As we know, Scots have been overrepresented in Australian politics since the early days of colonial government. They have come in all stripes and colours: conservative, liberal, socialist, and communist. This month we look at one man who shaped and defined the early Australian union movement.
In the first decades of the Australian labour movement, one Scot stood out as a leader and pioneer in the worker’s struggles. William Spence was Australia’s first full-time trade union organiser and in his career could claim to be secretary of the Amalgamated Miners’ Association, founder and President of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union, and founder, secretary and president of the still-powerful Australian Workers’ Union.
William Guthrie Spence was born on 7 August 1846 at the island of Eday, Orkney, Scotland, and spent his childhood on the goldfields near Creswick, Victoria. Although there was no local school, Spence learned to read and write. By the time he was 14, he had his own miner’s licence and was looking for gold. But he soon became interested in the needs of other miners and founded the Creswick Miners’ Union.
Spence observed that all miners had similar needs, whether they were mining silver, gold or copper. He realised that they were all concerned about their pay and working conditions. Seeing this, he founded the Amalgamated Miners’ Association of Victoria, which would later come to cover all of Australasia. Spence’s belief was that all miners could benefit from coming together to negotiate their pay and working conditions with mine owners.
Before the 1880s, most Australian workers were engaged for long hours, in bad conditions, for very little money. Those workers who protested could lose their jobs, and there were always other workers ready to take their places. Although skilled craftsmen had craft unions, most other workers had no such support or protection.
In the early 1880s, Australia’s economy was growing. In regional areas there were new mines, and more wool and wheat was being produced on Australian farms than ever before. Jobs were becoming easier to find and workers were starting to request higher pay and better working conditions. Australian workers formed trade unions to bargain with mine owners and pastoralists. The workers realised that belonging to a union gave them strength in numbers, and they could negotiate better deals from their employers.
After his success in organising the miners’ unions, Spence began to work with shearers and other rural workers who were protesting about their pay and conditions. He established the Australian Shearers’ Union in 1886, and by 1890 most shearers in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales were members of the union. Furthermore, about 85 per cent of shearing sheds were closed shops, meaning only unionised labourers could be employed there.
As a union leader, Spence was involved in organising major strikes which often involved thousands of workers and would last for long periods. When such actions occurred, they caused great problems for pastoralists and other employers, as they were meant to do. In 1891, for example, a group of pastoralists in Queensland had an agreement with the Shearers’ Union to improve working conditions in the shearing sheds. When the pastoralists tried to change the agreement and cut shearers’ pay, 8000 shearers were organised to go on strike for six months. The pastoralists employed non-unions workers to shear the sheep. Eventually, with the help of the Queensland Government, the pastoralists defeated the shearers and their union. Some union officials were jailed for three years, and Shearers’ Union members had to agree to work alongside men who had been ‘scabs’.
In the 1890s there was increasing unemployment and other strikes organised by the union also failed. As a result of this, fewer workers joined unions. Spence and other union leaders decided that workers would never win good working conditions and pay until they had a strong voice in parliament. The trade unionists decided that workers should have their own political party, and formed the Australian Labor Party. In 1901, Spence was elected to the Commonwealth Parliament as a member of the Australian Labor Party. He stayed in the Parliament until 1917.
Spence wrote in 1909 that “Unionism came to the Australian bushman as a religion. It came bringing salvation from years of tyranny. It had in it that feeling of mateship which he understood already, and which always characterised the action of one white man to another. Unionism extended the idea, so a man’s character was gauged by whether he stood true to Union rules, or scabbed it on his fellows.”
In recognition of his contribution to the Australian worker’s struggle of the late nineteenth century, the suburb of Spence in Canberra bears his name. He was a talented union organiser and negotiated skillfully with employers, many of whom were fellow Scots. Spence’s greatest contribution to Australian trade unionism and the labour struggle was to create and organisesome of the very first large and powerful groups of workers in Australia – the so-called bush unions. He is yet another example of the Scottish contribution to Australian politics and society over the years.