1923 Victorian Police strike

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The 1923 Victorian Police strike occurred in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. On the eve of the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival in November 1923, half the police force in Melbourne went on strike[1] over the operation of a supervisory system using labour spies. Riots and looting followed as crowds poured forth from Flinders Street Station on the Friday and Saturday nights and made their way up Elizabeth and Swanston Streets, smashing shop windows, looting, and overturning trams.

Reasons for the strike[edit]

The strike started late on Wednesday night 31 October 1923 - the eve of Melbourne's Spring Racing Carnival - when a squad of 24 constables at Russell Street Police Headquarters refused duty, citing the continued use of spies by management. The Victoria Police force at the time were understaffed, lowly paid in comparison with other state police forces, and had no industry pension, with the government continually deferring promises on the introduction of a pension program.

The Police Association had made repeated attempts to improve the pay and conditions of the force, and had made representations over the use of "spooks" as inappropriate for supervision to the Nationalist government of Victoria under the Premier, Harry Lawson. The strike was led by Constable William Thomas Brooks, of the licensing squad, who two years earlier circulated a petition among his fellow officers calling for better conditions. Headed Comrades and Fellow Workers, it was signed by almost 700 men.

The strike was not a Police Association initiative, although the organisation negotiated on behalf of the strikers with the Premier, Harry Lawson. Most of the strikers were constables, many of them returned servicemen. Detectives and senior officers did not participate.

After 24 hours the Premier demanded a return to work and promised no victimisation, although there was no promise of meeting the strikers' demands. After 48 hours the Premier again demanded a return to work with no guarantees regarding victimisation.

The Victorian Trades Hall Council, surprised by the wildcat strike, volunteered to negotiate on behalf of the strikers but were rebuffed by the government. Subsequently 634 policemen were discharged and two were dismissed, about a third of the Victorian force,[2] never to be re-employed as members of the Victorian Police Force.

Rioting and looting in Melbourne city centre[edit]

On Friday and Saturday nights riots and looting occurred in the city, resulting in three deaths, trams being turned over, plate glass windows being smashed and merchandise looted from stores. Constables on point duty were jeered at and harassed by people until they retreated to the Town Hall, where the crowd taunted them to come out. Tramways staff and uniformed sailors helped to direct traffic in the absence of police.

A request by the Premier to the Federal Government for troops to prevent and put down trouble was refused, however Sir Harry Chauvel and other army chiefs appointed guards on defence establishments. Over the weekend five thousand volunteer 'special constables' were sworn in to restore order, under the direction of Sir John Monash at the Melbourne Town Hall and led by AIF veterans and CMF officers. They were identified by badges and armbands.

The rioting and looting was quickly attributed to Melbourne's criminal element by all of Melbourne's newspapers, but subsequent court records show that most of the offenders who were apprehended were young men and boys without criminal histories. After the strike, the Monash Royal Commission into the Victoria Police strike brought down its findings. The government subsequently increased pay and conditions for police, including a bill to establish a police pension scheme before the end of 1923.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Protest and Politics". Retrieved 8 November 2007. 
  2. ^ "The Errors of Retributivism". Retrieved 8 November 2007. 
  • Days Of Violence: : The 1923 Police strike in Melbourne (1998) Gavin Brown and Robert Haldane ISBN 1-876462-01-9
  • Rebel Guardians by Jacqueline Templeton in Strikes: Studies in Twentieth Century Australian Social History (1973) ISBN 0-207-12698-4

Further reading[edit]

Contemporary articles from The Age regarding the strike