History of the Australian Labor Movement - A Marxist Interpretation by E. W. Campbell. 1945

Chapter 1. The Emergence And Development Of Trade Unionism, 1850-1890

A. The First Trade Unions.

The genesis of the Australian Labor Movement is trade unionism, which arose here in the 1850's. Prior to this there were no associations which could rightly be called trade unions. There were, however, some cases of workmen temporarily combining to obtain specific demands. For instance, the printers employed in W. C. Wentworth’s “Australian” newspaper establishment struck work in 1829, and there was an association of unemployed men in Sydney in 1843. But the convict system, which prevailed during the first half century of white settlement, prevented any real development of free working class organisations. Mr. Brian Fitzpatrick, in his Short History of the Australian Labor Movement, [1] draws attention to two main factors which delayed the appearance of any widespread industrial organisation. One was political, the lack of free institutions generally; the other was economic, the practice of assigning convicts to servitude with the few thousand merchants, manufacturers and pastoralists who constituted the employing class.

While these conditions existed no emergence of any strong and permanent working class organisations could be expected.

In 1840 the assignment system and convict transportation to New South Wales were discontinued. Economic and class relationships became more clearly capitalist in character and trade unionism began to take shape. In 1845 a Friendly Society of Carpenters and Joiners was formed in Sydney. In 1850 an Operative Stonemasons’ Society was founded in Melbourne. In 1851 compositors in Sydney set up a Typographical Association. In 1852 a number of prominent members of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, who had been driven to leave Britain on account of victimisation, resolved, on board the ship bringing them here, to establish a branch of their union in the new country. Thus, by the early, 1850’s trade unionism was sending down durable roots in Australian soil. But in 1851 gold was discovered at Bathurst, New South Wales and at Ballarat and Bendigo, Victoria. The ensuing rush to the ‘diggings’ left many employers without workmen and must have had some detrimental effect on the young trade unions. However, the check was short lived and ultimately trade unionism, like most other things in the colonies, received a new impetus from the gold rush period.

B. The Effects Of The Gold Rush.

The gold discoveries enriched Australia in more ways than one. Not only was impetus given to capitalist development in general, but the forces of the proletariat, the ‘gravediggers’ of capitalism, were immeasurably strengthened. The young colonial working class, which had not yet passed the formative stage of development and was still preoccupied with mastering the elementary forms of combination, benefited considerably from the addition to its ranks of more experienced organisers and fighters from other lands.

Amongst the hundreds of thousands of immigrants attracted to the ‘diggings’ were many French socialists, German republicans, Irish rebels and English Chartists. It is not suggested that the entire gold fields population was composed of such radical elements, but there were enough of them to exert a profound influence on events and to help rekindle in Australia in ’54 the revolutionary flames which had been quelled in Europe in ’48.

The squatters constituted the dominant class in the colony at the time of the gold rush. For almost forty years they had carried on a fight against the autocratic governors and for representative government. In 1850 their efforts were crowned by success when the British Parliament passed the Australian Colonies Government Act. In the process of this struggle the squatters had developed a strong class consciousness and

... in the maintenance of their interests they had evolved a political party, based on a property franchise, and led by an aristocratic politician of the Whig type – Wentworth.” [2]

The squatters wanted to turn Australia into one vast sheep station over which they might rule as a new colonial aristocracy. They were most antagonistic to the changes wrought by the gold rush, sensing in the new mineral wealth a challenge to the supremacy of wool and a vital challenge to their old privileged position. The gold rush drained the sheep runs of labor and forced the squatters to pay higher wages. This they resented, as well as the new spirit of independence which began to spread among the laboring classes.

It was the representatives of the squatters in the Legislative Councils’ who, together with the Colonial Governors, were responsible for the iniquitous licence system which provoked the Eureka rebellion in 1854.

The ‘diggers’ on their part returned the hostility of the squatters. The mode of living on the goldfields fostered amongst the toilers a radical democratic outlook which conflicted with the ruling philosophy of the wool barons. The ‘diggers’ vaguely aspired to a state of society in which there would be no masters and servants, a society in which equal opportunity for all would prevail and each man would be “his own boss.” This digger philosophy, if such it can be called, not only reflected the past social background of most of the immigrants but also to a large extent idealised the conditions actually existing on the goldfields at that time. The digger was not yet a wage-laborer: the day of company mining had not yet dawned. Little or no capital was required to set up as a digger. Anybody who could lay hands on a pick, a shovel and a tin dish and who could afford the monthly licence fee, was free to engage in the search for gold. In the towns and on the sheep stations the worker might be dependant on the merchant contractor or squatter for a living, but on the ‘diggings’ Jack was as good as his master and the worker was ‘his own boss.’ It is true that rich ‘finds’ only came the way of a fortunate few among the many thousands who flocked to the ‘fields’ but the others were always buoyed up with hope.

C. The Eureka Rebellion.

The Miner’s Licence, without which no digging could take place, became a source of serious trouble on the goldfields. Costing originally 30/- a month it was a tax on labor which struck at the diggers’ freedom to follow their chosen occupation. The resentment of the diggers was enhanced by the high-handed methods of the Goldfields Commissioners who administered the system and the harassing tactics of the police. Many of the latter were recruited from the lowest dregs of the population and among them “digger hunting” developed into a popular sport, under the patronage of British governors, corrupt magistrates and the squatters seated in the Colonial Legislatures. One of those who often played the part of quarry graphically describes these ‘hunts':

“I, Carboni Raffaello da Roma, and late of No. 4. Castlecourt, Cornhill, City of London, had my rattling ‘Jenny Lind’ (the cradle) at a water hole down the Eureka Gully. Must stop my work to show my licence. ‘All right.’

I had then to go a quarter of a mile up the hill to my hole, and fetch the washing stuff. There again – ‘Got your licence?’

‘All serene, governor.’ On crossing the holes, up to the knees in mullock, and loaded like a dromedary, ‘Got your licence?’ was again the cheer up from a third trooper or trap.

Now, what answer would you have given, sir?” [3]

Had the unhappy Raffaello not been in a position to produce his licence each time on demand he stood the chance of being roped to the pommel of the troopers saddle and dragged off to the lock-up, or, since this establishment was mostly filled to overflowing, being chained to a log in the open.

The diggers carried on incessant agitation against these abuses and for the abolition of the licence system. By September, 1853, it was no longer possible for the authorities to turn a deaf ear to this agitation and the Legislative Council set up a committee of Enquiry.

The outcome was an Act reducing the licence fee from 30/- a month to 20/- for one month, £2 for three months, £4 for six months, or £8 for one year. This concession did not satisfy the diggers, who persisted with their drive to have the fee abolished.

On November 11, 1854, a mass meeting of miners at Bakery Hill resolved to form a Ballarat Reform League. There is evidence of a strong Chartist influence in the League. Its original list of demands included five of the six points of the famous British People’s Charter – male suffrage; equal electoral districts; payment of members annual parliaments; and no property qualifications for members The sixth point, the secret ballot was also later taken up by the democratic movement in Victoria, which State pioneered its introduction in 1856. In addition to these political demands the Ballarat Reform League listed in its programme the economic demands of the diggers, including that which called for the abolition of miners’ and storekeepers’ licences on the fields.

The trouble which had long been gathering on the goldfields was brought to a head early in December. A digger was found murdered outside a low-class shanty known as the Eureka Hotel. His mates strongly suspected that the publican, an ex-convict called Bentley, was to blame. Feeling ran high when the Coroner exonerated Bentley and mass pressure brought about a second inquest. Despite the very suspicious evidence Bentley was again set free. When on top of all else it was discovered that one of the magistrates was a shareholder in Bentley’s hotel the wrath of the diggers overleapt all bounds. Mass meetings and demonstrations led to clashes with the police and cavalry. The immediate issue became coupled with the outstanding grievances and the movement boiled over into open-armed rebellion. The diggers, en masse, burned their licences and set up camp behind a log palisade Eureka. Here they hoisted, as the symbol of their revolt, the Southern Cross and swore beneath its folds the solemn Eureka Oath. Again let us turn to one of the chief actors for a first hand account of the drama:

“There is no flag in old Europe half so beautiful as the ‘Southern Cross’ of the Ballarat miners, first hoisted on the old spot, Bakery Hill. The flag is silk, blue ground, with a large silver cross, similar to the one in our southern firmament; no device or arms, but all exceedingly chaste and natural.

The maiden appearance of our standard, in the midst of armed men, sturdy, self overworking gold diggers of all languages and colors, was a fascinating object to behold ... Some five hundred armed diggers advanced in real sober earnestness, the captains of each division making the military salute to Lalor who now knelt down, the head uncovered, and with the right hand pointing to the standard, exclaimed in firm measured tone:

“We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties.”

“A universal, well-rounded Amen was the determined reply; some five hundred right hands stretched towards our flag ... the vividness of double the number of eyes electrified by the magnetism of the Southern Cross, was one of those grand sights, such as are recorded only in the history of the Crusaders in Palestine.” [4]

The government was greatly alarmed at the turn of events and rushed a force of soldiers and police from Melbourne to put down the rebellion. At dawn on December 3, the stockade was stormed. Five soldiers and between twenty to thirty miners were killed in the brief but violent encounter which followed.

Although the revolt was quickly crushed it cannot be said to have been in vain. By the middle of 1855 both the licence system and the office of Goldfields Commissioner were abolished. While Eureka was not actually responsible for the democratic constitution which came into force in Victoria in 1856 (this had been framed prior to the rebellion) it undoubtedly contributed to the subsequent liberalising of the political institutions.

In 1856 Victoria pioneered the way in introducing the secret ballot. In 1857 manhood suffrage was adopted. In England, bills to institute voting by ballot were rejected twenty-eight times by the House of Lords and the principle was not finally adopted until 1872. This seems to add point to the epigram with which one prominent goldfields agitator never failed to conclude his speech:

“Moral persuasion is all humbug,
There’s nothing convinces like a lick i’ the lug...”

The land monopolists and colonial bureaucrats received a “Lick i’ the lug” at Eureka which convinced them that concessions to popular feeling would have to be made.

Perhaps the chief significance of Eureka for the labor movement is that the colonial workers, by birth and adoption, who did not yet constitute a class nevertheless came out independently in an endeavour to influence the course of history in their own favour. It is true that the revolutionary consciousness which animated the diggers was not purely socialist, but more republican and democratic. It was not their aim to establish a socialist republic, but a democratic republic wherein the will of the people would be sovereign and every man ‘his own boss.’

This represented an advanced political aim for that time. It brought the workers into sharp conflict not only with the bureaucracy representing the power of British capital, but also the colonial ruling class, which had its own ideas about how the country should be governed. Although the workers failed in their immediate object the effort left its mark on history. The tradition of militant struggle created at Eureka has played a valuable role in helping to mould the Australian workers into ‘a class for themselves.’ This was shown in the great class battles of the ’nineties when the Southern Cross was again unfurled by striking shearers encamped at Barcaldine in Queensland. The challenging verses of Drake:

Remember how the miners at Eureka’s Stockade fell!
If need shall rise, ere Union dies, we’ll fight like them as well! [5]

and Lawson:

So we must fly a rebel flag,
As others did before us;
And we must sing a rebel song,
And join in rebel chorus.
We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting
Of those that they would throttle.
They needn’t say the fault is ours,
If blood should stain the wattle! [6]

provided the workers with great inspiration by associating the ideas of Eureka with Unionism.

Karl Marx contributed an article on Eureka to one of the American liberal papers of the period. In it he pointed out that the underlying causes of the revolt in Victoria were similar to those which gave rise to the American War for Independence in 1776. (The chief demand of the diggers was identical with that of the earlier American colonists ‘No taxation without Representation.’ ) But whereas in America it was the middle classes who headed the revolt,

in Australia the opposition against the monopolists united with the colonial bureaucrats arises from the workers. [7]

However, it proved that the workers were not yet strong enough to retain leadership of the movement and carry it through to successful conclusion. The defeat inflicted on them at Eureka left the initiative in the hands of the ruling classes and Australia continued its political development along lines adapted to their interests.

D. The Struggle For The Eight-Hour Day.

Unionism soon recovered from whatever setbacks resulted from the rush of workers to the ‘diggings’ in 1851. The ultimate effect of the gold discoveries on unionism was stimulating. The arrival in the colony of many British artisans who were already well versed in labor organisation gave the movement a fillip. The revival of unionism took place first of all in the building trades. This was to be expected when we consider that in 1857 there were more than 45,000 canvas dwellings in the colony of Victoria.

Agitation in this early period centred mainly around the length of the working day. The wages question was not a vital issue. The demand for labor was far in excess of supply and this found its reflection in the price of labor power – wages. In the decade before the gold rush artisans’ wages ranged between 4/- and 5/- per day. By 1855 they had risen to between 25/- and 30/- per day. Of course, the price of necessities also rose during the same period, but not to the same extent as wages. Therefore it is little wonder that the question of hours took precedence over the question of wages in the demands of the workers.

The craft unions in the building trades pioneered the struggle for a shorter working day. The Sydney Stonemasons were the first to chisel this concession out of the employers by strike action on February 18, 1856. But it was in Melbourne, where the craft unions in the building trades had come together in a loose form of federation that the 8-hour day first became a firmly established custom. Chartist leaders James Stephens, who had fought in the Newport rebellion of 1839, and T. W. Vine played a prominent role in the 8-Hour Day movement. By 1858 eight hours had become generally recognised as the standard working day in the building industry in New South Wales and Victoria. This was a full ten years before the slogan was raised by the American workers and incorporated by Marx in the First International’s programme of immediate demands.

E. The Organisation Of Bush Workers.

By 1858 the easily worked surface deposits of alluvial gold were nearing exhaustion and the technological changes which were taking place were converting gold mining more and more into an industry requiring the investment of capital. [8] Thousands of diggers in consequence were returned to the labor market and wages took a downward trend. But here again unionism was indicated to counteract this tendency. The workers were impelled towards combination to conserve the high standards established in the earlier and much more favourable period. In this they were partially successful. Wages did not remain at the peak period level, but neither did they revert to the pre-gold rush standard. In 1870 artisans were paid at rates varying between 8/6 and 10/- per day. This was 4/6 to 5/- per day higher than the rates paid for the same classes of employment in 1850. Since there was very little difference in the relative price levels for the two periods, the workers were actually twice as well off after the gold rush as they were before. The high standards established in the ’seventies were maintained and even improved (since the cost of living became cheaper) up to the ‘nineties. One liberal historian, Coughlan, describes the twenty years between 1870 and 1890 as

... the brightest period in Australia’s history for wage earners.

Judged purely from the economic viewpoint no doubt there is much truth in Coughlan’s observation. A close investigation would probably disclose the reason to be that, apart from seasonal fluctuations, the supply of labor continuously fell short of the ever increasing demands of a rapidly expanding economy. Australia was too remote from Europe to experience that wave of immigration which created special problems for the American labor movement.

The “brightest period for wage earners” was also a period of trade union expansion. Up to the ’60s the chief unions were based in the cities and only embraced skilled tradesmen. They were craft unions fashioned on the lines of British unions covering the same calling and, like the British unions, were not socialist in character. But one of the biggest problems confronting the industrial movement in Australia was the organisation of bush workers, those nomads who followed no settled trade, but worked now in the mines, now in the shearing sheds or now on some construction job or other. The organised labor movement could make little or no headway while this great body of semi-skilled and unskilled workers remained untouched.

The first successful mass organisation to arise among outback toilers was the Amalgamated Miners’ Association. The nucleus of the A.M.A. was the Bendigo Miners’ Association which emerged from the strike which won the 8-hour day for Bendigo miners in February, 1872. This victory encouraged organisation on other fields and soon quite a number of local unions were functioning. In June 1874, twelve of these unions met at Bendigo and formed the A.M.A.. By 1886 the Association had 51 branches and over 13,000 members. The A.M.A. was the first big industrial union to be formed in Australia, or more correctly Australasia, since it extended to N.Z., and for a time it embraced coal and metalliferous as well as gold miners. In the course of its short history it conducted 29 strikes and resisted 8 lockouts. No less than 13 of the strikes were in defence of “the principles of unionism,” that is the right to organise. In only one instance did the A.M.A. suffer defeat and that was in the six months’ strike at Kaitangata, New Zealand.

The next section of the bush workers to become organised were the shearers. They were directly influenced by the A.M.A.'s record of successes. Many of those belonging to the A.M.A. often found employment in the sheds during the shearing season. When, in 1886, the squatters attempted to reduce the shearing rate by 2/6 a hundred sheep, some of these miner-shearers approached their Secretary, W. G. Spence, with a request that he assist them to organise the pastoral workers. Spence responded to their appeal and organisers were dispatched to the country. Soon organisations were established at Ballarat, Bourke and Wagga. In 1887 these unions, along with similar local bodies, merged to form the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union.

In the same year a Queensland Shearers’ Union was also formed. Some years later shed hands and station hands were taken into the organisation and in 1907 the A.S.U. absorbed the Q.S.U. and the name was changed to Australian Workers’ Union. With the miners and shearers organised it was not long before unionism extended too other sections of the outback toilers.

F. The Isolation Of The Movement From Socialism.

As unionism expanded trades and labor councils were set up in the different colonies to co-ordinate activities. The desirability of still wider co-operation was soon recognised and, in 1879, the first Intercolonial Trade Union Congress was held in Sydney. Only two of the 36 delegates, however, came from outside New South Wales.

The second Congress in Melbourne in 1884 was more widely representative and it seems that here a decision was taken to make the Congresses an annual event, alternating the venue between the various capital cities. Further Congresses took place in 1885, Sydney; 1886, Adelaide; 1888, Brisbane; and 1889, Hobart. The debates at these meetings usually centred around ways and means of rectifying particular economic grievances by common action in all colonies. The watchword of unionism at this time was “Defence and not Defiance.”

This slogan was borne aloft in the Eight-Hour Day which had become a regular yearly feature. It represented the most crushing reply that the unions of those days could devise in countering the employers’ hysterical charges that they were out to ‘foment a bloody revolution.’ It clearly expressed the spontaneous character of the labor movement and its isolation from socialism.

So long as this state of isolation persisted the labor movement was bound to remain more or less impotent. Lenin informs us that, “Isolated from socialism, the labor movement becomes petty and inevitably becomes bourgeois: in conducting only the economic struggle, the working class loses its political independence; it becomes the tail of other parties and runs counter to the great slogan:

The emancipation of the workers must be the task of the workers themselves [9]

and in another article,

... the spontaneous labor movement is pure and simple trade unionism ... and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers to the bourgeoisie. [10]

The Australian labor movement in the period under consideration was experiencing something common to all countries.

In every country there has been a period in which the labor movement existed separately from the socialist movement, each going its own road; and in every country this state of isolation weakened both socialist movement and the labor movement. [11]

The truth of this is well illustrated by the history of the Australian labor movement. The mass movement, while tremendously strong numerically and powerful organisationally, has never in the past been able to achieve much that is of permanent benefit, chiefly because it lacked a clear sense of direction. Blundering ahead without vision it has stumbled first into this path, then into that, it has made mistake after mistake, and all too often dissipated its strength in hopeless struggles which could have been avoided had it possessed socialist theory to guide its footsteps. The various socialist sects of the past have likewise been impotent, mainly because they lacked the ability to unite with the mass movement. Only through the unity of theory with practice, the unity of socialism with the mass movement can real progress be made towards the goal of the working class.


1. A Short History of the Australian Labour Movement by Brian Fitzpatrick, page 17, Melbourne, Rawson’s Bookshop, 1940.

2. Australia: An Economic Interpretation by G. V. Portus, page 391, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1933.

3. The Eureka Stockade by Carboni Raffaello.

4. Ibid.

5. Remember the Union by C. Drake, written in 1890

6. Henry Lawson, verse printed in Brisbane Worker, May 16, 1891.

7. News From Australia, Karl Marx, 1855. Reprinted in Australia Marches On, by L. L. Sharkey, Sydney, 1942.

8. The British Empire in Australia, by Brian Fitzpatrick, p. 161, Melbourne University Press, 1941.

9. Urgent Tasks of our Movement, by V. I. Lenin, Selected Works. Vol. 2, p. 11.

10. What is to be Done? by V. I. Lenin, p. 41, Martin Lawrence, London.

11. Urgent Tasks of Our Movement, p. 11.