Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts (Hons.)


The General Strike of 1917 began on the 2nd of August in the workshops of the New South Wales Railways and Tramways Department on the introduction of the Card System into the Service. Although the dispute was confined to the Department initially, it quickly spread by way of "sympathy" strikes to include unionists in all major industries in the State, and the major ports of the Commonwealth. Through the use of volunteer and "loyalist" labour and the assistance of the Federal Government and the employers, the Nationalist Government of New South Wales was able to defeat the strikers and impose harsh settlements. The railway section of the strike ended on the 10th September, but coalminers, seamen and watersiders did not return to work until mid October.

The Nationalist Government of New South Wales was quick to brand the strike a political "conspiracy", which set out to challenge the authority of the recently elected "win-the-war" Nationalist Government. It was alleged by the Nationalists that the conspiracy had been initiated by the revolutionary I.W.W. and supported by all dissident and disloyal elements of the labour movement, who had opposed conscription and were intent on thwarting the war effort. These sentiments were echoed by the patriotic press and endorsed by W.M. Hughes and the Nationalists in power in the Federal Parliament. The Nationalists, to crush the Conspiracy, and to assert the authority of their Government, set out to defeat the unions totally and unconditionally.

Allegations that the strike was the result of a political conspiracy within the labour movement were without foundation. Amongst trade unionists there was much discontent, as real wages fell and prices soared and other grievances remained unheard. The Card System was merely a catalyst for direct action, since it created fears of impending deterioration in working conditions and further exploitation of labour. Provocative actions on the part of the Nationalist Government provided further fuel for a potentially volatile industrial situation.

Counter-allegations were made by members of the labour movement to the effect that the Nationalists, together with employers, had deliberately engineered the strike to launch an attack on unionism. Certainly, in the violation of written agreements, first the Government and then the employers engaged in wholesale victimisation, refusing to re-employ workers in their old jobs and depriving them of their seniority and superannuation rights. Old unions were de-registered and new Government or employer-sponsored unions created in their place. In a later Royal Commission, several of the actions of the Government of New South Wales were found to be legally questionable. However, the notion of "conspiracy" remains tenuous.

The evidence shows that the Nationalists and the employers effected a savage attack on unionism, and the success of this probably influenced the decision to hold another Conscription Referendum. Whether or not this was a pre-meditated attack or, in fact, a conspiracy, is difficult to prove conclusively.