On Friday 1 May 1891, 1340 men, 618 horses, 2 marching bands and at least one woman paraded through the outback town of Barcaldine.
It was an eye-popping display for a small country town – six shearers demonstrated shearing live sheep on a wagon pulled by six horses, 52 men on horseback led the Carriers’ Union, a woman on a wagon waved a “Young Australia” flag and at the front was the banner of the Australian Labour Federation, a forerunner of the Queensland Council of Unions.
Less than two years earlier a global organisation of socialist and labour parties had declared 1 May as International Workers’ Day. Barcaldine was one of the first places in the world to celebrate International Workers’ Day.
Two years later on 1 May 1893, Brisbane held its first International Workers’ Day event with an Eight-Hour Day procession. In 1901 the Queensland Government declared a public holiday for the first Monday in May which became known as Labour Day from 1912.
With trade unions legalised in Queensland in 1886, thousands of workers joined unions in the hope of improving their wages and conditions.
Most Queensland jobs at the time were in mining or the pastoral industries. In 150 shearing sheds around the state 3700 unionised shearers refused to work alongside non-unionists.
Concerned about shrinking profits, pastoralists fought back, forming the Pastoralists’ Federal Council and demanding the right to employ non-unionists on individual contacts at lower rates of pay.
So the scene was set for the 1891 Shearers’ Strike declared on 5 January. Forty strike camps were established in towns near the shearing sheds. One of the biggest was at Barcaldine.
Many politicians were pastoralists themselves. They sent in troopers to break the strike. The strikers were armed but they were also measured in their response. There was little violence.
Despite the show of strength on 1 May, the strike was faltering. As winter approached food was running out. 225 people were arrested and many were later jailed. In the aftermath union membership temporarily dropped, but the seeds of the labour movement were sown.
While in Barcaldine under an old Eucalyptus dubbed the Tree of Knowledge, the unionists founded their own political party. Only 8 years later the world’s first Labor Government was formed in Queensland.
Unions regrouped to continue the ongoing fight for better wages and conditions. Now every year in May in cities and towns across Queensland, Union members still march to celebrate a proud tradition.