Australasian Gazette: The Strike Spreads

Australasian Gazette: The Strike Spreads
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This segment from an Australasian Gazette newsreel shows waterside workers unloading perishables from a ship, possibly part of the New South Wales General Strike of 1917. Summary by Elizabeth Taggart-Speers.

The New South Wales General Strike of 1917 was the largest union movement since the Australian maritime dispute of 1890. It occurred because the government, through the New South Wales Department of Railways and Tramways, introduced an American costing system, to determine where its workers could increase efficiency.

The railway workers were the first to strike but this soon spread to other unions including the coke-workers, seamen, miners, ship painters and dockers in Sydney including Cockatoo Island and Garden Islands, and the waterside workers in Melbourne.

The strike lasted over two months, between 2 August and 15 October 1917 but the impact of the strike lasted a lot longer. The working class of Sydney experienced a loss of livelihood and there was widespread starvation. The Lord Mayor of Sydney, RD Meagher acted as mediator and suggested the card system be introduced but that an independent tribunal be immediately appointed to investigate. However, Cabinet refused to modify its previous position.

This newsreel seems to be a little disjointed. Although intertitles are used to introduce the subject, there isn’t any explanation as to why the waterside workers are striking or what may be the outcome. For most viewers of the time however, the context would have been familiar.

The footage of waterside workers unloading perishables from a ship is vivid and provides an important visual record of this event.

Newsreels were an integral part of cinema programming in Australia before the advent of television in 1956. Issued on a weekly basis, newsreels enabled people to further engage with local and national political stories and events.Australasian Gazette began in 1913 and ran until the advent of talkies in the early 1930s.

Notes by Elizabeth Taggart-Speers

Education notes

This silent black-and-white clip shows scenes from the ‘Great Strike’ of 1917. The clip begins with an intertitle: ‘THE STRIKE SPREADS. Produce Merchants undertake the Unloading of Perishables from Ships in Port.’, which is followed by a number of shots taken from the wharf and onboard the ship showing cargo being winched onto the wharf and then being stacked. The last shot shows the men facing the camera as they take a break.

Educational value points

  • This clip is thought to have been filmed during the New South Wales General Strike of 1917, which began in August and lasted for more than six weeks. The words 'Produce Merchants’, used in the clip to describe the men unloading the cargo, suggest that they are not the usual waterside workers and may be, in fact, non-striking labour or 'scabs’. The street hats, breeches and suit pants also suggest that they could be volunteers from management.
  • The General Strike began as a response to the NSW Department of Railways and Tramways’ second attempt to introduce more stringent rules of employment, including a time-card system to record the working times and performance of its employees. The strikers were also motivated by general frustration at continuing low wages and by war weariness. Within a few days the strike had spread to coal mines, wharves, factories and warehouses.
  • The strike quickly spread to other industries – including boilermakers, blacksmiths, workers in electrical trades, plumbers, sheet metal workers, coal miners, meatworkers and waterside workers – and beyond NSW, causing massive disruptions at ports around Australia. Strikers marched daily through Sydney’s streets, where they were joined by thousands of supporters.
  • According to labour historian Dr Lucy Taksa, the NSW General Strike was probably the biggest industrial upheaval ever experienced in Australian history and resulted, in part, in the government commandeering stocks of coal, coalmines and some classes of ships. At the height of the strike 97,500 workers had become involved Australiawide; approximately 77,350 of them in NSW or 14 per cent of the state’s workforce.
  • Strikers and supporters of the strike were not only objecting to the introduction of a time card system but what they saw as the government’s attack on trade unionism. Three leaders of the strike were arrested. Among the strikers was Ben Chifley, later to become a Labor Prime Minister of Australia. Chifley, who was an engine driver at the time, was dismissed from his position but later appealed and was reinstated.
  • According to historian Professor Ian Turner, the strike was a failure and when it ended many workers found their jobs taken over by 'scabs’, and their unions, which had been deregistered, were unable to provide protection. Turner said the NSW General Strike was 'unplanned and poorly organised’ as the decision to strike was taken by the workers, without consultation with their union leaders (Turner, I, In Union is Strength, Nelson, 1978).
  • The General Strike took place during the First World War (1914–18). During the early War years there were few strikes in NSW as workers’ patriotism in support of Australian soldiers and the war effort had been invoked. By 1917, however, the mood had changed. The 'No’ vote on the referendum for conscription for overseas service in 1916 had revealed great opposition to the War and appeals to patriotism no longer prevented workers from striking.
  • This clip is taken from an Australian newsreel called Australasian Gazette, a weekly compilation of film reports on current events that was shown in cinemas before the feature film. Newsreels were a chief source of audiovisual news before television commenced broadcasting in 1956. Cinema programs usually included an international and a locally produced newsreel, each about 12 minutes in length.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia