Marxist Interventions

Capital versus labour

Australian unions: from the gold rush to arbitration

By TOM O’LINCOLN [email protected]

[For a related discussion about gender and the labour movement, see Sex Class and the Road to Women's Suffrage elsewhere on this site.]

Most unions had melted away amidst the gold rushes of the early 1850s. Workers rebuilt them from scratch by the middle of the decade, but for the next twenty-five years, their progress was relatively slow. There were three peak periods of strike activity, mostly associated with the struggle for the eight-hour day. The first, and most successful, was centered in Victoria shortly after the gold rushes. The second and third, in New South Wales during the early sixties and early seventies, featured metal workers and coal miners.

Some New Zealand building trades had achieved an eight-hour day in the 1840s, and Sydney stonemasons were the first to do so in Australia. It was Victoria, however, that experienced a great campaign extending beyond the purely industrial sphere. The issue preoccupied far more people than the minority of workers who actually won the shorter hours; it was a defining, long-term aspiration for the labour movement as a whole. ‘By 1881, fifty-six of the seventy-six unions in Melbourne had their origins in demands for an eight hour day.’ (Patmore: 58)

Although the Victorian economy was still fragile, wages were significantly higher than in Britain, allowing some skilled workers to focus more. They aspired to more leisure time as part of a climate of social optimism which was strongest in the middle classes but also among the skilled trades. Cultural life flowered, including the growth of Mechanics’ Institutes seeking to uplift the labouring classes through libraries, lectures and musical performances. The future would surely be more edifying still, and workers wanted to share in the improvements; indeed they needed to share in them, since working men would soon be called upon to exercise the franchise. To prepare themselves, they needed ‘the sacred gift of time’. (Quoted in Hughes: 400)

Shop Assistants had been agitating for early closing since 1846, and the most pious elements in the community endorsed the call for shorter hours, hoping greater leisure would encourage church attendance. Besides, some thought the hot Australian sun made longer hours intolerable for delicate Europeans. This was, in other words, a very respectable demand; small wonder that the conservative Mayor of Melbourne became president of the Early Closing Association. By mid-1856, shops were closing earlier throughout the colony, adding further momentum to union demands for shorter working hours.

When on 5 March the Operative Masons approached the Builders’ Association, the bosses were generally agreeable. Other building trades followed rapidly, and 21 April was set as the day to introduce the new arrangements. 11 April saw a public meeting of various trades and occupations:

The Queen’s Theatre was packed; the Mayor assumed the chair. Leading radicals took the unions’ part, stressing the need for amicable relations between employers and employees, as well as the case for shorter hours. It was claimed "that the old idea that prevailed at home that one class was born to labour and another to direct that labour ought not to find a place here." (Hughes: 399)

Two major employers resisted. To bring them to heel, Melbourne’s building workers marched from the University, pulling unionists off building sites as they went. The concluding rally at Eastern Hill (now East Melbourne) endorsed a strike. One of the bosses caved in that evening, and government pressure ensured that the other complied next day.

The agitation spread, with an Eight Hours League to mobilise the general citizenry in support. Painters and paper-hangers, plumbers and cabinet-makers, all trades close to the building industry, gained the eight hour day with no reduction in pay. Other trades found it much harder going. Construction faced no foreign competition, so it could sustain a considerably higher cost structure than in Britain. However many other industries were more exposed. In the 1850s the building industry was still full of small subcontractors who had only recently been employees themselves, and thought they might soon be again. To them the eight-hour day seemed to be in the interests of the industry as a whole. Bosses in other sectors were less likely to think this way.

So saddlers, harness- and collar-makers, ironworkers and coach-builders all had to accept lower pay to get shorter hours, the coach-makers after a prolonged strike in 1856. The following year bakers and butchers, who worked in small establishments alongside the employer, did secure reduced hours without pay cuts. Outside Melbourne, however, the shorter hours’ movement did not extend much beyond the building trades.

1858 brought the start of railway construction from Melbourne to Bendigo, and Geelong to Ballarat. This eased the unemployment problem, wages rose, and the unions demanded a shorter working day on the construction projects. Unfortunately, the dispersed nature of the work counteracted the favourable economic conditions. Sub-contracting arrangements undermined wages and conditions, and workers sometimes found it hard to collect wages. The employers tried to break the union by importing labour, first hiring ten masons from South Australia to work a ten-hour day. When the new arrivals discovered what was afoot, they joined the strike. After the bosses had them arrested and charged, two radical barristers successfully defended them.

Then in November the union, having learned that two hundred German masons were on their way, managed to contact them on the ship and convince the majority not to scab. Most absconded to find jobs in the bush, though a few were forced to fulfil their contracts. Industrial conflict continued while they remained employed, ‘but it remained a remarkable feature of the dispute that all attempts to set off ‘foreign’ against British workmen were unsuccessful.’ (Hughes: 405)

In Melbourne, a revived Eight Hours League held large public meetings in support of the strike. There was much discussion of tariff protection as a way to guarantee shorter wages and hours, so that these public mobilizations fed into the protectionist movement.

Conditions for unions were generally less favorable in New South Wales, and apart from some of the building trades, unionists found it extremely hard to win the eight-hour day. The first major battle was the 1861 strike at P.N. Russell and Company, Sydney’s main engineering works.

Labour relations here were poisonous. Workers claimed management underpaid them, and subjected them to blacklisting as well as various petty tyrannies. When management demanded a ten per cent pay cut, twenty to thirty blacksmiths, fitters and turners struck work; over the following two months another thirty left the job. Within weeks some three hundred tradesmen had affirmed their support for the strike, and £50 a week was coming in from as far away as Newcastle and Melbourne. Next the company’s moulders demanded the eight hour day, joining the strike when management refused. The ironworkers then added this demand to their own claim. The Engineers’ union (ASE) helped the unskilled workers form a separate association and join the struggle.

The wages issue now had second billing, with unions calling for an eight-hour day throughout the trade. Some smaller employers were sympathetic, but most waited to see the outcome at Russells. Management prosecuted two unionists on conspiracy charges. The trial ended in acquittal, but the cost of the defence weakened the strike fund, and in addition the company was recruiting scabs. Increasing number of strikers drifted into other jobs, or off to the New Zealand goldfields, or back to work.

The strike thus largely ended in failure, as did the push for shorter hours, although some moulders achieved an eight hour day, and sections of the building trades were inspired to go out and achieve it as well. Perhaps the unions had made a mistake in tackling Russells at this stage, and in linking the eight hours issue to the dispute. Although unemployment had fallen from a peak in 1860, economic conditions were still not favourable to the unions.

They weren’t especially good in the coal fields, either. The coal mining industry had begun with convict labour under the Australian Agricultural Company (AAC). Until the seventies it was based overwhelmingly in the Hunter Valley. Under the impact of the gold rushes, coal prices and wages rose between 1851 and 1855, a period that saw three successful strikes. But by 1855 gold production was falling, and the AAC imposed wage cuts. The miners struck to no avail: with coal stockpiles high and demand falling the strike front broke after two and a half months, militants were victimized, and management boasted that the ‘incorrigible and turbulent hands had been got rid of’. (Ross: 18)

However the industry kept growing. Coal production grew fivefold between 1850 and 1860 owing to demand from the railways, and by 1861 there were four major employers in the Newcastle area. Worker organization revived to the point where, for the first time, miners set about uniting the various local lodges into a wider organization. Up to a thousand assembled in May to launch the Hunter River coalminers’ Protective Association, the Minmi lodge marching up behind a tricolour flag reading, ‘United We Stand, Divided We Fall’ (Ross: 20) It was a timely sentiment, for by October the Minmi lodge were on strike; the new Association organised a five hundred-strong demonstration and convinced non-unionists to stop work in their support.

The four main proprietors responded by themselves joining forces against ‘the unjust and exorbitant demands of the miners’ (Ross: 22), giving fourteen days’ notice of a twenty per cent pay cut and laying plans to import four hundred miners from England. The unionists struck again, their wives and daughters fighting alongside them, as was already traditional in the coal fields:

The miners’ womenfolk followed sailors loading coal, with banging of tins and shouting ... When police escorting the blacklegs tried to arrest the women the strikers took a hand and forced the police to retire. [A police constable said the women] were pulling his hair and whiskers ... as they could not work because of the women throwing coal at them the men went back to Newcastle. (Ross: 23)

The bosses backed down temporarily, but returned to the offensive a year later led by AAC manager, J. B. Winship. Winship’s main tactic was to import unemployed miners from the now-depressed Victorian gold fields. Some of these were indeed desperate. ‘In fact they are almost starving,’ wrote Winship, who took a direct hand in recruiting them. (Quoted in Gollan: 41) Even so, many refused to scab. Though he recruited three hundred, he believed he could have signed up a thousand if news of the strike had not reached Victoria. Out of these three hundred, probably half were won over on arrival by unionists, who slipped them leaflets and invited them to meetings at night.

Nevertheless, after seven months the miners’ resistance collapsed. Once again, unionism seemed to be thoroughly smashed. Coal production continued to rise throughout the decade, but always ahead of demand, ensuring cut-throat competition between the companies and a weakening workers’ bargaining position.

So the union defeats of the sixties in New South Wales owed much to a difficult economic climate. Yet this is insufficient explanation. Economic conditions by no means ideal in the early seventies, when organised labour did rather better. The defeats also resulted from unions’ inexperience and inability to control the flow of labour. By the seventies, the industrial movement had gained in both experience and organization. A rise in the sheer numerical size of the work force, and consequently in union numbers, also lent the unions greater stability.

In 1871 New South Wales had a sharp recession, but as it faded real wages began to rise and there were again signs of union revival. The Hunter River miners began rebuilding their regional organization, waging ‘a continuous struggle ... to establish the authority of the association and police job conditions’. (Ross: 29) In 1873 they demanded a ten-hour shift. The employers insisted on eleven hours, sacking those who refused. After a six weeks’ lockout, stoning of scabs, several shots fired by police, and the jailing of a woman for assaulting a constable, the two sides agreed to implement the ten-hour shift by 1874.

Unionism was also advancing in the iron trades, with the rise of organizations for plumbers, boilermakers, tinsmiths and moulders. This was part of a general trend symbolised by the 1871 formation of the Sydney Trades and Labour Council. Progress on the eight-hour day was slow at first, because of union disagreements over whether to accept a proportionate cut in pay. Some tradesmen accepted this, reckoning that a shortening of hours would tighten the labour market and push wages up again, but labourers, already on near-subsistence wages, had no patience with such theories. By 1873 therefore, still only one major firm, the A.S.N. company, was working the shorter day.

Finally the engineering unions put together a common set of demands, including the eight-hour day with two breaks. A few days later Mort’s Dock sacked several men, provoking a mass walkout. In subsequent negotiations, proprietor T.S. Mort apparently convinced the strikers the dismissals were not industrial victimization, then conceded the shorter day -- but he demanded wage adjustments, only backing down after further strike action.

The other company to resist was that old union bogey, P.N. Russell and Co, which opposed the afternoon meal break. Although a short stoppage forced the company into line, the meal breaks issue quickly re-emerged throughout the trade. The two-break system meant that late in the day, forges had to be relit and casting run-offs prepared anew for the last two hours. The proprietors said this was uneconomical, and announced roster changes, causing two thousand unionists to stop work for two months.

The TLC was raising funds from its affiliates and from Melbourne, while the local companies were losing contracts to Victorian rivals. Yet the proprietors grimly held out. Union delegates proposed arbitration, as did the TLC; the employers said a technologically unworkable system could not be arbitrated. The TLC organised ‘monster meetings’ to mobilise public support, while the press fulminated against the ‘narrow, selfish and irrational views of a few’ militants who were allegedly manipulating the other strikers. (quoted in Niland: 12)

As the public weighed up the opposing arguments, the ironmasters fretted that £50,000 worth of orders had been lost. Finally they and the TLC settled on a ten minute break. When union members rejected this offer, ‘an emergency meeting of strikers was called on 2 March, at which the delegates were empowered to reach a settlement without reference back to the rank and file.’ It accepted a compromise involving two breaks in summer and one in winter. The employers also agreed not to alter rosters again without ‘the concurrence of the majority of the mechanics in the shops’. (Niland: 14)

At the end of the post-gold rush period, despite some cruel setbacks, the unions could congratulate themselves on winning gains, and then defending and entrenching them. With success, however, came certain conservatising tendencies. The first signs of a top-down, bureaucratic leadership style had appeared in the metal trades dispute, when rank and file metal workers apparently lost decision-making power after rejecting a strike settlement. The unions were also beginning to call for arbitration as an alternative to industrial struggle.

Even in the coal industry with its turbulent history and militant traditions, there was a certain respect for the ‘masters’, expressed in invitations to attend union picnics (offers the proprietors generally ignored), and a certain notion of common interest. The latter was reinforced by union attempts to encourage cooperation among the employers to reduce competition. Although the 1873 coal strike was very bitter, still the miners declared they were ‘following the example of the English miners, not the Communists of Paris.’ The general agreement ending the strike provided for pegging wages to profits and the settling of disputes by arbitration, so that ‘strikes and lock-outs would be a thing of the past.’ (Quoted in Ross: 33, 34) Vain hope!

A ‘new unionism’

Union actions were growing bigger. Where perhaps three hundred masons had waged the biggest dispute in Victoria in the fifties, more like a thousand New South Wales coal miners had struck in 1861, and two to three thousand in 1874. The number of striking New South Wales ironworkers was also larger in the seventies than in the sixties. (Waters: 88). In addition, new sectors were emerging, for example in transport where carters and drivers unionized, and existing sectors were becoming more union-conscious. In 1874 twelve Victorian metal miners’ unions merged to form the Amalgamated Miners’ Association (AMA). Four years later one William Guthrie Spence organized the miners at Creswick.

New unions were forming. Seafarers united in Melbourne and Sydney in the mid-seventies. This union set two historic precedents in 1878, one baleful but another more encouraging. After the Australian Steam and Navigation Company moved to replace Australian crews with lower-paid Chinese, Australian seamen walked off ships in Sydney, Newcastle, Brisbane and ports further north. The dispute ended in a political victory for those opposed to Chinese labour.

Industrially, the victory was not terribly impressive. The union initially offered a no-strike agreement in exchange for sending the Chinese home; and the final settlement, reached with ample strike funds remaining, allowed scabs to remain employed while well over a hundred unionists remained out of work. The successes owed as much to public opinion and government pressure on the company (due to the race issue) as to industrial action. However the sheer fact of an inter-colonial strike by unskilled labour was significant. (Curthoys, passim. )

In the course of the 1880s, union membership reached sixty thousand. Unionism came to the railways, the maritime and the pastoral industries, drawing new layers of workers, many unskilled, into what has been called a ‘new unionism’.

The term itself, drawn from British labour history, can be misleading. It has been taken to mean that organization of the unskilled and semi-skilled was a radical innovation, that the new unions were all committed to industrial unionism, and that they were more militant than traditional craft organizations. Strictly speaking, none of this is true. Mass organization of unskilled and semi-skilled workers in mines and on the waterfront existed well before the 1880s. On the other hand the Australian Shearers’ Union operated much like the craft unions, organising the elite of the pastoral work force, and it was by no means more militant than the stonemasons. (See Markey: 146ff)

Yet something new certainly happened in the eighties, driven by changes in capitalist industry. Where companies had previously brought together concentrations of relatively expensive skilled labour, they now began replacing that labour with machinery. As industry became mechanised, the need to use capital equipment efficiently led to larger concentrations of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Mechanisation also stimulated other industries by increasing the demand for such raw materials as meat and sugar, and for expanded rail and sea transport. Here too, sizeable new workforces emerged. In enterprises where large numbers of poorly paid labourers all did the same work, common experiences bred solidarity, while unskilled workers’ lack of individual bargaining power made the case for organization and mass action more compelling.

The term ‘unskilled’ can also be misleading. Many with no institutional recognition as craftsmen actually had skills; what they lacked was a strategic monopoly in those skills. Women in the clothing trades were adept at sewing, but since most other women could also sew, companies could easily replace them; thus they were in a similar industrial position to the genuinely unskilled. However in the absence of a better word, it will be used for convenience.

The majority of the unskilled were not unionised, nor did unskilled or semi-skilled workers come to dominate the labour movement. On the contrary, delegates to the 1888 Inter-colonial Trade Union Congress still lamented that ‘tradesmen were united as a rule, and unionists were pretty well protected; but what was wanted was the organization of unskilled labour, so that all might be protected.’ (Quoted in O’Connor: 357) Even so, unionism had reached enough unskilled and semi-skilled workers to alter the industrial scene. Strikes became bigger and longer, providing practical experience of solidarity. Where workers formed a new union or won a strike, others followed their example. In addition, some unions set about organising others.

Seafarers and railway workers were always on the move, carrying ideas of unionism wherever they traveled. So were shearers. The westward expansion of the pastoral industry lengthened the shearing season as well as concentrating workers in larger gangs, creating conditions that fostered solidarity. In the cities, meanwhile, settled working class suburbs grew up, capable of mobilizing socially behind union action in a manner once largely confined to the mining towns.

Numerical growth in union membership, alongside the merger of local organizations into intra- and inter-colonial unions, began to raise the conflict between employer and employee from a series of local episodes to an on-going, continental affair. Unskilled and semi-skilled workers, denied the modest element of individual self-sufficiency and control of the labour process enjoyed by craft labour, were more open to arguments that the union movement should fight for collective control, or that the state should intervene. (Markey: 136-150, Waters: 37-39.)

We begin to see why so many embraced unionism (in Spence’s words) ‘as a religion’, (Quoted in Grundy: 224) why some capitalists felt inordinately threatened by it, and why various radical ideologies began to make themselves heard. It is not that unionism, let alone socialist politics, developed spontaneously. A small army of agitators moved amongst the workers fighting to convince and organise them, with many heartbreaking failures amongst the successes; but capitalist development opened up the possibilities.

The manufacturing boom drew thousands of women into factory life and into outwork, especially in Victoria. Large numbers joined the garment trade. Some of this industry’s features mirrored traditional domestic labour and it offered the option of outwork, so that joining it initially offered a less radical departure from the traditional female role. Soon, however, women’s experience in industry began to challenge that role. In tailoring, especially, young females set out to acquire marketable skills and thereby achieve a certain independence, so that ‘the tailoring factories seem to have attracted a more outspoken and independent type of woman.’ (Frances 35) In the late 1880s, the Chief Inspector of Factories complained that ‘the factory work girl’ was ‘a very difficult person to deal with’, apparently for the very reason that she was ‘as a rule able to take care of herself’. (Quoted in Frances 36.)

Unfortunately, growth in the work force also put downward pressure on women’s piece-rates. With the number of clothing and textile factories in Victoria rising from around seventy to well over two hundred in the decade ending 1881, intensified competition drove employers to cut costs. Local, sporadic strike action in the tailoring factories failed to prevent this, because the bosses easily found strike breakers. Ellen Cresswell, soon to be a leader of the Tailoresses Union, was herself victimized after a strike in 1879.

These pay cuts reached a crisis point in 1882, when companies began making tailoresses do order work at the rates applied to ready-made garments. In December 1882 the workers struck, beginning at Beath, Schiess and Co. Hundreds of women came to the Trades Hall seeking help in forming a union. At a second meeting of four to five hundred, supported by another five hundred sympathisers who assembled outside the building, the Tailoresses’ Union took shape. The strikers elected a committee to lead the struggle together with a group of Trades Hall officials. The first round of the campaign ended before Christmas, with the company agreeing to meet union demands if others did the same.

As with the eight-hour day campaigns, the new union enjoyed support from some employers and a wide cross-section of the community. Increasingly, the ideology of protectionism united the union movement with large sections of capital. Not only did The Age newspaper back the strike, but Beath, Schiess and Co were themselves not entirely opposed to it. Company manager J.R. Blencowe attended a meeting at Trades Hall, indicating the firm would meet the demands as long as the whole industry was organised. He added that ‘so far as Beath, Schiess and Co. were concerned, they did not care if the prices were increased by one hundred per cent if all the other firms joined in the movement.’ (Quoted in Brooks: 30). Some other major employers apparently also hoped it would prevent the smaller shops undercutting them. Victoria’s system of protective tariffs had allowed a variety of small operators to spring up, and those with less than ten employees were exempt from the 1873 Factory Act. If unions could enforce uniform rates throughout the industry, the big companies would benefit.

In the new year, the other bosses showed less enthusiasm for the union’s claims, and by mid-February around twelve hundred tailoresses were on strike. At the end of the month most employers seem to have acquiesced, though picketing continued as late as April. Some accounts say that the union rates prevailed for a couple of years, but nine of the strikers later told the Shops Commission ‘that while the manufacturers had, at the time, agreed to pay the log, very few adhered to it for more than a few weeks after the return to work.’ (Brooks: 36). It appears the companies got around the union by contracting work out.

During the course of the eighties the union declined, from more than two thousand in 1883 to a hundred or so in 1890. The strike was nonetheless a landmark in raising public awareness about working conditions. It gave a huge boost to the anti-sweating campaign and also to the struggle for the eight-hour day. Of course it is also important as the first major industrial struggle by women, making it the subject for considerable debate.

The example of solidarity between male and female trade unionists clearly rankles with some feminist historians. Anne Summers suggests it was motivated entirely by male tailors’ selfish desire to avoid competition by cheaper, female labour. (Summers 310) Influenced by this argument, Ken Buckley and Ted Wheelwright similarly remark that such acts of solidarity were ‘not always as altruistic as they seemed’. (Buckley and Wheelwright: 147) However such comments miss the point. No large body of people ever forgets about self-interest; the issue is how they pursue it. Rather dividing along gender lines, the Victorian labour movement understood that it was in the interest of all workers to support the tailoresses. The triumph of solidarity in 1882-83 was important because it demonstrated a viable alternative to sex divisions in the working class.

Raelene Frances makes a more sophisticated argument. In her eyes the unity, while a positive thing, nevertheless came about partly because women were ‘accustomed to the direction of men’ and because these ‘helpless girls’, as The Age called them (but Frances seems to agree) needed help in a way male unionists did not -- male unions being ‘generally jealous of their own independence.’ (Quoted in Frances: 33, 34) Yet elsewhere Frances herself reports that the tailoresses had tried striking on their own, and only approached Trades Hall after they failed. They didn’t lack independent spirit, they just wished to learn from experience and benefit from solidarity. Frances notes that the strike set a precedent for other unions -- in other words, the tailoresses were pioneers. A few years later the Yarra River waterside workers were to learn many of the same lessons.

In any case, as Frances also reports, waging a strike helped women break out of conventional roles. They picketed outside factories, using ‘violent language and threats’ against scabs, and employers complained that they were ‘very difficult to deal with’, having ‘no faith in what you say’. (Quoted in Frances: 35)

The following years saw a strike by male bootmakers. Theirs was a highly competitive trade whose bosses had a history of ruthless wage cuts, victimization and child labour. When the Operative Bootmakers’ Union arose in 1879 it grew rapidly, claiming a thousand members by 1882. Union secretary W.A. Trenwith was a one-time boxer who finished his career as a member of parliament; in the 1880s he also proved a dynamic industrial organiser, producing posters identifying scabs by name and branding them traitors. A series of strikes in 1883 compelled the employers to accept a union log of claims, and a board of conciliation was formed consisting of fourteen representatives from each side.

This union had low fees, did not initially provide benefits, and in 1884 began admitting semi-skilled workers. It was a good example of ‘new unionism’. Late in the same year, the bosses locked the men out in a dispute over outwork, provoking a major industrial conflagration. The THC assumed leadership and raised over £9000 in contributions and levies. There were brawls on picket lines, and hardship for the strikers, though the greatest hardship confronted the seven hundred women and girls stood down with no strike pay.

Within three months the bosses began to give way, agreeing in February 1885 to eliminate outwork except where special safeguards applied. On the other hand the union gave away its right to enter workplaces. Although not a complete union victory, the bootmakers’ strike alarmed employer representatives, who felt that the owners were proving unable to match the solidarity of organised labour. A meeting of capitalists in early 1885 called for the formation of a militant bosses’ organization. Bruce Smith, who wrote at the time that bosses’ and workers’ interests were ‘antagonistic’, made the keynote speech at the Employers’ Union’s founding meeting; he later recalled he had been in a ‘savage’ frame of mind because of industrial unrest in the maritime industry. Before the decade was out this body had five hundred member firms. (Quoted in Serle: 117, 118) Just as capitalism had given rise to a labour movement, now labour’s struggles were stimulating more coherent organization among the capitalists. Both began to take on national dimensions, beginning with the maritime industry.

‘Capital versus Labour’

Victoria’s waterfront unions had first taken root in the bayside communities of Sandridge (Port Melbourne) and Williamstown in the 1870s. The Yarra River wharves near central Melbourne remained unorganized until 1885, though there had been some local strikes. In 1884, the Yarra watersiders staged their first total walkout over hours, pay and hiring practices, but found themselves at a disadvantage without stable organization and solidarity from other unions. When in 1885 the ship owners outraged wharfies by refusing to let them attend the Eight Hours’ anniversary march, Trades Hall representatives stepped in and the Melbourne Wharf Laborers’ Union was formed. The union served a log on the employers in September, had it refused and on 1 January 1886 around nine hundred workers shut down the Yarra shipping industry. During the eighteen-day stoppage mass pickets effectively prevented deliveries, with Port Phillip stevedores refusing to work ships diverted from the Yarraside. Yardmen and draymen also struck, as did the wharf labourers of Geelong who established a union of their own.

The Employers’ Union declared it ‘the bounden duty of every employer’ to back the waterfront bosses, and it put the screws on one company which had settled. Ship owners, aware of unemployment in other colonies, offered attractive pay to strikebreakers. Ninety-four unemployed men came from Adelaide, but were won over by the unionists. Attempts to secure ‘volunteer’ labour from Bendigo and even from New Zealand were also unsuccessful, though farmers were willing to load the potatoes they delivered to the quayside. The main effect of these strike-breaking efforts was to anger the Seamen’s Union, which banned vessels carrying scabs. A series of union bans in other cities helped isolate Melbourne and secure victory for the strikers.

Inter-colonial action had been needed, said the Seamen, because the struggle had ‘assumed a new phase, viz., Capital v. Labor.’ (Quoted in Fitzpatrick: 106. The great strikes of the nineties were not far away. Yet the means of resolving the dispute pointed in quite another direction. After the return to work, Professor Kernot of Melbourne University convened a Board of Arbitration comprising equal numbers of management and union representatives, which granted most of the workers’ demands. Bruce Smith no longer felt savage; he announced his delight with the peak union leadership whom he found ‘cool-headed, exceedingly amenable to reason’. (Quoted in Serle: 118) If the great strikes were on the horizon, so was the establishment of Australia’s famous arbitration machinery.

Two other national unions emerged in the second half of the decade. Under Spence’s leadership, the Amalgamated Miners Association (AMA) grew from the unification of local coal and metal mining unions. The AMA fought numerous largely defensive strikes in the years before 1890; the most important being an 1888 struggle in the coal fields of northern New South Wales.

Coal was vital for the ever-increasing numbers of steamships, railways and factories. Over the previous decade, production in the region had doubled and the workforce had risen to six thousand, so this strike had a much greater social impact than earlier conflicts. The dispute concerned a union log of claims and employer demands to introduce a tributing (subcontracting) system. The AMA sent delegates throughout New South Wales to raise funds and rally support, while Victorian miners levied themselves a shilling per week. After violent confrontations with blacklegs, strike leaders were arrested and charged with riot; the authorities even deployed a machine gun. The dispute ended with neither side clearly victorious, but was memorable for the miners’ manifesto, which showed hints of socialist thinking with its demand for ‘the equal distribution of wealth’. (Ross: 64)

Another significant dispute took place in Broken Hill, where in November 1889 a one-week strike forced BHP to implement the closed shop. Broken Hill was on its way to becoming a centre of militancy. However the AMA was overshadowed by the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union (ASU), founded in 1886, with Spence again prominent.

Three local shearers’ unions already existed, in Moree, Wagga Wagga and Tasmania, but station owners seem to have provoked a general mobilization by announcing a cut in the shearing rate. Angry letters poured in to country newspapers, and unions began to form around Young in eastern New South Wales, then at various places in the west of the colony. Next, Spence along with David Temple set up a shearers’ union at Ballarat in Victoria. By July, South Australia had joined the movement, and in August Temple was in the Riverina organising shearers. By the end of the year there was movement throughout Victoria and attempts were in train to organise New Zealand. Not all efforts succeeded -- Tasmania and New Zealand were disappointments -- yet from 1887 the capitalists confronted unions across a vast stretch of eastern Australia. During disputes in 1887 and 1888, the ASU consolidated itself as a national organization, defeating plans to cut the shearing rate.

Unionisation on some parts of the wool track had been stimulated by the the pastoralists themselves gradually withdrawing from involvement in day to day shearing. A lot of stations, especially inland, were effectively run by managers or junior partners whom the work force thought remote or arrogant. This occurred just at a time when shearers were beginning to demand more sensitive management. The legendary, dissolute ex-convicts, capable of drinking a season’s earnings in one debauch, were giving way to another type. The shearer of the seventies and eighties, commented itinerant writer Francis Adams, was ‘a man who arrives on a horse, leading another’ and who sent money home to his wife. (Quoted in Merritt: 51) He expected the bosses to treat him with respect.

Yet the union was actually strongest in far-western New South Wales, where conditions were harsh, rations expensive, the local union branch full of landless workers. Strike camps were large and easy to hold together. The Bourke branch was a key centre of militancy in the ASU. Here, most sheds accepted union demands or something close to them. In still another type of area, where large numbers of small holding farmers sheared on a part time basis, union consciousness was weak. Some small holders owned the pastoralists money, hence they feared antagonizing them; others were fairly prosperous and for that reason less interested in class struggle.

The Riverina and Victoria’s western district saw bitter conflicts, with the union suffering defeats because of the availability of casual labour. In Victoria:

The Argus featured ‘Union Outrages’ in almost unprecedented capitalized headlines. Camperdown was said to be in turmoil with many ugly scenes occurring. An ‘assault on a station’ -- ‘Woodlands’, near Koroit -- when the owner was ‘seriously maltreated’, the homestead defenders were disarmed, and nine non-unionists captured, resulted in prolonged court cases; offenders were given severe sentences of imprisonment which were upset on appeal. The Argus discerned a link with the Kellys and a reaping of the fruits of the land laws.’ (Serle: 115)

1889 was quieter, because wool prices had risen, so the bosses preferred to avoid strife. Some employers became friendlier towards the union; on the other hand shearers in many places were accepting terms inferior to the ASU’s official position. In February 1889 several pastoralists and two of their associations attended the union’s national conference.

The ASU officials themselves generally tried to avoid conflict. Apart perhaps from W.W. Head, who ‘subscribed to some ill-defined socialist beliefs and was far more inclined to confront pastoralists than to negotiate with them,’ (Merritt 107) the AWU leaders were moderates. Spence himself was a Christian preacher, a member of the Creswick militia, prominent in the temperance movement, and a justice of the peace who informed a Royal Commission that ‘I do not believe in strikes at all.’ (Report of the Royal commission on Strikes: 52) He thought unionists ‘must demand the respect of capitalists to such an extent that the latter would ultimately come to the former and say, "We will go mates on this or that concern."’ (Quoted in Merritt: 105) Despite conciliatory tendencies on both sides, however, the show-down of the nineties appears inevitable in retrospect.

Wages were not really the central issue. The Australian Town and Country Journal said of the notorious 1886 advertisement: ‘A reduction of 2s 6d per hundred was not worth the trouble. The saving was too small to give relief.’ (Quoted in Merritt: 94) Later on employers commonly offered good pay to shearers willing to accept the bosses’ terms, in order to undermine the ASU. George Mair, bitter enemy of unions, thought that the shearing rate was ‘comparatively unimportant ... The question is whether we shall preserve to ourselves the control of our business, or put ourselves under the rule of our own workmen.’ (Quoted in Buckley and Wheelwright: 180) However it is true that if the bosses began to lose control, they feared ruinous wage demands would follow. From 1889 the anti-union elements among pastoralists began to mobilise, and stronger employer organizations took shape.

The ASU’s conciliatory stance was genuine. At the same time, however, its leaders saw collaboration with management in the context of institutionalizing their presence in the industry and enforcing the closed shop. This was incompatible with employer demands for ‘freedom of contract’. For both sides, therefore, the key issue was who controlled the industry.

By 1890, pastoral unionism was losing momentum and the bosses were becoming more aggressive. Union strength was also under threat from new shearing machines that made it easier to replace skilled shearers with novices. A concerned ASU leadership began looking to the maritime unions for assistance, as did the Queensland Shearers’ Union, an independent body competing with the ASU. During a conflict over the closed shop at Jondaryan station on the Darling Downs, the Queenslanders explored the possibility of a port blockade to stop the transport of non-union wool They also looked to the Australian Labor Federation (a force in Queensland, though virtually non-existent elsewhere) to organise solidarity.

The ASU likewise allied itself with the New South Wales maritime unions, ensuring that the Sydney Trades and Labor Council also fell into line, although some conservative elements would have preferred not to back the shearers. An ASU manifesto called on unionists ‘to draw such a cordon around the Australian continent as will effectively prevent a bale of wool leaving unless shorn by union shearers.’ (Quoted in Merritt: 161). Ultimately, however, these initiatives were swallowed up in the great 1891 strikes. The Queensland union as well as Spence and Temple had hoped that the wool issue would remain isolated from other work on the wharves, which in turn might allow the unions to divide the pastoral employers from the shipping companies. But the generalized conflict of 1891 was to have just the opposite effect.

The general climate of worker optimism and union advance during the late eighties had begun to breed solidarity across sectional boundaries. Although craft unions generally still guarded against incursions from the less skilled, craft barriers were not absolute. In 1886 workers in one of the New South Wales railways formed a single union open to porters, signal operators, guards and blacksmiths. Around the same time, the 250-strong Mildura Land and Labour Union combined engineers, shed hands and unskilled grubbing gangs. ‘This wasn’t just a notional grouping, as in 1889 engineers combined with grubbbers in striking to support local shedhands’ claims for increased wage rates.’ (Maddison: 126)

One test for the quality of union solidarity was efforts to organize women. This was an area where sectional prejudice ran deep. New South Wales unions only tackled the task in the late eighties, when union confidence was high. The Boot Trade Union, established in August 1889, was open to both males and females; a male member later told the Commission on Strikes that women’s work was ‘better done than the men could do it’. The TLC then attempted to create a Tailoresses’ Union, holding an initial meeting of thirty workers. Peter Strong, former leader of the Tailors’ Association, became the first President. ‘Two years later Strong was to admit how he had fought against female labour for thirty years, and how it had only been during the late eighties that he had recognised the futility of the exercise. It was only then that he had set about trying to organise women workers.’ (Nicol: 21, 22)

In 1890 the TLC established a general Organising committee, which moved to organise laundresses and to create a Female Employees’ Society. The laundresses struck in September, 1891 over the sacking of a fellow worker. During the dispute Miss Creo Stanley became the first female delegate to the TLC, winning applause when she declared that she was ‘not afraid of any man in the council; no, nor any press representative at the table yonder.’ (Nicol: 21-25)

The Sydney unions also had many failings. Stanley was to resign her seat five months later, protesting at the ‘unmanly and insulting conduct of brother unionists’. (Quoted in Scates: p. 81) The Typographers declared women’s membership unconstitutional, and even female-dominated industries were generally represented by male delegates on the Trades and Labor Council. In 1899 the TLC settled a dispute at Hirschman’s factory in Redfern on terms that excluded women from the union. However this decision was only approved by a small majority, and it quickly provoked criticism in the pages of The Worker.

The General Labourers’ Union allied with the ASU sought to organise women workers in Sydney, Melbourne and a number of country centres, while Rose Summerville worked with tailoresses, domestic servants and boot trade employees. Unfortunately these efforts were not very successful and faltered in the subsequent economic depression.

Crisis of the nineties

The nineties brought economic depression, and with it a great confrontation between capital and labour. Labour’s defeat in that confrontation would bring about sufficient class peace to make possible a fragile ‘national consensus’, including an industrial arbitration system, which in turn made possible federation of the colonies and partial independence as a nation state.

How closely were the economic and industrial developments linked? Pioneering labour historian Brian Fitzpatrick suggested that great industrial confrontations began in 1890 because ‘this was the time at which, a long period of prosperity having unmistakably closed, capitalists decided that the time for making concessions to the unions had closed also.’ (Fitzpatrick: 113) Actually social conflicts and economic turning points are seldom quite so neatly juxtaposed.

Raw growth figures do show the continental economy peaking in 1889, but once these are adjusted for inflation the peak shifts to 1891. Stuart Svensen argues that pastoralists’ profits were holding up well in the run-up to the great strikes. (Svensen, Sinews, ch 2) Apparently the onset of depression came after the strikes commenced. On the other hand, the years preceding them were full of danger signs. There was certainly a recession in Victoria, where the land boom collapsed and employment began to fall. Even in NSW, the jobless rate rose to 4.7% in 1891 and 7.6% among the industrial work force. (Markey: 39)

The very discrepancy between GDP trends in current and constant prices reflects the onset of significant disinflation, usually a sign of recession. There was excess capacity in much of industry -- two rival shipping cartels were locked in a ruinous price war -- while at the same time the unions were pursuing aggressive wage claims. These facts undoubtedly encouraged capital to take a harder line with organised labour in 1890, and depression conditions eventually made it possible for them to thoroughly crush union aspirations.

The maritime strike

Two issues normally feature in discussing the origins of the maritime strike: the clash at the Jondaryan shearing shed, and the marine officers’ attempts to organise. Jondaryan, as we have seen, was not so much about money as about control of the work process. This was also true of the marine officers’ dispute.

These officers had been asking for better pay and conditions for six years with little result. They were now demanding a £2 pay rise, but would have settled for half that. The money was not a major problem for the steamship companies, the largest of which actually conceded a £1 rise in July 1890. What became the key issue for the employers was the Marine Officers’ Association (MOA) decision to affiliate with the Victorian Trades Hall Council. The MOA’s members were, after all, officers. Affiliation with the THC might mean their involvement in wider industrial disputes, on the side of the workers. This could jeopardize employer control.

It is true that the Marine Engineers had long been affiliated with the union movement, and the MOA’s affiliation had not mattered much to their employers a couple of weeks before. Moreover the MOA had sought to allay any fears – that’s why it had joined the THC rather than the Maritime Council, a separate body where it would have been more directly linked to other maritime unions. Despite these efforts the ship owners provoked their strike with a fairly insulting letter, after failing to goad them into industrial action on a different issue two days earlier. On this basis Svensen presents the affiliation as ‘a pseudo-issue’, a pretext for employers keen to provoke a strike. (Svensen, Sinews: 88) That only makes sense if we focus narrowly on the machinations of a cabal of ship owners. Against the background of a wider class mobilization on both sides, this clash of management and union rights takes on considerable symbolic importance.

If two apparently unrelated disputes, Jondaryan and the marine officers, awakened very similar fears in the capitalist mind, this flowed from the scale and perceived ambitions of the continental labour movement. In employer circles there was worried talk of ‘federated labour’. What they meant was not so much the politically inspired Australian Labour Federation (never operational outside Queensland), but rather the conspicuous growth of industrial solidarity in practice -- demonstrated by the 1888 maritime dispute and the port blockade over Jondaryan. They also worried about the rise of a national labour leadership:

... an employer had only to touch the lamp of trade unionism and out popped that evil genie, William Guthrie Spence. He seemed to be omnipresent -- hovering over the miners, the shearers, the general labourers, and now the waterfront... (Rickard: 17)

Such developments seemed to raise the spectre of a general strike, or even social revolution, so naturally they made the employers more open to the idea of systematic organisation of their own.

Before 1890 employer organisation was still somewhat fragmentary, so that we cannot meaningfully ask what the capitalists ‘decided’ to do in 1890. The extensive mobilization of the bourgeoisie behind a coherent leadership and, somewhat later, a fighting program was a product of circumstances, and also of political argument and maneuver. Capitalist attitudes were initially quite diverse, partly reflecting different economic conditions. Among most groups of employers, as among the pastoralists, there were those who accepted unionism and those who loathed it, with a majority willing to go either way for commercial advantage. Some industries were better placed to fight a strike: most importantly, the ship owners presided over a compact and cartellized industry, so they represented a logical vanguard force.

In NSW, class divisions were raw and bitter; they were less so in Victoria where more owners of small manufacturing firms were still close to their working class origins, protectionist ideology convinced sections of the labour movement that the employers were their friend, and liberal politicians owed their seats to workers’ votes. Consequently the strike was less bitter in Victoria. However by the late 1880s things were changing in Victoria, too, as manufacturing firms grew larger and employers more arrogant. The Victorian Employers’ Union, prodded by the anti-union boot manufacturer John Mair, was reconsidering its original support for the colony’s industrial Board of Conciliation at the time the strike broke out. During the strike itself, Victorian employers took a fairly hard line.

Despite the factors pushing capitalists towards a united stand, they could not have held together without a minority of hawks taking leadership. The most important was master stevedore Alfred Lamb. Lamb owned one of the main firms loading wool for export, served as a vice-president of the NSW Employers’ Union, and was MLA for West Sydney. He began collecting signatures on a document committing stevedores to load non-union wool, and prevailed on them to put up a cash bond to back up the commitment. Lamb, who was also close to the leadership of the Pastoralists Union of NSW, next persuaded key members of that body to pledge support for only those stevedores who had signed his agreement. After locking in some other, additional players, he traveled to Melbourne and repeated the exercise. Meanwhile the shipowners were assembling a £20,000 defence fund.

This was an exercise in conscious class organization, probably based on lessons drawn from the labour movement. There were still doubters, even important ones such as Jesse Gregson, superintendent of the Australian Agricultural Company, though Gregson’s reservations were mainly about timing. In addition, there were sectors of industry not yet drawn into the alliance, such as the coal owners. Employers in Victoria and South Australia were generally less aggressive than the hard core of NSW capitalists. However the actual outbreak of the dispute, and the events of the first few weeks, were to overcome most of the remaining hesitation. When mine workers refused to supply coal to scab vessels, the coal owners promptly locked them out. Employer-organized public meetings were well attended, and the bosses’ confidence rose steadily.

As they gained ascendancy in the dispute, the employers began to focus on a single slogan: freedom of contract. The issue had, of course, been on many individual capitalists’ minds and the term had been used in previous disputes. Now it became a triumphant and vindictive rallying cry. ‘From the point of view of the trade unions the calamity of 1890 was that it provided employers with the key for their policy for the next decade.’ (Rickard: 25)

The union leaders were not looking for a strike, any more than they had been eager for any of the major confrontations during the eighties. They seemed to have no choice, the events unfolding remorselessly. The ASU leadership believed its membership was shaky, and that the closed shop was the only way to shore it up. Temple and Spence hoped the mere threat of port blockades, as in the Jondaryan case, would be enough to bring about a settlement without the need for any real industrial mobilization. This strategy relied on keeping the wool issue separate from other grievances concerning the maritime unions, yet in the event, the alliance between unionists of port and bush actually helped bring on a general conflict, while also uniting the employers. The MOA, meanwhile, would have accepted any reasonable settlement; the trouble was that by mid-August the employers no longer wanted one. A trenchant, explicitly anti-union letter from the ship owners convinced the marine officers to break off negotiations.

As ships came into port, marine officers and seamen walked off ships, and waterside workers joined the stoppage; other groups of workers were either locked out or struck work in solidarity. The struggle was eventually to involve around 50,000 Australian unionists and 10,000 New Zealanders.

Although the union leaders did not want the strike and many worried privately about the consequences, still there was initially a mood of confidence, not to say optimism in labour ranks. The impressive growth of working class organization, as well as the general climate of public sympathy for the labour cause, had boosted worker hopes as well as employer fears. Unfortunately union organization also had serious weaknesses. Numbers had risen rapidly and the unions had made gains, but the newer unions lacked experience and discipline. Only the coal miners had much recent experience with prolonged strikes. The image of strong, even dictatorial centralised organization was a mirage. The outbreak of hostilities at the waterfront caught Spence himself unawares. ‘I have often wondered how it was I knew nothing about it at the time,’ he later remarked, ‘but I was taken by surprise to hear the officers had walked out.’ (Quoted in Rickard: 29) An Intercolonial Labour Conference did not convene until 12 September, by which time the strike was well on its way to defeat.

At the same time, those sections of public opinion represented by the middle classes and liberal elements of the bourgeoisie were less reliably pro-labour than either unionists or employers had realised. Capitalists discovered the effectiveness of law-and-order sentiment in mobilizing the middle layers of society for reactionary ends, and at least neutralizing the liberals. The supposedly pro-union Melbourne Age portrayed the strike as ‘an unarmed insurrection of class against class’ (Rickard 23), while Victorian authorities seized on a gas workers’ strike to breed panic about what criminals might get up in the dark streets. Whereas previously society’s middle layers had often sympathized with labour, especially in Victoria, the prospect of generalized class warfare made them more open to law-and-order sentiments, which in turn supplied the political basis for such liberal politicians as Henry Parkes and Alfred Deakin to deploy troops against the strikers.

Most dangerous of all was the availability of ‘free labour’. Some of this came from the middle classes, or from recent arrivals in the colonies with no local loyalties. But others were unemployed workers, mainly unskilled, whom the unions had too often ignored. That respectable institution, the Melbourne Trades Hall, stood conspicuously aloof from the frequent waves of agitation among the unemployed; it was left to socialists and anarchists to organise thousands of jobless workers at Queen’s Wharf at the start of August 1890. Perhaps the Trades Hall found this element too radical -- the demonstrators did indeed try to throw a police contingent into the harbour. But the unions might have done more to organize the unskilled and build relations with the unemployed; they were to pay a high price for their failures as one employer after another found scabs to replace unionists on the job.

Support for the labour cause flowed from as far away as London, where dockers, remembering the aid rendered from the antipodes in 1889, raised £15-20,000; and 4000 people rallied in Victoria Park. Far greater crowds gathered in Australian centres. The greatest crowd came together in Melbourne on 31 August. Between 50,000 and 100,000 people, in a city of 400,000 souls, assembled at Flinders Park. Despite the best efforts of radical agitators at the fringe, it was a highly respectable gathering with much talk from the main platform about the virtues of arbitration and even the right of blacklegs to work unmolested. The bourgeoisie were perhaps relieved; they had been fretting about possible disturbances. On the previous day, Colonel Tom Price had assembled two hundred armed troopers and issued a notorious instruction:

I do not think your aid will be required, but if it is, let there be no half measures with what you do ... if the order is given to fire, don’t let me see one rifle pointed up in the air. Fire low and lay them out ... (Quoted in Svenson, Sinews: 129)

Price later claimed he was only citing government regulations, which did in fact require troops to fire low. Union supporters still took his words as demonstrating the authorities’ capability for partisan violence. The state was certainly mobilizing its repressive forces against them: by the end of the strike, 3,283 special constables had been sworn in, drawn overwhelmingly from the middle classes: company clerks, managers, and upper level public servants. Price’s ancestry made him an ideal symbol of repression, for his father was John Giles Price, the sadistic Norfolk Island prison commandant killed by a crowd of convicts at Williamstown in 1857.

Rallies and processions in Sydney were smaller, yet still sizeable. An initial march only attracted some 7,000 participants; but it was followed a week later by what the Sydney Morning Herald called ‘one of the largest displays of the kind yet seen in Australia’. The lower portion of George Street was ‘filled by a seething mass of humanity. It seemed as though all Sydney were out to participate in or gaze upon the spectacle of labour defying capital.’ Contingents from all the trades seemed to be on the march, which extended for a mile and a half. The anti-union Herald was quick to claim that ‘from the many thousands of sightseers there were no manifestations of sympathy’, reporting that a large majority of the members of the Sydney Stock Exchange had joined the Employers’ Union, along with ‘the Associated Warehousemen in a body’. (Sydney Morning Herald, 8.9.90:5. Fitzgerald, p. 10, claims those lining the march route were ‘mostly well-wishers’ but does not provide a source). Whatever the exact distribution of public sentiment, this was a sharply polarized city.

It was a fitting climate for a group of leading Sydney employers to attempt their greatest provocation: the transport of wool through Sydney streets to Circular Quay on 19 September. Trolleymen and draymen had struck work and engaged in some determined picketing, but had not stopped the employers transporting wool by lighter from Darling Harbour. ‘A work-gang of wool-brokers, auctioneers, squatters, bankers, lawyers, lackeys and millionaires ... in morning suits, top hats and lemon gloves’ assisted by special constables drove ten trolleys of wool to the Quay amidst wild scenes. Thousands lined the streets and stared from windows, many hurling abuse and missiles, until finally mounted troopers forcibly dispersed a crowd at Circular Quay itself. The aim was apparently to provoke a riot, leading to the arrest of strike leaders, and perhaps to bring about the deployment of British troops from visiting warships against the unionists; but the union leaders were not involved in the riot and the latter parts of the scheme came to nothing. (Svensen, Sinews: 177) As a matter of fact, given the size of the conflict, the amount of violence on the part of unionists throughout the strike was fairly small, a fact attested to by the NSW Inspector-General of Police (Fosbery: 628).

By this time the unions were already on their way to defeat. Calling out the NSW shearers in late September was an act of desperation. Thousands of unionists who had already made generous donations to strike funds now responded gallantly to the call, but paid a terrible price in lost wages and victimization; thousands of others found ways to avoid conflict with the employers. Either way it made little difference to the result. On 31 October, the Marine Officers informed the Melbourne Trades Hall they were withdrawing from membership, and different sections of the union movement threw in the towel at different times over the next two months. Some miners did not return to work until January 1991.

Continuing conflict

As the strike front crumbled the more hawkish employers set about imposing the cruelest of terms. Bosses refused to even talk to union leaders, militants endured victimization, workers had to disavow their union to get a chance of employment; -- even scabs sometimes suffered as the delights of ‘freedom of contract’ descended on the colonies. ‘Free labourers’ working for the Australasian United Steam Navigation Company went on strike in both Brisbane and Sydney over pay cuts, as did a group of blackleg miners at Mt Kembla.

The leading employers’ merciless stance provoked further changes in sentiment among the middle class and among liberal elements of the bourgeoisie. Calls from newspapers and politicians for the bosses to moderate their position had little impact on the course of the dispute. However they lent impetus to the growing sentiment for institutionalized conciliation and arbitration. Henry Parkes, who had previously opposed any role for government, appointed a Royal Commission more or less designed to bring down a recommendation in favour of arbitration.

Squabbling and recriminations were common in labour’s ranks as defeat loomed. By October, the strike leadership in Sydney was reported to be spending much of its time in personal altercations. In the Melbourne Trades Hall Council, the rank and file accused Trenwith of withholding information, while NSW shearers had complained in late September about bureaucratic mismanagement and a situation where ‘fat billets are made for secretaries, delegates, reps and their hosts of relatives’. (Quoted in Merritt: 167) There was nothing inherently left wing about these criticisms from the members, in fact the shearers were complaining about having to go on strike. However there are some indications that rank and file activists showed greater militancy than the union officials during the maritime strike. J.H. Storey, President of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce, told that body’s annual meeting that ‘the [union] men themselves seem disposed to even throw over their own leaders to achieve their ends.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 24.7.1890: 7).

The defeat of 1890 was severe, yet by no means absolute. In some places the unions even made membership gains in the aftermath. The NSW TLC reported ‘a steady persistent advocacy of Unionism which must bear fruit as soon as the existing depression passes away,’ (Quoted in Rickard: 37) while the ASU leaders were still arguing in 1891 that a full season of shearing would allow the union to rebuild its position. Some workers had actually won victories. These included Broken Hill miners and some of the Adelaide unions, who were benefiting from a temporary economic upswing caused by the rapid development of the Broken Hill mines, and whose position was not yet undermined by unemployment. There were also small shipping companies along the east coast that came to terms with the unions, in order to seize market share from their bigger rivals.

It was the severity of the depression that fatally weakened the union movement, by creating mass unemployment. Even so, the organized workers put up stiff resistance to attacks on wages and conditions in a series of further disputes: the Queensland shearers’ strike of 1891, the 1892 Broken Hill disputes, the 1893 seamen’s strike, and the shearing dispute strike of 1894 were all bitterly fought, even though they mostly ended in union defeats.

The Queensland dispute was a virtual sequel to the maritime strike, in which Queensland shearers had not been involved. By mid-September 1890, once the outcome of the maritime strike could be clearly foreseen, pastoralists in the northern colony began mobilizing under the leadership of George Fairbairn. Once again, they focused on issues of control. They took exception to QSU policies which embraced right of entry for union organisers, and which demanded that shearers alone decide whether sheep were too wet to shear. In addition, the employers wanted wage cuts and ‘freedom of contract’. The QSU and the allied Queensland Labourers’ Union (QLU) would not accept these terms.

Unfortunately for the unions, the strike began early in the year. General shearing was not until July. The unions considered accepting the bosses’ terms for a few months, then repudiating the agreement in July, but decided this was politically unviable. The consequence, however, was that the unionists had begun to exhaust their resources before the most important part of the shearing season had even begun. In addition, they were up against a steady flow of strikebreakers, especially from Melbourne where unemployment was high, and a massive show of force by the Queensland government. Finally, fund-raising efforts were disappointing with southern workers less able to help after their own defeats.

Long months of frustration in strike camps inevitably led to minor cases of violence, which the authorities seized on as an excuse for repression. In March 1891 group of strikers at Clermont jostled and abused four employer officials; arrests ensued, and more police and soldiers arrived. Later in the month the main strike leaders at Barcaldine were arrested; by 4 April there had been sixty-one arrests and more were to follow. Eleven unionists received sentences of three years with hard labour. By April, defeat was staring the shearers in the face and divisions emerged in their ranks, with one section calling for more aggressive tactics and others drifting back to work. When shearing spread southwards, sections of the Carriers Union decided not to strike. By June the last shearers were throwing in the sponge.

The Queensland events were rich in symbolism. The romance of mounted and armed shearers, sometimes declaiming about revolution, is compelling to this day, though actually the vast majority of the strikers were determinedly non-violent. More significantly, it was here that the capitalist state revealed its full repressive power. Something like 2,000 troops, police and special constables entered the fray, though this was not enough to satisfy some. Judge George Rogers Harding, presiding at the trial after the Clermont events, criticised police for not firing on strikers. ‘There would not have been many who boo-hooed the second time if I had been one of them,’ announced Harding. When a defence lawyer objected that ‘You can’t shoot a man for disorderly conduct,’ Harding retorted: ‘Very probably they could find justification.’ (Quoted in Svensen, Shearers: 173) Around the time of this trial, Henry Lawson’s verse appeared, warning that workers should not be blamed ‘if blood should stain the wattle’.

Despite deteriorating economic conditions, the unions did rather better in the 1894 strike which embraced Queensland, NSW, SA and Victoria -- all, by this time, under the banner of the Australian Workers’ Union, uniting shearers and labourers. This dispute saw more violence than the earlier ones, with unionists acutely aware by now of what they were up against, and sometimes feeling fairly desperate. At one shed police and strikers exchanged forty rounds of rifle file. A worker died. River steamers transporting scabs became targets for attack, culminating on the night of 6 August with the seizure of the Rodney, which militants burnt to the waterline. Abductions of scabs and brawls in country towns were commonplace. Colonial governments intervened repeatedly on the employers’ side.

While the Queensland section of the AWU pulled out of the strike relatively early, in western NSW and western Victoria the traditionally strongest branches of the union gave the pastoralists a stiffer fight than expected. Their timing was also better, as the call-out in these areas came at the time of general shearing. Some of the employers had chastening experiences with incompetent ‘free labourers’, and had to accommodate the unions. There were numerous compromise agreements, and even though the strike eventually petered out it was probably a partial victory for the AWU, in that it halted the momentum of employer attacks for a time. Unfortunately, steadily worsening unemployment over the next few years made further falls in wages and declines in union membership inevitable, in what Spence was later to call the ‘dark days’ of the AWU. (Quoted in Merritt: 260)

Meanwhile Broken Hill unions had taken a hammering. BHP had locked out its miners during the maritime strike, ostensibly because of transport difficulties. Unionists thought employers were punishing them for raising funds in support of the strikers, and accused them of insider trading (dumping shares before the lockout, then buying them back on the cheap). However it may simply have been a matter of loyalty among capitalists, for BHP management had financial links to other key employers. Management soon paid a price for its actions: not only did 5,000 unionists meet to protest; not only did local business call for an end to the lockout; but shareholders were aggrieved to see a stoppage while silver prices were high. The bosses retreated and the unions pressed home their advantage, pushing up wages and cutting the working week from 48 to 46 hours.

However by 1892, amidst falling silver prices, the mine owners were ready to enforce ‘freedom of contract’. They scrapped all agreements with the unions, provoking a four-month strike. Workers’ organizations were thoroughly smashed amidst fierce repression -- at one point police with fixed bayonets surrounded the union headquarters -- and several strike leaders served time in prison. A year later the seamen failed to resist savage wage cuts, their strike broken within a month by repression and blacklegs.

With trade unionism badly weakened and the depression deepening, the unemployed staged desperate struggles. Crowds of ragged jobless gathered regularly at Melbourne’s Queen’s Wharf or Sydney’s domain. No longer confined to a fringe element in a few slum neighborhoods as the unemployed had been during the eighties, the crowds became more assertive. They ‘paraded’ through the streets, gathering numbers in industrial suburbs and then invading the city centres:

Bearing banners by day and torches by night, they transformed the city into an arena of social conflict. Often they marched in military formation … In May 1892 Melbourne’s unemployed, the self-styled " Second Victorian Regiment" attempted to storm the steps of parliament … Other demonstrators forced their way through the bishop’s gardens, marched on the governor’s residence, and harangued representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and the Salvation Army. (Scates: 153)

Melbourne’s wives and mothers marched on the city’s parliamentary buildings, pleading for work for their husbands and sons, but also demanding work for themselves, ‘besieging the labour bureau and asserting their "right" to register’; in September ‘police noted the effect three female orators had upon a crowd gathered outside St Paul’s Cathedral … Their audience numbered 600 people, at least fifty of whom were women.’ (Scates: 158)

The new Labor MPs offered precious little help. W.A. Trenwith, whose election campaign had appealed specifically to the jobless, forgot about them once in office. When questioned, he said the government should be approached ‘in the proper spirit’; in response to cries of outrage he then pontificated about the ‘indecent excesses’ of unemployed demonstrators. (Scates: 164)

The unemployed, on their own, could not sustain an effective political movement and were sometimes diverted into destructive dead-ends. Anarchist proposals to solve the employment crisis by bombing rich people’s homes were relatively harmless, as long as no one acted on them. The same couldn’t be said for four hundred women who marched along Melbourne’s Russell Street, ‘tapping rather heavily with their umbrellas at the glass windows and doors … of Chinese laundries’ and ‘loudly groaning’ at any Chinese they passed. (Scates: 159) These were symptoms of weakness despair in the wake of labour’s defeat.

Why had the unions lost so many strikes so badly? Economic conditions were an important factor, especially in the later disputes. Unionists also reflected on their failure to adequately organise the unorganized or establish solidarity with the unemployed. But the greatest issue in union activists’ minds was politics. Governments, though claiming to be a neutral party upholding the law, had repeatedly intervened for the employers. Even a sizeable number of supposed friends of labour among liberal MPs had supported this. The solution seemed obvious: it was time for labour to launch its own political party. But that is a huge topic in its own right. We turn instead to a related phenomenon …

Industrial arbitration.

Schemes for resolving industrial disputes were nothing new; and neither were plans to regulate wages and conditions -- but they had always met resistance from unions and employers alike. The crisis of the nineties, which unleashed a hunt for solutions to social problems, made both sides think again. In New South Wales, Henry Parkes embraced arbitration for the first time, even giving his Royal Commission on Strikes terms of reference which pointed in that direction. By the middle of the decade, serious moves were underway. Some colonies relied on factory legislation and wages boards, while New South Wales adopted the arbitration system that became the national model after federation. A look at Victoria and NSW will highlight some of the differences, while also demonstrating important elements of common ground.

The Victorian system emerged from campaigns against sweating. Victoria had more women and children working in factories, and the depression had both increased the numbers and worsened the conditions. This horrified respectable opinion, for reasons ranging from the genuinely humanitarian to a stuffy moralism which thought it improper for females to work in industry. Accordingly, the Turner government’s Factory Act regulated labour and provided for a minimum wage in certain industries. Wages boards, comprising elected employer and employee representatives, were to administer this under a supposedly neutral chair. The Act was modest in scope but important in its longer term implications, because Labor MP George Prendergast successfully moved to extend the minimum wage to males, and the wages boards were later extended to other industries.

Being very popular, the reforms went through with a minimum of fuss, despite obstruction from the upper house and sections of employers. Although Trades Hall was supportive the reforms were, like the anti-sweating movement itself, not primarily a labour initiative. Leading Anti-Sweating League figures included clergymen and respectable ladies devoted to the paternalistic motto: ‘The union of all who love in the service of all who suffer.’ Similarly, it was liberal middle class politicians who pushed through the Factory Acts. Colonial liberals had previously shied away from state intervention, but many changed their minds in the nineties.

While some capitalists resisted the Boards, others accepted or even supported them – well over a hundred employers in the cigar, saddlery, marble mason, printing and tanning trades signed petitions in their favour. Country employers were generally exempted and therefore did not object, while some urban manufacturers had good grounds to endorse reform. Free trade interests had long argued that tariff protection fostered uncompetitive sweatshops, claims that grew louder amidst the misery of the nineties, so manufacturers sought to deflect criticism by championing regulation and the minimum wage. Some hoped, in fact, that a minimum wage might discipline their less scrupulous competitors.

Manufacturers also looked to the labour movement as a political ally. They lacked the social prestige and institutionalized political power (through the upper house, for example) enjoyed by pastoral or financial capital, and consequently needed the voting base that labour supplied. This was especially important with federation on the horizon, and tactical maneuvres already underway to set the tariff policies of a future federal government.

Some writers see the wages boards as the outcome of an alliance between male workers, employers and the arbitration system to disadvantage women. (Frances 1976, Lee 1987). The argument is that the arbitration system entrenched gender divisions and the family wage, in ways that benefited male workers to the detriment of females. Males monopolized skilled jobs and used the family wage concept to exclude females from ‘male’ jobs generally. This argument presumes that male unionists exercised power and could enforce their will. But that wasn’t the case.

Firstly, although Arbitration embraced and reproduced sexism like other social institutions, gender divisions were hardly something new. Almost everyone took them for granted, including those who suffered most. Secondly, skilled jobs were a small sector of the labour market which most men couldn’t enter either. Thirdly, male tradesmen were not all that successful at excluding women. Moreover, exclusionary tactics weren’t always directed at women (they were also used to exclude male Chinese or to limit the number of men and boys entering particular trades), nor were they exclusively masculine:

It is well known that tailoresses were elitist in their attitude toward other women workers in the clothing industry … As Frances points out, dressmakers and milliners saw themselves as "artists rather than craftswomen". Separate unions existed for stock and order hands until 1897. Outworkers were excluded from these unions on the grounds that members "did not want to be dragged down to the outworkers’ level". (Louise Walker, unpublished manuscript.)

One reason the Tailoresses’ union declined is that, when employers responded to higher factory wages by using more outworkers, the union floundered. Hostility to outworkers who were undermining wage rates led to irrational refusals to admit them to the union. The Tailoresses repeated the error of male crafts, who sought to preserve an elite status by excluding women and the unskilled both from employment and from trade unions. Thus, far from reflecting union power, sectional divisions were both a symptom and a cause of union weakness. The same was true of arbitration itself, which took root nationally in the aftermath of major union defeats.

The birth of arbitration was no more difficult in New South Wales than Victoria, though forms and processes differed. Premier George Reid dominated the parliament for several years with Labor support, after fighting a demagogic 1895 election campaign around what were actually very modest proposals for land taxation and reform of the upper house. In 1899 Labor switched its support to his rivals, and the Reid government fell. But the 1901 Arbitration Act represented the end of a process begun by Parkes a decade earlier, a process not really the property of any one parliamentary faction.

NSW Labor, it is true, played a greater role in establishing arbitration than in Victoria, but then Labor was a stronger force in New South Wales generally. Initially, the labour movement harboured considerable opposition to the whole idea -- resistance from both capital and labour was stronger in class-polarized New South Wales. The unions which generally favoured it were those attempting to organise large, far-flung groups of workers employed on a temporary basis (shearers and maritime workers), or with particular local traditions (coal miners), or facing intense antagonism from the employer (the railways).

Most urban unions were not enthusiastic, and had opposed non-compulsory arbitration bills in 1882 and 1888. Industrial defeat undoubted increased union supported for regulated settlement of disputes, just as it reduced enthusiasm from employers who now felt able to dominate the industrial scene. Yet the unions still held back from support for a similar bill in 1892, and soon felt vindicated: the 1892 Act lost credibility in union eyes when the employers refused to submit the Broken Hill strike to its machinery.

Leftists such as W.G. Higgs, editor of the Australian Workman, and TLC delegates Jamie Moroney and John Dwyer led the opposition inside the labour movement, and in 1900 the socialist journal People and Collectivist was still warning:

...when this knock-kneed thing has become law, the class war will still go on; the worker will still be robbed of the major portion of the wealth he creates; and his great concern is not how he might temporize with the robber ... his great concern is rather how to get rid of the robber. (Quoted by Markey 1989: 168)

Not until 1898 did NSW Labor include arbitration in its fighting program. By this time the Labor Party was in the hands of the AWU and urban politicians -- some of the latter with a socialist background but increasingly remote from the rank and file. Thus the Labor party elements which helped introduce arbitration were somewhat similar to the middle class reformers of Victoria, or the lawyers who populated all colonial parliaments. Those union officials who backed arbitration often did so out of a conservative impulse. Aware of worker bitterness after the great strikes, they feared that without institutions to channel industrial disputes, when the next upheaval occurred, ‘it would be perfectly impossible for any leaders to control it’. (Quoted in O’Connor: 362)

As in Victoria, the capitalists were divided, with some in the countryside prepared to support arbitration. The hard liners who had mobilized the employing class during the maritime strike could not repeat their success on this occasion. The employers’ disarray found expression in the contradictory and opportunistic arguments the anti-arbitration forces put forward around the turn of the century. They opposed federal legislation as ‘an encroachment upon the rights of the States’, yet they thought the NSW legislation undesirable ‘inasmuch as conciliation and arbitration specifically reserved in the Federal Constitution for the Federal Parliament’. Having made voluntary arbitration unworkable, they nevertheless opposed compulsion on the grounds that ‘voluntary arbitration worked extremely well’. (Quoted by Plowman: 138)

Like their southern counterparts, NSW Labor was able to form an alliance with the protectionist faction. In this colony protectionism was strongest in rural areas, and much weaker than in Victoria; the alliance prefigured the eventual decline of this faction and the triumph of Labor as a major party in the bush.

Arbitration and Victorian-style wages boards were originally seen as incompatible alternatives; the former being understood as a mechanism for settling disputes rather than for regulation. However just as the wages boards extended far beyond their original domain, so arbitration grew to include awards that set wages and conditions. In both colonies, moves to institutionalize class collaboration pointed towards introduction of the aged pension and assistance to the unemployed, since critics of labour market regulation warned it would create unemployment, especially among older workers. In both colonies, arbitration also encouraged wider organization of both capital and labour, since neither wages boards nor arbitration tribunals could deal with each workplace or employee separately. Dozens of new unions sprang up, including some bogus outfits sponsored by employers, and the capitalists’ own organizations flourished as well.

In neither colony, nor anywhere in Australia, did wages boards or arbitration achieve much for workers. Bosses found no end of ways to safeguard their interests. When the Wages Board for the Victorian fellmongering industry fixed standard hours at forty-eight per week, all its employer representatives resigned. After an ensuing court battle went against them, a majority of the employers closed their businesses and sacked their employees. As a consequence, the 1902 factory act effectively gave the bosses a right of veto. Moreover the Victorian system gave no special place to trade unionists. Non-union employees also served on the boards. Employers might even pressure worker representatives; in fact four out of five employee members of the jam industry board lost their jobs after voting to increase wages.

Arbitration did give the unions official standing, but this was a mixed blessing for workers, since it also further increased the authority of the full time officials who were becoming increasingly dominant in the union movement. Billy Hughes, for example, emerged as the dominant figure in the Wharf Labourers’ Union and sought to ensure it confined its efforts to the arbitration system rather than taking strike action. Hughes hoped that the federal Arbitration Court would ‘enforce upon the men the very necessary lesson that unionism has responsibilities’. (Quoted by Macintyre: 196)

The federal Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1904 did not establish any wage-fixing principles based on sex. It was the Arbitration Court itself that established these through cases such as the 1907 Harvester Judgement and the Fruitpickers’ Case, in which Justice Higgins established a ‘family wage’ benchmark. Contrary to the conventional view blaming organised labour for sex discrimination, the union demanded equal pay in the Fruitpickers’ Case -- but Justice Higgins decided otherwise, on the grounds that a man had to support a family.

Arbitration and the wages boards were neither a bosses’ plot nor a triumph for the labour movement, but rather the institutional form for social peace which emerged from the crisis of the nineties. It is therefore no mystery, from the Marxist perspective, that neither of the two main classes in society made the running in the debates around industrial regulation and wage fixing, and that the initiative fell instead to middle layers: liberal reformers, professional politicians, full time trade union officials. These are precisely the elements that most yearn for industrial peace. With no consistent opposition from either capitalists or workers, they were able to shape institutions for administering and preserving capitalist industrial relations. Including, of course, the ultimate power of the boss -- for as that great advocate of arbitration, Alfred Deakin, was later to remark: ‘The fundamental principle of our social system is inequality, and on that its health depends.’ (Quoted by Macintyre: 194).


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