by Greg Mallory
He (Pat Mackie) sees his own needs very simply, voices them fearlessly and becomes 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 organization: and in brilliant powers of oratory, enabling him to unite the rank and file and fire them with unshakeable loyalty.
He becomes the object of punishing hostility from all the forces of the establishment, union bureaucrats as well as employers, who feel their interests threatened by his existence.
The above quotation, written by Elizabeth Vassilieff in the Preface to the book, is an excellent description of Pat Mackie’s attributes.
In the mid-1990s some close friends and I had the privilege of spending several hours in a Sydney pub with Pat. During this time we heard many stories of his most interesting and turbulent life. Prior to this I had only known Pat as the main union leader in the 1964-65 Mt Isa strike and as Australia’s only self-declared wobbly (member of the Industrial Workers of the World). The stories we heard that afternoon were a small sample of the ones that are recalled in his autobiography leading up to the Mt Isa dispute, Many Ships to Mt Isa. This book was published in 2002, and is essentially a condensed version of a series of tapes, recorded in 1967, that were edited by his long term partner Elizabeth Vassilieff.
After reading this book, I have formed the view that the Mt Isa dispute was a simple ‘walk in the park’ for Pat, after his union involvement aboard many ships that travelled the world and his rank and file activism and full time organisational work in North America. After spending many years at sea Pat settled in Vancouver prior to the Second World War and got married. He was an active unionist in the British Columbia Seamen’s Union, which had a significant victory in winning union hire coverage from the powerful Canadian Pacific Railway. After working in the ship yards for some time, Pat took on the role of a full time organiser with the aim of ‘organising the unorganised’. However the Second World War took Pat to sea once more, this time transporting war materials to Europe.
In this short review it is difficult to do justice to Pat’s life. Pat was born in New Zealand, but his father was Australian. Pat went to sea very early in his life, mainly because he wanted to get to America. However, from 1934 to 1949, the many difficulties he encountered along the way took him to numerous places; back to New Zealand, Australia, Panama, Tahiti, Hamburg, London, Antwerp, Mexico, Vancouver, Montreal and New York. During these times he not only threw himself into intense union activity, but married, fell in love a number of times and wrestled professionally. One of Pat’s most notable achievements was, in 1948, to be the Captain of Picket Captains on the New York waterfront during a lengthy strike. The pickets encountered police on horses trained to rear up at them and the police viciously swung batons at the picketers. Armed gangsters were paid to go in to the picket line to start fights. The unionists threw marbles under the legs of the poor horses in order to counter these gruesome charges and the pickets held their own against the thugs and gangsters.
In many parts of the world Pat had various differences with the police which led him to spend time in jail on numerous occasions. His final year in North America was spent in a number of Montreal prisons on charges indirectly related to his union activities. Pat was deported back to New Zealand but in 1949 ended up in Sydney. He heard there was money to be made from mining at Mt Isa and he decided to work his way up from Sydney. He stopped off in Brisbane and worked as a painter for a few weeks after obtaining the job through the union based which was based at the Brisbane Trades Hall. An incident with the Brisbane police triggered his early departure to Bundaberg. In Bundaberg he observed police pushing around and arresting an Aboriginal man. When he followed the police to their station to complain to the sergeant of the brutality handed out to the Aborigine, he was threatened with arrest. Pat claims that it was the most brutal act towards a fellow human being that he had ever encountered despite having been the subject of arrest from a number of the world’s police forces. This is an interesting observation of racism in Queensland in the post war years.
Pat arrived in Mt Isa in 1950 and worked for the Company (Mount Isa Mines) but was soon labeled a trouble-maker and decided to go out of the town and mine independently. He did this for over ten years and despite having various ups and downs was able to make a reasonable living for himself. His dream was to save up enough money to build a Tahiti Ketch, a small boat that would take him sailing around the world. Pat would often visit Mt Isa to pick up supplies and became a local identity. Another interesting aspect to this period of Pat’s life was his name actually becoming Pat Mackie. He was originally a Murphy, became Eugene Markey, Pat Markey and eventually Pat Mackie. The reasons for all these changes are too involved to go in to here, but a lot had to do with mis-spelling of his names on pay slips, and the way he entered a number of countries.
This is indeed a most interesting and important book. It not only chronicles the life of one of Australia’s most famous trade union figures, but contrasts the styles of union activism and organisisng in Australia and North America.
As Pat says when discussing some of the tactics used in disputes in New York, which included pouring excess soap into washing machines in a laundry where cheap labour was employed, so that the next morning the whole building was covered in soap suds:
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.
This book is also important from an ideological perspective. Pat mentions the influence of the Industrial Workers of the World a number of times in the book and it is evident that his style of union activism and organistion was in line with the wobbly tradition. He was a unionist first and foremost. He worked with communists, at one stage nearly joined the Canadian party. He maintained a position against forces that tried to eradicate communists from the union movement. However 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. His second book Mount Isa, The Story of Dispute chronicles this struggle in Mt Isa in 1964/65.
31 Jan 2008
Pat Mackie review ( 31.1.08 ) by Greg Mallory. Many Ships to Mt Isa: Pat Mackie’s autobiography. His work and travels before the Mt Isa Dispute of 1964-65. Pat Mackie with Elizabeth Vassilieff. Seaview Press, South Australia, 2002. paperback, 371 + xiv pp.