The New South Wales Railway Commissioners' Strategic Pre-Planning for the Mass Strike of 1917

By Tierney, Robert | Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History, May 2010 | Go to article overview

The New South Wales Railway Commissioners' Strategic Pre-Planning for the Mass Strike of 1917


Tierney, Robert, Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History


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.

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