The Great Strike of 1917 is regarded as one of the largest industrial actions in Australian history. It started in early August 1917 and extended for six weeks, against the backdrop 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 Workshops and Randwick Tramsheds went on strike in protest to ‘a new system of recording work times and output’ intended to improve worker efficiency known as the timecard system. This new way of working was seen by the workers as a ‘direct attack on collective work practises and trade union principles’ (See Lucy Taksa in Radical Sydney, pp. 136-43).

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

During the strike, middle-class men, university students and teenage schoolboys crossed the picket lines and ‘scabbed‘ – they attempted to break the strike by doing the jobs of the strikers.

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 strikebreakers at Camperdown on 31 August 1917. His murderer, whose brother was a Member of Parliament, was charged with 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 found their jobs had been downgraded. But the strike and its aftermath politicised many of those who were involved, including train driver Ben Chifley, who went on to become prime minister in 1945-49. Likewise, Joe Cahill (namesake of the Cahill Expressway) entered politics and was NSW Premier in 1952-59.

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

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