Centenary of Australia’s biggest sugar strike

By Natalie Muller 21 June 2011
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100 years ago, the sugar industry was almost brought to its knees by its biggest strike, bringing large reforms.

THE SUGAR STRIKE OF 1911, fuelled by a bitter union movement, just about succeeded in bringing the Australian sugar industry to its knees.

For four tumultuous months, rioting, violence, arrests and crop-burning plagued towns along Queensland’s coast, as employees in the state’s sugar plantations and mills protested for better work conditions.

In the end, the strike achieved only partial improvements for sugar industry workers, but it was counted as a victory by the Amalgamated Workers Association (AWA), now the Australian Workers Union (AWU), which became known as a political force to be reckoned with.

Now, 100 years on, an exhibition at the James Cook University library is commemorating the centenary of the 1911 strike. The exhibition revisits the sugar strike with historical accounts from the Brisbane Times, Cairns Post and the Australian Sugar Journal, with photographs, and with rare mementos and posters from the union movement.

After Federation

The story of the strike shows a lot about the times, according to Dr Peter Griggs, a JCU historical geographer who has researched the sugar industry extensively.

“The strike had its roots in the time just after Federation, when the new Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia legislated to prohibit the recruitment of Pacific Islanders to work in the cane fields,” he says.

Instead of relying on South Sea Islanders, as they had previously, the sugar industry turned to British and European workers who immediately demanded better working conditions. Sugar mill employees wanted their 60-70 – hour weeks cut to 48 hours, and they demanded at least 30 shillings per week, with overtime.

But improvements were slow, and union frustration with the lack of progress, despite clear demands, culminated in the sugar strike of 1911.

“Unrest soon spread to other sugar-producing regions as local farmers’ organisations rejected the union’s demands,” Peter says. “[It] extended to almost all the sugar-producing districts from Mossman to Childers and became regarded as a general strike in the Australian sugar industry.”

Protests were staged in each district and well-disciplined strike camps were set up to provide accommodation and food to hundreds of workers.

Bitter sweet outcome

While CSR (Colonial Sugar Refining Company), Australia’s largest sugar refining enterprise, was hostile to union and government interference, some cane growers saw the workers’ demands as reasonable. Other sugar producers tried to keep their mills running by recruiting non-unionised workers from Victoria and Tasmania, which only angered the AWA further.

“In one instance there was a riot and the tram carrying non-unionised workers for CSR’s Childers Mill was attacked by strikers,” says Peter.

The strike escalated to a new level in July 2011 when the Seamen’s Union refused to move the raw sugar being produced by non-unionists. “That contributed to the end of the strike when it spread to the wharfies,” he says.

The strike was officially declared over on 14 August.

Two months later, Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher appointed a Royal Commission to investigate all aspects of the Australian sugar industry. The investigation led to a uniform wage structure for mill and field workers in the Australian sugar industry. 

The 1911 sugar strike exhibition will be on display at the JCU library at Smithfield, north of Cairns until Friday 24 June.