Pat Mackie’s many ships to Mount Isa

Some 56 years ago Mount Isa Mines went through the bitterest dispute of its 100 year history. Starting in August 1964, when Queensland’s Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Commission rejected a proposed pay rise, it led to a miners go slow. The premier gave police powers to enforce a mandatory return to work, and mass sackings before the strikes petered out in early 1965 and a new award was struck in June that year.

Pat Mackie being interviewed during the miners strike.

The unionist at the centre of the action for much of those 10 months was so famous for his red cap, a musical by that name was made about it. In Mount Isa and across Australia he was known by the alias of Pat Mackie, but it was that man’s third change of name. Variously described as a Communist, an American, a criminal careerist, a Wobbly, and a destructive influence, he was revered by workers but fired by his own union and he left before the dispute was resolved. He ended up in Sydney mired in defamation cases against many newspapers that besmirched his reputation as the embodiment of evil in the strike.

Mackie wrote his own story in two parts with the help of his wife Elizabeth Vassilieff Wolf . There was “The Great Mount Isa Dispute” of course, but arguably the more interesting book was his colourful life leading up to that event, chronicled under the title “Many Ships to Mount Isa”.

Mackie was born Maurice Murphy in New Zealand in 1914. His father Michael was a timberman born in Australia, a fact which counted for Mackie when a vengeful Australian government failed to deport him after the Mount Isa dispute. His older brother and younger sister died young and he went to bush school near Rotorua. Michael was constantly on the move and Maurice schooled to age 14 at Moutohora and after one year of high school at Masterton he was forced to leave due to costs. Aged 15 he ran away to Wellington in the middle of the Depression drifting from one job to the next.

While staying at a hostel, Mackie met some older lads who gave him a life-long passion: wrestling. He went to Anton Koolman’s gymnasium, weightlifting and bodybuilding. Koolman was an Estonian with a flair for training and he passed his comprehensive knowledge to the youngster. After a year Mackie was good enough to win the Wellington Amateur Championships at welterweight division. He also studied the techniques of visiting American professionals. At the Hawkes Bay annual championships he was invited to join a professional wrestling troupe. He was billed as Giorgio Cortez champion of South America, and learned the arts of the professional showman.

He also learned a less good habit: getting in trouble with the law. He was arrested for joyriding and in court the sergeant advised him to plead guilty as “the quickest way to get out of trouble.” He was convicted and got two year’s probation, the first of many sentences opponents would use against him in the Mount Isa dispute.

The experience led him to stow away on a boat bound for NSW and once discovered he was pressganged into the dangerous business of loading coal for the engine. He got off at Newcastle and made his way to Sydney where he stowed away again on a steamer to Canada. He pretended to be Wesley Bredemus from Milwaukee. He was locked in a cabin and handed to immigration officers in Hawaii where he was forced into service for the judges instead of prison. After three months he was sent back to New Zealand on the ship he came in. There he was charged with breaking probation and sentenced to prison with hard labour for a month.

He found another ship bound for Nova Scotia through the Panama Canal and scored a job as deck hand. Stopping in Cristobal in the American Zone he crossed the main street to the Panamanian city of Colon and had his first taste of America with street cooking, red light districts and marijuana. After meeting a young prostitute he decided to jump ship and stay in Panama but could not get a job on the American side while there was no work on the Panamanian side. He stowed away again on a coffee ship bound for New York.

When discovered he claimed to be Canadian and was put to work. After he was locked up while the shipped called near Philadelphia, he busted the padlock and jumped overboard at midnight only to be washed away in the fast current of the Delaware river. Luckily he grabbed a rope from the ship, climbed into a lifeboat and was discovered the following morning. At New York he was handed over to immigration officers at Ellis Island.

They sent him back to Panama on a ship as a “workaway” (not a crew member but working for his keep). At Puerto Colombia he saw the ship’s carpenter fall overboard and be eaten by sharks and piranhas. While the ship stayed for the inquest he fell ill with yellow fever and was taken by rail to the Canal Zone. At Panama City he had the same problem as before, unable to get work without an American passport. He slept rough before the British consul sent him on his way as a “distressed British seaman”, as fireman on another ship bound back to New Zealand. He learned the ropes and back home found another ship which took him to London where he stayed and earned money on a wrestling circuit with the stage name Wildcat.

He ran out of money and went to sea again to Hamburg, in Hitler’s Germany where everyone wore uniforms. He disliked them but liked the beer and got drunk. After several police interrogations he wrote large graffiti on a wall “Heil Stalin, Fuck Hitler” and was promptly arrested at gunpoint. Luckily it was sailing time and he was allowed to leave. He sailed to Durban, New Zealand and eventually settled in Albury where his father had family. He fell in love with his cousin Kathleen and they eloped but he left her in Goulburn. He bummed a train to Cootamundra but was arrested and served two days for vagrancy. In Sydney he was arrested again, charged with breaking and entering though the judge for once overturned it.

Back in New Zealand in 1938 he was finally allowed to join the Seaman’s Union, beginning a lifelong love of unionism. He could not keep out of the courts, charged with drunkenness in 1939 and unjustly with assault of soldiers in 1941 and fined five pounds. In 18 months there were two more minor convictions, all used against him to paint him as a troublemaker in Mount Isa two decades later.

In 1941 his ship landed in Tahiti, and he was beguiled by the charms of local women. He lived in a grass and bamboo hut for a week and reluctantly sailed for San Francisco where he decided to take a bus to Vancouver, sneaking across the border on foot. There he took on a new identity Eugene Markey of Ontario. He met and married Pearl in 1942 as he worked the tugboats and organised the union. His success in improving pay and conditions got him and the union notice.

To earn extra money he went back to wrestling organising bouts with friends from gym and charging admission. He wrestled as Gentleman Gene and became popular with crowds of 6000 attending. Mackie said wrestling was neither real nor fake. It’s a form of dramatic entertainment with elements of acting, gymnastics and ballet dancing, he said, and professionals jazzed up the contest giving it form and meaning.

With the war on, Mackie was considered an essential worker as a seaman and moved cargo in dangerous waters around the world including freezing Murmansk in the USSR, where he was delighted to be in “the land of the workers”. Back home he was approached to join the Canadian Communist Party but he didn’t like the theoretical approach of its middle-class members and they huffily labelled him an anarchist.

Mackie preferred unions, saying his vocation was “organising the unorganised.” He earned a reputation as a brilliant talker and tough negotiator. He was elected to the Vancouver trades council and trained up other union delegates. At the library he studied union history, learned about the Wobblies and read the novels of Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos and Jack London. The Seafarers Union invited him to New York and organise their workers there. He accepted but Pearl wouldn’t go and their three year marriage ended.

He still went to sea and sailed to St Nazaire in Brittany after D-Day where he saw destroyed buildings and ships though the German U-Boat workshops were still standing. Back in New York he got into pro-wrestling and went on a lucrative tour of the Americas to leave him quite wealthy by war’s end. His tough training in the ring helped him deal with the hurly-burly of New York’s dangerous waterfront and its private armies of strikebreakers and gangsters and standover men. There was rough tactics on both sides. When police on horseback broke up a strike, unionists threw marbles on the ground causing the horses to fall.

The seafarers helped out other unions. When the hotel and restaurant workers went on strike, initially the cafes kept going with scabs. But the seafarers went into the cafes and ordered soup then took an emetic. After they vomited everywhere they shouted “I’m poisoned!” and business fell so rapidly the owners quickly came to terms with the unions. The same tactic was used successfully with recalcitrant taxi owners. When laundries went on strike, the seafarers emptied 120lb bags of soap into the washing machines and turned them on, covering the building in suds. The owners came to a quick agreement.

In 1946 Mackie returned to Canada to organise unions. Ship owners in Montreal were afraid of his reputation and issued threats and rough treatment. The city’s chamber of commerce was worried about his ability to organise other industries. Unions issued him a firearm in case of violence but authorities framed him using a lady called Beverley who he was attracted to. Returning from a union meeting across the American border, immigration officers found his gun. Worse still they found the butt of a marijuana joint left by Beverley.

Mackie was arrested for trafficking narcotics and imprisoned in Montreal. With accusations he was a Communist, Markie was advised to plead guilty, and got nine months jail. When he was released authorities finally realised he was not Canadian and booted him back him to New Zealand.

The image of Pat on the cover of Many Ships to Mount Isa.

There he found his father (though not his mother who had separated) and got a job painting. But his big mouth and unionising got him in trouble again and he moved to Sydney. There he met a painter heading for a place called “The Isa” where big money was to be made. Mackie thought this might help in his dream to build a ketch he remembered seeing in Tahiti.

He took the long trip north stopping in Brisbane where he fell foul of the law again. In a hotel where police were after stolen goods from a roommate, he got involved in a brawl. Police charged him on trumped up possession of stolen goods. Again he pleaded guilty and was fined.

He finally made it to Mount Isa in early 1950 in the middle of a blazing hot summer. The town, he said, looked like a derelict dead end of the world. He was advised to go to “The Barracks” where everyone who worked for Mount Isa Mines lived. He called it a “weird place” where people slept they could, many drunk amid card games, fights and arguments. He decided to take the first train back to Townsville but joined other new arrivals to meet “Hughie the Pieman” the only person selling bootleg whiskey, rum and cheap wine on a Sunday. After getting drunk, he woke up in the middle of the night “bitten to death by a million mosquitoes.”

Having missed the Townsville train the following morning, Mackie found the company was short of men and got a job as a painter. The foreman looked at his union tickets marked “E Markey” and asked what’s the E stand for. “Eugene,’ he replied, “Gene for short.” “That’s a bloody girl’s name,” he was told. “Well I don’t care what you call me, Call me Pat, that’s my other name.” He was called Pat Markey but the name on his first pay cheque was written Mackey which the newspapers settled on as Pat Mackie many years later. Eventually he gave up telling people his name was Markey.

Mackie attended the union meeting and immediately spoke out for workers’ rights, which marked him as a “Communist” to bosses. When he took a sick day after too much grog on May Day, they used it as excuse to sack him, refused to allow him sleep in the Barracks, and blackbanned contractors in Mount Isa from employing him.

He got work at a nearby Bernborough mine and with workers there took a fateful fishing trip to the Gregory River. He loved the fishing and the pub there but was even more intrigued by mineral finds. Mackie took up a lead mining lease at Lawn Hill he called Lucky Dollar. He sold his first five tons to Mount Isa Mines which allowed him to fit out a house on the lease. He spent eight years on the lease battling drought, flood, starvation, flies and isolation but earned enough money to send away for plans to build his Tahitian ketch. He said had the price been slightly lower he would have been sailing the seven seas instead of leading the dispute in 1965.

Times got tough when the price of lead dropped and he also got sick with lead poisoning. After unsuccessfully raising a syndicate of bush miners, and prospecting for wolfram (tungsten) on the Nicholson River, he had sell the lease to the company, and return to Mount Isa. Still warned off the mines, he got a road job with Thiess Brothers and rejoined a union. Finally in December 1961 with the Mines short of workers after a dispute and lokout, he got a job underground and joined the Australian Workers Union. Under an arrangement between MIM and AWU the company deducted dues owing to the union from workers’ pay packets. This issue would explode into the dispute of 1964, the subject of Mackie’s second book.

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