Great Strike

The “Great Strike” of 1917 was actually centred on Sydney, but its effect could be felt across Australia. In the end, close to 100,000 workers, mainly in the railway, tram, wharf and coal mining industries, walked off the job in New South Wales and Victoria for up to six weeks through August and into September of 1917. A fortnight after the union leaders declared an end to the strike, the majority of workers had returned to their jobs. The reason behind the strike was the fact that the New South Wales rail and tram department wanted to introduce a new card system to record and monitor every worker’s input. Scientifically called a “time and motion study”, it was aimed at finding out how long each task might take. However, unions were concerned that this would lead to surveillance of individual workers and thus the potential for bosses to notify and get rid of those deemed inefficient. Average wages across Australia had already fallen by close to one-third by the end of 1916. The attempts by Australia’s government to conscript more fighting men for the war, and particularly the apparent anti-establishment attitude of those of Irish background, also contributed to class tension ahead of the strike. One striker and one strike-breaker were shot. Other members of the general public protested daily in both Melbourne and Sydney, with numbers well into the tens of thousands. To break the strike, the state governments at the time organised volunteer workers from regional areas, university students and school lads to replace those off work. Sydney’s group of volunteers were housed at Taronga Zoo and the Sydney Cricket Ground. By its close, the unions had all but agreed to terms that seemed like a capitulation to the government. Many workers were furious at what they saw as a backdown by the unions. Two of the well-known participants in the strike were Ben Chifley – who would go on to be Prime Minister in 1945 – and Joe Cahill – who would go on to become Premier of New South Wales in 1952. Both men worked in the rail industry. The former was a train driver and the latter a mechanic.

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Adela Pankhurst

Small in stature and not in the best of health, Adela Pankhurst (1885-1961) was nonetheless a compelling speaker and tireless worker in the anti-war campaigns in Australia during the First World War. She was the youngest daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst who along with her daughters Sylvia and Christabel, founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) the leading militant organisation campaigning for women’s suffrage in the UK. Following a rift between the Pankhurst women because of opposing political opinions, Adela sailed to Australia in April 1914 never to see her mother or sisters again. Adela joined Victoria’s leading suffragist Vida Goldstein's organisation, the Women's Political Association and helped her set up branches of the Women’s Peace Army. During the two anti-conscription referendums, Adela campaigned almost daily. Adela’s fiercely patriotic mother Emmeline, denounced her daughter in a telegram dated 8 March 1917 to Prime Minister Billie Hughes. In August 1917, Adela was arrested for obstructing the carriage way during a demonstration against wartime food prices outside Melbourne’s Federation Parliament House. While on remand from a gaol sentence Adela married unionist Tom Walsh the following month forestalling deportation. After the war she continued her life of activism becoming a leading member of the communist party in Australia but later withdrew, launching the Australian Women’s Guild of Empire, an organisation dedicated to fighting communism, upholding Christian ideals and safeguarding the family.

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