Tom McMillan and the Wobblies – by David McMill...

Tom McMillan and the Wobblies – by David McMillan

September 5, 2020 By  

As we commemorate the ANZAC battles of a century ago, it is not generally appreciated today that Australia was bitterly divided over its commitment to the war effort.  The Labor Prime Minister, Hughes, had promised Britain another 80,000 men but was unable to get the necessary legislation through the Labor-controlled senate; two thirds of the party opposed the plan.  Hughes split from the ALP, reasoning that the senate would be morally obliged to pass the legislation if the public supported a referendum on the issue.

After a public debate marked by its bitterness, division and violence, Hughes lost two referendums.  In a letter to journalist Keith Murdoch, Hughes blamed the defeat of the first referendum on Sinn Fein, the IWW, and the sentimental vote of women.  There was little that he could do about the Irish Catholics and Australian women, but he could, as we shall see, certainly move against the Industrial Workers of the World.

In 1878, my great-grandfather Tom McMillan arrived at Moreton Bay as a ten-year old, the son of a Scottish coal miner.  He worked in the mines of New England, Kiama and Tasmania, before the Federation Drought and 1890s depression forced him to join his parents and sisters in Southern Cross.  Various family members worked at Day Dawn, Frasers, Mt Jackson, Never Never, Corinthian and Marvel Loch.

By 1909 Tom was president of the local Western Federated Gold Miners Union. It was a year of industrial unrest partly caused by the pay differentials between skilled machine operators and labourers as machines were introduced.  The strike failed.  General disillusionment with the industrial system may have been the catalyst for Tom becoming radicalised and joining the IWW, or “Wobblies”.

Founded in Chicago, the IWW was a revolutionary industrial organisation not averse to using violence to achieve its aims, which included that ultimately all workers should come together in One Big Union which would take over control of production, distribution and exchange from the employers.  They cut across traditional union and craft lines to organise workers.


Don't let COVID divide us this ANZAC weekend. Life is good in Kalgoorlie! Happy long weekend.

Share this article:


« Return to Recent Articles