Reflections on 1903 Rail Strike

Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen [1975]
The Oldest Continuous Railway Union In The World
One Hundred and Fourteen Years of Railway Trade Unionism, 1861-1975 p. 9


Writing in the London Morning Post, Alfred Deakin (later to become Prime Minister of Australia) described the 1903 Victorian Enginemen's strike as the "most novel, the most daring and the most significant strike ever witnessed in these States." For one week, 9th to 15th May, 1903, Victoria was indeed gripped by one of the most spectacular strikes in her history.

Mention is made in the scroll of the 1903 strike and how this nearly led to the disbandment of the Association. Very little work has been done in documenting the events leading up to and during the strike — the best available being in Docherty's work, "The Rise of Railway Unionism" referred to earlier. Because some of the lessons of tactics and leadership learned during that strike have relevance today, it is worthwhile taking a detailed look at this event by summarising Docherty's chapter on this issue.

Drought, not Government, was the real ruler of Victoria in the early 1900's. The period 1895-1902 is recognized by meteorologists as Australia's longest and most severe dry spell. Victoria was one of the worst affected States, especially when the drought was at its height, between April-November, 1902. Such conditions could not fail to have sweeping political repercussions because the farmer was the backbone of Victorian conservatism, the State's principal social and political dynamic.

Hired seasonal labour was vital to the economic life of the farms, but the effects of the drought made it impossible for farmers to pay labourers at a rate comparable to that prevailing in government work; for example, in the harvesting periods of 1902 and 1905, the prevailing rate for agricultural labourers was around 15/- per week, with working conditions very poor and hours very long — this compared with 7/- per day in government employ for an 8 hour day (6 days per week). Land owners believed the Government should not pay "high" rates for labourers, or better still, dismiss them to force them to work on the land for wages the farmer could afford.

The railways were a target for rural anger for many reasons — bush fires caused by sparks from engines, high railway charges and a shortage of rolling stock; but the traditional grudge against them was as a competitor for rural labour. For instance, in mid 1901, the railways advertised for 1,069 vacancies and received 12,782 applications! About half of these applications came from rural areas. Those disappointed were in the thousands. For example, at Donald, only 16 of 382 applicants were selected. This created a jealous feeling about permanent railwaymen and might explain why the striking enginemen received relatively little widespread working class support.

The establishment of Federation in Australia in 1901 worried the conservative elements (just as the centralization policies of the Labor Government do today) and produced a political response from those quarters. In 1902, a Federation of Australian employers was founded and representatives of the various main Chambers of Commerce of the States met in Melbourne in late 1901 to discuss the new Commonwealth tariff and other national questions.

But in Victoria, the trend was far stronger. "To protect the interests of employers of labour from undue aggression and excessive State interference" was one of the principal aims of the new Victorian Employers' Federation formed in August, 1901. Its membership grew 5 times in the twelve months ending March 1903 to reach 5,000 members with "professional" men and agricultural societies swelling its ranks. It was avowedly political and openly declared it would support parliamentary candidates who would represent manufacturing and trading interests.

The Press acted as a catalyst to these changes. The "Age" and the "Argus" dominated Victoria's newspapers and, slowly but surely, the Melbourne Press was able to merge rural misery and conservative urban fears into one broad channel. The "'Argus" fired the first shots in the campaign to save Victoria. Between 15th and 22nd April, 1901, it carried a series of seven articles, entitled "State Reform: How to Obtain It" and attacked the cost of the State's government and the excessive number of politicians. The "Age" followed by attacking the railway department and the allegedly high wages of State employees.

With the worsening of the drought, rural opinion came to agree with the press that their salvation lay in reducing the number of politicians and lowering State expenditure. Their feelings found political expression in the rural "reform" movement which originated at Kyabram on the 13th November, 1901. The two main planks of the Kyabram movement's platform were - the reduction of the legislative assembly from 95 to 46 and the Legislative Council from 48 to 23. It received massive propaganda support from a series of articles in the "Age", and by the end of 1902 the movement claimed 15,555 members. Politicians were forced to take notice and bid for its support. Alexander Peacock, the Premier, promised to reduce the lower house to 60 members and the upper house to 30. This belated attempt to save his government failed, and on the 10th June, 1902, William Hill Irvine became the new Premier of Victoria.

Prior to the election, Irvine was a minor political figure representing a farmer's electorate (Lowan) in Western Victoria. His elevation to Premier was facilitated by the exodus of both talent and issues from the Victorian Parliament as a result of Federation. He sympathised with the Kyabram movement, but was not prepared to be dictated to by it, and as Peacock's position became weaker he emerged as the only politician with sufficient power to carry out the movement policies. They, in turn, had to accept the policy he laid down of a reduction of the lower house to 56 and the upper to 28. Irvine understood conservative opinion well and exploited its desire for retrenchment of State politicians and employees. Of course in themselves these policies were just political cops, as Victoria's problems arose from drought, which grip was not shaken off until good rains in late December 1902, but which effects lasted well into 1903.

To understand the 1903 strike, we need to understand Irvine the man. He was unquestionably a man who held to a definite set of principles. Above all he sought to exercise power. He understood his elector's fears about organised labour and strove to make himself the strong leader the critical series of articles the "Age" and "Argus" seemed to be urging. He went to the electorate basing his campaign on the "reform" of government as evidenced by reducing "extravagance" and the pay of State employees. He secured a massive victory in July 1902, 59 out of the then 95 Assembly seats. He now dominated his government as no Victorian Premier had done before him, and he set out to fulfil his promise.

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