Melbourne’s cabinet makers: militant Chinese workers

In Australian labour history, the words “Chinese labour” and “cheap” are run together frequently and are repeated uncritically. It conjures an image of passive pliant dupes at best, or at worst of people who were outright scabs. But the stereotype itself is a racist lie. The truth is that both before and during the White Australia period, Chinese workers organised and struck, they sat down and walked off, they rioted and won equal pay. They even called for revolution. In this series, Socialist Alternative uncovers some shamefully neglected working class heroes.

From the mid-19th century, Melbourne emerged from the gold rush as the crown jewel of Australian capitalism. Little Bourke Street had also been transformed into the centre of the young city’s Chinese quarter.

After the gold rush, many Chinese worked as cabinet-makers in Chinatown. In the 1880s and 1890s, they were well unionised. By 1888, Melbourne’s Chinese cabinet-makers had won a 50-hour week, a minimum pay rate, and a series of holidays. Most importantly, they had won and were enforcing the closed shop. But the real explosion was yet to come.

In September 1903, several hundred Chinese cabinet-makers shut down the whole industry for almost three months. It was a meticulously planned operation. They had pooled in advance enough resources to afford decent strike pay, and had rented a headquarters in Latrobe Street that they kept guarded day and night. The strikers even seem to have had a great slogan, which was repeated in English to a number of journalists: “Do nothing – and do it well”. The strikers’ demands were a curious mix of the moderate and the bold: higher pay, more union rights and two roast pigs, each weighing at least 50lb, to be used in religious worship.

At the height of the strike, the bosses brought dozens of armed scabs from Sydney. For several days, they terrorised the working class residents of Chinatown, until finally the strikers organised mass resistance that culminated in an hours-long riot in Little Bourke Street. A cop and an employer were bashed, and a number of scabs were hospitalised – or as one reporter put it: “the non-unionists were severely handled”.

Only four men were arrested, strikers and scabs among them. But when they appeared in court the next day, a second riot erupted, hundreds of strikers beating the daylights out of scabs along several Russell Street blocks. Three more were taken to hospital, and several more were arrested. One newspaper proclaimed Chinatown “in a state of revolution”. Another reported, “The Chinese furniture-makers on strike are adopting such a threatening attitude towards their recent employers that the latter are in constant fear of violence, and are afraid to stir abroad without police protection”.

When the new arrestees faced court the following day, a third riot broke out, as more than 200 strikers massed outside, this time to vent their anger at the bosses who had come to appear as witnesses. One employer stupidly tried to parade right through the crowd and was chased all the way down Little Bourke. By the time the police caught up, they described a scene in which the strikers were “bouncing him on the road like a football”.

Bosses across Chinatown were getting scared, and many turned against the furniture bosses, demanding they settle the dispute. Meanwhile the strikers upped the ante, demanding that all charges be dropped and all court expenses be covered before any return to work. Several employers broke ranks, complaining that the strikers had threatened to burn down their factories. The writing was on the wall, and within days the strike was won.

Melbourne’s Chinese language newspaper Chinese Times railed against the strikers for allegedly bringing the whole Chinese community into disrepute at a time when they were already subject to racist vilification. In fact, what the cabinet-makers were doing was proving that there was no such thing as the “Chinese community”. The same class divisions between exploiter and exploited were to be found in Chinatown as anywhere else.

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