Red Cap the story of the 1964-65 Mt Isa miners strike

August 2, 2007

Two events took place in Brisbane to commemorate one of the bitterest industrial disputes in Australia's history. A forum held by the Brisbane Labour History Association, and a musical theatre production Red Cap explored the events of the 1964-65 Mt Isa miners' strike that put the north Queensland town on the map, galvanising the community in support of the miners.

Co-produced by the Queensland Music Festival, Mt Isa City Council and La Boite Theatre Company, the musical was so named after the charismatic leader of the strike, Pat Mackie, who often wore a red baseball cap during the dispute and boasted that at the time he was the only member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Australia. The miners faced huge challenges, not least the isolation of working at Mt Isa, but they also had to contend with the demonisation of Mackie by the company, the state government and the mainstream press.

Special laws were enacted specifically to crush the dispute and police squads and reporters flooded the small mining town. The strike was on the front page of the newspapers more than any other event since World War II.

Initially the strike was over a pay demand for an increase of £4 per week, but escalated into a campaign for democratic representation. It took 32 weeks before the miners won their demands for better pay and occupational health and safety after all mining and smelting operations ceased.

There was a long prelude to the strike beginning in 1959 with an unsuccessful claim for better wages. In 1960-61 there was one confrontation after another. It ended with the company locking the workers out and the Australian Workers Union caving in and pushing for a settlement with the company that gave no substantial gains to the miners.

The AWU had long neglected the workers of Mt Isa. There had been no organiser at Mt Isa since 1953. Membership in the AWU was compulsory and miners were signed up as soon as they started without seeing any representatives of the union. The AWU dominated the union movement in northern Queensland with very little competition from other unions.

By 1964 the Mt Isa membership were well informed of the double dealings of the AWU executive and were prepared for another fight with the company. Pat Mackie rose to prominence in the dispute for his ability to forge unity amongst the migrant and local workforce by finding volunteer interpreters and ensuring leaflets were published in languages other than English.

However, the AWU executive would not recognise Mackie as the elected representative of the union and colluded with the bosses of the company to have him sacked. The AWU was not prepared for the defiance of the Mt Isa workers and the miners insisted throughout the dispute that Mackie was their representative, demanding his reinstatement.

No one actor played Mackie throughout the musical, but rather, in a series of progressive scenes, he, along with all the other key players in the dispute, was represented by various performers. Therefore the play did not allow for a character development that would have dramatised his personality — perhaps this was done because Pat Mackie was such an enigma that it is too difficult to represent who he was.

Other techniques used in the musical included use projected text, which may have been influenced by Bertolt Brecht's "alienation affect". This stagecraft aims to turn audience members into consciously critical observers by preventing them from passively identifying with the main character. The techniques were very appropriate to the historical nature of the play and its political content.

Red Cap is political theatre at its best with a talented cast and an original score. Having an industrial dispute as its theme, the play has a hard edge with booming crescendos and moments of melancholic despair. It encapsulated Pat Mackie's description of the dispute beautifully: "... a triumph of the human spirit".

On July 28 the Brisbane Labour History Association held a forum attended by 65 people at the Paddington Workers Club to discuss the significance of the Mt Isa miners' strike. Andrew Dettmar, Queensland state secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union chaired the meeting. Dettmar talked about the dispute and alluded to the current attacks under Howard's Work Choices: "It was a time when there was a symbiotic relationship between unions and the state and when there was a preference for unions in arbitration", he said. "Now things are different, the federal government has no place for unions at the bargaining table. There is no independent umpire."

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