Barbara Webster

At the start of the twentieth century, many workers in Rockhampton laboured more than 56 hours a week, earned low pay and suffered poor conditions. Horses, as assets, were more highly valued by employers than easily replaced employees. Few unions existed in Rockhampton other than those for skilled tradesmen. Several unions for labourers and the semi-skilled had formed in the 1880s, but defeat in the great strikes of the early 1890s, economic depression and prolonged drought crushed unionism throughout eastern Australia. Most workers, therefore, had no collective voice in opposing exploitation by employers.

The gospel of unionism

Once the drought ended in 1903 and the economy recovered, unions quickly revived. As the largest town in Central Queensland, Rockhampton played a leading role in the renaissance and growth of unionism and local officials campaigned throughout the region to spread what was described in The Worker, 6 June 1908 as ‘the gospel of unionism’. Local unions also joined large national federations of kindred unions to increase their strength and bargaining power. However, the Queensland government of the day refused to recognise unions as employees’ representatives and, when the first Wages Board for the central district convened in 1909, employers maintained the upper hand. Not until the new Ryan Labor government introduced compulsory arbitration in 1916 were unions recognised and workers assured of a fairer deal. Ten years later, an aggrieved Employers’ Association of Central Queensland still advocated in their Tenth Annual Report a return to the old wages boards where they had the advantage

With many workers employed at the meatworks, railway workshops, port facilities or in wholesale and retail distribution, light manufacturing and government administration, the largest unions were the Australasian Meat Industry Employees’ Union (AMIEU); Australian Railways Union (ARU); Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU); Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia (WWF); and the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU). The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) catered for labourers and semi-skilled workers in government and statutory authorities but the essentially rural AWU always lacked locally the strength it had elsewhere with shearers, miners and canecutters. It also remained apart from, and aloof to, the rest of the union movement: it did not contribute to the purchase or operation of Trades Hall; nor did it occupy an office there.


For nearly four decades of almost continuous Labor rule in Queensland until 1957, unions generally enjoyed favourable treatment through awards of the State Industrial Court and they overwhelmingly opted for arbitration to resolve industrial disputes rather than strike action. Many unions affiliated with the Australian Labor Party and most union leaders held senior branch positions so accepting the structures their government provided aligned with their ‘labourist’ philosophy. Moreover, union leaders tended to maintain strong control over their rank-and-file and held office for many years. Four notable full-time union secretaries of great longevity were the AMIEU’s Len Haigh (1924-53); Ernest ‘EB’ Purnell (1899-1938) for the WWF; ARU’s George Kemp (1914-38); and Frank Conlon of the TWU (1915-53).

Consequently, Rockhampton unions were widely considered, according to Sir Jack Egerton, former Queensland Trades and Labour Council secretary interviewed on 21 June 1996, ‘staunch but conservative, wedded to the rule book, demanding agreements, awards and various acts be observed in their entirety’. In contrast, Townsville and North Queensland unions attracted a reputation for industrial militancy with a penchant for direct action. However, when they believed the arbitration system failed them on major industrial issues, Rockhampton unions readily joined state-wide strike action such as occurred with the ARU, AEU and other railway unions in 1925 and 1948; the AMIEU in 1946 and the WWF in 1925 and 1956.


In defending their members’ workplace interests, unions remained ever alert for threats from non-unionists, sometimes their own wayward members and even each other. In large worksites like the railway and meatworks where multiple unions existed, demarcation disputes often erupted over jobs involving common tools and skills. In other cases, unions actively ‘white-anted’ each other’s membership or ‘body snatched’ to shore up their numbers and strength. During the 1940s and 1950s, fears of communist infiltration of unions reached a crescendo and many unions experienced divisive internal tension as members of anti-communist ALP Industrial Groups vied for control against suspected ‘pinkos’, the former being secretly infiltrated by extremists from the Catholic Social Studies Movement. Little actual communist presence in Rockhampton did not deter local Movement activists from their denunciations and clandestine subversive activity.

Trades and Labour Council

As part of seeking workplace justice for members, unions at various times formed peak union industrial bodies. After several short-lived organisations in the early decades, a lasting Rockhampton Trades and Labour Council (RTLC) formed in 1938. In the mid-1950s, two rival councils existed, one run by alleged communist sympathisers and one dominated by Movement members. Both claimed to be the legitimate body but the former eventually triumphed after the disastrous Labor split and loss of government in 1957. Because unions and their state officials invariably handled their own industrial business, the RTLC became mainly a vehicle for political complaint, particularly during the ensuing era of conservative government to 1989.

Labour Day in Emu Park

From 1909, combined unions celebrated Eight Hour Day with a street parade accompanied by banners and brass and pipe bands, followed by a grand sports carnival and picnic. This later became Labour Day which local unions still celebrate on the first Monday in May. Individual unions organised well-attended annual picnics for members’ families at the seaside, journeying to Emu Park in convoys of decorated trains. Union members from Mount Morgan and beyond travelled long distances to join these festivities. In the early decades with limited social welfare and educational opportunities, unions provided sickness and death benefits, supported classes through the Workers Educational Association, donated to charities and organised socials and cultural events. In 1926, a theatre was opened next to Trades Hall for that purpose. Nevertheless, Rockhampton unions remained focused on their core business: defending and advancing their members’ workplace interests against the employer. After the change of government in 1957, that task became harder but almost 40 years of improvements in hours, pay and conditions through trade unionism left workers with vastly better conditions from those half a century earlier.

References and Further reading (Note)

Barbara Webster, ‘“Fighting in the grand cause”: a history of the trade union movement in Rockhampton, 1907-1957’, PhD thesis, CQUniversity, Rockhampton, 1999

References and Further reading (Note)

Barbara Webster, ‘Catholics, community and the Movement in Rockhampton, 1943-1957’, Labour history, no 81, November 2001, pp 155-74

References and Further reading (Note)

Geoffrey Bolton, A thousand miles away: a history of north Queensland to 1920, ANU Press, Canberra, 1972

References and Further reading (Note)

Doug Hunt, ‘History of the labour movement in north Queensland: trade unionism, politics and industrial conflict, 1900–1920’, PhD thesis, JCU, 1979