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Stop the presses: strikes in the Australian news media.

In 1917, Justice Isaac Isaacs of the Arbitration Commission described journalism as a profession 'sui generis'--that is, in a class of its own (Sydney Morning Herald, 25 April 1917). The same description could also be used for printers, who historically have seen themselves as distinct from other trades, holding a 'special place in society' (Hagan, 1966: 16). In relation to journalists, Mayer (1964: 197) describes this separatist identity as 'anxiety about the ambivalence of their status' as professionals or workers. This professional ambiguity stems from the public service role of printers, journalists and other news media workers in providing information to the public. Industrially, these beliefs have been expressed in a preference for conciliation and arbitration over strike action (Hagan, 1966; Lloyd, 1985). In other words, 'journalists don't like to strike' (Carson, 2012).

The industrial history of the Australian news media has been examined in journalism by Sparrow (1960) and Lloyd (1985), and in printing by Hagan (1966). While some strikes are detailed, the focus of these works is the formation and practice of industrial representation through the Australian Journalists' Association (AJA) (later the Media, Entertainment Arts Alliance, or MEAA) and the Printing Industry Employees' Union. Elsewhere, individual strikes have been examined in either generalist media and labour histories or specific journal articles (Cryle, 2008; Griffen-Foley, 1999; Hagan, 1973; Inglis, 2006a, 2006b; Mayer, 1964, 1980; Souter, 1981; Walker, 1976, 1980). Exposition of mid- and latter twentieth century strikes dominates the literature, and a sustained examination of news media strikes is lacking.

This article unites previously published material with archival and newspaper research to present an historical overview of major strikes that affected news production for a day or longer in the Australian press and broadcast media from 1829 to the present day. Briefer stoppages are not included. Further strikes have been identified through newspaper searches and archival research of union publications and meeting reports. What emerges is a history of strikes in the news media that can loosely be divided into three eras: nineteenth-century printers' strikes; mass-impact journalists' and printers' strikes of the mid-twentieth century; and low-impact journalists' strikes in the 2000s.

Strikes in the Australian news media

The history of Australian news media strikes begins with the first known strike of any industry in the history of white settlement in Australia. In 1829, six issues of the bi-weekly Australian missed publication after typographers walked off the job. Four years after British sterling was introduced into the colony, the typographers were still being paid in the lesser valued holy dollars and dumps of Spanish currency. The typographers wanted sterling, which would equal a wage rise of around 15 per cent. The strike, which had spread to other trades, ended when the colonial government fixed the dollar's value in advance of abolition (Thomas, 1919: 23). The next strike to affect news production was also historically significant. In 1840, printers at the Sydney Herald withdrew labour in a dispute over apprentices. The strike weakened the fledgling newspaper, leading to its purchase a few months later by Charles Kemp and John Fairfax, and the launch in 1841 of the Sydney Morning Herald (Souter, 1981: 25-6).

The issue of labour and apprentices re-emerged in the 1850s. The Victoria Typographical Association led strikes at The Argus in 1855 and The Age in 1858. Both strikes failed after management brought in workers from Hobart and England (Hagan, 1966: 29-31). Meanwhile, in Sydney in 1854, printers struck over wages at The Empire. The proprietor, Henry Parkes, took legal action and thirteen of the seventeen strikers were imprisoned. Parkes also imported workers from overseas--from India as well as England (Parkes, 1892). Prison was not the only risk of these early strikes. In 1889, when 101 newspaper compositors in Brisbane joined a general printing strike, violence erupted when some workers attempted to cross picket lines. A strike-breaking compositor who had arrived from Sydney was hospitalised. The Brisbane Courier missed several editions during the month-long strike (Brisbane Courier, 6 April 1889, 8 May 1889).

Throughout the nineteenth century, the industrial organisation of printers developed sporadically (Hagan, 1966), while journalists remained industrially aloof and unorganised (Lloyd, 1985). This changed with the advent of the labour movement, leading to the formation of national representation for journalists in 1910 through the AJA (Lloyd, 1985) and for printers in 1915 through the Printing Industry Employees Union of Australia (Hagan, 1966). Both groups expressed a preference for conciliation and arbitration over industrial action. Yet in 1912, just four months after the AJA formed a branch in Perth, Western Australia, journalists walked off the Daily News for two days over wages parity with Melbourne and Sydney journalists. This is the first known strike by journalists in Australia; it was supported by typographers who refused to set copy (Journalist, 24 April 1931).

The next major strike in that decade occurred in Broken Hill. In 1919, journalists on the Barrier Daily Truth, published by a mining union, were locked out after they went on strike in refusal of a management request to work for free. The union had devoted its funds to support striking miners and had no money left to pay journalists. The union then dismissed the journalists and installed its own people as journalists and editor, much to the mirth of the AJA, which happily republished poor copy in the Australasian Journalist for members' amusement (Australasian Journalist, 15 July 1919, 15 August 1919). A strike in Sydney in 1925 was ironic rather than amusing. Four journalists at the Labor Daily were sacked after forming a union branch at the paper. The dispute prompted a protest march by 350 members of the Labor Council of New South Wales through Sydney streets (Australasian Journalist, 15 January 1925; Barrier Miner, 9 January 1925).

Meanwhile, in Perth in 1922, printers struck for five weeks over plans to increase working hours and reduce wages. Perth was without a newspaper for five weeks as both dailies and three weeklies were caught up in the strike. The printers won (Australasian Journalist, 15 November 1922). This was the first of five lengthy strikes involving printers and/or journalists in the twentieth century.

The next occurred in Sydney in 1944. Printers at the Sun approached management seeking a 40-hour week. Associated Newspapers Ltd refused, and the dispute escalated. Journalists were drawn into the strike when Fairfax proprietors sent copy to other newspapers for inclusion in a composite paper, to be produced by management. Journalists refused to work on the composite and were dismissed or suspended. The dispute lasted thirteen days, during which striking printers and locked out journalists united to produce a strike paper, The News, out of the Communist Party printery. Nine editions of the News were published, with daily sales of 100,000 copies (Journalist, 10 October 1944; Hagan, 1973; Lloyd, 1985; Sparrow, 1960). In 1947, journalists and printers on opposition papers again resisted management efforts to produce a composite paper when a minor printers' dispute escalated, forcing publication of the Sydney Sun to be abandoned for two days (Journalist, 24 August 1947).

However, the main sequel to the 1944 strike came in 1955. Daily Mirror printers struck to protest a new industrial award. The strike spread and the Mirror was not published for nineteen days, the Sun for nine days and the Daily Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald for six days. There were no Sunday papers in Sydney for two weeks. Journalists were brought into the dispute when proprietors, as in 1944, produced a composite paper. Journalists who refused to work on the composite were sacked (Journalist, July 1955; Lloyd, 1985). This time, three editions of a strike paper, The Clarion, were printed at the Catholic Weekly. The Clarion sold up to 170,000 copies each day and made a 3000 [pounds sterling] profit. The strike ended after a mass meeting of more than 3000 unionists voted to return to work under a no-victimisation policy (Godfrey, 1955; Sparrow, 1960).

While printers initiated the 1944 and 1955 strikes, it was journalists who walked off the job in August 1967 to protest a downgrading of editorial staff. The sixteen-day strike affected newspapers in Adelaide and Sydney. Although two composite papers were produced, improved technology meant publication of all newspapers was restricted rather than stopped. The Clarion re-emerged for two editions. Printers went out in support of the journalists, who continued their strike in defiance of union orders. Support for the strike waned and journalists voted to return to work (Journalist, August 1967; Griffen-Foley, 1999; Lloyd, 1985).

In 1975, the first-ever strike by journalists over editorial independence took place at Rupert Murdoch's Australian, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mirror. On 8 December, during the last week of the federal election campaign, held after the sacking of the Whitlam Labor Government, AJA members voted for a two-day strike protesting anti-Labor bias. The journalists' strike followed a smaller strike by printers. A letter, signed by 75 journalists, was sent to Murdoch, claiming The Australian had become a 'propaganda sheet'. The strike led to a joint communique from the AJA and Murdoch, in which Murdoch supported fair and accurate reporting and the AJA Code of Ethics (Cryle, 2008: 140).

Also in 1975, there were lengthy printers' strikes at The Age and Fairfax newspapers over the introduction of tele-typesetting machines (Souter, 1981: 562-4). Retrospectively, this was a minor prequel to a major strike five years later when the introduction of computerised visual display terminals (VDTs) in newsrooms prompted a strike by more than 2000 AJA members across Australia, and included radio and television journalists. The strike lasted five weeks and disrupted news production. The Clarion went national with issues produced in each state. The strike ended when nationwide union meetings voted to accept a considerably smaller VDT allowance than initially claimed (Journalist, June 1980; Lloyd, 1985; Henningham, 1980).

Broadcast media were also involved in a strike in 1976 when 120 journalists and other staff at the ABC stopped work for 24 hours to protest the Broadcasting and Television Amendment Act 1976, which they feared would threaten editorial independence (Inglis, 2006a; Williams, 1976). In 1978, commercial television journalists struck for three days over award changes (Canberra Times, 18 October 1978).

The ability of managements to continue publishing greatly reduced the impact of strike action and, since the 1980 VDT walkout, much briefer snap strikes have been used as a form of extreme protest. These strikes have included a 24-hour strike by News Limited journalists in 1991 to protest sackings (Riley et al., 1991); a 36-hour walkout by Fairfax journalists in 1992, also protesting sackings (Reuters, 17 June 1992); a 24-hour strike by ABC journalists after current affairs reporters were given news coverage of the US election (Hewett, 1992); a 1994 nationwide strike over new technology and wages by News Limited printers and journalists (Reuters, 14 July 1994); strikes at the ABC and SBS in 1996 to protest funding cuts (Chisholm, 1996; Squires, 1996); and, in 1998, strikes at Victorian regional newspapers owned by the Leader group to protest publication of a column authored by the then premier, Jeff Kennett (AAP, 8 July 1998).

In 2004, ABC journalists in Victoria and South Australia joined a one-day strike protesting plans to centralise sports news coverage in Sydney (Yeaman, 2004). In 2006, a 24-hour nationwide strike over pay and conditions again disrupted news and current affairs programming (Dunger, 2006). In the commercial sector, a strike over job cuts by Seven Network journalists and other MEAA members in 1996 disrupted news and sport programming (Hutchings, 1996).

Since 2000, staff at Fairfax newspapers have been involved in four major industrial campaigns involving strike action. The first, in 2000, followed a deadlocked pay dispute and journalist concerns over falling editorial standards. Journalists held rolling strikes, prompting a lockout by Fairfax management (Penberthy, 2000). Continued concerns over staff cuts and quality led to a brief strike in Sydney in 2007 (Tabakoff, 2007). In 2008, plans to axe 5 per cent of the Fairfax workforce prompted a four-day strike and pickets in four cities (Edwards, 2008; Norington, 2008). Most recently, in 2012, sub-editing staff cuts and plans to relocate production of some regional titles to New Zealand sparked a 36-hour walkout by 800 journalists in Melbourne, Canberra, Wollongong, Sydney and Newcastle (Bourke, 2012).


An enduring ideological ambivalence towards strikes among the Australian news media has not translated into practice, with journalists, printers and other news employees including camera operators--resorting to strike action on numerous occasions over the past two centuries. These strikes had their greatest impact during the 1800s and up until the latter 1900s, before technological advancements meant strikes curtailed rather than ceased news production. In chronologically detailing the industry's history in relation to major strikes, this article provides a foundation for further research examining themes that could not be addressed here, including strike efficacy, behaviours of strikers and managements, and public response.


Australian Associated Press (via Factiva) 1998, 'Vic Suburban Journalists Strike Again Over Column', 8 July.

Australasian Journalist 1919, 'Broken Hill Lockout', 15 July, p. 103.

--1919, 'Barrier Daily Truth', 15 August, p. 137.

--1922, 'Perth Newspaper Strike', 15 November, p. 239.

--1925, 'Journalists on Strike', 15 January, p. 4.

Barrier Miner 1925, '"Labor Daily" is "Black"', 9 January, p. 1.

Brisbane Courier 1889a, 'The Printers' Strike', 6 April, p. 5.

--1889b, 'The Printers' Strike', 8 May, p. 8.

Canberra Times 1978, 'Newsmen Continue Strikes', 18 October, p. 3.

Journalist 1931, 'Western Australia: First Strike in Newspaper History', 24 April, p. 56.

--1944, 'AJA Fights Major Campaign', 10 October, pp. 1-3.

--1947, 'Subs. Sacked for Refusing to Handle Blackleg Copy in Sydney Dispute', 24 August, p. 1.

--1955, 'Journalists Win Fight for Principles in Sydney Furore', July, p. 1.

--1967, 'Mass Down-gradings Cause AJA's Longest Strike', August, pp. 1, 5, 6.

--1980, 'Packer Breaks with Other bosses', June, pp. 1-3.

Bourke, E. 2012, 'Industrial Upheaval at Fairfax as More Jobs Go', Australian Broadcasting Corporation Transcripts, 31 May.

Carson, A. 2012, 'Job Cuts, Strikes, "Structural Change": The Uncertain Future Facing Quality Newspapers', The Conversation, 31 May, change-the-uncertain-future-facing-quality-newspapers-7304.

Chisholm, B. 1996, 'Staff Fight Funding Cuts', Daily Telegraph, 31 July, p. 19.

Cryle, D. 2008, Murdoch's Flagship: Twenty-five Years of the Australian Newspaper, Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne.

Dunger, K. 2006, 'Lights, Camera Union Action--ABC News Bulletin Live Cross Cut by Staff Strike', Daily Telegraph, 28 October, p. 17.

Edwards, M. 2008, 'Fairfax Staff Strike for "Future of Journalism"', Australian Broadcasting Corporation Transcripts, 29 August.

Godfrey, G. 1955, 'Dramatic Story of 3-day Life of The Clarion", Journalist, July, p. 3.

Griffen-Foley, B. 1999, The House of Packer: The Making of a Media Empire, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Hagan, J. 1966, Printers and Politics: A History of the Australian Printing Unions, 1850-1950, Australian National University Press [in association with the Printing and Kindred Industries Union], Canberra.

Hagan, J. 1973, 'The Sydney Newspapers Strike and Lockout of 1944', in J. Iremonger, J. Merritt and G. Osborne (eds), Strikes: Studies in Twentieth Century Australian Social History, Angus & Robertson in association with the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Sydney.

Henningham, J. 1980, 'Journalists on Strike: Did Readers Care?', Australian Journalism Review, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 7-9.

Hewett, T. 1992, 'US Poll Sparks Walkout at ABC', Sydney Morning Herald, 4 November, p. 3.

Hutchings, B. 1996, 'TV Strike Halts Golf Broadcast', Australian, 28 November, p. 5.

Inglis, K.S. 2006a, This is the ABC: The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1932-1983, Black Inc., Melbourne.

--2006b, Whose ABC? The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1983-2006, Black Inc., Melbourne.

Lloyd, C.J. 1985, Profession Journalist: A History of the Australian Journalists' Association, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney.

Mayer, H. 1964, The Press in Australia, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne.

--1980, 'The Journalists' Strike', Media Information Australia, no. 17, pp. 41-2, 46.

Norington, B. 2008, 'Fairfax Strike-breakers Take Over as Staff Walk Out', Australian, 29 August, p. 2.

Parkes, H.S. 1892, Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History, Longmans, Green, and Co., London.

Penberthy, D. 2000, 'Striking Fairfax Workers Locked Out', Daily Telegraph, 2 September, p. 8.

Reuters (via Factiva) 1992, 'Fairfax Journalists Begin 36-hour Strike', 17 June.

--1994, 'Murdoch Hit by Nationwide Journalist Strike', 14 July.

Riley, M., Diaz, T. and Lyons, J. 1991, 'Sackings and Strikes Hit News Ltd After Downgrade', Sydney Morning Herald, 17 January, p. 103.

Souter, G. 1981, Company of Heralds, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Sparrow, G. (ed.) 1960, Crusade for Journalism: Official History of the Australian Journalists Association, AJA, Melbourne.

Squires, T. 1996, 'It's The World at Noon--at 7pm', Sydney Morning Herald, 19 July, p. 5.

Sydney Morning Herald, 1917, 'Federal Arbitration', 25 April, p. 8.

Tabakoff, J. and Stapleton, J. 2007, 'Fairfax Management Run Gauntlet of Strikers', Australian, 11 May, p. 4.

Thomas, L.M. 1919, 'The Development of the Labor Movement in the Sydney District of New South Wales: Being a Discussion of the Relation Between the Labor Movement and Current Politics from 1788-1848', MA Hons thesis, University of Sydney.

Walker, R.B. 1976, The Newspaper Press in New South Wales 1803-1920, Sydney University Press, Sydney.

--1980, Yesterday's News: A History of the Newspaper Press in New South Wales from 1920 to 1945, Sydney University Press, Sydney.

Williams, G. 1976, 'NSW Staff Strike to Black Out ABC Radio, TV', Sydney Morning Herald, 27 November, p. 3.

Yeaman, S. and Moscaritolo, M. 2004, 'ABC Strike Over Sports Coverage Halts Local Bulletin', Advertiser, 16 March, p. 3.

Margaret Van Heekeren is a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Charles Sturt University, Bathurst and a founding member of the Management Committee of the Centre for Media History, based at Macquarie University.
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Author:Van Heekeren, Margaret
Publication:Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Feb 1, 2014
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