William Sydney (‘Shorty’) O’Neil (1903-2000): Leader of Broken Hill Unionism

John Shields

Although standing just a tad over five feet tall, at the zenith of his power, in the mid 1960s, he was the unchallenged voice of by far the most powerful of Australia’s local union movements. He was also the undisputed ruler of Australia’s most remarkable local peak trade union bodies, the famed Barrier Industrial Council. Under his stewardship, the BIC ruled Broken Hill like a state within a state, regulating almost every conceivable aspect of daily life and work in the ‘Silver City’. To his admirers he was a resolute, wily, irreproachable and indomitable champion of the workers’ cause; to detractors, he was truculent and heavy-handed, chauvinistic and autocratic. To be sure, his industrial ethic was remarkable for its simplicity: ‘If you don’t kick, you get kicked’; but then the industrial stakes for which he played were amongst the most valuable imaginable, and his corporate opponents amongst the most powerful and best resourced in the world. A militant who despised radicalism; a labourist with a deep distrust of lawyers and arbitration; a democratically elected and unpaid official who saw no inconsistency in wielding the institutional power of unionism ‘over’ as well as ‘for’ working people – in many ways he personified the complexities and contradictions of the local union movement to which he gave his all and upon which he left an indelible stamp. He was William Sydney (‘Shorty’) O’Neil – the ‘king of Broken Hill’. But the king is no more. He passed away on 24 March last year, in the city of his birth, aged 96. With his passing Broken Hill has lost its last direct link the glory days of Barrier unionism and the last of those larger-than-life characters who were responsible for shaping the legend of Broken Hill as Australia’s one true ‘union town’.

O’Neil’s life as a union activist was practically predestined. His father Mick, a western plains shearer, participated in the shearers’ strikes of the early 1890s and, with brother Andy, was evidently involved in the torching of the scab-laden paddle steamer Rodney on the Darling River during the pastoral strike of 1894. While Mick escaped the arm of the law, brother Andy was not so lucky, serving seven years jail for his trouble. Thereafter, Mick took up work as an underground miner in the dust-laden and deadly stopes of the Broken Hill ‘line of lode’ and began a life-long involvement with the Barrier Branch of the Amalgamated Miners Association. It was here that son William was born in 1903.

In 1917, aged 14, Shorty followed his father onto the line of lode. Working initially as a surface worker at the BHP’s ‘Big Mine’, Shorty carried kerosene tins full of coal to fire a ‘steam navy’ and joined the syndicalist-led miners union. Progressing to engine cleaning, he joined the second largest of the Barrier unions, the moderate-led Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen’s Association. Barely two years later, the O’Neils and their fellow mine workers were plunged into the longest and most bitter dispute in the town’s history, the 18 month long ‘Big Strike’ of 1919-20. As Shorty’s biographer, Bill Howard, has observed, it was an experience which seared itself into the young O’Neil’s consciousness; the long months of deprivation convincing him that neither arbitration nor the strike weapon marked the way forward for ordinary working people. To aid the cause, father Mick, a one-time bootmaker, dusted off his cobblers kit and set to work repairing boots and shoes at the town’s Trades Hall building, with Shorty as his ‘shoeshine boy’. Shorty supplemented the family’s supply of strike rations with vegetables from the garden of the local jail by forging a friendship with the local prison warder.

The radicals in the Amalgamated Miners won the war with the mining companies but they lost the ensuing peace and over the course of the next five years the local union movement underwent an almost unimaginable transformation. As a result of the strike, underground miners won an unprecedented 35 hour week, an end to night shift work, a cessation of the deadly practice of firing explosives on shift, and the introduction of a company-funded scheme of medical inspection and workers’ compensation. In the afterglow of the strike victory, the syndicalists even restyled the union as the Barrier Branch of the Workers’ Industrial Union of Australia (WIUA). However, the world metal price slump and recession of 1921 saw the O’Neils thrown back once again on union sustenance payments. The recession marked the beginning of a retreat from radicalism in the WIUA and the forging of new institutional presence and purpose for Barrier unionism. In 1923-24 the unions on the mines and in the town sector formed a new and instantly powerful peak body, the Barrier Industrial Council (BIC), charged with enforcing closed shop unionism and with overseeing the creation of a system of local peak level collective bargaining and triennial agreement-making. In the space of a few short years, the BIC oversaw the locality’s near complete removal from centralised arbitration and for the next 60 years peak union centralism and local collective bargaining would remain the defining features of formal industrial relations in Broken Hill.

This was the institutional stage on which Shorty O’Neil would establish his leadership credentials in the years after World War II. O’Neil’s role model in this process was the BIC’s second and most long-serving president, E.P. ‘Paddy’, O’Neill. O’Neill, who presided over the BIC from 1924 until 1949, was a council employee (night soil carter, in fact), a Municipal Employees Union official, devout Catholic, social conservative and wily tactician. Under Paddy O’Neill’s presidency, the BIC not only consolidated its influence over local industrial relations but also emerged as a social regulator par excellence. It banned paid employment by married women, enforced a rule of ‘one man-one job’, banned ‘outsiders’ from local jobs and union membership, and controlled the price of virtually every basic commodity, from bread and milk to beer and theatre tickets. Paddy O’Neill was not only the founding father of the system which Shorty came to inherit but also a significant role model in the art of union leadership. If Paddy O’Neill was the first uncrowned king of Broken Hill, then it must be said that Shorty was a worthy successor.

But the young Shorty also had other less likely but perhaps equally important mentors. By far the most significant of these were WIUA and Communist Party activists Frank Kelly and A.R. (‘Floss’) Campbell. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, O’Neil worked underground at the Collins-House-run North Mine and it was here that he served his apprenticeship in rank-and-file activism. Ironically, it was here too that O’Neil became closely involved with a movement which undoubtedly posed the greatest single internal challenge ever to the BIC and the system over which it presided. Between 1931 and 1935, communist miners associated with the Militant Minority Movement established job committees on each of the mines, ostensibly to bargain with management over issues specific to particular mine sites. By 1935, the job committees had become so influential that neither the BIC nor mine management could afford ignore their presence and for the next ten years the committees were major players on the line of lode, particularly in relation to conditions, allowance and contract rates for underground miners. Committee activists also captured a number of key union positions, with Campbell, for example, being elected to the influential post of WIUA Check Inspector. Under Frank Kelly’s tutelage, O’Neil emerged as a key figure in the North Mine committee, eventually becoming committee president. In the closing months of World War II he and Kelly led a walk-out at the North Mine over the transfer of a miner on disciplinary grounds; a strike which attracted national attention. By this time, however, the communist star was on the wane and the BIC leadership acted in concert with mine management to shut the committees down.

For O’Neil, the job committee movement provided not only invaluable political experience but also a solid basis of rank-and-file support within the WIUA for a tilt at high union office. After serving several years on the WIUA Committee of Management, in 1952 O’Neil was elevated to the post of WIUA Check Inspector, a position occupied until just a few years earlier by his old mentor, Floss Campbell. Like Campbell before him, Shorty carried out the duties of this onerous but unpaid job by night while working on the mines by day. In 1953, he became a WIUA delegate to the BIC.

By this time, wider changes were afoot in the local union movement. In 1948 Norm Dunleavy, a supporter of the right-wing Industrial Groups, had won the WIUA presidency. To Dunleavy, O’Neil loomed large as both a dangerous militant and a threat to his own aspirations to leadership of the BIC. By the mid-1950s the two men were locked in an acrimonious struggle for ascendancy. In the process, O’Neil aligned himself increasingly with Paddy O’Neill’s successor as BIC president, Federated Engine Drivers leader and left-winger, Bert Kersten. Under Kersten, O’Neil served as a BIC trustee, then, successively, as junior vice-president and senior vice-president. Then, on Kersten’s retirement in 1957, fellow delegates elected O’Neil to the BIC presidency.

O’Neil’s elevation set the stage for what must surely rank as one of the most brazen, if not bizarre, political manoeuvres in Australian union history. In 1958, in an effort to unseat his rival, Dunleavy engineered O’Neil’s defeat as WIUA Check Inspector and then conspired to rule O’Neil out of contention for the annual BIC presidential election by overturning his status as a WIUA delegate. Sensing this possibility (or perhaps tipped off about it), O’Neil secretly joined the local branch of the Theatrical Employees Union, and submitted himself for presidential reelection as this union’s delegate. The ploy worked. Shorty retained the presidency with the support of the dozen or so town-based unions whose combined delegate strength significantly outweighed that of the numerically far larger WIUA. In this respect, O’Neil owed his survival to the gerrymandered delegate structure which Paddy O’Neill had pioneered over thirty years before as a means of keeping the then left-dominated WIUA in check. While relations between Dunleavy and O’Neil remained nothing short of poisonous, O’Neil encountered no further serious challenge to his authority during his dozen years at the apex of Barrier unionism. Dunleavy died suddenly in 1959 and O’Neil’s relationship with Dunleavy’s successor as WIUA president, Arthur Treglown, was little better but Treglown had no designs on the top BIC post.

It was under O’Neil’s unchallenged stewardship that the BIC attained the height of its power and prestige. By the late 1950s outside observers were referring to the BIC as the defacto local government, regulating everything from labour supply, job access and shopping hours to leisure activities and the local press. In 1962, at O’Neil’s instigation, the BIC extended its social control by buying up the languishing WIUA paper, the Barrier Daily Truth, and making it compulsory for every local unionist to subscribe. Its concern to preserve local jobs for locals even led it to place a ban on door-to-door canvassing by travelling salesmen. Its forays into commodity consumption and family life extended to the maintenance of a prohibition on sales of bottled beer on Sundays, evidently with the object of persuading working men to share the Sunday roast with their families in a state of sobriety. Under O’Neil, the BIC was also reputed to be the last avenue of protection for mistreated wives. At the same time, the Council turned a blind eye to illegal gambling and after hours bar trading, evidently in recognition of the working miner’s right to post-toil leisure. To many observers, the BIC loomed large as the sovereign power in the Silver City. In retirement, O’Neil recalled a meeting with a newly installed State Premier, presumably Liberal Robert Askin, who allegedly suggested: “You leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone.”

While his Catholicism was largely nominal, O’Neil asserted a place consciousness, social conservatism and regulatory intent every bit as intense as that of his illustrious predecessor, Paddy O’Neill. As he saw it, the BIC’s ban on married women’s paid employment was a matter of social justice and employment opportunity – for single women. It was also, of course, a means to upholding the male breadwinner ideal and retaining young ‘eligible’ women in the town.

O’Neil’s interventions in matters industrial, social and moral didn’t always go according to plan. On one occasion his efforts ran counter to local consumer tastes – quite literally! In the early 1960s, an attempt to ban Adelaide pies and bread from local shops caused an outcry from local consumers who claimed that the local product just wasn’t up to standard. When it came to consumer sovereignty, even the collective power of the BIC had its limits! O’Neil’s efforts to spread the benefits of a 35 hour week to town employees also met with limited success. In 1966, Council workers secured a 35 hour week with help from the BIC, but other town employees remained on longer hours. It was during this campaign that O’Neil locked horns with journalist, Bob Bottom, then a locally-based ABC reporter. Summoned to appear before the BIC after alleging that printers at the BIC-owned Barrier Daily Truth had themselves been denied shorter hours, Bottom refused to oblige. He was fined and appealed to his own union, the Australian Journalists’ Association, which paid the fine but agreed to Bottom being gagged. None of the parties emerged from this taudry episode with reputation enhanced. In Shorty’s last year in office, a ham-fisted attempt to drive out a group of women imported to sell the salacious publication
The Kings Cross Whisper landed the BIC and the Truth in court on a charge of defamation.

For all of this, though, we would do well to remember that O’Neil was no union despot. The BIC presidency was a purely honorary post. For most of his presidency, Shorty remained a working miner and on retirement from the North mine in 1965 he took up work in a local concrete batching plant. Equally, his was a union movement that remained true to the traditions of direct participatory democracy and the mass meeting. In a very real sense, he remained answerable to his (male) working class constituency and, by and large, and notwithstanding the creeping apathy spawned by post-war affluence, that constituency continued to invest its trust in him.

In retirement, O’Neil continued to figure prominently in local union affairs. He helped to manage the Broken Hill Base Hospital Contribution Fund, another of the town’s celebrated union achievements. But retirement was also a bitter-sweet experience. Under his successor, Joe Keenan – incidentally the first WIUA leader to be elected BIC president – the power built up by the BIC over the previous four decades began to unravel and its ability to shield its domain from the outside world began to crumble. Certainly, Shorty was of the view that Keenan was simply not up to the task. Mine closures and mechanisation cut deeply into union membership, depleting the Council’s constituency and resources. State intervention in local social and industrial affairs increased dramatically, undermining the BIC’s power as both a bargaining agent and social regulator. As compulsory unionism came under challenge from within and without, so too did the BIC’s ability to regulate local labour markets.

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 Paddy O’Neill’s old union, 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. O’Neil spoke out in support of the Council but he must have been privately horrified at the ineptitude of those around him.

By the 1980s, the residential qualification for union membership and jobs could no longer be policed. Nor could the marriage bar, as more and more local women and employers openly flouted the BIC. The BIC’s ability to enforce the marriage bar was dealt a fatal blow in 1981 when a local dental assistant named Jeanine Whitehair successfully challenged the bar using the Wran Government’s anti-discrimination and equal opportunity legislation.

In his eighties, O’Neil had the satisfaction of seeing his son, Bill, occupy the post which he himself had so treasured. However, Bill’s tenure of office was marked by a concerted and largely successful management assault on the very things that Shorty had spent most of his working life defending – the hard-won gains of 1919-20 and the decades-old system of 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. Despite the non-activation of the award, the outcome signalled the abandonment of the 61 year old industrial relations regime from which the BIC had derived much of its power and legitimacy.

Shorty O’Neil’s tragedy, then, was to have lived long enough to witness the undoing of those ideals and institutions that he had worked so assiduously to uphold. In 1985 he even consented to his daughter leaving the Silver City for work further afield. Yet the institutions and practices which he guarded so jealously were indeed long-lived – more enduring, in fact, than the mining companies against which they were directed. And in their longevity lies the personal triumph of Shorty O’Neil – and that of the miners and town workers for whom he spoke.

Much of the detail in this piece derives from W.A. Howard’s illuminating 1990 biographical study Barrier Bulwark: The Life and Times of Shorty O’Neil, Willry, Kew, Victoria, and I am indebted to Bill for making the task of researching this piece far less exacting than would otherwise have been the case.