Set against the backdrop of growing Australian casualties in the First World War, this film reveals the events surrounding The Great Strike in 1917, when over 100,000 workers across the nation walked off the job in protest at the introduction of time cards at the Eveleigh Rail Yards and Randwick Tram Sheds in Sydney. Years of hardship, long hours, reduced wages and conditions and attempts to introduce conscription created an explosive atmosphere, steeped in class warfare and a growing resentment towards Britain and the war.
The strike quickly spread to other industries, including coalmines and the waterfront. Both federal and state Labor governments responded savagely to the strike, introducing mass strike breaking measures that saw strikebreakers brought in from rural areas and local schools. As depicted extensively in the film, strikebreakers were deputised and given firearms, resulting in the infamous shooting and murder of striker Mervyn Flanagan by strikebreaker Reginald Wearn. A gross miscarriage of justice follows, as family and conservative connections see Wearn absolved of any wrong doing, while the dead man’s brother and colleague, who was also shot in the leg, are convicted and sentenced to 3 months hard labour. Due to the Flanagan murder, authorities even censored and embargoed a film made at the time about the strike.
In the face of widespread hunger and deprivation, the savagery and ruthlessness of the Australian ruling class is laid bare, with undertones of class conflict and religious sectarianism. The collapse of the strike ushered in a harsh time with strikers losing their jobs and being blacklisted for many years. On a brighter note, the crisis would see battle hardened unionists once again step into the breach to fight for better working conditions, such as future prime minister Ben Chifley – a striking engine driver at the time.
The film combines contemporary interviews with historians, political commentators and descendants, with pre-recorded voice recordings from now deceased participants, along with extensive historical footage, stills and newspaper visuals. The telling of the history is intertwined with contemporary coverage of the installation of The Great Strike exhibition at the Carriageworks in Sydney, where artists are preparing works celebrating the strike, while historical trade union banners are also transported from Trades Hall to be proudly displayed and admired.
- Official selection – Antenna Documentary Film Festival (Aust), 2019
- Official selection – Workers Unite Film Festival (USA), 2020
- Finalist ATOM Awards, Documentary History (Aust) 2020
Author: J Bird, 2023