may day history
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| During the 19th century, shearers in Australia endured meagre wages and poor working conditions. This led to the formation of the Australian Shearers’ Union which, by 1890, had tens of thousands of members. Early in 1891, Manager Charles Fairbain of Logan Downs Station near Clermont, Queensland, required that shearers sign the Pastoralists Association contract of free labour before commencing work. This was an attempt to reduce union influence. |
On 5 January 1891 the shearers refused to work unless the station agreed to their union’s terms. This marked the beginning of many months of union shearers around Australia downing their tools and going on strike. Tensions escalated as striking shearers formed armed camps outside of towns, and mounted troopers protected non-union labour and arrested strike leaders. Shearers retaliated by burning woolsheds and crops, and committing other acts of sabotage and harassment. On 1 May 1891, Australia's first May Day processions and marches were held in Barcaldine and Ipswich, Queensland, on behalf of the shearers. The Barcaldine march involved over 1300 demonstrators, several hundred of them on horseback. They carried banners of the Australian Labor Federation, the Shearers' and Carriers' Unions, a 'Young Australia' flag and the Eureka flag.
Soon after this, the violent suppression of the strike action forced shearers to give in. The strike, however, highlighted the need for a political party to represent the rights of the union workers; thus was ultimately born the Australian Labor Party.