100th Anniversary of 1917 Great Railway Workers Strike

The Hon. JOHN GRAHAM ( 18:34 ): 

I draw the attention of the House to the 1917 railway strike. It was a crushing loss, a catastrophe, and a capitulation to the Government's demands. It was a crushing loss, but one that shaped the labour movement for generations to come. The strike happened in the depths of war, which explains the bitterness of the dispute. It was only 18 months since our epic failure in Gallipoli. Chifley described "a legacy of bitterness and a trail of hate" that followed the strike. I will tell the House about a couple of the people involved. Bill McKell, who was the Premier in 1941, represented many of the striking families as the member for Redfern, having been first elected in 1917.

Doc Evatt, who was the Labor leader in 1951, appeared as a junior counsel defending the striking workers. Joe Cahill, who was Premier in 1952, was working at the Eveleigh rail yards as a fitter. Cahill's card was stamped "agitator", and he later struggled to find work. Eddie Ward, the firebrand of East Sydney from 1932, was also at Eveleigh. He refused to sign the conditions to be reinstated, and was in and out of work for seven years. He later said that he had "conducted a one-man strike". Ben Chifley, who was Prime Minister from 1945, lead the Bathurst railway men out on 6 August and back in to work at the end of the strike. Chifley was refused a job, and he appealed and was reemployed—not as a driver, but as a fireman. That meant he would be firing up the engine for men who had scabbed on the strike. He later said:

All that that har sh and oppressive treatment did, as far as I was concerned was to transform me, with the assistance of my colleagues, from an ordinary engine-driver into the Prime Minister of this country.

Finally Jack Lang, who was Premier in 1925, committed during the election campaign that he would restore the privileges of the striking workers. Lang instructed the Commissioner of Railways to act, on pain of dismissal. Following a legal challenge, Lang legislated. When the upper House struck down his bill, he packed the House with 25 new Labor members and passed it. He got the job done. Our leaders in the decades that followed had their politics fired in the furnace of this dispute. I also want to explain why it is important for me. I was as a teenager wandering the streets of Newcastle with a copy of L. F. Crisp's Ben Chifley tucked under one arm. Reading about the strike was fundamental to my decisions to join Labor and work for the union movement. There are echoes across Labor generations and echoes today of this crushing loss that went on to define the labour movement. This is the moment that created the culture of New South Wales Labor. This was the moment that produced leaders for decades to come. This was the moment when the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party chose politics and power.

Before the strike the conscription split in 1916 left NSW Labor more Irish, more Catholic, more militant, and more industrialist. A sense of disappointment with the parliamentary wing pervaded Labor. Before the strike, the Labour Council's mid-year report said that "Labour has placed too much power on the political arm of the movement, and not enough on the industrial." Losing the 1917 strike shattered that view, and showed the equal importance of a political strategy and an industrial strategy for the movement. Let us make no mistake; this was a crushing loss, but one that went on to produce a powerful labour movement. With leaders who knew the stakes and who after the Second World War went on to build the welfare state and a new Australia. What the loss in Gallipoli did for Australia, the 1917 strike did for the labour movement. Each loss produced a country or a movement with a defining sense of identity. One hundred years later, we remember their struggle.

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