The Labor Problem

Australia is best known to the rest of the world as a continent where for about half a century Labor has been one of the most powerful political parties and has pursued policies which seem radical to outsiders. At present Labor governments are in power in four states and in the federal field. In some states a Labor ministry is as normal as is a Democratic government in some of our southern states or a Republican one in Maine.

This condition is the result of the development of strong labor unions at an early stage in the country’s development. The free immigrants of the 1840’s and 1850’s came from Britain, where labor was just getting organized and voicing its demands for standard wage rates and an eight-hour day. In Australia wages were good during the gold days, but the weather was hot; so the immigrants formed craft unions, demanded an eight-hour day, and got it. Soon eight hours became the standard working day throughout the continent.

As organization spread to mining, shipping, and sheepshearing, the unions sought to maintain wages in times of depression or falling prices; to stop the entry and use of Chinese; or to persuade parliaments to pass better labor laws, widen the franchise, and improve the educational system. At times they felt that some day it might be necessary to elect representatives of their own instead of pressing or persuading the old-line parties to action. Much collective bargaining was accomplished, and relations between employers and employed were often quite good.

In 1590, however, the lid blew off. Employers, faced with falling prices, tried to reduce wages. Labor retorted by demanding the closed shop. Strikes swept the mines, wharves, ships, and ranches during 1590–94, and in every case the strikers lost the fight. For the time being, the unions seemed to be down and out, but after 1900 they recovered and advanced rapidly. By 1912, 1 in every 11 of the population was a member of some union; by 1920 it was 1 in every 8, and by 1943 it was 1 in every 6 1/2. The membership in 1943 was over 1,100,000, which would be equivalent to 21,000,000 in the United States,