Australian unions celebrate the centenary of 1917 Great Strike

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Hundreds of women marched on the New South Wales Parliament as part of the strike
Hundreds of women marched on the New South Wales Parliament as part of the strike

THIS WEEK will mark 100 years since The Great Strike of 1917, when 100,000 workers around Australia walked off the job to protest changing workplace conditions.

The source of consternation was the introduction of time cards, designed to monitor worker productivity. As part of the new workplace systems, foremen began watching over labourers, counting the time it took them to do certain tasks.

The strikers called it ‘Americanising work’ or ‘Robotism’. The managers, ‘scientific management’.

Workers believed the new system was turning them into machines, de-skilling them and destroying their collective bonds. Their concerns came to a head at 9am on August 2nd, 1917, when employees at the Randwick tram and Eveleigh railways workshops in Sydney called a strike.

With Australia still deeply involved in World War I, it was a controversial time to launch large scale industrial action. Families and communities were divided over whether to strike during wartime, but it didn’t stop hundreds of thousands of people rallying in cities around the country. Among the strikers was Ben Chifley, who later became prime minister — he lost his job as an engine driver because of his participation.

The strike was declared over a month later, without having achieved its objectives. The movement had lost. In the end, the strike proved devastating for the labour movement, which was already split over conscription. Yet the Great Strike of 1917 is an event that resonates today. The dispute wasn’t about pay, but the impact of technology and new forms of work organisation.

A worker from 1917 wouldn’t have any trouble in understanding contemporary media discussions. We’re dealing with a similar situation: new technology — automation, robots, algorithms and the gig economy — is changing the way we work. The algorithm of 1917 was the time card. In 2017, this style of workplace management is on the rise again.

It’s called digital Taylorism, with software and other tools increasing the ability of management to break down, monitor and analyse performance. As the modern workplace changes, workers may again decide they need to stand up for their rights and negotiate workable conditions with their employers.

New South Wales (NSW) unions are holding a Centenary Dinner on Wednesday 2nd August.

Their invite said: ‘The 1917 Centenary Committee and Unions NSW invites friends of the labour movement to join us in a celebration of the Centenary of the 1917 Great Strike.

Speakers include

• Alex Claassens, RTBU NSW Branch Secretary

• Sally McManus, Secretary ACTU

• John Graham, MLC

• Mark Morey, Secretary Unions NSW

‘The dinner is being held to celebrate the contribution of the union of men and women who took industrial action on 2nd August 1917 and whose courage inspired generations of labour leaders including Prime Minister Ben Chifley, Premier JJ Cahill and Eddie Ward MP.

‘The 1917 Centenary Dinner is being held to honour and remember the men and women whose struggles contributed so much to the development of future generations of labour movement leaders.’

Meanwhile, Australian workers are taking action today. Drivers for Sunbus on the Sunshine Coast stopped work as attacks on their pay and conditions increase. Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) driver members held a four-hour strike from 10am until 2pm last Thursday the 27th of July.

Bus drivers are frustrated by attacks on their pay and conditions, and a clear reluctance to improve safety across the board. TWU Queensland Branch Secretary Peter Biagini has said that drivers on the Sunshine Coast are refusing to give up their hard-fought, won conditions.

He said ahead of Thursday’s strike: ‘Bus drivers face abuse and assaults every single day, and they deserve to retain and improve their current pay and conditions. ‘Drivers on the Sunshine Coast have fought for and won the conditions that they currently enjoy, and will not be giving them up anytime soon.

‘TransLink have stuck their head in the sand and are refusing to take responsibility for drivers on the Sunshine Coast and all across Queensland. TransLink can’t keep saying it’s someone else’s fault. When every company is saying that TransLink isn’t providing enough funding for the contracts then it’s time for TransLink to step up and do their job.

‘We do not want to see a repeat of what happened several years ago with rolling stoppages and lockouts, but these drivers have been through those tough times and are strong enough to fight back if push comes to shove. It’s now up to the company and TransLink to come to the table and take responsibility for their operations.’

The Transport Workers’ Union will oppose a move by giant road transport company Toll Group in the Fair Work Commission over work stoppages after thousands of workers challenged management on cuts to their working hours and conditions.

Workers have been holding meetings across the country to support action against the company after talks stalled on a new agreement. Anger has mounted over cuts Toll want to make to working hours in the enterprise agreement, which the company has already begun implementing at two sites. As a result of the lengthy meetings Toll has notified the TWU it will apply to the Fair Work Commission over what it deemed were work stoppages.

‘There is a groundswell of disappointment at Toll over the stalled talks. Transport workers today are demanding that management explain its stance and the attacks on people’s livelihoods. These workers want to ensure a productive company and quality jobs and they are willing to challenge management,’ said TWU National Secretary Tony Sheldon.

‘The anger at Toll follows gross problems by the previous management team which saw jobs cuts and a write-down of the company. This anger is beginning to boil over given current management’s stance at the negotiating table,’ he added. The TWU will tell the Fair Work Commission the heated meetings over-ran because of tensions over the cuts Toll is planning.

Negotiations on a new enterprise agreement began in March and have reached an impasse over cuts to working hours and the hiring of casuals and labour hire workers. Transport workers will this week begin voting to take action which will include bans on overtime, call backs and paper work and 24-hour work stoppages.

Talks also stalled on attempts to limit the range of disputes employees can seek redress on at the Fair Work Commission. Workers are also concerned by moves to end supply chain auditing, which ensure every worker driving for Toll, including those employed by sub-contractors, receive safe and fair working conditions.

‘The company has separately embarked on critical operational and management restructuring. While those steps need to be applauded the company should not follow the same worn path that was taken by previous failed management,’ Sheldon added.