Saturday, 8 February 2014

Worker and protest movements 1870-1900

Before the 1880s, radical movements tended to be short-lived and focus on specific issues. From this decade on, however, as waged labour became the only means for the majority of people to make a living, industrial unions expanded and socialist ideas began to play a part in the labour movement.[1] The part police would take in the on-going conflicts between employers and workers was foreshadowed in the 1870s as workers began to organise themselves into industrial unions. In 1873, police openly intervened in a miners’ strike at Clunes. After consulting with the directors of the mine, the Chief Commissioner, in an attempt to defeat the fourteen week strike, provided an armed police escort for a convoy of strike-breakers brought into the town. The formerly peaceful dispute erupted into a riot when strikers and police clashed. In the same decade police in rural areas used the provisions of the Masters and Servants Act to break industrial action taken by shearers against squatters; in one case police arrested fifteen striking shearers.

Some commentators argue that there is little evidence of repressive policing of worker movements in Australia. This conclusion fails to take adequate account of the way worker organisations and socialist and radical ideas have been policed. Because of the inequality of bargaining power between capitalists and workers, workers need to join together to take effective action to challenge the system under which power is distributed. Worker or socialist organisations are also necessary to build working class consciousness. Changes in working class consciousness are necessary if any substantial and effective challenges are to be mounted against the ruling class.

If one looks at the policing of worker action in the context of the policing of worker organisations and radical opinion, history provides ample evidence of repressive policing. Police harassment of socialists and militant workers became widespread in the 1880s as class organisation, action, and militancy increased amongst workers. Victoria’s first socialist organisation, the Australian Socialist League (ASL), was established in early 1889. Police forbade property owners to allow the group to use their premises to hold public meetings; arrested or threatened to arrest members selling the group’s newspaper; constantly interrupted and threatened to arrest socialist speakers addressing gatherings. A leading ASL spokesperson maintained:

‘Socialism aims at the abolition of the present system of state and society by which a small class, the Bourgeoisie, rules a large class, the workers, the proletariat; rules it, and exploits it, keeps it deliberately in ignorance, and oppresses it mercilessly. They are backed up by canon, bayonet, and the policeman’s baton, and are determined to keep up this system of theirs’.

The 1890s saw the onset of mass unemployment in Australia, leaving many families and communities in a state of near-starvation. Melbourne was worst hit by the depression; by 1893 nearly one third of all workers were unemployed. The extent of unemployment, combined with the involvement of radicals as organisers, meant that protests against unemployment were more politicised than earlier demonstrations. Demonstrations often attracted thousands of people and speeches were made about socialism, anarchy and other ‘social reforms’. The police played an integral part in containing protest and undermining the political organisations of the unemployed. Police used their batons liberally at demonstrations: ‘defenceless men were beaten in a “brutal fashion” and women and children were pushed and abused’. Police also used a range of laws to persecute the politically active unemployed. One of Melbourne’s best known unemployed activists was arrested and gaoled as a vagrant; others were arrested for ‘seditious language’, disturbing the peace, and holding processions without the permission of the Mayor.

The fear of imprisonment was enough to make other activists flee the state. The criminalisation of dissent thus effectively deprived the unemployed movement of its leadership. The use of vagrancy laws during the depression to gaol the unemployed, ill, injured, infirm and women struggling to support children, reinforced the idea that poverty was the result of personal failure, rather than structural inequality and provides an early example of how policing feeds into the production of ideas favourable to the maintenance of capitalism.


[1] Love, P., ‘From convicts to communists’ in ibid, Burgmann, V. and Lee, J., (eds.), Staining the Wattle: A People’s History of Australia since 1788, pp. 152 and 154. See also, Markey, Ray, ‘Australia’, in Van der Linden, Marcel and Rojahn, J├╝rgen, (eds.), Formation of Labour Movements, 1870-1914: An International Perspective, (Brill), 1990, pp. 579-608.

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