The Guardian 9 February, 2005

The coal mines the workers ran:
30th anniversary of Nymboida

February 17 marks 30-years to the day that sacked coal miners at the NSW Northern District Nymboida Colliery began their historic work-in at the mine. Here Paddy Gorman looks at the events triggered by the work-in, that wrote a new chapter in the industrial history of Australia:

As Cliff Bultitude left the dark recesses of the Nymboida underground coal mine behind on a bright, hot summer Friday afternoon, his mind was on a refreshing shower, a cold beer and the weekend ahead. However, the bright light of day that greeted Cliff and his fellow coal miners at the pit top was clouded by news that the mine was closing and they were on a week's notice.

To add insult to injury, the Nymboida coal miners were told that their employer had no money to pay them the tens of thousands of dollars they were owed in severance pay, annual leave and other entitlements. The miners were told that their last shift would finish on Friday February 14, 1975 and after that they were on their own.

Cliff Bultitude had worked at the Nymboida mine since 1953. Many of his 30 workmates had spent all or most of their working lives at Nymboida. The loss of their jobs would devastate them and their families.

No one knew better than the Nymboida miners just how bleak their future was. The mine was on the outskirts of the northern NSW city of Grafton and unemployment in the region was among the highest in Australia. The nearest coal mines were hundreds of kilometres south of Grafton.

The miners and their families spent the next few days absorbing the shock of the loss facing them no jobs and all their entitlements gone up in smoke. They turned to their union, the Miners Federation, who advised them to fight.

And fight they did. Miners work in the most dangerous industry in the world. Every year more than 20,000 coal miners alone are killed at work while hundreds of thousands more are injured. They are hard and fair men who depend on each other for survival working in the bowels of the Earth.

The Nymboida mineworkers showed just how tough and determined they were when they refused to accept the sack and began a work-in on the day that the mine was to close.

The community and the trade union movement rallied behind them. With public support behind the Nymboida miners, a series of negotiations involving the Union, the Joint Coal Board and the NSW Government finally resulted in ownership of the mine being handed over to the Miners Federation in return for the debts owed by the operating company being discharged.

The Nymboida miners' victory was heralded in the media. The Australian headlined it: "Sacked miners now own the coal mine"; while The Daily Telegraph ran with: "Union to run the mine".

Union mine

Although expressing a different emphasis, both headlines were right. The mine was run by the Union and the workers through a company, Union Coal Mining Pty Ltd. The Directors of the company were Miners Federation National and Northern District officials and the then Nymboida lodge secretary. These Directors dealt with all the legal obligations, finance and contracts. In addition, the Nymboida mineworkers elected from their own ranks a Committee of Management that oversaw the day-to-day issues of the mine, including production and safety.

As the workers mined the coal the Union handled its sale to Nymboida's traditional market, the nearby Koolkhan Power Station. The Union and the miners ran Nymboida for the next four-and-a-half years until it finally closed in August 1979, with the decommissioning of the Koolkhan Power Station and the exhaustion of the mine's reserves.

In its four-and-a-half years as a Miners Union operation, all the Nymboida workers kept their jobs and received over $1.25 million in gross wages; money which if it had not been for the work-ins and takeover, would have been lost to the mineworkers and their families, and to the Grafton community. In addition, all the Nymboida mineworkers received their full benefits when the mine closed, including five who had retired during the years of the Miners Federation's operation.

With the closure of Nymboida some of the mineworkers retired, others found alternative employment in the region while some opted, with the Union's assistance, to move south to the Hunter Valley coal mines.

Nymboida proved that a trade union could profitably operate a mine where a private company failed.

While the closure of Nymboida ended a unique chapter in Australian industrial history, it opened another. The Miners Federation discovered that as the owner of a coal mine whose reserves were exhausted, it was entitled to apply for a replacement lease.

At this time foreign giant oil multinationals were spending hundreds of millions of dollars scrambling for a stake in Australia's growing coal industry. This coal boom had been triggered six years earlier by a massive increase in oil prices by the OPEC countries, which forced international energy producers to switch from oil to coal-fired power stations. Coal was the new black gold.

When the Miners Federation presented its application for a replacement lease it did so as a successful coal mine owner and producer. This was a lesson not lost on the then NSW Wran Labor Government who responded in October 1979 by granting the Miners Federation a replacement mining lease in the rich Upper Hunter Valley region of NSW.

However, as a trade union whose entire resources were used in the service of its members, the Miners Federation did not have the finances to develop and operate a multi-million dollar coal mine. In possession of its lease the Union looked for partners to finance the project in a joint venture and was swamped by suitors.

But not all in the business community were happy. There was fierce opposition within business and conservative political circles who feared that not only would the Union have a valuable insight into the business of running a mine and selling coal, but it might use profits from its involvement to store up a war chest to finance industrial campaigns against the employers.

Benefits flow

From the outset though, the Union made it made clear that whatever earnings it would accrue in the future from the coal lease would not go into union coffers. Rather, the money would be channelled into a Trust Fund for the benefit of mineworkers' families and communities.

The Union selected business partners for a joint venture project and United Collieries rose from the ashes of Nymboida. It was to be some years though before the project was up and running.

When the Miners Federation went into this project it was venturing into new territory for any union in Australia. The Union got involved for three main reasons.

The first was to promote employment opportunities. In 1991, United was the first underground mine developed in NSW in over a decade creating over 200 new permanent mining jobs and 500 more in the community.

Secondly, the involvement in United presented the Union with a unique insight into the international operation of Australia's coal industry. Miners Union representatives still chair and sit on the United Collieries Board of Directors. The Union became much more aware of the global economic circumstances and marketplace complexities in which companies operate.

And thirdly, the Union aimed to generate funds to assist mineworkers, their families and communities.

In 1991, the year that United opened and began producing coal, the Mineworkers Trust Fund was established with four Union representatives and one NSW Government appointee as Trustees. Since then the Trust has channelled the millions of dollars that the Union earns from its ownership of the United lease back into the community.

The Trust provides annual tertiary scholarships as well as millions in funds to community organisations and projects. This has benefited hospitals, high schools, youth and sporting groups, emergency services, cultural and historical projects. Community welfare groups are also beneficiaries, as are support groups for sick and handicapped children.

These community dividends would not have been possible without the actions of that small group of Nymboida underground coalminers who had the guts in 1975 to take a stand and fight for their jobs and entitlements.

And neither would this remarkable success story have been possible without those Union officials who had the courage and commitment to fight for the survival of the Nymboida Colliery and the vision to pioneer the development of United Collieries.

For the full stories on Nymboida and how the Miners Federation obtained the United replacement lease, see The Coal Mines the Workers Ran by Pete Thomas and Paddy Gorman; published by the CFMEU Mining and Energy Union, PO Box 1641,Sydney 1230.

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