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Sunshine Harvester Works

H.V. McKay began manufacturing stripper-harvesters under the Sunshine brand name in 1895, transferring the works from Ballarat to Braybrook Junction in 1906-07. The site near the junction of the western and northern railway lines meant cheaper freight for raw materials and finished goods, allowed McKay to avoid interference for a time from wages boards and permitted him to develop a modern factory surrounded by worker housing. Quickly expanding to cover the full range of agricultural implements and machines, the plant employed 400 in 1907, 1500 in 1910-11 and more than 2000 in the mid-1920s and late 1930s.

The Sunshine works played a key role in the landmark 1907 Harvester Judgment. Justice H.B. Higgins' declaration that a 'fair and reasonable' wage under the Deakin government's New Protection legislation should answer 'the normal needs of the average employee regarded as a human being living in a civilized community'. Arguing that the wages McKay paid his labourers were insufficient, he awarded seven shillings per day and higher rates for skill. McKay closed his works and successfully contested the legislation in the High Court, leading in 1911 to a strike and lockout, which became Victoria's longest industrial dispute to that time.

Having financially destroyed the implement workers' trade union, McKay introduced labour-saving machine tools, the piecework system and time-and-motion studies to frustrate the effects of Higgins' granting of margins to skilled workers, making the works one of the few Australian manufacturing enterprises employing mass-production methods. His triumph resulted in manufacturing systems and labour-management techniques that degraded work skills (initially at least), cheapened production and individualised the workforce. But intimidation could not produce a cooperative, reliable and stable workforce for McKay's highly capitalised factory. The firm rewarded dependable unskilled and semiskilled workers with long-term employment, prospects of handling machine tools and opportunities for promotion. Women were introduced to bolt-making and core-making, but they replaced only juvenile males in 'deadend' work and were often relatives of favoured adult males. Skilled tradesmen were recruited from the ranks of the trusted and given apprenticeships.

Reorganised as H.V. McKay Pty Ltd in 1921, the firm merged with Massey Harris as H.V. McKay Massey Harris Pty Ltd in 1930. Under the control of McKay's son Cecil, the firm benefited from its munitions annexe and guaranteed wartime markets in Great Britain. In the tight postwar labour market, workers locked out during the 1946 metal workers dispute simply went elsewhere, and the firm turned to immigrant labour. At the expiration of the 25-year agreement, the McKay family sold their business to their partners, who refinanced the company and upgraded the factory. Although the company prospered in the 1960s and 1970s, bad seasons, tariff reductions and increasing competition from imports brought manufacturing to an end in 1986. As Agco Australia, the company became an importing, assembling and distribution business, with the Sunshine Harvester Works site surplus to requirements.

The National Trust mounted a case for conservation on the grounds of the Harvester Works' national significance, but the hostility of the company beset with cash-flow problems, the cupidity of the Sunshine City Council anxious for redevelopment and the indifference and complicity of local and regional historical bodies resulted in almost complete destruction. The company records survive at the University of Melbourne Archives and Museum Victoria.

John Lack

Fahey, Charles, John Lack, and Liza Dale-Hallett, 'Resurrecting the Sunshine Harvester Works: re-presenting and reinterpreting the experience of industrial work in twentieth-century Australia', Labour History, vol. 85, November 2003, pp. 9-28. Details
Lack, John, 'The legend of H.V. McKay', Victorian Historical Journal, vol. 61, no. 235, August 1990, pp. 124-57. Details