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Essay: Why did a 'labour movement' emerge in South Australia in the 1880s? What associated factors encouraged the rise of the U.L.P. in the late 1880's and early 1890's?

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by Nicholas Klar

The labour movement emerged in South Australia during the 1880's for several reasons. It shared much in common with similar movements in other colonies and in Britain, and was also very influenced by them. However it also possessed its own peculiarities. The rise of the labour movement in South Australia also spawned the birth of the United Labor Party (ULP) at Port Adelaide in January 1891. Therefore this paper will concern itself not only with the reasons for the growth of the trade union movement and the establishment of the United Trades and Labor Council (UTLC), but will also discuss the formation of the ULP in the early 1890s, and the reasons behind it. These include the 'split' between liberalism and labour interests, influences from outside the colony, and major strikes.

The UTLC and ULP were intrinsically linked in the labour movements aims, and its growing assertiveness. The UTLC was formed with the direct aim of 'having more political influence in the colony'. The failure by labour to have demands met and the crushing defeat of major strikes meant its next step would naturally be into the parliamentary realm. This is where labour considered itself under-represented, and also because it also wanted to restrict what it saw as the use of government machinery against working men, particularly during strikes.

All of the Australian colonies shared common economic and political features but South Australia was different in some ways because of its origins. The Wakefield System of colonisation has produced a less stratified society laced with 'dissenting ideology'. Until the 1880s this had produced no severe social or economic conflict. There were no 'party politics' to speak of because the parliament was dominated by independent factions largely based on 'economic grievances'. The waxing and waning of these produced the most unstable parliament of all the colonies, and governments rose and fell in quick succession. Between 1856 -1886 political life was dominated by 'conservative democrats' who viewed themselves as 'Burkean Independents'.

The working classes had always depended on the support of sympathetic liberal middle class representatives, such as C.C. Kingston and J.A. Cockburn. Many of the wealthier families came from dissenting backgrounds and benevolently supported working class issues. The Advertiser was a decidely liberal publication, despite being owned and edited by the colony's wealthiest man - Sir J. Langdon Bonython. In South Australia many of the early labour leaders were of Cornish Methodist stock with high moral standards. This would have no doubt appealed to those who had come from a dissenting background.

In other colonies the influence of Irish Catholics on labour would have been much to the chagrin of the landed class. In New South Wales one member of the landed class described the Irish (which constituted four-fifths of the servant class) as 'liars and dirty'. The colony of South Australia varied in its relations between the classes in several ways when compared to the other colonies. It had enacted the most liberal and democratic constitution of all the colonies in 1856, one which remained unchallenged for some years, and it led in the passage of progressive legislation. There was no domination of the squatter class as had occurred in other colonies, and the small farmer agricultural base had encouraged an interactive pluralistic political system.

Political life was dominated by group interaction between rural and urban middle class factional interests. In South Australia there had not been the influence of gold rushes or convict labour as in the other colonies. Tariffs were not the issue that they were in the east, because the small South Australian farmer was generally a 'free trader'. Yet when this sentiment was reversed by the mid 1880s it generally enjoyed some cross class consensus. The eventual parliamentary polarisation was between labour and non-labour, unlike New South Wales and Victoria where labour competed against free traders and protectionists. Liberalism dominated the status quo and labour demands were often met with wide community acceptance. Charles Kingston praised workers for their 'loyalty and devotion to the cause of liberalism'. South Australia was the first colony to introduce a conciliation and arbitration court to deal with disputes.

S.A. was also the first to give legal recognition to trade unions in 1876, and passed the Trades Union Acts (39 and 40) in 1878. Around the same time there was agitation to amend the harsher elements of the 1863 Master and Servants Act. Workers rights were seen as a natural evolution, placing workers 'on an equal footing with the workmen of the mother-country.' Workers in South Australia sought to work within the capitalist system and disassociate themselves from the revolutionary and anarchic thought of European socialism. This is why the direct election of three labour delegates to the South Australian parliament (the first in Australia) was not viewed with deep consternation in Adelaide. By the 1890s it led the other colonies in introducing full adult suffrage for the lower house and qualified female voting rights for the upper house.

The influence of workers on South Australian political affairs could be seen from as far back as the 1860s. Labour activists were able to prevent the governmental financing of immigration several times between 1860 and 1873. Workers also influenced acts of parliament concerning protection of industry, land reform, education, and trade unions during the 1860s and 70s. The burgeoning growth of South Australia's economy by the 1870s, and increasing concentration of workers in industry ensured the firm establishment of trade unions by this time. Like most other colonies their demands were generally 'moderate, and did not clash with the interests of the employers'. A common union slogan was 'UNITED WE STAND. CAPITAL AND LABOUR UNITED. DIVIDED WE FALL.'

This demand for equality was one of the reasons for the rise of the labour movement in South Australia during the 1880s. This time was one of steep falls in GDP, basic industry share, gross capital formation, wages, and investment for South Australia, along with rising unemployment and subsequent drought. This heightened the realisation that the South Australian was dominated by a wealthy elite of Adelaide based pastoralists, shippers, mine and landowners, merchants, and bankers. This included families like the Elders, Barr Smiths, and Darlings. The unequal voting system ensured that the Legislative Council (upper house) was dominated by this wealthy landed class who held a veto stranglehold on any legislation. The large commercial and financial interests who held sway over the South Australian economy tended to do likewise in the Legislative council. It was this bastion that labour first sought to storm, successfully electing three candidates in 1891.

The radical thought of William Lane, that government fought on the side of capital, permeated the labour movement as relations broke down between the working class and the sympathetic liberal middle classes. Parliamentary action by labour would supposedly replace strike action in defence of workers rights, and 'there would be no more recourse to the barbarous system of strikes'. At the same time the recession brought the dawning realisation amongst the working class that not all could (or wanted to) succeed, and many were destined to always be wage earners. The Wakefield System in South Australia had always imbued hope that everyone who wanted to could become independent and eventually ascend the social ladder. Fifty years of settlement had passed bringing fewer opportunities and the defining of a new class consciousness.

The influence of major strikes played a major part in the shaping of this consciousness. Industrial relations within South Australia were more harmonious than those of the other colonies (even though strikes did occur), and it was not really affected by those major strikes happening outside its borders. However, the maritime strike on the eastern seaboard united workers across state lines as never before. The 'freedom of contract' sought by employers was considered by the labour movements in all colonies as having dire ramifications for wage rates and conditions. The premature closing of mines by employers in Broken Hill was seen by The Advertiser as possibly 'straining the relations of capital and labor (sic) for years to come'.

South Australian workers provided considerable support in the way of funds to striking workers in the east, and in 1890 the membership of the UTLC grew by approximately 40%. Huge demonstrations occurred in Sydney and 10,000 people attended a rally at Elder Park in sympathy. The formation of the ULP and subsequent election of ULP members to the Legislative Council followed quickly in the wake of the collapsed strike. Other major strikes took place interstate between 1890-1894 in the shearing, mining and pastoral industries, which attracted support in South Australia, but which all collapsed under employer pressure. South Australian unionists undertook fifteen strikes during 1890.

South Australian workers were coming increasingly under the influence of other colonies as they perceived need for solidarity, especially with the number of unemployed now rising close to 3,000. There was also influence from the British labour movement, along with the reforms occurring there. This was driven home by the London Dock Strike of August 1889. This struggle was won by the workers, aided by generous donations and wide community support from South Australia. Even the conservative Register leant some support to the dock workers who they viewed as being treated 'little better than slaves', and whose revolt against the system was 'praiseworthy'.

It was noted by the French socialist A. Metin in 1901 that Australian workers had 'imported from England the habit of concerted action, and used it against their employers'. After the strikes failed they had 'formed political parties [and] won elections with ease'. In the South Australian Parliament in 1876 J.C. Bray (Attorney General) asked 'that the workmen of the colony should be placed on an equal footing with the workmen of the mother country'. Many societies advocating the adoption of certain social issues and increased democracy began to appear in the 1880s. These included such notable bodies as the Adelaide Democratic Club and South Australian Fabian Society.

The Intercolonial Trades Union Congress (ITUC) met for the first time in 1879 and the fourth ITUC was hosted by Adelaide in 1886. Outstanding spokesmen helped forge the new working class consciousness. Queensland journalist William Lane (who later led the 'New Australia' socialist experiment in Paraguay) preached nationalism and equality, proclaiming that Australia should not 'be a Southern England nor yet another United States'. The steadily growing labour movement in South Australia received a fillip in 1891. Both W.G. Spence, (noted leader of 'new unionism' in the eastern colonies) and Sir George Grey, (former South Australian governor known for his radical views) visited, speaking to large numbers.

By this time the direct endorsement of parliamentary 'labour' candidates was being discussed because UTLC endorsed liberals were viewed as 'on the hustings...eager to represent the interests of labor (sic), but these promises and pledges [were] soon forgotten'. At the second ITUC in 1884 delegates had been urged to establish parliamentary representation in all colonies. Similar goals and purpose were commonly shared amongst the delegates at the fourth ITUC in Adelaide. Many of these goals were included on the ULP's South Australian election platforms of 1891 and 1893.

These included the payment of M.P.s, universal suffrage, federation (with certain provisions), land and single taxes (to end land speculation, promote productivity and encourage small farmers), eight hour work days (which only came slowly in S.A.), free education, a Workshop and Factories Act (for the protection of workers, particularly women and children), and a halt to assisted and Chinese immigration (which cost jobs and drove down wages). There were also claims by the labour movement that were mostly unique to South Australia - the demands for a suitable trades hall site (which was won), a state bank of issue (mainly to protect small farmers and prevent speculation), a state export department (to promote local industry), and workingmen's blocks (to reduce poverty amongst the low paid and unemployed).

In S.A. the UTLC also wanted the elimination of duties on basic items (to create what was termed 'a free breakfast table'), and early shop closing. To stop the further alienation and consolidation of crown lands by large landowners a leasehold land system was sought, and land grant railways opposed. A protectionist policy was also advocated for manufacturing industries, much to the ire of small farmers who were generally free traders. The UTLC wanted to build the ULP on a 'principle of co-operation...based on equity' and a pragmatic basis of wide community acceptance, which it initially was able to do.

These goals were 'a series of political and economic demands reflecting the sectional interests of the working classes', and specifically aimed at countering their economic and social distress. The ULP and UTLC saw themselves as supporting equitable working class causes. There may have been opposition to the demands of capital but it was not thought of as class struggle. The four great social issues of the 1880s - immigration, land use and tax, protectionism, and the payment of M.P.s, ones that were an anathema to Adelaide's landed class, 'fostered a more independent labour movement, established more clearly defined class boundaries, and modified some functions of the state'.

In South Australia there appeared more consensus between rural and urban interests than in other colonies. Workers, both urban and rural, small farmers, even some manufacturers, shared many common outlooks, especially on issues such as land, promotion of local industries, and the payment of M.P.s. This assisted the labour movement in its aims and concurrent growth as compared to the polarisation of interests in most of the other colonies. Through the electoral system in place during the late nineteenth century small farmers enjoyed a fair slice of parliamentary power.

Apart from the short period in 1879-1884 when the Farmers Mutual Association formed (with up to 1,250 members, sixty branches, and a parliamentary represen-tation of five), most rural representatives retained their independence. The National Defence League (NDL) was formed in 1891 to counter the ULP but failed to become 'the party of the country'. This was due in part to its dominance by merchants, Adelaide squatters, businessmen and absentee landlords, and also to the independence of small farmers. It was not until the early 20th century that rural interests began to form solid political ties, therefore the ULP had the jump on its rivals with regard to political organisation, focus, discipline and unity.

The uniting of working class interests into the ULP was deplored in South Australia by 'traditional independents' who considered organisation 'inherently deplorable'. But perhaps the ULP was only instituting what were the new realities of the colony, 'between the struggles of capital on one hand and organised labour on the other'. Candidates endorsed by the UTLC often 'forgot' their supporters once they reached the benches. The ULP pledge was a way of negating this possibility, ensuring members were bound the party platform, and also ensuring their working class 'pedigree'.

The ULP were the first disciplined class based political party (even though there was no coherent platform amongst the colonies until the late 1890s), and forged a model that assisted the evolution of the modern two-party system. In South Australia labour gained the support of many women, particularly in its fight against the heartless sweating system. The Adelaide Observer noted that 'labour organisations now appear inclined to take up in earnest this question of sweating amongst women workers'. South Australia was fifty years behind England in this respect. This, along with womens suffrage, would have undoubtably increased support for the ULP because many conservatives still considered 'that a woman's proper place was in the home'.

Three reasons have been put forward for the change of working class political character in South Australia. These are probably at the crux of matters concerning the rise of the labour movement in the form of the UTLC and ULP. First was that the payment of M.Ps allowed access to parliament for working men who previously did not have the means to support such duties. Secondly the drive toward parliamentary representation was boosted by the failure of the maritime strikes. Lastly the formation of the ULP provided a vehicle for their purpose. This last reason shows that,

'the convention that working men could depend on sympathetic treatment and consideration from middle class liberals had begun to break down...[and] the ULP was formed as a deliberate manifestation of the interests of a class, given expression through trade unionism'.


Primary Sources

C.M.H. Clark, Select Documents in Australian History: 1851 - 1900, Sydney 1962

Frank Crowley, Colonial Australia : A Documentary History of Australia 1875 -1900, Melbourne 1980

Documents 20 - 23, in History 3034 Documents, Flinders University 1993

Secondary Sources

Brian Dickey, South Australia, in D.J. Murphy (ed.) Labour in Politics, Brisbane 1975

J.B. Hirst, Adelaide and the Country, Melbourne, 1973

Dean Jaensch, Party, party system, and federation, in Eric Richards (ed.) Flinders History of South Australia : Political History, Adelaide, 1986

P.Loveday, et al, (ed.), The Emergence of the Australian Party System, Sydney,1977

S. Macintyre, The Making of the Australian Working Class, in Historical Studies No. 71, 1978

Jim Moss, Sound of Trumpets, Adelaide, 1985

Janet Scarfe, Pushing the Labor wedge : Labor's success in the Legislative Council election, 1893, in M. Blencowe and R. van den Hoorn (ed.), South Australia in the 1890s

© 1993-2008, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1993, "Why did a 'labour movement' emerge in South Australia in the 1880s?" + date accessed

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