Marin (‘Mick’) Alagich 1919-2008

John Shields

Marin (‘Mick’) Alagich, who passed away last November aged 89, was a longstanding member of the Sydney Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History and an active participant in its activities, as well as a valued member of the branch committee. Marin brought to the branch a lifetime’s involvement in left-wing, Labor and anti-racist politics, an involvement played out equally on the sporting field, in the meeting room, in the class room and – later in life – over the telephone. In an age when the politics of the personal appears to be in the ascendant, Marin’s indomitable enthusiasm for progressive social causes was simply infectious. In a very real sense, he both personified and enacted the ideal of social democratic citizenship – and this is undoubtedly his greatest public legacy.

Marin was born in Kotor, Croatia, in May 1919, the oldest of the three sons of Josip Alagich and his wife, Trifona Smodlaka, from the town of Makarska on the Adriatic coast. Josip Alagich was an ardent socialist and republican, having joined the Croatian Social Democratic Party whilst serving in the Austro-Hungarian navy prior to World War I.  Alagich Senior participated in the naval uprising of 1918, and joined the soon-to-be-banned Croatian Communist Party in 1920. After separating from his wife, Josip emmigrated to Australia in 1924 in search of work. He secured employment as a miner in Broken Hill where there was already a Croatian émigré community which had supported the ‘Big Strike’ of 1919-20 – an epic conflict that lasted 18 months and ultimately delivered the miners unprecedented gains, including a 35-hour week and greatly improved workers’ compensation. Throughout the troubled 1920s, Josip was active on the militant side of local mine workers unionism, playing a significant role in repelling a take-over attempt by right-wing racial exclusionists in 1925-27.

Marin and his brothers joined their father in Australia in 1932 – the depths of the Great Depression. Attending school in Broken Hill, Marin acquired the name ‘Mick’ and quickly gained a reputation as a boxer and footballer of note, and this had the effect of countering lingering racial prejudice in the town. In 1936 he formed a local Yugoslav Youth Club. Two years later he helped form the Broken Hill Soccer Association. Encouraging immigrant boys to play sport, particularly soccer, remained a life-long passion. Indeed, his son Joe played soccer for Ryde and NSW and was in the Australian team for the 1970 World Cup.

After taking his Intermediate Certificate, in 1938 Marin followed his father into the South Broken Hill Mine, for long a hotbed of rank-and-file militancy on the ‘line of lode’. Here, his father’s example, and his own tribulations as a rank-and-file miner, cemented his attachment to the Labor cause. In 1939 he began an enduring involvement with the ALP, joining the party’s Broken Hill Branch. Avowedly left-wing, the Alagich family published a radical news-sheet, Napredak (‘Struggle’), which was suppressed between 1940 and 1942 during the anti-communist crackdown preceding the Nazi invasion of the USSR. In 1941, police raided the family home searching for subversive literature.

In 1940, following a very close call in an underground explosion, Marin enlisted in the army and was sent to Adelaide for training. After an accident there he was discharged and returned to Broken Hill to do a short course in fitting and turning. Directed to Sydney by the Manpower Authority, he worked in defence factories (at Westinghouse Brakes, Concord West and at Kingsford Smith Civil Aviation Workshop, Ultimo) for the rest of the war.

In 1941 he married Rina Rigoni and they lived for a short time in Paddington, where he attended meetings of the Paddington ALP and met left-wing Labor firebrand, Eddie Ward. Marin and Rina subsequently bought land at Brookvale, on Sydney’s northern beaches, where they developed a market garden and became actively engaged in the sporting and political life of the local community. From 1944 he was a member of, variously, the ALP’s Dee Why, Brookvale and Manly branches. In 1947 he organised the Brookvale Progress Association, was secretary-treasurer of Brookvale Branch of the ALP for four years following its formation in 1954, and on several occasions stood as an ALP local government candidate.

In the immediate post-war years, Alagich worked as a self-employed truck owner-driver and market gardener, although he also worked briefly as a metal-turner and joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union. In 1950, he became foreman of the Brookvale Brewery which produced ‘Union Beer’ in a bid to break the hold of the large commercial breweries. The largest shareholders were the Sydney, Illawarra and Newcastle trade union clubs, and the Brewery’s biggest local customer was Harbord Diggers. Alagich was chief engineer, but because pubs were tied to the big breweries, Brookvale Brewery could sell only to trade union clubs and eventually closed.

Whilst working at the brewery Alagich met teachers who encouraged him to complete high school and he took his Leaving Certificate at Sydney Technical College. He attended Sydney Teachers College from 1956 to 1958, training to teach manual arts, and in 1959 commenced a 21-year teaching career at Manly Boys High, becoming a Teachers’ Federation representative.

As always, there was soccer. For Alagich sport possessed an avowedly social purpose. Determined to demonstrate the value of sport as a means of combating ethnic prejudice, in 1945 he formed the Yugoslav Youth Club, becoming founding secretary. Next year, he formed the Sydney Yugoslav Soccer Club, also serving as secretary. In 1949 he organised a pioneering and highly successful tour of Australian cities – including Broken Hill – by top Yugoslav team, Hajduk-Split. In the early 1950s, he was player and coach of Brookvale Soccer Club. In 1952, he founded the Oryin Soccer Club, Warriewood, bringing together local players from many different ethnic backgrounds. Later, at Manly Boys High, he was school coach and in 1959 he became area coach and manager of Combined High Schools Soccer. That year too he was founding secretary of Yugal – the Yugoslav Australian League – one of the top NSW soccer clubs of the 1960s and 1970s. In his capacity as Yugal secretary, Alagich organised a welcoming committee for Yugoslav migrants and made frequent visits to migrant camps in his capacity as a field officer with the Good Neighbour Council.

Without doubt, Marin Alagich was one of the chief architects of Australian multiculturalism. In 1972 he joined the Education Task Force established by Labor Immigration Minister, Al Grassby, to foster multiculturalism. Two years later he assisted in the creation of the Ethnic Communities Council, worked part-time for SBS television from 1975 to 1978, and between 1974 and 1978 was involved in Ethnic Radio 2EA (Ethnic Australia).

His commitment to youth welfare, racial harmony and the advancement of soccer as a socially-inclusive sport also extended well beyond people of his own ethnic background. In 1965 he became a member of the Co-operative for Aborigines (Glebe) – subsequently Tranby College – and in 1968 he became a member of the Aboriginal Children’s Advancement Society. He also encouraged Aboriginal children from Tranby to play soccer.

Following his retirement from teaching in 1979, Marin was appointed to the NSW Ethnic Affairs Commission by NSW Labor premier, Neville Wran. The Commission had been established in 1976 to promote ethnic integration and Alagich served on it from 1981 to 1984, visiting Yugoslavia in the latter year.

While never seeking or attaining high political office, Marin’s tireless efforts in pursuit of social justice did not go unrecognised. He was awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) in 1979 for outstanding service to both ethnic integration and soccer administration and in 1986 he was received an OAM. He was a Life Member of the ALP and in 2002 he was presented with the ALP’s McKell Award for services to the party over 50 years.

A passionate opponent of racial hatred and tribalism, Marin was deeply distressed by the appalling violence that followed the disintegration of the Yugoslavian state in the early-mid 1990s. But this descent into darkness also proved the point of his life-long struggle for tolerance and equality. His support for social justice, tolerance and harmony stands a beacon to those who hold these values dear.

Marin Alagich is survived by his wife, Rina, their sons Joseph and Michael and five grandchildren. He will be remembered with great affection by the multitude of people whose lives have been enriched by his friendship, courage and tenacity.

John Shields is an Associate Professor in the Discipline of Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney.