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  Issue No 4 Official Organ of LaborNet 12 March 1999  





The Pioneers: Trade Unions Before 1850

By Greg Patmore*

Labour historian Greg Patmore looks at the early days of unions in Australia

During the period from the foundation of white settlement at Sydney in 1788 to the gold rushes of the 1850s, Australia changed from a penal colony to an exporter of primary produce. Convicts and free immigrants provided the labour to assist this transformation.

The white population grew from 859 in 1788, to 11,566 in 1810; 70,039 in 1830 and 405,356 in 1850. New settlements were established at Hobart (1804), Perth (1829), Melbourne (1835) and Adelaide (1836). South Australia and West Australia were initially colonies for free settlers. However, economic problems forced Western Australia to receive convicts from 1850 to 1868. By 1850 Sydney had approximately 54,000 people, Hobart and Melbourne 23,000 each, and Adelaide, 14,500.

Primary production was the basis of the Australian economy. Manufacturing existed on a small scale. This industry either processed goods for local consumption - flour and salt - or competed with imports - textiles, tanning and brewing. Agriculture, mining, sealing and whaling encouraged the establishment of shipyards and foundries.

Free workers defended their industrial conditions before the gold-rushes. Workplace solidarity and an awareness of labour relations in the United Kingdom underlay this early worker action. A community of interest developed between workers in settled occupations. From this community of interest there grew group norms and a recognition of workplace leaders. Convicts and free immigrants also brought with them a knowledge of British labour practices, trade unionism and political movements. Colonial newspapers carried reports of British industrial and political events.

Australian workers - especially merchant seamen, whalers, South Australian miners, shop assistants and skilled urban tradesmen, took collective action over working conditions. Whalers and seamen deserted and struck. Sydney printers led a two-week strike in 1829 over wages following a currency reform. The largest strike occurred in September 1848 at the Burra copper mines in South Australia, where 300 miners left work over a reduction in wages. Australian workers also petitioned governments, litigated, organised public meetings and established cooperatives. Generally all these actions involved workers from one occupational group in one locality.

Some workers formed trade unions. Between 1828 and 1850 workers established about 100 trade societies in Australia. One of the earliest was the Shipwright's United Friends Society, which some of Sydney's ship and boat builders formed in 1829. Generally these early trade societies collapsed within a few years. They were usually tied to a particular town and had small memberships - the average probably was between thirty and sixty. These unions were mainly confined to skilled tradesmen, but there were exceptions. Shepherds in Western Australia formed a club in 1842-3 to provide friendly society benefits and protection against a recently revised Masters and Servants Act, while South Australian shop assistants established organisations to fight for early closing in the late 1840s. It is estimated that the figure was no more than 1,000 trade unionists for the whole of Australia prior to 1850. Trade union formation peaked in the late 1830s, declined with the 1840s Depression and revived in the second half of that decade.

What functions did these early trade unions perform? In addition to providing friendly society benefits, they regulated their wages and conditions by a variety of methods. They were engaged in unilateral control, collective bargaining and political lobbying. The trade unions restricted entry to their occupations by limiting the number of convicts and apprentices. They organised strikes, if necessary, and operated `houses of call' or labour exchanges, where employers could hire unemployed union members

Some trade unions wrote to local newspapers challenging claims of higher wages and labour shortages. Peter Tyler, the Secretary of the Sydney Compositors Union, even wrote to British compositors in 1838 warning them of unfavourable labour conditions and discouraging them from emigrating. These early unions generally operated in pubs, which were the major meeting places for workers at that time. In Sydney, pubs provided an additional advantage for society meetings. While constables attended all public gatherings, they could not enter pubs.

Large numbers of workers from different trades combined to take political action on issues such a immigration, unemployment, convict labour, Masters and Servants legislation and political reform. Without direct representation in the legislatures, workers organised petitions, public meetings and deputations either informally or through formal organisations.

As early as 1827 Tasmanian tradesmen formed a society to restrict the employment of convicts. Tasmanian workers later established organisations to fight convict transportation in 1835 and 1847. In 1833 Sydney tradesmen formed the Society of Emigrant Mechanics to oppose free immigration and convict assignment to protect wage levels. During the 1840s Depression Sydney workers founded the Mutual Protection Association to assist the unemployed through relief and land grants.

This association also sponsored petitions against assisted immigration and convict labour - one thousand women petitioned the government against job competition from female convicts washing clothes at the Parramatta Female Factory. Workers achieved political success without formal organisations. They defeated unfavourable amendments to the New South Wales Masters and Servants Act in 1840. While these activities were short-lived, they indicate that workers were prepared to unite to defend their common interests.

* Extracted from Greg Patmore, Australian Labour History, Longman Cheshire, 1991, Chapter Two.

Associate Professor Greg Patmore teaches in the Department of Industrial Relations at the University of Sydney. He was the President of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History until last year when he resigned. He is now the Editor of the Society's journal, Labour History.


*    If you would like to contribute to the History page, contact history editor Dr Lucy Taksa

*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 4 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Jennie George - Eyeing 2000
The ACTU President looks to the future and erects a few new signposts for her last 12 months in office and beyond.
*  Unions: Trade Unions Thinking Globally
How do you put people first in a global economy? That's the question for an international trade union conference in Sydney this week.
*  History: The Pioneers: Trade Unions Before 1850
Labour historian Greg Patmore looks at the early days of unions in Australia
*  Review: Opening Spaces For a New Labor
A new book by Sydney academic McKenzie Wark looks at how Labor must adapt to the popular culture.
*  Campaign Diary: On The Bus - A Tale Of Two Campaigns
As the State election campaign moves into full swing, Workers Online looks at how the management of the media by the two main parties is reflecting their strategies.

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»  Current Affair Fires More Blanks at Builders

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Letters to the editor
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»  Focussed On Training
»  Women's Aussie Rules Kicks Off
»  League Mustn't Die

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