Unionism at Eveleigh

“You couldn't escape, it was always a political area, Eveleigh, because of a range of reasons” Brian Dunnett, former Eveleigh worker

Anti-conscription meeting at Eveleigh Locomotive Workshops, 1966

More than just the heart of the NSW transport network, Eveleigh Railway Workshops were also a focal point of the labour movement and unionism in Australia. From its earliest years of operation, Eveleigh was highly unionised and, supported by the emerging Labour party, a key contributor to railway workers winning significant work concessions and rights including the eight-hour day, five-day week, and minimum rates of pay. 

Most unions within NSW Railways were represented at Eveleigh. Unions fought for the rights and safety of Eveleigh workers, negotiating and advocating for the introduction of safety standards, appropriate training, and better work procedures. However, unions tended to represent specialist skill groups, for example, engineers, engine drivers, and boilermakers, and therefore general labourers and ‘unskilled’ workers could be overlooked by union representation. Insufficient communication between unions and respective political directions could also cause a disconnect between workers on the ground in the Workshops, and higher-level union bureaucracy. 

Union banner of the NSW Locomotive Engine Drivers, Firemen & Cleaners Association.

Part of the solution to inter-union communications and unskilled worker representation, came in the form of shop committees established in the late 1920s. Shop committees did not replace unions, but coexisted with them, working to create links between the twelve or so different unions that operated at Eveleigh, and forging networks between workers from different occupations and unions.

“Shop committees transcended craft/labourer union divisions. Sections of workshops elected representatives on the basis of capability, numbers involved etc. In my area of Eveleigh the shop committees were mainly led by ‘unskilled’ workers…The Shop Committee movement also helped the breakdown of divisions between industries.”
Hal Alexander, former Eveleigh worker

The Australiasian Society of Engineers


1939 'EVELEIGH -- THE HEART OF THE TRANSPORT SYSTEM', Daily News (Sydney, NSW : 1938 - 1940), 19 January, p. 7. , viewed 07 May 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article236319651

Alexander, H. & Griffiths, P. (2003). A few rough reds: Stories of rank and file organising. Australian Society for the Study of Labour History. http://roughreds.com/

Taksa, L. (2005) “The Material Culture of an Industrial Artifact: Interpreting Control, Defiance, and Everyday Resistance at the New South Wales Eveleigh Railway Workshops”, Historical Archaeology, Vol. 39, No. 3, Landscapes of Industrial Labor, pp. 8-27