Maritime Strike

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Maritime Strike

Australasia 1890


On 15 August 1890 the Steamship Owners' Association told the Melbourne, Australia, branch of the Mercantile Marine Officers' Association that it would not negotiate a wage claim with the marine officers' union while it was affiliated to the Trades Hall Council. The marine officers objected to this condition and struck. Seamen, wharf laborers, and port workers followed the marine officers out on strike. The dispute came to be regarded as a conflict between the wider principle of the "closed shop" for unionists against "freedom of contract" for employers.

In 1890 there were seven Australasian colonies. Marine officers and seamen worked coastal and intercolonial routes between them. Unionism had begun to appear among the colonies. Employers could not easily—and perhaps did not want to—contain a maritime workers' strike in one colony. It was widely believed that the ship owners, who were themselves federating, had made secret financial preparations for an industrial showdown and that their behavior was provocative. At the same time, workers had affiliated to increasingly broader and more militant organizations. Tensions were high and the conditions ripe for industrial action.

The three-month Trans-Tasman industrial action began in August 1890 and involved at least 50,000 miners and transport and pastoral workers in New South Wales (NSW), Victoria, Queensland, and South Australia, and 8,000 in New Zealand. Most strikers went back to work in November because they could not afford to continue. Support from nonstriking unionists dwindled. The Illawarra miners were among the stragglers that returned to work in January 1891. Many industries around the Tasman Sea ground to a halt. The strike caused much bitterness over the use both of strikebreakers and police. Governments employed armed military troops and special police in all the major ports of Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle, Adelaide, Brisbane, Auckland, Wellington, Lyttelton, and Dunedin. The strike coincided with the start of the "long depression" of the 1890s. Labor Party members won in subsequent elections starting in South Australia in January 1891. The Australian Labor Party did not form until Australian federation in 1901. The party's origins, however, date to 1891 and the formation of the NSW Labor Electoral League and the United Labor Party in South Australia. Between 1894 and 1919, Australasian state and national governments passed legislation that established a distinctive system of conciliation and arbitration. In the wake of the 1890 Maritime Strike, states established industrial tribunals for settling industrial issues and the sponsorship of trade unions. During this time, Australasia came to be regarded as a "social laboratory," as a raft of labor legislation was introduced.


  • 1870: Franco-Prussian War begins. German troops sweep over France, Napoleon III is dethroned, and France's Second Empire gives way to the Third Republic.
  • 1876: Four-stroke cycle gas engine is introduced.
  • 1880: South Africa's Boers declare an independent republic, precipitating the short First Anglo-Boer War.
  • 1883: Foundation of the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of Labor by Marxist political philosopher Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov marks the formal start of Russia's labor movement. Change still lies far in the future for Russia, however: tellingly, Plekhanov launches the movement in Switzerland.
  • 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.
  • 1888: Serbian-born American electrical engineer Nikola Tesla develops a practical system for generating and transmitting alternating current (AC), which will ultimately—and after an extremely acrimonious battle—replace Thomas Edison's direct current (DC) in most homes and businesses.
  • 1890: U.S. Congress passes the Sherman Antitrust Act, which in the years that follow will be used to break up large monopolies.
  • 1890: Police arrest and kill Sioux chief Sitting Bull, and two weeks later, federal troops kill over 200 Sioux at Wounded Knee.
  • 1890: Alfred Thayer Mahan, a U.S. naval officer and historian, publishes The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, which demonstrates the decisive role that maritime forces have played in past conflicts. The book will have an enormous impact on world events by encouraging the major powers to develop powerful navies.
  • 1893: Henry Ford builds his first automobile.
  • 1896: First modern Olympic Games are held in Athens.
  • 1901: Federation of Australia is established.

Event and Its Context

The background to the Maritime Strike of 1890 lies in the rise of unionism and the formation of larger unions, economic depression, moral panic over sweating—a system of labor under which workers toiled for long hours in physically poor and morally dangerous conditions for low wages—concerns about colonial poverty, and awareness of the political possibilities in the Antipodes. Until recently these events have been regarded as connected both chronologically and causally.

Colonial expectations help to explain the strike, which casts a shadow over the myth of a colonial paradise. There was a hope, if not an illusion, that colonial Australasia was a working man's or working artisan's paradise. There are various versions of the paradise but they were all premised on New Zealanders' and Australians' relative wealth, prosperity, and working conditions. There were high wages, high demand for labor, and a high standard of living. Eight-hour days were enacted in various colonies between 1856 and 1896. Australasians had access to abundant rural land, although the majority of the population lived in cities and towns, where there were high rates of home ownership. By the late 1880s, Australasia seemed to be relatively equalitarian, with advanced democratic governments, votes for adult white men, secret ballots, and triennial parliaments that compensated members. Some regarded Australasia as a paradise for working women, too, as there were high marriage rates, early female suffrage, and protective labor legislation in some states.

There is debate over the extent to which Australasia was a colonial paradise. Historian James Belich argued that, although it fell far short of being a "worker's paradise," colonial life provided decent folk with opportunities for advancement. By the 1890s, however, Victoria suffered a sudden economic downturn; South Australia and New Zealand had been in economic depression for some time. Literate and transient people had emigrated halfway around the world because they wanted better lives. Discontent arose when their expectations were not met. The enthusiasm for unionism and the panic at allegations of outwork in the sweating crises in the late 1880s were reactions to the thought that "Old World" ills were following emigrants to the "New World." By the 1890s most of the Australasian population was native born or born in New Zealand or the Australian colonies. For the home-grown, the domestic ideology of the working man's paradise set the expectation level. Immigrants generally were content with the comparative view that Australasian wages and conditions were better than those they had left behind.

New Unionism and Colonial Class

Unions made their first appearances in the 1840s. Their standing was merely confirmed with legal recognition. Most of the provisions of the British Trade Union Acts of 1871 and 1876 and the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act of 1875 were enacted in Australia and New Zealand; Western Australia was last to follow suit in 1902. Initially the unions were small groups of skilled male tradesmen in major regional centers. Membership dues were high and were used to fund benefits. The unions preserved standards by promoting apprenticeships and definitions of skill. Unionism in the 1880s was different in degree and possibly in kind: workplace relations changed as factories and export-related industries developed. Unionism became less exclusive and championed a range of issues, including the eight-hour workday, the restriction of child labor, the demand for time rates (as opposed to piecework), and the racist policies of the Australian and New Zealand governments. Earlier trickles of unionism became a flood in 1888. Between 1880 and 1890 the number of unions in New Zealand rose from 50 unions with 3,000 members to 200 unions with 63,000 members. This unionism was sudden, optimistic, and fragile.

The links between the labor movements in New Zealand and Australia were strong particularly among four Trans-Tasman occupational groups: the miners, the shearers, the wharfies, and the seamen. George Sangster, president of the Victorian Branch of the Seamen's Union of Austalasia, set a precedent when he was sent to New Zealand to establish a branch in 1880. Similarly, the Australian shearers' secretary, David Temple, and organizers J. A. Cook and James Slattery, crossed the Tasman Sea following the shearers' intercolonial seasonal labor market, to form branches of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union of Australasia in 1886. William Guthrie Spence was involved in both the miners' and shearers' unions the following year. The Denniston miners affiliated to the Amalgamated Miners' Association of Australasia in 1886 after the Australians provided financial support in a strike. In April 1890 a joint conference of Australian and New Zealand dock-workers in Sydney established a joint umbrella organization, the Amalgamated Wharf Labourers of Australasia.

The new unionists were keen to join new representative union coalitions. Trade and labor councils formed in the major cities between 1871 and 1882. Five intercolonial congresses convened between 1879 and 1890; the Australasian Labour Congress met in Sydney in 1885 and adopted a scheme for bringing all Australasian unions into one federation. A Maritime Labour Council formed in Melbourne on a platform of commitment to mutual cooperation and financial support. In 1885 a newly created Australian Maritime Council united the Seamen's Union of Australia and the Waterside Workers' Federation. The formation of the New Zealand Maritime Council in 1889 and its affiliation to the Australian council appeared a significant second step toward the Australasian dream that there would soon be a single, vast, and powerful federation of all the trade unions in Australasia. Councils of unskilled colonial-wide unions used the language of collective class action as never before. John Lomas, the New Zealand council treasurer, was typical in stating that it was desirable to bring trade unions "under one head" to gain negotiated improvements of conditions and to avoid strikes if possible. John A. Millar, council secretary, told a mass meeting in Dunedin that "labor is one, and an injustice to one is an injustice to all."

Although shearers' leader W. G. Spence claimed that Australasian unionism made "no distinction of sex," it was indeed male dominated. Women had to seek a different avenue of redress than male unionists, often because of the exclusiveness of male unions. The position of women was a second major ingredient in the general social climate of 1890. The discovery of poverty and inequality seemed sudden. The number of women in industry increased considerably during the depression, particularly in clothing factories and workshops. Intercolonial competition contributed to contention. In 1887 Victoria raised the duty on cloth because of undercutting by New Zealand mills. Competition intensified, and clothing merchants and warehousemen in the major centers contracted out to small workshops. The Reverend Rutherford Waddell's 1888 sermon on the "sin of cheapness" prompted the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Otago and Southland to pass a motion against the low wages and long hours in poor conditions of sweating. In 1888 the Otago Daily Times campaigned against the "sweating menace." The middle classes and liberals were outraged that women and girls might be subjected to the extreme conditions of sweating and supported the formation of Tailoresses' Unions and an official Sweating Commission. Similarly, the Victorian Anti-Sweating League was made up of men and women with links to Dr. Charles Strong's nonconformist Scots Church. A Working Women's Trade Union formed in Adelaide in 1890 in response to revelations of sweating. Unionism attained respectability. Middle-class liberals supported reform and encouraged unionism.

A Turning Point and Class Warfare?

Employers had won a complete victory in the Maritime Strike on both sides of the Tasman Sea. In Australia the maritime victory was followed by union defeats of the shearers in 1891 and 1894 and coal miners in 1894, 1895, and 1896. Nevertheless, the 1890 maritime strike appears to have been the impetus for formation of labor parties, election of labor representatives, passing of labor legislation, establishment of labor departments, and the institution of the industrial conciliation and arbitration system.

Indeed, historians have dwelt upon the question of the extent to which 1890 was a turning point. Union strategy appeared to shift from industrial power backed up by strikes to a focus on improving conditions through parliamentary power. The defeat of the Maritime Strike in 1890 (and the Australian shearers' strike in 1891) laid the framework for the entry of the labor movement into parliamentary politics. The NSW Labour Defence Committee summed up the union mood: "The time has come when trade unionists must use the parliamentary machine that in the past has used them." In June 1891, when the NSW Labour Electoral League adopted a platform to be endorsed by all candidates in that state, it gave rise to the nucleus of the Australian Labor Party. New Zealand elected a Liberal government December 1890, with trade unions endorsing 38 candidates, half of whom were successful, including five "working men." These gains were offset by other circumstances. Formal arbitration followed a habit of informal arbitration in the region. Knights of Labour and trade union parliamentary committees predated the failure of the industrial muscle. No labor party formed in New Zealand until 1916. The formation of independent and viable labor parties, an arbitration system based on compulsion rather than voluntarism, and the passing of laws that transformed the Antipodes had been protracted developments. Even state involvement in alleviating unemployment, a practice known as "state socialism," has been shown to have been longstanding.

A second debate over the significance of the events of 1890 is the extent to which it is evidence of class warfare in the Antipodes. The historiography concentrates upon labor's defeats to show class formation. Keith Sinclair argued that "frightened conservatives heard the tramp of workers' boots, smelt the smoke and saw the flames of socialist revolt." Others heard only the sound of the "gumboots of cow-cockies entering a capitalist society" and their entrenchment in power that resulted from their victory. Certainly, William Lane wrote his ironic The Working Man's Paradise in 1892 and left Australia to try to form such a paradise in Paraguay. Verity Burgman pointed out that the "Maritime Strike acted in different ways upon different sections of the labor movement." She shows in some detail the extent to which the events of 1890 encouraged Socialist organization. The events surrounding 1890 indicate a divided working class, the beginning and end of large-scale Trans-Tasman industrial action (the New Zealand and Australian Workers' Unions conspicuously staggered on in formal federation until 1924), and nonindustrial solutions to social problems that prevailed throughout twentieth-century Australasia.

Key Players

Davis, Thomas Martin (1856-1899): English-born Davis, a seaman, arrived in Australia in 1876. He was elected secretary of the Federated Seamen's Union and was active in the local Maritime Council. He was a member of the NSW Labour Defence Committee and the Intercolonial Labour Conference, which attempted to coordinate strike action on a state and colonial basis during 1890. He was a member of the 1891 Royal Commission on Strikes. He was a founding member of the West Sydney Labor League in 1891, a successful candidate in the elections, and elected the first party whip.

Lane, William (1861-1917): English-born Lane arrived in Australia via Canada in 1885. He became a radical journalist and formed a Bellamy Society in Brisbane in 1887. He also wrote a Utopian novel, Looking Backwards, and coedited the Boomerang, a weekly labor newspaper. He was a leading figure in the formation of the Australian Labour Federation, which replaced the Brisbane Trades and Labour Council in 1889. He was the inaugural editor of The Worker. He left Australia in 1893 to found New Australia in Asunción, Paraguay, and then relocated to Cosme the next year. He abandoned the colony in 1899 and became the editor of a conservative Auckland newspaper, New Zealand Herald.

Lomas, John (1848-1933): English-born Lomas arrived in New Zealand in 1879. He was a coal miner, a Methodist lay preacher, and unionist. He was the inaugural president of the colony's first coal mining union in 1884. He launched the Amalgamated Miners' and Labourer's Association in 1885; it affiliated with the Amalgamated Miners' Association of Australia. He was elected treasurer of the Maritime Council in 1889. He contemplated entering parliament but he was recruited to the newly formed Department of Labour in 1891, becoming chief inspector of factories in 1907 and secretary of labour in 1912-1913.

Millar, John Andrew (1855-1915): Indian-born Millar arrived in New Zealand in 1870. He served his apprenticeship and became a ship's officer. He was elected the first full-time general secretary of the Federated Seamen's Union of New Zealand in 1887. He was secretary of the Maritime Council in 1889. He ran in the 1890 general election and was elected in 1893, becoming the Liberal-Labour leader in Parliament. He became a cabinet minister in 1909, first for railways and then labor. By 1913 he was voting with the conservative Reform party and gave his support to the repression of unionists in the 1913 general strike. He retired in 1914 and was appointed to the Legislative Council shortly before his death.

Spence, William Guthrie (1846-1926): Scottish-born Spence arrived in Australia in 1852. He was a gold miner who became involved in the Creswick Miners' Union, which affiliated to the Amalgamated Miners' Association, with Spence as its general secretary. Many ex-miners became shearers; in June 1886 Spence also helped to found the Australian Shearers' Union to serve both small landholders and itinerant laborers. The union's objective was to secure fair wage rates and "the adoption of just and equitable agreements between employers and employees." He supported the idea of an Australian Labour Federation and a combined industrial and political agenda. He founded the Australian Workers' Union of rural workers in 1894. He ran successfully in the first Australia federation elections in 1901 and held the seat of Darling for labor until 1917, then rose to postmaster general during World War I. He supported conscription and, after the Labor Party split over the issue, held a Nationalist federal seat for a term.

See also: Dockers' Strike.



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—Melanie Nolan