Strikes

Workers have used a range of collective methods to maintain or improve their working conditions, ranging from mass absconding, making demands or petitions, to imposing work bans, but strikes or the temporary withdrawal of labour are the most dramatic and best reported historically. An early Tasmanian strike occurred in 1833 when journeymen tailors at Thomas Lightfoot's Hobart establishment struck against a wage cut and the use of assigned convicts. Prior to the 1860s, most strikes involved non-unionised workers, like Hobart cab drivers in 1848 (probably the first strikers to be photographed) and in 1853 miners at New Town, who were gaoled under the Master and Servants Act. While there were strikes by craftsmen, such as tailors, builders and bootmakers, seamen and whalers account for more than half Tasmanian strikes prior to 1860s, sparking a range of legislative responses. Apart from a 1839 strike by seamen on ships in the Tamar, most of these strikes were confined to a single ship. Competition from convict workers, who occasionally engaged in collective dissent, and, later, recurrent bouts of unemployment weakened the capacity of Tasmanian workers to strike even as union organisation consolidated after 1880. Nonetheless, there were strikes involving craft workers, railway navvies and miners, such as strikes at Mount Nicholas in 1889 and at Mount Lyell in 1896, as well as strikes involving other workers, such as a strike by women employed at Johnstone Brothers Derwent Woollen Mills in 1884. Unions also had some involvement in the titanic industrial struggles that swept Australia in the early 1890s.

Strike action proved effective in the years immediately preceding the First World War, as carters, drivers, meat workers and shop assistants won improved wages. The hazards of striking were more apparent in the general strike of 1917, as scab labour unloaded cargo and some urged the death penalty for those who withdrew their labour. In the 1920s feelings against scabs ran so high that Geeveston tradespeople refused to supply food to those helping to break a timber workers' strike, and their boarding-house was attacked. A few years later, Tasmania was severely affected by shipping strikes which threatened the state's small industrial base.

Striking was particularly dangerous during depression and war, but industrial militancy returned to Tasmania in 1944 (though never to the extent of most mainland states), with widespread stoppages. A more widespread sense of rights and entitlements saw industrial unrest in the 1970s, with strikes by transport and zinc workers. Miners at Rosebery pressed their claims with strikes in 1983, and in 1984 Electrolytic Zinc workers won a 38-hour week with a campaign of rolling strikes. In the 1980s and 1990s new militancy also came from white-collar unions: as teachers and nurses pressed their own claims. In 1987 teachers' rolling strikes almost led to a general strike.

Five years later Burnie was the focus of nationwide attention when workers there resisted Associated Pulp and Paper Mill's management's attempt to cut jobs and change work practices, fighting a pitched battle at the main gate on 4 June, after a court ruling that the union picket line should be broken. In 1998 Burnie again attracted national attention for its role in the Maritime Union of Australia's dispute with Patrick Corporation. Unionised workers there were dismissed, despite their high level of productivity and performance. In both disputes an unusual degree of community support was shown for striking workers, but their position remained vulnerable even after strike actions which appeared to be successful. In the first years of the twenty-first century the strike weapon was used by academic staff at the Australian Maritime College and doctors at Mersey Hospital. However, an increasingly punitive industrial environment and growing casualisation of work made strike action both more dangerous and more unlikely.

Further reading: M Quinlan, 'Hope amidst hard times', THRAPP 33/1, 1986.

Michael Quinlan and Margaret Lindley