Interview with Neil O'Toole
Originally recorded by 3YYR, Geelong Community Radio, in 1989.
10,000th Tractor manufactured at the International Harvester
September 1952. Geelong Heritage Centre Collection (GRS 253/229/3).
Neil O’Toole, former employee of the International Harvester, is interviewed by Gwlad McLachlan.
Neil discusses his time working at the company, , in particular his role as the ‘plant poet’, reciting a poem he wrote about his experience of the Harvester’s closure in 1982. This is an edited version of an interview that was originally aired 3YYR, Geelong Community Radio, in September 1989 as part of the Keeping in Touch program.
INTERVIEWER: Neil, how long were you at the International Harvester?
NEIL O'TOOLE: I started there in 1960, when the company was really booming. I think they had an excess of 2,000 employees at the time, and it was sort of all go. A very far cry from when we ended up with around about 630. And there were a lot of changes happening at that time, and in that time, I think that I was-- I don't know whether I'd be classed as the office clown, but I certainly wrote poems to keep the morale up, and at times, cut the boredom, which it would be quite boring at times. Some of the poems got me into trouble. But mostly, all in all, we got through it pretty good with all the poems.
But I write poems on any topic or subject that was at the heart or scathing, or even the time when I wrote about the chef's cooking, and then he threatened to cut me throat, and I wouldn't. I never, ever went back, ever. Have a meal there after, for the last 10 years, because he threatened to cut my throat. The poem was so bad, he thought, but we all got quite a good laugh out of it. It was quite hilarious, actually.
And I can remember one time in particular, talking about pounds. We had to troubleshooter come from Ford to pick things up in the latter days by the name of Bill Burdett. Oh, a huge buddy, 6'4", and built like a mountain.
And he was there two days, and I wrote a poem about him called Barbed Wire Bill Burdett. And he was one of those chappies. He terrified the people as he walked down the hallway. And I had no fear of any of that sort of thing.
I wrote this poem, and we had 20 or 30 copies. And one of the troops took it up and put it on his desk. And then they looked up the drive, and they saw him coming down the drive. And he used to walk like a great marathon man.
And he'd come down with his eyes flashing. I sat right on the aisle. And everybody else put their head down. They're all terrified. I had my head down right, and I could see him coming.
He walked straight down the aisle. And he came up to me desk, and he went, bang! He slammed it on my desk, and I just looked up.
I said, well, you better have a sense of humor, mate. And he just walked away. And that was the end of it, as simple as that.
Another time, I wrote one about the manager of the-- manager in the receiving. He reported it to Melbourne. And we've got a memo back from Melbourne to Graham Reed, who was then our manager.
And he sent a reply back to Melbourne to say, well, I'm sorry. They said, Neil O'Toole's got the sanction to do this sort of thing. You've just got to put up with it.
So we thought ahead that that might have-- if anybody did anything terrible, or one of the bosses did anything terrible, I'd write a scathing poem about him, send 40 or 50 copies around the factory, and everybody'd just laugh at him anyway.
INTERVIEWER: And were any of these that are published now?
NEIL O'TOOLE: No, no. I think I'd be pretty safe to say what I would've wrote in excess of 400. That's only an estimate. No one ever kept a copy of them.
But chappies who left, or got sacked, or whatever, they used to take half a drawer full away. But I never bothered. I hardly ever read them. But I had one thing in me favor, and I think that any Harvester man will bear out, and I've got witnesses to this that I could write a 20 verse poem in a 10 minute smoko.
So they had no drop on me at all. And at Christmas time, I wrote one at Christmas time, and then I had special time to do that. I had an extra bit of time, and I can write a poem, and everybody else had to work, and they had to put up with it. It was just a known thing.
So we'd write a Christmas one every year from 1960 until 1982, till we left. And that'd give everybody a bit of a break, and in the later times, when things were very tough-- I really think, and they told me this, that it lifted their morale, to be able to laugh at their troubles, or use my poems as a way of getting a message across to the company, which we did. I did quite often.
That was hence, thinking back about the chef's cooking, it had improved after I'd put the poem on the wall. But then again, he was going cut my throat, so I wasn't going to go back. So I never had a meal there since.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah. We were talking before all about the really bad times, when the Harvester closed down. You wrote a poem about that time?
NEIL O'TOOLE: Yes.
INTERVIEWER: Would you like to read it to us?
NEIL O'TOOLE: Yes. Well, I'm not a great orator, but I'll do my best.
NEIL O'TOOLE: Now, this poem was written when morale was particularly low. If you can understand, the company, at no stage, said they were going to close up. I think they all knew, and they kept throwing up smokies to put us off the wrong track.
And nobody knew what was going on. Everybody was in doubt, and people had mortgages to pay, and bills to pay, and nobody knew exactly how long we were going to be there. They kept saying that things were going to be good.
But in reality, they knew all the time, because some of the higher up people must've known, because they left the firm before the crash. So I wrote this poem to sort of express the feelings of the workers who were there at the time. And I called it Go all way, with IHA. And it begins as--
Morale is low at IHA, since the word has passed around. Our company's in receiver's hands, and we're in the final round. The past two years, we've seen it fade, as the workforce slowly dwindled. All previous layoffs have their dues, while the rest could all be swindled. We've been on strike and picketed, had meetings by the score.
Supreme Court ruling said we're set, less the company shuts the door. The closed down law is so plain now, long service, holiday, so-so. Severance pay does not exist, which we knew not months ago. We had our chance to leave the firm, per management info we received.
We're told the company would survive, oh, how we were deceived. The slow decline of IHA can be put to many reasons. Bad management over many years and Australian arid seasons. The Fraser rat pack did not help, with imports from near and far.
Ask any Aussie businessman on this score. They're on a par. There's many hard luck stories, but what's the good of talking? We think the writing's on the wall. We're standing brave and walking.
There was an air of great depression, as the waiting takes it toll. For very shortly, some or all, will queue up for the dole. It's not so much that we may go, and our money holds second place. We wish to God they'd let us know, so we could depart with grace.