The Great Strike of 1917 remains to this day the largest and most divisive strike in NSW history, with over 90,000 workers stopping work for a six-week period.
It brought the state to its knees and the political legacy it left behind changed NSW irrevocably. The centenary of this event is being celebrated this year and Goulburn and Sydney.
According to former national secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union Roger Jowett, the railway workers of Goulburn played a significant part of this strike as they went out with their city comrades.
He said the strike had been brewing for some time.
“It was the height of WWI and thousands of young Australian men were dying on the Western Front,” Mr Jowett said.
There was high unemployment and a drought at home, prices were leaping ahead of wages and the war years had taken their toll on rail and tram workers, who were working on reduced wages and conditions.
“About 7500 men from the railway had left to join the war and they were not replaced. This on top of the increased workloads placed on the workers to make munitions for the war effort created the tinderbox that was just waiting for a spark.
“This came in the introduction of a card system, which was all about controlling the workforce and taking away the dignity of the skilled employees to manage their own time and workloads. The NSW Railway Commissioner had backtracked on assurances the card system was not going to be introduced.”
When it was introduced on August 2, 1917 - 1100 tramway workers and 3000 Everleigh Workshop workers downed their tools and walked off the job. They were followed soon by railway fireman and locomotive engine drivers.
“The strike spread like wildfire across NSW and Goulburn was one of the the main regional railway centres at the time, but Goulburn’s contribution to the strike lies in the shadow of Bathurst, because a young Ben Chifley was a chief local organiser of the strike there and it has been well-documented,” Mr Jowett said.
“This was a spontaneous outburst by large section of the workforce, which spread to the seaman, wharfies, trolley and dray drivers, who refused to handle ‘black goods’ - goods usually carried by rail but which being carried by scab labour to get around the strike. The strike then spread into Victoria and Queensland as well.”
Mr Jowett said the government of the day inflamed the situation by refusing to negotiate and portraying the strikers as undermining the war effort and “being against king and country”
“Headlines of the time called the strikers ‘the friend of the Kaiser’ and industrial workers of the world became the enemy,” he said.
The strike ended after six weeks when the workers returned to work. As a result 20 unions were de-registered and many of the strikers were blacklisted for many years
Mr Jowett said centenary celebrations of the strike would be held this year across the state.
“This is about honouring the railway workers who made the sacrifices and also the communities that supported them. Being out of work for six weeks is a big ask and a lot of support came from the community in the form of food for the worker’s families,” he said.
Celebrations in Goulburn are being planned.
“There are only dozens of railway workers left in Goulburn but at its height in the 1950s the railways employed 6000 people here,” he said.