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Spence, William Guthrie (1846 - 1926)

Activist and Politician


"Spence's great repute as an industrial organizer of widely dispersed workers led to his appointment in 1886 as foundation president of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union of Australasia. With great skill and zeal, and against aggressive opposition from many pastoralists, by 1890 he had unionized most shearers in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales and had gained the 'closed shop' in about 85 per cent of the shearing sheds. With main objectives of recruiting the Queensland shearers and obtaining the complete 'union shed', this work took him for the first time consistently among city unionists; in the late 1880s he encouraged his New South Wales branches to join the Trades and Labor Council in Sydney. …
In 1894 he helped to combine several small bush unions with the A.S.U. and to found the Australian Workers' Union; as its secretary in 1894-98 and president 1898-1917, he saw the union as the industrial wing of the Labor Party. He held the mining-pastoralist seat of Cobar in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1898-1901, but made little impression in parliament though he was accorded the deference merited by past achievement. A supporter of Federation, he pointed to the successful organization of the A.W.U. He was elected to the first Federal parliament in 1901 as member for Darling in far-west New South Wales. In Sydney in 1909, helped by his son-in-law H. Lamond, he published Australia's Awakening, which stated that the organization of the bushworkers and the 1890 strike marked the foundations of industrial trade unionism in Australia. The book was an effort both to disarm growing opposition in the A.W.U. to his presidency and to defend the union from the Industrial Workers of the World, who were organizing the 'One Big Union'. In 1911 in Sydney he published the History of the A.W.U.; he wrote several pamphlets; he also contributed to and helped to edit the Australian Worker. In the 1900s he worked hard for a Labor daily under the control of the A.W.U."

See Coral Lansbury, Bede Nairn, 'Spence, William Guthrie (1846 - 1926)',Australian Dictionary of Biography Online.



  • Spence, William Guthrie, The ethics of new unionism, Martin and Grose, Creswick, 1892, 10 pp. Image PDF Details


  • Spence, W.G., The Ethics of New Unionism, Poor quality scan., Australian Socialist League [This scan courtesy of Mike Williss], Sydney, 1892, 10 pp. PDF Details