The history of Broken Hill is marked with bitter and protracted strikes, particularly in 1892, 1909, 1915 and the “Great Strike” of 1919 which lasted 18 months and led to the 35-hour week for miners and improved health and safety conditions.
The industrial tradition of Broken Hill was shaped by the struggles of the early 20th century. From 1908 to 1920 no other place in Australia was so torn by strikes and other disputes which cemented the city’s reputation as a bastion of unionism.
The “Big Strike” was Broken Hill’s greatest industrial battle. It lasted from May 1919 until November 1920 and involved thousands of mine workers and their families who struggled to survive, mainly on rations of potatoes, onions and jam.
During this time co-operative depots were established by the unions, supplying housewives with basic food such as bread, margarine, potatoes and onions. Many mothers saw their children suffer from malnutrition. Miscarriages due to poor diet and anxiety were common.
The women of Broken Hill played a pivotal role in the strikes which shaped the unique industrial history of the city, offering physical and moral support to their mining fathers, husbands, brothers and sons.
During the five-month 1909 BHP Lockout - which remains one of the most celebrated and bitterly fought battles in Australian labour history - women formed a Relief Committee to help those struggling to feed and clothe their families.
Women enforced a policy in the shops and pubs of not serving “scab” workers and police, while organising a coupon system for strikers, in exchange for time served on the picket lines. Buttons were given to all townspeople who were in the union or supported the strike and those seen without them were often challenged.
The “Big Strike” was finally called off on 10 November 1920 after both the unions and mine managers agreed to the recommendation made by the President of the New South Wales Industrial Court, Justice Edmunds.
Among the concessions, miners were awarded improved safety conditions, better health monitoring and – for the first time in Australia – a 35-hour working week.