The Great Strike of 1917

The Great Strike of 1917

Ian Bushnell gets a new perspective on industrial unrest on the railways in three new additions to Trove

The Co-operator, 11 January 1917,

A century ago, a seemingly innocuous management decision in a Sydney rail yard was to spark an industrial conflagration that would have longstanding and profound effects on the nation. 1917 was already a tumultuous year for Australia. The Great War was continuing to visit grief upon the nation on an unprecedented scale, Prime Minister Billy Hughes was preparing a second divisive tilt at conscription and, despite a labour shortage, workers’ pay packets were shrinking.

Someone only needed to light the fuse for this powderkeg to explode. That person was Chief Commissioner of the NSW Railways and Tramways Department James Fraser, who introduced a card system to record work times and output in a drive for greater efficiencies at the Eveleigh Rail Yards and Randwick Tram Sheds.

From 2 August, workers walked off the job in protest and the unrest spread throughout the railway system to other workplaces such as the coal mines and waterfront, and then to Victoria and South Australia. The Great Strike involved around 100,000 workers, mostly in NSW and Victoria, and lasted until 8 September 1917 when the official leadership capitulated—although workers beyond the railways stayed out for much longer because of the use of strikebreakers.

It had terrible consequences, with many strikers losing their jobs or being demoted when they returned to work, and then living with a black mark against them for years to come. It also saw a generation politicised, including Labor identities such as future federal MP Eddie Ward, NSW Premier J.J. Cahill and a young Ben Chifley, who, ironically, had to confront a major strike as prime minister.

The Co-Operator’s editorial of July 1916 has resonance today:

Scientific management seeks to make the task of the worker more monotonous than it ever was, to take from his work the last vestige of individuality, and to make him a mere cog in the machinery of production.

Now, the railway union’s perspective on the Great Strike can be explored in Trove, after the recent addition of The Co-operator (1910–1917), and two other Amalgamated Railway and Tramway Service Association journals The Railway and Tramway Co-operator (1909–1910) and All Grades Advocate(1917), to its digital newspaper collection. The digitisation project—a partnership between the Library and the Australian National University—was initiated after Unions NSW sought use of the newspapers for various exhibitions and research projects marking the strike’s centenary. Digitisation was considered necessary as the newspapers are too fragile for significant handling and likely to be completely unusable within five years.

According to Sarah Lethbridge, Senior Archivist at the ANU, the railway newspapers are a rich source of material from a union perspective, not just on the Great Strike but on the war, conscription debates and living conditions of the day. ‘Now that they’re digitised and available, they’ll come up in people’s searches through Trove. I think we’ll find them in use for all sorts of things,’ Ms Lethbridge said. ‘It will be interesting to see how people make use of this and interpret it as times go by.’

Ian Bushnell is a Communications Officer in the Library’s Trove team.