Australian General Strike, 1917

“The Great Strike” involved around 100,000 workers, mostly in NSW and Victoria. It began in NSW over six weeks from 2 August to 8 September 1917. Rank and file meetings initially rejected the official capitulation, and waterside workers in Sydney and Melbourne, and the Hunter Valley coal miners remained out until November, by which time the employment of strike breakers had turned the strike into a lockout.

The strike began in the NSW railway system, with workers walking off the job: most strikes began with walkouts by rank and file workers. Real wages were falling by 30% between 1914 and 1919, provoking a wave of strikes from 1916. This, combined with anger at the conscription issue, and the disaffection of Irish-Australians, created an atmosphere of class tension in which the strike exploded.

The strike was supported by mass protest. In Sydney, the daily rallies peaked every Sunday with crowds of up to 150,000.

The governments organised strike breakers on a mass scale, including middle class “volunteers”, University students and the upper forms and masters of private schools.

On 9 September 1917 the Defence Committee, an ad hoc committee of trade union officials based in the NSW Trades and Labour Council, declared the strike over on terms which amounted to a complete capitulation. The decision was denounced in furious mass meetings but, without official support, the strikers drifted back to work. The miners and waterside workers, the two groups most affected by strike breakers remained on strike till November, in a vain attempt to remove the scabs.

The unions recovered their strength by 1919. A massive strike-wave that year was spearheaded by some of the workers that had shared in the defeat of 1917, particularly the Broken Hill miners and the seamen.