Globalisation and Labour in the Pacific: Re-evaluating the 1890 Maritime Strike

Globalisation and Labour in the Pacific: Re-evaluating the 1890 Maritime Strike

Conference Room 1, Copthorne Hotel, 196-200 Quay Street, Auckland City

Thursday 4 November 2010

This seminar examined the 1890 Maritime Strike. One of the largest ever strikes in Australia it also involved New Zealand and Fijian workers, and its impact reverberated throughout the Pacific Rim because of the global structure of capital and labour in the maritime industry. British, European and American employers, politicians and academics took an interest in the dispute, part of a strike wave sweeping Europe, North America and Australasia in 1889-94.

On 16 August 1890 members of the Mercantile Marine Officers’ Association of Australasia went on strike over longstanding pay and conditions claims, complicated by employers’ objection to their affiliation with the Melbourne Trades Hall Council. Industrial action quickly spread to seamen, wharf labourers, then gas stockers, miners and shearers, involving over 60,000 workers throughout Australia. The Union Steam Ship Company’s dominance of trans-Tasman shipping saw the dispute spread to New Zeaiand and wharf labourers in Fiji.

The dispute became a struggle over freedom of association. Fear gripped middle class hearts and colonial governments deployed troops, artillery and special constables in Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle and other ports. In Melbourne military volunteers were exhorted by Colonel Tom Price to “Fire low and lay them out”.

The eventual defeat of the strike in November 1890 was the turning point that led unions to form the Australian Labor Party and adopt a policy for compulsory state arbitration. The New South Wales Labour Defence Committee stated that “the time has come when trade unionists must use the parliamentary machine that in the past has used them”. In New Zealand the strike was a key issue in the December 1890 general election, which led to the formation of the Liberal government and ultimately to state arbitration legislation in 1894. Organised by the Auckland Labour History Group and the Labour History Project. In association with the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History and the New Zealand Work & Labour Market Institute.