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Union Movement

AEU BannerTHE UNION MOVEMENT

The story of the Trades Union movement in South Australia began almost as soon as European colonisation.

As early as October 1836 the colony's first industrial dispute was resolved when the South Australia company manager, Charles Hare, was left with little option than to pay extra wages to seaman and settlers who were threatening to strike.

"Six or seven of the Emma's crew Hutton, Barnet, Howland, Palmer, Thompson, Lyne, Cranfield, and others joined the men previously mentioned - and they held meetings formed societies etc. to coerce Mr. Stephens their first rule being to strike one and all when a man was discharged for any cause whatever and refuse to work until he was again employed." [C.S. Hare to G.F. Angas, 02/1837 Angas papers PRG 174]

The first attempt to control labour and make the withdrawal of labour punishable by imprisonment in South Australia came in the form of An Act for the summary determination of all disputes between Masters and Servants passed by the Governor and Council of South Australia on 4 January 1837. On the advice of the Privy Council Queen Victoria disallowed this Act. [South Australian Gazette & Colonial Register 5 December 1838 pg. 1]

In 1839 the South Australian Builders Trades Union Society advertised a meeting to discuss the regulation of prices and wages. The success or otherwise of this meeting is not recorded, but the advertisement further reveals the early activity of trades unions in the fledgling province. [The Southern Australian, 3 April 1839, pg. 1]

The rise of a class of gentry grown wealthy by land speculation, sheep farming and the discovery of copper in The Burra led to increasing calls for laws that would control labour and provide terms of imprisonment for workers who withdrew their labour.

Introduced into the Legislative Council in 1847 by pastoralist and mine owner Captain Bagot, A Ordinance to Amend the laws relating to Masters and Servants attracted considerable organised opposition. Meetings were held in Adelaide and at Glen Osmond. Resolutions were passed that were widely publicised and supported by The Register and The Adelaide Observer. The Southern Australian published editorial supporting the bill, but the opposition was such that Governor Robe said "as this measure seemed to him to require a great deal of consideration, he would prefer a little more time before bringing it again under discussion". [The Adelaide Observer, 8 May 1847 pg. 2]

Opposition was not sufficient to stop the Bill and it was reintroduced and passed on 23 July 1847.

II. And be it Enacted, that if any Person shall contract with another to serve him as a servant for any time whatsoever, or in any manner, and shall not enter into or commence his service according to his Contract (such Contract being in writing), or having entered into such service, shall absent himself therefrom before the term of his contract … then and in every such case it shall and may be lawful for any Two or more Justices of the Peace, on conviction, to commit every such Offender to the House of Correction, there to remain for a reasonable time, not exceeding Three calendar months; or in lieu thereof, to punish the said Offender by abating the whole or any part of his Wages... [Ordinance to amend the laws relating to Masters and Servants Act, 1847 (SA) s II

Shortages of labour due to the Victorian gold rush from 1851, the creation of responsible government which increased representation in 1857, the British Trade Union Act of 1871 and the 8 hour day campaign all contributed to a climate that fostered the Trade Union movement and the Trade Union Act of 1876. South Australia became the first territory of the empire outside Britain to legalise trade unions.

2. The purposes of any Trade Union shall not, by reason merely that they are in restraint of trade, be deemed to be unlawful so as to render any member of such Trade Union liable to criminal prosecution for conspiracy, or otherwise. [The Trade Union Act, 1876 (SA) s 2]

With the legal right to collectively represent their trades it made sense that the various unions should themselves come together to form the United Trades and Labor Council. "At a large and representative meeting of delegates from the various trade & labor societies in South Australia" met at the Bristol Tavern on January 31st 1884.

The climate of social change that had reformed labour relations just as readily was impacting on the rights of women. Increasingly women were in the paid workforce and impacted by the vagaries of relations with their employers. As a result the Working Women's Trades Union was formed in March 1890 and applied for UTLC affiliation.

On the 15 March 1890 social and political activist Mary Lee wrote a long letter to the Adelaide Observer welcoming the formation of the Working Women's Trades Union and the need for this development to be followed by the franchise.

United Trades and Labor Council Minutes of 28 March 1890 note that while seeking affiliation it is not the intention of the Working Women's Trades Union "to send lady delegates at present", but at the Selborne Hotel on 13 June 1890 Mrs Milne, Mrs Reuin and Miss Vincent were welcomed as new Working Women's Trades Union delegates.

On the 29 March 1895 the Secretary of the UTLC wrote to WWTU delegate Auguste Zadow acknowledging her resignation as a delegate and congratulating her on her appointment as "Inspectress under the Factories Act", the first woman so appointed in South Australia.  Auguste Zadow's tenure was brief and she died in 1896, her passing marked by her obituary on the front page of the UTLC paper, The Weekly Herald.

Post World War I conditions led to some serious labour confrontations. In September 1928, 400 wharfies protested the use of scab labour in a protest described by The Register as a "Serious Riot on the waterfront".

The stock market collapse of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression of the 1930s brought other challenges to South Australian unions. On 9 January 1931 unionists protested the governments decision to remove beef from rations for the unemployed.

The News of 9 January 1931 headlined "Riot in Adelaide streets after unemployed parade", a parade that would become known as the 'Beef March'.

The end of the Great Depression was followed by the Second World War and a return to near full employment. Men joined up to fight and women found themselves in the paid workforce in greater numbers than ever before. The social changes that came about as a result brought new agendas to the union movement. Stopping the forced retirement of women once they married and equal pay would become important issues that would bring permanent changes to Australian unionism and society. Globalisation, the introduction of robots to manufacturing and computers in every aspect of the workplace during the late 20th century produced considerable restructuring of the Australian workforce and a general reduction in union membership.

One result of this was the waterfront dispute in 1998. The dispute was between the Maritime Union of Australia [MUA] and Patrick Corporation, working with the support of the Australian government. The dispute became one of the most contentious industrial relations disputes in post WWII Australia. Patrick Corporation sought to break union influence on the waterfront by sacking their workforce and hiring non union labour. The dispute ended when the High Court upheld a Federal Court finding that Patrick's had attempted to to injure the workplace protections of MUA members, contrary to the Workplace Relations Act.

The introduction of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Act 2005 system by the Howard Liberal government in March 2006 produced a major challenge to the union movement. The reduction of employment conditions in some Australian Workplace Agreements (AWA) produced a national debate and a union led backlash that contributed to the defeat in November 2007 of the Liberal government by the Australian Labour Party led by Kevin Rudd campaigning on a promise to overturn the Work Choices legislation.

Further Reading
Moss, Jim. Sound of trumpets : history of the labour movement in South Australia, Cowandilla, S. Aust. : Wakefield Press, 1985

Links
South Australian Unions

8 Hour Day procession
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Banner of the Australasian Society of Engineers
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Banner of the Federated Agricultural Implement Associat
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Banner of the Metal Trades Federation
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Bob Hawke addressing a Labor Day crowd
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Bristol Tavern, Franklin Street
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Builders' Laborer
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Gathering of unemployed
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German opposition to the masters and servants act
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International Womens Day march
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International Womens Day march 2007
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Introducing ourselves: Les Cassidy
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