132. The Great Strike, August 1917

Throughout August 1917, a series of strikes spread along the eastern seaboard. The initial strike involved railway workshop employees in Sydney who went out over attempts to introduce a US style card system, based on Taylorism, intended to speed up work. This first action was on 2 August. However, virtually from the very next day, strike action began to spread to an ever increasing range of industries. In NSW, the strike spread across the railways, collieries and then the wharves. Initially, it took in the full range of workers in the railways, and then miners, wharf labourers and seamen. By mid August, strike action spread to Victoria where the key workers involved were the wharf labourers and seamen. On a lesser scale, other industries and specific enterprises became involved and the unrest spread to other centres including Broken Hill. All the various actions are usually described, collectively, as the ‘Great Strike’ of 1917.

The end to the NSW railway strike on 9 September is taken as the end of the Great Strike, even though some workers continued their action for some time after. For example, the Melbourne wharf workers did not vote to return until 4 December.

The Great Strike of 1917 was a conflict that went beyond industrial action, as large scale as this was. It is possible to see it more as a wider working-class revolt than a series of strikes. Certainly by 1917 there was considerable disaffection in the working class. There was ‘war weariness’ but the War had also eroded real wages. Price rises had been extreme. There was also war profiteering. Above all, there was widespread concern that hard-won, pre-War industrial conditions were being eroded under the cover of patriotism. Opposition to the Yes vote in the recent conscription referendum had been strengthened by the fear that conscription was to be used to weaken organised labour. As pointed out in Post 105 even soldiers on the front line shared this concern that conscription would be used to undermine the working conditions and job security of Australian workers. The sense that the hard-won industrial conditions of the (white) working class were under attack was very strong.

Another interesting feature of the Great Strike was the degree to which the traditional power brokers in organised labor – the union hierarchy and the ALP itself, as the political wing of the movement – were by-passed by more rank-and-file leadership and agitation. The organisation was entrusted to an ad hoc ‘Defence Committee’. Also, in many instances the traditional power brokers were opposed to the specifics of the industrial action. In several key instances, unions voted to strike, against the advice of the union leadership.

Importantly, the industrial unrest was not restricted to just the act of striking. There were very large public demonstrations and marches – portrayed as unruly, mob-like and dangerous by the popular press – in Melbourne and Sydney. The role of women in these highly visible activities was striking. In Melbourne through August there were almost daily demonstrations in locations such as Treasury Gardens, Exhibition Gardens and Yarra Bank. Extra police were brought in from rural areas to maintain public order. To some extent, the month long strife was more an expression of the ‘direct action’ promoted by radical worker groups like the IWW than the conventional strike. Not surprisingly, the press was keen to push the claim that this radicalisation of the workers was the handiwork of the IWW and other extremist labor or socialist groups. There was speculation that the massive social dislocation in Russia could even play out in some form in Australia.

Another important feature of the action was the so-called ‘black doctrine’. According to this doctrine, no unionist could work alongside a ’scab’ worker or handle or have anything to do with goods or services provided by scab labour. The speed with which this doctrine prompted other unions to strike and the way it acted as a rallying call – often against the direct advice of the union hierarchy – suggests that the ever-expanding wave of strikes represented not just specific industrial grievances but also a declaration about the fundamental beliefs of the union movement. Specifically, the focus was on the very definition of the union notion of ‘mateship’. This ties in with the argument that after 3 years of War, and ongoing attacks on the union movement, the working class itself pushed back with the equivalent of a public manifesto of what it stood for and what it would never tolerate.

Ironically, the ‘black doctrine’ was arguably the main reason for the failure of the Great Strike. Essentially it meant that the strikes went too wide, too quick and too shallow. While many industries across state boundaries became involved very quickly there were important segments in these industries, and other whole sectors of the economy, where production and business continued unaffected. From the beginning, union organisers had sensed the inherent weakness of the campaign but, it appears, workers generally were not in the mood to listen to their leadership. Indeed, even when the various strikes collapsed and the workers were forced back under very punitive conditions, many workers believed, unrealistically, that they had been on the point of victory and saw the return to work as a ‘sell-out’. This sense of betrayal was heightened by the severity of the conditions surrounding their return to work; and in many cases they were never taken back.

In a real sense the Hughes Government was always going to win. To begin with, after the split over conscription, the ALP was in a weak position. Further, it was clear that the union movement itself was divided over the strikes. Also, the popular press lined up behind the government. The government also had the very powerful War Precautions legislation to employ as required. Finally, Hughes set up the National Service Bureau which in effect recruited volunteers to act as strike breakers. The large number of such volunteers and the efficient organisation of the scheme were enough to break the strike.

When the strikes collapsed, the workers, if they were re-employed at all, had to accept reduced conditions. In many cases their positions were taken by those who had volunteered for Hughes’ scheme of ‘national service’. The strikers were defeated and a brief period of working-class solidarity and direct action, built round idealistic notions of ‘industrial mateship’, came to a bitter end. At the same time, the victory against the strikers virtually made it inevitable that any second vote on conscription would fail. Arguments that conscription was by its very nature an attack on the working class designed to break the unions and reduce wages and working conditions – as well as open the country to cheap non-White labour – were obviously set to have more appeal. Equally, those who argued that the War was nothing but a sordid trade war were going to attract considerably more attention. For many, the War was turning into a war on the Australian working class.

It is interesting to consider the attention that the strikes over August attracted in the local media in the Shire of Alberton. Overall, the ongoing, daily accounts of the strikes were left to the metropolitan dailies. At the same time, the Gippsland Standard and Alberon Shire Representative did highlight how serious the national situation was. The following appeared on 17/8/17:

Industrial Australia is now engaged in the greatest upheaval known in the nation. Emanating from the strike of the railway men in New South Wales it has extended in the past few days to numerous industries in which labor is concerned, and present indications are that serious trouble will ensue before a settlement is effected. The Federal Government is taking a firm stand in the matter, and appears determined to fight the Unions and those who have attempted to disturb and upset railway and shipping facilities. Gradually the strike mania is being extended by the originators to centres of industry which, prior to the outbreak, had no cause for complaint, but are drawn into the trouble by the influence of their fellow workers.

As usual, the local paper lined up behind the Hughes Government. It was keen to support the call for volunteers to break the strikes. There was not as much call in Victoria for volunteers from the country as there was in NSW. In Melbourne there were ample volunteers from the metropolitan area, including students from the University of Melbourne and private boys’ colleges. The following appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberon Shire Representative on 24/8/17:

The Government is now receiving offers from country volunteers, and many have taken up the work in Sydney. An individual, a former sailor, walked into our offices [Yarram] yesterday and offered to go and help the Government wherever his services might be of any assistance. We believe a number of others have volunteered from this district.

The paper also reported on the Shire Council’s resolve to support the Government. The following resolution appeared on 31/8/17:

That this Council grant all possible assistance to the Government in the matter of providing labor during present strikes and that the [Shire] secretary be instructed to accept applications from volunteers.

And on 29/8/17 it noted the strong support from at least one local branch of the Victorian Farmers’ Union:

Alberton branch of Victorian Farmers’ Union … resolved that, in the event of it [strikes] becoming more serious, the Alberton branch pledged itself to endeavor to obtain volunteer workers to assist the Government.

The paper also reported (24/8/17) when the local police constable was called to Melbourne … to do duty should trouble arise.

The following article appeared on 29/8/17:

Serious Extension of the Strike Trouble to Womerah. Ferns Declared “Black” – “Trouble never comes alone” was demonstrated at the office of a leading grazier in this district last week. The overseer was waited upon by a deputation of three at “Smoko” requesting a substantial increase in wages, or ferns would be declared “black.” The increase was at once acceded to, pending official confirmation. The official presented the objects of the deputation under threat of dismissal. The strike was of short duration, extending from forenoon “Smoko” on Friday, 17th and terminating on Saturday, 18th when at 5 p.m. the spokesman was dismissed, and one of his senior colleagues resenting such treatment left in sympathy. The dismissed agitator when last seen, was making his way toward Morwell Shire seeking ”White Ferns” and “Pastures New.” We are pleased to state that the strike is ended, as it was causing much concern amongst local employers. The call for volunteer labor was quickly answered by one recruit, who has accepted the agitator’s place without the right of spokesman.

Presumably the article is meant to be a parody – albeit a very clumsy one – of the situation in Melbourne and Sydney. Country employers know how to handle unionists. There does not have to be any workplace bargaining, the boss just gets rid of those who cause ‘trouble’. And there are plenty of other workers who will take up the positions of those dismissed.

The article does at least serve to remind that organised labour was very weak in country areas. This was particularly so in areas like the Shire of Alberton, where the nature of settlement and ongoing development had meant that there was little, if any, history of organised labor. With the exception of the timber industry and state-wide industries like the railways, there was no large concentration of workers in the one economic activity or location. Instead, the stronger history of labour in the Shire was that of the struggling selector and the family-based farm.

The history of selection was one characterised by the lack of capital, equipment, technology, and services, including transport. There were major environmental challenges – drought, flood, fire – and the endless struggle to ‘clear the land’. In this  world, the sense of ‘labour’ was the diametric opposite to that which had grown up in the late 19C in the large urban centres of Melbourne and Sydney. In the rural setting, the focus took in, on the one hand, self-help and rugged individualism, with the family as the basic economic unit, and on the other hand a commitment to a form of agrarian communalism. Only by coming together at this second level were ‘settlers’ able to establish schools, community halls and services such as the bush nurse. Their understanding of ‘mateship’ was one of looking out for their own interests and being self-reliant but at the same time supporting the neighbouring farms in times of crisis or against common threats. Local farming families had to rely on each other to establish the necessary social, economic and even political infrastructure for the community survive.

Not surprisingly, in this environment there was an inherent fear of and antagonism to the idea of ‘organised labour’ and the threat of the strike. Moreover, even when casual labour was taken on – for example, the large number of young, single, immigrant English farm workers – the nature of the work, the isolation of the workplace and the living arrangements of the workers – commonly they lived on the farmer’s property – meant that there was a completely different master-worker relationship to the one that existed in the metropolitan factory.

For a more detailed analysis of prevailing attitudes to the unionisation of rural workers in the local area see Post 10.

One industrial action that caused great angst in the rural community was the strike on the railways or at the ports that held up the transport and/or export of their primary produce. It was unconscionable that their livelihood could be threatened by secondary industrial action that had nothing to do with them. They saw their interests exploited by organised labour in an industrial conflict that was not of their making. The appeal in August 1917 to go tho the city and stand in as volunteer wharf labourers was a very powerful and natural call to arms in farming communities.

It is also important to acknowledge that the rural communities also viewed the Great Strike as a direct threat to the War effort. As they saw it, the union movement was undermining the nation’s ability to prosecute the War. At the very least, the series of strikes was a major distraction and drag on the Hughes’ Government’s ability to proceed with its singular focus on maintaining Australia’s commitment to the Empire. At their worst, according to the official narrative, the strikes were intended to cripple the Hughes’ Government and pull Australia out of the War. The strikes were overlaid with accusations of treachery, if not treason. The hand of the mythically powerful and omnipresent Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was said to be behind it all. For its part, the Government was keen to retaliate by employing the considerable force of the War Precautions Act to defeat the strikes.

Even though they have faded from the nation’s memory, the events of August 1917 in Australia were highly significant at the time. The speed with which the strikes spread and the number of industries affected caused considerable anxiety. With only limited support from the union hierarchy – and even less from the demoralised and broken ALP – the workers themselves fashioned the strikes into the radical defence of their hard-won conditions and the commitment to fundamental union principles and values. The strikes were symptomatic of deep and divisive concerns about the true cost of the War and the future of the working class. The strikes became an expression of class solidarity and class conflict. But the strikes were also destined to fail and the Hughes Government was keen to settle scores. For all these reasons the “Great Strike’ of August 1917 was a unique chapter in our history. And at the time, the events of August virtually guaranteed that any second referendum on conscription would be defeated. As the workers saw it, the impact of the War was now being carried disproportionately by the urban working class.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberon Shire Representative

For general background on the Great Strike see:

Beaumont, J 2013, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW. [pp 329-335]

Bollard, R 2013, In the Shadow of Gallipoli: The hidden history of Australia in World War I, New South Publishing, UNSW, Sydney NSW [Chapter 6]

 

 

 

 

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