Shearer’s Strike 1891

In colonial Queensland wool was big business and the pastoralists were used to getting their own way. So when newly formed unions challenged the bosses, many feared that there would be ‘blood on the wattle’

1891 shearer's strike leaders
1891 shearer’s strike leaders

The 1891 shearer’s strike was one of the first big industrial disputes in Australia. The strike centred on the town of Barcaldine in rural Queensland. The pastoralists wanted to pay lower wages to shearers by using non-union workers. The unions said no and organised a strike. The government used soldiers and special constables to bring in non-union workers to work at low rates.

Both sides of the dispute threatened violence and there was widespread fear that there would be a bloody outcome.

Private information. Federated pastoralists levying three hundred thousand pounds throughout Australia to fight Queensland…Employers plan to raise thousands blacklegs to take district after district in rotation. Keep this strictly secret. Act cautiously. Big trouble ahead. Telegram sent in 1891 (Workers’ Heritage Centre)

The union leaders were arrested and sent to prison. After which the strike collapsed. But that was not the end of the story.

Stirred by the events, the shearers union saw the need to get involved in politics. They formed the Australian Labor Party and in just a few years had representatives in the Queensland parliament.

More depth: Here’s how the Workers’ Heritage Centre in Barcaldine describes the events.

Australian Curriculum Links:

History/Year 9/Historical Knowledge and Understanding/Australia and Asia/Making a Nation

Key events and ideas in the development of Australian self-government and democracy, including women’s voting rights


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