2001 ASSLH conference – The life and times of the Barrier Industrial Council: A study in local peak union origins, purpose, power and decline

Bradon Ellem & John Shields
Work & Organisational Studies, School of Business, University of Sydney


The Barrier Industrial Council (BIC) is one of the best known examples of a powerful union peak body in Australia. Upon its establishment in the early 1920s, it oversaw a particular form of working class mobilisation and, for many years, exercised something like a hegemony both for and over its affiliates. The BIC not only presided over a local system of collective bargaining largely outside the processes of compulsory conciliation and arbitration but also exercised a formidable control of local commodity exchange and consumption as well as social relations more broadly. This regime, which was consolidated in the Great Depression and lasted throughout the post-war boom, would stagnate and decline from the 1970s. In this paper, we explore the transformation of the BIC’s institutional purpose, shifts in its strategic directory and associated changes in the sources of its organisational power from its inception until the present. We also chart the unravelling of these power sources since the 1970s. We argue that the BIC’s rise, strategic trajectory, dominance and decline are best understood as a shifting balance between power from, for and over affiliate unions and their members, power derived from a structural coupling with local mining employers, and, most importantly, power and purpose associated with social regulation.


The unity over which the Barrier Industrial Council (BIC) came to preside has perhaps no parallel in Australian industrial relations history. Due in no small measure to the BIC, Broken Hill became one of the few localities in Australia in which the local workers managed to establish and maintain “hegemony” over the local social formation.Within two years of its creation, the Council had assumed the role of sole bargaining agent for the local unions in a non-arbitral system of collectively-bargained mining industry agreements. This bargaining regime continued to determine minimum wages and hours in the Broken Hill mining industry from its introduction in 1925 until its collapse in 1986 and conferred on the BIC a level of local influence unparalleled in Australian union history. It was also an all- inclusive body. Unlike other peak councils which typically began as representatives of craft unions and which were fraught with division, the BIC very quickly embraced all its potential affiliates. However, this does not mean that the BIC must necessarily be regarded in all respects as sui generis. It is possible and, we believe, useful to examine the BIC as an instance of peak body formation, growth and decline with wider implications for the study of peak unionism in Australia.

Antecedents: Competing unities and the ‘Big Strike’

The BIC was not the first peak union body at Broken Hill; it was, in fact, the fifth.2 Like its predecessors—indeed like all union federations—the BIC was the product of the competing forces of unity and fragmentation. During World War One, mining unionism in Broken Hill was rent by sectionalism, with the smaller craft and occupational unions establishing a peak organisation of their own—the Broken Hill Trades and Labour Council (TLC)—in opposition to the largest union, the syndicalist-led Amalgamated Miners’ Association (AMA), which from 1917 on was affiliated with the national Miners Federation.3

These internal divisions can be traced back to the bitter lock-out of 1909. During the course of that dispute, the main underground union, the AMA, sponsored its own vehicle for closer unity, the Barrier Labour Federation. In the years which followed, the Federation sought to unite the local unions under leadership of the AMA. At the same time, the AMA was committed to a syndicalist agenda espousing direct action at the point of production and the dissolution of craft divisions. In particular, the syndicalists sought to transform the union into the “One Big Union” of Barrier workers by widening the membership base amongst both surface and non-mine employees.4 In 1916, the AMA waged a successful strike for a 44-hour week for underground workers. The strike and the AMA’s victory further inflamed sectional differences within the mining workforce.

The pro-arbitrationist Federated Engine Drivers and Firemens Association (FEDFA), the second largest union on the mining “line of lode”, refused to support the strike, as did the largest of the surface unions, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. Significantly, both of these unions were constituents of national unions with a strong preference for arbitration. The surface unions, led by the Amalgamated Engineers, now established their own vehicle for closer unity, the Broken Hill TLC. Virtually all of the surface unions supported the new “arbitrationist” peak body.5 The Council’s emergence left the AMA isolated from the rest of the local union movement and the Barrier Labor Federation faded away. It was no accident that the Federation’s collapse coincided with Barrier AMA’s decision of 1917 to affiliate with the national mining union, Miners Federation.

The TLC also provided a forum for two unions which were direct rivals to the AMA: the Trades and Labourers’ Union, which competed with the AMA for the surface labourers and trade assistants;6 and the Barrier Workers’ Association, which competed with the AMA for the elite of the mine workforce—the underground contract miners. Unlike the other key unions on the Broken Hill line of lode, both were purely local bodies and therefore confined to the state arbitral jurisdiction. Their willingness to embrace state award coverage and, in particular, the anti-strike provisions of the 1918 New South Wales Industrial Arbitration Act, further inflamed AMA hostility towards them.7 Formed during the strike of 1916, seemingly with the blessing of mine management, the Barrier Workers Association (or the “Blue Whiskers”, to use the AMA’s preferred epithet) consistently opposed all strike action.

This inter-union rivalry certainly contributed greatly to the timing, direction and intensity of the Big Strike. Union sectionalism resurfaced in early 1919 with the impending expiry of the federal award which had settled the 1916 strike and the issuing of new logs of claims by all of the mining unions. Sectional conflict came to a head in early April 1919 when an elite group of certified engine-drivers broke away from the FEDFA to form its own body. The AMA, keen to eliminate craft unionism altogether, accepted the breakaways into its ranks. The FEDFA retaliated by refusing to work with the AMA, while the TLC called out its other affiliates. In May, a settlement was effected, with the AMA agreeing to relinquish its claim over the certified men in exchange for a commitment from the FEDFA to consult on new claims and support any future strike action by the miners.8 With the FEDFA apparently locked in, the AMA raised the stakes dramatically. Having already issued a log of claims against mine management, the AMA refused to resume work until all of its claims—including a 30 hour week, the abolition of night shift and contract mining, and full compensation for miners affected by occupational disease—were met.9

The 18 month strike was marked by friction between the AMA and the other unions and by disunity between the TLC unions themselves. At the heart of these differences lay the issue of arbitration. The AMA simply turned its back on arbitration. While supportive of arbitration, the TLC unions were deeply divided as to jurisdiction. The FEDFA and the Carpenters Society had instituted award proceedings before the Commonwealth Arbitration Court prior to the strike’s commencement. Other craft unions followed suit. On the other hand, the Barrier Workers and the Trades and Labourers Union lodged claims for lesser wage increases under the state arbitration system. Although endorsed by the TLC, their actions were condemned by the FEDFA on the grounds that they stood to prejudice the claims of other unions.10

The disunity deepened when the TLC unions began returning to work as a precondition for their claims being arbitrated. By abandoning the strike, the FEFDA not only broke its agreement with the AMA but opened the possibility of the mines being worked by members of other unions and non-unionists. Determined to hold out, the AMA initiated pickets against a return to work and there were sporadic outbursts of violence against members of the Trades and Labourers Union. From September, when the carpenters returned to work, until November, when the Big Strike finally ended, the AMA carried on alone, eventually securing a major victory.11 Although the union failed in its claims for the abolition of contracting and night shift work, it won a 35 hour week for underground miners and the promise of full compensation for miners affected by industrial disease.12

In the immediate aftermath of the strike, the AMA formalised its commitment to the syndicalists’ much hoped-for One Big Union. When the Miners Federation reconstituted itself as the Workers Industrial Union of Australia (WIUA), the AMA renamed itself as the Barrier Branch of the new body, retaining this title despite the collapse of the wider WIUA in 1924.13 However, the circumstances which had underwritten the strike victory proved short-lived. The ensuing recession left the Barrier WIUA financially and organisationally depleted, with its remaining membership less enamoured of syndicalism, eventually opening the way for the WIUA’s affiliation with the TLC and the formation of a new peak body—the BIC itself.

Formation: Striking a new power balance and unity of purpose

In the strike’s immediate aftermath, the AMA radicals struggled to maintain ascendancy. In part, this was caused by the parlous state of the local labour market after the strike. After peaking in mid-1920, international lead prices fell dramatically over the next two years.14 Throughout this period, underground employment was irregular and AMA/WIUA financial membership fell to the point where the three main mining unions—the WIUA, the Trades and Labourers’ Union and the FEDFA were roughly equal in size.15 In part, this followed from the suspension of underground mining at some mines in favour of the treatment of concentrates and tailings on the surface.16 At the same time, the AMA was racked by internal dissension; dissension which precipitated the fracturing and decline of the once- dominant syndicalist leadership within the union. In September 1921, the Charles Vinall, a moderate, began an almost unbroken 34-year tenure as WIUA secretary.17

The declining syndicalist influence in the WIUA, coupled with the slippage in the union’s numerical strength, weakened the defensive bonds which had hitherto united the TLC unions. In the immediate aftermath of the strike, the Trades and Labourers Union emerged as a significant force. At the beginning of 1921, Trades and Labourers Union delegates won both the presidency and secretaryship of the TLC. The union also strengthened its position in the local Labor Party branch, Barrier District Assembly of the ALP (BDAALP). The growing influence of the Trades and Labourers Union contributed to a strategic volte face by its arbitrationist ally, the FEDFA, setting in train a series of initiatives which would lead to a rapproachment between the Engine Drivers’ and the WIUA and, eventually, to the formation of the BIC. During 1921 and 1922 the FEDFA moved to reassert their influence within both the TLC and the BDAALP, wresting control of the Council secretaryship and the presidency from the Trades and Labourers Union.18 Under FEDFA leadership, the Council shed some of its old sectional and defensive outlook and re-emerged as a major local influence.

The proximate cause of the post-strike thaw in relations between the FEDFA and the WIUA was the introduction of compulsory medical examinations and a jointly administered scheme of workers compensation for the local industry, developments which widened the field of mutual interest between the two main mining unions.19 The Technical Commission, set up during the strike to investigate the high rates of industrial disease amongst underground workers recommended that the examination apply only to new entrants to the industry, with existing miners only being required to pass a test for the two major diseases—pneumoconiosis and tuberculosis. However, the mining companies insisted that all employees be subjected to the so-called “21 diseases examination”. The two main mining unions feared that this procedure would be used to victimise existing miners and, in 1922, agreed to participate in a joint campaign against the 21 diseases examination.20

The FEDFA and WIUA also shared a wider interest in reviving employment and union membership on the mines but a stalemate prevailed. The FEDFA leadership insisted that the quid pro quo for making common cause on the line of lode would be WIUA affiliation with the TLC. As early as January 1921, it had made overtures to the WIUA about co- operating to achieve “closer organisation” on the mines.21 Over the ensuing two years, the WIUA radicals fought a rear- guard action to keep the union true to the syndicalist cause—and out of the TLC. The TLC unions retaliated by refusing further cooperation with the WIUA until it affiliated.22

In the context of this stalemate, individual agency assumed crucial importance. In January 1923, EP (“Paddy”) O’Neill, president of the recently-formed local Municipal Employees’ Union assumed the presidency of the TLC. Although he had worked for the local Municipal Council from 1913 on, O’Neill also had close connections with the miners having previously worked on the mines and participated in the rough and tumble of AMA politics prior to World War One. These links which made him ideally placed to mediate between the WIUA and the TLC.23 In conjunction with the FEDFA delegates, O’Neill acted to eliminate this obstacle to closer unity and strike a new power equilibrium and unity of purpose between the remaining mining unions. In June, O’Neill and his allies succeeded in rescinding the TLC’s opposition to co-operation with the WIUA.24 Soon afterwards, the FEDFA reopened discussions with the WIUA on plans for a closed shop campaign for underground workers in the form of a “ribbon show”.25 Held in September 1923, this first ribbon show cemented the unity between the FEDFA and the WIUA. The FEDFA winder-drivers simply refused to lower any miner not wearing a WIUA ribbon. In the context of the buoyant local labour market, this strategy was so successful that the WIUA’s underground rival, the Barrier Workers’ Association, collapsed almost immediately.26

By this time, the WIUA leadership had come to the realisation that it could not subordinate the other unions, while most of the TLC unions no longer believed that this would happen. Within the TLC, the Trades and Labourers’ Union was now the only remaining source of opposition to WIUA affiliation. In September 1923, the WIUA membership voted to join the TLC. The other unions and the new peak body agreed to sacrifice the WIUA’s longstanding rival, the Trades and Trades Labourers Union, by forcing its absorption into the WIUA.27 Under direct threat of Council intervention, the Trades and Labourers Union agreed to enter into talks with the WIUA.28 What began as a proposal for formalising a line of demarcation ended in a forced absorption. The Trades and Labourers’ capitulation followed directly from a “mutual assistance” pact forged between the FEDFA and the WIUA in July 1924 which guaranteed the WIUA coverage of all miners and surface labourers.29

For the WIUA, though, making common cause with smaller unions had its costs. As in peak bodies at any scale, there were tensions over the representative structure and in the relationship between unions of different sizes. In the BIC’s case, the delegate structure was weighted so as to minimise the possibility of the Council being dominated from within by the WIUA. The miners were limited to nine delegates, and other unions to anywhere between two and nine, depending on their size. The BIC officials and the craft unions could therefore enjoy the delegated power of the WIUA without that power being directed against over? them.30 The delegate structure also gave the smaller unions greater collective say in who was elected to the Council’s highest post—the presidency. This largely explains why the leadership of the BIC was dominated by individuals from smaller unions until the 1970s. Making common cause also had another cost. The absorption of the Trades and Labourers’ Union, which became, in effect, the “Surface Section” of the WIUA altered the overall ideological temper of the union’s membership, moving it further away still from its syndicalist past.

In its initial incarnation, the new all-encompassing peak body was invested with a dual industrial and political purpose—in conscious emulation of the peak organisations of the Western Australian labour movement. It was to be called the “Barrier Industrial and Political Council” and was intended to absorb the local branch of the ALP. Following its endorsement by a combined union conference, the Barrier Industrial and Political Council was formally launched in March 1924.31 However, the new body’s duel brief was short-lived. The Labor Party State Executive intervened, insisting that the local party remain a separate entity and refusing the Council’s application for affiliation. In November 1924, the Council was unobtrusively restyled the “Barrier Industrial Council”.32 The BIC was reborn—with overt political purpose put aside.

Mobilisation: Organising a union town

The BIC’s formation was itself an act of mobilisation. In its first year of its existence, the BIC instituted a system of quarterly “badge” shows to achieve, firstly, a (post-entry) union shop on the mines, then a (pre-entry) closed shop. By 1925 both underground and surface operations were fully unionised and the mining unions, under the BIC, were organised into a powerful coalition.33

The mobilisation of mine workers still left an important component of the local paid workforce largely unorganised. While Broken Hill is frequently characterised as a “one industry town”, the BIC and its affiliates were actually operating in a dual economy; an economy of town as well as mine.34 Once it had consolidated closer unity and coalition bargaining on the mines, the BIC moved to organise town workers along similar lines.

This “town drive” was masterminded by Paddy O’Neill, the BIC’s first and longest-serving president (1923-49). One of O’Neill’s motives in unionising the town sector was to strengthen further the power of non-WIUA unions within the BIC—and the strategy worked brilliantly. Having used his mining connections in establishing the BIC, O’Neill now drew on his standing and experience as a town worker himself, O’Neill worked as a night-soil carter for the local council and was a tough and wily industrial negotiator. An equally important formative influence was his devout Irish Catholicism.35 O’Neill’s brand of industrial assertiveness and Catholic social conservatism left an indelible mark on the BIC. His election to office also began a succession of Catholic or lapsed Catholic BIC presidents which continued unbroken to the 1980s.

The town mobilisation drew on strategies which had characterised the earlier era of radical unionism: mass meetings, badge shows, a preference for direct bargaining and direct action, inter-union support and the use of consumer boycotts to force recalcitrant traders into line. There were two main phases to this process. The first, in 1924-5, involved wages and hours campaigns by several strategically well-placed town unions, including the Town Employees Union (covering mainly hospital workers) and O’Neill’s own union, the Municipal Employees. The second phase, beginning in 1926 and extending through to the early 1930s, entailed a series of highly successful membership drives in occupations where unionism was weak or non-existent, particularly among male and female workers in retail shops and hotels. In the space of five years, Broken Hill had been transformed into the all-union town that it would remain until the 1980s.36

This is not to suggest that the BIC’s emerging control over the local union movement went unchallenged. In its first two decades of existence, its power was subject to at least four major internal challenges. The first challenge came during the Council’s very formation. Led by the Amalgamated Engineers, the metal trades unions disaffiliated from the BIC in its first months of existence and formed a short-lived splinter peak body, the Iron Trades Council.37 A second and more serious challenge came with the emergence of a mass movement of unemployed workers in the later 1920s and early 1930s. By 1932, the local Unemployed Union was the second largest labour movement organisation in the locality—second only to the WIUA—and it was not affiliated to the BIC. A third challenge came with the rise of Third Period communist influence in the WIUA and local unemployed. From 1930, Communist Party cadres and Militant Minority Movement activists were openly critical of the BIC leadership.38 In 1932 militants in the WIUA initiated a move for disaffiliation from the BIC. The proposal was rejected by a large majority and in the following year a more moderate leadership came to the fore.39 Even so, the possibility of WIUA disaffiliation remained. A fourth challenge came with the emergence of Communist-inspired rank-and-file job committees on the mines in the mid-1930s. The job committees challenged not only the BIC’s role as apex of the local labour movement but also its role as local mine workers’ principal agent in negotiations with mine management.40 Even though the BIC weathered all of these challenges, they signify that the BIC’s power over local union affairs remained open to internal contestation. The 1950s and 1960s witnessed a particularly personal and acrimonious struggle for control of the Council presidency between two sets of right-wingers—one based around WIUA Industrial Groupers; the other consisting of a loose coalition of activists from the smaller unions.

Economic exchange: Engagement with employers

Unlike most other peak bodies, the BIC enjoyed an almost immediate elevation to the status of principal intermediary between its affiliate unions and local employers. With the WIUA on board, the BIC positioned itself as the chief bargaining agent for the mining unions in a new regime of non-arbitral industry bargaining. Rather than submitting logs of claims separately to mine management, affiliates were required to hand them to the BIC, which then prepared and served a general log of claims. The upshot was the introduction, in early 1925, of the first comprehensive agreement for all mine workers. This confirmed existing standard hours arrangements (35 hours underground; 44 hours for surface workers), introduced a “lead bonus” linked to movements in lead prices and provided for the automatic quarterly adjustment of the miners’ base wage.41 The Iron Trades Council represented its affiliates separately at these negotiations. Within a year, however, the breakaway unions had returned to the fold, confirming the BIC’s role as sole bargaining agent for local unions.42 Although meant to run for a three-year term, the 1925 mining agreement remained  in force until 1931, setting the pattern for a system of triennial unregistered agreements which ran from 1932 until 1986.43

The local mining unions adopted coalition bargaining (that is, peak level collective bargaining) because it represented a pragmatic compromise between those mining unions which had previously advocated arbitration (particularly the metal trades unions) and those which had eschewed arbitration in favour of direct action (particularly the WIUA). Coalition bargaining for formal triennial mines agreements kept faith with the arbitrationists’ desire for non-conflictual industrial regulation, while at the same time addressing the basic demands of the anti-arbitrationists (Walker, 1970, 222-3).

The move to peak-level collective bargaining also signified a fundamental shift in strategy on the employer side. From 1915, control of local mining and ore-smelting operations shifted away from the once-dominant Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) to companies forming part of the Melbourne-based mining and industrial conglomerate subsequently known as the Collins House group. By 1916 the Collins House group controlled three of the eleven mining companies operating on the line of lode and the industry’s main smelting centre at Port Pirie in South Australia. Over the ensuing decade, the Collins House group consolidated its control over the local industry.44 At the same time, the group moved to strengthen its influence over the local Mining Managers’ Association (MMA). The growing influence of the Collins House group presaged a major shift in labour management style away from the simple authoritarianism which had typified BHP’s approach towards “industrial co-partnership” or “welfarism”.45 The impetus to co-partnership provided the foundation for peak level bargaining and the associated system of industry-wide profit- sharing in the form of the “lead bonus”.

The formalisation of the BIC’s role as the principal agent of exchange with the MMA not only widened the scope of its delegated functions but also invested it with significant additional power, flowing from a “structural coupling” with the mining companies. If the BIC’s role as the broker and guardian of the mining agreements enhanced its power to act for its affiliates, then, in the eyes of its leadership, and that of the MMA, it also extended its power over its affiliates. At the same time, the abandonment of arbitration resulted in a significant (though not total) structural uncoupling from the state. If other peak bodies have derived strength through forging alliances with the state, then the BIC chose a structural coupling of a very different type.

The new bargaining system faced a serious challenge in early 1931 when the mining companies pressed for a substantial cut in the basic wage during negotiations for a new agreement. When the WIUA threatened to derail the negotiations through strike action, the BIC leadership responded by initiating a change to agreement ratification. In large part, the new procedure was a tactical response by the BIC leadership to the rise of Third Period communist militancy in the WIUA. Up to that point, tentative agreements arrived at between the BIC and mine management had to be ratified by each affiliate union, meaning that a recalcitrant union could stall the whole process. Under the new ratification procedure, agreement proposals were to be submitted directly to a combined mass meeting of unionists, which meant that an uncooperative union executive could be effectively bypassed. The tactic worked. The BIC retained control of the bargaining system, mine management got its way on a wage cut, and the left within the WIUA was thwarted once again.46

It was the 1935 mines agreement which confirmed centralised bargaining as a permanent feature of industrial relations in Broken Hill. Negotiated under circumstances of strong industry recovery, the 1935 agreement delivered surface workers a 40 hour week and all mine workers two weeks paid annual leave and a more generous lead bonus formula.47 The 1935 agreement negotiations had an even more significant outcome—the forging of a remarkably cordial working relationship between Paddy O’Neill and the new President of the MMA, Andrew Fairweather, a long-time advocate of welfarism and co-partnership.48 This formidable partnership, which endured until Fairweather’s retirement in 1944, consolidated the structural underpinnings of the local collective bargaining.

Yet it was the apparent cosiness of this relationship at the top that contributed to the emergence of the single most serious challenge from below to the BIC’s power. From 1932, communist activists and fellow-travellers in the WIUA established job committees at the main mines. By mid-1935, committees had been established at all four of the town’s major operating mines and all but two of the town’s 21 unions had declared themselves either neutral to job committees or in favour of them.49 Supported mainly by underground contract miners, the committees sought to bypass the centralised bargaining system with “point of production” negotiation and, in so doing, posed a direct threat to the BIC’s strategic coupling with mine management.

Despite instinctive opposition from the MMA as well as O’Neill and other moderate officials and activists, the degree of rank-and-file support for job committees was such that neither the BIC leadership nor mine management could afford to ignore their existence. Indeed, by 1935, job committee activists had captured a number of positions within the BIC and WIUA and with base metal prices on the rise and mine management divided on how to respond to the challenge from below, committee activists pressed home the strategic advantage. The 1935 agreement not only formally acknowledged the committees’ existence but also empowered them to represent workers in negotiations and disputes at individual mines.50 This may well have been a calculated attempt by the BIC leadership to co-opt the committees, but it also served to undermine the BIC’s own power. After 1935, the job committees assumed a wider, if more formal, array of functions: from assisting in the appointment of badge day stewards and organising mine picnic committees, to renegotiating allowances and contract rates for underground miners.51

The tensions between the BIC and the job committees came to a head in 1937-38, when committees at the Zinc Corporation and North mines initiated “go slow” campaigns for a restoration of pre-Depression rates for contract miners. The MMA demanded that the BIC bring the committees to heel, but O’Neill was either unwilling or unable to act,52 prompting Fairweather to reproach the BIC for its apparent ineffectuality:

Do you say you have no power over the rank and file in these things? We have a mild case of anarchy existing? If you come to us and make an agreement aren’t you bound by the legal document that you sign? Don’t you stand as custodians of that, not only in your own interests but in ours?53

Just days after this managerial rebuke, the BIC leaders suffered another humiliation when a BIC mass meeting affirmed the right of rank and file unionists to take “spontaneous action”.54 A further wave of job committee inspired “go-slows” and stoppages followed in 1939-42.55

More ominously still for the BIC leadership, in 1942 job committee activist and communist candidate John Virgo wrested the presidency of the WIUA from ALP moderate, Wally Riddiford. Although Virgo held the post for only two years, the fact that the BIC’s largest affiliate was now communist-led placed the Council’s structural coupling with mine management under severe strain. Indeed, the 1943 agreement negotiations produced a stalemate which precipitated the first outside intervention in the local bargaining regime. The deadlock between the WIUA and the MMA was only resolved after intervention by a Commonwealth Conciliation Commissioner acting under wartime National Security regulations.56 If the lead-up to the 1943 agreement marked the high point of job committee influence, the agreement also heralded their decline. With the apparent acquiescence of the BIC leadership, the MMA withdrew recognition of job committees from the mines agreement.57 Then, in 1947, the MMA and BIC reached an agreement to end all activities contrary to the mines agreements, including go-slows. Although the committees remained active until at least 1954, their leadership was taken over by ALP moderates and Industrial Groupers as communist influence in the WIUA receded.58

For the BIC, the job committee challenge was a close-run thing. Had the WIUA disaffiliated under communist leadership in 1942-43 the BIC’s power as a mobiliser and coalition bargainer would have been gutted. Not since the birth of the BIC had the WIUA been so powerful. Ironically, one of the reasons why the WIUA remained within the BIC fold was that the communist officials who controlled the Miners Federation would not have countenanced such a disruption to the war effort in support of the Soviet Union. As it happened, the structural coupling which Paddy O’Neill had forced with mine management outlived both the job committees and O’Neill himself.

Social regulation: Exercising the power of place

If structural couplings of this sort are rare, then rarer still is the third facet of the BIC’s power and purpose—that of regulator of local labour and commodity markets. While predicated on the powers of mobilisation and exchange, these initiatives saw the BIC extend its purpose and power into a realm which few other peak bodies have penetrated.

Within its first few years of existence, the Council embarked on a program of direct intervention to regulate local commodity prices—everything from beer, milk, and bread, to house rents and cinema tickets—in the name of protecting working class family living standards. This intervention followed attempts by the mining companies to establish company-controlled retail outlets and the limited success of repeated attempts by the WIUA leadership to drum up support for a union-run co-operative. The main tactic deployed was an effective consumer boycott which relied on mass mobilisation and drove a wedge between the town’s employers, making allies of the small employers who in most cases were connected by familial bonds to the miners anyway. The BIC also encouraged the establishment of bread co-operatives, exerted union influence over wholesalers and publicans, and forged alliances with the local Women’s Cooperative Guild and Housewives Association to place moral and consumer pressure on recalcitrant retailers.59 Price surveillance was extended through the creation in 1948 of a permanent BIC Prices Committee.60 At the same time, the Council intervened to regulate workers’ consumption and savings habits by having of half of each worker’s lead bonus earnings channelled into a compulsory savings fund.61

The BIC’s regulation of local labour markets proved even more effective, in part because this process overlaid class consciousness with a collective consciousness of place. The two main features of labour market regulation were a bar on the paid employment of married women and enforcement of residential qualification for union membership and hence access to local jobs.

The enforcement of a ban on paid employment by married women dates from the economic downturn of 1926-27 and was applied in conjunction with the drive to unionise unmarried women working in shops and pubs. The BIC’s drive towards workers’ control in the town sector was a deeply gendered process. It involved organising unmarried women into unions, while simultaneously organising married women out of paid employment and labour movement participation altogether. The post-1925 economic crisis, rising male unemployment and the unions’ resort to job rationing entrenched the ban on married women’s employment as official union policy. The expansion of union coverage in those areas employing single women—particularly retailing, bar work, clerical work and nursing— enhanced the ability of the town unions to police the marriage bar. As a consequence, from the 1920s on, workforce participation by females in Broken Hill was far lower than the state-wide rate.62 Paddy O’Neill argued that the bar had to do with protecting the concept of a family living wage, but it was also part of a new patriarchal moral economy championed by the union leadership. In few other localities was organised labour so proactive and successful in codifying and upholding restrictions on the employment of married women.

The imposition of a strict residential qualification for union membership and, hence, access to paid employment, served social ends of an equally exclusionary nature. This closure was as complete and sustained as the marriage bar. From the early 1900s until the mid-1920s, the strategic orientation of the AMA and then the WIUA had been one of openness and syndicalism, utilising regular post-entry recruitment campaigns to secure a union shop. During the 1920s, the WIUA, supported by other mining unions, successfully instituted a closed shop on all of the mines. Then, from 1931 on, only those males who had been born in Broken Hill, or resided there for at least eight years, or married a woman meeting these residential requirements were admitted to union membership and local jobs. Local labour market closure was fully supported by the BIC and was taken up by all affiliates, with the BIC assuming the mantle of guardian of the local interest.63 Elsewhere, following the insights of economic geographer Jamie Peck, we have argued that this process of closure is best understood in terms of the local specificity of labour market regulation and the role that unions may play in the social regulation of such markets.64

The BIC’s regulatory influence peaked during the later 1950s and 1960s, when the Council functioned under WS (“Shorty”) O’Neil, who held the Council presidency from 1957 until 1969. Despite at times poisonous relations with the Grouper leadership of the WIUA, O’Neil, a one time job committee activist and WIUA Check Inspector, drew on the support of smaller affiliates to consolidate his hold on the BIC leadership.65 O’Neil asserted a place consciousness and social conservatism akin to that of Paddy O’Neill’s.

By the late 1950s outside observers were referring to the BIC as a state within a state. The BIC’s localism even led it to place a ban on door-to-door canvassing by travelling salesmen.66 At the same time, it was instrumental in sustaining what Howard has called a “localized legitimacy”67 for illegal gambling and after hours and Sunday pub trading, all in the name of job generation and workers’ general well-being. In 1962, at O’Neil’s instigation, the BIC extended its social control by buying up the languishing WIUA newspaper, the Barrier Daily Truth, and making it compulsory for every local unionist to subscribe. Occasionally, though, the BIC’s place consciousness ran counter to local consumer tastes. In the early 1960s, an attempt to ban Adelaide pies and bread from local shops cause an outcry from local consumers who claimed that the local product just wasn’t up to standard.68 When it came to consumer sovereignty, even the collective power of the BIC had its limits!


The era of BIC dominance was brought to a symbolic end by Shorty O’Neil’s retirement in 1969 and the closure of the town’s oldest operating mining company, Broken Hill South, in 1972. From 1970, the power built up by the BIC over the previous four decades began to unravel. Structural changes cut into its affiliate membership base; structural coupling with mine employers began to come unstuck; the state began to intrude in local affairs; and shifts in wider social morés challenged the local moral economy over which the BIC had presided. In the 1970s, two of the three operating mines introduced longhole stoping techniques.69 As a result, employment and union membership began to slide, depleting the BIC’s constituency and resources. As compulsory unionism slipped, so too did the BIC’s ability to regulate local labour markets. By the 1980s, the residential qualification could no longer be policed. Nor could the marriage bar, as more and more local women and employers openly flouted the BIC.

State intervention in local social and industrial affairs increased dramatically, undermining the BIC’s power as both agent of exchange and as social regulator. State Conciliation Commissioners became increasingly involved in mine agreement negotiations, eroding the system’s celebrated autonomy from outside interference. The most telling interventions, though, came from other elements of the state apparatus. In a protracted and at times farcical dispute which ran from 1977 until 1981, local Council employee Noel Latham mounted a successful Supreme Court challenge to a longstanding BIC rule banning a union member from informing on another. Latham was summoned before the BIC and fined for dobbing on a workmate but refused to pay. Latham eventually lost his job after unionists refused to work with him. He then sued the workers concerned and won $70,000 in damages, which the BIC decided to pay by means of a compulsory levy. The case was fuelled by both personal animus, political-motivated outside interference, and a demarcation dispute between the Municipal Employees Union and the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union, to which Latham belonged. The sheer pettiness of all involved exposed the BIC’s bureaucratic rigidity for all the world to see. The BIC’s ability to enforce the marriage bar, arguably the core of its social regulation, was dealt a fatal blow in 1981 when a local dental assistant named Jeanine Whitehair successfully challenged the bar using the Wran Government’s equal opportunity legislation.70 The social changes with which these developments were associated also signalled the collapse of the particular form of place consciousness which had underpinned the BIC’s social regulation.

The slow retreat from dominance which had begun in the 1970s was turned into a rout in 1986 when mine management effectively walked away from non-arbitral peak level bargaining. In 1986, mine management demanded an end to a number of work practices which had been in place since the Big Strike. The main demands were for the reintroduction of the night shift and a reduction in the time lapse required before re-entry to a mine after firing had taken place. In response the WIUA struck work for eight weeks—the longest strike since that of 1919-20. Management responded by doing the unthinkable. It applied to the NSW Industrial Commission for an award; and the Commission obliged. The unions then challenged the Commission’s right to issue an award and, under conciliation, the parties agreed not to give effect to the award but to accept the recommendation of the Conciliator that the management demands be met.71 Nevertheless, the outcome signalled the abandonment of the decades-old industrial relations regime from which the BIC had derived much of its power and legitimacy.


The BIC is one of Australia’s longest surviving local union federations, having operated continuously since 1923. Because it exercised such an extraordinary degree of power, the tendency has been to view it as exceptional—if not “freakish”—and therefore not comparable with other cases. We take the opposite view, suggesting that the very power of the BIC is replete with wider significance.

The BIC did not arise simply from a self-evident “will to unity”, through the actions of an inspired leadership, or from an overriding exogenous influence. Its emergence required both internal equilibrium and a clear external threat or possibility. It was not until the formation of the BIC in 1923-24 that a power balance emerged between the local unions. It was the nature of this inter-union accommodation which pre-figured the BIC’s inclusiveness, organisational structure and patterns of internal power. However, internal equilibrium alone cannot explain the emergence of the BIC. The BIC emerged in the context of several jointly perceived external threats and opportunities. These external factors were the primary determinants of the timing of the Council’s emergence and its initial strategic orientation.

From the outset, the BIC successfully pursued all three broad purposes open to a peak body: inter-union mobilisation, external exchange, and social regulation. As a mobiliser, it continued to focus on economic issues (although it was certainly not above political involvement); as an agent of external exchange, it focused on relations with industry employers rather than the state; as a social regulator it engaged in the regulation of both labour markets and commodity markets. As such, the BIC drew on three distinct power sources: that of affiliate unions; that of industry employers and that of an increasingly “place conscious” local social formation. The one power source which the BIC quite deliberately eschewed was structural coupling with the state. It was intervention by the state which contributed materially to the erosion of its organisational power in the 1970s and 1980s.

1 McEwen, E, “The Ties That Divide”, in Burgmann, V and Lee, J, (eds), Staining the Wattle, McPhee Gribble/Penguin, Melbourne, 1988, 41-4.
2 Of the BIC’s four predecessors, the first three, formed, respectively, in 1890, 1906 and 1909, were short-lived, while the fourth, formed in 1916, was, in effect, the Council’s parent body.
3 Dale, G, The Industrial History of Broken Hill, Fraser and Jenkinson, Melbourne, 1918, 185-246; Kennedy, Silver, Sin and Sixpenny Ale: A Social History of Broken Hill, 1883-1921, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1978, 128-149; Le Duff, “Factions in the Labour Movement in Broken Hill, 1914-1919”, BA (Hons) thesis, School of Social Science, Flinders University, 1969.
4 Kennedy, Silver, Sin, 120.
5 Dale, Industrial History, 233.
6 Royal Commission on the Mining Industry at Broken Hill (1914), Report and Evidence, New South Wales Parliamentary Papers, 1914-15, vol. 3, 289; Le Duff, “Factions”, 79-80, 97.
7 Le Duff, “Factions”, 98-100.
8 Le Duff, “Factions”, 97-8.
9 Kennedy, Silver, Sin, 158-64; Maughan, “Review of Industrial Negotiations 1920-1946”, Typescript, Charles Rasp Memorial Library, Broken Hill, 1947, 25-6; Robertson, G., “Industrial History”, Barrier Daily Truth, Centenary Souvenir Edition, Broken Hill, 1983.
10 Maughan, B, “Review”; 27; Le Duff, “Factions”, 98-100.
11 Robertson, “Industrial History”, 28, 30-1; Carroll, B Built on Silver: A History of Broken Hill South, Hill of Content, Melbourne, 1986, 54-8.
12 Maughan, “Review”, 34-9.
13 Ross, E, A History of the Miners’ Federation of Australia, Australasian Coal and Shale Employees’ Federation, Sydney, 1970, 306-307
14 Hammond, B, “‘The Spuds and Onions Strike’: The Origins and Course of the Broken Hill Strike 1919-20”, BA (Hons) Thesis, School of History, Melbourne University, 1970, Appendix I.
15 Registrar, Returns, 1921 and 1922; Ross, E, “Broken Hill’s Big Strike: The Personal Diary of Jack Cogan”, Hummer, no. 29, August-September,.1990, 13.
16 Maughan, “Review”, 46.
17 WIUA, Minutes, 27/9/21, 2/10/21.
18 Trades and Labour Council, Minutes, 13/10/21, 12/10/22. The FEDFA’s closer unity exponents also moved to consolidate their position in the local Labor Party. By mid-1921, Tyler had secured the presidency and Eriksen the vice-presidency of the Party’s Barrier District Assembly. In early 1922, Horsington secured endorsement as Labor candidate for Sturt.
19 Maughan, “Review”, 37; Woodward, OH, A Review of the Broken Hill Lead-Silver-Zinc Industry, Second edn., West Publishing, Sydney, 1965, 292-3; Carroll, Built on Silver, 67.
20 Maughan, “Review”, 56-59.
21 AMA/WIUA, Minutes, 11/1/21, 5/5/21.
22 AMA/WIUA, Minutes, 11/1/21, 5/5/21, 22/1/22, 23/4/22, 27/8/22, 12/12/22, 25/2/23, 6/3/23; Trades and Labour Council, Minutes, 20/7/22, 12/10/22, 1/3/23, 15/3/23.
23 As a municipal employee, O’Neill continued his active involvement with the Amalgamated Miners’. In 1921 he became a delegate to the Industrial Labor Party, was briefly Workers’ Industrial Union vice-president, and in 1922 stood unsuccessfully for the union’s presidency. Anon., “Paddy O’Neill: The Uncrowned King”, The Conveyor, May, 4-6, and June, 22-3, 1952; WIUA, Minutes, 21/6/21; Barrier Daily Truth, 6/1/22, 3/5/22, 16/5/22 (BDT hereafter).
24 Trades and Labour Council, Minutes, 15/3/23, 7/6/23, 22/6/23.
25 The 1920 award explicitly prohibited the traditional practice of regular “pence card” shows.
26 WIUA, Minutes, 26/8/23, 2/9/23, 9/9/23, 16/9/23; BDT, 17/9/23-4/10/23.
27 WIUA, Minutes, 19/8/23, 11/9/23, 21/10/23. For more detail, Ellem, B & Shields, J “Why Do Unions Form Peak Bodies? The Case of the Barrier Industrial Council”, Journal of Industrial Relations, 38(3), March, 1996, 398-404.
28 BIC, Minutes, 13/3/24, 8/5/24, 22/5/24.
29 WIUA, Minutes, 27/7/24, 3/8/24; BDT, 5/8/24, 9/8/24, 26/11/24, 5/12/24.
30 Ellem, B & Shields, J, “Why Do Unions Form Peak Bodies? The Case of the Barrier Industrial Council”, Journal of Industrial Relations, 38(3), March, 1996, 377-411.
31 BDT, 21/1/24; Trades and Labour Council, Minutes, 25/10/23, 22/11/23, 3/1/24, 28/2/24, 27/3/24.
32 Howard, WA, “The Rise and Decline of the Broken Hill Industrial Relations System”, in Tenfelde, K (ed.), Towards a Social History of Mining in the 19th and 20th Centuries, CH Beck, Munich, 1992, 720; BIC, Minutes, 31/7/24, 20/11/24.
33 Ellem & Shields, “Peak Bodies?”, 405-6
34 Ellem, B & Shields, J, “Making a ‘Union Town’: Class, Gender and Workers’ Control in Inter-war Broken Hill”, Labour History, 78, May, 2000, 116-140.
35 Anon.,”Paddy O’Neill: The Uncrowned King”, The Conveyor, May, 4-6, June, 1952, 22-23.
36 Ellem & Shields, “Union Town”.
37 Maughan “Review”, 7, 9; BIC, Minutes, 24/4/24.
38 Ellem, B & Shields, J, “HA Turner and ‘Australian Labor’s Closed Preserve’: Explaining the Rise of ‘Closed Unionism’ in the Broken Hill Mining Industry”, Labour & Industry, 11(1), August, 2000, 69-94.
39 Maughan, “Review”, 6, 133.
40 Kimber, J, “‘A Case of Mild Anarchy’? The Rise, Role and Demise of Job Committees in the Broken Hill Mining Industry, c1930 to c1954”, BA (Hons) thesis, School of Industrial Relations and Organisational Behaviour, University of New South Wales, 1998.
41 Howard, W A, Barrier Bulwark: The Life and Times of Shorty O’Neil, Willry, Kew, Victoria, 1990, 77-78; Maughan, “Review”, 65-82.
42 BIC, Minutes, 30/7/25, 10/9/25, 24/9/25, 8/10/25.
43 Maughan, “Review”, 83-128.
44 The group’s position was bolstered by a long-term supply agreement made with the British government in 1918 under which the latter guaranteed to purchase at least 25 per cent of Australian output of zinc and zinc concentrates at high war-time prices. Richardson, P,”The Origins and Development of the Collins House Group, 1915-1951”, Australian Economic History Review, 27(1), 1987, 7-8, 19-26; Cochrane, P., Industrialization and Dependence. Australia’s Road to Economic Development, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 1980, 78-87.
45 Kennedy, B Silver, Sin, 149, 161-2; Kennedy, B, A Tale of Two Cities. Johannesburg and Broken Hill, 1885-1925, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1984, 103-4; Kennett, J, “Fraser, Sir Colin”, in Nairn, B and Serle, G (eds) , Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 8, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1981, 576-77; Kennedy, B “Mussen, Sir Gerald”, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1986, vol. 10, 653-4; Robinson, WS, If I Remember Rightly, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1967, 159-62.
46 Maughan, “Review”, 115-25; Walker, K, Australian Industrial Relations Systems, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1970, 209 & 216
47 Maughan, “Review”, 152-72
48 Carroll, Built on Silver, 90; Fairweather, DF, “Fairweather, Andrew (1882-1962)”, in JD Ritchie (ed.), Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.14, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1996, 131; Maughan, “Review”, 153.
49 Kimber, “Mild Anarchy?”, 50-60
50 Kimber, “Mild Anarchy?”, 60-64, 112-114; Maughan, “Review”, 147-50; Walker, Australian Industrial Relations, 214.
51 Kimber, “Mild Anarchy?”, 72-73
52 Kimber, “Mild Anarchy?”, 71-80; Maughan, “Review”, 184-88
53 Maughan, “Review”, 188.
54 Maughan, “Review”, 189.
55 Kimber, “Mild Anarchy?”, 84 & 91-92; Maughan, “Review”, 219-20; Walker, Australian Industrial Relations, 215.
56 Howard, “Rise and Decline”, 721; Maughan, “Review”, 225-33; Walker, Australian Industrial Relations, 225.
57 Maughan, “Review”, 220.
58 Kimber, “Mild Anarchy?”, 97-104; Maughan, “Review”, 257-59
59 Ellem & Shields, “Union Town”.
60 O’Neil, WS, “How We Ran the Barrier Industrial Council at Broken Hill”, Industrial Relations Society of Victoria, Monograph Series, 2, 1969, 7.
61 Howard, Barrier Bulwark, 84; Shields, J, “‘Lead Bonus Happy’: Profit-sharing, Productivity and Industrial Relations in the Broken Hill Mining Industry, 1925-83”, Australian Economic History Review, 37(3), 1997, 230.
62 Ellem & Shields, “Union Town”.
63 Ellem, B & Shields, J, “HA Turner and ‘Australian Labor’s Closed Preserve’: Explaining the Rise of ‘Closed Unionism’ in the Broken Hill Mining Industry”, Labour & Industry, 11(1), August,2000, 69-94; Howard, Barrier Bulwark, 87-89.
64 Peck, J, Work-Place: The Social Regulation of Labor Markets, The Guilford Press, London, 1996, 108
65 Howard, Barrier Bulwark 1990, 41-76, 86; Tsokhas, K, Beyond Dependence: Companies, Labour Processes and Australian Mining, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 179-182.
66 Vyver, FT de, “Australian Labor’s Closed Preserve: The Mining Town of Broken Hill”, South Atlantic Quarterly, 59, 1960, 409-424; Howard, “Rise and Decline”, 724-25; O’Neil, “How We Ran”, 10
67 Howard, Barrier Bulwark 1990, 73
68 Howard, Barrier Bulwark 1990, 71-74, 105-107, 112-113; O’Neil, “How We Ran”, 10-11.
 69 Howard, “Rise and Decline”, 727
70 Howard, Barrier Bulwark 1990, 91-92, 101-103,130-43; Howard, “Rise and Decline”, 725-6.
71 Flynn, B (1988), “Trade Unions and the Law: The Broken Hill Dispute”, Journal of Industrial Relations, 30(1), March, 1988, 32-53; Howard, “Rise and Decline”, 728-33.