Kindred unionists were thrown out of work. War Precaution Regulations for the distribution of coal were again reinstated.

In February 1920, the Minister for Defence took action against the Institute of Marine Engineers prohibiting banks from paying or advancing money to the institute or its members. This was revoked on September 26, and increased pay granted to the engineers and the disputes referred to a commission with an independent chairman.

During 1919 there were 460 industrial disputes involving 157,591 working people in which 6,308,226 working days were lost with an estimated loss in wages of £3,961,936.

The history of the more recent strikes is well known to most readers.

It is estimated that in 1925 there were 734 unions in Australia, having a total membership of nearly 800,000: 700,000 males and 100,000 females. The number of employees of 20 years and over was also estimated to be approximately 1,200,000 males and 286,000 females.

The first recorded mention of an eight-hour working day in Australasia was made in 1847 in the articles of association for the settlement of Otago, in New Zealand, but the clause guaranteeing this time limit was withdrawn, although the agreement was tacitly kept.

The eight-hour day was inaugurated in Melbourne on April 21, 1856, the first procession taking place on May 12 of that year. Eight Hours Day (now known as Labor Day) became a public holiday, and April 21 was accepted as its anniversary, although the date of its commemoration has been altered from time to time by the government at the request of the Melbourne Trades Hall Council.

In 1867 nine trades and about 700 men took part in a procession. The first recorded Sydney festival was held in 1871, four trades (bricklayers, stonemasons, labourers and carpenters) participating.

Throughout this period of 100 years of Australia’s industrial development the working and living conditions of the trade unionist in Australia has been raised from near slavery to a state more than halfway towards tolerable comfort.

However, history also proves that a closer liaison between employer and employee would have diminished the bitterness and distrust each has for the other; lessened the distress and hardships endured by the strikers before reasonable improvements were granted; increased output, and been beneficial to both employer and employee.

Strike failures were attributable more to faulty organisation and dissension among the strike control officials than to the unjustness or excessiveness of the requests of the strikers. The employment of non-union labour as strike-breakers was a heavy weapon in the hands of the employers. This abhorrent practice is, however, unlikely to be used again.

With thanks to the Australian Encyclopaedia and Mitchell Library for much valuable assistance.