Australian Miners Come Out Of The Dark
1 November 1982
THE persistence of 25 Australian miners who refused seven years ago to be sacked from a dying mine has given their union a multi-million dollar stake in the world coal industry.
Not that the 25 had any thought of future fortunes when they were told early in 1975 that the little Nymboida in northern New South Wales was to close. They were concerned only for their jobs, for they lived and worked in an isolated area where no other work was available. With the desperation of men who could think of nothing else to do, they tore up their dismissal notices, turned up at the mine and went on working. All they wanted was a wage.
Nymboida wasn’t much of a mine. Remote from other coal areas and from main population centres, it was opened speculatively in 1948 and achieved a little stability a few years later when it won a contract to supply coal to the small Koolkhan power station at Grafton. At its peak in the 1950s Nymboida employed about 100 miners but by 1975 the coal reserves were petering out The miners were stretched to the limit scratching about 500 tons of coal a week from seams that were little more than pencil marks on the rock.
Closure had threatened for years. The miners knew it, and helped to keep the mine open by deferring their holidays and making other major concessions to the owning company. It did no good: on February 7, 1975, they and five non mining employees were given seven days’ notice. A week later their work-in made front-page news.
The miners, who were owed about $70,000 in holiday pay, sickness benefit and long-service leave, wanted to get at least that much from the failing mine and determined to take it themselves if they could not get it from the company. Their union, the Miners Federation, took up their cause and conferred with the company and the State-run Joint Coal Board. As a result the dismissal notices were withdrawn and the closure postponed for two weeks. It wasn’t much of a reprieve but every day counted for men who were hanging on to work by their fingernails.
Another conference was called between the company, the Miners Federation and the Joint Coal Board, but the company refused to attend. It said the new closure date, February 28, would stand The Miners Federation considered asking the State Government to take over the mine but knew the request almost certainly would be refused.
The Nymboida men imposed their own solution with a second work-in This one was not so easy because, warned by the first mild rebellion, the company had taken precautions.
According to an account given later by a Miners Federation Officer, the men who went down the mine on March 3 found fuses removed from switch boxes, the ventilation fan set so that it tripped on full load, pumping valves closed, a chitter chute dismantled and switches padlocked The pit-stop stockpile was virtually non-existent. Yet four hours later the first coal came to the surface to be trucked to the power station. And a 79-year-old man who had worked as a Nymboida miner until his retirement years previously went out into the bush, cutting timber six days a week to keep the mine supplied with props. He didn’t know who would pay him, if anyone, and he didn’t care. The Nymboida spirit was infectious.
A week after the work-in began the owning company attended another conference and this one proved to be cruciaL The Miners Federation came away from it owning the Nymboida mine and plant which it accepted in exchange for an agreement not to pursue the miners’ claims against the company. The union didn’t hope to make a profit It went into ownership simply to give its few Nymboida members a wage and in the hope that in time the mine would earn enough to pay them the money they were owed.
The mine settled those debts but after four years, with the power station in Grafton closing, even the dogged Nymboida men had to accept that their mine was finished and they would have to move. A few went into retirement but most found jobs in other mining areas. Then came the bonus for the union.
Across the ranges in the coal-rich Hunter Valley huge mining leases were being granted by a State Government that was sponsoring the biggest coal export drive in Australia’s history. The leases were open for acquisition by businesses already in the coal industry and the law made special provision for companies whose mines were depleted On the strength of its Nymboida ownership the Miners Federation applied for a lease in the heart of the new development and became the owner of a mine with winnable coal reserves of at least 200 million tons.
Lacking both management expertise and development capital, the union looked for partners. They came quickly, with an Australian subsidiary of the Italian state energy group Agip taking 30 per cent of the multi-million-dollar equity and an Australian mining group 20 per cent. As the Premier of New South Wales, Mr Wran, remarked, the 50-50 partnership between a great union and business interests was ‘a notable first in the long and once-bitter history of coal mining in the State’.
The new mine, appropriately named the United, is gearing for the production by 1986 of 2.7 million tons of coking and steaming coal a year, worth close to $100 million At that rate of extraction the mine is shaping for at least a century in profitable production, a century in which the Miners Federation’s 50 per cent slice of the profits will go to the welfare of miners and mining communities throughout Australia.
As well as producing coal the United mine will be a training school. Some Australian companies concentrate on open- cut mining to such an extent that the skills of underground mining are being lost in many districts. The 380 miners who will work at the United will produce 1.1 million tons of coal a year by open-cut mining and 1.6 million tons by underground mining using the latest techniques and preserving skills against the day when the easily won surface coal is exhausted.
The effect of a union as owner will be far-reaching, not least in industrial relations. With a foot in both camps and an understanding of viewpoints from either side of the industrial fence, the Miners Federation has the opportunity to bridge what has always been a gap, and too often a gulf, between owners and workers.
As a by-product of the move into ownership the union's district president, Mr Bill Chapman, is no longer regarded in the boardrooms of Japanese coal and steel companies as a shadowy and threatening figure. He is now a welcome visitor, the chairman of a major consortium with something to sell on behalf of thousands of miners: something they gained from 25 Nymboida men who wouldn’t give in.
Denis Butler is leader writer for The Newcastle