One hundred years ago this month, the Great Strike of 1917, the biggest strike in Australian history began. It was to last more than two months, from August 2 until the last workers drifted back to work on October 15, but the impact of the strike lasted a lot longer.
The strike involved more than 100,000 workers — at a time when the total population of Australia was less than 5 million. It was one of the most important industrial and political confrontations in Australian history. It shook the country to the core, and prompted cries of “revolution” from both sides of the struggle.
The immediate catalyst for the strike was the introduction of new technology, but in the background were broader questions of war, deprivation and inequality, and the possibility of a new and better society arising from class struggle. The spectre of the developing Russian Revolution and growing anti-war and radical revolts elsewhere in Europe hung over the events in Australia.
Origins of the strike
By 1917, it was clear to Australian working people that the war had not only caused an unprecedented outpouring of blood, but it had also meant a drastic fall in real wages. In the manufacturing sector real wages fell by 15% between 1913 and 1918. In the same period the “basic wage” fell by about 8%.
With inflation running rampant due to increased commodity prices, the weekly pay packet no longer stretched to cover life’s necessities. Severe economic hardship became a way of life for thousands of working-class families, a situation that created a backdrop of massive discontent.
At the same time, workers in a range of industries were expected to work longer and harder. Bosses cracked the proverbial whip, and hard-pressed workers were expected to shut up and follow orders for the good of the war effort.
The catalyst for the strike was the attempted implementation of Taylorist (named after its American advocate FW Taylor) “scientific management” methods in the railway workshops in Eveleigh and Randwick in Sydney, a move supported by the newly installed conservative state and federal governments.
The system required a foreman to record detailed accounts of how each worker spent his day on a card. If work took too long to complete, or workers were absent from their station without authorisation, it was noted on the card. If a satisfactory explanation was not produced, the worker’s pay was docked.
In July 1917 the railway union newspaper The Co-operator’s editorial stated: “Scientific management seeks to make the task of the worker more monotonous than it ever was, to take from his work the last vestige of individuality, and to make him a mere cog in the machinery of production.”
Based on the US experience, the workers feared fragmentation of their work into simple repetitive operations to speed up the process of production. Workers were also concerned this would allow “slow” or “inefficient” workers to be dismissed and that it could be used to target union militants. The system also involved the promotion of 80 workers to become sub-foremen, which workers saw as an attempt to break union solidarity by rewarding “loyal workers”.
A central tool room was also established, and workers had to request the tools they needed. This was the final straw in a litany of grievances, including widespread retrenchments and onerous work schedules requiring locomotive crews to be on the job for unpaid periods.
Unwilling to be regimented like mindless robots, 5780 workers in the rail and tramway workshops in Sydney, Newcastle and Goulburn voted to down tools on August 2. Within a week there were 30,000 public transport workers on strike and a week after that 50,000. By early September there were 69,000 workers on strike in NSW alone.
The state government attempted to contain this mass walk-out by sacking strikers, but workers from other industries joined the movement.
Radical newspapers such as the Industrial Workers of the World’s Direct Action spread a syndicalist message to which workers readily responded. Not since the 1890s had Australia experienced such a militant upsurge of industrial solidarity.
Miners went out, along with wharf-labourers, coal-lumpers, seamen and marine stewards. Carters, trolley and draymen, ship painters and dockers and meatworkers also joined. The waitresses and kitchen hands at Central Station refreshment rooms refused to serve non-strikers and walked off the job on August 13.
The Striker on August 13 said: “No sane man believes that it is the card system [the government is] troubling about. That is only the thin end of the wedge intended to split Unionism, and bring about a general reduction in wages, longer hours, and more degrading conditions of labour.”
Workers in Victoria and Queensland went out in solidarity and by October 100,000 workers nationwide were on strike.
Stan Jones, the son, cousin and nephew of Eveleigh workers, remembered: “Trams and trains halted, street lights went out, coal disappeared from fireplaces and butter grew scarce on kitchen tables.
“The families of the strikers became closer to each other and the families of those who didn’t go on strike correspondingly became closer too.
“One had a feeling of being in the fight. The others had, to some degree, feelings of guilt; not that there were too many who belonged to families whose men did not take part in the strike.”
As the strike spread quickly and widely, it became clear the initiative came from the rank and file. A government report on the strike, released in 1918, revealed that each workplace individually decided to strike. It was this fast spreading, militant action directed from below that was the strength of the strike.
Hal Alexander, an Eveleigh striker, said: “When you’re a married worker with a family it's a big decision to go into a strike action not knowing when it might end. That sort of courage is the thing that really typifies the working class of this country.”
Henry Boote wrote in The Worker on August 16: “I never hoped to see the workers so united ... This revolt against governmental tyranny is a spontaneous manifestation of feeling. The men took matters into their own hands ... With a passion for class loyalty as grand as it was unparalleled, they took the field and swept to battle.”
Strike-breakers were recruited by the government and employer groups, leading to bitter conflict between striking workers and “volunteer” scabs. In a military-style operation, strike-breakers, called “loyalists” were brought in from all around the state and concentrated at Taronga Zoo and the Sydney Cricket Ground. To strike veterans, SCG stood for Scabs’ Collecting Ground.
Street skirmishes were common and police prosecutors turned a blind eye to serious assaults, even homicides, committed against unionists by “volunteers” wielding government-provided handguns.
On August 30, Mervyn Ambrose Flanagan, a striking carter, was shot and killed opposite Camperdown Children's Hospital in Bridge Road. The culprit was a strike-breaking carter, Reginald Wearne, who was also the brother of a conservative member of parliament.
Angered by heckling, Wearne fired his police-supplied revolver at a group of strikers. Flanagan was shot through the heart and died instantly. Another striking carter was wounded in the leg. Although Wearne was initially charged with felonious slaying and manslaughter, the charges were quickly dropped and he never faced trial.
But authorities were not so quick to pardon the striking carters. Incredibly, two of them were convicted of having used violent measures to impede Wearne's pursuit of his lawful occupation. The court imposed a three-month custodial sentence. Such blatant double-standards further raised the ire of striking workers.
The strikers had an organisation of sorts to respond to the scabs. A Defence Committee had been formed with delegates from each of the striking unions. But it was dominated by union officials and had no strategy to deal with the government-sanctioned scabs.
The mass demonstrations could have been mobilised to boost picket lines and defend workplaces from scab labour. But the union leadership saw them only as a means of keeping up morale.
The image of victimised, malnourished children on the home front is not usually associated with Australia’s World War I experience, but there were entire working-class districts where such deprivation was the norm. Forced to subsist on meagre public charity, strikers and their families endured distress that was, in many cases, close to starvation.
Aside from the specific industrial demands voiced by protesting workers — higher wages and improved conditions — the strike was profoundly political in its motivation. Throughout the entire period of the strike, Sydney workers were joined by thousands of anti-war protesters in daily marches from Central Station to the Domain. Centennial Park and the street corners of inner-city suburbs were also popular protest venues.
Together, this progressive coalition called for an alternative to the capitalist economic order that had plunged the world into a bloodbath and left working people to bear the cost in sweat, hunger and blood.
Large rallies were held daily and Sunday rallies regularly attracted more than 150,000 participants — an astonishing 10% of Sydney’s population. Regional centres such as Newcastle, Broken Hill, Bathurst and Maitland also experienced significant demonstrations.
At one point Adela Pankhurst, of the famous Pankhurst suffragette family, led a crowd of 20,000 to confront the police outside federal parliament in Melbourne.
The rallies were vibrant and militant. Masses of ordinary people came out to not only show solidarity with the striking workers, but to express their own anger and frustration at the war and its impact on living standards.
Secretary of the NSW Labor Council, E.J. Kavanagh was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 1 as saying: “The so-called Nationalist party are, according to themselves, the Win-the-War party. Well, I’m here to say that we, too, are the Win-the-War party, and the war we are waging is the great class war. We belong to the working classes, and we are for that class, fighting for our class alone.”
The speed with which the strike was spreading, amid scenes of mass civil defiance, terrified the government and the bosses. A clearly rattled government issued a statement on August 13 that said: “The Enemies of Britain and her Allies have succeeded in plunging Australia into a General Strike. For the time being they have crippled our country’s efforts to assist in the Great War. At the back of this strike lurk the IWW and the exponents of direct action. Without realising it, many Trade Unions have become the tools of Disloyalists and Revolutionaries ... Who is for Australia and the Allies?”
The government was most concerned about the influence of the radical International Workers of the World in the strike. In fact, the IWW had already been smashed by state repression. But many of the tactics they advocated were present, such as direct action from below and the militancy of the rank and file.
As early as August 20 the Defence Committee made a secret offer to call off the strike in exchange for a modified card system. By September 1 the leaders of the committee were involved in clandestine negotiations to end the strike, using the Lord Mayor of Sydney as an intermediary.
But the government remained immovable and eventually the Committee capitulated, officially calling off the railway strike on the government’s terms on September 8.
The workers were furious about this sell-out. It was forcefully denounced at mass meetings and many of the strikers refused to go back to work. But, without official union support the strike was doomed and the last of the railway strikers drifted back to work on September 19.
Scabs or loyalists kept their jobs. Workers who stayed out on strike became known as the “Lily Whites”. The employment records of 3000 workers were marked “not to be re-employed” or “dismissed by Proclamation”. This was despite the Railway Commissioners having agreed that “work shall be resumed without resentment and employment offered without vindictiveness”.
Stan Jones said: “As a result of his activities, my father, along with many others, were victimised and were not employed back in the railway service for a long period after the strike.
“My father went to work at the steelworks at Newcastle as a boilermaker, and he continued for quite a while to go each week to the steelworks from Redfern. That’s travel from Redfern to Newcastle, bringing home his wages at the weekend, in order to keep the family going.”
The defeat of the strike spread as rapidly as it had begun. When the railway workers returned to work the miners began to negotiate for their return. The government forced them to individually reapply for their jobs. About 350 miners were refused re-employment. One pit was operated entirely with scab labour and every pit had at least some scabs.
The waterside workers suffered the most. They had been easily replaced with scab labour and were offered their jobs back on the condition that they give up their union membership. About 2000 workers agreed to this and it was many years before the union recovered from this defeat.
Many unions were deregistered and working conditions became harsher than they were before the strike. They remained that way until 1925 when the NSW Premier Jack Lang upheld his pledge to restore strikers’ positions.
Ben Chifley, the railway man who became a Labor Prime Minister later reflected: “I should not be a Member of this Parliament today if some tolerance had been extended to the men who took part in the strike of 1917. All that harsh and oppressive treatment did, as far as I was concerned, was to transform me, with the assistance of my colleagues, from an ordinary engine driver into the Prime Minister of this country.”
During the strike, workers openly questioned the legitimacy of the ravenous capitalist war machine. The strike indicated that Australian workers were more than willing to join an international progressive movement. General strikes, troop mutinies and revolutions were sweeping the world in 1917, and events in Australia reflected the global hunger for real and substantive change.
The spontaneous rank and file militancy that was the heart of the strike in NSW and Victoria transformed the landscape of Australian history and politics. In 1918 and 1919, the radical strike movement was carried on by thousands of Australian workers. Events such as the Red Flag Riots in Brisbane revealed that governments and employer groups were unable to stamp out militant solidarity.
The defeat of the strike led to severe attacks on the union movement, which were felt for many years afterwards. Today, the Australian union movement stands at a similar crossroads. Attacks on the unions, and in particular the right of workers to withdraw their labour, are reaching a critical point.
The example of the Great Strike of 1917 should inspire us to redouble our campaign against the ABCC, to save our penalty rates, and for wage and employment justice.
[Jim McIllroy is a retired public sector unionist and a member of Socialist Alliance.]