Great Strike 1917 exhibition launched

July 21, 2017
The Sydney Domain during the Great Strike of 1917.

Some 150 people gathered at Carriageworks in Redfern on July 17 to launch an exhibition marking the centenary of one of the largest industrial confrontations in Australia’s history.

1917: The Great Strike is a commemorative exhibition featuring archival images, moving footage, oral history excerpts and commissioned artworks depicting this landmark struggle. It is a joint effort by Carriageworks and the City of Sydney, in partnership with the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) and will run until August 27.

Labour history professor Lucy Taska, Australian Manufacturing Workers Union state secretary Tim Ayres and Lisa Carruthers from Unions NSW were among the speakers.

The 1917 Great Strike took place at a time of deep social and political conflict in Australia and internationally. The immediate context included Australia’s involvement in the bloodbath of World War I, deep divisions around the defeat of the second referendum on conscription, and falling wages and rising prices as opposition to the war mounted.

The 1917 strike, which spread nationally, lasted just over six weeks, but its effects were felt in the labour movement for years after, establishing a tradition of class struggle based at the Eveleigh Railway Workshops for many decades. A number of the strikers went on to become Labor politicians, including Prime Minister Ben Chifley, NSW Premier Joe Cahill and federal Labor MP Eddie Ward.

The strike began in August 1917 when workers at Eveleigh and the Randwick tramsheds walked off the job to protest against the new “card” system of workplace control, imposed under wartime conditions of speed-up and Taylorist time-management.

Almost 6000 rail and tramway workers struck on August 2 in protest at the new management system. The strike soon spread to other industries and towns with 77,000 striking in NSW and around 100,000 involved nationally.

During the strike there were regular large-scale marches along Sydney's main thoroughfares and mass meetings in the Domain, attracting thousands of men, women and children each weekend — and more than 100,000 on a number of occasions.

Despite the militancy of the strikers and the popular support for the workers from the wider community of NSW, the strike was eventually defeated. It ended in September 1917, although some sections of industry remained out longer.

In the aftermath, union militants were victimised, sacked and blacklisted. Most of the 22 unions involved in the strike were deregistered in NSW, and it was many years before they were able to win back their industrial rights.

But the Great Strike left a legacy of class struggle that bore fruit in later years. Its lessons need to be studied by the union movement today, as it faces new attacks and challenges.

As Ayres told the crowd: “In part to honour the struggle of those workers 100 years ago, we should commit ourselves to win back the union movement's right to strike again.”

[The exhibtion is at the Carriageworks until August 27.]

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