In for the long haul

In for the long haul
Rail union newspapers recall the Great Strike
21 August 2017

Great Strike workmen photo 1917

Maclean, Edward Stewart (1893-1946), Group of workmen during the General Strike of Railways and Tramways  Oct 1917,

Trove has taken carriage of a set of newspaper titles that provide a worker's insight into one of Australia’s biggest industrial conflicts, in time to mark its centenary.

The Amalgamated Railway and Tramway Service Association newspaper ran under the banner of three titles, The Railway and Tramway Co-operator (Sydney, NSW: 1909-10), The Co-operator (Sydney, NSW: 1910-17), and the All Grades Advocate (Sydney, NSW: 1917). All are now available in Trove, thanks to the Library's digitisation partnership with the Australian National University (ANU) Archives.

Senior Archivist at the ANU, Sarah Lethbridge, said the railway newspapers were a rich source of material from a union perspective on what became known as the Great Strike of 1917. Other points of interest included World War 1, the conscription debates and living conditions of the day.

The lighted match

A seemingly innocuous management decision in a Sydney rail yard sparked the industrial conflict that would have longstanding and profound effects on the nation.

1917 was already a tumultuous year for Australia. The Great War was continuing to visit grief upon the nation on an unprecedented scale. Billy Hughes was preparing a second divisive tilt at conscription and despite a labour shortage, workers’ pay packets were shrinking. Someone only needed to light the fuse for this powderkeg to explode. That person was Chief Commissioner of NSW Railways and Tramways Department, James Fraser, who introduced a card system to record work times and output in a drive for greater efficiencies at the Eveleigh Rail Yards and Randwick Tram Sheds.

This move intensified the railway unions' perception that management was exerting an unwarranted level of control on workers. It was not a new topic of discussion, with The Co-operator's editorial of July 1916 declaring

 “Scientific management seeks to make the task of the worker more monotonous than it ever was, to take from his work the last vestige of individuality, and to make him a mere cog in the machinery of production.”

All Grades Advocate strike notice

All Grades Advocate, 9th August 1917, pg.4.

The card system was not withdrawn by the deadline, and workers walked off the job in protest from 2 August. The unrest spread beyond the railways to the coal mines and waterfront, and then to Victoria and South Australia.

The Great Strike involved around 100,000 workers, mostly in New South Wales and Victoria, and lasted until 8 September 1917 when the official leadership capitulated. Workers beyond the railways stayed out for much longer due to the use of strikebreakers. It had terrible consequences with many strikers losing their jobs, or being demoted when they returned to work, and living with a black mark against them for years to come. It also saw a generation politicised, including Labor identities such as future Federal MP Eddie Ward, NSW Premier J.J. Cahill and a young Ben Chifley who, ironically, had to confront a major strike as Prime Minister.

Capturing the centenary

The centenary of the strike was the catalyst for the digitisation project, as Unions NSW had sought use of the newspapers for various exhibitions and research projects marking the event. The newspapers are held in the ANU’s Noel Butlin Archives Centre, which collects business and labour records from Australian companies, trade unions, industry bodies and professional organisations. Digitisation was considered not only timely and beneficial to researchers but necessary as the newspapers are too fragile for significant handling and likely to be completely unusable within five years.

ANU Library Digitisation Officer Stephanie Luke said: “The centenary of the general strike, along with the second referendum on conscription, has increased contemporary debate around these issues, and this publication is of interest to researchers of these two significant events, as well as the general upheaval of the war years.’’

The labour movement in general was opposed to conscription and the railways union newspaper was alert to plans for a second referendum.

All Grades advocate conscription article

All Grades Advocate, 15 November 1917, pg.2.

Ms Lethbridge refers to historian Joan Beaumont’s view that the Great Strike broke out in the context of societal distress, that it was a great outpouring of anger and grief. She said its effects were long lasting on both sides, for example, CSR’s employment records from the 1930s were still marked with who served in the war or went out on strike.

The All Grades Advocate of 18 October 1917 attacked the post-strike recriminations that it said contravened the settlement conditions:

 “The last clause of the strike settlement provided that employment was to be accepted without resentment, and offered without vindictiveness, yet never before in the history of strikes has vindictiveness even to the point of maliciousness been evinced more than on the present occasion.’’

The newspapers have already been a significant source for researchers including the University of Sydney’s Mark Hearn who examined the man who lit the fuse in Productivity and Patriotism: the Management Narrative of New South Wales Rail Chief Commissioner James Fraser, 1917-1929.

Ms Lethbridge said many people also used trade union and company records to research family history. “They may be horrified to find out great grandpa was a strike breaker, or that great grandpa went on strike. It helps to fill out people’s stories about their own family history. And the whole issue of industrial relations never goes away,’’ she said.“Now that they're digitised and available they’ll come up in people’s searches through Trove and through our website, and I think we’ll find them in use for all sorts of things. It will be interesting to see how people make use of this and interpret it as times go by.’’


 Interested in partnering with us to digitise newspapers on Trove? Get in touch: (02) 6262 1005 or

Hi Ms Lethbridge, thank you for publicising this wonderful collection. You may wish to also refer to my numerous articles on 1917, published since the late 1980s. They certainly do come up on a Trove search. Also the many people I interviewed on the strike as part of the NSW Bicentennial Oral History, all in the National Library collection. Regards Lucy
Interesting in the history where some today still seem to want to live those days while the rest of the world has moved on. A comment on continuing union influence these days when those same unions reconcile reality with dreams of glory and past influence.