Before the 1912 strike, labourers worked a 12-hour day with only 20 per cent of workers earning the minimum wage and women earning as little as nine to fifteen shillings a week (approximately $55–$100 per week now).
Despite union membership trebling from 1907 to 1911, there were few concessions for workers. This changed when workers from 43 unions combined to support Brisbane tramcar employees who had been dismissed for wearing their union badges to work. The Combined Unions Committee coordinated Australia’s first ever general strike, with the union-issued Official Strike Bulletin describing it as ‘the first simultaneous strike in the world’.
After losing their jobs on 30 January 1912, Brisbane tram drivers marched into Brisbane Trades Hall and protested with 10,000 people in Market Place, today known as King George Square. The next day, support grew to 23,000 protesters marching from Trades Hall to Fortitude Valley and back, with over 50,000 supporters watching the procession.
The three-kilometre-long procession was led by Labor parliamentarians and included 600 women, many of whom had successfully protested for female suffrage, which was gained the year before. Red ribbons were worn as a mark of solidarity, not only on humans but also on pet dogs and cart horses.
The strike lasted for five weeks and spread throughout Queensland with many regional centres organising marches through their own towns. Leaders formed a French-style strike committee that acted as an alternative government, issuing work permits and ‘Combined Strike Coupons’ in lieu of currency. The strike committee continued to issue its Strike Bulletin to counter the anti-union bias in mainstream newspapers.
When the strike spread to the railways, the Queensland Government found a way to regain control over the situation. It banned processions, swore in special constables and issued bayonets to its police force. Commonwealth military officers and spare-time troops volunteered as special constables.
An application by the strike committee for a permit to march on 2 February 1912 was refused by Police Commissioner William Geoffrey Cahill, but the protest went ahead undeterred.
Approximately 15,000 people turned up in Market Square. Police and specials constables attacked crowds in Albert Street under the direction of Cahill, who shouted, ‘Give it to them, lads! Into them.’
Among the protesters was Emma Miller, a pioneer trade unionist and formidable suffragette. She was leading a group of women and girls to Parliament House. On their return along Queen Street they were batoned and arrested by a large contingent of foot and mounted police. Emma, a slight and elderly woman, stood her ground, pulled out her hat pin and took aim at the rump of the Police Commissioner’s horse. The horse reared and threw Police Commissioner Cahill to the ground, where he sustained injuries that left him with a limp for the rest of his life.
Such riding down and batoning of peaceful people, many of them elderly, along with women and children on the footpath, was widely condemned not only in union papers such as The Worker, but also in the more conservative papers such as Truth. It was initially called ‘Baton Friday’, but later came to be popularly known as ‘Black Friday’.
The strike officially ended on 6 March 1912 when the Employers Federation agreed that there would be no victimisation of strikers. However, the savagery of the baton charges by the Queensland Police Service and the specials on ‘Black Friday’ created a bitterness and hatred of the police that would last several decades.
Cover image: Mounted police gather in Albert Square during the general strike in Brisbane, 1912; ITM1626650