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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Today in Hoofcare History: The Day the Australian Farriers Went on Strike


It was on this day in 1913 that the farriers in Australia first went on strike: 50 employee ("journeymen") members of the Farriers Union laid down their tools and said that they had been “locked out” of their ability to pursue their trade.

Their bone of contention? The introduction of machinemade shoes, which they feared would make them obsolete.

In July 1912, the employee farriers negotiated a contract that increased their wages by 12.5 percent. What they didn’t expect would follow was the surprise introduction by their master employers of new-to-the-trade machinemade shoes, and that the master farriers would raise the cost of shoeing to customers by 40 percent.

Negotiations and contract clauses delayed the actual introduction of the shoes for many months but the day finally came in June 1913. The union gave 21 days’ notice of the intention to strike and the masters held fast to their intention to use the new shoes.

The employee farriers simply refused to nail them on. The masters said their services were not needed. The farriers called this a lockout. The masters called it a strike.

The secretary of the union said in the press statement, “The use of machine-made shoes involves great cruelty to the horses. In these shoes the holes are punched uniformly, and whether the holes are adapted to the animal’s hoof or not, the shoer has to drive them home. The result is that nail frequently presses on the ‘yellow span’  between the quick and the horn and causes the horse much pain, besides sending him decidedly lame. Our men are invariably blamed for this and frequently find themselves not only sacked on a charge of incompetency but barred from employment in other places....It is the master farriers’ own battle we are fighting, in the protection of their valuable horses.”

I ran across a news item about this strike while researching something else; it appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald. I don't know how long the strike lasted. The Journeyman Horseshoers Union strike in 1903 against the Master Horseshoers Association in New York City lasted a year and a strike in Boston was a long one as well. 

Strikes were ugly, violent events; "scab" (nonunion replacement) horseshoers were subject to intimidation and violence. Union horseshoers who didn't want to strike might be beaten into submission, as was one New York horseshoer, who was beaten by a co-worker...with a hammer, according to the New York Times.

In more recent times, the horseshoers in Florida have been the most publicized strikers. They struck because they refused to be fingerprinted when it was mandated that all racetrack personnel should press their thumbs.  Horseshoers at all three Miami-area tracks struck in 1947 when it was declared illegal to give kickbacks to grooms and hotwalkers and horseshoers when a horse won. The Florida union at the time was then affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. It was the custom at the time for the owner to give the horseshoer $25--roughly the cost of shoeing a horse twice with aluminum plates--if a horse won a race. At the same time, about 500 grooms, representing one-third of the barn staff at the tracks, went on strike.

Image: The "new" forge at Badminton House stables, Gloucestershire, England. Photo by Fran Jurga. My outstanding host Bernie Tidmarsh was hiding when I took this. This part of the forge probably looked close to the same in 1913. Can you imagine the Australian men stopping work over machinemade shoes? Quite a story, though there is no follow-up.

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