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'What About Me?' - The Story of Australian Workers

The story of Australian workers is also the story of the Country Party, Unionism and the ACTU. Australian workers consisted of many groups in Australia such as urban workers, rural workers, women, and returned soldiers. Each group of workers had their own wants and needs and had varying experiences during the 1920s. The most important part of studying the workers in the 1920s is seeing how their wants and needs were sometimes met and often not met and the discontent this created in Australian society.

Three's a Crowd - Unions, Workers and the Government

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The National-Country Party (the coalition of the National Party led by Prime Minister Stanley Bruce and the Country Party led by Dr Earle Page) emphasised Australian development through rural production and farming.

This meant a government focus on improving the working conditions of rural workers.

Meanwhile, urban workers such as factory workers, seamen, and miners, felt that their interests were being ignored and so turned to unions (groups that represent the interests of workers in various trades to the government) for support. Often negotiations between unions and the government to improve the lot of urban workers ended in disappointment. In response, many industries were brought to a halt by strikes held by the workers.

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The 1920s saw the escalation of tension between workers and their employers. The plight of the workers was represented by various unions and the formation of the Australian Council for Trade Unions (ACTU) in 1927 was one victory in the long battle for workers' rights.

The number of workers in Australia increased dramatically in the post-War period with the return of the diggers. However, working conditions, wages and hours for workers did not change to accommodate this increase. Unions attempted to reduce the working week to 44 hours. The unions were successful in all industries except mining and maritime.

Among the workers in these two key industries, the feeling of neglect started early in the 1920s and grew more intense as their demands kept being ignored. In 1918 seamen went on strike for three months and demanded a 50% pay increase. Arising from a mining dispute at Broken Hill, there was an 18-month strike which lasted from May 1919 to November 1920. The strike resulted in a 35-hour working week and increased wages. The strikes held by the workers often turned violent. At a Townsville meatworkers demonstration, seven men were killed when police attempted to break it up. Similarly at the Waterside Workers' demonstrations at Fremantle, police used bayonets, leading to the injury of many people. These strikes often crippled critical primary industries and led to major shortages of raw materials. The effects of the shortages were felt throughout Australia.

In 1919, Billy Hughes appointed a commission to reconsider the basic wage of the worker - a family with three children needed 5 16s which was 30s more than the current minimum wage. For most of the 1920s, the average wage for an Australian worker was 9 30s.

There was then a recession - the Australian economy was not growing. Businessmen decided that wages were too high and had to be lowered.
Unions had long been working towards increasing wages in order to allow workers to keep pace with a decent standard of living as prices increased. The moves made by businessmen enraged workers and unionists. Nevertheless, businessmen drove down wages as unemployment soared, forcing workers to accept less money for their work. Eventually unions could no longer protect the workers.

Meanwhile, the government's attentions had turned to rural workers. The Country Party was formed in 1920 to promote the interests of rural workers. The party claimed that the growth of agricultural production would create the economic stability needed for Australia's future. The Country Party gained much support from the rural population and in early 1923 formed a coalition with Stanley Bruce's Nationalist Party. Their combined force allowed them to win the elections of 1923.

The new Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce, created the 'Men, Money and Markets' policy. Bruce intended to increase the number of workers in Australia by turning to immigrants and by finding new markets for Australian products. While this plan focused squarely on developing the agricultural sector, it did not improve the conditions or wages of the urban worker whose average salary was 189 a year in 1920-21 but fell to 179 in 1928-29.

Bruce did not manage his relationship with the unions well. The numerous strikes which accompanied the start of the 1920s became more heated and intense as the decade continued and Australia's economy was further paralysed. Bruce repeatedly attempted to remedy the situation with the unions by punishing the striking workers. In 1929 he took steps to dismantle the system of arbitration for negotiating wages. This action eventually brought his downfall.

Life on the Farm - Rural Workers

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The rural sector experienced a large influx of workers when Billy Hughes introduced his Soldiers Settlement Scheme.

It was anticipated that farmers would be self-sufficient. In reality, farmers were tied to the fate of Australia's failing economy. They had to pay high entry costs to set up their farms, were dependent upon unreliable machinery and had to sell their produce in a market that did not guarantee them a profit. Britain was the primary importer of Australian produce but as European farmers recovered from the War they began to compete for export sales. Australian exports lost this battle.

Life in the country was not easy for farmers and their families.

The handbooks of farmers provide information about the difficulties they encountered and the various methods they employed to overcome them. For example, two poles and a wheat bag could make a bed, kerosene tins could make buckets, meat safes and cutlery. They worked seven days a week from dawn till dusk and often survived on rabbit and parrot stew. Life was tough for all workers, particularly for those in the harsh Australian bush. The soldiers who were sent to the country as part of the Soldiers Settlement Scheme had a particularly bitter experience, often having little or no experience of farming. The land was often too small to yield enough produce to support a small family. Although the government had set up the scheme, it had not taken into account many aspects of the programme and there was no support for failing farmers.

Life was dangerous and farms were far from towns and hospitals. Rev. Dr John Flynn took it upon himself to make living in the outback a safer experience. Flynn created the Royal Flying Doctor Service which enabled doctors and nurses to fly into rural towns to treat the ill and injured.

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Rural hardship increased the drift to the cities, and urban populations swelled. Sydney exceeded the 1 million mark in 1922, Melbourne in 1928.

State governments attempted to protect city workers by placing taxes on competing imports. They also tried to create more jobs by embarking on public works - the Sydney Harbour Bridge was built between 1925 and 1929. Creating more jobs did not change conditions for workers nor did it increase wages. At the beginning of the 1920s over 600 000 Australian workers were members of unions. By 1929 this number had swelled to 900 000.

In 1923 during the week of the Melbourne Cup, the Victorian police went on strike, complaining of poor pay and surveillance by their superiors that made them feel inadequate. For three days and nights, 636 police officers left their posts and Victorian cities were subject to mobs and hooliganism. Shops and houses were vandalised. In retaliation, the government dismissed the strikers and never allowed them to be reinstated. The government trained an entire new force of police officers to replace those who were dismissed.

In 1924, the Seamen's Union again went on strike.

In 1927, the 44-hour working week was standard for all industries but workers and unions were still unhappy with working conditions and wages. A victory was won for the union when the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) was created. This was a union to represent all the trade unions in Australia - another opportunity to put pressure on the government.

In August 1928, waterside workers held a strike that lasted until the winter of 1929.

1929 saw the beginning of the end - strikes increased in frequency and the world was about to fall victim to the Great Depression. Unemployment in Australia increased to 12.1 per cent.

Demonstrations turned ugly in February, when Newcastle and Maitland coalminers had their wages cut by 12.5 per cent. The workers refused to accept the wage reductions and held a strike outside the mine where they were locked out by mine officials. This lock-out lasted 15 months. On the morning of 16 December at the Rothbury colliery, angry miners attacked the mine. The police were called in to break up the demonstration. The struggle turned violent as many workers were beaten and one man was killed.

The government responded poorly to the strikes. Instead of attempting to solve disputes through arbitration, the government punished the workers.

Arbitration courts were disabled through several new appointments. Laws were passed against strikes. Industrial awards were also passed, reinforcing the trend of more work for less pay. The Immigration Act was altered to deport anyone not born in Australia who was obstructing law and order. When PM Bruce attempted to deport the foreign-born leaders of the Seamen's Union, the High Court of Australia ruled the move unconstitutional. Bruce lost the next election.

As the Great Depression fell upon Australia at the beginning of the 1930s and as European economies collapsed, more workers lost their jobs and sole source of income. Australia was hit hard and 'the hungry years' would weigh heavily in the memories of Australians living through this time.

The 1920s Workers' Lifestyle

Although wages were low, prices and taxes were comparatively low.

Australia became more materialistic and by 1928 Australians had 500 000 cars, 300 000 radios and 400 000 telephones. Australia ranked among the top five nations in car ownership.

New electricity grids meant more factories and more domestic innovations. Inventions such as the electric iron, gas stove, refrigerator and washing machine reduced the labour time in house-cleaning and day-to-day living. This reduced labour meant more time for entertainment and leisure.

Fashion for men and women changed. Cigarettes were more popular than pipes, clean-shaven chins became more fashionable than beards and light frocks with knee-length skirts were high fashion for women.

Almost every family had a radio. Going to the 'flicks' was a cheap and popular form of entertainment. Advertising found its way onto radio and into cinemas and raised awareness of new products and services available to the public.

Despite these advances in entertainment and consumerism, the unpredictable labour market and poor wages often took a toll on married life. Women became more independent through work and divorce increased. In some cities in Australia shelters were built for single men - and found many occupants during the Depression years.

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Chapters: Soldiers Women Workers

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Question 1/5

1. What was the average wage per week for Australian workers in the 1920s?

$5.50

9 and 30s

10

$9.30

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