BACKGROUND TO THE 1917 GREAT STRIKE
The 1917 Great Strike occurred at a time of deep social and political contestation in Australia. The immediate context included participation in WW1, deep divisions around a narrowly defeated conscription referendum, falling wages and price inflation occasioned by Australia’s participation in a war which was becoming unpopular as casualties mounted.
The war years were starting to take their toll on rail and tram workers, who were working longer hours, and reduced wages and conditions. In addition to the increased workloads occasioned by the need to produce arms and munitions, approximately 7,500 railway and tramway employees had enlisted in the army, most were not replaced.
During the Strike the government called on farmer organisations to enlist scab labour from the large numbers of unemployed especially in the drought affected rural areas. IN NSW the ‘Rural Volunteers’ were organised by the Farmers and Graziers organisations and conservative country MPs. Private schoolboys were also used as volunteer labour during the strike with camps set up for the scabs at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
Those who remained loyal to the government and scabbed during the strike were known as the ‘Loyalists’, and given preferential treatment in terms of seniority, promotion, expunging past misdeeds from employment records. The loyalty of the scabs was also officially recognised through Departmental certificates issued to the ‘loyalists’. The unions reciprocated by issuing their own certificates to the ‘Lilywhites’.
Many of the ‘Lilywhites’ were dismissed by the Railways and Tramways and their cards stamped ‘not to be re-employed’ or ‘dismissed by Proclamation’. Those that were eventually re-employed were victimised for years afterwards, with demotions, pay cuts and being forced to work with scab ‘Loyalists’ and ‘Early Birds’ (those that returned to work before the strike ended). Most of the unions involved in the strike were de-registered. Scab unions were formed with the active support and connivance of employers in the railways and maritime industries, some of which lasted for decades alongside the bona fide unions created by the workforce.
Many workers who participated in the strike were never employed by the NSW Railways and Tramways and other industry groups again, and those that were re-employed lost seniority, superannuation and employee benefits as a result. Despite what was a defeat at the time, the events and their aftermath left a legacy that continues to reverberate a century later.