Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

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