In January 2015, the City Of Broken Hill was crowned Australia’s first National Heritage city after a ten-year campaign. A key part of the Heritage listing was the debt that Australia owes to the city, for the role it played in establishing and strengthening workers’ rights across the land. But that might not have been the case, had it not been for one man – a radical activist imported from London, a man named Tom Mann.
When deposits of silver, lead and zinc were discovered in Broken Hill back in the late 19th century, the scale of the find was unlike any other in Australian history, and despite its isolation, workers poured into the town.
In 1908, after the initial rush cooled down, directors of BHP told workers that wages were to be reduced by 12 per cent, in line with falling profits – a blow which came on top of continuing grievances over working conditions underground. Organisers from ten disparate unions desperately attempted to rally the workers, only to discover that collective membership sat at less than 60 per cent of the workforce. History has deemed the organisers’ next decision to be their masterstroke – they called on renowned activist Tom Mann to visit Broken Hill in attempt to bring workers’ solidarity to the city.
Mann was born in England in 1856 and had risen to international acclaim on the strength of his leadership of the 1889 London dock strike. This significant reputation preceded his arrival in Australia in 1902, where he found himself in great demand as a speaker and organiser. A six-year tenure in Melbourne, which included a public arrest in 1906 in a campaign for free speech, came to an end in 1908 when the call came from Broken Hill.
He had been won over by the plight of the Broken Hill Combined Unions Committee and their urgent need to bolster union membership. His arrival proved to be a sensational catalyst - he took his energetic and legendary speeches out onto street corners and spoke passionately at non-union gatherings. The strength of his conviction saw union membership rocket to 98% after only three weeks of his residency.
Buoyed by this success, the Committee took their grievances and a demand for a wage increase to the Federal Arbitration Court. Angered by the turn of events, BHP locked out all union workers, and hired free labourers to cover the shortfall. Their actions put 4,500 people out of work immediately, and Mann quickly organized ongoing pickets of the mine with the aim of blocking access for the “scabs”.
Events soon took a turn for the worse – angry clashes erupted, and during one altercation, police became obsessed with finding and arresting strike leader Tom Mann, violently attacking many of the protesters in the process. The police violence and subsequent arrests provoked a 15,000 strong march on the mine and a telegram to the Prime Minister, urging them to take action against police provocation.
Mann was charged with conspiracy, riot, and unlawful Assembly and was bailed on the proviso that he would not hold or address any public meetings in the city.
In an unprecedented move, an estimated 3000 passengers travelled on what was dubbed 'the Tom Mann Train' to the South Australian border to see him speak – they stood in New South Wales, while Mann placed himself on the other side of a barbed wire fence that demarcated the South Australian border. He spoke from the heart when he told them that “they have said of me that I encouraged you to disorder, and that I encouraged you to fight. I only encouraged you to fight for the rights of citizenship and for the rights of your wives and families to live."
The turbulent Broken Hill dispute lasted for five months, at which point the Arbitration Court finally ruled in favour of the workers, agreeing to their wage increases and improved conditions. Tom Mann was acquitted in April 1909, after a trial that ran for eight days.
Broken Hill continued to be blighted by strikes, most famously the “Great Strike” of 1919. Mann’s once-radical techniques were deployed again by the local unions and workforce, and when an agreement was brokered in 1920, miners were finally awarded what they had fought for ten years before - increased wages, improved safety conditions, and, for the first time in Australia, a 35-hour working week.
In his memoirs, Mann notes “as a result of the Broken Hill experiences, I realised more clearly the need for perfecting industrial organisation. It was plain to me that economic organisation was indispensable for the achievement of economic freedom” – a sentiment that underpins trade unionism across the world to this very day.
His legacy is one that Broken Hill, Australia and the worldwide socialist movement will never forget.