Geraldine Fela starts a Solidarity series on great strikes, with a look at the largest strike in Australian history, the 1917 general strike during the First World War
In August and September 1917 the Australian ruling class was rocked by the largest strike in Australian history.
Involving over 100,000 workers across NSW and Victoria, “The Great Strike” saw railway workers, Hunter Valley coal miners and waterside workers engaged in a spontaneous revolt against falling wages and standards of living, as well as the carnage of World War One.
Labour historian Robert Bollard has argued that, “In 1917, economic discontent intersected with a World War that was plunging ever deeper into senseless slaughter. ‘Bread and butter’ issues and ‘the big picture’ were not competing for attention, but reinforcing each other”.
The 1917 strike was called “from below”, with workers in the NSW railways walking off the job, initially without the backing of their union officials. There was enormous and widespread solidarity action.
Ultimately however, the strike lacked a strategy to deal with strike breaking and was crushed by scab labour and the capitulation of union officials.
Despite this, the 1917 general strike is rich in lessons, showing how workers can rock the foundations of capitalism and war. It shows the capacity of workers to take matters into their own hands and fight, even when their leaders lag far behind.
Origins of the strike
The origins of the general strike, seem, at first glance, to be small. The management of the railway workshops in Eveleigh and Randwick in Sydney wanted to introduce a new “card system” to monitor the work of their employees.
The card would record the task that each worker completed and the time they took to complete it. Workers were concerned this would allow “slow” or “inefficient” workers to be dismissed. Their other great concern was with the effect of the card system on union organisation.
One of the three cards in the system was the “white card”. This was to be filled out by a sub-foreman, and kept secret from those whose work it recorded.
Workers feared (rightly) that this could be used to target union militants. The system, moreover, involved the promotion of 80 workers to become sub-foremen. Workers saw that this could break union solidarity by rewarding “loyal workers”.
The card system was a draconian measure to monitor and enforce “efficiency”. In the context of Australia in 1917 it was the spark that lit a tinderbox of dissatisfaction with the economic pressures produced by the First World War.
Ordinary people were sick of wartime sacrifices and senseless slaughter. Wages were not keeping up with inflation.
In the manufacturing sector real wages fell by approximately 15 per cent between 1913 and 1918. Similarly, the “basic wage” or minimum wage fell by around 8 per cent. Alongside this, the campaign against conscription had given confidence to unionists and the Labor Party rank and file.
Importantly, they saw the card system for what it was—yet another attempt to erode pre-war conditions.
The strike began on 2 August with a spontaneous walkout by 5780 workers in the rail and tramway workshops in Sydney, Newcastle and Goulburn. Within a week there were 30,000 on strike and within a fortnight 50,000. In early September there were 69,000 workers on strike in NSW alone.
In an inspiring example of militant solidarity action, the strike quickly spread far beyond the railways. Waterfront workers and coal miners walked out in solidarity.
The coal miners went on strike pit by pit between 3 and 10 August, different groups of wharfies between 10 and 13 August and a range of engineering workplaces from 10 to 31 August.
Not only did the strike spread quickly and widely, the initiative came from the rank and file. The NSW Legislative Assembly commissioned a report on the strike in 1918, listing the workplaces involved, with the dates they walked off the job and the dates when they returned.
Significantly, the report reveals that each workplace decided to strike individually. It was this fast spreading, militant action directed from below that was the strength of the strike.
Robert Bollard has called 1917 “the most astonishing rank and file revolt in the history of Australian trade unionism”.
The Secretary of the NSW Labor Council, E.J. Kavanagh, reflected later on that, “the difficulty was not in getting men to come out, but to keep them in”.
A number of unions declared official strike action but consistently these formal declarations lagged behind the actions that workers had taken. For example, the strike began in the railways on 2 August but not “called” by the officials until 6 August.
The strike was accompanied by extraordinary, daily demonstrations in the centres of Sydney and Melbourne, reaching up to 100,000 on Sundays. They brought out masses of ordinary people to not only show solidarity with the striking workers, but to express their own anger and frustration at the war and its impact on living standards.
The rallies were vibrant and militant. At one point Adela Pankhurst (of the famous Pankhurst suffragette family) led a crowd of 20,000 to confront the police outside federal parliament in Melbourne.
These demonstrations offended the Australian middle and ruling class daily. The Sydney Morning Herald was upset when a group of women were heard hooting and swearing at scab tram drivers.
A week later a contingent of waitresses from the railway refreshment rooms joined the protests, astonishing the paper by singing “Solidarity Forever”.
The speed with which the strike was spreading alongside these scenes of mass civil defiance terrified the government and the bosses.
Workers had ground parts of the economy to a halt in a serious challenge to the authorities. They set out to smash it.
Moreover, the government was concerned about the influence of the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the strike. In fact, this was baseless because their organisation had already been smashed by state repression.
But many of the tactics they advocated were present, such as direct action from below and the militancy of the rank and file.
As early as 6 August the Farmers and Settlers’ Association and the Primary Producers’ Union were being mobilised to provide scab labour. These so called “volunteers” were made up of the middle classes: university students, teachers and older students from private schools in Sydney and Melbourne.
From 14 August the scabs’ ranks had grown so large in Sydney they had to be camped at the Sydney Cricket Ground and Taronga Zoo. On the 30 August a striking worker was shot and killed by a strikebreaker. The scab was never charged.
The strikers had an organisation of sorts to respond to this. A Defence Committee had been formed with delegates from each of the striking unions.
However, it was dominated by union officials and had no strategy to deal with the mass scabbing. This meant they could not win the strike.
The mass demonstrations could have been mobilised to boost picket lines and defend workplaces from scab labour. But the union leadership saw them only as a means of keeping up morale.
Where the committee should have organised the workers most enthusiastic about running the strike, the fact that it was made up of union officials meant that it acted as a deadweight.
As early as 20 August it made a secret offer to call off the strike in exchange for a modified card system. From 31 August the leaders of the committee were involved in covert negotiations, using the Lord Mayor of Sydney as an intermediary. The government remained immovable and the Committee capitulated, officially calling off the railway strike on the government’s terms from 10 September.
The workers met this sell-out with fury. It was vigorously denounced at a series of mass meetings and many of the strikers refused to go back. However they did not have the confidence to continue without official support, and the last of the railway strikers drifted back by 19 September.
Defeat spread rapidly. After the end of the strike in the railways the miners began to negotiate for a return to work. The government forced them to re-apply for work individually.
Around 350 workers were victimised. One pit was opened entirely with scab labour and all pits had some scabs in them.
The waterside workers suffered perhaps the worst defeat. They had been replaced almost entirely with scab labour and whilst many workers were offered their jobs back, it was on the condition that they give up union membership. Around 2000 workers agreed to this and it would be years before the union recovered.
The defeat of the 1917 general strike had lasting consequences for workers and their unions. However, the spontaneous rank and file militancy that was the heart of the strike in NSW and Victoria could have transformed the landscape of Australian history and politics.
If the strike had spread to other states and if the mass demonstrations had been mobilised to defend the pickets the strike could have continued.
At the beginning of the strike, workers had taken matters into their own hands and fought, even though their union leaders lagged behind. If they had organised to maintain rank-and-file control and keep out the scabs, they could have ground capitalism and its violent war machine to a halt.