Communist Party of Australia, 1965Pete Thomas

Storm in the tropics
The historic Mt Isa struggle, 1964-65

Pete Thomas

Source: Second printing, March 1965 (first printing also was March 1965), published by Pete Thomas, printed by Coronation Printery, Morningside, Queensland
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter

Foreword The material in this booklet was finalised at the end of February 1965. It was then six months since the Mt Isa Mines dispute had erupted in August 1964.

In writing the material, it was impossible to foretell whether the dispute would be settled in the time taken in printing. Should there not have been a settlement in that time, it is hoped that the booklet may help the Mt Isa strikers’ immediate struggle.

On the other hand, should the dispute have been settled by the time this reaches readers, that does not affect the record of the August-February six months. In outlining features of the struggle in that period, the booklet is intended to provide facts that workers may find helpful for their future activity for working class gains.

February 28, 1965

Storm in the tropics: the historic Mt Isa struggle, 1964-54Introduction For months, as the calendar moved from late 1964 to early 1965, a town in Queensland’s remote scorched northwest has been in national headlines. For a week or more, in January-February 1965, the town dominated newspapers’ front pages and had first place in radio and TV news.

The town is Mt Isa, only about 200 miles from the Gulf of Carpentaria and within 100 miles of the Queensland-Northern Territory border. The cause of its place in the news has been the bitter Mt Isa Mines industrial dispute, with repercussions measured in tens of millions of pounds throughout the national economy. Its special significance in January-February 1965 was that it was the focal point of a nationwide upsurge of protest action by which Australian workers and others broke the Queensland government’s attempt to enforce tyrannical anti-labour measures that it had proclaimed under an “emergency” order-in-council.

The defeat of that order-in-council was a tremendous Australian democratic triumph. It was a humiliating reverse for a government that had failed to reckon with the sturdy spirit of the Australian working people when faced with a direct challenge to cherished rights.

That great victory did not resolve the Mt Isa dispute. The situation, though, was not the same as before. The glare of publicity around the struggle against the order-in-council had illuminated also the issues being fought out around Mt Isa. Recognition of the significance of that struggle spread throughout Australia. It became clear to more and more workers that this was not some mere faraway skirmish, to be left to whoever was mixed up in it on the spot. It was increasingly seen, instead, as a clash of deep-going principles between workers and an arrogant, grasping foreign-controlled monopoly: a struggle with many similarities to that waged by General Motors-Holden workers in the various states in 1964.

As they saw this, workers throughout Australia responded with wholehearted support for the embattled men and women of Mt Isa. Action on jobs, resolution of encouragement, open-handed financial help — all forms of assistance grew. The theme of all this was, in the terms of one of the dispute’s most colourful personalities: “Keep punching. You’re on the right side, and you can win for all of us.”

Mt Isa and Asarco of the USA

Mt Isa township in 1964 had some 15,000 or 16,000 people. It depended on the Mt Isa mine, which in normal times employed about 4000 and had been providing about 70 per cent of Australia’s copper production, one-third of the silver, 15 per cent of the lead and 10 per cent of the zinc. Mt Isa’s output makes a difference of about £30 million a year to Australia’s balance of payments.

The mineral wealth is in the hands of Mt Isa Mines Ltd, a multi-millionaire company with interests spreading in cobweb fashion from its Mt Isa base. Mt Isa Mines’ disclosed net profits have been immense (for example, more than £5½ million in 1962-63 and more than £5¾ million in 1963-64) and the market value of its 96 million shares five shilling shares went at one point in 1964 to a total of more than £230 million.

This company has great significance for Australia. Yet Mt Isa Mines is under foreign control; more than 50 per cent of its shares are held by American Smelting and Refining (Asarco), part of the Guggenheim Group mineral network in the United States. What would the Guggenheim crew of the US care about the hardship to Australian families, the damage to Australia’s economy, that have been caused by the Mt Isa Mines dispute?

The dispute and its cost

The dispute The dispute had long been simmering. It reached boilover point in August 1964, when workers took a stand that they held to be within their rights under the award, but which the company claimed to be a go-slow strike. Mine production fell. Then, in December, the company brought the mine to a standstill when it first sacked more than 200 miner and then laid off some 1800 other workers. In February 1965, hundreds more men were put off or transferred elsewhere but employers who had been engaged on Mt Isa Mines expansion work under contract or subcontract.

The cost of the dispute to Australia mounted by millions upon millions of pounds.

In Mt Isa, the effects of the loss of mine wages and employment were quickly felt throughout the whole community. The halting of Mt Isa mine operations had a chain-reaction impact elsewhere. The Townsville copper refinery, the Bowen coke works and the Bowen Consolidated mine (on the Collinsville-Scottville field) were either halted or curtailed, with many more workers stood down. Railway freights fell, particularly on the 600-mile Mt Isa-Townsville line, the £30 million reconstruction of which was nearing completion. Townsville lost waterfront wages and harbour dues that used to come from Mt Isa mineral exports and from the import of goods for a bustling Mt Isa community. On a national scale, Australia was changes from an exporter of copper to an importer. The local price of copper rose by more than £200, or 65 per cent, in three months. The effects of the strike spread wider every day.

Who is to blame?

Who is to blame for all the loss and damage and suffering? On January 27, the financial editor of the Sydney Morning Herald (one of the most important of the Australian millionaire dailies) said:

Up to Christmas week, the history of the Mt Isa dispute was broadly one of incomprehension of the legal muddle by the state government, inflexibility on the part of Mt Isa Mines and an increasingly firm, but not immoderate, search by the union leaders for ways to achieve higher wages within the peculiar legal framework.

That writer called it “inflexibility” on the part of Mt Isa Mines. Others have used stronger words: greed, stubbornness, arrogance, implacability, vindictiveness.

It was fully in character with Mt Isa Mines’ record that its general manager (Mr J.W. Foots[1] said in December that the miners’ claims “have two chances — mine and Buckley’s”. It was equally in character that Mt Isa Mines that month — not for the first time — closed the mine and shut the gates in an attempt to break the workers’ stand for their claims.

Backing Mt Isa Mines in all it did was the Queensland government — an anti-labour coalition of Country and Liberal parties, headed by Premier G.F. Nicklin. The Sydney Morning Herald man who on January 27 wrote of the government’s “incomprehension” was soon to use much more biting words about that government and its crude blunderings and clumsy failures. From a complacent and cocksure government, it was reduced to an abject state in which one minister was quoted by the Australian Financial Review in February, saying helplessly: “You tell me, what can we do now?”

The answer to that minister’s question is plain. But first let’s go back over some recent history.

Forced on the workers

“Asking for strikes at Mt Isa”, said the headline to an article by the Sydney Morning Herald’s financial editor on January 26, 1965. It was a fair summing up of how the company and the government had forced the Mt Isa Mines workers into action.

The January 26 article gave some of the facts of 1961 act of the Queensland parliament, introduced by the Nicklin government, that had a lot to do with creating the Mt Isa dispute. The article said:

Early in that year [1961] disputes over bonus wage payments were going on between the workers and the managers of both Mt Isa Mines and the nearby Mary Kathleen.

At that time the bonuses to workers at both mines were £8 a week, having been fixed by the state Industrial and Arbitration Commission.

Both the disputes came under the notice of the commission, and in the case of Mary Kathleen the commission arbitrated to increase the level of the bonus by 25 per cent to £10 a week.

Immediately after this, and before the commission had time to arbitrate on the Mt Isa dispute, the Queensland government legislated to prevent the commission from arbitrating future disputes arising from demands for increases in over-award payments.

The commission was, however, empowered to decrease the bonus payments in certain economic circumstances. It was also allotted to mediate in the first kind of dispute if it had the consent of both parties …

But to close the door against all arbitration of bonus movements in one direction (and not the opposite direction) means that the parties seeking change in that direction can only resort to direct action to prove their point against the resistance of the other party …

Both the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review are publications of the Fairfax group. The fact that they are quoted often in this booklet is not intended to imply that these papers are sympathetic to the Mt Isa or other workers in their conflicts with employers; the Fairfax group is itself a big employer and is closely linked with monopoly interests. However, the Sydney Morning Herald and Financial Review often show a degree of realism and a capacity for criticism of Tory federal and state governments — qualities that distinguish the SMH and Financial Review from many of the other Australian dailies. Another daily paper of interstate significance that is quoted several times in this booklet is the national paper, The Australian.

The Financial Review wrote on December 11, 1964, about that legislation of 1961:

It is ironic that a government pledged to a program of development and presumably pledged to a system of compulsory arbitration of industrial disputes in the “public interest”, should geld its own arbitral authority by specifically denying to it any power to arbitrate over an increasingly important area of industrial activity …

The government’s motives were clear. It had embarked on a course of attracting to Queensland a bunch of huge US and other international combines to enrich themselves further on the state’s natural resources — bauxite, oil, coal, and so on. The 1961 Arbitration Act’s anti-union penal clauses, its slamming of the door of arbitration against claims for higher “bonus” pay — these and other features of the act were for the benefit of the monopoly interests, including Mt Isa Mines. (Nearly four years later, on January 29, 1965, an editorial in The Australian said that Mt Isa Mines “must have lobbied for the foolish 1961 legislation basically responsible for the trouble&#8221’.)

Alerted by the Queensland Trades and Labor Council and others in the labour movement, Queensland workers reacted strongly. There were mass protest stoppages in Brisbane and other centres throughout the state (including Mt Isa), involving an estimated 200,000 workers, on March 15, 1961. But the government, deaf to reason, pushed the bill through parliament.

The answer was always no

The 1961 legislation torpedoed the Mt Isa “bonus” claims that unions had already lodged for arbitration. Mt. Mines then rebuffed unions’ efforts to get a rise by negotiation.

That led to the sharp Mt Isa struggle of late 1961, when Mt Isa Mines shut the gates on the workers. After eight weeks, the government in November 1961, to suit the company, proclaimed a “state of emergency” and ordered a resumption of work on the company’s terms, without any rise in the “bonus.” Work recommenced, but the cause of the dispute remained.

In 1964, the unions went to the Industrial Commission with a claim for a £4 Mt Isa Mines rise. But the commission’s finding in August was, in effect, that the claim was for a prosperity bonus and so, under the 1961 act, the commission could not grant it.

After that, Mt Isa Mines again rejected unions’ attempts to get a settlement by negotiation. Thus, at a time when Mt Isa Mines was making massive profits, the workers found that their efforts for better pay were thwarted in arbitration (under the Nicklin government’s 1961 legislation) and were rebuffed in negotiation. What else could they then do except look for effective forms of action?

Decision and its sequels

In August 1964, Australian Workers Union members at a Mt Isa meeting decided by a large majority vote that contract miners would avail themselves of an alternative under the award: they would revert to wages work, instead of contract work (piecework). That meant considerable loss of pay to those workers. But it meant also a considerable loss of production — and Mt Isa Mines chiefs are obsessed with production. The company felt the results of the change, painfully.

Smarting, Mt Isa Mines looked again at the government’s arbitration act to see how else it could be used against the workers. Then followed a confusing sequence of Industrial Commission and Industrial Court proceedings, the main points of which were:

September 21; Mt Isa Mines lodged an application for Industrial Commission restraining orders against a ban on contract or piecework.

September 30: Mr Justice Hanger, Industrial Court president, in other proceedings, said the circumstances as put before him supported the conclusion that, in acting together to revert from contract to wages work, the men were engaging in an unauthorised strike.

October 14: Because the contract versus wage dispute was continuing, Judge Hanger refused to proceed with hearing of an AWU appeal against the commission’s refusal of the £4 wage claim. The hearing was adjourned.

October 29: The company’s application for restraining orders was withdrawn for want of presentation of an adequate case, by the company. The company next day filed a fresh application for restraining orders.

November 23: After a three-day hearing, the Industrial Commission full bench, by majority decision, with Commissioner H.J. Harvey dissenting, refused to grant the restraining orders.

December 2: Judge Hanger upheld an appeal by the company against the Commission’s decision. He said the reversion from contract to wages work constituted an unauthorised strike. He sent the case back to the commission.

December 3: The Industrial Commission full bench granted the restraining orders (breaches of which could mean fines of £500 on the AWU, £50 on individual members.

Throughout all this, AWU workers at Mt Isa, backed by the members of other unions, had been standing firm on their decision for mining on wages and not on contract — a decision they had taken in the firm belief that it was one right available to them under the Mt Isa Mines award.

The commission’s December 3 restraining order failed to achieve what the company had hoped. At a Mt Isa meeting more than 1000-strong on December 6, AWU workers voted solidly that, notwithstanding the commission’s order, they would maintain their decision to work for wages, not contract.

The company, the AWU and Pat Mackie

By then, Mt Isa Mines had created a further issue, worsening the situation. This was the dismissal of Mr Pat Mackie, who had come to the forefront as a militant rank-and-file AWU leader at Mt Isa. The company dismissed him in October on the pretext of his absence after having been refused leave, which he had sought on the grounds of union business.

Mr Mackie had been chairman of AWU meetings and was associated with the Council for Membership Control of the AWU. His role brought on him the hostility of the right-wing AWU officialdom. Later (February 9, 1965) the financial editor of the Sydney Morning Herald said, rightly or wrongly, Mr Mackie had been “dismissed by Mt Mines with the Brisbane AWU’s approval.”

In December, Mr Mackie was expelled from the AWU on a charge that he had breached union rules. That expulsion was effected a few days after an industrial magistrate had rejected Mr Mackie’s application for reinstatement at Mt Isa Mines.

Re-employment of Mr Mackie by the company and his readmission to the AWU then became added demands of the Mt Isa workers.

It was not just a matter of a job at Mt Mines for Pat Mackie. He has worked at many jobs in his life; to leave employment at Mt Isa Mines would be no cause for heartbreak. But trade union principle was directly involved.

The Queensland Trades and Labor Council president (Mr Jack Egerton) said later:

We believe that Pat Mackie has been victimised by the company. Mt Isa employees have frequently broken a shift without being dismissed for it.

Pat Mackie’s real crime in the eyes of the company was that he was accepted by Mt Isa miners as their spokesman.

Mt Isa Mines has a long record of destroying leadership that emerges among the workers themselves. Those who become prominent as militants are marked, to be removed as quickly as possible.

Pat Mackie himself said in February that when the company gets on to such a worker, “they either cut his head off or put a black hat on it” (a black-hat man being a staff man, required to do the company’s bidding). Like many others before him, Pat Mackie was not to be bought off with a black hat.

Company’s viciousness

Mt Isa Mines hit back viciously when the AWU men in December, after the commission decision, still refused to work on contract. The company announced that it would close down its copper mine and later, possibly, other operations also.

The Nicklin government, eager as ever to help the company, used that company announcement as a pretext. On December 10, 1964, for the second time in just over three years, the government proclaimed a “state of emergency” over a Mt Isa dispute. It ordered Mt Isa miners to accept work on contract, under pain of penalties of a fine of £100 or six months jail.

The government, remote from the working people, miscalculated hugely. It did not realise that 1964 was different from 1961; that, on this occasion, the unity of the workers was at a peak around claims they saw as minimum rights; that the workers had been pushed beyond endurance by an arrogant US-controlled monopoly and a government much more concerned for foreign monopoly profits than for Australian workers’ claims for rights.

A meeting of Mt Isa AWU men reported to number nearly 1500 on December 13 gave a smashing vote to ignore the government’s edict and to continue to work for wages, not contract. There had been boos and catcalls for the AWU state president (Mr G. Goding) when he tried to preside at the meeting, and the men voted for Mr Mackie to preside.

In denouncing the government’s “state of emergency” the Mt Isa workers had strong backing. The Queensland Trades and Labor Council described the government’s action as “a scandalous misuse of executive powers.” It demanded withdrawal of the state of emergency proclamation, and that the government convene a conference to settle the Mt Isa workers’ claims. It added:

We call on all workers and unions in Queensland to support the just stand of Mt Isa workers against any form of industrial conscription, and for the just settling of all industrial disputes in Queensland on the basis of improving workers’ wages and conditions.

The interstate executive of the Australian Council of Trade Unions condemned the government’s action and said that use of such powers, “amounting to industrial conscription”, could not be accepted by the trade union movement.

But the government and Mt Isa Mines swept on. Acting (if rumours were true) at the company’s behest, the government amended its order so as to give the company authority to dismiss any worker who refused to work on contract. The company then, on December 15, dismissed miners and, later on that day, closed down operations. As in 1933, as in 1948, as in 1961, so in 1964 did the company slam the gates against the workers — this time on the eve of Christmas.

Back to the courtrooms

In the next few days, the spotlight moved from tropical Mt Isa amid the spinifex and gibbers, in the blazing heat, to air-conditioned courtrooms in Brisbane. Following the state of emergency, Judge Hanger of the Industrial Court decided to hear the appeal against the commission’s rejection of the claim for a £4 rise: the appeal with which he had previously refused to proceed because of the workers’ stand against contract work.

Judge Hanger on December 15 upheld the appeal and, in doing so let fly some tart comment about the 1961 act being “a strange piece of legislation”. He held that, “as a matter of law,” the legislation did not prevent the commission from considering the prosperity of the industry.

The case was bundled back to the commission. On December 24, the commission announced a decision for a £3 a week “prosperity loading” to all Mt Isa Mines workers.

Mt Isa workers saw cause for bitter reflection. There had been their claim to arbitration in 1961; their attempt after that to negotiate with the company; the 1961 struggle, with its eight-week shutdown; the 1964 claim to the Industrial Commission; then the further attempt to get a rise by negotiation — and always the answer had been no, and twice (1961 and 1964) there had been government state of emergency orders against them.

Now, after all that, they were told that the “strange piece of legislation” did not, in fact, debar them from getting a “prosperity loading,” and they could have £3 a week as such a loading. And the £ decision (no retrospectivity; nothing to compensate for the years of fruitless trying) was given about a week after the company had put them outside the gate.

Who could wonder at Mt Isa workers’ anger, at their caustic outspokenness against government-company-newspaper talk about vaunted “conciliation”, “industrial justice” and “leave it to arbitration”.

Company town

One newspaper writer described Mt Isa as a tropical town where storms blow up quickly and blow away again as quickly. It was a neat-sounding metaphor. But it wasn’t true — not of this 1964-65 storm, anyway.

The storm had been a long time building up. It had developed not only from the immediate pay demand but also from accumulating grievances created by a company which, under US direction, drives for more and more production, more and more profit.

To know something of working and living conditions at Mt Isa helps us to understand the course the dispute took.

Mine work is hard. Mt Isa Mines doesn’t make it any easier or more congenial. In November 1964, Mt Mines chairman Mr G.R Fisher told shareholders sitting in comfort in Brisbane that Mt Isa Mines was the best employer in Australia. How curious then that in 1963-64, even before the dispute erupted, Mt Isa Mines’ labour turnover was no less than 52 per cent; the average number employed during the year was 3934, and the number who left during the year was 2059.

That labour turnover doesn’t make sense on the basis of what Mt Isa Mines propaganda says about conditions. But it does make sense on the basis of what workers say about conditions.

One migrant worker (from Hungary) said: “With the company, it is push, push, push all the time .” Another Hungarian said: “The company is all the time solving problems for more production, but not our problems.” A worker’s wife said: “The company is too high and mighty.”

An AWU member who had been a contract man until the reversion to wages in August 1964 said:

The company has always been chipping away at our rates. It nibbles into allowances for various things. You’ve got to watch it all the time, or you’re losing something from your pay. It’s petty thieving that keeps on adding up.

Early in January 1965, Mr Jack Egerton, Queensland Trades and Labor Council president, was quoted in the Queensland Guardian as saying that the contract system at Mt Isa had so deteriorated that there was virtually no contract system and Mt Isa Mines determined the full conditions of contract work. This was very different from the contract systems in the sugar and pastoral industries, where there were fixed agreements and the workers knew what they were entitled to.

On the job, workers felt they were being policed and “stood over” all the time. The place abounded with petty bosses, anxious to meet the higher-ups’ demands for more production and still more production.

“It takes every penny to live”

The company, abetted by the government, puts out stories of huge earnings. The tales arouse derision among workers.

The base rates under the Mt Isa award are not high. Even with the £8 “bonus,” workers and their families find it a battle to get by in Mt Isa. Prices are high. Butter is 5/5½d a pound (or 5/3½d on “special”), bread two shillings a loaf, petrol 4/6½d a gallon (super) and 4/4d for standard, beer 1/5d for an eight ounce glass in public bars, milk is 1/4d a pint in bottles, more in cartons. [2] Rents, too, are high (“ten guineas and upwards for an unfurnished home, and maybe sub-standard at that,” one woman said).

“It takes every penny to live up here,” a Mt Isa Women’s Auxiliary member said.

An ironworker’s wife with four dependent children, said:

Before he and all the others were sacked in December, my husband was getting about £26 a week. After house payments to the society, he brought home about £42 a fortnight. It was very hard to get by on that.

Life in the town has substantial disabilities. A feature article in the Brisbane Courier-Mail early in 1964 was rather brutal. Before going on to point to what it saw as the good things about Mt Isa and what had been done there, it fired off this broadside:

It is a company mining town, similar to thousands of other company mining towns all over the world, smoke stack and slag heap dominating a township of shabby houses, unspeakable hotels, and inordinately expensive shops.

Toss in Mt Isa’s individual distinctions — a wretched summer climate, fearsome insect plagues, and great isolation — and it stands forth as a black prince among mining towns.

That may have been extreme in some of points, but they’re the Courier-Mail writer’s words, not mine.

In Mt Isa’a searing day-and-night tropical heat, some form of air-conditioning of homes is a necessity. But very many can’t afford it. One mother spoke of how Christmas decorations put up with sticky tape collapsed because the walls were so hot that the tape wouldn’t hold on them.

Families, particularly with youngsters, need holidays on the coast. But the coast at Townsville is 500 miles away; Brisbane is almost 1000 miles away by direct Mt Isa-Brisbane air route or about 1400 miles each way by rail via Townsville. Even a Townsville holiday is more than many can afford.

Trying to minimise the drift of labour away from Mt Isa, the company has provided a considerable range of facilities and amenities. Substantial though they may be, they compensate only partially for all the disadvantages of work and life in Mt Isa.

Organising for needs

To win improvements, Mt Isa workers and others have seen the need for strong organisation. Mt Isa Mines doesn’t mind some organisations. But it doesn’t like working-class organisation. It very much dislikes trade unions that are not content to await company favors, but demand improvements as a right.

Mt Isa Mines profits from any divisions among workers and their unions. Attacks by AWU right-wing chiefs on other unions’ leaders suit Mt Isa Mines well. Mt. Mines doesn’t want unions to get together in a solid unified front.

So Mt Isa Mines wasn’t pleased when, as an outcome of the 1961 experiences, a number of unions re-formed the Mt Isa Provincial Trades and Labor Council in 1962. It was an even bigger jolt to it, when Mt Isa AWU workers in December 1964 voted to affiliate with the Labor Council, and elected delegates to it.

Mt Isa Mines has refused recognition to the Trades and Labor Council and it has refused to accept it as a negotiator on behalf of the combined unions.

Against that background, in the course of the struggle in the latter months of 1964, Mt Isa workers’ demands extended to a six-point program:

Re-employment of Pat Mackie.

Full recognition of the Mt Isa Trades and Labor Council as negotiator; that is, the company must recognise the combine unions the field as a negotiating body.

Wage increase of £4 per week.

Immediate &#1636 bonus increase and amendment of the arbitration act to remove the prohibition on bonuses.

Shift allowance to be increased to £1.

An increase of 25 per cent in contract rates and revision of these.

It should have been obvious to the company, the government and everyone else that a mere £3 increase — as granted on Christmas Eve 1964 only after years of rebuffs and when the workers had already been shut outside the Mt Isa Mines gates — would not solve the dispute, and that still less would the trouble be resolved by coercive orders. But the government blundered on.

Police state edict

The Queensland Trades and Labor Council’s declaration on January 27, 1965, was challenging and resolute in the face of a monstrous attack, in the form of the Nicklin government’s order in council giving the police extraordinary powers to break the Mt Isa worker&#8217 struggle. It said:

The proclamation issued by the Nicklin government today would rank equal with any repressive undemocratic legislation introduced anywhere in the world during the last 50 years.

The trade union movement will, however, with all the forces at its disposal, oppose this infamous proclamation and continue to assist the persons stood down by Mt Isa Mines, who will not surrender their democratic right to refuse work on unjust conditions despite the threat of vicious fascist legislation.

We call on the Australian trade union movement to stand steadfastly with the Queensland trade unions in this struggle.

That declaration — which was sent throughout Australia within 24 hours — was the powerful opening salvo in a counter-offensive that was to take on nationwide proportions and was to win a democratic triumph of historic quality.

The Nicklin government’s January 27 proclamation had introduced police state measures that included provisions without parallel in peacetime Australia. It was the act of a crude and oppressive government, which imagined handcuffs and jails to be a way to break working-class solidarity and militancy.

The January events

Between Christmas and the January 27 proclamation, there had been a succession of developments at Mount Isa . They can be reviewed quickly now.

A compulsory conference of the parties, convened by Industrial Commissioner H.J. Harvey, began its Mt Isa sessions on January 6. It brought the AWU state secretary (Mr E. Williams) to Mt Isa.

Mr Pat Mackie and colleagues of the Council for Membership Control of the AWU moved into the conference room early and were sitting there when Mr Harvey arrived. They were far from welcoming to Williams of the AWU.

The conference could have broken down on that first issue of whether the CMC men should take part. But it was finally agreed that Mr Harvey would meet them separately, and the CMC men accepted the efforts of the combined unions’ representatives as being on their behalf.

Some achievements were made at the conference — achievements that showed how justified the workers had been in their claims for improvements. Mt Isa Mines had to agree to important improvements in the contract system; a simplified procedure on grievances to facilitate the handling of disputes; greater responsibility on the company in regard to machines and equipment for the use of contractors, and some other points.

Coming on top of the £3 under the Industrial Commission decision, these were important gains. They showed that even the stiff-necked Mt Isa Mines could be forced to give ground, provided the pressure was strong enough. But on some other points, Mt Isa Mines refused to negotiate. It said that the unions could make applications on these to the Industrial Commission, but the company would oppose them there too.

The issues on which the company would not budge included re-employment of Mr Mackie, and pay claims.

The conference was wrecked on the company’s stubbornness on these points.

A meeting of AWU members was called for the Saturday morning, January 16. It was to be addressed by Mr Williams of the AWU and Commissioner Harvey. But news got around that Commissioner Harvey intended to use the occasion for a back-to-work speech, to tell them that the struggle was lost. The result was that the meeting would not listen either to Commissioner Harvey or to Mr Williams.

The next day there was a mass meeting. It gave Queensland Trades and Labor Council representatives and local union leaders a warm hearing. There was a firm resolve to continue to fight for their just claims.

It was into that situation that the government flung its police state bomb.

“Violation of UN Charter”

“Violation of UN Charter&#8221

“The proclamation is a violation of the United Nations Charter, a gross denial of democracy” &#8230 Queensland Trades and Labor Council resolution on the Nicklin government’s January 27 order-in-council

Promptly after its order-in-council proclamation of a state of emergency, the government sent “political squad” and other police, together with Crown Law men, to Mt Isa by chartered plane (workers weren’t upset when they read that it had been a rough, bumpy flight). More political-squad men and other police were planted at Brisbane airport.

The police were to use the order-in-council powers — some of which were unique to Australia, imposing a form of industrial apartheid.

Police could use these powers to order any person in the Mt Isa-Cloncurry area to leave any place there, or to leave the entire Mt Isa-Cloncurry area. Police could also prohibit any person anywhere in Queensland from entering the Mt Isa-Cloncurry area.

All that was needed to exercise these powers was an “opinion” of a police sergeant (in some cases) or a sub-inspector or inspector (in others) that the presence of a person was “likely to prejudice the restoration of industrial peace at the Mt Isa mine”.

The correctness or otherwise of that “opinion” was immaterial in any subsequent prosecution for a breach of such orders; the policeman’s opinion was beyond challenge.

A person arrested for failing to comply with the police direction was specifically denied the right to have their case heard in Mt Isa. If arrested in the Mt Isa-Cloncurry areas, they were to be taken before the Mt Isa or Cloncurry Magistrate’s Court, but the Order-in-Council

Such Magistrate’s Court at Mt Isa or such Magistrate’s Court at Cloncurry shall have no jurisdiction to hear the charge but shall order that the person charged by removed in custody and taken forthwith before a Magistrate’s Court at Brisbane.

There were enormous other powers, too. It was an offence to:

… carry or display or drive or cause to be written or printed or displayed or cause to be written or printed or displayed; or speak, write, print, duplicate, reproduce, copy, photograph, distribute … any words or signs counseling, procuring, inducing or lending or calculated to induce any person to do or omit to do any act or thing which might prejudice or be likely to prejudice the restoration of industrial peace at the Mt Isa mine.

Police were given the right of arrest without warrant; the right to seize “any machine or apparatus or matter or thing whatsoever” involved when any provision “is being or has been or is about to be contravened” (so there was power for police to act on an assumption that an offence was “about to be” committed), and the right of entry and search without warrant for any policeman of or above the rank of sergeant.

For offences there was provision for a fine of up to £100 or jail for up to six months, or both fine and jail.

It was an appalling order. It exposed the true face of the government that issued it.

The Nicklin government claimed to be acting on a precedent set by the Hanlon Labor government in the 1948 rail strike. But, as the Railway Advocate (organ of the Queensland branch of the Australian Railways Union) said: “The Labor government’s legislation, although bad, was not as drastic as the regulations promulgated by Nicklin and his fellow political dunderheads."

They predicted raids, arrests

The Nicklin government had thought that it could enforce its order-in-council to the limit.

The January 28 Brisbane Telegraph reported from Mt Isa that rumours had spread the previous night that police were planning a series of dawn raids.

The Financial Review of January 29 said:

The original government plan had been to arrest the ringleaders in the dispute remaining in Mt Isa soon after midnight yesterday, bring them before the magistrate at Mt Isa and then fly them back to Brisbane in the chartered aircraft which had taken police to Mt Isa.

The government, within the first 24 hours of the issuing of the order-in-council, used it for actions at Brisbane airport that shocked the nation. The actions were directed against Mr J. McMahon, president of the Mt Isa Trades and Labor Council, who was on his way back to Mt Isa after a visit to southern states to develop support there for the Mt Isa workers’ cause.

Other planes were met at the airport by police, looking particularly for Mr Pat Mackie and subjecting incoming passengers to cold-eyed scrutiny. Outgoing northbound planes were similarly treated, with passengers having to go to the tarmac through airport lounges thronged with uniformed and plainclothes police.

Mr J. Egerton, Queensland Trades and Labor Council president, said that he had been shocked to see seven police take possession of a plane from Sydney. He had been at the airport to see the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Mr Monk, who was on his way to New Guinea. “I could feel the breath of the police state in the atmosphere,” Mr Egerton said.

The Longreach episode

The government took the case of Mr McMahon a shameful furtherthe Friday. At Brisbane airport about midday solicitors who had gone there with Mr McMahon argued to police and TAA that a refusal to issue Mr McMahon with a ticke to Darwin (in the Northern Terriotory) on a plane bound for Darwin via Mt Isa would be a breach of section 92 of the commonwealth constitution.

Mr McMahon, with a ticket for Darwin, boarded the plane. Also on it were Messrs J. Egerton, E.J. Hanson and J. Devereux, of the Queensland Trades and Labor Council, who were going to Mt Isa.

The TAA Viscount was supposed to go non-stop to Mt Isa, but during its flight, with the crew obviously having been instructed by radio, it turned and landed at Longreach for what the passengers were told would be a stop of about ten minutes. In fact, the stop was for two hours or more, arousing passengers’ indignation against the government and TAA.

When the plane landed at Longreach, the captain told Mr McMahon (who had moved to sit with the other union men’ that he had been told that it would be a breach to take Mr McMahon to or through Mt Isa. He asked Mr McMahon to leave the plane, with certain assurances about being returned to Brisbane. Mr McMahon refused. He had his ticket and he stood by his right to continue.

The deadlock continued. The other union men stayed right with Mr McMahon. There were obviously long-distance phone consultations involving TAA and police or other authorities. At one stage Mr McMahon was told there was a phone call for him and he was asked to leave the plane to take that. He naturally refused.

Eventually, the captain required Mr McMahon to leave the plane under a section of the Criminal Code that someone had thought of that related to “ maintaining good order and discipline”. Mr Devereux asked the captain if anything had occurred between Brisbane and Longreach that would indicate that Mr McMahon’s presence on the plane was prejudicial to maintaining good order and discipline. “No,” answered the captain.

But a detective told Mr McMahon that, if he did not voluntarily comply with the captain’s order, he would be removed. After being told this for the “last time”, Mr McMahon left the plane with police. That night, Mr McMahon flew back to Brisbane at TAA’s expense.

“We are convinced that Mr. McMahon was illegally prevented from continuing his flight,” Mr Egerton said later, after reaching Mt Isa.

At Mt Isa airport

At Mt Isa itself, news during the day that Mr McMahon had left Brisbane on the plane resulted in hundreds of Mt Isa men, women and children going to the airport to see him when the plane made its Mt Isa stopover.

Workers waiting at the airport were delighted when Mr Fred Thompson appeared among them there. Mr Thompson, North Queensland leader of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, was in Townsville when the government’s order-in-council was issued. On January 29, a Courier-Mail report from Mt Isa said:

Police are believed to be checking roads leading into Mt Isa to intercept people embraced by the order-in-council. One, a noted North Queensland Communist, is believed to be heading in this direction.

That could have been a reference to Mr Thompson, but he in fact reached Mt Isa before that issue of the Courier-Mail did. Plainclothes Police, who were at the airport in force, seemed disconcerted to see him there.

The TAA Viscount with Mr McMahon was originally due at Mt Isa at 4.20pm. News that it was delayed was met by Mt Isa people at the airport with suspicion and restiveness. The Mt Isa people did not then know the reason for the delay — the fact that it was at Longreach in the attempt to get Mr McMahon off.

When the plane finally arrived about 2½ hours late, the crowd at the airport was bigger than ever — some estimates said 500 or more.

News of what had happened to Mr McMahon brought a growl of anger and booing. “We want McMahon” and “We want Mackie they shouted.” One man called out sarcastically: “Fly TAA, the friendly way.” Mrs McMahon, who was at the airport, cried vehemently: “What have they done to my husband? … What sort of a country is this?”

The boos turned to cheers for the Trades and Labor Council representatives, and there were more cheers when Mr Egerton said at an airport interview:

The trade union movement will exert all its pressure to see that Mr. McMahon is allowed to return to his home.

Mr Egerton gave a similar assurance about getting Mr Mackie back to Mt Isa. In fact, both Mr McMahon and Mr Mackie were in Mt Isa within 96 hours of the Longreach affair. But a lot had yet to happen before that.

The workers’ answer

The proclamation astounded and angered all sections of the Australian trade union movement. It met with the hostility of the nation, the organised opposition of the Australian trade union movement, and the calm but unshakeable opposition of the people of Mt Isa.” — The Mt Isa Story, a broadsheet issued in Victoria in February 1965 with the authority of 30 trade unions.[3]

Throughout Australia, a surge of working-class anger and action followed the Nicklin government’s savage order. Within about 48 hours, protest actions had already included:

• A statewide 24-hour stoppage from midnight the following Tuesday called by the Queensland Trades and Labor Council. The wholehearted response of individual unions presaged a massive success for the stoppage.

• A statement issued by Australian Council of Trade Unions president Mr Alfred E. Monk and senior vice-president Mr J.D. Kenny MLC, denouncing the Queensland government’s “panic legislation”, urging efforts by the government to negotiate settlement methods.

• A directive by the Queensland executive of the Australian Workers’ Union that AWU officials not call or hold any meetings of Mt Isa workers while the government’s order was in force. The AWU convention endorsed the decision. A dismayed Premier Nicklin said he was “surprised” at the AWU decision.

• A request to the ACTU by Broken Hill’s two biggest mining unions — the Workers’ Industrial Union and the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen’s Association — to call a national one-day stoppage.

• Work stoppages by more than 1300 workers on the Lake Munmorrah and Vales Point power station projects. Waterside workers and seamen on the NSW south coast also stopped work as did about 200 mineworkers at Coalcliff, Evans Deakin boilermakers and ironworkers at Electrolytic Refining and Smelting. A meeting of representatives of several unions at Wollongong urged a 24-hour stop of all South Coast workers.

• The federal office of the Waterside Workers Federation declared that the Nicklin government’s order-in-council regulations were “reminiscent of the 90-day detention law in South Africa” and were “an affront to every trade unionist in Australia and, indeed, to the Australian people.” The Waterside Workers Federation, the statement went on, “will be completely behind any industrial action organised by the trade union movement to support the unions and to defend the democratic rights and principles of Australian workers.”

• The federal body of the Metal Trades Federation of unions condemned the Nicklin government’s action and pledged full support to the Mt Isa workers.

• The NSW Labor Council demanded withdrawal of the Nicklin government’s measures, and the council’s secretary (Mr Kenny, MLC) called on all NSW unions to give full support to the Mt Isa workers.

Federal leaders of a host of unions—in the metal, building, mining, railway, maritime and other industries — and workers from jobs throughout Australia and from ships at sea sent telegrams pouring into the Queensland and Mt Isa trades and labor councils and to the Nicklin government.

From such a broad start, the protest movement mounted throughout Australia, from east to west, north to south.

Queensland Labor Party executive’s call

The executive committee (inner executive) of the Queensland Central Executive of the Australian Labor Party held a special meeting, at which it among other things:

Urged the need for a speedy settlement (with a “fair and just decision”; of the Mt Isa dispute.

Condemned the Nicklin government’s order-in-council (which, it said, “placed Queensland in the forefront of undemocratic government”, and demanded its repeal.

Voiced the belief that the government was seizing the opportunity provided by the industrial dispute in order “to further its savage attack on the industrial laws of this state, and to undermine the influence and authority of the trade union movement”.

The NSW state executive of the ALP condemned the Nicklin government’s “unwarranted emergency powers” which it said were “similar in character to the repressive legislation enacted by the government of South Africa” and were a denial of human rights.

Mr W.G. Hayden, Labor Party MHR for Oxley (Queensland), described the Nicklin government’s action as an “assumption of dictatorial powers”. Mr Hayden said it was unnecessary, clumsy and would only worsen the situation.

Mr A.D. Fraser, MHR for Eden-Monaco (NSW), said the form of intervention by the state government was utterly wrong-headed.

Tension — and determination

In Mt Isa itself, there was tension. (A Mt Isa Mail report about talk in hotel bars said: “The bloke standing next to you will probably be either a policeman or a reporter.”[4]) But, above all, there was anger and heightened resolve. “Government move unites men,” said a headline on a Mt Isa story in the January 29 Sydney Morning Herald.

“When the law becomes one-sided, everyone whose mind is right condemns it,” said a Hungarian worker.

In sending Brisbane political squad men and other police to Mt Isa, the Nicklin government may have hoped for some clash between Mt Isa workers and police, so that Nicklin & Co could use it to justify their talk about “gangsterism” and “strongarm tactics.” But any such government hopes were in vain: workers’ restraint gave no pretext for police action.[5]

It was an explosive situation. The “state of emergency” and the order-in-council were in force. Political squad men and other police were in the town. Mt Isa Mines had announced, in a bid to get the workers back in surrender, that it would open the gates for an 8am start on the Monday and, if enough turned up, it would reopen the mine. Failing that, it had threatened to suspend the contracts under which private employers were employing some 700 workers on projects on the Mt Isa Mines lease. Anonymous leaflets attacking the workers’ militant leadership were appearing, distributed furtively.

There had been probings to seek weaknesses in the workers’ front, and efforts (signally unsuccessful) had been made to get one or another national group to break away.

Against that background, Sunday, January 31, brought one of the best meetings Mt Isa had ever known. The Star Theatre was filled; people were standing, and there was an overflow crowd outside. The meeting, called by the Queensland Trades and Labor Council, was open to all workers, womenfolk, townspeople, pressmen, TV crews, anyone who wanted to be there. (Some Mt Isa Mines staff men were there, and no one objected.) It was a magnificent meeting. There was frequently a lot of noise — but it was clapping and cheering. And there was a big cheer when Mr. J. Devereux, secretary of the Queensland Metal Trades Federation of unions) said he had told Mr Foots of Mt Isa Mines at a conference the previous day that “in my opinion, there will be no number reporting for work on Monday”. That statement, and the meeting’s response to it, was the answer to Nicklin and to Mt Isa Mines.

The meeting and its orderliness made a devastating answer to Nicklin’s pretence that extraordinary police powers were necessary to make meetings possible. Police were at the meeting, but there was less need for them than there would be at a family-night picture show.

Moreover, the meeting was held without either Mr Pat Mackie or Mr John McMahon being present. A Financial Review editorial on February 8 said:

In retrospect, the elaborate screen of police put up to prevent Mr Mackie returning to Mt. Isa — on the assumption that his absence would ensure a return to work — looks even more foolish than it did at the time.

Many police, few workers

The Mt Mines-government back-to-work bid the next morning was a fiasco. Plainclothes and uniformed police were at the mine gates and in radio-equipped cars. Company staff men looked out office windows, scanning the road — for workers who didn’t come.

After a while, the waiting pressmen gave it up. “My empty notebook tells this morning’s story,” said a southern newspaperman.

Some workers did turn up. The company eventually gave a figure of 67 — of whom only 11 were underground workers.

In a statement that morning (which was the Australia Day public holiday), Mr Egerton of the Queensland Trades and Labor Council said:

The attempt by the premier to solve the dispute by coercive means has abjectly failed.

It would be fitting on this day, Australia Day, 1965, if the government informed the American-owned company that it will not allow the state’s most important asset to be close by the decision of American interests.

It is quite obvious that conciliatory measures must be used to settle the dispute.

We reaffirm for the umpteenth time our preparedness, as responsible unions, to facilitate the holding of any conference aimed at settling the dispute.”

For the Nicklin government, it was to be an unhappy day.

The democratic triumph

The events of that Australia Day weekend, the immense national protest movement, the 24-hour statewide Queensland stoppage planned for February 3 — in the face of all that, the Nicklin government wilted and cracked. It had set out to be a Napoleon — only to find itself, within a week, a Humpty Dumpty instead.

The Australia Day events came in quick and dramatic succession. In Mt Isa first, there was a Mt Isa Mines announcement that, “at the request of the state government,” the planned suspension of the outside contracts was being deferred pending the outcome of a compulsory conference being convened by Commissioner Harvey.

Next, Mt Isa — and all Australia — got the news that the Nicklin government had suspended its infamous order-in-council, and that the police sent to Mt Isa were now be taken home again, their assignment (chartered plane, hotel accommodation and all) having proved a crashing waste of public money.[6]

From Mt Isa to Perth, from Darwin to Adelaide, from Cairns and Townsville to Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart — and everywhere between — workers hailed the victory they had won.

In Mt Isa, with the news that the order-in-council was in the garbage bin, union leaders announced a press conference to be held in the hotel “bullring” (an open square in the building, with the bars opening on to it) in half an hour.

Within that time, the place was in a tumult: Pat Mackie was there in spite of the order-in-council, the police at the airports, the road blocks, in spite of all the Nicklin government could do to keep him out, Pat Mackie had been in Mt Isa since the previous Saturday. The town buzzed with excitement and delight.

“What do you want to do now, Pat?” asked a newsman at that bullring press conference. The answer was short and to the point: “Get back to work, on decent terms,” said Pat Mackie.

“We have an obligation to the trade union movement everywhere to win a proper settlement,” he added.

About the support he had found during his mission as a Mt Isa Mines workers’ representative, Pat Mackie said: “There is more militancy throughout this country than I ever realised; not just the seamen and wharfies, and it’s not confined to the workers.”

The defeat of the order-in-council made it a fine Australia Day for the workers and other democrats. A Queensland Trades and Labor Council advertisement next day said:

Due to the solidarity of the trade union movement of Queensland and Australia in opposition to the Nicklin government’s fascist-like proclamation, and solidarity with Mt Isa workers, the Nicklin government has been forced to suspend its iniquitous anti-democratic proclamation.

The government had suspended its order-in-council, so the Trades and Labor Council likewise suspended its planned 24-hour protest stoppage.

Workers’ stand was decisive

The fact that the workers’ stand had been the real cause of the government’s capitulation was conceded, in a roundabout way, in a February 2 story in the Financial Review, which said:

Growing criticism by Queensland employers, worried about tomorrow’s proposed 24-hour stoppage, may have influenced state cabinet’s decision to about-turn once and suspend its sweeping order-in-council …

It is believed that the federal government also has expressed concern to the state government on recent developments. The federal government has been worried about the threat of an Australia-wide 24-hour strike and the call by the Queensland branch of the Electrical Trades Union[7] for an indefinite nation-wide stoppage of all its members.

Many Australian newspapers, sensing the people’s mood, had turned against the Nicklin government on its order-in-council affair.

The financial editor of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote on January 29:

From the mad moment when policemen prevented Mr J. McMahon, the president of the Mt Isa Trades & Labor Council from returning to his home at Mt Isa, all hope that the Queensland government had learned something front its past mistakes came to an end.

The government’s incompetence becomes more obvious to its opponents, and more dangerous, the longer the emergency continues.

A Sydney Morning Herald editorial on January 29 said:

People brought up in the democratic tradition instinctively recoil front the idea of arrest, search and seizure without warrant. Queensland’s regulations provide for all three.

An editorial in The Australian on January 29 referred to the government’s “clumsily repressive measures”, and said that “those emergency regulations which suppress the freedom to dissent from the government are wrong in principle”.

A Sunday Truth editorial on January 31 referred to the government’s “hasty and disastrous mistake”, its “highly obnoxious regulations” and its “fascist-type stick”.

The Financial Review, in a February 8 editorial, said: “after procrastination, bullying and misjudgment came failure”. In an editorial on February 10, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote: “From beginning to end, the Queensland government has shown a political and administrative ineptitude happily rare in the history of the state.”

Ray Johnston wrote in the February 7 Sunday Truth:

It seems crystal clear that never again can we hope for any strike-breaking protection from any government emergency declaration.

Others added their voices. As a change from his normal redbaiting, Queensland Employers’ Federation secretary Mr J.R. James described the state government’s approach to industrial relations generally as “naive and lacking maturity”, and he accused the government of having brought in its recent order-in-council without considering fully its implications and possible consequences.[8]

The federal secretary of the Ironworkers’ Association, Mr L. Short, added a notable line: “The dispute cannot be left a minute longer with the hillbilly Queensland government.”

From its first days in 1957, the Nicklin government had shown itself determined to promote the greedy, predatory interests of Mt Isa Mines and other monopolies by whatever means it could devise. To do so, it had acted with savage hostility against the workers.

The government’s 1961 legislation against bonus rises, its 1961 and 1964-65 Mt Isa “state of emergency” orders, its monstrous 1965 police state order-in-council — its whole pattern of actions — merited the contempt and anger of Australian democrats. And, on top of that, its crude blunders, born of its own prejudices, ignorance and conceit, had exasperated even monopoly chiefs.

The Nicklin government didn’t have so very many friends at the beginning of January. It had many fewer still at the beginning of February.

Unions’ February efforts

February 1965 opened with the victory over the Nicklin government’s police state order-in-council, on February 1. It closed with a February 28 meeting of AWU members at Mt Isa, who showed unshaken resolve.

It was a month in which the determination of the great majority of Mt Isa Mines workers thwarted attempts by Mt Isa Mines to get them back on the job, on the company’s terms in sufficient numbers to operate the mine.

On the unions’ side efforts were made, through one avenue after another, to secure the re-employment of Mr Mackie. This was pressed at conference sessions convened by Commissioner Harvey; it was sought in an application lodged on Mr Mackie’s behalf for hearing by the Industrial Court or the Industrial Commission, and it was urged in a letter sent by lawyers to the company. But Mt Isa Mines would not budge from a flat no.

Commissioner Harvey said at Mt Isa on February 4 that the matter of re-employment of Mr Mackie would “not be heard under circumstances of duress”.

Judge Hanger in the Industrial Court on February 24, said:

It is as if Markey [Mackie] had appealed to a referee while his supporters stand on the sidelines brandishing cudgels. I decline to hear this summons for directions in these circumstances.[9]

The Queensland Trades and Labor Council on February 10 urged that the Industrial Commission and, if necessary, the court president consider a further investigation, “shorn of all legal trappings”, into the circumstances of the Mackie dismissal or, failing this, that it recommend to the government that a special commission be set up to make this investigation.

When that proposal was not acted on, the Trades and Labor Council in mid-February called on the government to convene a conference, “free from Industrial Commission restrictions,” in an attempt to reach a settlement.

Again, the government failed to act on the Trades and Labor Council’s earnest proposal.

Should “duress” be a barrier?

The Nicklin government, muttering in the background, seemingly approved arbitration authorities’ refusal to go on with the Mackie case while under what they described as “duress”. But a different approach was evident in some newspapers.

A Sydney Morning Herald story from Canberra on February 9 carried a strong suggestion that the state government could direct the Industrial Commission to hear and determine at once whether Mr Mackie should be re-employed. The story said also:

It is felt in federal circles that to sacrifice a whole town on a so-called industrial principle that no tribunal acts under duress is hardly a vote of confidence in the particular tribunal.

On February 10, an editorial in The Australian saw merit in a suggestion that the Queensland Industrial Commission “should now conduct an industrial inquiry, at the request of the Queensland government, into the rights and wrongs of the reinstatement of Mr Mackie.”

The Australian of February 19 gave about half a page to an “open letter from a Mt Isa miner,” that contained this:

Mr Harvey’s stand seems reasonable at first glance. No tribunal could hear a ease while under duress.

But this stand ignored the whole reason for the existence of an industrial commission. Such tribunals can act only during conditions of duress. If there’s no duress — no threats of strikes or lockouts — conciliation commissioners are not necessary.

Almost certainly some, if not all, of the gains made by the miners during the long compulsory talks have been under duress. That is, the company had agreed on certain things (reluctantly, no doubt) during a conference held under the aegis of the Industrial Commission. Wasn’t this hearing and deciding on things while under duress!

And, in any case, even if Mr Harvey’s duress definition were correct, a hearing under existing conditions would have followed significant precedent established in this same dispute.

Mr Harvey’s Industrial Court president, Mr Justice Hanger, had heard and ruled on a case concerning the bonus while a dispute was in progress. And the full bench of the Industrial Commission had granted a £3 a week increase in the bonus while a dispute was in progress.

But such arguments were of no avail. On February 24, Judge Hanger adjourned the Mackie case indefinitely, with no date set for its hearing.

February brought also an intensification of what the open letter in The Australian called a “nationwide campaign of vilification” against Pat Mackie who, the writer said, had been subjected “to the obnoxious trial by newspaper”.

Company threat, then cajolery

February was marked, too, by new stop-go tactics on the part of Mt Isa Mines, trying to break the workers&#8217 front.

These company tactics were adopted after a meeting of some 750 AWU members at Mt Isa on February 7 had overwhelmingly rejected a motion to lift bans on contract work and resume work the next morning. A mass meeting of members of the craft unions that morning also was solid.

Two days later, on February 9, the company said it would “suspend all operations, including outside contracts, except power, water and safety services, as from 5pm Thursday next, February 11”.

Queensland Trades and Labor Council secretary Mr A. Macdonald described the company’s edict as “a blatant action by a foreign-controlled company”, “an attempt to starve Mt Isa workers into submission” and “a denial of the need to persevere to resolve the legitimate issues in dispute”.

On February 11,Commissioner Harvey issued an order to restrain Mt Isa Mines from suspending contracts under which workers were employed by contractors. The order, for a week, was described as an attempt to preserve the jobs of some 700 men employed by contractors or subcontractors.

But the commissioner’s action came too late. Many of the workers had already been paid off.

On February 16, with Commissioner Harvey in Mt Isa, Mt Isa Mines reversed its line. In what the press called a “surprise announcement”, it said the gates would be opened the next morning to all employees who were on the books at December 14 — a device that excluded Mr Mackie.

The AWU state executive promptly urged its members to go back to work. Mr Williams of the AWU made the crude statement: “This debacle has gone on long enough.”

The barrage of back-to-work propaganda from various quarters was able, on the first day, to get back to work only 141 of the 2000-odd to whom it was addressed. The number varied on succeeding days. But by the end of the month those who had gone back to work were still only a small minority, including few AWU underground men.

Unions took protest action over the company’s measures. For example, the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemens Association, by a telegraphic vote of state management committee members, called out Mt Isa men.

Men who were still employed at Mt Isa by Mt Isa Mines contractors stopped work also for about a week

The AWU officialdom acted too, but in a very different way. On February 24, it stopped the distribution of relief for Mt Isa AWU members and their dependants. The Trades and Labor Council, with the funds contributed in Queensland and other states, took on itself the burden of relief pay for AWU members whose relief had been cut off by the chiefs of their own union.

“Protocol” an obstacle?

The widespread concern in southern states at the failure to get a settlement of the Mt Isa dispute grew during the month. This was reflected in an article by the Sydney Morning Herald’s financial editor on February 9: “No considerations of protocol can obscure the fact that Mt Isa is a national issue of importance … It seems imperative that the question of Mr Mackie’s dismissal should be re-heard by the Queensland Industrial Commission” and “it is also more desirable than ever that the Queensland government should invite the commonwealth’s co-operation in finding a solution.”

On February 16, the Sydney Morning Herald’s Canberra Commentary said:

“Someone has to make a move in the current stalemate. It is for governments lo lead, and leadership is long overdue from the Queensland government.”

But the Nicklin government was still stunned by the backlash from its January blunders.

Towards the end of the month, there seemed to be something stirring around the government’s lair. On February 23, the cabinet held another of its “reviews” of the situation. The next morning, the Courier-Mail said that an “important development” (though Mr Nicklin said it wouldn’t be from “the government end”) “is expected by the state government today.”

The people waited … and waited. As February came to an end, they were still waiting.

Town’s solidarity

A Melbourne Sun report of the January 31 Mt Isa meeting made special reference to what was said by Mr Fred Thompson, North Queensland leader of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. The Sun said:

Mr Thompson brought cheer after cheer as he laced into the Queensland government.

Mr Thompson made the biggest cheer of the morning from the multiracial crowd when he said: “If nothing else emerges from this dispute other than the wonderful spirit of understanding and brotherhood between the different nationalities which comprise our community, then we still will have made a tremendous gain.

“This dispute has eliminated all the bad features of national feeling and pride. We have forged a truly Australian community.”

The Melbourne Herald also reported these statements by Mr Thompson, and it added: “His audience clapped and cheered for at least a minute.”

The dispute had, indeed, welded a new solidarity among the workers, whatever their nation of origin, and had rallied around them the support of womenfolk, many of the business people, and other sections.

Many nationalities: one cause

Mt Isa Mines workers include many nationalities (some say more than 40). But in the struggle against the company, all joined in common cause. On the Mt Isa Trades and Labor Council’s various committees (finance, relief, publicity, etc) set up for the struggle, members included Finns, Hungarians, Czechs, Dutch, Greeks, Italians, Germans and others.

Some short interviews with migrant workers, spoken to at random in the streets or at a Trades and Labor Council relief payout about the time of that January 31 meeting, gave indications of the feeling.

Finns make up probably the largest European grouping in Mt Isa. One Finn — a big Viking-like man — said: “There is no need for a special interview to tell how the Finns feel. Ask any one of them; they will tell you the same.”

A Hungarian said: “All we want is fair negotiation for a fair dividing-up of the money from the mine.”

A Polish worker said: “The way the company treats us means that the workers need to be united always.”

A Czech said feeling was strong among the Mt Isa men of his nationality. He added: “We’ve been through this sort of fight with Mt Isa Mines before.”

In quick succession at the relief payment centre were a Greek, a Pacific Islander and an Italian. In short interviews, none showed any doubts or misgivings about the workers’ cause.

“Workers here — whether they were born in Australia or whatever country they came from — have shown a common front,” Mr J. McMahon told one gathering.

Some of the migrant workers had special grievances against Mt Isa Mines.

According to a Sunday Truth story on January 31, a group of English workers had been hired by the company’s London headquarters and told that, if they worked at the mine for two years, they would be given a free air fare home. One of them said:

I answered an advertisements three months ago in the English national newspapers to come here to work. Before I left I was not even told in London that there was a dispute on.

Now the mine has told me I won’t be able to get my fare back. I suppose I will be out of a job anyhow.

Mt Isa workers in their struggle won support from many of the town’s business people.

One businessman said:

A lot of the business people are on the side of the workers. They have contributed between them several hundred pounds towards the Trades and Labor Council relief fund.

Most of the business people realise that they are dependent on the workers.

But, he added, there were some business people who would be in favour of any action that they thought might get the workers back to work on the company’s terms.

Womenfolk’s stand

Mt Isa womenfolk took their place solidly with the men. Three leading members of the Mt Isa Women’s Auxiliary said in a joint interview at the end of January:

The strength of the feeling among the women is astounding — even better than in the 1961 struggle. The women are right behind the men.

The three women were Mrs Sally Murray, the auxiliary’s president (she came to Mt Isa four years ago from New Zealand; Mrs Estelle Deutekom, the secretary (4½ years in Mt Isa, mother of a 3£-year-old girl), and Mrs Ann Parker, the treasurer (came to Mt Isa straight from England nearly two years ago).

They said that, although they had found women anxious and although there had been cases of distress and even destitution, they had not found hostility among them towards the men’s struggle; the hostility was towards the company.

As for the Nicklin government, for a moment words failed the three women. Then one of there said: “The company and the government have been throwing the ball backwards and forwards to each other — and we’re the ball.”

But, they said, the people of Mt Isa know what they want and what they are doing to get it.

The women’s organisation started with ten members to deal with cases of distress. The ten had stayed behind in response to a call after a mass meeting in December. The organisation became the Mt Isa Women’s Auxiliary, affiliated with the Mt Isa Trades and Labor Council and sending delegates to it. It grew until some of its meetings had more than 100 present.

The auxiliary women see their role as extending beyond the dispute. They have set themselves the aim of making Mt Isa a better town to live in. They want cheaper prices, lower rents and a lot of ether improvements. They are resolved to set about that task with the same high spirit as they set about their important job during the workers’ struggle.

Massive support

From Auckland, New Zealand, came a cable to the Queensland Trades and Labor Council signed by 11 union leaders, saying:

Please accept fraternal greetings to Mt Isa workers on the occasion of their great working-class struggle. We wish all success to the united labour movement in the struggle to defeat the anti-labour laws of the Queensland government and the anti-union policy of this US mining company. [10]

Another cable of support came from Prague, from the general secretary of the Miners Trades Department (embracing 5½ million unionists) of the World Federation of Trade Unions.

Those cables were added to the thick wad of telegrams and other messages of support from throughout Australia. They all provided stirring encouragement to the Mt Isa workers.

The messages came from every state, and from the crews of ships at sea (including the New Zealand vessel Kaituna). There were messages from state and provincial peak trade union bodies, from unions and union women’s committees, from jobs, from individuals.

Finance came in response to the need. By mid-February, the Queensland Trades and Labor Council had received about £30,000.

Wharfies, miners, Broken Hill workers, West Australian ship painters and dockers, and others levied themselves by various means to provide support. Individual donors included housewives, students and pensioners.

The Union of Australian Women raised finance for the Mt Isa workers, and published a special supplement on the struggle in its national journal Our Women.

Representatives of Mt Isa workers and of Mt Isa women went to other Queensland centres and to southern states. The support mounted.

In late February, Queensland Trades and Labor Council secretary Mr A Macdonald said examples of union donations throughout Australia since early January included: Waterside Workers Federation £10,000; Broken Hill, £6000 (not including money sent direct to Mt Isa); Miners Federation, £3000; Seamens Union, £3000; Amalgamated Engineering Union, £1600; Boilermakers Society, £1200; Wollongong area, £800; Tramways Union, £700; Ship Painters and Dockers throughout Australia, £800; Building Workers Union, £700.

Workers employed at Mt Isa by contractors to Mt Isa Mines contributed generously from the start to the Trades and Labor Council funds. Then, in February, those who were still employed there went on strike in a solidarity protest against Mt Isa Mines’ tactics intended to break the workers’ front.

Others in Mt Isa who were working made donations from each pay. “People come up to you in the street to give you money for the fund,” said one Mt Isa Trades and Labor Council man.

Weekly relief payment

The contributions provided the money for the weekly relief payments by the Mt Isa Trades and Labor Council, and the work of the Women’s Auxiliary to alleviate cases of distress.

The Trades and Labor Council set the weekly rates of relief payment at £6/10/- for a married man, £1 for each child, with extra for babies. In mid-February, it was able to increase these rates.

AWU men and members of various other unions drawing relief pay at lesser rates from their own unions had these amounts made up to the general level by the Trades and Labor Council fund.

Workers showed their sense of responsibility and their honesty. “Men come back to us to say there’s a mistake: they’ve been paid too much — maybe a married man’s rate, when they’re single. They hand us back the extra money,” said one of the relief committee.

No explanation other than that bald assertion. In other words, as in past disputes at Mt. Isa and elsewhere, the government made itself an accomplice in trying to starve men and their families into submission.

Women’s Auxiliary members spoke of the work to alleviate distress. “The people of Australia who have given the money can be assured that it is being well used: we are honest and careful,” they said.

From the outset, the importance of the relief payments was heightened by the Menzies government’s refusal to allow unemployment benefits to Mt Isa Mines workers who had been put off by the company.

Notices of refusal were sent cut to those who applied. A printed portion read:

Your application has been carefully examined but approval cannot be given for the following reason. Then, typed in: “You do not comply with the conditions of eligibility for unemployment benefit,Ᾱ. No explanation other than that assertion.

In other words, as in past disputes at Mt Isa and elsewhere, the government made itself an accomplice in trying to starve men and their families into submission.

Labour movement in support

The labour movement rallied in support of the Mt Isa workers. In January, the executive committee of the Queensland central executive of the Australian Labor Party, in a resolution:

Stressed the need for a speedy settlement of the Mt Isa dispute, with a fair and just decision to the parties concerned.

Condemned Mt Isa Mines’ methods, in regard to which, it said, the industrial conference had shown the need for drastic revision of conditions of employment, and which cause us to doubt their sincerity to reopen the mine based on fair and just principles.

Pledged complete support to the Australian Workers Union, craft and other unions in their struggle to achieve industrial justice for the workers and residents of Mr Isa.

In February, the ALP’s Queensland Central Executive denounced the state government’s role, condemned Mt Isa Mines’ refusal to negotiate properly with the unions, and accused the Menzies federal government of dishonesty in refusing unemployment pay.

Communist newspapers (Tribune, Queensland Guardian and Victorian Guardian) throughout the dispute featured the facts of the struggle and publicised calls for support for the Mt Isa workers. Tribune (national weekly) brought out a special issue at the time of the Nicklin government’s order-in-council.

Queensland Trades and Labor Council’s forefront role

Mt Isa workers appreciated the leadership provided by the Queensland Trades and Labor Council. The part played by prominent TUC figures has had an importance beyond the immediate dispute.

The work of: men such as Messrs J. Egerton (Queensland Trades and Labor Council president), A. Macdonald (secretary), E.J. Hanson (disputes committee chairman), J. Devereux (metal unions advocate), N. Kane (executive member) and North Queenslander Fred Thompson (Amalgamated Engineering Union) helped set a pattern for unity.

State officials of other unions — in the building trades, metal industry, Electrical Trades Union and Federated Engine Drivers and Firemens Association — played their positive part.

Leaders of the Mt Isa Trades and Labor Council and of individual unions demonstrated anew their staunch capacities.

Why they booed AWU officials

The standing among workers of the Australian Workers Union right-wing officialdom, however, is vastly different from that of the Queensland and Mt Isa trades and labor council leaders. Booing of AWU officials at meetings told its own story.

Successive attempts were made by AWU officials to get the workers to go back to work on terms that the rank and file saw as surrender, and with Pat Mackie left outside the gate.

In late February, the AWU right wing took its back-to-work pressure to the extent of cutting off relief to Mt Isa members and their families. The Trades and Labor Council took over the burden.

Earlier in February, at a time when AWU and other unions’ members were locked in fierce struggle with the Mt Isa Mines monopoly, top AWU right-wingers backed an AWU convention decision to withdraw AWU financial and other support from the federal parliamentary Labor Party, a decision that no doubt elated Menzies and the National Civic Council-DLP clique.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s financial editor said that AWU convention decision was “because of the attitude of two MHRs to the Mt. Isa dispute”. Those two MHRs would have been Dr Jim Cairns and Mr Clyde Cameron, who had shown support for the AWU workers and Mr Mackie. Hostile messages had been sent to both Dr Cairns and Mr Cameron by Mr Williams of the AWU.

In the Mt Isa dispute, government and big business interests had hoped that the anti-militant line and tactics of AWU chiefs would (as has happened in a number of previous disputes at Mt Isa and elsewhere) succeed in dousing the fire, and getting workers back on the job on terms agreeable to the employer.

But the pressure of the workers was to prove too strong. The AWU chiefs met with rebuff after rebuff from the rank and file.

Employers’ chagrin at that was reflected in sour newspaper comment on the AWU leaders’ role. The Bulletin said,on February 6:

All authority in the AWU is concentrated in the state and federal offices. The state office was about 1000 miles from the scene of the dispute …

The AWU’s district organiser had practically no powers, and he was certainly far more experienced in handling the pastoral award than the miners’ problems.

The state secretary of the AWU, Mr E. Williams, was in Mt Isa last September but did not get back until early January …

The Sydney Morning Herald’s financial editor said on February 9:

It remains astonishing that the Queensland secretary of tile AWU. Mr Edgar Williams, went nowhere near Mt Isa in the last climactic couple of weeks. Neither, of course, did the, federal secretary, Mr T. Dougherty.

A Sydney Morning Herald editorial on February 10 said the Nicklin government’s ineptitude “has been matched in this present dispute only by the bungling behavior of the AWU.

Happenings during the Mt Isa dispute cast further light on the bureaucratic methods of control of the AWU. These methods have caused the development of the Council for Membership Control.[11]

The difference between the AWU officialdom’s line and that of the Queensland Trades and Labor Council was underlined when Mr Egerton said in February that the TLC “was supplying leadership to AWU members which their own leaders had been unable to supply”.

A few says later, Mr Egerton said that normally 2000 AWU members were employed at the mines, but they were denied authority to elect their own organisers. The present organiser, he said, was appointed by the union’s branch (state) executive.

Mr Egerton also said:

The future of democratic trade unionism demands that the Australian Workers Union should acknowledge the widespread dissatisfaction of Its members and give them the right to elect their own officials and concede the right of Mt Isa unions to combine in forming a central union body.

Mr Williams of the AWU denied that the union was dictated to by its leaders. Of course, he’d deny it.

Employers and the AWU

Employers hope that the AWU right-wing bureaucracy can withstand the challenges aimed at giving the rank and file a greater say and moving the AWU from its far-right official policy.

The AWU has an important position in key industries and undertakings, including (in Queensland) Mt Isa mining, the sugar industry, the pastoral industry (with its low-wage Aboriginal workers), Weipa bauxite, Mt. Morgan mining, the forestry, sawmilling and plywood industries, and others. Employers want AWU right-wing officials as a buffer between them and workers’ militant pressure.

AWU right-wingers don’t want to go from office. They are in control of a union whose total assets (according to the Financial Review) are conservatively estimated at more than £4 million. Their positions give them power and prominence and a standard of living by no means meagre. There are plums such as visits to the USA, to Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan and elsewhere, They don’t want to lose all that.

But the AWU bureaucracy has been jolted by the Mt Isa events. It can be toppled altogether. The rank-and-file democratic movement in the AWU may prove irresistible.

Red bogey failed again

In question-time at the January 31 mass meeting at Mt Isa a man near the back got up to ask if more than two of the speakers that morning were communists. The mutter of disgust among the audience at the question changed to applause when Mr Egerton of the Queensland Trades and Labor Council answered: “A person’s political leanings are his own business.”

That answer, and the audience’s response to it, were characteristic of the way in which attempts to create divisions by use of anti-Communism and red bogey tactics were rebuffed by workers and union leaders, in their determination to maintain the solidarity against Mt Isa Mines.

The positive stand taken together by state and Mt Isa leaders of Trades and Labor Council unions, irrespective of their political party, was of great significance. The unity of these leaders — Australian Labor Party men, Communist Party men or men of no political party — reflected the solid front of the workers and, in turn, further strengthened that rank-and-file unity.

Whenever workers’ pressure becomes strong, big business puts the red bogey on parade. The Mt Isa struggle has not been an exception.

A stream of Red Bogey propaganda came from government, employers, National Civic Council-Democratic Labor Party-Queensland Labor Party elements, and some pulpits. Right-wingers in the Australian Workers’ Union officialdom vied with monopoly spokesmen in the crudity of their anti-Communism and red bogey stories.

The Queensland Trades and Labor Council — with its important role in this and other working-class struggles in Queensland — was one target.

It has long been a device of big business propaganda to describe the Queensland Trades and Labor Council as “Communist-dominated” or “Communist-controlled”. Yet the Courier-Mail (itself an inveterate peddler of anti-Communism) in a story in January listed the president, vice-president, treasurer and six others of the Trades and Labor Council executive as, being members of the Australian Labor Party; one other executive member was listed by the Courier-Mail, oddly, as “not ALP”, and only three were described as Communists. Is that Communist domination?

Calwell answered Nicklin

Extravagant charges against workers and anti-Communist talk were, of course, used by Premier Nicklin in trying to justify his government’s police-state order-in-council. He conjured up a vision of “Communists and leftists” having “flocked to Mt Isa”.

The leader of the federal Labor opposition Mr Arthur Calwell, replied bitingly to Mr Nicklin. He said Mr Nicklin&38217;s dark hints about a nationwide conspiracy represented a pathetic attempt to justify his own blunder. The charge that the Mt Isa dispute was a Communist plot was not true, Mr Calwell said.

But still red bogey anti-Communism poured out through the dailies, the radio and television. The Queensland Employers Federation president, Mr. C.B. Peter Bell) and secretary (Mr J.R. James) yapped with the anti-Communist chorus. Spokesmen for big employers, with a keen eye to their profits, are always eager to preach to workers on what they should think and do.

As the Mt Isa struggle went on, it became impossible for anyone to deny that the workers had genuine grievances. Mr Nicklin, in his muddled way, said in January that it was not suggested that the origin of the dispute was “tainted with Communism”.

But the line was now to claim that the grievances had been rectified, and that the dispute was being wantonly prolonged by some unscrupulous characters for sinister purposes. Communists, some said darkly, were “using” Mr Mackie, as if Mr Mackie were some wide-eyed innocent.

Mt Isa Mines chairman (Mr G.R. Fisher) in February conjured up a vision of “a small but highly organised and fanatical group” who had set out to create “a state of fear and chaos in Mt Isa”. And what sort of a state of affairs, it may be asked, did Mt Isa Mines set out to create when it shut the gates in December?

Mr Williams and others of the AWU also manipulated the red bogey strenuously.

On February 7, AWU members at Mt Isa voted to carry on their fight against Mt Isa Mines. But Mr. Williams in the Courier-Mail on February 10 sounded a different note: the AWU, he said, was “prepared to fight Communism anywhere”.

No anti-Communist statement, it seems, is too absurd for the big business press. The February 6 issue of The Bulletin reprinted (with apparent seriousness) this piece of arrant nonsense from the Queensland Worker (organ of the AWU’s Queensland branch):

Indeed quite recently more positive identification of a Communist cell in Mt. Isa has become known. The discovery of documents shows that the pipeline of the set-up of a Communist cell in Mt Isa emanated in the first place from Adelaide.

“Discovery of documents” … “Communist cell” … “pipeline from Adelaide” — someone must have been reading too many Dick Tracy or Air Hawk comics.

Some of those who sought to discredit the Mt Isa workers’ militant struggle spread the story that it was part of a “Communist plot” directed against northern development and defence. The authors of this tale produced no valid evidence whatsoever — because there could be no valid evidence of such an utter falsity.

Full support, not control

The national president of the Communist Party of Australia, Mr Richard Dixon, at the end of January, stated the position of that party.

The Communist Party of Australia has from the beginning fully supported the just struggle of the Mt Isa workers for a decent wage, for democratic control of their affairs, and against victimisation of their leaders.

While giving our full support to the struggle, we categorically reject the completely unfounded accusations of Communist control and un-Australian influences, which are aimed at confusing the real Issues at stake.

The only un-Australian influences are those of the American company that owns Mt Isa, and of the Nicklin government with its un-Australian servility to foreign interests and its police-state repression.

The Australian solution is to nationalise Mt Isa Mines immediately to ensure just wages and conditions for the workers and retain the wealth produced to help further develop the country.

This struggle is of vital importance not only because of its own merits, but also in its effects on the future development of Australia, especially our north.

The north can never be developed on the slave-labour conditions that foreign monopolies like Mt Isa Mines are trying to enforce, or while our resources are plundered for their benefit.

The Communist Party will continue to do all in its power to assist the workers of Mt Isa to win what will be an outstanding victory for themselves, the whole trade union movement and for the Australian nation.

The daily newspapers, The Bulletin and others have any amount of space for silly anti-Communist stories. But they had no space for that Communist Party statement. Such is “freedom of the press”.

Not even Australian

Prime Minister Robert Menzies was sneering. He described “this man Mackie” as a “curious character” and “not even an Australian, I believe”. Mr Mackie’s retort was to the point. He told a Morwell (Victoria) meeting: “Sir Robert Menzies said I am a very curious character and not an Australian. That may be right — but it also applies to the Mt Isa company.”

Sir Robert Menzies’ gratuitous “not even an Australian” statement was all the more outrageous in view of the multinational composition of the Mt Isa community and workforce and of the Australian population generally. Great numbers of migrants have come to Australia under the Menzies government’s own immigration program.

Menzies is often gross and reckless in insults when he sees the powers of monopoly being challenged.

Mt Isa Mines can count on Menzies to defend it. The fact that Mt Isa Mines is under foreign control gives it special status in the eyes of a prime minister who drags Australia along behind US policies.

Like some ladies of high society, Mt Isa Mines may prefer not to dwell on its early days. But since the 1930s, Mt Isa Mines has been under the control of American Smelting & Refining (Asarco), which holds 53.7 per cent of the Mt Isa Mines shares.

Asarco has mineral interests in USA, Canada, Peru and Mexico. It showed a 1964 profit before tax of more than £A30 million. So, while eager for more and more Mt Isa profits, Asarco can afford to wait. A Mt Isa closedown doesn’t mean Asarco chiefs’ children will go short.

In fact, Asarco may think that to defer Mt Isa production may be the most profitable course in the long run. To start with, the Mt Isa closedown sent copper prices up. Instead of selling in Australia at about £340 a ton, copper in early 1965 was about £560 a ton. Does anyone believe that Asarco interests have not been scoring from that higher price?

Also, the Financial Review of February 10 predicted a sharp growth in demand in the 1970s for copper, lead and zinc. So the Mt Isa Mines copper, lead and zinc that has not been produced during the dispute may be more profitable in the 1970s than it would have been now.[12]

The dispute sent the prices of Mt Isa Mines shares down. Before the dispute, the five shilling shares had gone as high as £2/8/6d on the Stock Exchange. But in February they fell at times below &#1631/13/-.

Australian shareholders’ loss in the market value of their shares wouldn’t worry Asarco. The Sydney Morning Herald financial editor wrote on January 30:

To the American Smelting and Refining Co ␎ fluctuations in the Australian share market are a minor incidental by-product or the industrial showdown. To local shareholders the matter Is of direct importance …

Australian shareholders in Mt Isa Mines get the back of Asarco’s hand in other ways also. What say did Australian shareholders have in the drastic actions, including even the closedown, carried out by Mt Isa Mines from December on?

The 1964 annual meeting of Mt Isa Mines had been held in November. There were some company press advertisements in January 1965. But it was not until mid-February that Mt Isa Mines chairman (Mr Fisher) got around to issuing a “report to stockholders” on the situation. Nor did that report invite any views from shareholders; it concluded loftily: “In the event of any further developments of a major nature, your board will advise you.”

Big business newspapers are always trying to find fault with trade unions’ democracy and the rights of the rank and file of unions. But they were silent on the haughty disregard shown by Mt Isa Mines towards its Australian shareholders.

Asarco’s alibi

In the light of all the facts, a Financial Review item quoting an Asarco spokesman in February took on an Alice in Wonderland quality. The Financial Review reported:

The American Smelting and Refining Co, which owns a controlling interest in Mt Isa, so far refuses to discuss the present dispute and shutdown.

A company spokesman In New York told the Review that although a large investor, American Smelting had nothing to do with the management of Mt Isa and merely acted as engineering consultant …

That’s what the Asarco man said.

As the Mt Isa dispute deepened, it was suggested that Asarco might be using the situation to get hold of more Mt Isa Mines shares at low prices. Mt Isa Mines’ chairman, however, denied in February that Asarco was buying up Mt Isa Mines shares. At the same time, he mentioned that Asarco had said that it did not intend to decrease its Mt Isa Mines holding. Asarco obviously had no doubts about future Mt Isa Mines profits.

Profits, dividends, free shares

Already Asarco had been repaid, over and over, for whatever it put into Mt Isa. Disclosed consolidated net profits for Mt Isa Mines have four times exceeded £5 million in a year (including £5.59 million in 1962-63 and £5.27 million in 1963-64). In many of the recent years, Mt Isa Mines’ annual profit figures have been exceeded in Australia only by General Motors-Holden (a US subsidiary) and Broken Hill Pty (steel monopoly) .

Mt Isa Mines’ profits have been providing shareholders with big annual cash payments as dividends and millions of bonus shares, given to shareholders free. As the biggest shareholder, Asarco has been getting the most.

Some figures on this were given by the booklet Buried Treasure: what everyone should know about Mt Isa Mines in 1964. This took a ten-year period to 1962-63, reckoned on Asarco having held 54 per cent of the Mt Isa Mines shares throughout that period, and used (in the second edition) the April 1964 market price (£2/6/-) of Mt Isa Mines shares. On that basis, it gave these round figures of what the ten years had brought to Asarco:

Number of Mt Isa Mines shares (each of £1 face value held by Asarco in 1953:Mt Isa Mines shares throughout that period, and used (in the second edition) the April 1964 market price (£2/6/-) of Mt Isa Mines shares. On that basis, it gave these round figures of what the ten years had brought to Asarco:

Number of Mt Isa Mines shares (each of £1 face value) held by Asarco in 19533.1 million
Total face value of Asarco’s shareholding at that time£3.1 million
Cash dividends received by Asarco from Mt Isa Mines in ten years£9.1 million
Free bonus shares (each of five shillings face value) received by Asarco in ten years38.8 million
Total shares (five shillings face value) now held by Asarco51.2 million
Total face value of shares held by Asarco£12.8 million
Total market value in April 1964 (at £2/6/- each) of the shares held by Asarco£117.7 million

So shares originally representing £3.1 million had, in that ten years, brought Asarco £9 million in cash and had grown in numbers and market value until they were worth £117.7 million on the market.

Mt Isa Mines’ immense accumulated profits have also been providing the money for the £64 million expansion program at Mt Isa, which was originally scheduled for completion in 1966 and which was expected to bring a new profit explosion.

Mt Isa Mines’ wealth has been used, too, to set up a web of subsidiaries, including Carpentaria Exploration (prospecting), Bowen Consolidated Coal Mines, Copper Refineries, Townsville Transport and Services, North Queensland Stevedoring, Mt Isa International (which deals in metals, etc) and Britannia Lead. Mt. Isa Mines also has interests in cement, New Guinea gold, and other profitable undertakings.

Mt Isa Mines is a company of fabulous wealth, made from resources and labour in Australia. Yet Mt Isa Mines’ chairman, in his report to stockholders, described the workers’ claims as “demands which no responsible board of directors could accept”.

Mt Isa Mines, in fact, could meet all the demands and still make millions.

Brings damage, not development

In attempts to smash workers’ strength, Mt Isa Mines has shut its gates to them in 1933, 1948, 1961 and 1964-65. These cold-blooded actions have brought heavily damaging effects to the Mt Isa community, to North Queensland and to the economy of Queensland and Australia. Those effects do not worry Asarco of the USA. That company has its majority ownership of Mt. Isa Mines for one purpose only: its own profit. To Asarco, any considerations of Australians’ welfare are irrelevant.

The Mt Isa Mines actions demonstrate the falsity of government and big business claims that introduction of foreign capital means development. Whatever capital Asarco brought in has been far exceeded by the money that Asarco has taken out in profits. And what sort of development is it when, as events have shown, a monopoly can close Mt Isa’s mine and threaten Mt Isa township with a lingering death?

In spite of what monopoly control means, governments go to great lengths, at public expense, to attract foreign monopolies to Australia and to pamper them. Mt Isa Mines is one on which governments have bestowed immense benefits. As just one example, the £30 million reconstruction of the railway to Mt Isa (due to be completed in 1965) has been financed by government money — public money — without Mt Isa Mines contributing a cent of the capital cost and, in fact, with Mt Isa Mines continuing to enjoy specially privileged concession rates for all its railway freight.

As another example, Mt Isa Mines is allowed to rip out the mineral-rich ores at rates of royalty payment to the government that are scandalously low even by the standards of Broken Hill royalty payments. The Sydney Morning Herald of January 27, 1965, gave these comparative figures:

Year Mining revenue
(£ millions)
(£ millions
Mt Isa Mines 1963-64 29.3 0.27
North Broken Hill 1963-64 9.9 1.38
Broken Hill South 1963-64 4.9 0.25
New Broken Hill 1963 6.4 0.85

Mt Isa workers are heavily exploited on the job to provide Mt Isa Mines’ profits. On the basis of disclosed net parent company profit and the number of employees at the end of the year, Mt Isa Mines’ profit per employee has gone up from £831 in 1951-52 to more than £1290 in 1963-64.

At the same time as Mt Isa exploitation increases, the people generally of Queensland and Australia are required to contribute by the various forms of government aid, to the riches of foreign-controlled, rapacious Mt Isa Mines.

It has gone on too long.

For Australia

The Amalgamated Engineering Union is a key union in Australian industry. And in January 1965 the AEU’s commonwealth council made a call of national significance.

Declaring that the federal government should not permit the copper industry in Australia to collapse because of Mt Isa Mines’ failure to negotiate with the unions, the AEU declared that the federal government, in the national interest, should nationalise the Mt Isa mine.

In February, the Queensland Trades and Labor Council issued a similar call for nationalisation of Mt Isa Mines.

Those calls point to the national need, whatever may be the eventual outcome of the 1964-65 Mt Isa dispute.

The workers are entitled to whatever they can win in pay and conditions, from Mt Isa Mines and other monopolies. But more than that is necessary. Australia cannot tolerate a situation where the operation of the Mt Isa mines, and Australia’s vital copper supplies, depend on the dictates of Mt Isa Mines and the foreign interests behind it.

Monopoly undertakings must be converted into public enterprises and operated in such a way as to benefit those who work in them and to serve the national welfare.

Labour movement’s objective

There is already an extensive unity in the labour movement on the need for monopolies to be taken over.

The 1963 congress of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, in its decision on economic policy, included: “Nationalisation of monopolies and essential services.”

The 1964 Queensland Trade Union Congress specifically named Mt Isa Mines in its resolution urging nationalisation of undertakings that are exploiting our mineral wealth.

The federal objective of the Australian Labor Party is for “the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in those fields.”

Who could deny exploitation and other anti-social features on the part of Mt Isa Mines?

The federal ALP platform also specifically provides for nationalisation of monopolies. Mt Isa Mines should be near the top of the list for that.

The Communist Party of Australia also stands for nationalisation of monopolies as a stage in the advance towards socialism. It says “the fight for nationalisation under capitalism, and for even more limited measures to curb monopoly, is progressive. It helps to mobilise and educate people for the struggle for socialism.”

There are differences in approach within the labour movement. But the important thing is the wide agreement on the need to curb the power of the monopolies and to win government action to turn the monopolies into public enterprises.

Right-wingers evade the issue. Progressives, on the other hand, assert that a campaign on the need for nationalisation, explaining the benefits that could result, would have a galvanising effect on the labour movement and would isolate the monopolies and their agents. A vigorous campaign on this issue could help to solve, on the basis of experience, differences that exist in the labour movement.

The Mt Isa struggle of 1964-65 brought about a new unity against Mt Isa Mines. This unity has surmounted distinctions of work and callings. It has transcended differences of national origins, political affiliations and religious beliefs. It was built across state boundaries and it has extended even across seas.

That unity can serve as a foundation for a stronger front, a stronger common effort, in a decisive challenge to monopoly. It is for the people to answer the minister who asked: “You tell me, what can we do now?” It is for the people to tell federal and state governments to stop using their powers in ways that help monopoly and hurt the people, to use them instead for the people and against monopoly. And if they won’t do that, we want governments that will.

Mt Isa Mines and other monopolies have for too long been exploiting our labour, plundering our resources, misusing wealth and power, enriching themselves at our expense. It is time they were evicted. It is time for nationalisation as a step towards the goal of the well-being of the people of our great country.


1.Mt Isa Mines directors The chairman of Mt Isa Mines’ board of directors is Mr G.R. Fisher, formerly of Zinc Corporation, a big company in the Collins House monopoly group. Mr J.W. Foots, who is general manager and a director of Mt Isa Mines, also was formerly with the Zinc Corporation. Among other directors of Mt Isa Mines is Sir Reginald Groom, former Tory Lord Mayor of Brisbane.

2.Prices at the end of January 1965.

3.The 30 oranisations in Victoria were the Amalgamated Engineering Union, Australian Railways Union, Builders Laborers Federation, Blacksmiths Society, Boilermakers Society, Building Workers Industrial Union, Bakers Union, Clothing Trades Union, Electrical Trades Union, Federated Engine Drivers and Firemens Association, Furnishing Trades Union, Liquor Trades Union, Meat Industry Employees Union, Miscellaneous Workers Union, Moulders Union, Painters Union, Plumbers Union, Printers Operatives Union, Postal Workers Union. Paper , Pulp Workers Union, Rubber Workers Union, Seamens Union, Ship Painters and Dockers Union, Sheet Metalworkers Union, Shipwrights Union, Transport Workers Union, Tramway Workers Union, Vehicle Builders Union, Waterside Workers Federation, Wool and Basil Workers Union.

4.Most of the comments from Mt Isa people which are quoted in this booklet were obtained about that time. In the circumstances, with the order-in-council’s dragnet provisions for penalties on people who did or said anything that “might prejudice the restoration of industrial names peace”, names of those who made the comments were in most cases not noted or even asked.

5.In those first days of the order-in-council, there was a laugh when people heard that Mt Isa union leaders — painted so black in government propaganda — had invited the imported police to a cricket match against a Labor Council team. Police declined the invitation.

6.One batch of plainclothes police, on the journey home had trouble in transit and arrived at a hotel in an outback town about 11pm to stay overnight. A man let them into the bar to wash down the dust. While the plainclothes men were there, a local resident, a bit tipsy, came into the bar. “Give its a couple of bottles,” he said. When the man behind the bar hesitated, the newcomer said: “What’sup with you? No — wallopers around tonight, are there?” The plainclothes men fortunately saw the funny side.

7.The Electrical Trades Union is the union of Mr McMahon, president of the Mt Isa Trades and Labor Council. ETU state secretary Mr N. Kane also is a member of the Queensland Trades and Labor Council executive and was among those who went to Mt Isa during the struggle.

8.On February 1, when the statewide protest stoppage was imminent, Mr James of the Employers’ Federation said that it would be futile at that stage to seek restraining orders to prevent the stoppage: if granted, they would not be obeyed.

9.“Legal circles say that the only appeal against Mr Justice Hanger’s decision is to Mr Justice Hanger,” reported the February 25 Financial Review.

10.The Auckland cable was signed: Adams, Auckland Waterside Workers; Russ, Auckland branch New Zealand Carpenters; Kay, Auckland General Laborers; Robinson, Auckland Boilermakers; Wheatley, New Zealand Dairy Workers; Whitlow, Auckland Transport Board Workers; Gough, Otahuhu branch Railway Tradesmans Association; Kelly, Auckland Freezing Workers; Armstrong, Auckland Hotel Workers; Mitchell, Auckland Engine Drivers; Anderson, Northern Drivers Union

11.The Council for Membership Control is an organisation of AWU members formed a few years ago for the purpose of fighting for democratic rank-and-file rights in the AWU. The Mt Isa CMC is part of this interstate body. The CMC rejects the allegation that, it is a “breakaway” and declares that it instead aims to Strengthen the AWU by rank-and-file democracy.

12.The Financial Review on February 5, 1965, wrote about Mt Isa Mines:

The company is sitting on a treasure trove, with deposits which could keep it going until well into the next century.

It has lead, zinc, copper and silver and can work intensively in one of the two mineralisations depending on the state of the world metal market. It can concentrate on copper when the price is right, or it can switch its biggest efforts to lead and zinc when the market for these metals is high.