Labor History, Railroads, and Australia, 1880–1900
- Bradley BowdenBradley BowdenDepartment of Business, Griffith University
Previously, most attention to managerial attitudes to railroad labor during the late 19th century has focused on industrial conflict in the United States, most particularly the so-called Pullman Boycott, a national stoppage that brought much of the American rail network to a halt in May–July 1894. Most historians—Alfred Chandler, Richard White, Gabriel Kolko, and Shelton Stromquist, to name a few—have associated this pattern of American conflict with falling freight rates caused by excessive competition between the United States’ privately owned railroads. If this assumption is correct, then one would expect both of the problems—labor conflict and falling freight rates—would be absent in New World societies where railroads operated under public rather than private ownership. Among New World societies, public ownership of the railways was arguably most significant in Australia, a continental society almost identical in geographical size with the mainland United States. Here, railroads played a similar role in national development. Despite this variance in ownership, however, Australian railroads were beset with similar problems to the United States. Per-ton freight rates declined in like fashion. As in the United States, Australian railroad managers responded to falling freight rates by savage wage cuts and staff redundancies. The commonalities between Australia and the United States points to a common causal factor. It is argued that this common causal factor was the falling world price for grain, most particularly wheat, the London benchmark wheat price falling from US $1.92 in 1871 to US $0.81 in 1891.