IN 1876, SOUTH AUSTRALIA BECAME THE FIRST TERRITORY IN THE BRITISH EMPIRE, excluding Britain, to legalise trade unions. But the story of trade unions in South Australia began almost as soon as colonisation.
As early as October 1836, the colony's first industrial dispute was resolved when the South Australian Company manager Charles Hare had to pay extra wages to seaman and settlers who were threatening to strike.
The first attempt to make the withdrawal of labour punishable by imprisonment came in the form of An Act for the summary determination of all disputes between masters and servants passed by the Governor and Council of South Australia in 1837. On Privy Council advice, Queen Victoria disallowed this Act.
The rise of a class that grew wealthy through land speculation, sheep farming and the Burra copper discovery at Burra led to calls for control of workers. Introduced into the Legislative Council in 1847 by pastoralist and mine owner Captain Charles Bagot, "A Ordinance to Amend the laws relating to Masters and Servants" attracted organised opposition. Resolutions passed at meeting in Adelaide and Glen Osmond were supported by The Register and The Adelaide Observer newspapers. The Southern Australian newspaper supported the bill that was eventually passed.
Shortages of labour due to the Victorian gold rush from 1851, South Australia gaining responsible government in 1857, the British Trade Union Act of 1871 and the eight-hour-day campaign all contributed to South Australia’s Trade Union Act of 1876.
The colony’s trades workers met at Bristol Tavern in 1884 to form the United Trades and Labor Council. On December 11, 1889, Mary Lee asked the United Trades and Labor Council to support a female trades unions. On January 14 1890, the Working Women's Trades Union of South Australia was formed, with Mary Lee serving as secretary and Augusta Zadow treasurer.
The organisation of women into their own union was a significant event, and occurred in response to the "sweat shop" conditions for many young women workers.