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My Union Right or Wrong.
A history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union 1900-1932
By Issy Wyner


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Appendix 7: The New South Wales General Strike in 1917

The general strike in 1917 was the most serious that the labor movement had experienced since the 1890s. Its cause was plain: the Government had decided to introduce a system of checking workers on their jobs in order to determine where work could be speeded-up. The system chosen, the American system devised by Taylor, required men to keep a record of all their movements during their work-time. It was generally referred to as the "card system". Holman, as Premier, had promised that the system would not be introduced, but once he was out of the A.L.P. over the conscription issue, his anti-Labor Government apparently considered it was free of any undertakings to the unions.

The workers at Eveleigh and Randwick struck on 2nd August, 1917. Other sections of the railways and tramways followed quickly. Holman's Government was equally quick to respond, through its Chief Secretary (Fuller). He demanded an immediate return to work or be regarded as dismissed, losing all their privileges; at the same time he promised great gains to any worker remaining loyal to the Government. Soon many unions called their members out in support of the rail unions. G.V.Childe relates what occurred, in his How Labor Governs, (pp.153-4, 1964)

Rail-borne goods were now regarded as "black" and few unionists cared to handle them. The wharf labourers knocked off on the 9th, and the same day the coke-workers at Port Kembla refused to handle rail-borne coal.... A number of carters and other transport employees on their own account began to boycott the railways. Soon, too, the boilermakers and other engineering unions working at the Commonwealth Naval Dockyard refused to use the electric current because it was generated by the Railway Department, and so walked out. On the other hand, a certain number of the original strikers on the railways, especially in the traffic branch, returned to work on the 10th in compliance with the Government ultimatum, while the authorities scoured the country for scabs to fill the vacancies.

On Saturday the seamen struck, and on the following Monday as a result, the ship painters and dockers in Sydney and the Waterside workers in Melbourne failed to resume work..... the Defence Committee declared rail-borne wheat and flour "black". The employees at the Government Dockyards of Cockatoo and Garden Islands, following the lead of the painters and dockers and their comrades at Newcastle, as well as many of the employees of private yards, ceased work on the 14th.

..... Three members of the Defence Committee, Hon. E.J.Kavanagh, M.L.C., Secretary of the Labour Council, Claude Thompson, of the Amalgamated Railway and Tramway Association, and A.C.Willis, of the Miners, were arrested and charged with conspiring to cause sedition. To these were joined A.W.Buckley, M.L.A....

On the 23rd the Arbitration Court cancelled the registration of the striking railway unions.... On this same day the Government issued a Proclamation taking over the coal mines in terms of a small Act hastily rushed through the Assembly. They announced their intention of working the mines with non-unionists under police protection, guaranteeing the owners against loss.....

The Defence Committee being excluded from access to the Government, the Lord Mayor of Sydney, R.D.Meagher, who had been expelled from the Labour Party over conscription, but was anxious to return to the fold, now offered himself as mediator....he suggested that work should be resumed on the conditions prevailing at the day of cessation, i.e., under the card system, but that an independent tribunal be immediately appointed to investigate....after three months to report on the workings of the card system......Cabinet, however, bluntly refused to modify its previous position.

Widespread organised scabbery in doing wharfies' work and manning ships, together with the A.W.U. resuming work with a weakened position of financing the strikers, led to the defeat of the strike, the last group to resume work being the miners about a month after all others resumed. Their return to work was spelled out in a document which reflected the general defeat of all unions:

The unionists were to agree to work with non-unionists and to admit them to membership of the Federation. In future, no permits to work at the coal face were to be issued to unqualified persons save in the event of a strike. But in re-employing miners preference was to be given to "loyalists", and the colliery managers were to have the right to select labour without however, showing unfair discrimination against unionists, and guided in general by the principle, "last to come, first to go". The cases of the men who considered themselves victimised were to be examined by an industrial court judge.....

The strike lasted from 2nd August until the resumption of the miners in the Maitland sector on 15th October. As Childe notes

The aftermath lasted long. The workingclass of Sydney experienced a period of distress and actual starvation which had not been paralleled in their generation. Thousands of families were driven to subsist on public charity which was given with no generous hand. On the railways and tramways, despite promises of no vindictiveness, those strikers who were lucky enough to get back at all were shown no mercy. All their accumulated privileges and seniority were forfeited, and they were treated worse than fresh recruits to the service. ... (p.161)

Among those victimised by the Government were Ben Chifley, later to become Prime Minister of Australia, and Eddie Ward, a Minister in Chifley's Government.

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