The previous week’s REDWatch meeting had been my first real introduction to the strike of 1917. Even at my primary school a scant block from North Eveleigh, the imperial debacle at Gallipoli had loomed larger than the struggle that erupted in our own inner-city streets.
But not everyone forgot. First speaker Roger Jowett from the Rail Tram and Bus Union told us that as late as the 1970s, when he joined the union, the strike still fired passions, and no wonder. At its most basic level the Card System that the management forced on the Eveleigh workers, which triggered the strike, was an insult to the fierce pride the workers displayed so clearly in their banners and slogans.
The Lily Whites, those workers who held out to the bitter end in the face of starvation and retaliation from management, were held in the highest esteem. It took years of struggle and a royal commission before the strikers won back their seniority, and three ALP leaders, including Ben Chifley (PM 1945-49), emerged from the ranks of the strikers – all unsurprising in the face of the bold claim to the central role for labour made in those grand union banners of old.
The other speaker, Matt Mewburn from Eveleigh Works which occupies the old Locomotive Workshop’s blacksmith shop in the south of Bay 1, seemed to feel that sense of pride. He certainly seemed convinced that it had been the brain and muscle of the Eveleigh workforce that had played a central role in building Australian prosperity.
His sense of enthusiasm for his chosen trade was infectious, as was his conviction that the shop was one of the finest of its kind, and that the dormant machines in the north of the bays would be a better monument to the site’s heritage if they were put back to work.
But at the moment there is no indication these feelings are shared by Mirvac, the site’s new owner. Fine words have been spoken about heritage but they stand in sharp contrast with the baffling proposal to convert the north of the bay into a loading dock of a planned supermarket.
Mr Mewburn’s concern (shared by REDWatch) is that even if a satisfactory arrangement can be agreed now, future tenants may have requirements incompatible to sharing the site with a working blacksmith, and this last animated part of the great industry that helped federate this continent will fall silent.