Under surveillance: the 1948 Railway Strike

By Jennifer High, Senior Curator, Transport and Energy.

Why did a railway workers’ strike prompt Queensland Police to develop a Special Bureau and launch surveillance and investigations?

Running for nine weeks and drawing in over 20,000 railway employees and thousands of workers in other industries, the Railway Strike of 1948 was one of the largest and longest strikes in Queensland history. The actions of trade unions, protesters and the halt of railway activity prompted the Queensland government to declare a state of emergency on 27 February, granting the police extra-ordinary powers.

The exhibition, Spy: Espionage in Australia at The Workshops Rail Museum presents an opportunity to reflect on the 1948 strike and the formation of intelligence operations.

Union activity

Trade Unions for Queensland’s railway workers were first established during the 1880s. Overtime, various unions formed, representing numerous trades and professions in operation across Queensland’s railway network, aiming to improve wages and working conditions for their members. [1] The North Ipswich Railway Workshops were a focus for union formation and activity over many decades, as one of the largest employers in Queensland.

While strikes were not uncommon during the early years, processes of political action and consultation were generally preferred over militant industrial action. Union representatives were consulted on a large range of matters, giving voice to employees’ concerns around working hours, safety, unfair dismissals, and wage increases.

Pay tins used by Queensland Rail workers – each employee having a number in their workplace – for the organisation of wages, in use until 1990. Queensland Museum Network collection

Processes of consultation and arbitration, and the Tramway Strike of 1912, led to the establishment of an Industrial Court of Queensland in 1912, with jurisdiction over industrial matters and industrial disputes. The Court was formed within The Industrial Peace Act of 1912, which also provided for the creation of Industrial Boards and contained provisions for dealing with breaches and offenses, including strikes. [2] Overtime, awards were established by the Court for basic wages, rest periods, holidays, and employment of apprentices, amongst many others.

During 1947, a number of claims for wage increases were made to the Industrial Court by boilermakers, blacksmiths and other metal workers. Frustrations with delays in processing the claims and what was seen as an ongoing unwillingness by the Queensland Government to grant wage increases led to the eventual strike actions of 1948. Unions cited the difference between the wages of government railway workers and those equivalent in private enterprise. The Boilermakers’ Society of Australia would lead the call to action, but the situation quickly grew to include other workers, unions and concerns.

Boilermakers’ Society of Australia Initiation Card, presented to Barry Wallace, who began a boilermaking apprenticeship at the Ipswich Workshops in March 1956 and joined the union in April 1957. Queensland Museum Network Collection

The Federated Society of Boilermakers Iron Shipbuilders & Structural Iron & Steelworkers of Australia was founded in 1929, renamed as the Boilermakers’ Society of Australia in 1937. In 1937 the union had around 6000 members nationwide, with over 600 in Queensland. By 1947, Queensland members had increased to 1000, with the Ipswich branch numbering 270 members – 200 of those based at the Ipswich Railway Workshops.

The Strike

A strike was called for all railway workshops and running shed employees by the Combined Railway Unions Committee from midnight on 2 February 1948. By 8 February there was an almost complete stop of railway transport across Queensland, with the exception of trains hauling coal and wheat. From 21 February, coalminers and waterside workers joined the strike action, so that sea and rail transportation across the state was at a standstill. [3] The Queensland government introduced emergency road and air transport with assistance from the Federal Government, but the system was stretched.

Mayne Railway Depot, Brisbane, showing locomotives with tenders being loaded with wood during the coal strike, 1948. Queensland Museum Network/Queensland Rail

By the second week of the strike it was clear that, despite the financial hardships faced, the unions and workers would continue in their action. The government secured a return to work order from the Industrial Court and declared a state of emergency, giving the police wide powers to arrest without warrant, and to enter and search union offices and buildings. [4] The unions organised picketing, mass meetings and public demonstrations which were met with hostility from the government and the police.

‘The Fight in Queensland’, The Bulletin, 3 March 1948, page 9. National Library of Australia, Trove
People lined up for bread and vegetables during railway strike, Hughenden, 1948. Flinders Shire Historical Collection

Government and police actions

The government insisted that the strike was a Communist Party plot and on 10 March passed the Industrial Law Amendment Act, preventing picketing and demonstrations. Broad powers of enforcement were extended to the police, enabling them to make many arrests, including Communist party activists and strike leaders. [5] On St Patrick’s Day, violence erupted as police dispersed a procession of unionists in Brisbane. Member for Bowen, Fred Paterson, the first communist in Australia elected to parliament, was struck by a policeman’s baton and knocked unconscious. [6]

Crowds and police in Edward Street in front of the Trades Hall during the Railway Strike, Brisbane 1948.
State Library of Queensland

The resolve of the unions and strikers began to fade towards the end of March. Many returned to work, withdrawing their support for the dispute. Settlement terms were negotiated on 1 April, with the government agreeing generally to wage increases, but not addressing all of the unions’ requests. It was clear that the Communist Party had failed to win the loyalty of the unionists, having concentrated less on the workers and more on political issues. The Australian Labor Party began to form Industrial Groups after the strike in order to replace the Communist Party influence in trade unions.

On April 7, 1948, the day after the return to work, Police Commissioner C.J. Carroll established a ‘Special Bureau’ within the Criminal Investigation Branch ‘to deal with subversive activities, especially Communist activities.’ Within the same year, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) was formed by the Chifley Labor government. The business of the Special Bureau became that of a Special Branch within the Commissioner’s office, with all communications with other agencies, local and national, passing through that office. [7]

The role of the Special Branch and the surveillance of Communist Party activities would escalate during the following decades. During the 1970s and 1980s, Special Branch was used by Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s government tried to stop street marches and suppress dissent. When the Fitzgerald Report was handed down in 1989 and Wayne Goss became Premier, the Special Branch was disbanded and its files shredded. [8]

Spy: Espionage in Australia, from the National Archives of Australia, is on display at The Workshops Rail Museum until 6 February 2022.


[1] Blake and Mewes, 2020. ‘A different country – the organisation of the Ipswich Railway Workshops’, Memoirs of the Queensland Museum – Culture 5(1): 53-76, Brisbane (2020).

[2] Hon Mr Justice B H Matthews, ‘A history of industrial law in Queensland’, Royal Historical Society of Queensland Journal (1949), pp 150-181.

[3] Queensland Railways, Report of the Commissioner for Railways for the year ended 30 June, 1948, page 9.

[4] Margaret Cribb, ‘State in Emergency’, Labour History, No. 24, Strikes: Studies in Twentieth Century Australian Social History (1973), Liverpool University Press, pp 225-248.

[5] Douglas Blackmur, ‘The Railway Strike, 1948’, in D J Murphy, The Big strikes, Queensland 1889-1965, St. Lucia; University of Queensland Press (1983), pp 235-252.

[6] Diane Menghetti, ‘Paterson, Frederick Woolnough (Fred) (1897–1977)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.

[7] https://www.griffithreview.com/articles/long-gone-but-not-forgotten/#_edn13; Lane, Trial and Error, pp 294-96; Cribb, ‘State in emergency: The Queensland Railway Strike of 1948’, in Strikes: Studies in Twentieth Century Australian Social History, Angus & Robertson in association with the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Sydney, p 270.

[8] https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/national/queensland/inside-queenslands-spy-unit-20100406-rpbg.html