18 January 2012 is the centenary of the 1912 Brisbane General Strike — one of the defining episodes in the history of unionism in Queensland. Three years later, as a direct result of the events of 1912, there was an electoral swing to Labor all over Queensland and the second Queensland Labor government was elected, led by T.J. Ryan. In the next few weeks (or maybe sooner) the Queensland Labor Government will call an election they are widely predicted to lose. It’s almost as if 1912 and 2012 are bookmarks for Labor government in Queensland, writes history editor Dr Glenn Davies.
One hundred years ago tonight there was a massive Occupy Brisbane event when more than 10,000 people rallied in Market Square (now known as King George Square) in support of unfairly dismissed workers. The sacking of members of the Australian Tramways Association on 18 January 1912, and the repercussions that ensued, led to Queensland’s first General strike. The strike was triggered when members of the Australian Tramways Association wore their union badges at work from 12 noon on 18 January 1912. The dispute had been simmering for nine months since the manager of Brisbane Tramways, Joseph Stillman Badger, effectively banned union badges to stymie union membership. Badger suspended the tramway workers who then marched on Brisbane Trades Hall and organised a mass protest meeting to be held that night in Market Square. That evening, more than 10,000 people rallied in Market Square in support of the sacked men. This was the beginning of the Brisbane General Strike.
On the second day of the strike, more than 25,000 workers, many of who had taken to wearing red ribbons as a mark of solidarity, marched eight abreast in a procession three kilometres long from the Brisbane Trades Hall to Fortitude Valley and back — with more than 50,000 supporters watching from the sidelines.
A contingent of 600 women marched with the strikers. By now, the strike had begun to spread throughout Queensland, with many regional centres witnessing their own demonstrations. Other unions quickly joined the action. Altogether, 43 unions joined the Brisbane General Strike on 30 January.
The trade unionists of Brisbane went out on a general strike, not just for the right to wear a badge, but for the basic right to join a union. On 30 January 1912, the dispute escalated into a general strike and the strike committee effectively became an alternative government. No work could be done in Brisbane without a special permit from the strike committee, which even issued a limited form of currency in the form of strike coupons, which were honoured by various firms in return for services. The strike was to last five weeks, becoming a turning point in Queensland’s history.
The darkest moment of the strike was Black Friday, 2 February 1912 — a day of violent clashes. The authorities were becoming increasingly concerned with the strike activity and an application by the strike committee for a permit for a march on 2 February 1912 was refused by Police Commissioner William Cahill. Conservative Queensland Premier Digby Denham viewed the strike committee as an opposing alternate administration and said there were “not going to be two governments”, opposing all further permits for processions. When he attempted to enlist support of the Federal Government in the use of the military, he was rebuffed by the Labor Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, member for the Queensland seat of Gympie. Fisher had also received a request for military support from the Combined Strike Committee, but declined this offer preferring to send a monetary donation in support of the strike.
Despite the refusal of a permit, a crowd estimated at 15,000 turned up in Market Square regardless and soon found itself on the end of a ferocious police and special constables’ baton charge, hell-bent on breaking the strike. Police and Specials attacked crowds in Market Street under the direction of Cahill, who shouted, “Give it to them, lads! Into them.” The savagery of police methods against the crowds of peaceful unionists and their supporters, who included in their number elderly people, women and children, lead to that day being henceforth known as Black Friday.
At this time, Emma Miller, a pioneer trade unionist and suffragist, led a contingent of women and girls to parliament house who, while returning along Queen Street, were also batoned and arrested by a large contingent of foot and mounted police. Emma Miller, a frail woman in her 70s barely weighing 35 kilograms, when confronted by mounted police stood her ground, pulled out her hat pin and stabbed the rump of the Police Commissioner’s horse. The horse reared and threw the Police Commissioner to the ground, giving him an injury resulting in a limp for the rest of his life.
The riding down and batoning of peaceful people, many of them being elderly and women and children on the footpath, was widely condemned, not only in union papers such as the Worker, but also in the more conservative papers such as the Truth. It was initially called Baton Friday, but later came to be popularly known as Black Friday.
The strike officially ended on 6 March 1912, after five weeks of unrest, when the Employers Federation agreed there would be no victimisation of strikers. The 1912 Brisbane General Strike led to a period of labour movement solidarity and, three years later, there was an electoral swing to Labor all over Queensland, with the second Queensland Labor Government, led by TJ Ryan, being elected in 1915, But, more importantly, the spirit of the thousands of brave men and women who were prepared to sacrifice everything in defence of the ideals of equity and fairness, as well as the unity forged in those momentous five weeks, remain at the heart of unionism in Queensland to this day.