Charles Hoskins brought an entirely new mentality to Lithgow when he took over the Blast Furnace from the financially beleaguered William Sandford in 1908. As his son Cecil put it, his approach was blunt. The works had:
As Hoskins was used to dealing with workers on fixed wages, Cecil Hoskins said ‘industrial misunderstandings between management and men’ were inevitable. However the Hoskins also felt that part of the problem was the Labor movement’s ambitions to become a major political party, ‘in effect looking for a position as a master’, and threatening nationalisation of manufacturing industries. Still, even Cecil Hoskins had to acknowledge that standards at the Blast Furnace were low:
From the men’s point of view, their work was hot, heavy and dangerous, with flying sparks, molten metal and noxious fumes and they deserved fair compensation and the right to have a smoke at work. The smoking dispute was fixed when Hoskins agreed men could bring cigarettes to work, as long as they rolled them in their own time. However, other issues were harder for the men and unions to live with. The Eskbank Iron and Steelworkers’ Association had always gotten on well with Sandford, and its members were now outraged with Hoskins’ belligerence. Tensions never settled. Wages were not rising and the cost of living was high. As well as that, workers’ expectations had been raised locally by the election of a Labor state government and an overwhelmingly Labor council, headed by union leader and former ironworker Robert Pillans. Workers struck for better pay at Hoskins’ Carcoar operations, and in February Lithgow workers went out. Not even the Labor MP, James Dooley, another future premier, could negotiate a settlement. The strike dragged on, despite interventions from NSW Ministers G.S. Beeby and King O’Malley.
Boilover was inevitable, especially as the company moved to bring in non-union labour. On 29 August 1911 a crowd of up to 2500 people gathered outside the works. The crowd rushed the fence and the strikebreakers and Hoskins three sons barricaded themselves in the engine room. Charles Hoskins arrived through a back door, and the police guarded the front. Hoskins refused to confer with the demonstrators and the rioters sacked the plant. They knew how to hit Hoskins, who was obsessed by cars, where it hurt, burning his brand new 16/20 Renault.
The strike was not settled until 17 April 1912, but Hoskins prosecuted Pillans and Dixon. Dixon and two others were jailed. The union’s right of access to the site was guaranteed, but it was a pyrrhic victory as wages were cut. Still, Hoskins and the unions were beginning to realise they were inter-dependent. In 1913, as Broken Hill Proprietary Ltd loomed as a dangerous competitor, Hoskins reinstated Sandford’s Ironworkers’ Picnic.
Bob McKillop, Furnace, Fire and Forge: Lithgow’s Iron and Steel Industry 1874-1932, 2006
Greg Patmore, Robert Pillans: The first Labor Mayor of Lithgow, The Hummer, 2009
Donald Geoffrey Hoskins, The Ironmaster; The Life of Charles Hoskins 1851-1926, 1995
Sir Cecil Hoskins, The Hoskins Saga, 1968
Tony Griffiths, The Small Arms Factory and Its People, Vol. 1, 2006