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Issue #1802      November 8, 2017

Lessons from the 1917 Strike

One hundred years ago, the greatest social unrest in the world was that happening in Russia with the revolution taking place there, but there was also unrest on home shores. The First World War had wreaked havoc on Australian society with more than 1% of the total population dying in that war – “the war to end all wars”.

Eveleigh Workshops during the 1917 railway strike.

Once again the working class provided the “cannon fodder” being sent to the trenches and, by 1917, people were seeing through the lies and, in many cases, mourning the loss of their menfolk in what was proving to be a war of attrition. Other issues came into play which fed the general discontent, such as wages plummeting by 30% and the savage defeat of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 that would have seriously impacted on Irish/Australian sentiment, as 20% of the Australian population at the time were Irish Catholics.

The mood of disquiet amongst the general population might explain why a relatively obscure workplace dispute over the introduction of time cards to monitor the work of skilled workers in the Eveleigh and Randwick railway workshops was capable of provoking the huge show of solidarity that produced, at its height, 100,000 striking workers. After the stringencies caused by the war, mutiny was in the air and what began as a ripple of discontent ended in a tsunami, with coal miners, wharfies and seamen, together with carters and drivers on the waterfronts of Sydney and Melbourne. Then the Broken Hill miners followed when their union representatives were unfairly arrested.

Because the war was still being waged, it was deemed acceptable to provide “scab” labour as one’s patriotic duty and this, together with the fact that the strikers lacked leadership, weakened the strike action. The strike had been unofficial and spontaneous, lacking proper union leadership and after a month of strike action workers went back. However, for a long time afterwards there was a great deal of hostility between strikers and scabs. On the Fremantle wharfs the situation turned very nasty when wharfies and returning soldiers faced 800 bayonet-wielding police. Fortunately a returning troopship arrived and offered armed assistance to the wharfies forcing the police to retreat.

Could this happen in Australia today? Circumstances are arising that have similarities. Because capitalism is currently in a downturn of its “boom and bust” cycles, the clarions of war are sounding loud and clear. Starting wars has always been the way to boost the coffers of capitalism. Wars mean armament production and offer ways of exploiting other countries. The problem now is that countries – like North Korea – have nuclear warheads and are capable of retaliation so the next time might be the last time. Closer to home is the continuing war on wages and exploitation of the working class and we may be approaching a time where people are no longer prepared to accept their conditions. Hence the current union-bashing by governments concerned that people might begin to organise themselves.

The Great Strike was the result of capitalist forces producing circumstances that people were no longer prepared to accept. The demoralising war combined with the living standards of the working class falling well below the poverty line, helped strengthen the workers’ resolve for militancy and revolutionary politics. Even though the strike failed, the people’s action gave them back their self-respect, which proved it’s always better to fight and lose than not fight at all.

Next article – Failure on Constitutional Recognition

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