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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72

The Strike of 1890 and the Election of 1891

The Strike of 1890 and the Election of 1891.

The election of 1891 followed immediately on the great strike of 1890. That strike commenced with the Shearers' Union, whose members declined to work alongside of men who did not belong to any Union. The quarrel soon spread to the seamen, the Maritime Council, and the Trades and Labour Council, embracing almost every kind of labour. The fight did not, like the present lamentable dispute in the coal trade here, centre on a particular amount of money to be paid for a given amount of work, or time spent in working, but on the question whether men should work for employers who had combined, and whether employers should be allowed to employ men who had not combined.

Melbourne was without gas and enveloped in darkness for three days. Intercolonial shipping was stopped, for the labourers were afraid to work lest they should suffer violence at the hands of the Unionists. The remarkable spectacle was witnessed of the smart young merchants and clerks of Melbourne, begrimed with dirt, working in the holds, on the wharf, and at the donkey-engine.

It was pointed out in the Victorian Parliament that this doctrine of the "complete boycott," as it was called, carried to its logical conclusion would prevent the Unionist even from entering heaven, so long as any free men were also admitted there; while if he appeared page 11 at the gate of the other place the president would refuse him admission lest he should be calling out the stokers.

The mandate of the Unions was loyally obeyed at the cost of heavy suffering, not in the hope of higher wages, but from a sentiment which, however misguided, one could not help admiring—that of the bond of fellowship.

Upon one occasion I remember a ship was being loaded with manganese from a lighter. The lighter was "Union," so some lumpers thought it no harm to earn a few shillings by loading at least a "Union" lighter. To their horror, however, shortly after commencing work a messenger arrived in hot haste to tell them that, though the lighter, the baskets, and the shovels were "Union," the man at the winch on board the ship hoisting up the manganese was" free," and they must at once desist from their work.

As anyone might have foreseen who reflected that out of 420,000 workmen in New South Wales alone only 40,000 were Unionists, after protracted suffering the strike collapsed by the final consent of the Unionists to work alongside of free labourers.

Certain members of the New Zealand Parliament, foreseeing how wide would be the breach between the parties at the forthcoming election, commenced at once to worship before the shrine of the Union. It was proposed by obstructing business to prevent the prorogation of Parliament until the strike should be settled; one member went so far as to send the following telegram to the Secretary of the Wharf Labourers' Union in his constituency:—

"Sir George Grey and others think with me that we shall commit grave error to allow Parliament to terminate next week before strike terminates. But I dare not stone-wall without your direction. Kindly advise."