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The 1890 Australian Maritime Dispute, commonly known as the 1890 Maritime Strike, was on a scale unprecedented in the Australian colonies to that point in time, causing political and social turmoil across all Australian colonies and in New Zealand, including the collapse of colonial governments in the colonies of Victoria and New South Wales. It was the first of four great strikes that rocked Australasia in the 1890s, and though it ended in defeat for the Australian labour movement, it demonstrated the growing social power of trade union organisation co-ordinated by Trades and Labour Councils, and was an important cause in the introduction of the arbitration system for industrial disputes and the formation of the Australian Labor Party.
The dispute began on 15 August 1890 when the Mercantile Marine Officers' Association directed its members to give 24 hours' notice to their employers after negotiations broke down with the Steamship Owners' Association of Victoria over longstanding pay and conditions claims. Industrial action quickly spread to seamen, wharf labourers, then gas stockers. Coal miners from Newcastle, Broken Hill, and even New Zealand were locked out after refusing to dig coal for non-union operated vessels. By September 1890 28,500 workers were on strike.
The Melbourne branch of the Marine Officers' Association had joined the Melbourne Trades Hall Council, and the New Zealand branch was affiliated with the Maritime Labour council. In July 1890 the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand had conceded a pay rise of one pound, following arbitration. Many of the owners had privately conceded that an increase in pay was well justified and overdue. The Sydney Branch of the union, not affiliated with the Sydney Maritime Council, negotiated with the owners and were told their case was reasonable, but could not be considered while the Melbourne branch was affiliated with Trades Hall. In a last minute mediation, officials of the union agreed to withdraw from the Melbourne Trades Hall, if employers agreed to compromise in a last minute meeting with a union delegation. The Shipowners refused to meet the delegation, which thus precipitated the strike.
Ostensibly over pay and conditions, the causes of the dispute are far more complex, and point to an employer conspiracy to render trade union activity ineffective, and employer activity to counter union solidarity in secondary boycott of non-union shorn wool in the pastoral industry. While some historians argue that the strike was caused by a downturn in economic conditions, others argue the depression of the 1890s did not start till 1892.
In early July 1890 the Amalgamated Shearers' Union had issued a manifesto calling a boycott on non-union wool shorn in the coming shearing season. This emulated a successful boycott of non-union wool called by the Queensland Shearers' Union in 1889 and instituted by the Wharf Labourer's Union and Brisbane Trades Hall. The conspiracy to break union solidarity was engineered by stevedore Alfred Lamb, a member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, owner of one of the four main wool exporting firms, vice president of the NSW Employers' Union. He attended meetings of the Pastoralists Union of NSW, the Pastoralists Union of Victoria, organised a memorandum of understanding and agreements among wool shippers, shipping agents and shipowners.
While police had been used in strikes before 1890, the military had not been used. During the strike military units were extensively used in New South Wales and Victoria. Armed troops were deployed in Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle and a number of other ports around Australia.
In Melbourne the announcement that a public meeting was going to be held on the 31 August 1890 to support the Maritime strikers sent the Victorian government into panic mode. On the eve of the meeting one thousand military volunteers were addressed by Colonel jalan Z.B:"you will each be supplied with forty rounds of ammunition and leaden bullets and if the order is given to fire, don't let me see one rifle pointed up in the air. Fire low and lay them out".
That same evening machine gun nests were mounted behind parliament house. Despite the military intimidation 60,000 protesters attended the meeting on 31 August 1890.
The strike was defeated when the Marine Officers returned to work on the employers terms in November 1890, with Illawarra coal miners being the last workers to return to work in January 1891. A shortage of money to sustain the strike and a plentiful supply of scabs eventually defeated the strikers. Wage cuts were introduced for everyone in the maritime industry, with wage cuts of up to 30 per cent. The defeat of the Maritime Strike in 1890 and the 1891 Australian shearers' strike, laid the framework for the Australian labour movement entry into parliamentary politics. The New South Wales Labour Defence Committee summed up the unions mood in the statement "the time has come when trade unionists must use the parliamentary machine that in the past has used them".
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