The General Strike of 1917 is still regarded as the largest industrial unrest in Australian history. It took place from early August 1917 through to the following September, at the tail end of World War 1.

Class C3095 locomotive being cleaned by school boys at the Eveleigh Depot during the 1917 strike (State Records, Digital ID: 17420-a014-a014000570.jpg)
Class C3095 locomotive being cleaned by school boys at the Eveleigh Depot during the 1917 strike (State Records, Digital ID: 17420-a014-a014000570.jpg)

The strike began on 2 August 1917. Railway and tramway employees at Eveleigh Railway Yards and Randwick Tram Sheds went on strike in protest to ‘a new system of recording work times and output’ intended to improve worker efficiency. This was seen by the workers as a ‘direct attack on collective work practises and trade union principles’ and they went on strike (See Lucy Taksa in Radical Sydney, pp. 136-43).

Almost two thirds of the railway and tramway employees in NSW stuck; overall, around 77,350 workers across a range of industries in NSW went on strike. The strike quickly spread to other industries in NSW and later Australia-wide.

During the strike, middle-class men and teenage boys from in business or studying at exclusive enclaves like Sydney University or Sydney Grammar crossed the picket lines and scabbed – they attempted to break the strike by doing the jobs of the striking men.

Public school boys undertaking the work at the railway during the strike (State Records, Digital ID: 15309_a015_a015000009.jpg)
Public school boys undertaking the work at the railway during the strike (State Records, Digital ID: 15309_a015_a015000009.jpg)

There were ongoing tensions between the strikers and the scabs. One of the strikers, a carter called Merv Flannigan was shot through the heart during an altercation with some of the strike breakers at Camperdown on 31 August 1917. His murderer, whose brother was a Member of Parliament, was charged manslaughter, but the charges were later dismissed.

When the strike ended in September 1917, many didn’t get their jobs back. Those who were re-hired by one of Sydney’s biggest employers, the Eveleigh Railway Yards, found their jobs had been downgraded. But the strike and its aftermath politicised many who were involved, including train driver Ben Chifley, who went on to become prime minister. Likewise, Joe Cahill entered politics, was elected the premier of NSW and is the namesake of the Cahill Expressway.

Check out a film from the strike here:  http://aso.gov.au/titles/newsreels/australasian-gazette-strike

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