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Melbourne has a rich history of strike action, occurring regularly as part of an ongoing struggle between trade unions and employers. A conflict between newspaper proprietors and printers in 1857 saw a wage rise at the Argus, but the proprietors brought non-union labour from Great Britain, and many strikers lost their jobs. Wage rates at the Age were reduced in 1858 and the union was defeated. In 1882 tailoresses in Melbourne struck successfully against a reduction in pay in what may have been the first Australian strike by females. May 1903 saw a nine-day strike by railway employees, which ended in the face of the threat of non-union labour and a Railway Strikes Suppression Bill.

Although the Arbitration Court was meant to minimise industrial disputes, strikes continued throughout the 20th century. H.V. McKay's attempts to circumvent the Harvester Judgment at his Sunshine Harvester Works produced Victoria's longest strike to date in 1911. The 1923 police strike, however, was perhaps Melbourne's most infamous, with three people killed in the disturbance, but the struggles on the waterfront were longer and more bitter. A three-month seamen's strike in 1919 brought shipping around Australia to a standstill. Hundreds of Melbourne workers were stood down, and coal and food supplies dwindled. Riots and bombings occurred in 1928 when employers attempted to introduce new hiring practices. Conservative governments sided with employers, while many of the most effective tacticians among the strikers were informed by communism.

Improving economic conditions in the postwar period reduced the bitterness but not the utility of the strike. A nine-week public transport strike in support of reduced working hours occurred in 1950 and was largely successful. The 1965 waterfront strikes had a political as well as an industrial focus, supporting the workers' log of claims while also voicing their opposition to Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, and teacher unions used rolling strikes to campaign for improved conditions in state schools. Rebel unions called a 24-hour general strike following the 1969 gaoling of Tramways Union secretary Clarrie O'Shea for defying anti-union laws. Ten years later the Melbourne-based Australian Council of Trade Unions followed their example in a protest over the arrest of union officials in Western Australia.

During the 1980s industrial conflict in Melbourne intensified as workers struggled to maintain conditions in an employment landscape being reshaped by economic restructuring and globalisation. Norm Gallagher led the Builders Labourers' Federation in vigorous campaigns for better pay and conditions, threatening to disrupt work on building sites if its demands were not met, until the union was de-registered in the mid-1980s. In 1986 members of the Confectionery Workers' Union employed at Dollar Sweets' Malvern factory struck as a result of the company refusing a 36-hour week. The company obtained an injunction against picketing workers and launched a claim for damages, which was eventually resolved in an out-of-court settlement in which the unions agreed to pay $175 000.

The strike weapon was also employed by professional groups, but with mixed success. The 1986 nurses' strike, with its television images of women in uniform walking out of hospitals, leaving volunteers to care for patients, lasted for 50 days before the government agreed to fund a substantial pay-rise. The Australian Federation of Air Pilots strike in support of a 29.47% wage rise in 1989 was less successful, with Melbourne business travellers and holiday-makers grounded until Air Force personnel were called in to take over the services

Efforts by the State Australian Labor Party Government to restructure public transport, secondary and post-secondary education and the health sectors in 1990 were met with major strike action, symbolised dramatically by the blockade of trams in city streets. The defeat of the Labor Government in 1992 saw unions representing workers in both the government and non-government sectors protesting unsuccessfully against the new Liberal Government's move to radically overhaul the State's industrial relations system. Alliances forged in this struggle were rekindled in 1998, when a national dock strike saw large numbers of Melburnians join angry protests on the wharves in an effort to prevent the introduction of non-union labour.

The decrease in union membership and the spread of individual contracts has minimised the potential for strike action. However, as new enterprise agreements are negotiated, strikes or threats of strikes continue to be used, particularly in the public sector, as one of a range of bargaining tools.

Alistair Harkness