Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

1890s depression: Strikes defeated, new workers party created

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Attacks on living standards and workers rights in periods of economic downturn are nothing new. Over 120 years ago workers in Australia had to grapple with these very same things.

By Marisa Bernardi, Socialist Party

When Australia went into recession in 1890 the bosses, the banks and the government decided that workers were going to shoulder the burden. To do this they had to break the then new and successful trade union movement. They launched a war – a class war.

In the years before the 1890s depression workers had fought for, and won, the right to form and be represented by unions. They also won a minimum wage and the eight hour day. They demanded the right to have a decent standard of living.

As economic downturn struck the bosses wanted to wind all this back. They wanted to bring back individual work contracts and get rid of union representation. They wanted wages slashed and working hours increased.

Between 1890-1894 four major battles took place as workers resisted these attacks. The first was the maritime strike of 1890. It involved firstly maritime officers, but spread to seaman, carters, shearers, wharf labourers and coal miners.

A year later there was the shearers strike of 1891 in Queensland, followed by the miners’ strike of 1892 and then the shearers strike of 1894. Each of these strikes lasted a few months, but they were struggles about who would carry the burden of the depression.

The strikes showed the determination of workers not to give up what they had won through struggle. Ordinary working people were not prepared to pay for a crisis created by capitalism. The strikes were furthermore fought with a fury and relentlessness never before seen in Australian industrial disputes.

The bosses, with generous support from the government, used everything at their disposal to crush the strikes. Old laws and new laws were used to jail strikers. Some union leaders were sentenced for up to ten years! They were arrested at bayonet point, marched through the streets in chains and then jailed.

Though police had been used to put down strikes before, it was the first time that military was used. Scabs were taken to work under armed escort, and everything the bosses needed was done with military protection.

The vicious mood of the military could be seen by the horrifying order of Colonel Tom Price to his troops in Melbourne. Rather than aiming their weapons above the strikers heads, they were told to “Fire low and lay them out – lay the disturbers of law and order out, so that the duty will not again have to be performed”.

A government telegram sent to a magistrate in Queensland said, “Don’t dilly dally. Exercise vigour, even if it causes bloodshed”. In the last of the four strikes in particular, anger amongst workers ran high. Street fighting erupted a number of times, wool sheds were burned down and a steamboat, The Rodney, carrying scab labour was captured and burnt.

Despite their immense fight the unions involved in the strikes lost their struggles and the workers were forced back on the bosses terms. “Freedom of contract” (i.e. individual work contracts) saw the employment of non-union labour on lesser wages.

This effectively ended the closed shop and was a huge blow to the workers ability to organise collectively. As a result wages were driven down. While the unions were severely weakened the employers were not able to destroy them altogether.

At the beginning of the strikes the union leaders thought that they could win as they had won a number of other battles with ease before. Unfortunately they underestimated the scale of the struggle and made some fatal mistakes.

Firstly the depression led to high levels of unemployment. Disappointingly the union leaders made no attempt to organise unemployed workers and cut across the ability of employers to drive a wedge between those working and those not. This meant the bosses had a huge pool of labour to pick from to break the strikes.

While around 5% of the workforce was unionised, and most took part in the strikes, there was also division amongst the unions which meant that some unions did not take action to support the movement. These factors combined meant that the union leaders overestimated their strength.

But the biggest mistake the union leaders made was that they underestimated their enemy. They thought that the dispute was merely about wages and conditions whereas the employers and the government understood clearly that this was a much bigger fight – a fight between labour and capital. A fight about who owns and controls the wealth that Australia produced.

Reflecting on their defeat the unions realised that alongside industrial representation and action they also needed political organisation. Unions alone were insufficient and to strengthen their hand in the fight between labour and capital they needed a workers political party. Out of the strike defeats the unions therefore decided to form the Labor Party.

The profit driven system of capitalism forces workers to continually defend their hard won living conditions. Through struggle improvements can be achieved but when the economy declines employers, and the capitalist governments that represent them, attempt to claw the gains back.

Only by replacing capitalism with a system that provides for people’s needs would it be possible to put an end to this constant struggle and share out the wealth that is created democratically and equally. The Labor Party was originally formed by trade unions and socialists in an attempt to overcome this constant struggle. Its aim was to build a new egalitarian society.

The Labor Party of today however is a completely different beast. It has been transformed into a party that stands on the side of capital. Workers today face a similar predicament to workers of the 1890s in the sense that they are without a mass party that represents the interests of labour.

With no mass working class party employers and governments find it much easier to wind back living standards when economic crisis hits. The task ahead is to repeat what was done in the 1890s and build a new political vehicle that represents working class people.

The trade unions, along with community groups and socialists, have an important role to play in the creation of such a force.


The formation of the Labor Party

In the aftermath of the 1890 strike the Balmain Labourers’ Union (predecessor of the Painters and Dockers Union) took some of the first steps to form an independent political party representing labour. Originally called the Labor Electoral League the name was soon changed to the Political Labor League before becoming the Australian Labor Party.

The following article was carried in the Sydney Morning Herald on 6 April 1891.

“A public meeting was held in the Labor Hall, Darling Street Balmain, on Saturday evening, for the purpose of forming the first branch of the Labor Electoral League of New South Wales. The meeting which was organised by the Balmain Labourers’ Union, was a great success.

Amongst those who occupied seats on the platform were several members of the Trades and Labor Council. The various speakers dealt at length upon the principle planks contained in the labor platform recently adopted by the Council and published in these columns, and very strongly urged the necessity of unity and of a solid labor vote at the general elections.

It was pointed out that the workers should sink all prejudices in reference to fiscal policy, and should not allow personal feeling in any way to influence them but to support in a body the candidate chosen by a majority of votes by representatives of the unionists.

All of the speakers considered that if the workers, who were in a very large majority in that and almost every other electorate, would stand shoulder to shoulder and allow no split in their ranks, they would have a majority of representatives in the next Parliament, and would be able to claim their rights, which were now encroached upon in a most dastardly manner by the capitalists.

The speeches were frequently applauded by the enthusiastic meeting, and at its close a large number of persons handed in their names as intending members.

The Secretary of the Trades and Labor Council is making arrangements for holding similar meetings throughout the city and suburban electorates during the next fortnight, and branches will be formed in the country shortly afterwards.”


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