1890: The Australian maritime strike

1890: The Australian maritime strike

A short history of the 1890 strike of seamen in Australia against mass wage cuts amongst other things, which ended in defeat for the workers.

Although the origins of the 1890 maritime strike are disputed, the events that accompanied and followed this strike were a turning point in Australian history. The strike began in Adelaide and rapidly spilled over into all the other colonies. The battle was particularly bitter in Victoria and New South Wales. Both employers and unions were itching for a fight. As the union movement grew stronger it was able to launch campaigns that boycotted products that were made or moved by non-union labour.

In 1890 employers from all the colonies met and drew up a plan to provoke a national strike. The colonial governments were pre-warned and prepared for a national dispute. While police had been used in strikes before 1890, such as the big maritime strike of 1878-9, the military had not. During the 1890, maritime strike military units were extensively used against strikes 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 31st of 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 an old Colonel Tom Price "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 the 31st of August 1890.

A shortage of money and a plentiful supply of scabs eventually defeated the strikers. Wage cuts were introduced for everyone in the maritime industry, even the scabs had their wages cut. The defeat of the maritime strike in 1890 and the shearers strike in 1891, laid the framework for the labour movement’s 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."

In 1998 one hundred and eight years later the wheel turned full circle. The Maritime Union of Australia realised that direct action not parliamentary politics was the only way to maintain the conditions they had won over the past century.


By Anarchist Media Institute, Melbourne, Australia and edited by libcom. Excerpted from Anarchist Age Weekly Review Number 288, 23rd February - 1st March, 1998