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Year End 2004   

Interview: The King of Comedy
John Robertson looks back on a year when his comic genius was finally realised.

Unions: Ten Simple Rules
Accepted wisdom has unions all but retired as serious players in the Australian game. A glance through the major industrial stories of 2004, however, suggests improved footwork, and a commitment to boxing clever, might herald a comeback, writes Jim Marr.

Politics: Rampant Indivdualism
CFMEU National Secretary John Sutton gives his take on a year when the political debate took a turn to the Right.

International: Global Struggle
Labourstart's Eric Lee looks back on a year when the struggles for labour increasingly crossed international lines.

Economics: Cashing in the Year
Look back in sorrow or look back in anger? By any standards 2004 has been a hell of a year, writes Frank Stilwell.

History: Grass Roots
Worker solidarity in Australia in the first century of invasion can give us inspiration and clues for our upcoming battles, writes Neale Towart.

Review: Cultural Realities
In 2004 popular culture shifted from reality television to reality movies, and swapped last year's light-weight subject matter for the slightly more substantial, writes Tara de Boehmler.

Poetry: Y-U-C-K
Workers Online resident bard David Peetz takes inspiration from The Village People for his latest prose.


The Crystal Ball
Workers Online consults a raft of leading psychics to find out what readers can look forward to in 2005.

The Soapbox
Scrooge Was Right
Christmas has been cancelled this year, writes our US correspondent Brooklyn Phil.

The Locker Room
The Workers Online Sports Awards
Continuing a tradition that dates back to the Twentieth Century, Phil Doyle dishes out the gongs for all things great and small in the world of sport during 2004.

The Westie Wing
Our favoutrite MP looks for a positive spin on the year at NSW Parliament


Beyond The Law
Despite the all-engulfing gloom emenating from our political wing right now, 2004 comes to an end on a strangely upbeat note for the trade union movement.


 Unions Make Hardie Pay

 Hadgkiss Gives Mourners Grief

 Mum Gets "Hopson’s" Choice

 AWAs Crash on Broken Hill

 No Fun in the Sack

 Tax Office Draws Blood

 Origin Prop a Union Hit

 Good Guy Wears Black

 Security Crisis at Sydney Airport

 Biscuit Bosses Crumble

 Ardmona Urged to Can Racism

 Bomber Predicts Big Bang

 Stolen Wages Cut

 Tomorrow the World…

 Bosses Sack WorkCover

 Activists What's On!

 Costa’s Hike Unfare
 Temporary Arrangements
 The Price Of Tea In China
 Cry For Me, Argentina
 Ho Bloody Ho
 Right Is Wrong
 Business As Usual
 All In The Family
 Swing Left Wishful Thinking
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Grass Roots

Worker solidarity in Australia in the first century of invasion can give us inspiration and clues for our upcoming battles, writes Neale Towart.

Before free labourers organised, convicts showed the way, with great courage. The Castle Hill rebellion of 200 years ago was a move by convicts for a decent level of rations.

In 1822 James Straiter was sentenced to 500 lashes, bread and water, and solitary confinement for attempting to organise convicts against the conditions of work at Hannibal MacArthur's farm. Thus the wool industry was a focus for dispute from the early days.

Convict labour was of course a constraint on free labour, as it was a "reserve army" that did not have much room to object. However, free labourers did organise where they could.


Unions did not form 180 years ago in Australia, but appropriately enough for the origins of unions of blue-collar males, an informal combination of coopers picketed in 1824 in a strike for better conditions. They were prosecuted under British anti-combination legislation, but the prosecution was dropped.

Printing industry workers were some of the most militant, and struck at William Charles Wentworth's Australian in 1829. The issue was the importing of Spanish dollars into the colony and the impact this had on the value of their pay. They demanded 15-17% advances.

Other workers joined in this currency based dispute: whalers on the South Coast of NSW and journeymen carpenters.


Early "Mutual Protection Societies included Operative Housepainters, Plumbers and Glaziers, a Society of Assistant Drapers and the Phoenix Society of Tailors. Bootmakers had struck in 1831, and formed a society in 1840.

Printers remained a group of agitators, in all colonies. 160 years ago the Port Phillip Printers Benefit Society formed.

Mining has always been a solid union occupation, and the Kapunda and Burra (SA) copper miners unionised in the 1840s.

Some Australian unions were formed at sea, as branches of the unions the workers had left in the UK. The most famous example was the Australian Society of Engineers, whose first meeting was held aboard the "Francis Walker" on route to Australia. The first secretary was John Davies, one of the founding members of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in the UK who was victimised in a lockout of 1852.


1854 saw the Eureka Stockade, commemorated with various exhibitions and conferences in 2004. The revolt was about licence fees for diggers, and about the principle of taxation without representation. So, although not a trade union campaign, it embodied core democratic values and the right of the working classes to have a say in their own governance. The developers of communist theory, Karl Marx and Fred Engels, were not so keen on the gold rushes, with Engels writing to Marx with concern about the need for a commercial crisis to hasten working class rebellion: "It is to be hoped that the Australian gold-shit will not hold up the commercial crisis."

Eureka was a great example of the internationalism of Australian workers, with Italian, French, English, Irish Scottish, American and many others participating on the rebel side.


The 1850s also saw the gaining of the eight-hour day, with masons at Holy Trinity Church, in Millers Point striking and winning the eight-hour day in October 1855. The major success came in Melbourne in April 1856, however, with the eight-our system being established in the whole building trade.


Charles Don was elected to the Victorian Parliament with the backing of labour organisations in 1859. Trade union representation in the NSW began in 1874, 130 years ago, with the election of Angus Cameron, sponsored by Sydney Trades and Labor Council. In the great tradition of unionists turned politician, Cameron ratted on his mates before too long (see WO article by Griffith


The Clunes dispute and the Sandhurst Miners' Eight Hour League were the basis of the Amalgamated Miners Association that formed 130 years ago, in Bendigo, June 1874. This dispute seemed to be about Chinese labour and racism but careful study by Jerome Small shows that it was much more a class attack aimed at undermining worker solidarity and Chinese workers supported the miners.

Also in 1874 in Tasmania, where transportation and convict labour had a longer impact, shipwrights organised for an eight-hour day (they won nine that year). A few years later other trades joined the struggle.


In 1856, following the gaining of the eight-hour day, the Melbourne Trades Hall and Literary Institute was formed. It evolved by the 1870s into a Trades Hall Committee and in 1879 began to play a part in industrial disputes.

The Sydney Trades and Labour Council formed in 1871 and, as noted above, supported Parliamentary candidates from 1874.

In Adelaide the Trades and Labour Council was established at a meeting in 1882. In Brisbane 1885 seems to be the beginning of the Trades and Labour Council.

EIGHT HOURS FOR ALL (well not quite)

The 1880s saw moves to extend the eight-hour day to more workers and it from this period that the 8-8-8 became of deep iconic significance to the Australian labour movement. Many union banners used the symbol and the surviving banners from this time, as well as the eight hour day monument in Melbourne show the importance to workers.


From the 1880s women began to assert their rights as workers, the most significant group being the Victorian Tailoresses. 120 years ago (1884) two delegates from this union attended the second intercolonial trade union congress. Federal unions also began to organise across colonial divides at this time.

New unionism was based on the unskilled and semi-skilled. Old unionism developed from craft guilds zealously guarding their trades and rates. The rise of mass unionism seems to begin in the 1880s and militancy spread quickly amongst wharfies, seamen, shearers and millhands.


The downturn from the late 1880s saw reaction from employers set in and the shearers, wharfies and seamen felt the brunt of the battle. The defeat of this time led to rethinking, and different paths. Some decided on the Parliamentary road to renewal, others saw the need for more revolutionary action.

In 1894, after the shearers had to capitulate in 1891 strike and agree to fixed conditions, the pastoralists renewed their assault with an attempt to further reduce wages. That year saw the burning of the "Rodney" on the Darling River. The shearers arrested were acquitted, except for Thomas Bonner, who was 100 miles away at the time!! However the problem of 1891 defeated the shearers again:

"You scabbed old son in '91-

And you scabbed some more in'94"

One outcome of the disputes of 110 years ago was the strange tale of William Lane and other setting out for Paraguay to establish a New Australia in 1893. The descendants of these settlers remain in Paraguay. Gavin Souter and Anne Whitehead have separately told the fascinating tale.


The significant outcome for the mainstream union movement of the strikes of 1891 was the push for arbitration. It had been advocated from 1874 (130 years ago) by the Melbourne Trades Hall Council. In 1884 the Seaman's Union and the Steamship Owners' Association combined to set up a board of conciliation and the Melbourne Trades Hall Council and the Employers' Federation set up boards of arbitration soon after.

The ALP in NSW, set up by trade unions, advocated arbitration from its beginnings.

The trade unions themselves began to revive after the crushing defeats by the turn of the century. The influence of the union movement was felt in all colonies and in the states once federated. The strength of labour support was evident from the establishment, for one week, of the world's first labour government in Queensland under Anderson Dawson, later a federal minister in the first federal ALP government in 1904. Ross Fitzgerald has written well about this little episode.

Unions supported the federal ALP, and the split amongst the free-tradrers and protectionists, and the Deakinite liberals, saw the former NSW Trades and Labour Council secretary, John Christian Watson become the first ALP Prime Minister. Watson had seconded a motion before the Labour Council in 1890 to support Labor candidates for election.

The same Labour Council had more or less collapsed by 1894, but with the revival of unionism it too had come back to life by the turn of the century. It was at the centre of the push to make arbitration a statutory requirement. Also at the centre of this pus was a non-Labor Party member of Watson's cabinet, Henry Bourne Higgins, whose work to draft the first arbitration bill that was passed under Watson in 1904 cemented his place in labour history. He was, off course, later the judge who established the notion of a living family wage, a cornerstone of the Australian industrial relations system for many years, and an idea whose time has come again, in a different form, 100 years later as unions seek again to re-establish the rights of workers as they are attacked by conservative government and capitalist forces internationally.


The election of ACTU President, Sharon Burrow as the leader of the International Congress of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) indicates that Australian unions are dealing with issues at a global level even as we face potentially the most concerted attack on the right to organise this country has seen. The international solidarity displayed in the 1880-90s by Australian unionists in support of the London dockers was seen again in the international support given by the International Transport Workers Federation to the MUA in the Patrick dispute of 1998.

The internationalism of Eureka, the strategic thinking of the early organising efforts in the 1850s and 1880s, and the mass campaigning around issues that saw the establishment of "new unionism" are examples of awareness of the need for solidarity, class consciousness and that the boss treats you as a friend and partner only when you are in a position of strength (sorry Mr Reich, but that isn't now).

A magnificent book on early labour history, with a wonderful collection of documents and photographs is The Bitter Fight: a pictorial history of the Australian labor movement by Joe Harris (Uni of Qld Press, 1970)

Other books referred to here are:

Ross Fitzgerald. Seven Days to Remember (UQP, 1999)

Anne Whitehead. Paradise Mislaid: In search of the Australian Tribe in Paraguay (UQP, 1998)

Good short histories of the union movement include:

Ian Turner. In Union is Strength (Nelson, 1975) and later editions updated by Leonie Sandercock

Brian Fitzpatrick. A Short History of the Australian Labour Movement (Macmillan, 1968)


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