In 1917, as the war to end all wars was tearing Europe apart, what was arguably Australia’s biggest class conflict took place when, for over two months, up to 100,000 workers across the country confronted an enraged and belligerent combination of conservative state and federal governments, employers, establishment press and a middle class which organised against them on an unprecedented scale.
The strike began when employees at Eveleigh Railway Yards and the Randwick Tram Sheds downed tools in protest against new working conditions imposed during a time of war. Around 5,790 railway and tramway employees walked off the job, protesting against the introduction of a card system that recorded work times and output, and was intended to improve worker efficiency.
Maritime workers, miners, transport workers, gas workers, meatworkers, engineering, manufacturing and warehouse workers joined in the strike because they refused to deal or work with goods or materials handled by non-strikers, the Government’s “volunteers” or people hired to replace strikers.
The strike rapidly spread from Sydney to country centres including Newcastle, Bathurst, Lithgow, Bourke, Maitland, Broken Hill, Goulburn, Wollongong, Mudgee, Armidale and Lismore.
Over the period of the strike it’s estimated that across the state around 77,350 workers went on strike, with thousands of other supporters in NSW and interstate, including wives and returned soldiers. There were regular demonstrations in Sydney, some of the biggest ever seen in Sydney, involving tens of thousands of strikers and their supporters. In Melbourne, a crowd of around 20,000 attempted to march on the Federal Parliament.
When the strike petered out in mid-September 1917, many employees at Eveleigh, and elsewhere on the NSW rail and tram network never got their jobs back. Those re-hired at the Eveleigh yards found their jobs had been downgraded. Those who did manage to return came back to a work environment poisoned by the divisions created during the strike.
The railways and tramways had a predominantly male workforce, as did the other industries joining the strike, so most of the strikers were men, but a significant group of women workers, the Railway Refreshment Room workers, walked off their jobs rather than serve refreshments to scabs, the Government’s “volunteers”. These women strikers were also replaced by “volunteers”.
Although the nationwide strike lasted just six weeks, its consequences lingered for decades, creating a highly politicised workforce and a generation of politicians including, amongst others, NSW premiers William McKell and Joe Cahill and prime minister Ben Chifley.
In their response to this eruption of working class militancy, the Government of the day, the ruling class and the press controlled by them tried to destroy the union movement and obliterate any memory of the strike from working class consciousness. Twenty-two unions were deregistered and many awards were cancelled, leaving workers and their unions unable to enforce wages and conditions. Rail and Maritime industry employers assisted the establishment of scab unions to replace the deregistered unions.
The NSW labour movement, in organising commemoration of the centenary of the strike on such a grand scale, seeks to return the 1917 strike to its rightful place as an enduring example of the spirit and determination of the male and female unionists who fought for the values of trade unionism, an example that will continue to inspire current and future union activists.
Unions NSW established a 1917 Strike Committee, with representation from some of the unions descendant from the 22 original unions deregistered as a result of the strike, which also donated funds to cover commemoration activities.
Centenary Dinner: A highly successful Centenary Dinner was held at Carriageworks in Redfern on 2 August, the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the strike. Speakers at the dinner included Sally McManus, Secretary of the ACTU, Alex Claassens, Secretary of the NSW Branch of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union, John Graham, MLC, and Mark Morey, Secretary of Unions NSW. (Sally McManus’s speech will be published in the forthcoming special issue of Hummer.)
1917: Strike! show: One of the most vibrant and exciting forms of commemoration of the strike is PP Cranney and Christina Mimmocchi’s performance piece 1917: Strike! which tells the story of the strike in words and song. Written as a tribute to the late Brian Dunnett, second-generation railway worker, socialist and shop steward, with a passionate commitment both to the railway industry, its workers and culture and to improving the lives of working people generally (see obituary elsewhere in this issue), the show was premiered at the Illawarra Folk Festival in January 2017.
It has since been performed at Unions NSW, at various suburban locations in Sydney, at the Australian Technology Park (ATP) as part of the Eveleigh Workshops Community Day activities and at regional locations including Goulburn, Newcastle and Woy Woy.
A number of songs from the show are featured in this and the forthcoming special 1917 issue of Hummer. A clip of one of the songs from the show, about the Railway Refreshment Room workers, is available on Youtube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNuOZ6UAoEU .
The show has now been recorded and CDs are available from Christina Mimmocchi – email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 0410 682 061.
Unions NSW Exhibition: Unions NSW put together a travelling exhibition of photographs and memorabilia related to the strike, which was launched in the Sydney Trades Hall Atrium on 20 July after the performance of 1917: Strike! The exhibition is designed to travel to other locations in NSW including Goulburn, Newcastle and Wollongong.
Carriageworks Exhibition: Carriageworks and the City of Sydney collaborated in commissioning artworks inspired by the strike and organising an exhibition of those artworks and historical objects relevant to the Workshops and the strike, which ran from 15 July – 27 August.
1917: The Great Strike Community Day: A Community Day was held on Saturday 5 August with activities at Carriageworks and at the Australian Technology Park (ATP), both located on the old Eveleigh Railway Workshops site.
Activities at Carriageworks included behind-the-scenes tours, performances by the Sydney Trade Union Choir, Riff Raff Radical Band and NSW Railway Band, a panel discussion exploring the significance of the strike and its legacy, and artist-led workshops. Activities on the ATP side included a performance of 1917: Strike! and one by the Trade Union Choir, kids’ activities, demonstrations and tours including a tour of the recently restored Chief Mechanical Engineer’s office on Wilson St.
Merv Flanagan Appeal: Mervyn Flanagan, a striking carter, was murdered by an armed strike-breaker (one of the Government’s “rural volunteers”, who also happened to be the brother of a prominent Conservative politician) after an exchange between strikers and strike-breakers in Bridge Road, Camperdown.
The Unions NSW 1917 Strike Committee has launched an online appeal for funds to restore Merv’s headstone at Rookwood Cemetery, to honour Merv’s legacy and that of all those who participated in the Great Strike. The Committee will work with Merv’s descendants to do this in a respectful and appropriate fashion.
Donations to this appeal may be made online at https://chuffed.org/project/1917strike.
Donations may also be directly deposited into the following account, marked for the 1917 Flanagan Headstone Campaign:
Acct No: 00800374
Centenary Mementos of the Strike:
Lily-White Replica Badges: The Unions NSW 1917 Strike Committee have had made replicas of the original Lily-White badges worn by those workers who remained on strike in defiance of the Government.
A short publication by historian Lucy Taksa, The New South Wales 1917 Strike in Retrospect: Commemorating Past Struggles for Workplace Rights, has been published with the support of the 1917 Strike Committee and Unions NSW.
An excellent booklet including material supplied by Lucy was also provided by Carriageworks as part of their Great Strike exhibition.
The NSW Branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), whose antecedent union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) was amongst those deregistered as a result of the strike, raised funds amongst the contemporary descendent unions to reprint the Industrial Workers of the World’s songbook IWW Songs and Poems: To Fan the Flames of Discontent. IWW songbooks were distributed to the mass rallies that took place during the strike.
Documentary film: The Strike Committee is currently seeking funds for a documentary film about the strike.
*Information in this piece is drawn from the various publications commemorating the Great Strike and from information provided by, amongst others, PP Cranney, Christina Mimmocchi, Roger Jowett, Neale Towart and Linda Carruthers.