Friday, 28 July 2017

The Great Strike of 1917

From the ABC

Next 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 2, 1917, when employees at the Randwick tram and Eveleigh railways workshops in Sydney called a strike.

With Australia still deeply involved in the war effort, 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. Time will tell if they're more successful than the strikers of 1917.

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