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The 1891 Shearers' Strike is one of Australia's oldest and most important industrial disputes. Working conditions for sheep shearers in 19th century Australia were considered by those in the industry to be less than optimal. In 1891 wool was one of Australia's largest industries. But as the wool industry grew, so did the number and influence of shearers.
By 1890, the Australian Shearersâ€™ Union boasted tens of thousands of members, and had unionised thousands of sheds. At their annual conference in Bourke in 1890, the Union laid down a new rule, which prohibited members from working with non-union workers. Soon after, shearers at Jondaryan Station on the Darling Downs went on strike over this issue. As non-union labour was still able to process the wool, the Jondaryan shearers called for help. The Rockhampton wharfies responded and refused to touch the Jondaryan wool. The unionists won the battle. This galvanised the squatters, and they formed the Pastoralistsâ€™ Federal Council, to counter the strength of the unions. The battle lines were drawn, conflict was not far away; the only question was where and when.
Many union shearers were outraged when Logan Downs Station Manager Charles Fairbain asked the shearers to sign a contract that would reduce the power of their union. On 5 January 1891 the shearers announced a strike until the following demands for a contract were met:
The strike started and quickly spread. From February until May, central Queensland was on the brink of civil war. Striking shearers formed armed camps outside of towns. Thousands of armed soldiers protected non-union labour and arrested strike leaders. The unionists retaliated by raiding shearing sheds, harassing non-union labour and committing acts of sabotage, although the incidents of actual violence or arson were few.
One of the first Mayday marches in the world took place during the strike on 1 May 1891 in Barcaldine. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that 1340 men took part of whom 618 were mounted on horse. Banners carried included those of the Australian Labor Federation, the Shearers' and Carriers' Unions, and one inscribed 'Young Australia'. The leaders wore blue sashes and the Eureka Flag was carried. The "Labor Bulletin" reported that cheers were given for "the Union", "the Eight-hour day", "the Strike Committee" and "the boys in gaol". It reported the march:
But the shearers were unable to hold out. The summer had been unseasonably wet, and the strike was poorly timed for maximum effect on the shearing season (winter). By May the union camps were full of hungry penniless shearers. The strike had been broken. The squatters had won this time, but it had proved a costly exercise.
Thirteen union leaders were charged with sedition and conspiracy, taken to Rockhampton for the trial, convicted, and sentenced to three years in gaol on St Helena Island Prison. The 1891 Shearers Strike is credited as being one of the factors for the formation of the Australian Labor Party.
Henry Lawson's well known poem, Freedom on the Wallaby, was written as a comment on the strike and published by William Lane in the Worker in Brisbane, 16 May 1891. And William Lane wrote his novel in 1892, The workingman's paradise, with two aims: to support fundraising efforts for the imprisoned unionists, and to explain unionism and socialism to those who would listen.
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