Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

Centenary of the Brisbane General Strike

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (20:33)

Last week in Brisbane, on 2 February, unionists gathered in King George Square, which was known 100 years ago as Market Square, to acknowledge the centenary of the general strike. In 1912 43 unions gathered together in Brisbane in an unprecedented experience to combat the forces of an employer who refused to allow unionists to wear their union badges to work. Whilst that may seem to be a simple statement, the troubles around what was happening in the tram union in Brisbane had been going on for several years. There had been a history of disruption, but the final turn was when in late January in that year workers from the tram union which had been formed actually went to their employer wearing their union badges and were turned away from their employment. That left Brisbane without public transport, a situation which was serious even then, and what happened from that time onwards-18 January through until 2 February-was action on the streets of Brisbane which included the wider community. In fact, though we have to worry about the accuracy of the press-even from 1912-when looking at the actions of unionism, we could see that the numbers were over 20,000 people on the streets of Brisbane on the day of 2 February 1912. When you do the calculation, that would work out to about one in five of the then population.
Not all those people were actively involved in the action; some were coming to see what was happening-as you can imagine, this degree of activity caused great interest. But we can see that people were prepared to stand up for their rights, and not only the immediate workers in the tram union but their comrades across 43 unions in the Brisbane trade union movement. And I am proud to say that at the forefront of this action were women workers-in particular women of the clothing workers union. As I have spoken about in this place before, Emma Miller, who has become known as the 'mother of Labor', was at the forefront on that day, as she had been consistently through the period leading up to that. She was there-73 years old, four feet 11 inches and dressed in her Sunday best-at numerous public meetings, calling people to account to ensure that they understood what principles were at stake, that solidarity was important and that unity was strength.
In the period of late January leading into February, there was a concerted action, and there were different propaganda tools used at the time. A special union badge was actually formed so that people across the area would know what was going on. It was centred on the rail, tram and bus union of the day. The current union is the RTBU, but their forefathers-and they were forefathers, because there were no women in the tram union in 1912-wore their badges. But they also had special red ribbons that were available for anyone in the community who would be prepared to take part, and many of those ribbons were worn proudly by women who actually turned out. It was said that it was clear that these women were actually going to be involved and that they were not going to be the people who were concerned about fashion; they were there to take part in the action.
As the meetings were taking place all across Brisbane-and it is almost impossible to understand how difficult it would have been to organise when you were in a city that was widespread and without public transport-the people who wished to be involved had to make extraordinary efforts just to get to the centre of town where the action was taking place. Mother Miller-as I said, 73-had to walk several kilometres before she could even get to the place where she was leading her women from the clothing workers union to be part of the process.
It had been building up. The tensions had been great. There were different media experiences, and there were quite a lot of media that did not support the trade unionists of the day. They were talking about anarchy on the streets of Brisbane. The then Premier of Queensland approached the Prime Minister of the day, Andrew Fisher, a Labor Prime Minister from Queensland, seeking support. Andrew Fisher did not support the Queensland government and their action to get specials onto the streets of Brisbane. Neither did he provide military support to the unionists. However, he did make a personal donation to the unionists supporting their action, so it seemed that there was solidarity between the state and Commonwealth at the time.
On the morning of 2 February there was tension, as described in the media approaches, and people knew something was going to happen. There were various movements through the streets of Brisbane and the particular group of women there walked up to Parliament House in an attempt to speak to the Premier of the day. They tried to speak to the Premier, could not have that conversation and then marched back down the main street. They were then subject to a direct charge from the mounted police of the day. It caused outrage that a group of between 300 and 600 women, depending on the media coverage, were charged by male police on horses.
On that day a special legend was created in Queensland, which has spread internationally. Emma Miller, there in her Sunday best, including her Edwardian hat, protecting the female clothing workers behind her, pulled out her hat pin from her hat. I will always believe she was attempting to strike the policeman on the horse. There were some who say she was aiming for the horse. I do not believe that-she was aiming for the policeman. The horse reared and the policeman was thrown off. The legend of the Emma Miller hat pin and this small woman defending the rights of women workers to protest on the streets was born.
We in the Queensland trade unions have maintained this legend and, as I have said before, we now have the Emma Miller Hat Pin awards, which we give to women unionists every year for their activities in their unions. We have been awarding these for 15 years. In Brisbane last week more than 30 of the almost 100 women who have received Emma Miller Hat Pin awards over the last 15 years were at the acknowledgement. They were there to prove that women unionists and workers were on the streets of Brisbane in 1912, where they were fighting for the rights of workers that day, and they are on the streets now if there is a need to fight for freedom and the rights of people-and they will continue to be so as required.
Emma Miller herself had a long experience of activism. She had worked tirelessly to ensure that women had the vote and was a proud suffragist through that process. She continued her work in the union movement, protecting the conditions of women workers and all workers-there were a number of extraordinary cases in Brisbane about equal rights and pay. One of the things we talked about last week was the fact that, on the day before we were gathered to look at the general strike commemoration, the Fair Work Australia decision on equal pay was announced. I could not help thinking that Emma Miller was fighting for that very issue in the early part of last century and we had finally achieved it. There was a moment for the raising of hat pins at that time. Emma went on to continue her fight for peace. She was an extraordinarily well-known peace activist during World War I. Continuing to engage with the community, if there was an issue where she felt there was inequality she would stand up and ensure that people knew the facts and were given the power and inspiration to take action.
In particular I acknowledge the work of the Queensland Council of Unions to ensure that the commemoration was able to take place last week. I acknowledge the work of Amanda Richards and John Battams from the Queensland Council of Unions, and Owen Doogan and Dave Matters from the Queensland Rail, Tram and Bus Union. They were able to talk with us about how important this 1912 action was for workers in 2012. They were able to show that during that process workers and the wider community banded together.
It is important to know our history, and I end with the point about the wonderful book Proud to Be a Rebel: The Life and Times of Emma Miller, which is one that I read and refer to a lot, written by Pam Young. It is the story of Emma Miller. We are having trouble at the moment getting the University of Queensland Press to reprint this book. This book has been sold out every time it has been put into print. Not only do people like me enjoy it and refer to it, but there are also many others. I encourage people, particularly at schools, to read it. Part of my process for celebrating and acknowledging the centenary of the 1912 strike is to ensure that this book does not go out of print. We need to remember our heroes and follow in their footsteps.