Remembering and Learning from the NSW General Strike of 1917

Lucy Taksa

It is a hundred years since the NSW General Strike of 1917 began on 2 August, when 5,780 Eveleigh railway and Randwick tramway workshops employees refused to work under a new system of recording work times that allegedly aimed to improve their ‘efficiency’. For workers, this ‘card system’ represented an attack on collective work practices and on trade unions. It threatened them with work intensification, increased surveillance and employment insecurity. Not surprisingly, it sparked massive opposition. Within one week, the number of strikers grew to 10,000 and then extended further as workers from many other industries became involved through sympathetic support. By the end of the strike’s second week the number reached 30,000. Two weeks later still, the number had reached nearly 50,000. Included among the strikers were wharf labourers, coal lumpers, coalminers, seamen, firemen, gas workers, slaughtermen, butchers, carters, trolley and draymen and women workers from the railway refreshment rooms and CSR in Pyrmont. The strike also spread beyond Sydney to Newcastle, Broken Hill, Bulli-Wollongong, Lithgow, Bathurst and Goulburn, and from there to Victoria.

Working class community hostility to the state government’s support for the system also produced mass protest.  Union and community meetings, processions and demonstrations brought hundreds of thousands of non-striking men, women and children into the fray. From 6 August, daily processions and demonstrations in support of the strikers occurred in Sydney suburbs of Alexandria, Balmain, Botany, Glebe, Kings Cross, Marrickville, Paddington, Newtown, Redfern, Surry Hills and Rockdale, and throughout NSW in Bathurst, Bellingen, Broken Hill, Lismore, Lithgow, Mudgee and Newcastle. In Sydney, groups gathered in their neighborhoods, and proceeded to the Central Railway Station at Eddy Avenue and on to the Sydney Domain. On many occasions the crowds were estimated to be between 80,000 and 150,000. Mass meetings were also held at Trades Hall, the Sydney Town Hall, as well as in halls in the suburbs and in country towns.

State Archives NSW: Railways; NRS 19333, Personal history cards 11 16732 Eddie Ward

Striking rail and tram workers were dismissed from 14 August and 22 trade unions were deregistered for their participation in the Strike. A number of Labor Members of Parliament, union officials and workers were arrested on a range of charges, including conspiracy. The NSW government enlisted strike-breakers and permitted them to carry arms. It also commandeered cars and trucks, coal and other resources. Police permission had to be obtained for demonstrations and surveillance was undertaken of communication in and out of Trades Hall and at the Domain. The government passed the Coal Mining Regulation Amendment Act to allow strike-breakers into the mines. It refused to negotiate with the strikers’ representatives and instructed benevolent societies not to provide relief to the strikers’ families.

These draconian government measures, the exhaustion of strike funds and the killing of a striking carter in Glebe all took their toll. The Strike Defence Committee negotiated a return to work for railway and tramway employees in the first week of September, although the strike continued in other sectors until 22 October. By this time around 97,500 workers had been involved, of which 77,350 were in NSW. The impact of this dispute on the lives of thousands upon thousands of individuals and their families, on Australian trade unions and the Australian Labor Party, as well as many communities, suburbs and towns was immense and long-lasting. Over two thousand of the striking railway and tramway workers who were dismissed on 14 August were not re-employed, unionists and officials were blacklisted, and those who regained their jobs, lost their seniority and other accumulated benefits. A similar fate was experienced by strikers from a wide range of other occupations in the maritime and mining industries, among others.

State Archives NSW: Railways; NRS 19333, Personal history cards 11- 16732 Eddie Ward

I stumbled on this dispute in 1983 while I was researching the social protest against conscription that occurred during WWI for my Honours thesis in History at UNSW. However, as I scanned pages of the newspapers between the two Conscription Referenda in 1916 and 1917, I quickly realised that the industrial mobilisation and demonstrations against the card system were far greater than any of the anti-conscription protests. At that time, my interest in the dispute was reinforced by Geoff Weary, who had obtained funding from the Australia Council with a number of artists at the Art Workshop (Tin Sheds) at Sydney University to undertake an arts project that would involve residents and workers from the surrounding suburbs. In 1983 it was decided to focus the project on two strands, an Aboriginal and an Industrial Strand. Geoff and I worked on the Industrial Strand and, together, we undertook oral history interviews that contributed to an exhibition called Pictures for Cities. In 1987, I conducted more interviews on 1917 for the NSW Bicentennial Authority Oral History Project and a year later, I collaborated with Andrew Moore to commemorate the story of Merv Flanagan, the carter who was shot and killed by a strike-breaker in 1917, whose tragedy I had stumbled on in 1983. This work was published as a special Labour Day issue of Hummer where we noted: ‘At a time when many historic gains of the labour movement are under attack, we need to ask ourselves about the proper roles of labour historians’ and we asked ‘how can we work to build further bridges between the labour movement and academia?’.[1] Nearly 30 years on, these questions remain pertinent and extensive efforts to commemorate the dispute are helping to build such bridges.

The Unions NSW sponsored Strike Centenary Committee, including Nick Lewocki, Linda Carruthers and Neale Towart, Roger Jowett, Alex Classens, Daryll Hull and me, has been extremely important in this regard, as have the efforts made by John Graham MLC to raise awareness among Labor Party members. The recent commemorative events at Trades Hall, at the Eveleigh Carriageworks Performing Arts space, at the Labor Party Congress in Town Hall and the heritage trains to Goulburn and Bathurst centred on the Strike organised by the State Secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union, Alex Classens, have all helped to promote some salient lessons for labour activists today. I take this opportunity to thank them for their support in publishing my brief history of the dispute for trade union education purposes.[2] Also significant is the work done by Sydney City Council historians, Laila Elmoos and Lisa Murray, and Carriageworks Director Lisa Havilah and curator Nina Miall, for sponsoring artists to undertake commemorative works focused on the Strike by setting up a Curatoriam that engaged with Unions NSW, Urbangrowth NSW, Transport Heritage NSW and me in order to produce an exhibition on the strike and an accompanying booklet.[3]

How is this colossal failure relevant for us today? There are many ways to answer this question, but for present purposes I will focus on two. First, the system that sparked the dispute continues to be relevant to us all. As the Strike Defence Committee’s Manifesto of 11 August put it, the card system was a way of ‘speeding up … the workman to his utmost capacity, and of pitting him against his fellows, and against himself – a system which aims to … make him a machine in the crudest sense of the word. It means slavery!’.[4]

The card system was based on F.W. Taylor’s philosophy, principles and techniques of scientific management. Many scholars have acknowledged the system’s continuing impact. Kanigel concluded that ‘Taylor helped make modern life what it is—not only in the factory or even in the broader workplace but also everywhere.’ Similarly, Wren argued that Taylor’s ‘ideas shaped how we live and think today’.[5] In 2002, Bain, Watson, Mulvey, Taylor and Gall argued that ‘the application of Taylorist methods to organising work in the office has long historical antecedents. The integration of information and communication technologies in recent years has enabled management to expand monitoring of office work exponentially’.[6] In 2008, Brown, Lauder and Ashton referred to ‘the twenty-first century’ as ‘the age of digital Taylorism’, in which knowledge work is translated ‘into working knowledge through the extraction, codification and digitalisation of knowledge into software prescripts that can be transmitted and manipulated by others regardless of location’.[7] For Grugulis and Lloyd, this ‘new form of deskilling’ is now being applied to managerial and professional work.[8] I have noted the impact of this system on education.[9] As Evans and Holmes commented in 2013, Taylor’s ghost ‘is still very much alive in “high value” (so high skill) knowledge and service sector organisations, highlighting how contemporary knowledge workers are just as constrained by the principles of scientific management as the industrial workers Taylor studied in the early twentieth century’. [10] At a time when electronic surveillance and artificial intelligence is gaining prominence, it is worthwhile looking closely at the way the 1917 strike spread because it provides us with a stark contrast between the principles of collectivism that underpinned this action and the individualism that dominates the world of work today.

In this regard, Jack Lang MP hit the nail on the head when he stressed in Parliament that this was something more than ‘a mere idle strike’, as sacrifices would not be made by the employees of the state’s transport services ‘unless some great principle’ was at stake.[11] At the heart of this principle was the traditional workers’ right to collective union representation in negotiations over employment conditions and pay. For the workers, this principle was essential for the defence of their shared interests. It relied on solidarity and it was enacted through the ‘black’ doctrine, which involved bans on work done by strike-breakers. The imposition of the doctrine by the Strike Defence Committee on 6 August resulted in a rapid escalation of the strike. As the Secretary of the Moulders’ Union explained: ‘Our men are out simply on a matter of union principle … If our men could have remained at work without infringing on the work of other men, they would have done so’.[12] For Connell and Irving, this solidarity ensured that the Strike spilled over into the community.[13]  As the NSW Branch of the Federated Bricklayers Union put it on 22 August, the Branch was ‘in full sympathy with our fellow unionists who are out on strike on a principle’.[14] This ‘unionist principle of refusing to handle ‘black’ goods’, had what John Lack referred to as ‘a snowballing effect’ spreading to the waterfront in Victoria, where carters, drivers and seamen stopped work in sympathy with NSW strikers.[15] By October, the wharf labourers, and many others, who had ‘stood by’ their ‘fellow-unionists’, on what their union’s president referred to as ‘a matter of principle,’ were thwarted by strike-breaking-labour.[16]

However, as I have argued previously, the principle at stake was also linked to the improvements in conditions and wages that had been hard won during preceding decades through the conciliation and arbitration system, in which courts and judges ostensibly worked to balance the interests of workers and employers/managers in the public interest. As Labor PM, Andrew Fisher had put it in his election speech in 1914: ‘we look upon arbitration as a civilised system of obtaining justice … with the minimum disturbance of industrial relationship and the minimum of distress…. We desire therefore, the widest possible opportunity to be afforded to all workers and employers to approach the Arbitration Court’.[17] Unfortunately, in this dispute, the strikers were not given recourse to the Arbitration Court because the card system was deemed to constitute ‘a mere detail of workshop management’ rather than a ‘change of working conditions’. [18] This confounded the expectation that the state would protect workers’ interests from exploitation, the inconsistencies of the labor market and employer lock-outs, which had informed labourist principles. The importance placed on the impartiality and independence of the courts and judges was evident in the requests for an independent inquiry to avert the strike in late July and in the resolution that was repeatedly carried throughout NSW during the strike, notably that: ‘This public meeting of citizens, comprising all shades of political opinion, urges the government to at once appoint an Independent Tribunal’ into the dispute. Today, when we look to the recent appointments made to the Fair Work Commission and the Australian Building and Construction Commission, it is worthwhile acknowledging that the concerns of 1917 remain immensely significant.

The strikers of 1917 engaged in a fight for a just and principled cause in relation to workplace rights, fair working conditions and justice in employment and suffered immensely for their struggles. Through our remembrance we, too, stand up, not only in support of their efforts, courage and perseverance, but as significantly for the preservation of those same rights and conditions today.

[1] Moore, A. and Taksa, L., (1988) ‘Merv Flanagan: The Australian Labour Movement’s Forgotten Martyr’, The Hummer: Newsletter of the Sydney Branch, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History- Labor Day 1988 Special Issue, 21: 1-9.
[2] Taksa, L., (2017) The New South Wales 1917 Strike in Retrospect: Commemorating Past Struggles for Workplace Rights, In association with Unions NSW. Sydney. ISBN: 978-1-64008-169-7.
[3] Ellmoss, L., and Miall, N., (eds) 1917: The Great Strike. Sydney: Carriageworks. See also Taksa, L., ‘The Great Strike and Its Impact’, pp. 20-26.
[4] Daily Telegraph, 13 August 2017.
[5] Kanigel R. (1997). The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency. London: Little Brown and Company, p. 503; Wren, D.A. (2011). “The Centennial of Frederick W. Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management: A Retrospective Commentary.” Journal of Business and Management 17: 19.
[6] Bain, P. et. Al. (2002) ‘Taylorism, targets and the pursuit of quantity and quality by call centre management’. New Technology, Work and Employment.17:3: 170-185
[7] Brown, P., Lauder, H., and Ashton, D. (2008) ‘Education, Globalisation and the Future of the Knowledge Economy’, European Educational Research Journal, 7 (2): 131-156
[8] Grugulis, I. and Lloyd, C. (2010). ‘Skill and the Labour Process: The Conditions and Consequences of Change’, in Thompson, P. and Smith, C. (eds) Working Life: Renewing Labour Process Analysis. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan.[9] Taksa, L. (2007) ‘Uniting Management and Education in Pursuit of Efficiency: F.W. Taylor’s Training Reform Legacy’, Economic and Labour Relations Review. 17 (2): 129-56; Taksa, L., (2017) ‘Scientific Management’, in Wilkinson, A., Lounsbury, M. and Armstrong, S.J. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Management. Oxford: Oxford University Press: pp. 19-38.
[10] Evans, C., and Holmes, L. (2013) ‘Introduction’, in Evans, C. and Holmes, L. (eds) Re-Tayloring Management: Scientific Management a Century On. Farnham: Gower Publishing.
[11] NSW Parliamentary Debates, 7th August 1917, pp. 449-50, p. 452.
[12] Sydney Morning Herald, 4 August 1917.
[13] Connell, R.W. and Irving, T.H. (1980) Class Structure in Australian History. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire: p. 193.
[14] Daily Telegraph, 23 August 1917.
[15] Lack, J. (2015) ‘The great madness of 1914–18’: families at war on Melbourne’s eastern and western fronts’, The La Trobe Journal: 96: 80.
[16] Coward, D. (1973) ‘Crime and Punishment: The Great Strike of N.S.W. August to October, 1917’, in Iremonger, J., Merritt, J. and Osborne, G. (eds) Strikes: Studies in Twentieth Century Australian Social History. Sydney: Angus & Robertson: p. 60.
[17] Fisher, A. (1914) Election Speech Delivered at Bundaberg, Queensland, 6. July.
[18] Childe, V.G. (1964) How Labour Governs. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press: p. 157.