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What the 1891 Shearers’ can teach us about USyd staff strikes

The shearers of 1891 show us the immense and unprecedented positive impacts that can emerge from industrial action; who knows where victories in modern battles for workers’ rights like the NTEU’s – and subsequently the rights of ordinary people across Australia – will lead us?

Shearers' Camp, Langton, 1891. Source: Queensland Historical Atlas.

Staff and students, led by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), have been locked in a battle with University of Sydney management to push for better working rights amid a period of enterprise bargaining. This conflict emerges in a context of significant allegations of wage theft and longstanding calls for better working conditions. 

But this specific industrial action does not exist in a vacuum – it is just a recent chapter in a storied history of unionism and social democracy that can be traced to late 19th century Queensland. The events in 1891 Queensland continue to ripple through Australian contemporary society, and modern campaigns for worker’s rights – and the rights of all ordinary Australians – owe much to the embattled shearers unions of the outback.

The blacksoil plains and red-stained rocky expanses of central Queensland are naturally desolate; sweeping stretches of bluegrass alternate with stands of gidgee tree across unbelievably flat ground. This sector of Australia is populated mainly by emus, 98-million-year-old fossils and tiny, quirky towns with an extraordinarily high number of pubs per capita. 

Yet outback Central Queensland at the close of the 19th century was a very different place to the grey nomad paradise it is today, acting as a hotbed of nascent unionism. Indeed, Barcaldine, Hughenden and Winton, among other towns, were vital outposts in a burgeoning wool industry, giving the region a very different political character to the modern entrenchment of Liberal National Party conservatism.

The Queensland Shearers’ Union (QSU) formed in 1887 following a strike on Wellshot Station, near Ilfracombe, and over the next three years gathered tens of thousands of members. In 1890 the Union took a bold step and declared that unionised labourers were not to work with non-union shearers. Pastoralists responded in 1890 by forming the Pastoral Employers Association (PEA).

At the close of 1890, the PEA attempted to enforce significant wage reductions. The QSU, alongside the Queensland Labourers Union (QLU) issued the ‘Bushmen’s Official Proclamation’, declaring:

“The squatters expect the Queensland bush unions will fight hard but they do not know how hard. We call upon you to show them.” 

The stage was set for a confrontation of epic proportions.

The Queensland government sent the military to support pastoralists. Scabs and blacklegs were given military protection from union workers. The town of Barcaldine – essentially six pubs along a strip of railway – became the centre of the strike, and by March around 4,500 people had swelled the small outpost.

At this point whispers of armed insurrection and even revolution reverberated across outback Queensland, and commentators expected a bloody affair. However throughout the strike, union members maintained discipline despite the threats arrayed against them, and violence never ensued.

A key moment was the March arrest of strike leaders, culminating in a long trial that saw thirteen unionists sentenced to three years in prison. By April, military-escorted scabs were pouring into Barcaldine. Shearing recommenced despite the strike, and union morale began to fail. By 20 June, the strike was called to an end by the unions.

On the face of it, the 1891 strike appears a failure: Union demands were not met and the strike disintegrated. However, the legacy of the strike remains far more important than its shearing-specific achievements.

Culturally, the impact of the strikes is unexpectedly massive. Despite efforts to scrub the song of its original meaning by the Australian right, Waltzing Matilda was written by Banjo Patterson in a sympathetic response to the 1891 and 1894 Shearers’ strikes. Despite what many Australians are told, the swagman that is the subject of the song isn’t a larrikin sheep-thief who drowns himself to avoid arrest, but a brave union member facing pastoralist power exerted through the police force.

Far more importantly, 1892 alo saw the birth of what would become the Australian Labor Party under the tree of knowledge in Barcaldine (a ghost gum, illegally poisoned in 2006). QSU members recognised that without representation in Parliament, the unions could not face up to Government-backed pastoralists. 1892 saw the first election of a Labor MP at a by-election in the seat of Barcoo. The fledgling Labor party continued to make electoral gains, and in 1899 Queensland elected the first Labor government in world history.

Electoral representation for the union movement has been instrumental in the development of Australia as a relatively egalitarian (albeit increasingly stratifying) country with a globally significant history of protecting workers rights. A lack of a political party representing the labour movement is one of the biggest reasons the United States has failed to secure anything like the level of workers’ protections – and subsequently rights for ordinary people – as Australia, despite the militancy of the American union movement in the first half of the 20th century. 

The Shearers’ strikes were also instrumental in the development of a powerful labour movement and union culture in Australia that has helped to ensure the rights that we continue to take for granted today. The awards system was first established for shearers at the dawn of the 20th century before extending across our economy as a unique system for wage and conditions protections in Australia. Annual leave, maternity leave, nominally equal pay for women, workers compensation, sick leave, unfair dismissal and penalty rates, among other significant achievements, all trace their history through the union movement to events in 19th Century Queensland.

Nevertheless, the victories of the union movement are not static nor set in stone. We cannot afford to simply express gratitude to the shearers who stood up to pastoral interests in the 1890s and get on with our lives. Unionism continues to represent an important tool of ordinary people to protect their basic rights. 

This extends to current efforts by the NTEU to protect the rights of staff – and subsequently the quality of student education – at the University of Sydney today. The Shearers’ strikes of 1891 show us the immense and unprecedented positive impacts that can emerge from industrial action; who knows where victories in modern battles for workers’ rights – and subsequently the rights of ordinary people across Australia – will lead us?