1919 was a record year for strikes in Australia. There were 460 industrial disputes involving 157,591 workers. All up, 6.3 million working days were lost. The most prominent dispute of 1919 was the three-month seamen’s strike.
Starting one hundred years ago this month, the strike brought most shipping in Australia to a halt, and led to the closure of many industries. The strike showed the power that workers hold in society, especially those who work in key parts of the economy.
The dispute began after the Arbitration Court introduced an Award that the Federated Seamen’s Union considered inadequate. The union took the opportunity of the post-World War 1 economic upswing to press for improvements.
The secretary of the union was the socialist Tom Walsh. He started a campaign for the revision of the Award, demanding increased rates of pay, reduced hours and insurance against death. The seamen also wanted better accommodation on the ships, which at the time was atrocious.
The Seamen’s Union viewed the arbitration system as a straightjacket. Instead of pursuing mere crumbs via the bosses’ courts, they opted to use their industrial strength.
The union put forward their demands to the government and the shipping bosses at the beginning of May, but they were rejected. When this news was relayed to the members, they began to walk off the job.
The strike began in Queensland, but within a couple of weeks, it had spread to Victoria and New South Wales. Eventually it spread to all states.
At the end of May, the union was dragged into compulsory arbitration and forced to conduct a ballot of its members. The members voted overwhelmingly in favour of rejecting arbitration and maintaining the strike. This was a significant escalation of the dispute especially considering that coal and food was already running low in many cities.
Pickets were being maintained at docks, which hindered the use of scab labour. As a result, dozens of ships were held up at ports, unable to offload their goods. This was beginning to impact on other industries, especially manufacturing. By June, tens of thousands of workers in connected industries had to be stood down.
With coal supplies held up, power restrictions were implemented. Weekend and late-night trains and trams were cancelled in some cities. Pressure was on the government to get the dispute resolved but they desperately wanted it to be dealt with by the Arbitration Court.
To allow the seamen to go outside of the arbitration system would have encouraged other unions to ignore the courts and instead turn to the strike. As far as the government and bosses were concerned arbitration had served them well, keeping wages low and the workers in check.
The union pressed the government to resolve the dispute outside of the arbitration system but the government was still not ready to budge. They jailed a few workers using penal powers, but their main target was the union’s leader, Tom Walsh.
They compelled Walsh to attend arbitration, and he refused. He was found guilty of failing to appear at the Arbitration Court and in addition to being fined £200, he was locked up in Pentridge prison for three months.
They hoped that by jailing Walsh, the strike would lack leadership and the workers would buckle. Unfortunately for them this did not work. The strike continued unabated.
With large parts of the economy idle, the government were feeling the heat. Eventually they started to concede to some of the union’s claims, albeit informally. Proper negotiations were eventually held leading to the government meeting most of the workers’ demands.
Significantly, the agreement was reached outside of the arbitration system. This was a huge win.
The workers received an increase of 35 shillings per month plus an 8-hour working day. Improved holiday conditions and sick pay were also won, as was better accommodation. Walsh was released from jail in September and in the years to follow he went on to be a founding member of the Communist Party, although he shifted to the right in later life.
The seamen’s strike marked the highpoint of working class radicalisation in the post-war years. The victory was a welcome turnaround in the union’s fortunes, coming only two years after the defeat of the 1917 general strike.
The whole post-World War 1 period – which was influenced by the 1917 Russian revolution – is rich in lessons, and one hundred years on it deserves to be seriously studied by all socialists and trade union militants.
By Anthony Main