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O'Neill, Eugene Patrick (Paddy) (1874–1953)

by Bradon Ellem and John Shields

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Eugene Patrick (Paddy) O'Neill (1874-1953), sanitary-carter and trade unionist, was born on 19 June 1874 at Wentworth, New South Wales, seventh of nine children of Irish-born parents James Francis O'Neill, brickmaker and rural contractor, and his wife Catherine, née Reilly, who was illiterate. Following Catholic schooling at Wentworth, Paddy went dam sinking and bullock driving with his father, who died a year after the family moved to Broken Hill in 1894. Paddy worked in shearing sheds, then joined his brothers as a mineworker on the Broken Hill line of lode. On 28 September 1899 at All Saints' Catholic Church, South Broken Hill, he married Mary Anne Gearon, from South Australia. They had six children.

Joining the Amalgamated Miners' Association, O'Neill represented the union on the local section of the Australian Labor Federation and on the Barrier Labor Federation. In 1908 he became secretary of the South Broken Hill branch of the A.M.A. His outlook was informed by Catholic social conservatism and an aversion to the militancy that characterized the 1909 Broken Hill lockout, while his experience gave him a lifelong preference for direct bargaining over arbitration and transformed him into an astute union leader and formidable negotiator.

In April 1913 O'Neill became a sanitary-cart driver with the Broken Hill Municipal Council. In 1922 he helped to form a local branch of the Municipal Employees' Union and was its president, then secretary from 1924. He also represented the M.E.U. on both the craft-union-dominated Broken Hill Trades and Labor Council and the Barrier District Assembly of the Australian Labor Party.

O'Neill's most decisive contribution to Broken Hill unionism, however, was his involvement in the formation of a new, all-inclusive and powerful local peak union body. Within weeks of his election as president of the local trades and labour council in January 1923, that body was transformed into the Barrier Industrial and Political Council, with O'Neill as its leader. In October, after years of sectional tension between the A.M.A. and the local craft unions, the miners, who in 1921 had restyled their union as the Workers' Industrial Union of Australia, voted to affiliate with the new body, which in November 1924, at O'Neill's urging, assumed its enduring title, the Barrier Industrial Council.

Under O'Neill's leadership, the B.I.C. oversaw the town's near-complete withdrawal from the State and Federal arbitration systems and the signing in 1925 of the first of what would become a stable regime of triennial collective agreements for local mine workers. Between 1925 and 1931 O'Neill also oversaw a successful drive to unionize local town employees, but the campaign was informed by a patriarchal moral economy that systematically excluded married women from paid employment in the town sector. O'Neill was also a staunch localist and when the W.I.U.A. closed its books to outsiders in the early 1930s, he lent the initiative the B.I.C.'s full support. The 1935 mines agreement, which O'Neill finalized jointly with the new Mining Managers' Association president Andrew Fairweather, provided the foundations of long-term material prosperity for Broken Hill mine workers. O'Neill continued to work as a sanitary-cart driver. His style as union leader was blunt but effective, with impromptu negotiations frequently conducted from the seat of his dunny cart.

O'Neill survived a series of internal challenges, most notably from communist-inspired job committees. While illness caused his occasional absence from the industrial scene from 1943, it was not until 1949, two years after his wife's death, that he relinquished the B.I.C. presidency. Next year he retired from paid employment with the Broken Hill Municipal Council.

Throughout his working life, O'Neill was active in local Catholic, Labor Party and sporting circles. Big and powerful, he had been in demand as an 'anchor man' for tug-of-war teams in his youth. He later helped to introduce greyhound racing to the area. Lauded in his retirement as the 'uncrowned king of Broken Hill', O'Neill died on 24 May 1953 in hospital at Broken Hill, and was buried in the local cemetery following a requiem Mass in Sacred Heart Cathedral. Four daughters and one son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Conveyor, May 1952, p 4, June 1952, p 22
  • Journal of Industrial Relations, 38, no 3, Sept 1996, p 377
  • Labour History, no 78, May 2000, p 116, no 80, 2001, p 41
  • Labour & Industry, 11, no 1, Aug 2000, p 69
  • Economic and Labour Relations Review, 12, no 1, June 2001, p 61
  • Barrier Daily Truth, 17 Dec 1926, p 5, 7 Sept 1933, p 5
  • 25 May 1953, p 1
  • B. Maughan, Review of Industrial Negotiations, 1920-1946 (typescript, 1947, Charles Rasp Memorial Library, Broken Hill, New South Wales)
  • Broken Hill Trades and Labour Council, minutes, 1922-23, and Barrier Industrial and Political Council, minutes 1923-24, and Barrier Industrial Council, minutes, 1924-49 (all held at the Trades Hall, Broken Hill).

Citation details

Bradon Ellem and John Shields, 'O'Neill, Eugene Patrick (Paddy) (1874–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/oneill-eugene-patrick-paddy-13140/text23783, accessed 23 September 2017.

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