1917 Strike

Greg Patmore

There was also an undercurrent which obviously worried a lot of workers. Now at the outbreak of the war a number of the wages boards in NSW, which determined arbitration awards and increased their wages, put a freeze on wages and conditions. The freezes generally were lifted in early 1915 for the private sector, but the railways, they still held these wage freezes right for about halfway through the middle of 1915. Railway workers were beginning to get a little bit more cynical about the war effort. Other things too that should be noted was that management attempted to introduce a lot of labour saving devices, to try and cut costs, because railways unfortunately had gone to a bit of a deficit. The real climax of all these tensions is the 1917 General Strike, which initially started up over the question of the introduction of card systems, which are basically systems introduced by management to record how much work everybody was doing. The reason they wanted to do that, was to find out where the problems were and discipline the workers who weren't keeping up to scratch.

Lucy Taksa

Immediately, I think a few days after the strike was called, thousands of people gathered in Goulburn Street around Trades Hall. Around Daking House there were picket committees, Bowens Buildings, which were in Regent Street, Redfern. People organised to help support the people on strike.

Stan Jones secretary Eveleigh Branch, ARU, Eveleigh Loco Workshops

My grandfather, father, uncles worked in the Eveleigh Workshops and my father was very active during the period of the strike and I went with him at times to the picket line. I was only nine years of age, but I had a personal understanding of that strike, which may not have been completely that of the workers involved in it, but from the point of view of my age was I considered that winning the strike was going to provide a great benefit to us.

Lucy Taksa

There seems to me to have been a massive amount of opposition in the community against those that stayed at work and in fact a lot of them were pressured to leave. The government threatened the prospect of recruiting volunteer labour, and advised the leading centres in the country of this intention, and immediately the Farmers and Settlers Association and the Primary Producers Union began to organise volunteers.

Poem: The New Exhibits by R.J. Cassidy (1917) "The Worker" Journal of the Australian Workers Union. Just prior to the 1917 strike, the Railway Construction Workers Union merged with the AWU.

Recited by Denis Kevans

A portion of Taronga Park where the new Sydney Zoo is has been set apart for the volunteers who are down from the country to endeavour to break the strike 1917.

Say what are these exhibits called, the monkey asked her mate,
Those bipeds that the keeper has admitted through the gate,
A longing undeniable the problem to discuss
Have I Oh tell me what they are, who come to live with us

Your question is a poser, and my answer's Humpty Doo,
For I likewise am puzzled much, said monkey Number two.
Then went the Ape inquisitive, behind a pile of rocks,
And put her question to a seer, to wit the ancient fox.

Oh Mr. Fox the monkey asked, I come to learn from you,
Particulars concerning those new tenants at the zoo,
The fox he wunk a knowing wink, peculiarly a seer's,
Oh they, he said, are what are called, the rural volunteers.

Lucy Taksa

A great deal was made about the issue of patriotism, by the government. Again it's important to see the strike in the context of the war, and the anti-conscription movement. So, what's very important, is that the soldiers themselves, in France in particular, voted on block against conscription.

Poem: Anon.
Recited by John Dengate

Tramp, tramp, tramp, can't you hear the marching feet,
As the sturdy sons of labour come swinging down the street.
With manly step and bearing and faces shining bright,
They have taken up the gauntlet in the battle for the right.
In the van are labour's heroes who have fought and shed their blood,
To save our daunted freedom being trampled in the mud.
They can hear their comrades calling from far across the sea,
As we fight in France for freedom, fight to keep our homeland free.
But our blood was spilt for nothing and our sacrifice in vain,
If our own dear Australia, is bound by serfdom's chain.

Stan Jones

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 to each week ... to go 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.

Greg Patmore

Now in the wake of the strike, the employers began a major ... what I call employers' offensive, to reconstruct the whole railway labour relations. Besides weeding out troublesome workers and the trade unions, who were involved in the 1917 strike, they began a massive increase in welfareism. Railway Institutes were expanded into country areas, again this idea, philosophy of welfareism seems very important.

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