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Two wharf labourers’ unions were formed in Sydney in 1872 – the West Sydney Labouring Men’s Association and the Labouring Men’s Union of Circular Quay. In 1882 they became the Sydney Wharf Labourers’ Union, but this collapsed after the 1890 strike, a strike that ran on the Sydney wharves from 19 August to 5 November. According to the unions, one of the reasons that the strike failed was because:

The whole artillery of daily journalism opened fire upon us. The few breaches of the peace that occurred, so much to the disgust of the [NSW Labour] Defence Committee, were magnified into riots, for which the very principles of Trade Unionism were held responsible. The most trivial circumstances, perverted into acts of intimidation, were gathered like so many rusty nails from the journalistic gutter for explosion in the shape of paragraphic bombs on the following morning. On the other hand, when clerks were dismissed from their employment for refusing to parade as special constables, when sermons and addresses favourable to the cause of labour were delivered by men in responsible public positions, the leader writers maintained an ominous silence.[i]

When the workers returned to the wharves they had to endure a loss of conditions and pay, and the stevedoring and shipping companies blacklisted anyone who attempted to resurrect the unions – so when William (Billy) Hughes started working to establish a Wharf Labourers’ Union at the end of 1899, he did it secretly. His strategy worked, and the union survived. Hughes was elected secretary.

Born in London in 1862, Billy Hughes came to Australia in 1884. By 1893 he was an organiser for the Labor Electoral League, travelling through country NSW, setting up meetings and signing up members to the fledgling party. He stood for parliament himself in 1894, and was elected, earning a decent wage for the first time in his life. In 1902 a national body, the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia (WWF), was formed. Hughes became its president, and president of the Trolley, Draymen and Carters’ Union. In 1915 he became Australia’s seventh prime minister but left the Labor Party in 1916, walking out of caucus when the majority of his colleagues rejected conscription, despite his strong support for it. He was expelled from the Labor Party, and within weeks he had been expelled from the unions as well. Hughes retained the prime ministership until 1923, by forming new parties or setting up alliances with others.


[i]From the Official Report and Balance Sheet of the NSW Labour Defence Committee, Sydney 1890. Quoted in Select Documents in Australian History 1851-1900, CMH Clark. Angus & Robertson, 1955, p774.