BHP: Bloody Hungry Profiteers

Issue 
Police leave BHP’s Broken Hill mine during the 1919 ‘Great Strike’ as the miners stand fast.

The historian Geoffrey Blainey recently addressed staff at BHP headquarters in Melbourne on the 130th anniversary of the forming of Broken Hill Propriety Company Limited in 1885.

Blainey told the assembled audience “there is no commercial institution in Australia that has contributed so much to the nation’s history”.

To set the historical record straight, he should have added that there is no commercial institution that has fought so hard against the workers whose surplus value it expropriated than BHP.

The first strike against BHP’s mining operation in Broken Hill took place in 1889, four years after the company was founded, and there were major strikes in 1892, 1909 and 1915 before the “Great Strike” of 1919, which lasted for 18 months.

Between 1910 and 1919, 141 miners were killed at the lead, silver and zinc mine. The 1919 strike was certainly over a pay rise and for a shorter working week, but it was more about safe working conditions for the “dusted” miners who invariably suffered from pneumoconiosis — “black lung disease”.

During the course of the 1919 strike, malnutrition and hunger was common among the miners and their families, as were their wives’ miscarriages due to stress and poor diet. But they stuck solid; none more so than the Women’s Brigade, which was first formed during the 1889 strike.

The workers’ victory in 1920 saved generations of hard rock miners from being dusted and poisoned.

By this time, BHP was also in the steelmaking business in Newcastle thanks to the NSW William Holman Labor government. Before the 1913 election it gave a commitment to the electorate to establish a state-owned iron and steelworks. After it was re-elected it abandoned this pledge, without reference even to the party caucus. This gave BHP what amounted to a monopoly in steel production.

In 1935, BHP took over the Port Kembla steelworks from its previous owners, the Hoskins family, and established an absolute monopoly in Australian steel production. Locals referred to the steelworks as the “bloodhouse” because of the number of workers killed in industrial accidents at the site.

BHP was always ready to hire the best legal advice it could buy to defeat its unionised workforce.

During the Jobs for Women campaign in Port Kembla in the early 1980s, BHP lost an anti-discrimination case taken by the women in the NSW Equal Opportunity Tribunal. It then spent millions in appealing the case to the High Court.

It was only after the women picketed the BHP annual general meeting that the dispute was eventually settled in 1994 and brought the longest running Anti-discrimination case in Australian legal history to an end.

Such is the history, and BHP has now been “spun-off” into various separate entities, but the BHP culture continues.

For the past 15 years the company has waged a concerted campaign in the courts to fight victims of the deadly asbestos disease, mesothelioma, which workers were exposed to while working for the company.

In 2012, a Perth man who had worked at BHP’s Whyalla shipyard in the 1960s brought a claim against the company after being diagnosed with mesothelioma. BHP fought it every step of the way for three-and-a-half years. After losing in the lower courts, BHP sought an application for special leave to appeal to the High Court. It was rejected by the Chief Justice Robert French and Justice Stephen Gageler.

The victim’s family eventually received the compensation they were entitled to. But the victim never got to see it. He died of mesothelioma in 2013.

Bloody Hungry Profiteers wouldn’t even let a man die in peace.

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