Pat Mackie 1914-2009

Pat Mackie 1914-2009

Written by Mark Derby

I’d never heard of the great New Zealand-born union activist Pat Mackie until I went to the annual conference of the Australian Association for the Study of Labour History in Melbourne two years ago. There several people told me how, in the mid-1960s, this extraordinary and inspiring character dominated Australia’s fledgling TV news broadcasts during a famous mining strike. They also said that Pat had published his autobiography, Many Ships to Mt Isa, giving the story of his early life in New Zealand.

After the conference I convinced the National Library to buy this book for their collection. I read it as soon as it arrived and was instantly engaged by his blunt, distinctive style of writing and his warm memories of a childhood spent on a small farm in the King Country, as well as his astonishing achievements around the world in later life.

My Aussie friends have just informed me that Pat Mackie has died, aged 95, in a Sydney nursing home. This brief obituary attempts to make amends for my longstanding ignorance of this larger-than-life labour hero.

Pat Mackie was born Eugene Murphy, but he altered his first name because it sounded too sissy for a big, vigorous young man who sometimes earned a living as a professional wrestler. His surname also changed a number of times due to blacklisting by employers and misspelling on pay slips. At a young age Pat left New Zealand as a seaman and for the next 15 years he roamed the world. Standing six foot five and a solid 18 stone, he was able to make a living between voyages as a successful semi-pro wrestler. Shortly before World War Two he settled in Vancouver and was an active unionist in its shipyards, soon becoming a fulltime organiser for North American unions.

These were the McCarthy years and Pat was often forced to use direct and creative tactics. At a New York laundry employing cheap labour, he and his mates posed as customers and poured excess soap into the washing machines. Next morning the whole building was covered in soapsuds. He says, “I had to live and work there, especially on the east coast and New York, to grasp the fierce reality of the class struggle and to know how ruthless the employers are, constantly on the attack against workers’ conditions and wages, and the need for the never-ending day-to-day fight with no holds barred, for workers to maintain what standards they achieve.”

In 1946, during a long and violent strike on the New York waterfront, Pat was appointed captain of pickets. This meant encountering armed gangsters paid to infiltrate the picket lines and incite violence, and baton-wielding police mounted on horses trained to rear up at the strikers. He eventually served time in Canadian prisons on union-related charges before being deported to New Zealand. From here he travelled to Sydney and ended up in Mt Isa, North Queensland, during a mining boom.

Mt Isa Mines was owned by the American Mining and Smelting Corporation, one of the world’s biggest mining companies. Within its 4000-strong workforce, demands for better pay and conditions had simmered for several years. A prolonged dispute erupted in 1964 after their union, the Australian Workers Union, urged its members to shift from wages to contract work to appease the state industrial court. Pat and other activists alleged that the union was colluding with the mine management. The men voted to stay on wages and turned to the charismatic Pat Mackie to lead them. For the next eight months, during a dispute that cost the company millions, Pat was the strikers’ spokesperson. He was interviewed almost every day on the then brand new medium of national TV, wearing his trademark red baseball cap, lanky, straight-talking and entirely fearless.

Greg Mallory, president of the Brisbane Labour History Association, describes the Mt Isa strike as one of the defining battles of Australian union history. It involved workers from 40 nationalities and Pat managed to maintain unity through a team of volunteer interpreters who produced information leaflets in the workforce’s many languages. These were churned out on a hand-cranked duplicator with the brand name Roneo. The police scoured the town for this machine but never found it, leading the strikers to taunt them with the refrain, “Roneo, Roneo, wherefore art thou, Roneo?”

In January 1965 the highly conservative Queensland government brought in State of Emergency powers to prohibit the use of “threatening, intimidatory, offensive or insulting words”, along with picketing and the “printing or duplicating or distributing of any words‚ ‘likely to prejudice the restoration of industrial peace”. The union played its part by revoking Pat’s membership, thus enabling the company to sack him. However his fellow workers stayed solid behind their representative, and the dispute ended when their employers granted most of their demands.

Pat later called the Mt Isa strike “a living lesson in the constructive social potentialities of rank and file working people” and “a triumph of the human spirit”. It changed the face of industrial relations across Australia and made him a household name. However, he was barred from returning to Mt Isa and a vindictive federal government did all it could to deport him back to his homeland. Its records show that the government was willing to bend its immigration laws to strip Pat of his Australian citizenship. Only after extensive investigations by ASIO failed to deliver the necessary evidence did their legal advisors decide they didn’t have even the glimmer of a case.

Admiring obituaries of Pat Mackie have appeared recently in the Australian, the Queensland Courier-Mail, the Sydney Morning Herald and other papers, but in his heyday he was called a criminal, a conman, and “a vicious gangster unfit to mingle in decent society”. In the 1970s those allegations appeared in a newspaper owned by Australia media mogul Frank Packer. Pat sued for defamation and won damages totalling $30,000. Predictably, he was also regularly branded a communist. In fact, Pat never joined any communist party. Since his pre-war years in the US he was and remained a Wobbly, a dues-paying, upfront member of the Industrial Workers of the World, aiming, he said, simply to raise the working and living conditions of the rank and file.

 

This portrait of Pat Mackie hangs in Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery. It was painted by Nancy Borlase, who left New Zealand at the age of 23 for Sydney to further her fine art studies. In the 1970s she was art critic for the “Bulletin” and the “Sydney Morning Herald”. Her husband, Laurie Short, was the longtime National Secretary of the Federated Ironworkers’ Association.