Patrick Hodgens Hickey was born on a backblocks farm at the junction of the Wangapeka and Motueka rivers in Nelson, New Zealand, on 19 January 1882. He was the fourth of seven children of Irish Catholic immigrants Thomas Hickey, a farmer, and his wife, Mary Jane Hodgens. Thomas was killed by a falling tree while bushfelling in 1890. Following his death the family moved to a smaller farm at Foxhill. Patrick attended Stanley Brook and Foxhill primary schools. Having narrowly missed out on a scholarship, he finished school at the age of 14.
Hickey left New Zealand in March 1900, hoping to reach Ireland and claim an inheritance his father had supposedly left there. He got as far as the United States, where he travelled round the western states working in mines and mills. He came home in September 1901. Hickey then worked for about six months at Denniston, the largest coal mine in the Buller region, before returning to his family home at Foxhill. In February 1903 he headed to Ireland in another attempt to claim his inheritance. From relatives in County Cavan, he learned his father had been a penniless orphan with no property to pass on. Hickey decided to try his luck again in the US. He wrote to his sister Mary that he found London disappointing and Irish poverty disturbing.
After a brief stint in New York, Hickey travelled westward across the US, working at a range of jobs, including mining and smelting. He spent five months in the Aleutian Islands in 1904, carrying out a survey for a cattle company and unsuccessfully prospecting for minerals. In 1905 he found work at a Utah copper mine, where he joined the militant Western Federation of Miners. He learnt that class warfare was inevitable, class solidarity essential and revolutionary industrial unionism the only defence and hope for the 'wage slave'.
After almost four years travelling Hickey returned home and by early 1907 he was again working at Denniston. He promptly joined with other like-minded young men, notably Paddy Webb, to form a branch of the New Zealand Socialist Party. Since 1906 the party's journal, Commonweal, had championed the creed of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), an American organisation committed to revolutionary industrial unionism. Denniston mine was expanding rapidly. Hickey's brand of socialism struck a responsive chord and helped to bring to a head the longstanding issue of whether miners should be paid for time spent travelling underground. Hickey and the socialists urged direct action, in defiance of their award; the union and the company bent with the new wind. Hickey, however, was sacked, ostensibly for agitating to abolish the ‘degrading system’ of compulsory medical examination for miners before they could be employed at Denniston. He next found work at the state-owned coalmine at Runanga, just north of Greymouth, and then in the fast-expanding Blackball mine in the Grey River valley.
Hickey stood about 5 feet 10 inches tall and was fit and energetic, the harshness of his early life marked in the 'thrusting aggressive chin, the sour down-turned mouth the challenging eyes'. 'Wild Bill Hickey', as he was known, spoke with passion and fire and threw himself into organising the men at Blackball. Together with H. M. Fitzgerald, a Canadian revolutionary, Hickey formed a branch of the New Zealand Socialist Party and began urging the miners to take action on their various grievances with the company. The union resolved to exceed the 15 minutes for lunch or 'crib' inserted in its award by the Court of Arbitration. On 27 January 1908 the manager stood over Hickey with a stopwatch at lunchtime, and when the young firebrand refused to obey an order to return to work he was prosecuted. In February Hickey informed the minister of mines that the mine was inadequately ventilated and that the company ignored the Coal-mines Act. The next day the manager sacked Hickey and six other members of the Socialist Party. The union met that night and, to general astonishment, voted to strike.
The Blackball strike soon became the most serious in New Zealand since 1891. In the Court of Arbitration on 11 March, after taking 90 minutes for lunch, Judge William Sim lectured the miners on their 'high-handed, arbitrary' behaviour and imposed a £75 fine. The miners then abandoned a tenuous settlement that Hickey had helped negotiate, and he was sent to the North Island to raise money for the strikers and their families. Many unionists were uneasy or critical of the Blackball miners but Hickey found sympathy and help in the mining towns of Waihi, Thames and Huntly. He established a network of contacts with union leaders but demonstrated his tendency to take action without adequate consultation or thought (in early April he negotiated a settlement that the union rejected). His arrest on 28 April for refusing to pay his share of the fine restored his image; a vast and enthusiastic crowd escorted him to the train station at Ngahere. The fine was paid anonymously, and the Blackball Coal Company, despite the support of the court, capitulated.
Hickey and the Blackball miners had discredited the court, redeemed strike action, and placed industrial unionism and solidarity high on the political agenda. The union elected Hickey president and in June 1908 appointed him to organise a national federation of miners' unions. With Robert Semple from Runanga he toured all the mines on the West Coast, persuading the men to send delegates to Greymouth. The seven delegates who met in August fought over various issues, including arbitration, but set up a federation of miners with Hickey as secretary. Hickey, who had wanted them to form a federation of labour, nevertheless saw this as a major step towards one big industrial union. In October 1908 he convened a national conference to establish the New Zealand Federation of Miners. Its motto, 'The world's wealth for the world's workers' (borrowed from the Industrial Workers of the World), nicely captured Hickey's revolutionary ethos.
Hickey became an organiser for the federation. He continued to preach the need to extend the organisation to embrace all labour. At the 1909 conference, delegates – although (as Hickey later pointed out) few understood industrial unionism – voted unanimously to change the organisation's name to the New Zealand Federation of Labour. This marked the miners' bid for leadership of the labour movement. In the ensuing joust with the old city-based trades and labour councils, Hickey had few peers. During a conference in 1910 to see whether unity could be forged, Hickey alone showed a grasp of the ideological issues at stake, telling the councils that they were 'useless' and that 'each industry must be organised, and then in turn amalgamated'. The conference failed to reach agreement.
Hickey's bluntness and directness, and his skill at polarising and defining issues, made him an effective organiser but a liability as an office-holder. Not that he wanted office, for he harboured an often ill-concealed disdain for its holders. He held no position in the FOL, but he played a crucial role in committing it to propaganda work. He persuaded the executive to establish a weekly journal and recruited Robert Ross to edit it (in the end they took over the Maoriland Worker from the New Zealand Shearers' Union). He also worked as secretary-organiser for the West Coast Workers' Union for much of 1910, and then as organiser for the shearers. In this latter job he stumped the country, debating with any man brave enough to take him on and drawing large crowds in all the towns.
At Blackball in 1908 Hickey had met Rosanna Gertrude Rogers, a school teacher. Rose, the daughter of Mary Fisher and Blackball miners’ union secretary Walter Rogers, shared Hickey’s commitment to socialism and the union movement. On 5 July 1911 they were married at Greymouth, Westland. They had one son, Patrick Walter, born in 1913. In 1911 Hickey worked as sub-editor of the Maoriland Worker but spent long hours trying to mobilise the country's watersiders into the federation and to consolidate support for it in Waihi, Huntly and Auckland. As part of that campaign he contested Ohinemuri in the 1911 general election. The Maoriland Worker described him as 'an acceptably striking and agitational speaker'.
In 1911–12 Auckland unionists, bitter over the federation's failure to successfully support the striking Auckland General Labourers' Union, began to support the Industrial Workers of the World rather than the federation's Socialist Party. Hickey identified himself with the critics in a Maoriland Worker article, 'Lest We Forget!'. Hickey argued there was an ongoing class war, and that workers should support their fellow workers rather than uphold agreements made with employers. He wrote, ‘If necessary let us toss every agreement to Hell’. Newspapers and the Reform Party had a field-day. When the federation's conference gathered in 1912, during the bitter strike at Waihi, Hickey embarrassed his old friends by moving that the delegates congratulate the strikers, and issued a thinly veiled call for a general strike. When Semple threatened that he and the executive would resign if Hickey's motion was passed, Hickey backed off. He did, however, obtain a new constitution, reshaping the federation on the Wobblies' model of one big industrial union.
Hickey parted company with the Wobblies over state ownership, preference to unionists, and political action, all of which he supported. But he was strongly committed to victory at Waihi and at Reefton, where the federation was engaged in another battle, and eagerly headed to Australia to mobilise support and raise money. He proved so successful that the federation sent others to help him; the money they raised enabled the strike to continue for months. When defeat came, however, the Wobblies and the federation blamed each other. Hickey sided with his old mates and blamed the Wobblies for the mess.
Hickey now began to act as broker for the various ideological factions, and it says much for his integrity that he could play this role. At the unity conference in January 1913, held in an attempt to unite militant and moderate sections of the labour movement, he frequently intervened decisively and served as secretary on the committee which recommended that the factions form a United Federation of Labour (UFL) and a Social Democratic Party. In the five months before the July unity congress, Hickey played a key role in maintaining the momentum towards unity. The delegates rewarded him by electing him the first secretary of the UFL.
In the last half of 1913 Hickey rode the whirlwind of mounting unrest. Tom Young, president of the UFL, kept close control of him. Yet when tensions at Huntly and on the Wellington wharves exploded, the two men tried desperately to contain the conflict but could do little. The rashest decision came when Hickey and Young persuaded the executive to call a one-day general strike; when that failed, and Young had been arrested for sedition, Hickey appealed to the railwaymen to join in despite their leaders' resistance. When the UFL executive finally called off the strike Hickey, ironically, was one of the key speakers at a meeting at Blackball, where he urged the miners to end the strike and register under the Arbitration and Conciliation Act. After a 3½-hour meeting the die-hard Blackball miners voted unanimously to follow this course.
Hickey had insufficient support to shelter him from the consequences of defeat. He remained secretary of the UFL until the conference of July 1914, but did not stand for re-election. He assisted in the campaigns of a number of Social Democrat Party candidates in the 1914 election. With an employer blacklist making it difficult to find work, Hickey was forced to take a job as a labourer in a government road-building gang in the King Country from February to June 1915. He was strongly opposed to the First World War and upset by the splits it created in the labour movement. Concern over his employment prospects and fears that New Zealand would introduce conscription led Hickey and his family to move to Australia in November 1915.
Hickey spent the next five years as a union organiser, Labor Party activist and agitator in Australia. He played a significant role in the successful anti-conscription campaigns surrounding the referendums of 1916 and 1917.
He returned to New Zealand in 1920 to lead an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to set up a national daily labour newspaper. Hickey edited the Maoriland Worker from September 1920 to May 1921, then moved to Auckland and started a printing business. Labour politics still absorbed him, however, and he served on the Labour Representation Committee. His old mates such as Semple and Webb regarded him as a liability. In 1925, after unsuccessfully contesting the Invercargill parliamentary seat against Sir Joseph Ward, Hickey published 'Red' Fed. memoirs, a racy account of the rise and fall of the federation. Disillusioned with the labour movement’s prospects in New Zealand, he returned to Australia with his family in January 1926. They settled in Melbourne and Hickey rose rapidly in the Australian Labor Party. In 1930 he was selected as Labor's candidate for a safe seat but died, aged 48, on 25 January, before the election. He was survived by Rose, and their son, Patrick junior.
Impetuous, fiery and unshakeably committed to his cause, Hickey had been at the centre of some of the most turbulent industrial events in New Zealand history. In a movement dominated by immigrants he had always stood out as one of the few prominent New Zealanders.