Interview: Staying Alive
Bad Boss: The Ultimate Piss Off
Industrial: Last Drinks
National Focus: Around the States
Politics: Radical Surgery
Education: The Price of Missing Out
Legal: If At First You Don't Succeed
History: Massive Attack
Culture: What's Right
Review: If He Should Fall
Poetry: If I Were a Rich Man
Satire: IMF Ensures Iraq Institutes Market Based Looting
The Locker Room
Bob Gould Sprays Gerard Henderson
War and Peace
A Strange Light
A Little History
Does It Have To Be?
A few weeks ago I joined around 200,000 people in Hyde Park for an anti-war rally. It was certainly the biggest demonstration I had ever attended. It reminded me of the research I had undertaken in 1983 for my honours thesis on the social protest that had accompanied the NSW General Strike of 1917, which began in early August and lasted for over six weeks. On a daily basis thousands marched in support of the strikers from Eddy Avenue at the Central Railway Station to the Sydney Domain. The biggest processions and demonstrations occurred on Sundays, when numbers grew to between 100,000 and 200,000 people. Although I had been awed by these figures when I read the contemporary newspaper accounts, it wasn't until I was surrounded by an equal number of people that I had a real inkling of what it must have been like for the strikers and their supporters.
Few people have any knowledge of the NSW General Strike of 1917, even though it was probably 'the biggest industrial upheaval ever experienced' in Australian history. This collective amnesia draws attention to the need for labour history; through labour history workers and their representatives can learn from and gain inspiration from the past. As Jack Mundy pointed out earlier today, trade union officials need to show a greater interest in our labour history. I would encourage them to do so by joining the various branches of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History.
The General Strike began after the NSW Department of Railways and Tramways introduced a new card system of recording work times and performances to the Randwick tramway workshops and the Eveleigh railway workshops on 20 July 1917. This was the second attempt to implement a version of F.W. Taylor's scientific management, a system that is best known by the phrase 'time and motion studies'. The first attempt by the Department's managers, in 1916, failed because railway and tramway unions successfully lobbied the Labor Government through their links with Labor MPs. Unionists were not so successful in 1917, after the Conscription crisis split the Labor Party and resulted in the election of conservative State and Federal governments. Without recourse to political solutions, workers turned to industrial action. Railway and tramway engineers refused to work under the card system and a joint conference of the major unions was left with little option but to formally call a strike. On 2 August, 5,780 of the Department's workers downed tools and within a week this number had grown to 10,000. Among these workers were coach-makers, railway car and wagon builders, members of the engineering unions, firemen, engine drivers and cleaners, moulders, boilermakers and electrical trade employees. By mid-August striking railway and tramway employees had been dismissed for misconduct. By this time too the strike had spread to coal-lumpers, miners, seamen, marine stewards and pantrymen, wharf labourers, carters, trolley and draymen, meat industry employees, ships painters and dockers and other employees of the Government Dockyards at Cockatoo and Garden Islands. The Operative Bakers Association, the Storeman and Packer's Union, Federated Painters and Decorators and Ferry Deckhands Union all placed themselves in the hands of the Strike Defence Committee. The Federated Millers and Mill Employees Association declared wheat and flour transported by train 'Black', the Municipal Employees Union lent both moral and financial support and the women employed in the Railway refreshment rooms and at CSR also supported the strikers. By 22 October approximately 97,500 workers had become involved. Of these, about 77,350 were located in NSW; a figure which constituted approximately 14% of the State's workforce and 33% of its registered trade union membership. Only 15,000 of the NSW Railways and Tramways Department's 48,000 employees did not strike. Geographically, the dispute extended beyond Sydney to the State's other industrial centres and it also received sympathetic support from trade unionists in Victoria and Queensland. In total four million working days were lost in NSW at a cost of 2.5 million pounds.
Throughout the strike hundreds of thousands of people marched alongside the strikers in processions that were held on a daily basis in Sydney, as well as other towns in NSW. Mass demonstrations were held at the Sydney Domain, at Centennial Park, on street corners in various inner city suburbs, at Brickwood's Corner on the South Coast, Islington Park in Newcastle, in Bathurst, Maitland and Broken Hill. This industrial action and mass protest wasn't simply because workers opposed the card system and thought that it represented the spread of a speeding up system; more importantly, they believed that the government's support for it reflected an attack on trade unionism generally. The NSW Government's actions reinforced this view. Because of the extensive support for the strike and the pressure that was imposed in working class communities to maintain solidarity, in the second week of August the NSW government enlisted help from the Farmers' and Settlers' Association and the Primary Producers' Union to bring strike-breakers to Sydney. These people were provided temporary accommodation at camps established at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Taronga Park Zoo and the Eveleigh railway workshops. In mid-August it amended The Coal Mines Regulation Act to enable the introduction of 'volunteer' labour, strike leaders were arrested and striking railway and tramway employees were dismissed for misconduct. From 20 August the deregistration of striking unions became a daily affair and on 24 August the Acting Premier announced that the government would no longer negotiate with individuals or unions acting on behalf of the strikers. Such actions led to more protests and demonstrations. The ranks of the strikers also swelled.
Many people were radicalised by these events. The lives of many workers and unionists were severely disrupted. The deregistration of unions presented a massive defeat for the labour movement. Yet from these ashes, new strategies were born. Later, when Labor was re-elected in 1920 unions were re-registered. It was in this context that the ARU was formed. A few years later, Jock Garden succeeded in promoting the shop committee movement after returning from Red Clydeside. The first rank-and-file shop committee was formed at the Eveleigh railway workshops. The strike also provided a salient lesson for those who were sacked for their involvement. Some of these labour movement activists later became extremely prominent Labor politicians. Included among them were J.B. Chifley, Eddie Ward and J.J. Cahill, to mention just a few.
Much ink has been spilt on these well-known figures. Instead of focusing on them I want to introduce you to some of the less well-known workers who took action to oppose the attack on their industrial and social conditions that took place in 1917. I want to expose the way they protested against the use of scab labour, and also the way the authorities reacted to their actions.
On 8 August Robert William Forster aged 44 pleaded guilty at Newtown Police Court to a charge of attempting to prevent a tramway officer from working at the Enmore Terminus and Bernard Gleeson was convicted of breaking a window of a tram and of assaulting its conductor at Marrickville. Horace Hoyle, aged 18 was charged with behaving in a riotous manner in Liverpool Street on 7 August. He had been part of a crowd of about four hundred that had followed Sergeant McBride and the prisoner he escorted from Goulburn Street, near Trades Hall. Meanwhile, Edward Webb, a mail assistant with the Postmaster General aged 31, pleaded guilty to having used obscene language, while loading mail into a wagon at Sydney Railway Station. Shortly after he had completed the job at 8pm Webb was heard saying to a crowd of strikebreaking workers: 'If I had my way I would bomb every man who assisted the Commissioners against the strikers'. Similarly, Phillip Hogan, aged 33, was charged with having threatened violence to Arthur John Hubert with the intent of preventing him following his lawful occupation. Hubert was working in the mail rooms at Central Station when Hogan allegedly approached him saying: 'You mongrel! Talk about scabs ! We'll find out now who the scabs are'. Hubert not only put his docket in, but he also refrained from appearing at work again.
The Acting Premier responded to all this by saying that he was astounded by the effect that the indiscriminate use of epithets like 'scab' and 'blackleg' were having on unionists of NSW. In response the Worker replied: 'There is no such indiscriminate use of the words he denounces. On the contrary, they are applied with keen discrimination'. As one woman told thousands gathered at the Domain: 'It is a staggering blow for a man to be called a "scab". It means ostracism for him and very often his wife and children too, and that in a working class community is a hard thing to face'.
Such action was not limited to locals. On 18 August several thousand people gathered outside the strike breakers' camp at the Sydney Cricket Ground, where they 'boo-hooed', hooted and threw blue metal at the 'volunteers' inside until they were dispersed by mounted police. In the city strikebreaking tram drivers were called scabs and 'mongrels' on different occasions by John Lucy, Mary Francis and Amie Calderwood (wife of a Wharf Labourers' Union official). Roy Darcy and John Martin Collins did the same in Glebe while George William Albert Moody used offensive language against 'free' labourers working near Pyrmont Bridge. The Government's policy of enlisting strike breakers hardened the view that its aim was to 'smash trades unionism'.
The deregistration of all unions involved in the strike from 20 August and the Government's policy of distributing revolvers among some of the strike breakers increased working class hostility. Jane Taylor, an elderly Glebe resident was charged for using insulting words against Constable Dobie. She was, it was alleged, the leader of a gang of women who went to the local stables to harass 'volunteers'. She was not a lone trouble maker. A number of women were later charged for having thrown acid at a 'loyalist' on Glebe Island Bridge, while he was driving strike-breakers back to the Cricket Ground. But perhaps the biggest outrage was the killing of a striking carter - one Mervyn Ambrose Flanagan - on 30 August, opposite Camperdown Children's Hospital in Bridge Road. Merv was murdered at around 5pm by Reginald James Wearne from Bingara.
At 4.45, allegedly in response to abuse being yelled by Merv and his fellow strikers carters, Reginald James Wearne, a strike-breaking carter, raised his revolver against the group. Merv was shot through the heart. His comrade, Henry Williams, was hit in the leg. Wearne, brother of the conservative NSW Member of Parliament for the rural seat of Namoi, was charged with felonious slaying and manslaughter. The former charge was dropped and he was never tried on the latter. By contrast, Merv's brother James Everard Flanagan and their mate Henry Williams were charged and convicted of having used violence to prevent Wearne from following his lawful occupation. Both men were sent to gaol for three months.
On Saturday 1 September 1917 thousands of unionists marched from Trades Hall to the Mortuary Station on the border of Redfern and Chippendale as part of Merv's funeral procession, which stretched for over a mile and held up traffic for one hour. One eye witness, seeing the sorrowing wife, the dead man's four sons aged between two and eleven, and the unionists, was moved to remark on 'the tragedy of despotism now sweeping over our fair land gathering its victims one by one'. How apt a statement for the present.
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