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Remembering the strike that stopped the nation

The City of Sydney and Carriageworks have collaborated on an exhibition to mark the centenary of one of Australia’s largest industrial disputes that took place in the middle of World War I.

1917: The Great Strike is a commemorative exhibition featuring archival images, moving footage, oral history excerpts and commissioned artworks that depict this important moment in Australian history.

The nationwide strike lasted just over six weeks but its consequences lingered for decades, creating a highly politicised workforce and a generation of politicians, including premiers and prime ministers.

The strike began in August 1917 when employees at Eveleigh Railway Workshops and the Randwick Tramsheds walked off the job to protest against new working conditions imposed during wartime.

Lord Mayor Clover Moore said the landmark exhibition shows the importance of celebrating our shared history and understanding how it formed the way we are today.

“The Great Strike of 1917 had a significant impact on NSW during World War I, especially for residents living in the City of Sydney area, many of whom worked in local industries like the Eveleigh Railway Workshops,” the Lord Mayor said.

“The City played a crucial role – the Lord Mayor was a mediator in the strike, and set up a relief fund to provide sustenance for destitute women and children, drawing and building on a long tradition of caring for people in our community.

“We’re proud to partner with Carriageworks to mark the centenary and explore the legacy of the strike.”

The exhibition is part of the City’s cultural policy and action plan, which has been developed to guide the arts in central Sydney.

Carriageworks Director Lisa Havilah said: “The Eveleigh Railway Workshops, where Carriageworks is located, played a central role in this important milestone in Australia’s history. In keeping with our artist-led programming, Carriageworks has commissioned a group of contemporary Australian artists to respond to this major historical event, with each artist creating new work for the exhibition.”

The Eveleigh Railway Workshops, built in the 1880s, provided steady employment for local residents in the nearby suburbs of Erskineville, Redfern, Darlington and Chippendale until the mid-20th century.

The workshops were at the heart of political and industrial activism with workers banding together to improve conditions, wages and work practices.

A new method of monitoring productivity known as the card system, was introduced to the NSW railways and tramways in mid-July 1917.

Around 5,790 railway and tramway employees walked off the job in protest of the new system on 2 August 1917, marking the start of the Great Strike. The strike soon spread to other industries and industrial centres throughout Australia with an estimated 77,350 people striking across NSW.

During the strike there were regular large-scale processions along Sydney’s main thoroughfares and mass gatherings in The Domain that attracted thousands of participants each weekend – not just the striking men, but women and children too.

With the strike came food shortages and limited public transport.

Bernie Johnston was a young boy living in Surry Hills in 1917. When interviewed 70 years later, he remembered the strike as: ‘a bitter thing because it divided the working class completely’.

Likewise Bill White, a tram driver based at Rozelle Depot in the 1920s, recalled of the strike and its aftermath as ‘a terrible time of victimisation and abuse and hatred, jingoism and patriotism…’.

For Gwen Green, 17 years old at the time of the strike, it was: ‘awful, everything stopped. I can’t describe how dreadful it was, because bread wasn’t being made, trams and trains ceased, living was impossible for those particularly who didn’t have any reserves… it really was a very bad time.’

It was estimated at the time that strikers lost around £1.7 million in wages (valued at around $3.4 million today) and that the total economic loss to the community was around £3.4 million to £9 million (around $6.8 million to $18 million in today’s currency).

The strike and its aftermath politicised a core group, including train driver Ben Chifley, who went on to become the Australian Prime Minister from 1945 to 1949.

1917: The Great Strike exhibition will run at Carriageworks from 15 July to 27 August 2017. 1917: The Great Strike is presented by Carriageworks and City of Sydney, in partnership with the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA).

Source: City of Sydney

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