The Pastoralists' Union of graziers and farmers decided to employ only non-union labour in an attempt to break the hold of unions. The attempt failed, as maritime unions in both Australia and Britain refused to handle their wool and the pastoralists were forced to give way.
In August 1890, the Maritime Union fought for the principle of unionism against freedom of contract by refusing to load the wool shorn by non-union labour. The strike commenced in Adelaide and then spread to the other colonies. The unions for coal miners, transport workers, shearers and station hands supported the maritime workers but the colonial governments supported the employers and the strikers were defeated.
In January 1891, the shearers' strike saw the pastoralists trying to cut wages and erode unionism by employing non-union labour, who were often Chinese labourers. As a consequence of the strike, many unionists were arrested and 12 were jailed. Property was destroyed and gunfights took place as the police and army were called in. In August, the Shearers' Union capitulated when it ran out of money. The vision of Australia as a 'workingman's paradise', often touted in the 1870s and 1880s, seemed very distant.