1917: The Great Strike Carriageworks, Sydney. Until August 27
In August 1917, workers in the workshops at the Eveleigh Rail Yards — the site today of Carriageworks — went on strike to protest against the introduction of a new timecard system that was meant to improve productivity by recording how long it took men to complete tasks. Thousands in the rail transport system stopped work, and they were soon joined by thousands more in other industries, such as shipping.
It became the biggest strike in Australia’s history, causing immense disruption before finally collapsing after about six weeks, in the middle of September. Although relatively shortlived and unsuccessful, and not widely remembered today, the strike did have significant consequences for all those involved.
It was probably not very intelligent of the NSW transport authorities to try to increase work discipline and productivity at the time. The nation was exhausted and stressed by the already long years of World War I and the dreadful losses of life, while at home the wages of the working class had declined in real terms during the war years, and the first campaign to introduce conscription to provide yet more soldiers for the conflict had just failed.
On the other hand, 1917 was not good timing for a strike either. It was hard to expect the population at large to feel a lot of sympathy for a railway worker whose shifts were being tightened up when he could still go back to dinner with his family and a warm bed every night, unlike the young men who were dying in filthy trenches on the Western Front day after day.
Consequently it was easy to present the strikers as unpatriotic, to say the least. Thousands of volunteers from the country came to Sydney to help load and unload ships, keep a partial transport system working and maintain other essential services. There are press photos of them arriving in Sydney, setting up camp in places such as the Sydney Cricket Ground and Taronga Park, and lunching in shifts at the railyards. They were joined by university students and even schoolboys.
Naturally the unions called these workers scabs, but to others they were simply patriots doing their bit and supporting the men at the front. One old countryman interviewed in the oral histories that can be listened to in the exhibition laughed that he and his mates could load a ship in three days instead of the five the wharfies took.
Meanwhile there were almost daily marches through the city, with defiant speeches and music and singing. These caused enormous inconvenience and interruption to traffic, but the authorities wisely let them run their course, since they allowed the strikers to vent their feelings in an ultimately harmless way, while attempts at repression would have led to needless confrontations and possibly violence.
On the whole, the strike appears to have been reasonably well managed on both sides, with the exception of a couple of shootings (one of a striker, one of a strikebreaker), which will be mentioned later. Both sides seemed to accept there was a right to strike and to demonstrate, but also that these activities took place within the rule of law and that when the strike eventually failed men would go back to work.
This was even more remarkable when we consider what else was happening in 1917. For this was the year when the tsar was overthrown by the February Revolution, after the catastrophic losses of the Russian army; the provisional government that followed was violently overthrown by the Bolsheviks in what is known as the October Revolution in the same year, although these dates are in the old Julian calendar, and the two revolutions actually took place in March and November in our calendar.
Both events, and their timing, are significant: the overthrow of the tsar in March must have encouraged the left and therefore contributed to the unions’ willingness to undertake the strike in August. But the strike collapsed before the Bolshevik revolution, which could have radicalised attitudes on both sides: the rhetoric of unionists and politicians, and even the character of mass demonstrations, no doubt would have been different and more antagonistic after the Bolshevik coup.
The families of the strikers suffered heavily, struggling to survive for six weeks without pay, and there are many photographs of their wives collecting emergency supplies from relief
A still from AC Tinsdale’s film The Great Strike (1917) showing a street procession on Sydney’s College Street; historic banners, below left; Will French’s Sign of the Times