The Shearers’ strike of 1891 is a pivotal event in Australian history which was responsible for the inception of the Australian Labor party and is also commemorated in Queensland by Labor Day which falls in May.
Why it happened
There is a widely held, but erroneous view that the Shearers’ strike of 1891 started when, in response to falling wool prices, agriculturalists attempted to lower the shearers’ wage, which was already low enough at one pound per hundred shorn.
The average shearer today can shear between 200-250 sheep in a day, but he is working with the advantage of electric or ‘machine’ shears.
How it Started
On the 5th of January, 1891, Charles Fairbairn, the manager of Logan Downs Station near Clermont attempted to get shearers to sign a Pastoralists Association contract of free labor in an attempt to reduce the influence of the shearers’ union. None of the shearers would sign, and they all declined to work under any agreement other than the verbal agreement of their union which included “continuance of the existing rates of pay, protection of their rights and privileges under just and equitable agreements, and a “closed shop” to exclude scabs or Chinese labor.”
The Worker A prominent republican paper of the time, issued by the famous William Lane, carried the following rallying line in one article: “you can take all social injustices and industrial inequalities and vested interests and strangle them one by one with your million muscled hands.” which reflected the radical republicanism of the times, especially in the city of Brisbane.
In February 1891, the center of the strike moved to Barcaldine, an advantageous place to mount a strike because it was the terminus of the railway line from Rockhampton and at the center of the Mitchell district, the richest pastoral area of the colony which held some thirty farms, including Beaconsfield Station, one of the largest sheep farms in Australia.
Within a very short time, the Shearers’ camps at Logan Creek and Blue Bush Swamp swelled to between 400-500 men.
By March of 1891 the battle lines were firmly drawn when the Pastoralists Association brought in ‘free laborers’. These free laborers were referred to as ‘scabs’* by the shearers’ and faced booing and jeers from the striking men, with many of them being persuaded to join the strike.
This was not to be tolerated, and the colonial authorities ordered troopers to protect the free laborers. Troopers rode from woolshed to woolshed, driving off the strikers. When striking unionists were arrested, woolsheds and crops were burned in retaliation.
Unionists marched at Clermont and Barcaldine under the proud Southern Cross flag of the Eureka Stockade Diggers and when the military mounted parades of their own in response, the situation grew so tense that shots were close to being fired.
In June of 1891 troopers rode to the camp at Capella to arrest unionists involved in the jostling of George Fairbairn at Clermont Railway station. The Union office at Barcaldine was surrounded by 120 mounted infantry who arrested the strike committee.
The committee members were charged with sedition and conspiracy. They each received three year gaol terms, and the further punishment upon release of two hundred pound, twelve month good behaviour bonds.
It was a crushing blow to the movement, and by the end of June, the strike had collapsed.
The end of the strike, however, was not the end of the argument, so to speak. Calls for a political party to protect the interests of the Australian Worker became more insistent as time wore on, leading to the creation of The Australian Labor Party which still exists today and is currently the party holding majority in Australia with the election in late 2007 of Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.
Whether the Labor party as we know it today would pass muster with the proud and indomitable shearers of 1891, is a matter for conjecture and not within the scope of this article.
The actions of the shearers in 1891, though, are worthy of commemoration. May 6th marks the anniversary of this turbulent and pivotal time in Australian History remembering the men who fought to see all workers in Australia get a fair go.
Meg Leigh (C) 2008
*Scab is a derogative term still used in Australia today, to refer to anyone who agrees to come in and work on a site that is affected by a strike.