A new exhibition at Carriageworks seeks to bring back into popular consciousness a ‘forgotten history’ of World War I-era Sydney
As you enter Carriageworks this winter you’ll notice two massive painted banners suspended from the ceiling; it’s easy to mistake them for contemporary works of art, but in fact they are union banners from the turn of the century, bearing the symbols and insignia of their respective trades: the Federated Seamen’s Union, and the NSW Locomotive Engine Drivers, Firemen and Cleaners Association. This last one is particularly pertinent, taking pride of place in a new exhibition.
Marking the centenary of Australia’s largest industrial action, and taking place on the site where it broke out, 1917: The Great Strike brings together archival material, oral history and specially commissioned artworks to reanimate the experience of Sydney’s rail and tramway workers, and to reinterpret the ‘official history’.
“Nobody really remembers the Great Strike, but I think it really adds interest and complexity to Sydney’s World War I story,” says City of Sydney historian Laila Elmoos, who co-curated the exhibition with Carriageworks’ Nina Miall.
The Great Strike was triggered by the introduction of a ‘time card’ system for railway and tramway workers, in order to more precisely measure and track their labour – effectively ‘dehumanising’ it. It came a time when workers were already suffering from war-related wage freezes, increased cost-of-living and longer hours. Poverty was rife, and the mood was combustible.
The walk-offs began at the Randwick Tram Workshops on August 2 and spread to the Eveleigh Railway Workshops that morning. Within a few weeks, the strike had spread to other industries in New South Wales and beyond, and saw around 100,000 workers down tools. It lasted six weeks in all and at its height, workers and allies marched every weekend, from Carriageworks through the CBD and down to the Domain, where upwards of 100,000 convened to rally.
At the heart of 1917: The Great Strike is a short film documenting the strike as it was unfolding, showing the marches and a largely forgotten incident in which several hundred women stormed Parliament House in Macquarie Street. Around this are documentary and news photographs, union banners carried at the rallies, and audio recordings of oral history. Finally, artworks by Sarah Contos, Will French, Franck Gohier, Tom Nicholson with Andrew Byrne, and Raquel Ormella, explore different aspects of the strike: its graphic sensibilities; the notion of collective action; and ‘labour’ itself – as a matter of craft but also of monotonous duration.
Raquel Ormella, whose father worked in factories from the age of 12, was inspired by the story of the ‘shop boys’ of Eveleigh Railways Workshops, whose job it was to travel by bicycle through the surrounding suburbs each morning to wake up the engine-tenders and fire-stokers. “The workers as individuals were not really present in the story [of the Great Strike],” she says. “Ordinary people – their lives aren’t written down, mostly.”
Ormella’s work involved digging into the archives to find the names of workers – almost 30, in all – and sew them into banners that evoke the ones carried at the strike marches. “I could only find the names of two shop boys,” she says. She also sought out the names of the ‘Lily Whites’ – those ‘pure’ strikers who held out for the full six weeks. They were more notorious, and some went on to be union leaders and politicians.
Some of the banners will hang in Carriageworks, but most will be hung up around historic spots (original workers cottages, where possible) in Redfern, Erskineville and Newtown. Each is made from second-hand workers’ uniforms, which the artist painstakingly unpicked, or ‘unmade’. “I’m trying to pull something of the workers’ ‘lived experience’ from the past into the present.”
Sarah Contos has made a large banner-style patchwork quilt that draws on the colour palette and graphic sensibilities of Dadaist art to explore the experiences of women during the strike – from those forced to support their family on no income for as long as six weeks, to those who became ‘strike breakers’ in order to survive. Contos’s work is titled ‘Women’s Demonstration in front of Parliament House’, in reference to a key incident in the evolution of the Strike in which several hundred women stormed Parliament House.
Head to Carriageworks on August 5 for a day of talk and action: a panel discussion featuring Laila Elmoos; a brass band performance devised by artist Tom Nicholson and composer Andrew Byrne in response to workers’ songs of the era; performances by the Sydney Trade Union Choir and the Riff Raff Radical Marching Band; workshops in signwriting (with artist Will French) and collage (with artist Sarah Contos); and behind the scenes tours of Carriageworks and the Eveleigh Paint Workshop.