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labour historian’s perspective on the Eveleigh Workshops

NSW Department of Education and Training, Sites and Scenes 1999

The Eveleigh workshops provide a good field of study for labour historians who are interested in management and work organisation, working conditions and pay rates, industrial relations between managers and employees, the trade unions and political parties that protect and promote employee interests at work and outside it. Governments are also important to labour history because they employ people and more broadly their regulate the conditions under which they work.

Government ownership of the railways affected many aspects of the Eveleigh workshops' development. The need to control costs and also to employ a large number of highly skilled workers influenced management policies. In fact, 11 827 people worked for the NSW Department of Railways in 1890. By 1914, the Department had become one of Australia’s largest employers and one tenth of its workforce was employed at Eveleigh. To deal with this large workforce, the Department evolved extensive rules and regulations.

Railway employment was extremely popular because it offered security, fringe benefits, such as free travel passes and paid holidays, as well as relatively good pay, prestige and the opportunity for promotion. For these reasons, jobs with the railways were highly sought after and employees often tried to get jobs on the railways for other members of their families. However, railway work involved long hours and often dangerous conditions. Before the 1880s, employees formed benefit societies to help deal with accidents and deaths that occurred at work. Initially they also joined together to oppose wage cuts and to reduce hours of work. When trade unions were formed in the 1870s and 1880s by boilermakers and engine drivers and firemen, as well as other railway and tramway workers, these organisations launched campaigns to limit the working day to eight hours. They also appealed to governments to deal with railway workers’ problems and they tried to influence government policies on industrial development, technological innovation and labour relations. One Eveleigh employee, the boiler maker J.S.T. McGowan became a union official and later, after the Labor Party was formed in the early 1890s, he became a Labor Party politician. In 1910 when the first Labor Government was elected in NSW, McGowan became Premier.

Those who were employed at Eveleigh attempted to improve or protect workplace conditions, particularly when new forms of technology threatened workers’ ability to control how they did their jobs. One of the most important examples of such a threat occurred in 1917, when the Department’s managers introduced a new system of recording how long it took workers to do different jobs. Because this system involved the timing of all tasks with a stop watch, the workers believed that it aimed to speed them up. They feared that it would turn them into machines and slaves of the clock. For this reason they refused to work under it by going on strike. Their action became the largest industrial dispute ever experienced in Australian history. Their strike began on 2 August when 5 780 of the Department's workers left work. By the end of the week this number had grown to 10 000. The strike then spread to other unions and other industrial centres in NSW, like Newcastle, Broken Hill, Bulli-Wollongong, Lithgow, Bathurst and Goulburn. It was also supported by workers in Victoria and Queensland. By 22 October approximately 97 500 workers had become involved. Of these, about 77 350 were located in NSW. Only 15 000 of the NSW Railways and Tramways Department's 48 000 employees did not strike. Additionally, throughout the strike, massive demonstrations were held in Sydney and in other towns to support the strikers.

The Government refused all appeals from Labor politicians and members of the public to fix the crises. In turn, numbers of people demonstrated against the card system and the Government. Because the railways generally and the Eveleigh workshops specifically employed many family groups, women and children also joined the crowds that met at Sydney’s Central Railway Station in Eddy Avenue and marched to the Domain to protest against the Government’s actions. On some days during the six week long strike crowds at the Domain numbered around 200 000 people. Stan Jones, whose grandfather, father and cousins were all employed at Eveleigh as moulders, machinists and boilermakers, recalled accompanying his father on such occasions. As he described the event:

…the families of the strikers became closer to each other and the families of those who didn't go on strike correspondingly became closer too. One had the feeling of being in the fight and the others had to some degree feelings of guilt... Not that there were too many who belonged to families whose men did not take part in the strike.

Interview with Stan Jones conducted by Lucy Taksa on 8 September 1983

The strike ended on 10 September when railway workers returned to work under the card system, which they had so strongly opposed. Strike-breakers, who had been brought to the city by the Government to replace the strikers, kept their new jobs and 2 000 strikers were refused their old jobs. Those who were re-employed lost their seniority and other benefits. During the 1920s when Labor Governments were elected these workers’ positions were restored.

This strike had a long-lasting impact on the Eveleigh workshops. Three strikers later become extremely prominent in Australian society and political life. J.B. Chifley, a train driver, became Prime Minister of Australia during the 1940s. Eddie Ward, who worked in the Eveleigh locomotive workshops, was elected to the Federal Parliament during the early 1930s to represent the Seat of Sydney. And J.J. Cahill who was a fitter at Eveleigh from1907 and an official of the Engineers' Union before and during the 1917 strike, was elected to the NSW Parliament. He was a Minister in the NSW Labor Government during the 1940s and the State’s Premier during the 1950s.

Although in April 1932 the NSW Premier Jack Lang abolished the card system that sparked the 1917 strike, workers still had to account for their work times. As one railway engine driver put it: 'in our branch there was no such thing as wasting time because you had that sheet and every minute you were paid for was accounted for on that sheet.' John Mongan remembered how the Department's Clerks would send notes to workers to explain why they had 'lost three minutes somewhere’ and if workers did not respond in writing they were not signed on for work. This time keeping system was still being used during the 1940s and 1950s. Jack Bruce described the effect this had on Eveleigh employees in the following exchange:

Joan Kent: Did you have to fill in time sheets?

Jack Bruce: Yes. We were accountable for our 8 hours a day by the time sheet over a ten-day period and they had to be completed and handed into the time-keeping section – the costing section. …Bungs came down through administration. …A bung was a 'please explain' and they had the great technique of being able to fit you with a huge number of charges for the one offence. If a couple of apprentices were caught playing up, wrestling, whatever might have been happening, if that foreman considered that that was sufficient to report to management, a bung would eventually be delivered to the offender. But he wouldn't just be charged with wrestling on the job or something like that, it would be broken up into many things, idling your time was one of them, by behaving in such-and-such a manner …You had to submit a written explanation. It might be returned to your foreman to have words with you or you might be called to a higher ranking officer to deal with you, to tell you you were being reprimanded. Minor things would finish at that, others would... be entered on your record. You're getting pretty serious then. If you built up a lot of those you were getting into a fair amount of strife. …Y4ou could complain to your union representative and they would represent your case.

Interview with Jack Bruce.

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