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Pat Mackie, 1914-2009

category indonesia / philippines / australia | workplace struggles | news report author Sunday December 06, 2009 19:18author by Malcolm Brown Report this post to the editors

A proud troublemaker

When in 1964 the Queensland government of Sir Francis Nicklin decided to call on all its powers to crush a strike by Mt Isa's miners, one man stood in their way - the union radical Pat Mackie. He led the strike, inspiring the miners to keep going, in a period when police were given carte blanche to suppress them.

When in 1964 the Queensland government of Sir Francis Nicklin decided to call on all its powers to crush a strike by Mt Isa's miners, one man stood in their way - the union radical Pat Mackie. He led the strike, inspiring the miners to keep going, in a period when police were given carte blanche to suppress them. The townspeople, in response, painted the town with swastikas by night.

The 32-week strike, which extended into 1965, resulted in a victory for the miners but Mackie was targeted by an enraged federal government, which investigated ways to deport him.

Mackie, whose father was Australian, was born in New Zealand on October 30, 1914, and according to the nationality laws in Australia at the time, he was an Australian citizen. His family name, according to the scant information available on his personal life, was Murphy.

Mackie went to sea as a teenager because he wanted to see America. In his own account of his life, he said he was a stowaway and that he complained to the captain about the unsatisfactory state of his accommodation. For 15 years, as a seaman, he travelled the world.

Mackie was attracted to the left-wing Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies). He worked with communists and nearly joined a branch of the Communist Party in Canada. Labour historian Dr Greg Mallory said Mackie did not become a communist but vigorously opposed forces that tried to drive communists from the union movement. At some stage in his life in Canada, Mallory says, Mackie was married, but there are no records of his ever having any children.

Mackie got object lessons in how the workers could control workplace situations. He became engaged in union activities and was a ''captain of picket captains'' in a lengthy New York waterfront strike in 1948, in which police used horses specially trained to rear up and kick at picketers and gangsters, acting on behalf of the agents provocateur who were infiltrating union lines. Mackie learnt a lot about union tactics in North America and the sort of mischief that could be visited on erring employers. At some point, perhaps to distance himself from his past troubles, misspellings on his names on payslips and other confusions, Mackie adopted the name Eugene Markey. That was later changed to Maurice Patrick Markey, Pat Markey and finally Pat Mackie.

Mackie got into trouble with the law and served several prison sentences overseas. That included time in several Montreal prisons on charges indirectly related to union activities. In one incident, he was to claim in his 2002 autobiography, Many Ships to Mt Isa, police loaded him with drugs. Mackie was deported to New Zealand and in 1949 he ended up in Sydney.

Mackie heard there was money to be made mining in Mt Isa. He went north and worked for a few weeks in Brisbane until another brush with the law sent him north to Bundaberg, where again he clashed with the police, for having the cheek - in police eyes - to complain about their treatment of an Aboriginal man. Mackie arrived in Mt Isa in 1950, worked for Mt Isa Mines but was quickly branded a troublemaker. He decided to move out of town to mine independently and did so for 10 years, with the aim of buying a small ketch and travelling the world. Instead, in 1961, he started again at Mt Isa Mines, operated by one of the world's largest mining companies, the American Mining and Smelting Corporation.

Mackie was initially a contract ''truckie'', then a contract mine timber worker. The strike which began in August 1964, was initially over the issue of adequate showers for men at the end of shift. It escalated into a demand for a £4 a week wage rise and better conditions. The company opposed the claims and had vigorous support from the federal and Queensland governments. Wearing a distinctive red cap, Mackie found himself leading 4000 mine workers from more than 40 countries. Publicity over the strike turned him into a household name throughout Australia.

During the strike he met Elizabeth Vassilieff and struck up a long-term relationship. Vassilieff was to write of him that he ''sees his own needs very simply, voices them fearlessly and became a phenomenally effective workers' spokesman and trade union organiser, a power to be reckoned with in the industrial world. His strength lies in his formidable combination of his magnetic personality with high abilities in three functions of leadership: in clearly analysing the workers' situations; in democratising their organisation; and in brilliant powers of oratory, enabling him to unite the rank and file and fire them with unshakable loyalty.''

The Australian Council of Trade Unions threatened a statewide 24-hour strike in Queensland, which caused the Nicklin government to call off its state of emergency. The strike ended when the Industrial Relations Commission granted most of what the unionists were striking for. Mackie said it was ''a living lesson in the constructive potential of rank-and-file working people … a triumph of the human spirit''. But the Nicklin government had a totally different view. Mackie was referred to as ''a vicious gangster''. Sir Francis said the strike was part of a ''communist strategy'' to wreck every major development in the state. The federal government liaised with ASIO on whether it was possible to deport Mackie and received advice it was not.

Loyalty to Mackie was not universal in the trade union movement. He was expelled from the right-wing Australian Workers Union. In 2002, Mackie published his autobiography. A reviewer wrote: ''When confronted as to his ideological position, he would clearly define himself as a Wobbly, working tirelessly to improve the working and living conditions of the rank and file''. Mackie's achievements were later celebrated in 2007 in a Queensland musical, Red Cap, and his legacy to Mt Isa was good working conditions and other community facilities.

Malcolm Brown


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