Can you imagine being fired from your job simply for wearing a union badge?
That’s what happened to Brisbane’s tramway workers in January 1912, leading one of the largest strikes Australia had seen.
The Brisbane Tramways Company was notoriously anti-union. It banned workers wearing union badges because it wanted to drive the union out of the industry. But the workers were having none of it.
They took coordinated action at 12noon on 18 January, making sure they displayed their union badges with pride. In response, unionists received the sack, leading to the strike.
A song penned by the workers during the dispute summed up their feelings:
“‘Tis the emblem of fraternity we
wear upon our chain.
In loyalty we hung it there and
there it will remain.”
The strike soon extended far beyond the tramways as union after union pledged its support for the sacked workers.
If the Tramways Company could get away with firing its workers for simply being a part of their union, then who knew which employer would try to do the same thing next?
On the day after the sackings, 25,000 workers marched through the streets of the city in solidarity. 43 unions joined the strike. Brisbane came to a standstill.
On 2 February, a protest of around 15,000 workers was confronted by the police – including large numbers of “special constables” recruited from the countryside.
The unions had requested a permit to march, which had been denied. When the protest went ahead anyway, the workers were met with force by the police, who attacked the marchers with batons.
This led to the day being dubbed Black Friday.
After seven weeks the strike came to an end when the bosses agreed that they would not victimise the strikers.
The 1912 strike was about defending our right to have unions, to come together, and organise for a better deal.
We pay tribute to the brave strikers on 1912 took action to defend the democratic right to belong to a union, to stick up for your mates, and to wear their union loyalty with pride.