Arbitration or Mobilisation: the Battle of Broken Hill begins

Tenth part of Harry Holland and the early labour movement in Australia and New Zealand

The ore miners at the Barrier were central to the Australian economy and thus wielded greater economic power than the Sydney Rockchoppers. However, only about 60% of the workforce was organised in any union, and the organised workers were divided among many different unions, including a scab outfit called the “Non-Political Union” which the employers naturally preferred to deal with. The largest genuine union, the Amalgamated Miners’ Association of Australasia (AMA) had been, since the defeat of the 1892 strike, closely tied to the politics of the Australian Labor Party, and therefore deeply entangled in the Arbitration system.

In September the nine genuine unions came together to form a united body, the Combined Unions, to fight the impending lockout. A series of rallies at the Barrier involving between 6,000 and 10,000 miners demanded that the bosses withdraw recognition from the scab outfit. That was sufficient to cause the ‘Non-Political Union’ to dissolve. The other decision taken by the Combined Unions was even more significant: they invited Tom Mann to the barrier to win support for the Combined Unions’ cause. Mann arrived on September 30, and his presence and speeches gave great confidence to the union side, winning many new union members. Mann also travelled to Port Pirie, on the South Australian coast northeast of Adelaide, and spoke to the workers at the Broken Hill Proprietary Company’s port operation there. These workers joined the Combined Unions in late October.

Tom Mann speaking at Broken Hill

In early December, after attempting unsuccessfully to negotiate a new agreement to come into force on the expiry of the old one on December 31, the Combined Unions dropped all claims other than a renewal of the existing agreement. The response of the BHP company came back the next day: “The bonus granted for two years, dating from 1 Jan 1907 to will cease 1 Jan 1909, and the present rate of wages, less the bonus, will remain in force.” It declared its willingness to “co-operate with the Combined Unions or the Amalgamated Miners Association in bringing the dispute as to wages before the Federal Court of Conciliation and Arbitration…” In other words, the wage cut would go ahead. The daily wage for a miner would drop from 8s 7½ d [≈ AUD 90 today] to 7s 6d  [≈ AUD 77 today].

The Combined Unions resolved to fight the wage cut, issuing a call to “all wage workers to resist the proposed lockout of the Proprietary mine … by refusing to work until the Proprietary mine signs the agreement, or agrees to pay the existing rate of wages.” It lodged this plaint with the Arbitration Court on December 29 and began picketing the mine on New Year’s Eve. The fifty police took up positions around the mine at the same time. In effect, the mine property was occupied and barricaded by police together with a number of company officials including the general manager, Guillaume Delprat. The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) reported that the mine was “well provisioned and will stand a siege with comfort.” It also reported that the miners were picketing in ‘amazing numbers.’

Company officials, government ministers, and the capitalist press immediately attempted to turn attention from the wage cut and make the issue one of lawlessness on the part of the miners. As the miners mobilised their forces in organised marches to the picket line and street demonstrations at the mine entrances and in the town, the police staged provocations, attempting to goad the workers into acts of violence. A plain-clothes cop walked out of the mine surrounded by uniformed police, masquerading as a strikebreaker, in an attempt to provoke retaliation. (The unionists recognised him as a cop, and laughed.) A truck full of armed police was driven back and forth through the middle of the march to the picket line. [Report by WD Barnett, Secretary of Barrier Combined Unions, Holland files]. Without any evidence, the Herald held the unionists responsible for a series of minor explosions and acts of sabotage on railway lines leading to the mine, as well as for the jostling of company officials.

Holland commented on the violence-baiting of the unionists in the Review. “A Chinese-cracker explosion occurs on the Proprietary Co.’s railway – the damage is repaired in about an hour’s time ­­– and scare headlines on the newspaper boards furnish an excuse for the dispatch of a second batch of police. With the story of America’s “Bull pen” before us, and the divers methods – such as the blowing up of concentrators, mines, etc – adopted by the owners to discredit the miners, … with the record of burned down (well-insured) woolsheds in Australia during the shearing troubles; we are justified in proclaiming our belief in the capabilities of the Broken Hill Master Class in the same direction. From this distance we can’t see any advantage to come from the blowing up of a railway fragment which can be repaired at a few moments’ notice. Even if the miners decided on a ‘blowing-up’ policy, they’d hardly be likely to do their work in that sort of way. Anyhow, the business of the working class is not to destroy existing wealth, whether in the form of a railway or a mine, but to take possession of it.”

The provocations bore fruit on Monday 4th January. A large number of miners had gathered at the mine entrance to receive the pay that was owed to them. A small group of mine officials who were leaving the mine at the time asked some union officials who were present to escort them through the crowd. The unionists agreed to do this, but the whole group was rushed by some of the angry miners, and both a union official and some mine officials were hit.

Andrew Fisher, Labor Party Prime Minister, who offered to send Federal troops against the workers of Broken Hill

John Darling, chairman and director of BHP, immediately demanded that “the Federal government should make ample provision for the protection of life and property. If the police could not maintain order, then the military should be called out.” The Federal government at the time was a minority Labor Party regime headed by Prime Minister Andrew Fisher and Attorney-General Billy Hughes.  The very next day Fisher promised to send in Federal troops against the workers if needed.

Headlines in Sydney Morning Herald, January 1909

The Monday incident also served as the catalyst for a stepped-up campaign in the major daily papers, expressing outrage and calling for more police to be sent to the Barrier. “Unionism is at the mercy of its worst elements” declared the Sydney Morning Herald, setting the tone for this campaign. The Herald denounced the “reign of terror” of the unionists, their “lawlessness,” and “brutality,” the “howling mob” carrying out “violence of a peculiarly cowardly kind.”  Lest “tact be mistaken for weakness,” it called for “drastic action” to “curb the irresponsible element” before “the forces that have been let loose get altogether beyond control.” It commended Fisher for his “courage and wisdom” in agreeing to send Federal troops.  Other newspapers, including the Australian Star, the Melbourne Age, the Adelaide Advertiser, and the Sydney Daily Telegraph, joined in with demands for tougher action and more police.

As it decried the lawlessness of the unionists, the Herald made perfectly clear which particular law it had in mind: “It is impossible not to regret that the provisions of our own Industrial Disputes Act were not taken advantage of. That Act has one feature that makes its possibilities of service undeniable. It provides for the immediate appointment of a proper tribunal to settle any industrial dispute that may arise, and the mere appointment of a board checks at the start the spirit of lawlessness, which is the worst danger when men’s passions have been aroused.”

As the week progressed, the press campaign focused increasingly on the “virulent speeches of a few” that have “set a fuse alight that will be hard to stop.” The Herald wrote, “The sober and sensible majority does heartily disapprove of truculent tactics” [but] ‘they are overawed and silenced by the professional agitator, whose wages are a commission on the trouble he creates.” In particular, they identified the “truculent” speeches by Tom Mann. “There is a knot of irreconcilables who glory in the prospect of trade dislocation and industrial outrage. These men, with Mr Tom Mann at their head, have for some time been stirring up strife, and anything like civil war would suit them admirably… It becomes a matter for serious consideration whether those who are urging civil war cannot be arrested and dealt with summarily as a direct test of the power of the government in its determination to preserve order.”

Meanwhile, more police were arriving daily. Most were sent from Sydney, but there were also contingents of mounted police from Albury. A Herald reporter who gained access to the mine property at week’s end described the scene: “The visit disclosed the fact that had the men ever attempted to carry out the threat to rush the mine there would have been terrible bloodshed before the affair ended one way or the other. Throughout the three-quarters of a mile over which the lease extends every approach is covered by a barricade, behind which the police, armed with rifles, are stationed. Owing to the configuration of the country and the disposition of the dumps, the approaches are few – on the east side no defence is necessary, the great yawning open cut effectually cutting off any possibility of access to the mine from that side – and consequently a small force comparatively of trained, men could hold the property against tremendous odds.

Police train their guns on miners’ picket line, Broken Hill 1909

“…The whole approach is covered perfectly by rifle barrels peeping out from snug entrenchments, and It would be a big force indeed that could live two minutes on that long sloping road. … a series of entrenchments and sangars placed with consummate strategical skill render the permanent way a veritable path of death… There were over a hundred defenders on the mine – the great bulk of them, of course, being constabulary – and a survey of the plan of defence that had been mapped out by Inspector Roche left the impression that the Proprietary mine could not have been taken by the crowd until the dumps had literally run with blood.

“Everything Is done on military lines… even by such details as connecting all the sentries and outposts by telephone. The civilian portion of the garrison – a few over a score ­­– ­­­looked well fed and decidedly happy. Even those who had received such a bad mauling at the hands of the pickets on Monday were all smiles, with the rest rather making a joke of the whole thing now that the tension was slackening somewhat. As to the constabulary, the men seen in the trenches seemed to be half humorously regretful that the fortifying work they had done threatened to be undone without being put to the test…”

Clearly, Holland’s characterisation of the situation as ‘class war’ was no exaggeration. Holland pointed out that such a “garrison” of both police and civilians armed with rifles constituted the creation of a military force by the State of New South Wales, which was expressly forbidden in the Federal constitution.

Tensions reached a new peak on January 9th. A report by the Secretary of the Combined Unions, W D Barnett, who was present at the time, describes the situation:

Unionists gather outside mine entrance between two waste heaps guarded by police, Broken Hill 1909.

“The pickets had been in the habit of marching to the picket lines from the Trades Hall, headed by the united bands and the members of the Strike Committee. … a lorry driven by one of the employees came down from the mine at a walking pace. Upon it were seated seven policemen, while an escort of 21 mounted constables surrounded it. It proceeded through the crowd to the railway station, where a few cases and a barrel of beer were taken on board. At the same leisurely rate, it returned. By this time, as no doubt was intended, the crowd had greatly increased in number. When it approached the main entrance to the mine a few stones were thrown by the crowd. The pickets took no part in this. Some of the police drew their revolvers, and action which enraged the crowd, and a serious tumult was averted only by the police putting away their weapons.

Supply cart for mine occupiers escorted by mounted police, Broken Hill 1909

“When the four o’clock change of pickets drew near, a large number of police had been formed in line across the entrance to the mine… When the pickets’ procession, with band playing and Tom Mann and Combined Unions officials at its head, arrived at the line of police, they were orders to turn one way or the other.  But on both sides the lane was blocked with a line of police…. In a few moments Tom Mann was arrested, while the constables made a simultaneous attack on the crowd, using their hands and batons freely on the men, and even women. Men were arrested indiscriminately, some of the plain-clothes constables being so treated until the mistake was discovered. In all, 28 men were arrested.”

Mann’s arrest drew even greater numbers into the protests. The lack of justification for the arrest was expressed by the Mayor of Broken Hill, Harry Ivey, who put up bail for Mann. Asked what the charges against Mann were likely to be, he replied, “With being on the side of the workers, I suppose”.  That evening the mayor led a procession of over 10,000 people in protest against the arrests. The Herald reported that the procession included 3,000 miners for the change of pickets, “quite a considerable proportion of women,” and “a large muster of straight-out socialists, men and women.” As the crowd passed Sulphide Street “a perfect storm of cheering broke out, and continued unbrokenly till the main body of the demonstration was abreast of the police. The excitement spread to the hitherto quiet onlookers on the crowded balconies and windows, and the night was rent by a wonderful wave of delirious cheering and savage hoots… It was a masterpiece of discipline and leadership, and because of it the crisis passed with no violence whatever.” The Barrier Flame reported that an even larger demonstration, involving 15,000 miners and their supporters – close to half the population of the town – marched in the Barrier the following day.

The most serious charge against all 28 arrested was participating in a riot. Mann was also charged with riotous behaviour and assaulting a constable. The others, almost all in their 20s, were charged with throwing a stone, indecent language, obstructing police, insulting behaviour, assaulting a constable and riotous behaviour. The ISRA reported numerous mis-identifications of the accused in court and flimsy evidence against them. In one case, the constable giving evidence testified that the defendant had not actually assaulted the constable, “but would probably have done something had he not been arrested.” Harry Gray, a member of the Barrier Socialist Group who was among those arrested, reported to a mass meeting that 23 of the 28 arrested were brutally beaten in the charge room.

Messages of support and promises of financial aid began flooding in from unions, Trades and Labour Councils, and others, across the State of New South Wales and beyond. The AMA announced they were receiving 20 to 30 such telegrams each day. The Sydney Coal Lumpers sent £100, levied themselves weekly, and led the fight for broader support in the Sydney Labour Council. Port Pirie workers not locked out levied themselves 25% of their wages. Victorian Shearers and Newcastle Miners each sent £100; the miners also organised an ‘indignation meeting.’ Some incidents involving police violence against women on the protest marches, “had the effect of heightening the storm of feminine indignation against the constabulary. … the constables are finding it increasingly difficult to get served by girls in shops or behind bars.” Publicans in the Barrier donated £50 weekly, while tobacconists, and “servant girls in hotels and boarding-houses where the police are quartered” joined in “harassing the constables as much as possible in the way of inattention and neglect.”

(An exception to this solidarity was the Locomotive and Engine Drivers’ Association, who continued to ignore calls from the Broken Hill Combined Unions to refuse to operate the trains bringing more police to the Barrier. Holland criticised this stance, and the refusal of the Sydney Labour Council to address the problem, as ‘organised scabbery.’)

Among those sending messages of support to the miners was the Cingalese and Indian Reform Association, a group of Sri Lankan and Indian immigrants in Queensland. The International Socialist Review published their letter in full, along with the comment, “It is particularly interesting because it comes from the “coloured alien” section, and the “White Australia” Labour Party might learn something from its message.”

The Herald campaign continued to escalate, alternating between alarmist reports of outrages, riots, and the growing influence of the socialists, and sneering at powerlessness of unionists and those arrested. “…the unionists as a body are in an extremely ugly frame of mind. The memory of Saturday rankles terribly within them, and their bitterness towards the constabulary is increasing. Added to this the influence of the socialists is rapidly growing. The socialists who preach ‘action’ and the men are hearing increasingly frequent references to the doctrine of ‘meeting force with force’.”

Holland answered the charge of ‘lawlessness’ in an article in the ISRA entitled “The Conspiracies of the Capitalists.”

“The present lockout at Broken Hill was resorted to in order that the miners might be compelled to accept a substantial reduction in their already low rate of remuneration. A fall in the price of lead and zinc brought to the Proprietary Co. the conclusion that the price of human flesh and blood must also follow. The mine closed down.”

“‘Something in the nature of a lock-out,’ according to Wade’s Industrial Disputes Act, was done.”

“‘Something in the nature of a lock-out,’ according to the Labor Party’s Federal Arbitration Act, was also done. “

Locked-out workers hang a scab in effigy, Broken Hill 1909. Sign refers to John Darling, Chairman and Director of BHP, who called for Federal troops to be sent against the workers,

“The Proprietary Co., represented by Mr Delprat, openly, flagrantly, insolently broke Wade’s Law and Fisher’s Law. And Delprat isn’t in jail. (Let us digress to remark that Delprat isn’t a Rockchopper). Delprat is still breaking those laws. And neither the Wade Liberal Government nor the Fisher Labor Government has either the honesty or the inclination to put him where he rightly belongs.

“As an earnest of his class sympathies, Mr Wade has sent 400 police to see that the Boss Criminal isn’t interfered with while he proceeds to still further break Wade’s law.  And Fisher, miner, Labor member, Prime Minister, assures the brigands who boss the Boss Criminal that if they give the word of command, he will send the Federal Military to Broken Hill to aid the police in seeing that the same Boss Criminal isn’t interfered with while he continues to smash up Fisher’s law.” …

“On Friday, a deliberate attempt to precipitate a conflict was made when a number of armed policemen were placed alongside of the pickets; and on the same day, the Sydney Morning Herald, in the course of an inflammatory article, again urged police violence and lawlessness. “The red flag will be hauled down and torn to pieces,” the paper declared. The next day, Saturday, – evidently acting upon a pre-arranged plan – the armed criminality and ruffianism of the law was let loose; a procession authorised by the Broken Hill Municipal Council was attacked, and thirty men were dragged off to jail, among them Tom Mann and E.H. [Harry] Gray (of the Barrier Socialist Group.) …

“Ruffianism in uniform riots in the streets.”

2 responses to “Arbitration or Mobilisation: the Battle of Broken Hill begins

  1. Pingback: Bumerang: The Battle of Broken Hills – Azizm Sanat Örgütü·

  2. Pingback: Police are enemies of the labour movement – Red and Black Notes·

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