The Great Strikes

Updated time

Last updated

05 September 2016

How it all started

In the early Australian colonies the main relationship in workplaces was between an individual master and a servant. Various businesses grew and the relationships between organised groups of employees and employers also developed.

In the recession of the 1890s, as prices for wool and wheat fell dramatically, businesses found it difficult to make a profit and as a result they cut the wages of their workers in order to continue the business. They demanded freedom of contract, i.e. individual bargaining with employees without trade union intervention, while trade unions demanded compulsory unionism. 

Trade unions resisted the reductions. They went on strike. Police and troopers were sent in to control the burning of shearing sheds and armed groups of shearers and pastoralists shooting at each other. The unions eventually called off the strikes as unemployed workers took up the abandoned jobs at reduced wages and the unions were no longer able to fund the strike camps.

1891: Camp Police portrait at Barcaldine during the Shearers Strikes

The solution

In response to the strikes and the chaos that ensued, Premier of South Australia Charles Kingston, told the Constitutional Convention of 1891 that:

“I think that the interests of the whole community may require that the rights of others should be settled by a competent tribunal rather than that the disputing parties should be left to fight the matter out simply by a strength test.”

He said that the solution was:

“The establishment of courts of conciliation and arbitration, having jurisdiction throughout the Commonwealth, for the settlement of industrial disputes.”

The Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration was established in 1904.

Conciliation: A process where an independent third party assists two sides in a dispute to reach an agreed solution.

Arbitration: A formal process where an independent third party hears both sides in a dispute and then takes a binding decision.

1891: Second convention of the Pastoralists' Federal Council of Australia in Sydney, New South Wales