Picture: Bulli Colliery ca 1885. Miners joined a coal strike in 1878 to prevent a Chinese labour invasion. Credit: From the collections of the WOLLONGONG CITY LIBRARY and the ILLAWARRA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Illawarra's first union movement - organised by coalminers at Bulli - originated in 1878 in response to the very real threat of a Chinese labour invasion.
The catalyst was a decision by the Australasian Steam Navigation Company (ASN Co) to replace much of its European seamen with Chinamen, who were prepared to work at reduced wage rates.
With 106 Chinese workers already employed on the shipping line and another 350 bound for Australia, the Seamen's Union went on strike and encouraged other industries to follow suit.
Bulli miners supported the cause in December 1878 by organising a subscription to provide financial relief, while circulating a petition calling on the Government to halt Chinese immigration.
As the days progressed, anti-Chinese sentiment festered. A letter writer to the Mercury said the Chinese were "like blisters, they may be very good in their places, but they certainly are an evil and not a blessing where their labour comes unduly in contact with that of white men."
Within days, Bulli miners were brought directly into the conflict under dramatic circumstances.
When seamen walked off the job in Sydney after being requested to load coal from two Bulli steamers, the Woniora and Merksworth, on to vessels belonging to the ASN Co, the captain of one of the vessels ordered his Chinese labourers to board the colliers and complete the job.
Further, upon discovering that more coal was needed, the largely Chinese crews sailed the colliers back to Bulli for an additional shipment.
The Bulli miners, upon learning of the Chinese presence at the jetty, walked off the job. Several days later, they passed a resolution to give no more coal to the ASN Co during the strike.
Mt Pleasant and Mt Keira miners followed suit, encouraged by Seamen's Union delegate Mr White, who warned that unless coalminers supported the seamen, "every trade and calling in the colony would suffer in a similar way and from the same cause, until our very washerwoman would be driven from their tubs by Chinamen".
In line with calls for an anti-Chinese immigration policy, he urged that any current "Asiatics" living in Australia be treated honourably, but then "let them die out".
Amid the drama, calls for the formation of a miners' union grew louder. Coal union delegates from Newcastle had been visiting the region since the 1860s, urging solidarity, but the Illawarra men had so far resisted.
The Chinese threat, however, prompted a change of heart.
Fearful of having their jobs taken, miners of the region's four collieries at Bulli, Coalcliff, Mt Pleasant and Mt Keira, voted to form Illawarra's first union.
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