The story of the 1964 Mt Isa Mines dispute is a great antidote for those dealing with anti-union laws and the lethargy of trade union officials today.
Over 40 nationalities were welded together in a mammoth struggle against the company, the government, the media and shamefully, their own union officials.
But around Australia workers backed the miners, as did virtually the whole of Mt Isa. “Almost a carnival atmosphere reigned”, wrote strike leader Pat Mackie.
Mt Isa is a company mining town in north Queensland, 500 kilometres inland from Townsville. Mining there meant back breaking work, around the clock, thousands of feet underground in stifling heat. The only attraction was high wages.
The 1964 rebellion was building for years. Management were constantly on workers’ backs, driving up production while penny pinching on wages and the provision of amenities.
In 1961 miners were denied a pay rise when the government suddenly passed legislation preventing the arbitration court from awarding weekly “bonus payments”. A strike followed, but soon collapsed when the company locked out the workforce for two months. That injustice was still a burning issue in 1964.
There were two methods of payment at the mine: a base rate on the Award or higher contract payments. The bulk of the underground workforce worked on contracts for piece rates, based on how much ore was dug, holes drilled, or timber erected. There were constant disputes when mining conditions changed or new managers started “chiselling” at rates.
A massive turn-over of half the workforce every year was an indicator of the oppressive conditions.
The Australian Workers Union (AWU) covered the miners. Joining the union was a condition of employment but the officials did nothing other than represent workers in the arbitration hearings.
One organiser looked after 2500 members at the mine and another 1500 in the district. There were only two delegates for underground workers and two for surface workers. Complaints were often left unresolved.
Skilled tradesmen at the mine were represented by a range of more active unions, affiliated to the local Mt Isa Labour Council, known as the TLC unions.
From little things big things grow
It was a problem with the showers that first got Pat Mackie involved in union affairs at Mt Isa. Mackie had some union experience from North America where he was influenced by the Industrial Workers of the World and their commitment to rank and file democracy.
He confronted management when his shower failed for the third night in row. About to resign, a small group of miners convinced him to stay and fight.
Twenty five members out of 2500 turned up to a union meeting. Mackie convinced the miners to give the company a week to fix the showers and meet again to discuss progress. After some foot dragging the showers were fixed.
This small victory helped rejuvenate the union. Mackie was elected chair and the number of workplace delegates increased to ten. They passed motions requesting affiliation to the local Labour Council and the employment of an extra organiser. As English was the second language of 70 per cent of the workforce, Mackie introduced interpreters. Before long 400 workers were attending the Sunday meetings.
A bombshell burst on the miners in August 1964. First the industrial commission rejected the AWU’s claim for a $50 a week wage increase, on the grounds that, as in 1961, it was a “camouflaged bonus payment”.
But much more explosive was the AWU hierarchy’s rejection, using obscure rules, of their newly elected delegates. Their request for another organiser and more local autonomy, said Mackie, was “filed in the waste paper basket”.
According to Mackie, “the Mount Isa membership now clearly saw that the AWU top brass could not be relied on to help”.
The workers discussed how to pursue their wage claim. The contract system was central to production so rather than bust a gut working for contracts, they decided they’d all revert to wages. This was their right under the Award and it was also a way of avoiding penalties that came with strike action. Production immediately slumped, with miners’ pay also dropping by a large amount.
The TLC unions supported the AWU miners by voting to apply overtime bans if any members were laid off.
In late September the industrial commission stated that it saw their action as an unauthorised strike. The AWU officials promptly recommended that they end the action. They were howled down and the proposal overwhelmingly rejected. The officials walked out and Mackie took control of the meeting.
Pat Mackie was sacked by the company for misconduct in October. He’d taken a day off work to deal with union business, but wasn’t a recognized union representative, thanks to the AWU executive. The demand for his reinstatement became a central issue in the dispute. Shortly afterwards the AWU expelled Mackie.
Finally in early December the arbitration court formally directed the workers to revert to contract work or face fines. A mass meeting again refused to comply.
The company responded by shutting down production. The was the excuse for the state government to declare a State of Emergency, directing a return to work on contracts or the risk of $2500 fines or six months’ jail.
As the AWU officials arrived to recommend compliance the Queensland Premier confidently predicted the “miners would be law abiding”.
But Gordon Sheldon, the Mt Isa Mines (MIM) public relations officer described how: “as soon as the officials appeared in the hall there was bedlam. The men rose to their feet in hostility, jeering, yelling, catcalling… the Union officials left the stage and went out into the street…
“Inside the uproar resolved itself into shouts of ‘We want Mackie’. Mackie took the microphone and there was instant silence. ‘Do you want me as Chairman?’ he asked; there was a roar of approval.
“The meeting…obviously solid in its wishes openly defied the State Government”.
The dispute became a war of attrition with the company out to starve the miners back to work.
A few sweeteners were added in the hope the movement would collapse. Suddenly the wage case appeal was allowed and within a week the commission agreed to grant a $40 a week bonus payment, renamed a “prosperity payment”. Also extracted were commitments to improve the contract system.
But the workers wanted permanent change. They wanted Mackie reinstated and a direct voice in negotiations. Time and again the workers’ elected delegates were excluded from meetings, as the company and the arbitration court recognized only the AWU hierarchy.
The unionists dig in
Raising money to support the strike was now central and Mackie and John McMahon, the President of the local Labour Council, were elected to travel interstate. “I cannot remember on this entire tour having one hostile word or nasty slur cast at us”, wrote Mackie. Tens of thousands of dollars of financial support flooded in.
While they were away the state government introduced yet more draconian laws. Any efforts to aid the strike were made illegal. Police were given the power to seize banners, placards, signs and publications without warrants and to prevent anyone entering or leaving Mt Isa. Extra police were sent to enforce all this.
But the new regulations blew up in their face. The dispute hit the front pages when a plane carrying John McMahon was forced to land and he was removed at Longreach airport to stop him reaching Mt Isa.
Meanwhile unionists around the country, shocked by the heavy handedness, began to rally.
The Queensland TLC called a 24-hour solidarity strike that looked like going national, when suddenly the regulations were suspended and the extra police withdrawn. Three quarters of an hour later, at a press conference in Mt Isa, Mackie made a sensational appearance. He’d avoided the police cordon using back roads with the help of two Sydney wharfies. The next day a huge crowd welcomed back John McMahon.
From 17 February there was a barrage of back to work propaganda. Buses with blocked out windows were used to bus in scabs, but the numbers returning to work were insignificant.
Picketing was stepped up and some arrests were made. The AWU state secretary called for the government to be “more forceful and ban picketing altogether”. The government complied.
But workers were getting tired and the strike leadership feared the mine would slowly start operating again as a slow drift back to work combined with new recruits from outside. They wrote to the maritime and rail unions asking them to ban the transport of copper.
But even the more left-wing officials at these unions refused, citing the fear of fines under the penal powers.
Fearing that militants would all be excluded from work, they looked for a settlement. Mackie announced he would not reapply for work, so the focus was now on making sure no one else was victimized.
The company agreed to take skilled workers back without exceptions, but the AWU workforce would have to apply individually. After the AWU accepted this rotten deal the TLC officials too reluctantly accepted.
But there was still rank and file resistance. The TLC unions carried the decision only by 70 to 40, demonstrating the solidarity that had grown between the predominantly unskilled immigrant miners and the predominately Australian born tradies.
AWU members were simply directed to return to work by their officials. Fifty refused and left the district instead. Another 46 never got their jobs back.
This outcome might seem like a crushing defeat, but the miners’ determined struggle did bring change. Wages rose, the contract system was improved and over time the company›s attitude moderated. Eventually the right for union representation at the local level was accepted.
What the dispute showed is the capacity to fight, even when the law and your own officials are against you.