Labour History

Wobblies on the Wallaby

Labour History (2015), 109, (1), 41–53.


This article draws attention to the dominant but neglected rural dimension of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Australia. We argue that wandering bush workers formed the bulk of the IWW in Australia, whereas most studies have emphasised the role of the IWW’s Sydney “Local.” In overturning the dominant interpretation of the composition and character of the IWW in Australia, this article also shines light on an under-examined demographic feature of early twentieth-century Australia. By clarifying that the majority of Wobblies worked in the bush, we also show how the swagman, the itinerant worker of rural life, so prominent in our understanding – and our imaginations – of late nineteenth-century Australia, remained a prominent feature of the New South Wales and Queensland rural workforces during the early decades of the twentieth century. To put it simply, Australia had not settled down and neither had its most revolutionary unionists.

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1.On the IWW’s American origins, seeMelvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the IWW(:Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Company, 1969);Patrick Renshaw, The Wobblies: The Story of Syndicalism in the United States(:Anchor Books, 1968);Robert L. Tyler, Rebels of the Woods: The IWW in the Pacific Northwest(University of Oregon Books, 1967);Joseph R. Conlin, ed., At the Point of Production: The Local History of the IWW(:Greenwood Press, 1981);Paul Brissenden, The IWW: A Study of American Syndicalism(:Russell and Russell, 1920). Google Scholar

2.The most prominent literature examining the IWW in Australia includesFrank Cain, The Wobblies at War: A History of the IWW and the Great War in Australia(:Spectrum Publications, 1993);Verity Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism: The Industrial Workers of the World in Australia(:Cambridge University Press, 1995);Ian Turner, Sydney’s Burning: An Australian Political Conspiracy(:Alpha Books, 1969);Ian Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics: The Dynamics of the Labour Movement in Eastern Australia, 1900–1921(:The Australian National University, 1965). Google Scholar

3.Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, 71. Google Scholar

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8.John Trivett, Official Year Book of New South Wales 1916(:W. A. Gullick, 1917), 444. Google Scholar

9. Ibid. Google Scholar

10.Butlin, Investment in Australian Economic Development, 196. Google Scholar

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16.Trivett, Official Year Book of New South Wales1916, 1129. Google Scholar

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18. Ibid. Google Scholar

19.Trivett, Official Year Book of New South Wales1916, 438. Google Scholar

20.McCarty, “Australian Capital Cities,” 23. Google Scholar

21.Earlier, the area was known as the Bogan Gold Fields; copper was not the only resource, but history would show it to be by far the most important in this region. SeeTottenham Historical Society, Unearthed: The Story of Copper Mining in Tottenham and Albert(:Quick Print, 2005), 8, 25. Google Scholar

22.SeeBrian Kennedy, Silver, Sin and Sixpenny Ale: A Social History of Broken Hill 1883–1921(:Melbourne University Press, 1978);Geoffrey Blainey, The Rise of Broken Hill(:Macmillan, 1968). Google Scholar

23.Barry McGowan, “Adaptation and Organization: The History and Heritage of the Chinese in the Riverina and Western New South Wales, Australia,” Chinese America: History and Perspectives(2007):233–40. Google Scholar

24.William Bayley, Down the Lachlan Years Ago: History of Condobolin, New South Wales(:Condobolin Municipal Council, 1965), 31. Google Scholar

25.SeeDay, “The Tottenham Rebels,” 57–58, 269. Google Scholar

26.See for instanceTyler, Rebels of the Woods. Google Scholar

27.Russel Ward The Australian Legend(:Oxford University Press, 1989). Google Scholar

28.E. C. Fry, ed., Tom Barker and the IWW: Oral History(:ASSLH, 1965), 24. Google Scholar

29. Ibid. Google Scholar

30.Bill Beattie, “Memoirs of the IWW,” Labour History, no. 13(November1967):35. Google Scholar

31. Ibid., 36. Google Scholar

32.For instance inBurgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, 67–69. Google Scholar

33.Beattie, “Memoirs of the IWW,” 39. Google Scholar

34. “Harold Owen Wood, A Member of the IWW at Forbes,”9 December1916, NSW Police “Special Bundle,” Papers Concerning the International (sic) Workers of the World, 7/5596, NSW State Records. Google Scholar

35.P. J. Rushton, “The Industrial Workers of the World in Sydney 1913–1917: A Study in Revolutionary Practice”(MA diss.,University of Sydney, 1969);Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, 126. Google Scholar

36.2,000 also seems a tiny number when one considers 16,000 copies ofDirect Actionwere being sold each week in 1916. Not all readers would have been committed Wobblies, but not all Wobblies would have been able to purchase the paper on a weekly basis, especially those in “the back blocks.” Google Scholar

37. Argus, 8 February1917, 4. Google Scholar

38.He argues the “financial members” constituted only a fifth of the membership;Beattie, “Memoirs of the IWW,” 39. Google Scholar

41.Cain, The Wobblies at War, 230–35. Google Scholar

42.Shor cited inBurgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, 67. Google Scholar

43.Bertha Walker, Solidarity Forever: A Part Story of the Life and Times of Percy Laidler(:National Press, 1972), 128. Google Scholar

44.A bowyang is a strap worn below the knee by miners, shearers and agricultural labourers, and a symbol of hard work;W. Fearn-Wannan, Australian Folklore: A Dictionary of Lore, Legends and Popular Allusions(:Griffin Press, 1973), 86. Google Scholar

45. Ibid. Google Scholar

46.Timothy Rory O’Malley, “Mateship and Money-Making: Shearing in Twentieth Century Australia”(PhD diss.,University of Sydney, 2009), 157. Google Scholar

47. Mercury, 8 February1917, 4. Google Scholar

48.“Loyalty or IWWism?” The Brisbane Courier, 13 March1918, 5. Google Scholar

49.Humphrey McQueen, “Improvising Nomads,” Journal of Australian Colonial History 10, no. 2(2008):227. Google Scholar

50.Peter Sheldon, “System and Strategy: The Changing Shape of Unionism among NSW Construction Labourers, 1910–19,” Labour History, no. 65(1993):118. Google Scholar

51.“On the Track,” Direct Action, 22 January1916, 1. Google Scholar

52.On the IWW and masculinity, seeFrancis Shor, “Masculine Power and Virile Syndicalism: A Gendered Analysis of the IWW in Australia,” Labour History, no. 63(1992):83–99. Google Scholar

53.“Mildura,” Direct Action, 12 February1916, 1. Google Scholar

54.The Local in Broken Hill is a notable exception in terms of regional Locals. Among the works discussing the IWW in Broken Hill are Kennedy, Silver, Sin, and Sixpenny Ale, andGeorge Dale, The Industrial History of Broken Hill(, s.n., 1918). Broken Hill was not a typical bush centre; its membership was far more settled and mirrors Walker’s description of the Melbourne IWW. Google Scholar

55.Terrence Cutler, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,”inStrikes: Studies in Twentieth Century Australian Social History, ed.John Merrit,John Iremonger andGraeme Osborne(:Angus & Robertson, 1973), 83–84. Google Scholar

56. Ibid. Google Scholar

57.Cain, The Wobblies at War, 58. Google Scholar

58.Tom Barker toArthur Graham, 7 April1915, NSW Police “Special Bundle,” Papers Concerning the International (sic) Workers of the World, 7/5590, NSW State Records. Google Scholar

59. Ibid. Google Scholar

60.Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, 165–67;O’Malley “Mateship and Money-Making,” 160–64. Google Scholar

61. Direct Action, 17 February1917, 2. Google Scholar

62.Walker, Solidarity Forever, 129. Google Scholar

63. Direct Action, 15 January1916, 2. Google Scholar

65. Direct Action, 13 January1917, 3. For a full account of the remarkable life of Arthur Graham, seeDay “The Tottenham Rebels.” Google Scholar

66.That is, the boss;Direct Action, 18 December1915, 3. Google Scholar

67. Ibid. Google Scholar

68.These columns appeared in most issues ofDirect Actionat its height of circulation between 1914 and 1917. Google Scholar

69.Articles appearing inDirect Actionbetween 1914 and 1917 headed “Broken Hill Notes,” “Broken Hill Activities,” or simply “Broken Hill,” were in the hundreds. Google Scholar

70.Rushton, “The Industrial Workers of the World,” 75. Google Scholar

71. Direct Action, 30 October1915, 2. Google Scholar

72. Direct Action, 15 November1914, 1. Google Scholar

73. Direct Action, 15 October1914, 1. Google Scholar

74.Cited inSalvatore Salerno, Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the Industrial Workers of the World(:State University of New York Press, 1989), 13. Google Scholar

75.For the IWW and free speech fights in the USA, seeDubofsky, We Shall Be All;Renshaw, The Wobblies;Tyler, Rebels of the Woods;Conlin, At the Point of Production;Brissenden, The IWW. Google Scholar

76.Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, 123;Erik Olssen, The Red Feds: Revolutionary Industrial Unionism and the New Zealand Federation of Labour 1908–14(:Oxford University Press, 1988), 112. Google Scholar

77.Rushton, “The Industrial Workers of the World,” 169. Google Scholar

78. Ibid., 170. Google Scholar

79. Direct Action, 1 July1914, 1. Google Scholar

80.“Getting Their Deserts,” Mercury, 8 February1917, 4. Google Scholar

81.“Miners Attack IWW Men,” Argus, 8 February1917, 4. Google Scholar

83.Rowan Day, “With Fists and Boots being Freely Used: Anti-IWW Violence in Cobar 1916–17,” The Hummer 7, no. 1(2011), accessed September 2015, Google Scholar

84. Direct Action, 28 April1917, 1. Google Scholar

85.“Humping one’s bluey” and “waltzing matilda” are Australian expressions that described the lot in life of many of those discussed in this article: itinerant workers carrying their belongings in a swag slung over their back, on the move looking for work. SeeFearn-Wannan, Australian Folklore, 545. Google Scholar

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Author details

Day, Rowan

Cottle, Drew