Tom Mann’s Memoirs, 1923

Book two: Southern skies

XVI. The Broken Hill dispute
1908 to 1909

First published: 1923
Publisher: The Labour Publishing Company Limited, 38 Great Ormond Street, London WC I
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter


Returning to Melbourne, I had resumed my usual duties in connection with the Socialist Party, when, in September, 1908, I was asked by the Miners Association of Broken Hill, New South Wales, to visit them and help them to organise their forces. The chairman of the Broken Hill Proprietary Company had announced that at the end of the year wages would be reduced by 12.5 per cent. Only a minority of the miners were organised. I had been entertaining the idea of a return to England, but the urgency of the appeal made me change my plans. Arrangements were made for a well-known comrade, then in Broken Hill, to come to Melbourne and to take over my work for the Socialist Party, including the weekly paper. This was R.S. Ross, who had long been an active worker in the movement, and who has continued to labour unceasingly for the cause with pen and tongue.

I arrived at Broken Hill on September 30.

The committee posted me as to the position, the percentage organised, etc. The members of ten unions were involved, viz, the Amalgamated Miners Association, the Engine Drivers and Firemen Association, the Amalgamated Engineers, the Carpenters and Joiners, the Blacksmiths, the Sailor Gang, the Masons and Bricklayers, the Iron Moulders, the Boilermakers, and the Plumbers. For the purposes of the campaign a combined trade union committee was formed. It was this committee that had invited me to the Barrier, the district of which Broken Hill is the centre. October 1 was a holiday for the annual celebration of the eight-hour day, and members of parliament and others were present to take part in the public demonstration. Next day I was one of the party with the parliamentary contingent to make a visit of inspection to the Proprietary Mine and elsewhere. This excursion was valuable in helping me to get a full understanding of local conditions.

We opened the campaign with special meetings at union branches, to which members of other unions were invited. Stress was laid on the need for solidarity. There were also meetings for women at hours to suit their convenience, and street-corner meetings to get in touch with those sections not likely to turn up at indoor meetings. Three or four times a week mass meetings were held. A few weeks of such efforts brought about so complete a change that it soon became difficult to find any qualified person outside the unions.

At this juncture I went to Port Pirie in South Australia. While there I received the following letter, which indicates the effect of the campaign.

Trades Hall, Broken Hill,

October 31, 1908

Barrier Branch of the Amalgamated Miners Association

Dear Tom,

Yours of the 29th to hand. I am pleased to say that things are still going along swimmingly, new members coming in wholesale. I really do not think there can be many working along the Line of Lode who are not members of one union or other represented at the combined conference. I sincerely hope you will meet with the success at Pirie that you accomplished here. I feel sure that if they will only take the trouble to attend your meetings you will convince them that their place is inside and not outside the union ranks. Remember me to all the boys down there and also please extend fraternal greetings to all old and new members from comrades here, telling them that we expect them to be united by joining the unions of their calling. We have been exceptionally busy taking contributions today, so I know you will forgive me for making this note brief. Wishing you success, and rest assured that if anything crops up I shall advise you at once.

Yours in the cause,

W.D. Baknett, secretary

There was good reason for my journey to Port Pirie. The mines at Broken Hill are known as silver mines, because there is a larger percentage of silver than of any other metal; but, in addition, the mines yield lead, gold, zinc, antimony and copper. The chief company, known as the Broken Hill Proprietary Company, does not smelt the metal at Broken Hill, but has its furnaces at Port Pirie in South Australia. It would involve much greater expense to carry the fluxing materials inland to Broken Hill, than it does to take the crushed ore in the form of concentrates from the mines to the port of Pirie, to which place the various fluxing materials are brought by sea. After the smelting and refining, the metals are shipped direct.

It is now necessary to explain briefly that while each state has an act (known by different names) for dealing with industrial affairs, the federal government has also passed a measure to deal with disputes affecting workers simultaneously in more than one state. In the case of New South Wales, the state measure was known as the Industrial Disputes Act, but its powers were, of course, confined to the limits of the state. Like considerations applied to the labour legislation of the other states. To meet the requirements when a dispute should extend beyond the boundaries of any one or more states, as in the case of the shearers, whose members work in every state, the federal government passed the federal Arbitration Act, based upon the experience of all the Australian states as well as upon that of New Zealand. The workmen at Port Pirie had never been properly organised, and as the furnaces were never allowed to cool, men were wanted constantly. At Port Pirie I came into contact with the men working at the smelters and refineries. Many of them worked eight-hour shifts, and seven shifts a week. Some of the labourers had exceptionally hard and heavy work; these were the men that fed the furnaces, which were twenty feet in diameter and twenty-five feet deep. The men wheeled the materials to the furnaces in what they euphemistically called banana carts. These were iron carts, very heavy, and when loaded it was a considerable strain to drag such a cart along from the place of supply, either of ore, fuel, kaolin or other flux.

This was loaded on the “top floor”, on a level with the tops of the furnace, into the mouth of which the cartload was tipped. This tipping process was worse than the dragging of the load, for, when the furnace was opened, out came the sulphurous fumes. Moreover, since other men were at the same time drawing off the molten slag at the bottom of the furnace, poisonous fumes rose from this also, causing many to be affected with lead colic.

These men had not one recognised holiday all through the year, not at weekend, or year-end, no bank holiday, no Easter or Christmas holiday. The strongest could not endure the work for more than a year, then becoming utterly incapacitated. All this was borne without protest. Port Pirie was represented in parliament by a Labour member, and neither the Labour Party, nor the local member, nor yet the men themselves, had attempted to bring about any change for the better. The object of my visit was to organise the workers, and to get them to make common cause with the men of Broken Hill.

I saw easily enough that the first thing to do was to arouse in them sufficient self-respect so that they would be ashamed of the conditions they were quietly tolerating.

I laid my plans accordingly, even though I should at first encounter hostility, for this is only to be expected from men who have long been supinely acquiescent in a low standard of life.

I first called a meeting of the few trade unionists connected with the various departments, chiefly on the establishment, such as the mechanics, fitters, plumbers, carpenters, etc, whose hours were not controlled by furnace conditions, but by the conditions agreed upon between the unions and the employers. I commented in strong terms on the seven-day week of the furnace-men.

I declared I would run an organising campaign for these men and get them enrolled, and would at the same time encourage them to put in a claim for a six-day week. This secured general approval; but the trade unionists expressed doubts as to how the labourers who were working under these conditions would receive the proposal.

However, a mass meeting of the Port Pirie men was called. I addressed them at length on the situation at Broken Hill, and on the necessity that they should organise for the improvement of their own working conditions. This part of the speech received hearty endorsement; but when I came to deal with the actual conditions under which they worked, and especially when I enlarged upon the seven-day week and the necessity to get it altered to six, enthusiasm was less marked. At the close of the meeting none were so ready to dwell on the difficulties in the way of a change as those who were toiling under these conditions. Still, after two or three weeks continuous educational effort, as at Broken Hill, we obtained a ninety-eight per cent organisation and unanimity in the demand for a six-day week.

I must now explain that the Broken Hill men had decided to make use of the machinery of the federal Arbitration Court, and that, therefore, the union, through lawyers, had a case prepared for the court. It was arranged that the demands of the Port Pirie men, the chief of which was the six-day week, should be included as part of the same case.

The federal Arbitration Act states definitely: “This is an act to prevent industrial disputes.”

The court consists of the judge and his assistants. The first judge, who filled the office until quite recently, was one of the most genuinely respected men in Australia, Mr Justice Higgins. The miners of Broken Hill took the view that, if they cited their case early, several weeks before the end of the year (the date when the threatened reduction in wages was to come into operation), the court would find some means of preventing a stoppage of work. When the Christmas holiday began, notices were posted stating that the pits would recommence on such a date, at the reduced wage. Right up to the actual day it was believed by many that some steps would be taken to postpone the change until (at least) the court had time to adjudicate. However, nothing whatever was done. The company refused to let the men work unless they agreed to the reduced wage; the men refused to accept any alteration until the court had given an award. The court was overburdened with business; it was ten weeks before an award was given in favour of the men. But this did not terminate the lockout or finish the dispute.

The union lawyer, in citing the case, had omitted to include the demand of the Port Pirie men for the six-day week. This omission was realised before the end of the year, and the solicitors attended the court explained the situation, and asked leave to amend the case. Justice Higgins, who technically constituted the court, stated: “as it was evidently a simple omission the court would note the fact and when the court dealt with the Broken Hill case, that of Port Pirie should be dealt with also”.

When the award was given, the six-day week was granted; but immediately the companies’ lawyers appealed to the High Court against the decision of the Arbitration Court, on the ground that the case of the Port Pirie men was not included in the original citation. It took another eight weeks for this to be dealt with by the High Court, and all the time the mines were closed. The High Court upheld the appeal, and the Port Pirie men’s claim was quashed.

This experience of the admittedly most perfect Arbitration Court in existence, with a Labor government in power, damped any enthusiasm I might have felt for such an institution.

Wigs were on the green long before matters reached the stage just recorded, and in order to show how similar capitalist rule is in new and old countries, I will now relate some of the events of the dispute.

Incidentally, I shall prove that groups of organised workers, well-disposed towards the miners, really helped to defeat these because their forces were dispersed in different unions.

To reach Broken Hill by rail from Sydney, it was necessary to travel through Victorian and South Australian territory. The authorities sent large numbers of mounted police from Sydney, a journey of over thirteen hundred miles; the distances roughly being from Sydney to Melbourne, 500 miles, Melbourne to Adelaide, 500 miles, Adelaide to Broken Hill, 333 miles. Broken Hill was a town of 35,000 inhabitants, with a police force proportionate.

Seeing that the mines were closed from the beginning of the year 1909, except on the employers’ terms, work in Broken Hill was at a standstill.

The combined committee of the unions, now acting as a disputes committee, did its utmost to ensure that the requirements of the community were met. The Co-operative Stores were efficiently conducted. A considerable bakery business was taken over by the committee, and run co-operatively for the general bread supply. Numerous meetings were held. An elaborate system of picketing was inaugurated. After the mass meetings, which were held on open ground adjacent to the Trades Hall, the entire audience would fall into marching order, and, led by a band and the union officials, would pass through a portion of the town and along a thoroughfare near the dumps, or pit-heaps, being careful not to trespass on the company’s property. No unseemly behaviour was indulged in. The chief of police reported that the only notable change was a marked diminution in the number of drunk cases, compared with normal times. On Saturday morning, January 9, an additional body of police, foot and mounted, reached Broken Hill from Sydney. The mounted men, like their predecessors, were armed with carbines and revolvers. The new arrivals were on duty the same afternoon, and the miners, having held their usual meeting, which I had addressed, proceeded to march as was their custom. I was at the head, in advance of the band. Everything was orderly, and the line of route was the same we had traversed many times before. As the procession approached the thoroughfare on the far side of which was the company’s property, we found the way blocked by a body of police. They made a dash for the union banner, tore it off the poles and used the latter on the heads of the men, including the bandsmen. For ten minutes there was as lively a time as I had ever experienced, and I was in the middle of it. At the end of the fray, I was marched off to the police station, together with twenty of my comrades. We were all bunged into one large cell. These events took place on the Saturday afternoon, and we remained in the lock-up till Monday, when most of us were bailed out. The Mayor, Alderman Ivey, became bondsman for me.

During the day we had the biggest demonstration ever known in the district. The unjustifiable attack by the police put the necessary ginger into the movement. Although the weather was very hot, this was not altogether a disadvantage, and meetings, concerts, and sports were kept going in great style. Police court proceedings commenced on January 18, and on January 25 I was committed for trial to the Quarter Sessions. Then came the question of bail. The assizes were not due till April, nearly three months ahead. Bail was refused unless I would give an undertaking not to hold any meetings or take part in the dispute at Broken Hill.

Consultation with the committee resulted in a decision to give the undertaking, it being arranged that I should go on a lecturing tour in South Australia and other states.

Film pictures had been secured of scenes in connection with the trouble and I went on tour. In spite of the prohibition it was possible for citizens of New South Wales to attend some of my meetings.

The town of Cockburn is the border town of South Australia and New South Wales, being less than forty miles from Broken Hill. The committee arranged for special trains, and contracted with the Silvertown Tramway (really Railway) Company so that four thousand people from the Broken Hill district did the journey. On the front of the engine was fixed a banner bearing the inscription in bold letters: “Tom Mann Train”. At the boundary there is only a barbed-wire fence. With a few minutes walk on to the South Australian side, we were beyond the jurisdiction of the New South Wales authorities and had magnificent demonstrations.

With film equipment, I visited all the bigger towns in South Australia and many of those in Victoria, raising funds for Broken Hill and doing propagandist work. This was a most interesting and successful tour.

In April I was informed that the attorney-general of New South Wales had decided to change the venue of the sessions, and, therefore, of my trial. Instead of the sessions being held as had originally been intended, at Broken Hill, they were now to take place at Albury, a district of large landowners and farmers, more than one thousand miles away. The hope evidently was to secure an unsympathetic jury. Intense excitement prevailed.

I was charged on several counts, including sedition and unlawful assembly. My case lasted eight days and the result was acquittal. Ten minutes afterwards I was on the balcony of a hotel addressing an enormous audience which showed the keenest sympathy and liveliest enthusiasm. So the removal to Albury was, after all, void of effect as far as I was concerned.

Henry Holland, at that time a Labour journalist, now a member of parliament in New Zealand, was sentenced to two years at the same assizes for a speech delivered at Broken Hill. He was released after serving six months. Considerable uneasiness prevailed at Broken Hill for some weeks after the trial.

At length matters settled down and I resumed my work in Melbourne. But before the year was out, I had turned my eyes towards the Old World once more. At this juncture the miners of Johannesburg, South Africa, who had learned I might be returning to Europe, invited me to visit the Transvaal and help them in the matter of organisation. Up to this time I had not decided whether to travel via the Cape or the Suez Canal. The request from the Transvaal settled it. I decided to accept the invitation, and proceeded with arrangements accordingly.

During the latter part of 1909, I devoted special attention to industrial unionism. As a result of the Broken Hill experiences, I realised more clearly the need for perfecting industrial organisation.

It was plain to me that economic organisation was indispensable for the achievement of economic freedom. The policy of the various labour parties gave no promise in this direction, nor did the superadding of political activities to the extant type of trade union organisation seem any more hopeful. I therefore wrote a pamphlet called The Way to Win, wherein I urged the desirability of more complete industrial organisation, contending that reliance upon parliamentary action would never bring freedom. I pointed out that the armed police and other henchmen of the companies were transported from Sydney to Broken Hill by the instrumentality of the organised railwaymen of New South Wales.

At Albury, the police, etc, were handed over to the care of the organised railwaymen of the state of Victoria. These latter took them to the boundary of the next state, when again the forces hostile to the working class, were handed over to the organised railwaymen of South Australia. These railwaymen were practically all union men, who nevertheless lent themselves to the fighting of the battles of the master class against the working class. Yet they were in full sympathy with the Broken Hill men, and were actually subscribing funds to help the miners in the fight. In their daily labour, however, they not only frustrated all they had done by friendly letters and subscriptions, but took charge of, fed, and carried the persons, ammunition, horses, etc, etc, to the scene of action, thus enabling the master class to have at its disposal the machinery of the state and the services of the organised workmen to beat the miners.

I kept in close touch with the men of Port Pirie, and a singular coincidence occurred just at this time. I received from James Connolly (later shot by the British Government for his activities in founding the Irish Republic), who was then in the United States, some copies of his pamphlets Socialism Made Easy and The Axe to the Root.

His views were identical with those I had expressed in my own pamphlet. I had met Connolly in Edinburgh and in Dublin, and was greatly interested to find that he presented the industrial side of the position in the unmistakable and clear fashion he did.

It will help to show the strong trend towards industrial action of a different character from that formerly prevailing if I reprint the leaflet I issued in July 1909, soon after the Broken Hill and Port Pirie dispute. Although this is now some thirteen years old, it will refresh the memory of my Australian readers and help to link up events and policies.

Industrial unionism

Conference in Adelaide

Trade unionists — Read this!

The industrial struggle at Port Pirie brought together the representatives of the different unions in a combined committee, and the requests made by this combined committee to other unions throughout the state for co-operation in various ways brought vividly before them the serious limitations of the existing trade or craft unionist movement, and it was demonstrated beyond question that working-class solidarity does not yet exist even amongst the organised workers. As a result the Secretary of the combined committee (Mr Frank Price) sent a circular to the various union secretaries in South Australia, in which he said: “My committee have come to a definite and unanimous conclusion that craft unionism has outlived its usefulness, and that twentieth century industrial development demands on the part of the workers a more perfect system of organisation. With this end in view we urge, as a preliminary step, the holding of a trades union congress in Adelaide during the month of July next.”

The replies to this circular were very encouraging. About twenty unions responded, nearly all of which have appointed delegates to attend the conference, which is to take place in the Trades Hall, Adelaide, on Tuesday, July 27.

Some who responded asked for more specific information as to the object of the proposed conference. Partly to supply such information, I wrote a pamphlet on industrial unionism, The Way to Win. This sets forth the principles of industrial unionism, and suggests some steps the forthcoming conference might advantageously take, including the following: This conference declares “that the present system of sectional trades unionism is incapable of combating effectively the capitalist system under which the civilised world is now suffering, and such modifications and alterations should be made in the existing unions as will admit of a genuine federation of all organisations, with power to act unitedly for industrial purposes”. Many other proposals are made in the pamphlet and the reasons given why such a course is vitally necessary. The pamphlet [one penny] can be had from Mr Frank Price, International Hall, Port Pirie, or wholesale from the publishers, Barrier Truth, Broken Hill.

It is barely two months since the pamphlet was published, and a week later a larger and better pamphlet on the same subject arrived from America. It is called Socialism made Easy, the Industrial and Political Unity of Labour. It is from the pen of James Connolly, editor of The Harp, published by Kerr & Co of Chicago, USA. It is an excellent pamphlet of 60 pages. Price 10 cents.

As showing how general this subject is, still another pamphlet came to hand the following week, this time from England. It is called Revolutionary Socialism, by E.J.B. Allen, published by the Industrial League, 25 Queensdale Road, Netting Hill, London, W. Price Id. Notwithstanding the title, the subject of the pamphlet is industrial unionism, on the lines sketched in The Way to Win. It is known to all who watch European developments that the French and Italian unionists are strong advocates of direct action, and this is spreading rapidly through the various countries.

Already in Australia considerable activity is being shown in favour of this broader and better unionism than the sectional societies admit of, and it is urgently necessary that the first conference should be clear-minded as to the course to be pursued. To those who are going as delegates, it should be said that unless a clear pronouncement is made that craft unionism fails to meet the necessity of the times, and that such changes shall be made as will make true solidarity possible, then the conference will be abortive, and this would be lamentable. The time is ripe for launching the movement now, and South Australia has the honour of taking the initiative.

Amongst the unions sending delegates to the conference at Adelaide are the SA Government General Workers Association; the Commonwealth Public Service Electric Telegraph and Telephone Construction Branch Union; Federated Iron, Brass, and Steel Moulders Union of Australia, Port Pirie branch; Australian Boot Trade Federation, Adelaide branch; General Division Association of SA, Federal Public Service; Adelaide Hairdressers Employees; Cast Iron Pipe Makers and Iron Workers Assistants; Typographical Society; Moonta Mines Trades and Labour Association; Journeymen Plasterers; Glass Bottle Blowers; Bookbinders and Paper Rulers; Wallaroo Mines Workers Association; South Australian United Labourers; Brickyard Employees Association; Tobacco Twisters; Third Class Marine Engineers; Australian Workers Union; Timber Yard and Wood Workers; Amalgamated Carpenters and Joiners; Drivers Association of SA; AMA Port Pirie, and the Engine Drivers and Firemen. Thus it will be seen that interest is keen and the outlook very promising.

Comrade Will Rosser, late of the Barrier, who worked so well in connection with the recent dispute, is now at Cobar, NSW, busy advocating industrial unionism. It may be that when the conference is held a proper method of collecting and disseminating information relative to the movement will be decided upon. Meanwhile, I shall be pleased to receive and tabulate items of information if helpers in the work will communicate with me as follows.

Tom Mann

Park Street, South Yarra, Melbourne

July 7, 1909

In Melbourne likewise I gave attention to the welding together of the sectional trade unions, and to the need for direct action. I lectured on the development of affairs in France, and enlarged upon the growth of syndicalism in that country, in Italy, and in Spain. It was clear that in the main essentials the Industrial Workers of the World, launched not long before in the United States, was a movement of the same character. Whether parliamentary action was to be dropped or not, increasing importance would evidently attach to industrial organisation. The capitalist state would not in future be able to command the sycophantic backing it had hitherto received.