One of the debates about the mass strike of August-October 1917 focuses on the issue of conspiracy. This supposedly emanated from opposing forces in the conflict; from trade unions and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), bent on undermining established political institutions, among other things; and from government leaders and public and private sector employers, determined to bludgeon militant trade unionism.
The strike began on 2 August, in opposition to the re-introduction of the time card system at the Eveleigh railway workshops and Randwick tramway depot on 20 July Almost as soon as the railway and tramway men walked off the job, government leaders alleged the pre-planning of subversion by the New South Wales (NSW) Trades Hall and by the IWW, which stood for the abolition of the wages system, for revolutionary industry unionism, for the formation of One Big Union, for the eradication of the racist White Australia Policy, among other things. (1) By the time the strike had spread to the maritime, mining and manufacturing sectors, the Nationalist government in New South Wales regarded it as the most recent in a string of episodes reflecting a 'carefully prepared plan' to extinguish Australia's role in the British Empire and to overthrow the nation's established class order. (2) The Nationalists laid conspiracy charges which led to the imprisonment of several union officials involved in the strike's Union Defence Committee, including Edward J. Kavanagh (Member of the Legislative Council and Secretary of both the Trades and Labour Council and Locomotive Engine Drivers, Firemens and Cleaners Association--LEDFCA).
Robin Gollan was justified in claiming that a railway and tramway strike was inevitable in the second half of 1917, given the degree of resentment towards the reintroduction of the time card system. (3) Kavanagh, as leader of the LEDFCA, certainly expected that employees at Eveleigh's Locomotive branch would walk off the job as they had been the source of most of the railway service's 40 industrial stoppages over the previous 24-months and were clearly in a mind for 'social protest' against the Chief Commissioner's betrayal of the promise to sustain working conditions for the war's duration. (4)
The charges of union conspiracy, however, were preposterous, partly because union leaders were surprised by the scale of the withdrawal of labour, which spread rapidly throughout the railway service and to other industries, within and beyond the borders of the State. (5) The very fact that it was largely a spontaneous response to a Taylorist initiative, which the rank and file interpreted as 'a direct attack on unionism itself', further demonstrates absurdity in the notion of a unionist conspiracy. (6) This spontaneity, moreover, made it almost impossible for officials to establish a clear direction throughout the dispute. (7) Kavanagh himself admitted that union leaders wanted to avoid a major strike, but once this had become unstoppable, they focused on trying to reign in rank and file insurgency, rather than leading it to triumph. (8)
Even when officials feel duty-bound to commit to workers' struggles, they rarely try to foment conflict if the unions lack the ability to fight on their own terms. Unlike the successful NSW coal miners' strike of November-December 1916, which culminated in a 20 per cent increase in wages and in the introduction of eight-hours bank-to-bank, the officials never occupied a position of tactical advantage over the state and employers in the 1917 struggle, and this was reflected, among other things, in the dearth of strike funds on the eve of the 1917 dispute as well as in the miners' leaders concerns, around the same time, about the benefits that large stockpiles of coal had rendered to state and corporate leaders. (9)
The state's case for and IWW conspiracy is even more unconvincing. The IWW had begun to exert a significant presence in the NSW labour movement during the unsuccessful 18-week NSW coal miners' strike of 1909 and the Wobblies' influence expanded in the triumphant miners' strike of late 1916. (10) However, the promulgation of William Morris Hughes's Unlawful Associations Act 1917, which made membership of the IWW punishable for up to six months imprisonment, together with the framing and gaoling of 12 IWW leaders, had weakened the Wobblies massively in 1917. By the second half of the year, the remnants of the IWW 'had too little energy left for masterminding' a mass strike. (11)
The allegation that a conspiracy resided at the core of governments' and employers' actions should be treated more seriously, partly because the railway and tramway workers interpreted the time card as a deliberate provocation and partly because of the ferocity of state repression. (12) Unions and the Labor Party were in no doubt that the Employers' Federation and the federal and NSW Nationalists had long connived to break down wages and conditions of railway, tramway, mining, manufacturing and maritime employees; to drive working men from their jobs into the armed forces; and to lay the foundation for a victory to the 'Win the War' movement in the second conscription referendum, planned for December 1917. (13) They were also convinced that the NSW Railway Commissioners were deeply involved in these machinations. Following his appointment as Chief Railway Commissioner in January 1917, James Fraser often emphasised the close relationship between Departmental efficiency on the one hand, and national and Empire security on the other. (14) On 4 August, the third day of the mass strike, Fraser summoned all of his senior managers to the Commissioners' boardroom to remind them of 'our loyalty as citizens of New South Wales to the Empire' and none was more likeminded than his Deputy Chief Commissioner W. Edward Milne. (15) They regarded loyalty to Department and Empire as a means to legitimate the measures deployed against rank and file militants. Moreover, there was nothing but support from and unity among the Railway Commissioners when Fraser re-introduced the time card system in late July 1917 and this cohesion endured long after the mass strike ceased. (16)
The magnitude and severity of anti-strike initiatives underpinned much of the allegations about state conspiracy. Within a few weeks of the inception of the dispute, the Nationalists had arranged for the arrest and trial of 'culpable' union leaders. They had commandeered horses, carts, lorries and motor vehicles. (17) They had rushed through a statute establishing a Gas Control Board, thereby restricting gas consumption and permitting gas companies to lower the pressure and quality of their product. (18) They took advantage of the mass stockpiling of coal at grass, while ensuring the continuation of coal supplies by seizing and placing under public control the fleet of 27 collieries that shipped coal to Sydney. Moreover, they had promulgated a second statute permitting the employment of inexperienced blacklegs into the coal mines. They had more than doubled Sydney's police force, recruiting, among others, some 1,500 special constables, who augmented the 2,500 already in existence. (19) They had linked up with the Farmers' and Settlers' Association and the Primary Producers' Union to build an army of some 7,400 volunteer workers, mostly from the regions. (20) Moreover, the Railway Commissioners had applied to the State's Industrial Court to deregister the four railway unions deemed to be most directly involved in the initiation of the strike, and decreed that some 3,000 railway workmen would not return to their jobs when the strike was over. (21)
Legitimate questions, however, have been raised about the state's capacity to anticipate the vastness of the withdrawal of labour between August and October 1917. In his analysis, some six years after the event, Vere Gordon Childe proposed that the notion of a right-wing conspiracy was untenable due to the inability of Government and corporate leaders to anticipate a dispute engulfing pivotal industries throughout NSW and beyond. (22) Since then, others have argued along similar lines. (23) These include Ken Buckley, who concedes that although the Railway Commissioners may have made preparations to counter the possible extension of the Locomotive branch engineers' militancy to a strike of railway workers generally, neither the Commissioners nor the Nationalists could have envisaged the escalation of a railway dispute into a mass strike. (24) As soon as the latter happened, however, 'the government's determination stood it in good stead; and when the strike began to crack, government and employers saw an opportunity to attack trade unions'. (25)
Robert Bollard argues that the conspiracy thesis loses much of its credibility in the light of the severe economic situation confronting the railway service during World War I; (26) namely the disappearance of its surplus of 209,367 [pounds sterling] in 1913-14 and the development of a 394,064 [pounds sterling] deficit in 1916-17. (27) The factors underpinning this deficit were long in the making and included rising global interest rates, lost rail freight revenues during the 1914-15 drought, free rail transport of troops and military equipment, the decision by the State Government to direct the Commissioners to cover the difference between the railway pay and military pay of former railway servicemen, and the surge in coal prices in the aftermath of the 1916 miners' strike. (28) The shortfall of railway labour also contributed to the service's woes because this strengthened the resolve of Eveleigh workers to demand better wages and conditions; these workers had been largely responsible for the more than 40 strikes in the State's railway service since the outbreak of the war. (29) This strike wave, in turn, increased the tempo of managerial complaints about labour waste and falling productivity and about the IWW's role in the emergence of militancy and 'go slowism'. (30) Given the financial predicament in which the Commissioners found the railways, Bollard contends that the time card had less to do with deliberate provocation than with the Commissioners' desperation to reduce the deficit. (31) Once the strike had been called, they were only too eager to assist their so-called political masters in breaking the unions and in spilling more Wobbly blood.
Ultimately, the integrity of the conspiracy thesis depends on evidence of premeditation during the weeks leading up to 2 August. It is somewhat difficult to test this thesis against the archival record because of inadequacies extant in Cabinet and Commissioners' minutes of meetings. The Railway Commissioners' minute book of 1911-24, for instance, details discussions on a wide array of issues (investments, building and construction, occupational health and safety and so forth) of significance to each Branch of the industry (Locomotive, Permanent Way, Traffic and Signalling, etc.).32 The minutes, however, refer to industrial disputation only once in this 15-year period and very cursorily at that--a seven-line account of the August 1917 strike--pointing to the engineers' opposition to the time card, and to the dates on which the railway strike commenced and concluded. (33) They neglect to mention, altogether, the impact of miners' strikes on coal prices, the wave of strikes at Eveleigh in the two-year period prior to August 1917, go-slowism, the IWW 'menace', the logistics of organising loyalist labour in the August-September 1917 railway strike, and the demotion and firing of militants and deregistration of railway unions in that strike. The only occasion on which the minutes reflected anything vaguely akin to pre-planning for industrial conflict was at a meeting of 1 November 1920, when Fraser admonished the District Inspectors and running sheds' chargemen for accumulating coal stocks of 193,000 tons, some 43,000 tons 'more than what the Department really required for emergency purposes'. (34)
It would be implausible, in the extreme, to propose that the Commissioners regarded strikes as matters that were too inconsequential and frivolous to merit serious consideration at their monthly meetings; of course they discussed them and at great length. But they preferred the written record to neglect contingency plans that they had thrashed out, especially in the weeks leading up to August 1917. Though they may not have anticipated that the engineer's displeasure with the time cards would catalyse a dispute throughout and way beyond the railway service and the State itself, the NSW Commissioners nonetheless understood that protracted industrial action could occur. Secrecy served the purpose of keeping unionists ignorant of what lay in store for them if they withdrew their labour and of minimising a political backlash, should the strategic line of attack and ultimate goals falter.
This article focuses on the NSW Railway Commissioners' initiatives for preventing employees from triumphing, in the event of a major strike, and for limiting the effects of solidarity action by coal miners. It focuses on two aspects of the Commissioners' pre-planning in the weeks leading up to August 1917, viz, the pre-strike stockpiling of coal at railway depots and the employment of railway salaried officers in the Locomotive Branch, in which much of the service's industrial troubles were concentrated. It examines the extent to which the Commissioners had stockpiled coal--not in above ground coal stages but at ground level--the only practicable method available to them. It considers, moreover, the negative effects of ground level storage on the condition of the engines and argues that the Commissioners were willing to tolerate extensive locomotive damage on the basis that mass stockpiling was necessary to offset miners' solidarity. Following this, it discusses the expansion of salaried employment in the Locomotive Branch of the railway service. It examines the specifics types of salaried jobs that were created there, the duties which salaried employees carried out prior to and during the strike, together with the political functions that this layer of salaried employees served.
Coaling the Engines
On 21 August, Bathurst's Acting Station Master claimed that the depot possessed enough coal 'for months'. (35) As the strikers began to return to work, Bathurst Times commented that:
The railway department ... laid in large stocks of coal during normal times, with the result that it [had] enough stock on hand to last six months without additional supplies. (36)
It is possible to test the veracity of this contention by examining coal deliveries to the major depots, outlined in the service's annual reports. Caution, however, should be exercised in selecting depots because the data neglected to specify how coal had been used. Some depots stored it partly for the benefit of manufacturers that were particularly important to the war effort. BHP's iron and steel works at Mayfield, for example, established in 1915, purchased from collieries on the Belmont line and from Hamilton railway depot. This remained the case until the early 1920s, when primary coal stages for the Main Northern Line were relocated from Hamilton to Broadmeadow. This distortion can be overcome by concentrating on depots which ordered coal almost exclusively for railway use. Two stand out--Goulburn and Bathurst--the biggest on the Main Southern Line and Main Western Line respectively. At both depots, 'out-tons' represented only a tiny proportion of aggregate deliveries; 0.5 per cent annually and even less.
Dissimilarities existed in coal deliveries. Goulburn's increased by almost 8.5 per cent in 1915-16, then fell by a larger margin (about 11 per cent) in 1916-17. They rose again over the following 24 months; by 8.7 per cent in 1917-18 and by 23 per cent in the subsequent financial year. Conversely, Bathurst's stocks fell almost continuously, except for 1917-18--the only period in which the depots' net supplies were somewhat consistent. Bathurst's coal supplies jumped in that period by 18.5 per cent, more than twice the spike at Goulburn--the gap can be explained by the fact that Bathurst sourced less efficient (high ash) 'blackjack' coal from the western fields in Lithgow and surrounds. (37) The increases in coal supplies to Goulburn and Bathurst in 1917-18 occurred despite industrial upheaval for about half of the first quarter of that financial period, which ultimately caused traffic to fall by 10.6 per cent. (38) In view of this decline, the surge in Goulburn's and Bathurst's coal supplies would seem paradoxical.
If the Commissioners had stockpiled to minimise the impact of miners' solidarity action, then one would expect problems in the coal quality during and after the mass strike because the storage capacities of the depots' coal stages were limited. The most common stage was the low level type, built out of rail sleepers; approximately five yards in width and four feet in height, with length varying significantly. (39) The largest stages were each designed to hold no more than 300 tons; approximately a fortnight's supply. (40)
The running sheds were highly claustrophobic working environments at the centre, where coal was loaded into the tenders. (41) At the time of the strike, the sheds lacked space adequate enough for the construction of additional stages. If stocks had been delivered in 1917-18, they could only have been dumped on the ground. This would have made the fuel dirty, with serious implications for the condition of engines.
Bad coal contained materials harmful to industrial equipment. Some damaging materials, such as alkalis and sulphur, were always present in the coal itself, producing high ash content in locomotive combustion. Low ash coal would fall through the fire-box (furnace) grate into the ash pan. But when the ash was coarse, which was often the case with 'blackjack' coal from Lithgow and surrounds, (42) it would fuse into lumps of molten slag or clinker, choking the fire and threatening to collapse the grate. (43) Ash and clinker corroded the furnace walls and generated uneven heat, bringing about deformed and leaking tubes and stays at the back of the fire-box. (44) They blocked spark arresters, shooting-out burning embers through the chimney. (45) They also reduced primary air flowing though the furnace grate, upon which much of the combustion efficiency depended. Severe clinker could also develop in locomotives fired by high quality, low ash coal. On such occasions, the source was not the coalfield but the locomotive depot itself because of the unavoidability of ground-level storage.
If coal had been ground-stockpiled prior to the 1917 strike, then one might expect an abnormally high rate of engine breakdowns. This was not the case in its first month. Determined to disabuse claims that management's opposition to the strike had compromised the condition of the locomotives and passenger safety, Chief Commissioner Fraser issued a press statement in early September, pointing out that fewer engine failures had occurred in the previous month than in any similar period on record. (46) Locomotive failure data reveal why Fraser was so pleased; only 28 breakdowns occurred over a run of 817,705 miles in August 1917; an average of one per 29,200 or so miles. (47) This compared very favourably with August of the previous year, when 246 breakdowns happened over 2.267 millions miles (one every 9,200 or so miles). (48) None broke-down from bad coal in August 1917, unlike the six bad coal failures in the corresponding period one-year earlier. (49)
It is important to point out the unlikelihood of loyalists loading ground-level coal in August 1917. Given the large decline in engine miles that month, the stages would have held enough fuel for close to 30 days, instead of the normal fortnight. A small but nevertheless useful piece of evidence, indicating standard procedures for tender loading, can be found in Bathurst Times around the end of the first week of the strike; it warmly thanked the local depot's junior clerks for getting dirty at the coal stages. (50)
If ground level coal had contributed to engine failures, then one would expect that the incidence of break-downs would not have begun to rise sharply until September 1917 and that the problem would have worsened thereafter. Tables 2 and 3 provide data on bad coal breakdowns over the period September-December 1916 and for the corresponding four-month timeframe in 1917.
Little difference occurred in breakdowns over the two four-month intervals; 736 in 1916 and 11 more the following year. However, the rate over miles-run did alter dramatically: one in 10,912 miles in 1916 compared with an average of one in 9,210 in 1917, indirectly indicating a decline in engine condition of 16 per cent. The data also demonstrate the extent to which bad coal had contributed to the engines' poor state in the second month of the strike and its aftermath. Between September and December 1916, 12 locomotives failed as a result of bad coal; an average of one per 670,000 or so miles. In the corresponding period 12 months later, 19 broke down, an average of one every 362,000 miles. The breakdowns had almost doubled.
This pattern became evident in September. Then, the average run per engine failure, caused directly by bad coal, was around 400,000 miles; double that of the corresponding month in 1916. But it was in October 1917, one month after railway strikers surrendered, that engine troubles really soared. The railways registered 11 breakdowns that month, emanating directly from problems in coal quality (one per 145,000 miles), which was five times higher than that of October 1916 (three breakdowns averaging one per 730,000 or so miles). Additional evidence can be seen in secondary breakdown causes. In October 1917, there were 15 breakdowns caused by the 'failure of injectors', compared with the aggregate of 17 in September, November and December. In addition, October 1917 recorded eight breakdowns caused by 'blown blast pipes' and 'blown glands', compared with only three in September, November and December.
Engine breakdowns endured for another two months. By November 1917, the problem began to subside; an average of one in every 425,000 miles, as against one in 380,000 in the corresponding month of 1916. The foregoing data help us to approximate the quantity of stockpiles at the time of the 1917 strike: not a half-year supply, as reckoned by Bathurst Times, but around two months.
Following the collapse of the railway workers' strike, the fuelmen's job was to load coal into the tenders from ground level, rather than shovelling from aboveground stages. In daylight, they would try not to stir up dirt and rock, however at night, with light radiating only from gas lamps, the chore of spotting foreign materials would have been taxing, if not impossible. One can only imagine the objects that landed on their shovels after dusk, beside coal, dirt and rock--rusty sheets of metal, iron bolts, misplaced spectacles, old shoes--long buried in shallow graves. Into the tenders they went. This pre-strike stockpiling on the ground could only have occurred in the context of an anticipated miners' strike.
Re-profiling the Workforce
Data on waged employment in the Locomotive Branch and on engine traffic miles suggest considerable work intensification during the second half of the war. In 191516, aggregate waged employment was 34,634, with total engine runs amounting to about 21.56 million miles. This produced a productivity rate of 623 miles per waged employee. During the subsequent financial year, engine miles decreased slightly by 3.5 per cent while waged employment fell dramatically by 11.3 per cent. Engine miles per waged employee now amounted to 677 miles, an 8.7 per cent increase. (51) These data offer, at best, a crude means of measuring productivity because they ignore the introduction of newer and more powerful locomotives, namely the TF class goods and NN class passenger locomotives. Nonetheless, they do help to explain why the running sheds' employees felt that workloads had intensified and why they were prepared to embark on industrial action in August and September 1917 to overcome speed up. From the standpoint of the Commissioners, however, the foregoing data were of little significance because they did not reflect productivity performances in the Locomotive workshops, where the militant engineers were employed.
In the latter stages of the war, the Commissioners set out to re-profile the railway workforce, partly by cutting wages employment, and this provided the opportunity to drive up workloads and to increase labour productivity. Jobs for wages staff increased by 6,000 (21 per cent) over the two-year period ending 30 June 1916, but they fell in the subsequent financial period by 11.3 per cent and by an additional 4.4 per cent in 1917-18. (52) In contrast, salaried railway jobs grew consistently and often by large magnitudes, as shown in Figure 1.
Aggregate salaried jobs jumped by 55 per cent over the seven years ending 30 June 1919, from 3,180 to 4,937. Every financial period showed an increase over the previous one. Whereas wages jobs fell in 1916-17, salaried employment increased by 442 personnel, or by 10.65 per cent. The Commissioners were not able to recruit salaried employees externally because they lacked intimate knowledge and experience of the railway industry. Nor were managers in each Branch--Locomotive, Traffic, Signalling, Permanent Way etc.--in a position to headhunt salaried (and skilled wages staff) from other Branches because skills were not readily transferable within the service. Thus in 1916-17, some 400 of the 4,000 employees were re-classified as salaried employees, within their familiar Branches.
The greatest increases in salaried staff employment took place in the Locomotive Branch. Figure 2, below, reveals the extent to which salaried jobs grew there. They rose continuously, and sometimes substantially, such as by 22 per cent in the year ending 30 June 1914 and by 20 per cent in 1916-17. But by far the sharpest increase, 47 per cent, occurred in the year ending 30 June 1918. This stood in sharp contrast with the freezing of salaried employment in some other Branches; for instance, Signalling and Traffic salaried jobs in 1917-18 rose by only 1.08 and 0.14 per cent respectively. Given that waged employees at Eveleigh's Locomotive Branch were deeply involved in the strike wave between July 1915 and July 1917, it made sense, from the standpoint of the Commissioners, to pour conservative and loyal salaried officers into this troubled area.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
All of the salaried officers were members of the right-wing Railway and Tramway Salaried Officers Association, established in 1913. The Association believed that devotion to the Commissioners was the essence of 'true' union solidarity, as refected in speeches made at a reunion of retired members in Bathurst:
The first toast of the evening was that of the Railway Commissioners, proposed by [Bathurst Mayor and former locomotive employee] Mr J Beddie. He said they all knew that the relations between the Commissioners and the executive of the association were most cordial ... The association was loyal to the administration and it desired that the most efficient service possible should be rendered both to the Commissioners and to the public. If a man was a good officer and true member of the association, he must necessarily be a zealous and loyal officer of the Commissioners. (53)
As stated earlier, the Locomotive Branch comprised two main sub-branches, viz, workshops and running sheds. The workshops built the NN class express passenger engines at Eveleigh, manufactured rolling stock, carriages, engine boilers, cylinders and valves, among other components (Eveleigh and Honeysuckle Point), and repaired engines and rolling stock in a multitude of depots across the State. This sub-branch employed superintendents and works managers at the top, followed by assistant works managers, foremen, assistant and sub-foremen. It also hired tradesmen engineers (patternmakers, fitters, turners, forgers, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, drophammer smiths, welders, and so forth), together with apprentices. The occupational hierarchy in the running sheds comprised the locomotive superintendents and district superintendents at the apex, followed by the inspectors, chargemen and assistant chargemen, the five classifications of drivers and shunting drivers, as well as firemen, cleaners, call boys, labourers and fuelmen.
Table 4 provides details about the specific occupations of salaried officers in the workshops and running sheds at four of the State's largest depots, and about the ways in which these jobs changed over time. Adapted from the railway employment supplement, published in the Government Gazette every third year between 1912 and 1921, the data allow us to examine salaried jobs on 31 December the previous year at four Locomotive Branches--Eveleigh and the central regional depots of Bathurst, Hamilton and Goulburn.
It is evident that the Locomotive salaried employment underwent substantial changes at the four depots. Between 1911 and 1914, the aggregate fell by 22 per cent, from 63 to 49. Conversely, their employment almost tripled to 134 personnel in 1917. Three years on, salaried jobs fell 27 per cent, back to 98. Seven of these categories require particular attention; viz, inspectors and sub-inspectors; chargemen/shed chargemen, assistant chargemen/assistant shed chargemen (running sheds); and the foremen, assistant foremen and sub-foremen (workshops).
Jobs for inspectors and assistant/sub-inspectors altered little between 1911 and 1914. In both years, the four depots employed about ten. In 1917, however, these jobs doubled to 19, with Eveleigh largely responsible. Three years later, Eveleigh had halved employment in these categories. A somewhat similar pattern of upward growth occurred in the chargemen/shed chargemen/ assistant shed chargemen categories. In 1911 and 1914, the four running sheds employed 11 and 13 men respectively in these positions, with relatively little priority placed on recruiting assistants. In 1917, aggregate employment rose to 34, around 2.5 times that of 1914. Eveleigh's grew from one in 1914 to 20 three years later. Moreover, Eveleigh had now decided that the recruitment of assistants was of even greater importance than the employment of chargemen. In the strike's aftermath, chargemen, shed chargemen and their assistants were kept on, as indicated by the 34 employed at the four depots in 1920. Once again, assistants at Eveleigh outnumbered their immediate bosses. A similar pattern was evident at Bathurst and Hamilton, with Goulburn slicing against the grain.
The most intriguing data relate to foremen and their underlings. In 1911, Eveleigh's Locomotive workshops employed two foremen, with 12 assistants. Three years on, they had only two of each. Thereafter, the assistant foreman category gave way to that of sub-foreman. In 1917, Eveleigh engaged 39 sub-foremen; a 6.5-fold increase over the employment of foremen that year and a 20-fold increase over assistant foremen three years earlier. None of the three regional Locomotive Branches employed foremen in 1917 but each had a sub-foreman on the payroll. By 1920, the category sub-foreman had (all but) disappeared, collapsing at Eveleigh from 39 to zero. Instead of sub-foremen, Eveleigh now employed 11 men as 'subforemen carriage shop'. In total, the number of sub-foremen at the state's largest Locomotive workshops fell by 72 per cent. The employment of foremen continued to be comparatively low; all four at Eveleigh.
The data on sub-foremen beg the following questions: what were their jobs prior to their elevation to the salaried system? How did their authority in the labour process change? What differences existed between the pay scales of these salaried staff and of those whom they directly supervised? What became of them after 1917?
Sub-foremen were the one's most heavily engaged with the white cards in time and motion studies. (54) Senior management had first initiated a Taylorist-style card system at the Randwick tram depot in 1915, but withdrew it in late 1916 after the unions complained. The Commissioners re-introduced it to Eveleigh and the Randwick tram depot on 20 July 1917, making them laboratories for 'testing new management techniques and work systems' throughout the railway and tramway services. (55) In recruiting sub-foremen, management cast a close eye over the workshops' most experienced and reliable tradesmen patternmakers, fitters, and turners etc. While the wage earner recorded the time for each prescribed task on one card, the subforeman would record his own figure on the white card. (56) The wage earner hated the white card because he had little power to challenge it. He could request to see it, but rarely did so as this would have led to a black mark against his name. (57) The sub-foreman sought to force-up the wage earner's productivity, in return for a bonus payment, which the latter regarded as incommensurate with the accretion of effort. The white card made obsolete the waged-tradesman's discretionary powers, upon which his sense of occupational pride rested. This reduced his status to that of a semiskilled worker, with authority and power concentrated in the sub-foreman's role of dispensing reward and punishment. Moreover, it functioned to make wage earners dependent on their superiors while creating an environment of fear, especially for the older workers who were less able to cope with speed-up.
The authority vested in sub-foremen was reflected in their take-home pay, particularly in the wide differentials between their earnings and those of senior tradesmen under the wages system. The salaried officers' first award of April 1914 granted increases, based on merit rather than seniority, only to those in the lowest grades, leaving middle and senior salaries to the Commissioners' discretion. On 11 September 1916, Chief Arbitration Court Judge Charles Heydon limited wages board decisions on railway salaries to those earning less than 225 [pounds sterling] per annum, giving Commissioners the discretion to set lower salary scales. Three months prior to the 1917 strike, on 9 May, the Chief Railway Commissioner announced new scales for four lower salaried occupations, specifically in the Locomotive and Permanent Way branches; viz, 425 [pounds sterling]-500 [pounds sterling] (chief inspectors), 335[ pounds sterling]-410 [pounds sterling] (inspectors), and 245 [pounds sterling]-320 [pounds sterling] (sub-inspectors and sub-foremen). (58) These scales were significantly greater than the waged tradesmen's rates of pay. The Government Railways Group No. 7 (Engineers) Board Award of March 1917 paid the average rate of 175.5 [pounds sterling] to 15 engineering trades classifications. (59) The sub-foremen on 245 [pounds sterling] earned just over 28 per cent more than this average rate. The sub-foremen on the 320 [pounds sterling] scale earned 82 per cent more. These earnings differentials do not take into account the waged workers' right to overtime and penalty rates; an entitlement denied to salaried officers. Even so, the skilled engineer under the wages system would have needed to work an enormous amount of overtime to earn as much as a sub-foreman.
Management's effort to weaken the anticipated strike would have faltered without a plentiful supply of non-trades engine crewmen in the running sheds, especially the most talented drivers. (60) These were the fifth class enginemen, responsible for operating the larger, powerful passenger locomotives, then known as the P class and NN class engines, on the metropolitan and main regional lines. When an enginemen became fifth class, he ceased to drive the lighter passenger and heavier goods engines. Once the strike began, the salaried drivers' task of making the P and NN locomotives arrive on schedule was crucial to the Commissioners' goal of preventing public support from slipping further towards the strikers. Thus, fifth class enginemen who volunteered on the first day of the strike were promoted to salaried drivers, immediately.
When they were not driving, the salaried enginemen would train less experienced waged drivers, already familiar with the smaller goods locomotives, to operate the powerful TF class goods engines as well as the smaller passenger locomotives. Loyalist waged enginemen, in turn, instructed firemen on driving the weaker goods locomotives whilst the latter taught eager cleaners about firing locomotives. Loyalist senior clerks, who had left the footplate for lighter and more highly paid administrative duties, were also involved in driving, as were retired drivers. Several enginemen at the Bathurst depot, for instance, were senior clerks and retired men who felt the impulse to return to driving for the benefit of the service. (61) The salaried enginemen, together with loyalist drivers, were among those whom Bathurst Times applauded for 'keeping the service going'. (62)
Management directed loyalists and volunteers to work as hard as possible for the dispute's duration. A running shed chargemen at Bathurst boasted about the pride which he and his subordinates took in successive 13-hour rosters. (63) Management increased workloads massively, as reflected in the sizeable surge in enginemen's hours. In July 1917, 23 drivers in New South Wales worked days in excess of 12-hours. They lodged 708 applications for relief, with 394 (55 per cent) succeeding. This bore little resemblance to the working day in August. The enginemen labouring more than 12-hours per day now totalled 123; more than a five-fold increase. Moreover, their requests for relief fell three-fold to 117 applications, with only 91 approvals. (64) By the time that the railway strikers returned to the depots, loyalist drivers were exhausted.
In the aftermath of the strike, sub-foremen returned to their original trade positions on salaried rates. Salaried drivers also maintained their scales, along with the privilege of first class rail passes during recreation leave. Loyalist waged-drivers at Bathurst testified to this after the strike. In early November, they visited the premises of Bathurst Times, describing their expectations from the outset of the dispute, viz, re-classification as salaried enginemen, with higher pay and status, together with access to the entitlement to 'first class railway passes when on recreation leave'. (65) They entreated the newspaper's proprietor/editor to press their case to the Commissioners:
The men do not state the exact promise that was given to them, but they declare that a verbal undertaking or something in the nature of an 'implied promise' was held out to them as a reward for their loyal and strenuous work during the strike. (66)
Bathurst Times added:
There is an impression among a very large number of railway and tramway employees at present engaged on the weekly wage system that they were to be classified in future on the salaried staff ... [T]he men who come under this heading are anxious to know when the Railway Commissioners intend to take action and honour [them]. (67)
The Commissioners never intended to promote loyalist enginemen on fourth and lower wage grades to salaried positions because of the massive cost burden that this would have engendered. However, they did promote many of them to higher grades under the wages system.
From the outset of the mass strike, the State's Nationalist government expressed contempt for what it perceived to be the unions' aims to shift the balance of power from capital and the state substantially towards organised labour, to weaken (even depose) the institutions of responsible government, and to withdraw Australia from the struggle to defend the British Empire. The Railway Commissioners may not have been as hysterical as their so-called political masters about the imminent threat of workers' revolution. Nevertheless, they believed that rank and file militants had been plotting to undermine managerial prerogative throughout the railway service for at least two years. Once the Commissioners perceived these militants as strategists, devoted to the destruction of management's right to lead, they began to realise the value and merit of devising counter-manoeuvres.
This manoeuvring was a process that endured for several months prior to the mass strike of 1917; beginning with the task of re-profiling hundreds of jobs in the railway service's most militant Branch--Locomotive. This enabled the shifting of employees from wages to relatively well paid salaries. With the announcement of new salary scales in early May, the Commissioners ensured the ready recruitment of supervisors, such as sub-foremen, in the workshops. These men, ever grateful for large pay rises, were now vigorously committed to eliminating go-slows. Once the strike occurred in early August, the Commissioners extended the Locomotive branch's salary system to the most experienced and skilled engine drivers in the running sheds as these employees were crucial for keeping the engines effectively manned. Furthermore, the Commissioners had long understood the advantage of delivering large stockpiles of coal, in the event of solidarity action by the miners. They realised, of course, that that this would sicken the service's expensive locomotives. But what they lost on the roundabout they would more than gain on the swing. The pre-strike stockpiling helped to absorb some of the impact of the strike and to keep the service operational. This, in turn, played a part in defeating the unions.
The Commissioners made sure that once the railway strikers had been defeated, they would return to work on management's terms, unconditionally. They succeeded in their application to the Arbitration Court to deregister four of the railway unions, deemed to be most responsible for the strike, and celebrated when the unions' leaders were imprisoned. When the railway strikers returned to work on 10 September, the Commissioners announced the retention of the time cards, confirmed the loyalists and volunteers in their positions, and refused re-appointment to 2,200 militants, some 800 less than originally planned. They held out until 1925 to re-appoint the last of the blacklisted strikers, only after Labor government legislation compelled them to do so. The Commissioners were merciless in their reassertion of managerial prerogative and in their punishment of the railway militants and their unions.
Ken Buckley's suspicions that the Railway Commissioners had pre-planned for the defeat of the railway unions, in the event of a protracted dispute, are supported by the evidence presented in this article. But what of the state-private sector conspiracy thesis? Buckley is not alone in rejecting it on the basis that none of the players in the upper reaches of politics, government and the corporate sector could have foreseen the massive scale of class conflict between August and October 1917.
Early in the piece, this article referred to the enormity of the state's implementation of strategies to crush the strike, such as the recruitment of 1,500 volunteer policemen. One wonders how security-checking thousands of applicants to dispose of those with criminal records, how training the selected volunteers and imbuing them with a semblance of police culture, and how outfitting them, among other things, could have been accomplished in only a few weeks. Still more astounding was the idea that an army of 7,400 scabs could be fully organised in a similar timeframe. Given the enormity of the scale of these efforts, pre-planning may not have been the sole province of the Railway Commissioners. These issues, however, are better left as suggestions for future research.
* I should like to convey my gratitude to the two anonymous referees who provided helpful suggestions on ways to enhance this manuscript. I also want to thank locomotive historians Ray Love and Lawrance Ryan who helped me to come to grips with railway depots and their technologies, who commented on a draft, and who pointed me to important archival documents. Most of all I wish to pay tribute to the late Jim Hagan, who strongly encouraged me to undertake this project from the outset and who read and commented on drafts prior to the submission stage.
(1.) V. Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism: The Industrial Workers of the World in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995.
(2.) R. Gollan, The Coal Miners of New South Wales: A History of the Union, 1860-1960, Melbourne University Press, Parkville, 1963, p. 152.
(3.) Ibid., p. 156.
(4.) L. Taksa, '"Defence not defiance": social protest and the NSW General Strike of 1917', Labour History, no. 60, 1991, pp. 16-33.
(5.) I. Turner, Sydney's Burning, London, Heinemann, 1967, p. 141.
(6.) Gollan, The Coal Miners of New South Wales, p. 152.
(7.) J. Hagan, Printers and Politics: A History of the Australian Printing Unions, 1850-1950, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1966, p. 194.
(8.) I. Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics: The Dynamics of the Labour Movement in Eastern Australia, 1900-1921, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1979, pp. 145-147; R. Bollard, 'The Active Chorus': The Mass Strike of 1917 in Eastern Australia, PhD thesis, School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts, Education and Human Development, Victoria University, 2007, p. 27.
(9.) Gollan, The Coal Miners of New South Wales, p. 156.
(10.) Ibid., pp. 127-128, 146-148.
(11.) Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, p. 175.
(12.) Bollard, 'The Active Chorus', pp. 27-28.
(13.) D. Coward, 'Crime and Punishment', in J. Iremonger, J. Merritt, and G. Osborne (eds), Strikes: Studies in Twentieth Century Australian Social History, Angus and Robertson, Cremorne, 1973, pp. 57-60.
(14.) M. Hearn, 'Productivity and patriotism: the management narrative of New South Wales Rail Chief Commissioner James Fraser, 1917-1929', Business History, vol. 50, no. 1, 2008, p. 34
(15.) Hearn, Productivity and Patriotism, p. 34.
(16.) Bathurst Times, 3 August 1917, p. 1.
(17.) Coward, Crime and Punishment, p. 57.
(18.) Ibid., p. 57.
(19.) Ibid., p. 77.
(20.) Industrial Commissioner of the State, The New South Wales Strike Crisis, 1917, Report Prepared for the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, William Applegate Gullick, Sydney, 1918, p. 56.
(21.) Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics, p. 154.
(22.) V.G. Childe, How Labour Governs: A Study of Workers' Representation in Australia, 2nd edn, Melbourne University Press, London, 1964, p. 164.
(23.) W. Jurkiewicz, Conspiracy Aspects of the 1917 Strike, Hons thesis, Faculty of Arts, University of Wollongong, 1977, pp. 56-64; Bollard, 'The Active Chorus', p. 28.
(24.) K.D. Buckley, The Amalgamated Engineers in Australia, 1852-1920, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, 1970, p. 262.
(25.) Ibid., p. 263.
(26.) Bollard, 'The Active Chorus', p. 28.
(27.) G. Patmore, 'Systematic management and bureaucracy: the NSW Railways prior to 1932', Labour and Industry, vol. 1, no. 2, June, 1988, p. 312.
(28.) G.E. Patmore, A History of Industrial Relations in the NSW Government Railways: 1855-1929, PhD thesis, Department of Industrial Relations, Faculty of Commerce, University of Sydney, 1984, p. 306; Bollard, 'The Active Chorus' , p. 29.
(29.) Hearn, Productivity and Patriotism, p. 30.
(30.) Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, p. 174.
(31.) Bollard, 'The Active Chorus', p. 28.
(32.) Commissioners Minute Books, Minutes 1911-24, Minutes of Proceedings of the Board of Railway Commissioners, Series no.15095, NSW Government Records, Kingswood.
(33.) Ibid., Item 62, p. 226.
(34.) Ibid., Item 320, p. 356.
(35.) Bathurst Times, 22 August 1917, p. 2.
(36.) Bathurst Times, 5 September 1917, p. 3.
(37.) John Deland (fireman Parkes 1953-62, engine driver Thirroul, Port Kembla and Nowra 1962-91), interview, 6 January 2009.
(38.) NSW Government Railways and Tramways, Report of the Chief Commissioner for the Year Ended 30 June 1926, Appendix V.
(39.) Ray Love (NSW railway historian and former engine driver, Hornsby depot), letter to the author, 27 March 2009.
(40.) Ibid; Ray Love, interview, 3 April 2009.
(41.) Ray Love, interview, 6 February 2009.
(42.) John Deland, interview, 6 January 2009.
(43.) Ray Love, interview, 6 February 2009.
(44.) Lawrance Ryan (NSW railway historian), interview, 30 January 2009.
(45.) Ray Love, interview, 6 February 2009.
(46.) Quoted in Bathurst Times, 8 September 1917, p. 2.
(47.) NSW Locomotive Officers' Conference, Minutes of Monthly Meetings, Meeting of 18 October 1917, Return of Engine Failures by Classes for the Month of August 1917, NRS260/1/28, New South Wales Records, Kingswood.
(48.) NSW Locomotive Officers' Conference, Meeting of 22 September 1916, Return of Engine Failures in Each District for the Month of August 1917, NRS260/1/27.
(49.) NSW Locomotive Officers' Conference, Meeting of 18 October 1917, Return of Engine Failures by Classes for the Month of August 1917, NRS260/1/28.
(50.) Bathurst Times, 8 August 1917, p. 2.
(51.) See NSW Government Railways and Tramways, Report of the Chief Commissioner for the Year Ended 30 June 1926, Appendix V: Statement Showing the Number of Passengers, Tonnage of Goods etc, p. 30, NRS15070, New South Wales Records, Kingswood.
(52.) NSW Government Railways and Tramways, Reports of the Chief Commissioner for the Years Ended 30 June 1914, 30 June 1915, 30 June 1916, 30 June 1917, and 30 June 1918, Appendix X, NRS15070, NSW Records, Kingswood.
(53.) Quoted in Bathurst Times, 28 February 1911, p. 1. Only ten of the 4,700 members of the Association joined the General Strike. See M. Hearn, '"A good man for the department": the ethos of the Railway and Tramway Association of New South Wales, 1913-1939', Australian Historical Studies, vol. 30, no. 112, April, 1999, p. 66.
(54.) Bollard, 'The Active Chorus', p. 30.
(55.) Hearn, Productivity and Patriotism, p. 30.
(56.) Taksa, 'Defence Not Defiance', p. 16.
(57.) Bollard, 'The Active Chorus', p. 30.
(58.) Bathurst Times, 9 May 1917, p. 1.
(59.) NSW Arbitration Court, Industrial Gazette 1917, Government Railways Group No.7 (Engineers) Board, pp. 1002-1003.
(60.) These men were not tradesmen, yet once they became senior engine drivers they could achieve an occupational status higher than any other tradesmen under the railway wages system. Their job hierarchy and career paths have been described as follows: 'To become a driver of a ... train meant commencing work as a call boy delivering the call notices to the crews; being promoted to an engine cleaner; to an acting fireman; and eventually being appointed as a fireman ... With experience and seniority the call boy could slowly progress up the ladder to become an engine driver ... for the Melbourne and Brisbane Expresses [which] took 20 years or more. These were very respected men'. R.K. Butcher, The Great Eveleigh Railway Workshops: A Personal Reminiscence, Ligare, Riverwood, 2004, p. 209.
(61.) Bathurst Times, 10 August 1917, p. 2.
(63.) Bathurst Times, 13 August 1917, p. 2.
(64.) NSW Locomotive Officers' Conferences, Meetings: October 1917, Table: Enginemen on duty over 12 hours, returns submitted showing the number of cases as follow, NRS260/1/28, NSW Records, Kingswood
(65.) Bathurst Times, 5 November 1917, p. 1.
Robert Tierney *
Robert Tierney teaches industrial relations at Charles Sturt University, Bathurst campus. His current research interests comprise: religious sectarianism and industrial relations in the Central West of New South Wales; the effects of the Federation and present droughts on industrial development and industrial relations in towns along the Lachlan River; and the occupational health and safety problems of Asian guest workers in the newly industrialised countries of Taiwan, South Korea and Malaysia. He will soon be focusing his guest worker research on the south-east portion of Australia.
Table 1: Net coal at Goulburn and Bathurst depots. financial years 1914/15-1918/19 % change % change over over Financial previous previous year financial financial ending Goulburn period Bathurst period 30-Jun-15 5,707 15,197 30-Jun-16 6,189 8.44 14,448 -4.93 30-Jun-17 5,503 -11.08 13,268 -8.77 30-Jun-18 5,983 8.72 15,730 18.55 30-Jun-19 7,356 22.94 14,271 -10.22 Adapted from NSW Government Railways and Tramways, Reports of the Chief Commissioner for the Years Ended 30 June 1915, 30 June 1916, 30 June 1916, 30 June 1917, 30 June 1918, and 30 June 1919, Return of Revenue and Expenditure at each Station for the Years Ended 30 June 1915-30 June 1919, Appendix XX, Items 45-49, NRS15070. NSW Records, Kingswood. Table 2: Engine Failures, bad coal and miles run September-December 1916 Average miles run Engine per engine Total Total miles Average failures failure Month/ Engine for all miles per from bad from bad Year Failures engines failure coal coal Sep-16 223 2,376,115 10,655 3 792,038 Oct-16 197 2,193,527 11,135 3 731,176 Nov-16 147 1,528,385 10,397 4 382,096 Dec-16 169 1,933,050 11,438 2 966,525 September 736 8,031,077 10,912 12 669,256 Adapted from NSW Locomotive Officers' Conferences, Minutes of Monthly Meetings, Meetings: October 1916, November 1916, December 1916 and January 1917, Return of Engine Failures by Classes for the Months of September 1916-December 1916 and Return of Engine Failures in Each District for the Months of September 1916-December 1916, NRS260/1/27 and NRS260/1/28, NSW Records, Kingswood. Table 3: Engine Failures, bad coal and miles run September-December 1917 Month/Year Total Total miles Average Engine for all miles per Failures engines failure Sep-17 117 803,132 6,864 Oct-17 246 1,957,906 7,959 Nov-17 219 2,122,853 9,693 Dec-17 165 1,995,903 12,096 September- December 747 6,879,794 9,210 Engine Month/Year failures Average miles from bad per engine coal failure from bad coal Sep-17 2 401,566 Oct-17 11 145,264 Nov-17 5 424,571 Dec-17 1 1,995,903 September- December 19 362,094 Adapted from NSW Locomotive Officers' Conferences, Meetings: October 1917-January 1918, Return of Engine Failures by Classes and in Each District, NRS260/1/28 and NRS260/1/29, NSW Records, Kingswood. Table 4: Salaried officers in four locomotive depots-- Eveleigh, Bathurst, Hamilton and Goulburn, 1911, 1914, 1917 and 1920 1911 Groups of salaried Ev Bt Hm Gb occupations by sub- branch Running sheds District inspectors and relieving district 6 1 inspectors Inspectors * Sub-inspectors and A/s 2 1 1 inspectors Leading superintendents Superintendents (+) 4 A/s superintendents Chargemen and shed 4 3 2 chargemen Assistant shed chargemen 2 Leading and head examiners Examiners 6 6 Travelling firemen's 3 instructor Workshops General works manager 1 Works manager A/s works manager 1 Foremen (#) 2 1 A/s foremen 12 1 Sub-foremen Sub-foremen carriage shops Others (~) 4 Total per depot 39 7 6 11 Grand total--4 depots 63 1914 Groups of salaried Ev Bt Hm Gb occupations by sub- branch Running sheds District inspectors and relieving district 6 2 1 inspectors Inspectors * Sub-inspectors and A/s 1 inspectors Leading superintendents Superintendents (+) 1 A/s superintendents 1 Chargemen and shed 1 3 3 2 chargemen Assistant shed chargemen 3 1 Leading and head 1 examiners Examiners 5 5 Travelling firemen's 1 1 instructor Workshops General works manager 1 Works manager A/s works manager 1 Foremen (#) 2 A/s foremen 2 Sub-foremen Sub-foremen carriage shops Others (~) 2 1 3 Total per depot 18 10 8 13 Grand total--4 depots 49 1917 Groups of salaried Ev Bt Hm Gb occupations by sub- branch Running sheds District inspectors and 1 1 1 relieving district 10 2 2 2 inspectors Inspectors * Sub-inspectors and A/s 3 inspectors Leading superintendents Superintendents (+) 2 1 A/s superintendents 2 Chargemen and shed 8 3 2 3 chargemen Assistant shed chargemen 12 3 3 Leading and head 1 1 examiners Examiners 1 4 3 7 Travelling firemen's 1 1 instructor Workshops General works manager Works manager 1 A/s works manager 2 Foremen (#) 6 A/s foremen Sub-foremen 39 1 1 1 Sub-foremen carriage shops Others (~) 2 1 1 Total per depot 87 14 14 19 Grand total--4 depots 134 1920 Groups of salaried Ev Bt Hm Gb occupations by sub- branch Running sheds District inspectors and relieving district 5 2 1 1 inspectors Inspectors * Sub-inspectors and A/s 1 1 2 1 inspectors Leading superintendents 1 Superintendents (+) 2 A/s superintendents 6 1 1 1 Chargemen and shed 6 3 7 chargemen Assistant shed chargemen 14 4 Leading and head 1 3 8 examiners Examiners 5 Travelling firemen's instructor Workshops General works manager Works manager 1 A/s works manager 1 Foremen (#) 4 1 A/s foremen Sub-foremen 1 Sub-foremen carriage 11 shops Others (~) 1 1 Total per depot 53 15 11 19 Grand total--4 depots 98 Key: * includes loco inspectors, rolling stock examiners, engineer inspectors, inspectors of examiners, steam shed inspectors, relieving inspectors, travelling inspectors and testing engineers; (+) includes superintendents loco running, loco outdoor superintendents, and superintendents carriage and wagon shops; (#) includes foremen, running shed foremen, loco running foremen, shed foremen, and foremen carriage and wagon shops; (~) includes stationary engine drivers, relief officers, running relief officers, and suggestions and inventions officers Source: Adapted from Supplements to the Government Gazette of New South Wales, see 'Lists of persons employed in the railways and tramways as at 31 December' the previous year. For 31 December 1911, see Gazette, no. 95, vol. 2, 21 June 1912; for 31 December 1914, see Gazette, no.101, vol. 2, 4 June 1915; for 31 December 1917, see Gazette, no.80, vol. 2, 27 June 1918; and for 31 December 1917, see Gazette, no. 88, vol. 2, 20 June 1921.…