This year marks the centenary of one of Australia’s largest industrial conflicts and a special exhibition commemorating the anniversary has just opened at Carriageworks. The Great Strike of 1917 is regarded as one of Australia’s largest industrial conflicts. Although it officially lasted just over six weeks, its consequences lingered for decades.
Co-curator Laila Ellmoos, historian at the City of Sydney and Dictionary of Sydney author, spoke to Nic on 2SER Breakfast this morning about the strike.
The Great Strike erupted on the NSW railways and tramways in response to the introduction of a new time card system that monitored worker productivity. This was ‘a new system of recording work times and output’ that was intended to improve worker efficiency. Historian Lucy Taksa noted that the introduction of the card system was seen by the workers as a ‘direct attack on collective work practices and trade union principles’
The strike began on 2 August when around 5,790 employees, the majority from the Eveleigh Railway Workshops and the nearby Randwick Tramsheds, walked off the job. The Eveleigh Railway Workshops (the present-day Carriageworks and Australian Technology Park) were at the heart of political and industrial activism during the 20th century as workers came together to improve conditions, wages and work practices. The strike soon spread to other industries and towns throughout NSW and Australia through the imposition of ‘black bans’ and sympathy actions, leading to food shortages, limited public transport and power blackouts. Overall an estimated 77,350 workers in NSW ‘went out’.
A significant feature of the strike was the social protest that accompanied it. There were regular large-scale street processions starting at Eddy Avenue and weekly gatherings in The Domain that attracted upwards of 100,000 men, women and children. Women were on the frontline of social protest because they were workers too, and also because the economic hardship caused by male workers going on strike affected whole family units.
On the other side of the political divide, middle-class businessmen, women, farmers, university students and teenage schoolboys – referred to as either ‘volunteer labour’ or ‘scabs’ depending on allegiances – attempted to break the strike by doing the jobs of the strikers. The strikebreakers were housed in camps at the Sydney Cricket Ground (nicknamed the ‘Scabs Collecting Ground’ by the strikers), Taronga Zoo and Dawes Point. Those who opposed the strike called the strikebreakers ‘volunteers’ and ‘loyalists’. Thousands of women also volunteered their services to help break the strike.
This was an era of unprecedented social and political upheaval, exacerbated by World War 1 and the associated conscription debates, emerging technologies and changing social values.
The Great Strike of 1917 officially ended when the Strike Defence Committee capitulated to the Railway Commissioners’ demands in mid-September 1917. Workers in maritime and other industries remained on strike however; it wasn’t until early October that industrial action and protest eventually wound up.
Ultimately the strike failed and the timecard system was implemented. In its dying days and immediately afterwards, destitute women and children relied on relief doled out by the Women’s Relief Fund and a fund set up by the Lord Mayor. Many railway and tramway employees never got their jobs back. Those who were rehired found their jobs had been downgraded. The strike highlighted the split in the labour movement between ‘rank and file’ trade union members and officials. More than 20 unions were deregistered. In the years that followed, many strikers felt they had been victimised, which in turn created working lives riven with conflict.
The strike and its aftermath politicised a core group, including train driver Ben Chifley, who went on to become prime minister 1945-49. Labor stalwarts and former Eveleigh employees Joe Cahill and Eddie Ward both entered politics after their involvement in the strike. Cahill was elected NSW Premier in 1952, while Ward was a member of the House of Representatives for East Sydney 1932-60.
The nationwide strike lasted just six weeks, but its consequences endured for those involved, galvanising community networks, shaping political
consciousness, and creating a highly politicised workforce from which a generation of politicians would later emerge. Despite these legacies, this event has not been widely remembered. Its failure was considered by many to be a defeat for the labour movement, and the action was subsequently overshadowed by the memory of war and the conscription debates. One hundred years on, the anniversary of the Great Strike of 1917 provides an opportunity to reassess this watershed moment in Australia’s history and to consider how its legacy resonates today.
The free exhibition 1917: The Great Strike runs from 15 July-27 August at Carriageworks.
There will also be a special Community Day on 5 August, with performances of brass bands and choirs, tours, workshops with the artists, including a signwriting demonstration and a Panel Discussion: The Great Strike and its legacies, with Laila Ellmoos, historian; Frances Flanagan, United Voice research director; Tom Nicholson, artist; moderated by Anna Clark, historian, co-hosted by City of Sydney and UTS Australian Centre for Public History. Find out more about the Community Day here.
The Great Strike is presented by Carriageworks and City of Sydney, in partnership with the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA).
City of Sydney blog: 100 years ago, 100,000 people marched to The Domain every week for 6 weeks. Find out why.
City of Sydney media: Remembering the Strike that Stopped a Nation
City of Sydney- Creative City: The 1917 Great Strike through the eyes of five artists
State Library of NSW Magazine Winter 2017: In their element – a schoolboy’s photo album holds a glimpse of the Great Strike
National Film and Sound Archive: The Great Strike
Laila Ellmoos is an historian with the City of Sydney and a Dictionary of Sydney author. She is the author of three books including Our Island Home: a history of Peat Island. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
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