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Economics: Crime and Punishment
Environment: Beyond The Wedge
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Politics: Labo(u)r Day
Human Rights: Arabian Lights
History: Labour's Titan
Review: Foxy Fiasco
Poetry: Then I Saw The Light
The Locker Room
What’s In a Name?
Shearers Brush Woolly Mammoths
Staff, Trees Weather the Blame
Environment Wiped Out In Dubbo
Let's Start A New Party
Labor Council of NSW
He carried the weight of the labouring men and women of Broken Hill into the NSW Parliament. The 44-hour week and then establishing conditions in the mines unsurpassed for 40 years were fights that made Broken Hill the. Brookfield
Broken Hill holds a singular iconic status in trade union folklore and history. In Australia and around the world its history as the union town par excellence remains.
One of the union people who larger than life persona helped shape the town was Percy Brookfield, "Labor's Titan" as his biographer Gil Roper put it. Brookfield's coffin was followed by 15000 people of a town population of 24000 in 1921 following the dramatic end to his inspired life. His memorial at Broken Hill cemetery was erected by public subscription and the words of the monument are testament to his character and his politics.
He emerged as a leading activist in Broken Hill during the campaign for the 44-hour week by the underground miners in 1916. His meteoritic rise to state parliament was spurred by his leadership during this campaign and his support for the unions and the town against the policies of the ALP, which he was a member of on his initial election to state parliament.
The 1916 44-hour dispute was taking place at the tie that the ALP was splitting asunder over the issue of conscription. As with the rest of Australia class issues were overlooked by many as the claims of patriotism and empire, and the idea of adventure, seduced many people to the war effort. Broken Hill saw the same phenomena, and those opposed to the war were vilified. Brian Kennedy, in his social history of Broken Hill up to 1921, notes the way union militancy on this issue began gaining ground from 1915, as news of the horrors of the front struck home. The fight for the 44-hour week provided a local issue, deeply felt, that helped maintain the rage.
As Kennedy saw it, "the cluster of attitudes associated with the Industrial Workers of the World - intense opposition to militarism and war profiteering, disillusionment with political and parliamentary solutions, and a pre-deliction for industrial action and even sabotage - were certainly prevalent amongst the miners... and had their roots in the industrial history of the Barrier. Young Australian miners of an independent cast of mind remained the backbone of the IWW local in Broken Hill."
We should remember that the Collins House companies who ran the Broken Hill mines had run bitter disputes with the workers that caused immense hardship to Broken Hill people, in particular in 1892 and I 1908-09. The BHP was the major focus of discontent. Most miners were working for them in 1892. The 1908-09 dispute kept going for the six months partly because the dispute was largely with BHP and by that time only around half he miners at the Barrier were in BHP's employ.
The hatred of BHP is palpable in Broken Hill to this day, as it is seen as a company that extracted vast profit from the town and its people, and put nothing back. Kennedy notes that Dr Birks, the Surgeon Superintendent at the Broken Hill hospital, was urging much greater contributions from the companies to the hospital. After the 1916 dispute, in 1917, BHP gave 50 pounds to the hospital, out of £500,000 profit, one eighth of the contributions from workers. One year later all the companies, except BHP, agreed to double their hospital contributions.
At the time the Mine Managers Assn was moving to modern management styles, away from the antagonism that had characterised the Barrier since the 1892 battles. However, for the miners, distrust was strong and BHP itself remained outside this approach. The 18-month 1919-21 dispute was the culmination of these attitudes, as the successor companies to BHP did modernise their IR approach, and the miners and the mine owners entering a period of relative industrial peace where they bypassed the state and federal arbitration systems.
However, there was a great deal of hostility to be got through before that settlement, and Brookfield was heavily involved in al aspects of the political and industrial battles.
A real battle it was, in 1916, when the campaign for conscription was on. Brookfield and others ran a large meeting at the Central Reserve Broken Hill on 16th July. The class politics were to the fore and this was one of the occasions where Brookfield first showed his uncompromising class views outside the mining disputes directly. He was already involved in the underground miners campaigns, and the threat of conscription to fight the empire war was linked to the threats to workers from draconian legislation and boss savagery. The bosses and empire types had been trying to paint the miners striking for a fair go as pro German.
The attacks on the class system that Brookfield expressed were making the link between the wealthy of all and the workers of all nations. He also pointed out that war conscription would be followed by industrial conscription, wiping out gains workers had struggled for over may years. The miners at Broken Hill had a loyalty to the British miners who were under attack, not to the British financiers who wanted production for their profit.
The workers formed the Labour Volunteer Army (LVA) and regularly ran anti conscription rallies in conjunction with the Amalgamated Miners Assn (AMA). At one early meeting Brookfield was abused, had eggs and other missiles hurled at him and was howled at by the members of the Barrier Empire League. Sinclair, secretary of the LVA got into a blue with "a big potbellied parson". The police watched the whole disturbance of the meeting by the Empire mob, but, according to George Dale's wonderful Industrial History of Broken Hill, "when they saw that Sinclair had too many guns for the follower of the lowly Nazarene, promptly arrested Sinclair. The Empire loyalist were thus encouraged, and decided to head for the IWW rooms. Brookfield was apparently never a member of the IWW, but certainly espoused many of their views and was the champion of the IWW 12.
The police, again according to Dale, did here attempt to stop the mob, ably assisted by Brookfield. He had made his way to the front and as any empire league supporter attempted to enter the rooms, Brookfield flattened them, after warning them to stand back. Dale again: "after rendering such valuable service to the law-and-order brigade, when the disturbance was quelled the police calmly arrested Brookfield, charging him with riotous behaviour."
These arrests lead to great rallies the next day and thus provided the LVA with two political martyrs. It also, to Billy Hughes, provided another example of the IWW undermining his war effort.
Another outcome was a police baton charge on peaceful demonstrators, an act Dale saw as "one of the most disgraceful and brutal acts known to any Australian Force."
The conscription strife was a dividing factor that played itself out in other ways, and seems to have helped develop and maintain the solidarity that was essential for the success of the Big Strike of 1919-20.
Brookfield made his entry into Parliament following the resignation of the local member, J.H. Cann. He won preselection and was elected in early 1917. As a radical he was an unknown political quantity but succeeded in defeating the ex-ALP alderman, turned Nationalist candidate, B.J Doe.
Brookfield had been reluctant to enter Parliament, fearing the political role would dilute the important role he had played in the workplace.
Kennedy refers to an acquaintance of Brookfield's who described him as "no fool. He would listen observe and weigh things up shrewdly. Full of idealism, he nevertheless, was a man who had an uncanny knack of sensing what was practicable. He was, in fact, a man of action However his Parliamentary record shows him to have been the most staunch advocate of the workers unions have ever seen. The success of the unions in achieving the agreements they did in 1920, and the in depth research that was undertaken into miners diseases and having governments take notice of these reports was down to the role Brookfield was able to play when the Storey Labor government needed his vote.
Brookfield was allied to the Industrial Workers of the World, although apparently not a member. This affinity of views, plus his own acute sense of justice was a big part of his long-term campaign to free the IWW 12, framed for supposedly planning large scale arson and sabotage in Sydney. The IWW was also blamed for the 1917 general strike, and Prime Minister Hughes particularly targeted the organisation in his war prosecutions legislation. The IWW was effectively destroyed, for these amongst other reasons (the rise of the Communist Party after the Russian Revolution in 1917 was also a factor in its decline).
Brookfield was already campaigning for the 12 before his election and felt his approach his opinion on the matter might jeopardise his election, but spoke out about it anyway, attacking Hughes, the Press and the class based justice system. His uncompromising approach was reflected, as Roper puts it, in the fact that the "Red Flag" was sung at his election rallies and his declaration that the red flag was the only one under which he was prepared to fight".
As soon as he was in Sydney he began visiting the 12. Donald Grant, one of the 12, wrote later about the importance of Brookfield in keeping their spirits up, his assistance and his doing what was needed without seeking the limelight for himself.
Brookfield soo had to contest the state general election after winning the by-election as Holman called it 6 weeks later. He increased his winning margin.
Brookfield promised "the payment of full compensation to all victims of the industry and their dependents" and he pledged himself to the establishment of a Hospital Sanitorium and a land settlement scheme.
It did not mean the end of his altercations with Hughes. He was charged more than once because of his ant-war campaigning and the language he used in these campaigns. His description of Hughes a s viper earlier had earned him a reprimand and a warning not to say it again. Needless to say he did. The campaign for the 12 continued, as did his advocacy for better conditions for the miners.
The workers in the whole state were threatened by the Fuller governments attacks stemming from the general strike of 1917. This began in the railways and the IWW influence was thrown into the mix by the government to swing public opinion against the strikers. The anti-conscription versus pro Empire and war argument was also an underlying factor. The blacklisting of strikers following the loss was a sore point that Brookfield later took up successfully when the Storey ALP government came to office.
The IWW case continued, with Brookfield, Henry Boote and Ernie Judd prominent in the defence campaign. Judd and Brookfield were also associated another legal matter, after they were both prosecuted under the War Precautions legislation. Judd had spoken out after the President of the Sydney Labor Council, William Morby endorsed a call for increased recruiting. The persecution they felt they suffered drove them on in the IWW case as well. They were increasingly prepared to believe the worst of the government and various police witnesses I n the case, and it seemed they were often confirmed I their belief as cracks began to appear in the prosecution. Fake evidence and police informers piled up. Details of the case are laid out by Ian Turner (in Sydney's Burning Alpha Books, 1969) who is not exactly partisan to the IWW cause and the release campaign is well discussed in Verity Burgmann's Revolutionary Industrial Unionism (Cambridge UP, 1995; chapters 13 and 14)
Eventually, as Roper explains, he forced a limited inquiry (the ALP timidity was one of the reasons for the limited nature). The report from Justice Street found the witness statements reliable only if corroborated but he accepted that police corroboration. The defence campaign expressed its amazement at the report, and vowed to carry on. The armistice had been declared by this time so more effort and time was available.
The ALP, however, was doing its traditional pre-emptive buckle. In 1919, Storey, with an eye to the upcoming state election, distanced himself from the case. Brookfield told Storey he was a contemptible coward and tendered his resignation from the ALP. He assisted the Seaman's Union in its 14-week strike, and continued to raise money for the Broken Hill miners and other unionists. The Big Strike began at Broken Hill in April 1919, and the health of the miners was the underlying issue that Brookfield had been campaigning on since 1916. Te achievements of this strike laid the foundations for working conditions at the mines unsurpassed in other mining communities until the late 1960s. Brookfield's untimely death in 1921 came after the successful dispute but before many of the terms of the agreement could be fully developed.
The IWW case continued. Brookfield was endorsed by the Broken Hill Labor Party, despite his resignation and the views of the official party. He formed his own Industrial Labor Party. He called for the establishment of the Cooperative Commonwealth. The unions made the release of the 12 its focus and asked the ALP candidates to back the release as part of their campaigns. Brookfield and Minahan were the only ones who did. After Storey became Premier he depended on these two, thus the inquiry was begun with a judge from Tasmania. Justice Ewing's finding stopped short of finding a police conspiracy, although that was the logical conclusion after the evidence. All but Reeve and King were released in August 1920. So although Brookfield was potentially a target of the one of the Wobbly songs, Bump Me Into Parliament, his role was crucial as he would not succumb to the offers that came from all sides to do a deal. He continued the fight for the release of Reeve and King until his death.
His funeral was, as noted, a monster sad affair. The Red Flag and other tributes were sung. His memorial stands proud at Broken Hill cemetery today, with the internationalist exhortation Workers of the World Unite emblazoned thereon.
See Labor's Titan: the story of Percy Brookfield, 1878-1921; by Gilbert Giles Roper edited by Wendy and Allan Scarfe. (Warrnambool Institute Press, 1983Roper was at the funeral when he was 16 years old and strove for many years to get Brookfield's story better known.
Also Silver, Sin and Sixpenny Ale: a social history of Broken Hill, 1883-1921 by Brian Kennedy (Melbourne Uni Press, 1978)
The Industrial History of Broken Hill by George Dale (Melbourne: Fraser and Jenkinson, 1918; facsimile edition by the Library Board of South Australia 1965) is a wonderfully political, unashamed industrial unionist book by a person who was involved in most of the events described.
Sydney's Burning by Ian Turner (Alpha Books, 1969) is a forensic examination of the accusations and defences of the IWW 12.
Revolutionary Industrial Unionism by Verity Burgmann (Cambridge Uni Press, 1995) is a terrific account of the rise and fall and the legacy of the Wobblies and syndicalism.
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