By the end of the 1880s, all major Australian ports had some form of wharf labourers' organisation. In March 1890, delegates from major ports including Sydney, Hobart, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, and from smaller ports such as Newcastle and Port Augusta, converged on Sydney for an all-Australia wharf labourers federation meeting. There was optimism in the air about the possible success of such an organisation--but the 1890 Maritime strike disrupted future plans.
The strike was actually part of a broad general strike in the country, which lasted for about two months, and was a determined effort by employers to crush the early Australia trade union movement. In the maritime industry, ship officers formed an association--the Mercantile Marine Officers' Association--and affiliated the organisation with the Melbourne Trades Hall Council, a move that was immediately attacked by the employers. At the same time, the Seamen's Union was refusing to carry non-union ("black") wool, as well as pushing for wages hikes.
Police and military forces were brought in to smash the resistance. Eventually, the Seamen's Union went back to the ships, and the officers' union withdrew its membership in the Trades Hall.
The Maritime strike involved waterside workers, seamen, shearers, coal miners and other miscellaneous trades--a total of 50,000-80,000 workers overall. Indeed, a series of four strikes would take place between 1890 and 1894.
The main reason for defeat in 1890 was the existence of a large pool of unemployed workers. The depression of the 1890s was devastating to the working class, and many workers took whatever work they could find. Wages were reduced, and employers used non-union labour with very little resistance. Police magistrates would routinely sentence strikers to two to eight weeks gaol.
The fledgling organisations were devastated by the economic crisis and the attacks by employers and the government. As an example, the Sydney Wharf Labourers Union (SWLU) shrunk, with 800 out of the original 2,000 members barred from the union because they had worked as non-union labour; dues dropped from five guinea to just one shilling. The most loyal union members were the least likely to get work.
After 1893, there would be no maritime strike for more than two decades.