In 2007, the 90th anniversary of the New South Wales general strike was ignored by mainstream politicians and media sources — a silence that contrasted markedly with the extensive coverage allotted to the 90th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing in 2005.
Overseas battles of the First World War are well-remembered by Australians (albeit in rather sanitised fashion). By contrast, the labour struggle on the home front has been almost totally expunged from popular memory.
While Australians are routinely exhorted to remember the "mateship" of the "diggers", they are seldom encouraged to reflect on the solidarity displayed by working-class Australian civilians who banded together in a collective effort to resist a campaign of acute industrial oppression.
Our fitting remembrance of the 60,000 Australians who perished in the carnage of 1914-18 need not blind us to the experience of tens of thousands of workers who stood up for their hard-won rights while enduring months of severe privation and state-sponsored persecution.
By 1917, it was clear to Australian working people that the war had led not only to an unprecedented outpouring of blood, but to a drastic fall in real wages. With inflation running rampant as a result of increased commodity prices, the weekly pay packet no longer stretched to cover life's basic necessities. 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.
Severe economic hardship became a way of life for thousands of working-class families, a situation that created a backdrop of massive discontent. The catalyst for the strike was the attempted implementation of Taylorist "scientific" management methods by the NSW Department of Tramways and Railways, a move supported by the newly installed conservative state and federal governments. Unwilling to be regimented like mindless automatons, workers at the Eveleigh railway workshop voted to down tools in early August. By mid-month, more than 10,000 public transport workers were on strike, a number that soon swelled to more than 30,000.
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 disseminated a syndicalist message to which workers readily responded. Not since the 1890s had Australia experienced such a militant upsurge of industrial solidarity.
When the government began enacting punitive measures against participating unions, the strike wave gained even more momentum. Miners went out, along with wharf-labourers, coal-lumpers, seamen and marine stewards. Carters, trolley and draymen, ship painters and dockers and meatworkers were also represented. Workers in Victoria and Queensland went out in sympathy, and by October, 100,000 workers nationwide were on strike.
Strike-breakers were recruited at the behest of government and employer groups, leading to instances of bitter conflict between striking workers and "volunteer" scabs. In a military-style operation, strike-breakers were brought in from all around the state and concentrated at Taronga Zoo and the Sydney Cricket Ground (for strike veterans, SCG stood for Scabs' Collecting Ground).
Street skirmishes were common and police prosecutors proved themselves willing to turn a blind eye to serious assaults and 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. Yet 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 image of victimised, malnourished children on the home front is not usually associated with Australia's First World War experience, but there were entire working-class districts where such privation was the norm. Forced to subsist on meagre public charity, strikers and their families endured distress that was, in many cases, tantamount to starvation. Despite the hardships faced by working-class militants, however, it took four months for the government to break the strike.
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.
Sunday rallies regularly attracted more than 150,000 participants — an astonishing turnout considering that Sydney's population was less than 1.5 million. Regional centres such as Newcastle, Broken Hill, Bathurst and Maitland also experienced significant demonstrations. The political dimensions of the strike concerned many right-leaning union leaders, whose entrenched conservatism was challenged by the spontaneous militancy of the rank-and-file.
In the streets and workplaces of New South Wales and other states, demonstrators and strikers 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.
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 strikers and demonstrators of 1917-19 bequeathed a legacy of dissent from which we may draw inspiration today. Little wonder that the corporate establishment and its governmental shadow have sought to overlook the example of their defiance.