From Amalia Wallace SEARCH Foundation
Search members joined hundreds of trade unionists and labour movement activists at a commemorative dinner at the Eveleigh railway yards on Wednesday night in Sydney, to celebrate the Great Strike of 1917. The evening was also one of many fundraisers to support the completion of a documentary that will tell the story of the Strike using film footage from the time.
The 1917 Great Strike
The Great Strike was unprecedented in Australia. It was a mass uprising against management attempts to impose a “card” system, to monitor and drive workers to perform at an increasingly mechanised pace. As part of the new workplace systems, foremen began watching over workers, counting the time it took them to do certain tasks. Workers believed the new system was turning them into machines, de-skilling them and destroying their collective bonds.
This imposition of “Taylorism” by railway management was the last straw for rank and file workers, who already worked in noisy, dirty, and dangerous workplaces, in an environment of unjust and arbitrary treatment, falling wages and deteriorating conditions. The strike commenced in the Eveleigh and Randwick workshops, but such was the outrage of workers that it spread quickly around the state.
Thousands of workers from other unions joined in solidarity and refused to handle goods and materials produced by scab labour. Very quickly, tens of thousands of brave men and women around the state and eventually around the country joined the conflict.
Alex Claassens introduced the evening and spoke of the challenges and legacy of the Strike. Alex, as NSW Branch Secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union, fully understands the challenges of rail workers then and now. Read here
He stated, “the story of the Great Strike is central to the story of Australian trade unionism. You cannot fully understand the nature of the labour movement, how it is structured, how it operates, its guiding principles, unless you understand the story of 1917”.
Sally McManus, Secretary of the ACTU, spoke on the events of the Great Strike in relation to contemporary industrial challenges and the current struggle to achieve economic justice within a legal system which imposes huge fines on workers and unions who strike.
John Graham, MLC, told of the strikers who went on to play significant leadership roles in the Australian Labor Party, and the fundamental influence the Strike had on the development of the NSW ALP. Mark Morey, Secretary of Unions NSW, discussed the lessons of the Strike and it’s impact on the development of the union movement in NSW.
In 1917, the backlash from the state was savage, many strikers never worked again, and one young striker, Merv Flanagan, a member of the Trolley Draymen and Carter’s Union, was murdered. His death left a young widow and a large family without the support of their breadwinner. Merv’s granddaughter Sandra Williams, and his great granddaughter Natalie were honoured guests on Wednesday night.
SEARCH members also sat in the audience for a Late Night Life discussion panel on The Great Strike. Panel members were Professor Lucy Taksa, Macquarie University; Sally McManus, Secretary of the ACTU; John Graham, MLC for the ALP; and Dr Jim Stanford; of the Australia Institute. You can listen to the discussion here:
The relevance of the Great Strike today
The Great Strike of 1917 is still relevant today. The dispute was about the impact of worker monitoring, technology and new forms of work organisation. Today, technology is still changing the way we work. After three decades of neoliberalism, the rich still have too much power and the minimum wage no longer keeps people out of poverty. Penalty rates cuts reward exploiters at the expense of working people.
Recently, Paul Dales of Capital Economics said that the share of national income going to Australian households is close to a 50-year low, that Australian households have not seen “one cent” of the extra income generated by recent soaring commodity prices.
Policies of rampant privatisation, deregulation, tax cuts and free trade deals have liberated corporations to accumulate enormous profits. Conservative governments are capitalist for the few and feudalise the many. At the very moment when climate change demands an unprecedented collective public response, big business stands in the way.
Australia’s workers need to campaign hard on the issue of inequality, and to reclaim workplace rules to repair the damage to workers caused by toxic workplace relations laws. A political debate about inequality needs to transition quickly to address the stranglehold big business has on workers and the environment.
1917: The Great Strike exhibition
1917: The Great Strike exhibition continues daily until 27 August at Carriageworks. There are guided tours of the exhibition at 11am every Saturday to 26 August. On Saturday 5 August, The Great Strike Community Day commemorates the centenary of this important historical moment and explores its contemporary resonances through artist talks, panel discussions, performances and workshops at Carriageworks.
While visiting Carriageworks for the exhibition, it is impossible not to think of our comrade Brian Dunnett, a second generation railway worker, who died last year at the age of 81. Brian was one of several SEARCH members who were involved in the early stages of planning the commemorative events for the Great Strike.
Brian was the son of a railway worker. A political and trade union activist for well over 50 years, from his early working life at the Chullora Railway Workshops, where he was a shop steward for the Electrical Trades Union, and later at the Eveleigh Workshops. He was a leading member of the Eureka Youth League in the 1950s-60s and for more than 30 years, a member of the Communist Party of Australia. He participated in the SEARCH Foundation from its formation.
Brian played a significant role in preserving the historical, political and cultural heritage of railway workers in Australia. You can read more about Brian’s contributions here:
SEARCH National Forum registrations that are coming in, and please ring the office if you have any questions about travel, billets or subsidies, or if you can help with accommodation for the forum. Please ring Aidan or me at the office on (02) 96984918, if you have any questions, we’ll be happy to help.