December 16, 1929
On this day in the history of the international labour movement, the Rothbury Riot occurred in Australia. The Rothbury Riot has the dubious distinction of being the most violent industrial conflict in Australia’s history. Faced with decreasing demand for coal and a worsening economic crisis, mine owners planned to reduce miners’ wages by 12.5%. The mine owners also planned to strip the miners’ of the industrial rights they’d fought so hard to attain.
Many of the miners were supporting families on their wages and a 12.5% cut was seen as too much. The Miners Federation (i.e. the union representing the miners) refused to agree to the regressive terms put forward by the mine owners. In response, the mine owners locked the miners out. Approximately ten thousand miners and various others suddenly found themselves without work.
Instead of trying to negotiate with the miners to reach a mutually acceptable resolution, the government introduced the Unlawful Assemblies Act, which gave the police the power to break up organized protests by the miners. The mine owners brought in non-union labour to do the work. Anger over this bleak situation erupted into a violent day of rioting when the miners marched to the mine and charged the gate. Police fired on the protesting miners, killing one and wounding several others. The riots and ensuing violence became known as the “Rothbury Riot” or “Battle of Rothbury.” After a 15-month lock-out, the miners finally returned to work at the mine in 1930.
The Rothbury Riot is but another in a long list of indignities and exploitation forced on miners. In our post dated December 5th, 2012 we described how miners in South Africa and in Canada have been subject to similar tactics by their employers. The Rothbury Riot reminds us once again that no matter what part of the globe a worker is on, there is an inherent vulnerability that opportunists will exploit if they are able. Each of these events only serve to reinforce our belief that organized labour has proven to be the best and most effective means for workers to protect their standard of living, their safety and even their lives.