The 1917 General Strike

The 1917 General Strike was the largest in Australian history, stretching from August to late October. Almost 100,000 workers took part, protesting wage increases that did not keep up with a huge jump in inflation, war profiteering and, generally, the conservative politics of the time.

Union leaders were arrested and services were operated by thousands of scabs, who were recruited from farms and country towns. Scab unions rose up in the maritime industry; in Melbourne, the Australian Ship and Wharf Workers union was formed and, in Sydney, the Permanent and Casual Wharf Labourers Union. Violence was common as the scabs were led to work under police escort.

The Seamen's Union was split, with the Sydney Branch initiating the strike without prior discussion with other branches, even though thousands of members were made idle in ports outside Sydney. In a raucous meeting in Sydney, it was decided that the Seamen's Union would not works ships while the WWF members remained on strike. Strike pay was approved for destitute members.

As the strike was collapsing, employers pushed to deregister the WWF. Though the deregistration failed, the WWF and its branches lost preference for their members in the distribution of jobs. This was devastating to union members as, in the subsequent years, they achieved work only when there was a great overflow. Similarly, the employers refused to negotiate with the Seamen's Union over hiring and, having no alternative, the union called off the strike on October 22nd.