Pat Mackie and the Mount Isa Mines dispute

Union leaders Pat Mackie (in his usual red baseball cap) and John McMahon (right) are interviewed by Albert Asbury of the ABC

The dispute that rocked Mount Isa Mines for nine months in 1964-65 was the most tumultuous time in the city’s history. At the centre of the story was the workers’ leader Pat Mackie. Mackie has written two books about his life, the first about his life leading up to the dispute called Many Ships to Mount Isa, the second was called The Story of a Dispute.

Mackie was painted out to be the devil incarnate during the strike and his colourful background and petty criminal history on two continents was used against him by the media, the company and the government. He was a committed unionist from his work in Canada and the US but this dispute pitted him and the workers against the unions as much as their employers. At the time Mount Isa Mines was owned by the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) and its management was driving drive down costs by cutting contract pay and increasing efficiency though that had its own price – 1300 miners watched by 750 “supervisors”.

The workers had to be members of the Australian Workers Union and the company compulsorily deducted union dues from pay. Though many workers felt they would be better off in a purely miners’ union, the rightwing AWU jealously protected its rights and refused to let any other union muscle in.

There were many grumbles in the staff not least in the poor quality of the shower rooms where the water often cut out, leaving miners to head home dirty potentially carrying poisonous lead. The problem festered for eight years before Mackie complained in May 1964. When he threatened to quit over it, other workers asked him to fight it and many other problems they had on site.

At a union meeting workers wanted to hold a 24-hour stoppage against the advice of the union leader, who didn’t want to stir up trouble. Mackie also spoke against it, but for different reasons. He said a day-long strike would only lose them money and gain nothing. They needed to prepare properly for a strike and raise funds. The meeting agreed to give the company a week to fix the showers before taking further action.

The threat worked and the showers were fixed that week. Miners began to look at other issues such as the chiselling away of contract rights which the AWU had done nothing about. Workers elected Mackie as local chairman and he used his union skills to organise delegates in all areas of the mine. In August 1964 the Queensland Industrial Commission turned down a wage increase as a ‘camouflaged bonus’ which it said it was prevented from awarding. Next a peeved AWU management decided Mackie could not be chair as he wasn’t a six-year financial member of the union.

The workers sidestepped the union, electing a six-man committee including Mackie, to negotiate with the company. Mines manager James Foots said they were losing money and unable to offer wage increases. The workers countered that contract men would use their award right to revert to wages losing productivity for the company. In two weeks production dropped 40,000 tons as many workers left Mount Isa. The company reported the dispute to the Industrial Commission but they found the miners were not on strike, so the company applied again calling it a “go slow”.

The AWU hierarchy sided with the company in wanting their workers to return to contract and a meeting was called on October 11. The official rep Kevin Costello from Townsville sought approval of return to contracts which was rejected by jeering workers. Union boss Edgar Williams told Brisbane media the decision was due to “Mackie’s standover tactics”. This was the start of the personal campaign against Mackie. Liberal Minister for Labour JD Herbert told Brisbane parliament Mackie was “doing the dictates of sinister international masters”.

The judge deferred the case until further notice. The AWU told the industrial court the workers agreed to return to contract but were prevented by “confusion in the hall” and they intended to take action against “Mount Isa chairman Mackie”. The action came just days later. When Mackie took a day off on union business to sort out a threat by the boilermakers to stop work, he was sacked the following day for taking a day off without permission. Unknown to him the AWU had changed its by-laws stripping him of union representation and therefore his legal entitlement to take time off on union business. News spread through the mine in a flash, but Mackie could see the outcome – the company wanted to goad the workers into a walkout.

The following Sunday Costello chaired an even angrier meeting. As he rose to speak he was drowned out by shouts of “we want Mackie”. Sitting at the back, miners shoved a reluctant Mackie up to the stage. Costello shouted “I declare the meeting closed!” and he left the building. Those that remained passed a vote of no confidence in the union leadership and vowed to remain on wages. Ten weeks into the dispute, Mackie began to organise his men, helped by support from local businesses who paid him a wage of £24 and he filed for wrongful dismissal in the Mount Isa Magistrates Court.

At the next meeting on November 1 the AWU tried to brand the action as “lawless” only for the local rep to be shouted down again in a call for Mackie. Again the meeting was closed. Again the workers held an unofficial meeting with Mackie as chair. Their demands were threefold, the original £4 wage increase, recognition of locally elected reps, and a 25pc rise in contract prices. Without official union support, the company would not meet to discuss these demands.

Instead they upped the ante shutting down the copper smelter on November 13. Manager Foots claimed it was too dangerous to continue. They did nothing to counter the media impression the shutdown was because of a “strike” led by “dangerous insurgents”. Even though the court found on November 23 there was no evidence of a go slow, the company appealed again on a point of law. On December 3 the company got its way, the court overturning the original decision, and ordered the AWU and its members to stop “taking part in an authorised strike” with onerous penalties for non-compliance. All workers could take up the offer, unless they were sacked for “misconduct”. But the only worker sacked for misconduct was Mackie.

A day later Mackie’s case for wrongful dismissal was dismissed as the onus of proof was on him. The following Sunday 1100 workers packed the Star Theatre for a miners’ meeting. Again the union official was howled down and closed the meeting, again Mackie chaired the unofficial meeting. The meeting voted to disregard the court order and reiterated the three original demands with a fourth added – the reinstatement of Pat Mackie. Mackie said at this point the dispute was no longer about pay and conditions but “a struggle for self-rule and industrial legality”. That week the AWU formally expelled him from the union for “misconduct”.

On December 11 Foots stopped all underground copper mining due to the “go slow” and cancelled coal orders from Collinsville and Scottsville. They were supported by the Nicklin government which introduced a state of emergency forcing workers to go back to work on contract or be fined or face jail with no possibility of fighting the action in court. Nicklin laid the blame on “one irresponsible individual…misleading them into foolish action.”

Mackie and the miners needed friends and got them in the Barrier Industrial Council which helped mobilise the Broken Hill mine workforce against similar threats. With the Broken Hill group set to attend that Sunday’s meeting the AWU sent state president Gerry Goding. The meeting took the usual course of boos and calls for Mackie perplexing Goding who believed the media hype that it was a one man show. The town would not be browbeaten by the company, the courts, or the union.

The following week when the new shift reported for work, supervisors asked them to accept contracts and when almost all said no, they were handed a “pinkie” (termination slip). That day (December 15) Foots announced all work at Mount Isa Mines would cease having sacked the entire 5000-strong workforce costing Australia a million pounds a week in lost exports. Four thousand people attended a public meeting where the Labour Council attacked the company and there were many pledges of financial support from town and outside. Mackie remained the de facto leader of the fight against the government, the company and the union, despite neither being an employee nor a union member any more.

On Christmas Eve the Industrial commission granted a surprising £3 prosperity payment to the workers though the now embittered workers agreed to hold out for £4. It wasn’t until early January that the AWU allowed a local Mount Isa miner address a compulsory meeting with union and management ordered by court. Though it was miner Barry Baker not Mackie, he focused attention for the first time on underground working conditions. The company refused to discussed money matters preferring instead to discuss the new draft contract. They also threatened to withdraw the annual bonus if financial results were bad.

Pat Mackie “wields” a chair at the January meeting

On January 16 there was a special meeting of all union men designed to get a local democratic representative body in the field. Court Commissioner Harvey who had denied their claims turned up and was heckled as was union boss Edgar Williams. Again the men shouted for Mackie to move up from the back. Someone pressed a chair into his hands which he took up to the platform amid cheers. The officials closed the meeting and Mackie called for a Labour Council meeting the following day. The press reported that a “howling mob” had shut down the meeting and published photos of him “wielding a chair” with the inference that it was for violent purposes (belied by the smiling men cheering him as he did the “wielding”). Back in Brisbane Williams blamed Communist infiltration which the press took up wholesale.

The town dug in for a long fight. Mackie and John McMahon, President of the Labour Council, were elected to travel interstate to raise funds. On TV’s Meet the Press Mackie was set up, being asked his real name, criminal convictions and communist history. When sneeringly asked did he get others to script his speeches, he replied “No I don’t, but it looks like you do.” A reviewer reckoned Mackie had more supporters at the end than he started with. They also addressed crowds in Broken Hill and Adelaide. Meanwhile the Queensland government enacted new laws giving police the power to keep strike-breakers out of Mount Isa.

When McMahon boarded a plane to Mount Isa from Sydney he was ordered off in Brisbane. Mackie hid in Sydney and the union organised a car to drive home the back way via Bourke non-stop for 2300km. With road blocks on all roads around the city, Mackie took a miners track via Duchess and snuck home. With no sign of police Mackie entered his house before he was moved in hiding to a safe house. McMahon took another flight from Brisbane to Darwin (intending to get off at Isa) but was ordered off at Longreach.

By end January national media was becoming aware of the Mount Isa dispute as the public mood shifted in the miners’ favour. The company decided to reopen the mine on February 1 reemploying all miners who were on the payroll a day before the shutdown but threatened to shut down the entire operation if miners did not return. Workers refused to go back until the government ended its emergency regulations and began picketing on February 1 – the first time there was an actual picket in the dispute.

Faced with the prospect of a general strike, the Nicklin government rescinded their legislation the same day. At a Labor Council meeting in the Bull Ring of the Isa Hotel, Mackie finally materialised to a hero’s welcome. The following day masses of police flew out, while McMahon flew back to cheering unionists who carried a banner with the Irish greeting “Céad míle fáilte”.

There was another compulsory conference on February 4 but Mackie and the miners’ delegation were not invited as “unaccredited”. McMahon stayed and negotiations foundered over the reinstatement of Mackie. Mackie himself flew to Melbourne to do more TV. Again he survived intimidation this time from Norman Banks with TV critic Frank Thring writing “this muscle-bound free-speaking gorilla brought fresh air into the stagnant swamp of television.” He stayed two weeks in Melbourne gaining popularity while Foots again threatened to close the mine.

With Prime Minister Menzies threatening to intervene (despite harsh words for “this curious character Mackie, not even an Australian”) and federal parliament looking at the possibility ASARCO started the dispute to deliberately lower the price of its share it wanted to buy back, Foots backed off. Mount Isa Mines reopened on February 17, 1965 offering work for all on the books on December 14. It didn’t hurt that copper prices were much higher.

When the mine reopened, the picketing resumed and would stay for the next seven weeks. The AWU and the Catholic Church urged miners to return to work. When a young boy, Bernard Kelly aged 15, died in a shooting accident while showing off his father’s gun, the father reported it was loaded “because of the trouble in town”. Media seized on this to blame the death on the strike with some families saying it was Mackie’s fault.

Nicklin brought in new laws banning picketing within half a mile of the mine gates while called Mackie a “nomadic thief, swindler, dope peddlar, gangster and gunman”. On March 18 police moved the pickets away from the mine over to the town side according to the new law with 100 police guarding the river crossings. McMahon, who lived on the mine side, was placed under house arrest during picketing hours. Mackie, who lived within a mile of the mine, faced similar conditions.

Having failed to get support for a national dispute, Mackie knew his situation was holding up resolution. On March 28 he advised workers to return to the job on guarantee of no victimisation. He quietened shocked workers saying they were beaten by overwhelming force. Most returned to work on April 2 and the AWU voted by a small majority to return six days later. As academic Raymond O’Dea wrote “the Mount Isa dispute had not been settled. It merely jolted to a sullen stop.”

The company made a comfortable profit in 1964-65 and the share price easily rebounded. There was an improvement in relations between management and workers with ASARCO finally accepting new arrangements for wage bargaining. There would not be another major work stoppage for 25 years, Mackie wrote.

Now a household name, Mackie moved to Sydney where he embarked on successful defamation acts against media who maligned his reputation. He had no regrets about the dispute which he said stirred the Australian Trade Union movement into supportive action – a revelation he said, a whole community could unite behind a cause. “It was a triumph of the human spirit,” he concluded.

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