In the 1880s, Victoria was rightly earning a reputation for militant union organizing, and three early strikes in this period – the Tailoresses strike, the bootmakers strike, and the wharf labourers strike – would have dramatic consequences for Australia’s workplace relations at the start of the 20th Century.
In 1883, clothing manufacturer Beith Shiess & Co attempted to reduce the meagre piece-rate wages of Melbourne's tailoresses. At a meeting at Trades Hall, the tailoresses formed a trade union, called Melbourne's first major strike, and gained broad labour movement support. The tailoresses' catalogue of suggested piece rates became known as a “log of claims” – phraseology still used by today’s unionists in negotiations with bosses. The striking women not only won significant improvements to their wages and conditions, but also challenged public notions of “respectable femininity”.
Over the same period, the Operative Bootmakers Union had negotiated with employers for two years before taking strike action in 1884. President Billy Trenwith secured the support of unions in Victoria and other colonies to raise funds for the strike - eventually settled by a new board of conciliation in workers' favour.
Workers in union were winning huge victories - so when shipowners tried to restrict Maritime Officers' ability to unionise, Trades Hall organised wharf labourers, gas stokers, coalminers, transport unionists and shearers in four colonies to strike in support. 60,000 people joined the strike. But after their defeat by the bootmakers, employers had learned to organise, too. They hired "scab" workers, refused to negotiate, and engaged the police and private militias to break the strikers. The unions, drained of resources, were crushed.
These three strikes at the close of the 19th Century represent some of the huge changes that defined the relationship between labour and capital in Australia at the time of federation. There was optimism for what workers could achieve together in a new country, but employers were also entrenching their institutional power and writing laws to suppress organising efforts. Labour needed political representation.