Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.


Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 70 • December 2020

Miners make history

Communist Review September 1937

Emerging dramatically from the dark days of disorganisation and defeat following the 15 months’ lock-out of 1929-30, the coal miners of New South Wales have again made history. Challenging the most powerful groups of vested interests in Australia, they have shown the way out of depression standards, have given lingering defeatism, born of the years of crisis, its final blow.

It is of tremendous significance that this history-making campaign has been conducted under the leadership of prominent members of the Communist Party of Australia. William Orr and Charles Nelson, the leading officials of the Miners’ Federation, have been subjected to their greatest test to date – as industrial leaders and Communists.

Suffice it to say that dire predictions of disaster have failed to eventuate. On the contrary, the carping critics of Communist leadership have been completely confounded. The efforts of “snipers,” likewise, have proved futile. The Communist leaders of the miners have come through with flying colours.

Legacy of the lock-out

It was a disquieting legacy which was left by the period of defeat in the coal-mining industry. The outcome of the [1929] lock-out bred demoralisation which begat cynicism and apathy. The miners’ organisation almost lost its traditional virility and militancy. Indeed, it would not be far wide of the mark to say the Federation was threatened with disintegration.

Under the new central leadership the thankless job of reorganisation was tackled with energy, patience and efficiency. Finances were restored. Inter-district unity was recreated. The organisation was once more given a mouthpiece; the miners’ union began to act like a federation as of yore. The masses recovered their former spirit, their class-consciousness. The Miners’ Federation, in short, was born again.

Intense exploitation

There was plenty of work confronting it. The colliery owners; their organisation smashed by the lock-out, were unable to continue effective price regulation. Instead, they entered into a period of intense price-cutting in a desperate competitive battle for dwindling markets. A basis for this capitalist madness was found in the progressive worsening of the conditions of the workers.

Figures best tell the story of these years of ruthless exploitation. In 1936 about 12,000 employees in the mines of New South Wales produced nearly as much as 21,743 in 1928 and mineworkers received £1,825,243 less in wages. It is worthy of special mention that the increased production of 2,419,618 tons from 1931 to 1936 was obtained by the colliery owners for a wages’ cost of 2/3 per ton! [2/3 was two shillings and three pence. Conversion to decimal in 1966 was on the basis of £1 = $2; 20 shillings equals one pound; 12 pence equals a shilling.]

In 1936 the production per head of employees in New South Wales was 647 [tons], as against 411 in 1931, last year’s figure for underground employees only being 841. Here are some of the corresponding figures for other countries: India, 186 tons; France, 261 tons; Canada, 561 tons; Great Britain, 331 tons. The story behind the fact that in New South Wales’ individual productivity is about 50 per cent higher than anywhere else in the world is ever-intensifying speeding-up. The other side of the medal shows increasing accidents and industrial disease, and the sending of wrecks to the scrapheap at an ever-advancing tempo.

An intolerable position

A rejuvenated organisation, then, found that an intolerable position had been allowed to develop throughout the coalfields, with nearly 50 per cent of the skilled miners unemployed, not only spelling chronic poverty among mineworkers, but the degradation and threatened ruination of whole communities. Indeed, conditions threatened the coal-mining industry itself.

On the basis of the economics of industry, a programme of demands was formulated for discussion by the rank and file, demands alleviating the suffering existing throughout the minefields. Soon, the mining lodges were tackling the question with some of the old enthusiasm. Suggestions poured into the central office. The “log” became the main topic of conversation on the job. The miners were on the march!

Meanwhile, increasing resistance was being offered to the grasping proclivities of the coal owners. Speed-up methods were fought. Greater safety was demanded. The filching of “concessions” and the abrogation of age-long customs were met with strike action. The miners had regained their strength and confidence!

On the move

The incessant demand for the adoption of some determined measures to recover lost conditions and win improvements was reflected in the final meeting of the Central Council of the Federation for 1936, when resolutions from the various New South Wales districts were tabled calling for early action. These also received the solid support of the delegates from other States, where improvements had been gained but further progress held up pending a forward move in New South Wales. A committee was established to draft a log of claims and formulate methods of enforcing them. Organisation was commenced for the calling of a conference of rank and file delegates to discuss the position in the mining industry. As near as practicable every member of the Federation had a say in the drafting of the log of claims. It became more than a series of demands for improved conditions. It was an historic document, relating the needs of the coalminers to the economics of the industry.

Discussion. Mass Meetings. Articles. Lectures. Pamphlets. Seldom, if ever, has the rank and file of any organisation been so completely drawn into the task of framing a log for service on the employers, verily an arresting contrast to the picture of bureaucratic control so often linked by inspired propagandists with Communist leadership!

The log in its completed form was enthusiastically adopted by meetings in all districts which were the largest experienced for many years. Yes, the miners were certainly wide-awake now!

As finally served on all colliery proprietors in New South Wales, the log called for a restoration of wage cuts, shorter hours and an all-round improvement of conditions, while a parallel agitation was initiated for a pensions scheme for old mineworkers, amendments to regulations governing safety, an improved compensation act and other questions.

Mobilising the Membership

Then, the mobilising of the membership for the campaign to force better conditions from the coal owners! Agitation, demonstration, organisation. Preparations were made for struggle with a thoroughness probably never before exceeded in the Federation before an actual stoppage.

The prevailing “will to win” was stimulated and directed along correct channels, until there was the spectacle of some 15,000 men with but a single thought – to force an improvement in conditions by whatever means were found to be necessary. The intense preparatory work told the tale – the membership pronounced itself unanimously behind the Federation leadership in any measures adopted to win the day.

Will those record-breaking meetings when the miners voted “Yes” ever be forgotten? The unanimity with which they accepted the prospect of a lengthy struggle on “bread and dripping” if necessary was unparalleled in the Federation’s history. It was at once an indication of the solidarity and militancy of the membership and its unqualified confidence in the leadership which had shown it the way out of the morass of defeat to a new morale.

Wide support

Meanwhile, the Federation’s leaders had succeeded in mobilising the whole of the industrial and political labour movement of the Commonwealth behind the Federation’s struggle, through the ACTU Congress, State Labor Councils, individual unions, the ALP and the Communist Party. Moral support was promised by a wider strata of the population, including civic and religious bodies.

In the battle of propaganda for the prize of public opinion the Federation has won all along the line. The bosses’ squealing for a “better deal” was exposed by a wealth of evidence. It was proved for instance, that the total wages cost per ton to the New South Wales coal owners was 4/1 as against 15/7 in the Saar, 10/1 in Canada and 9/11 in Britain. It was shown that on the basis of low prices for coal, steel, gas, shipping and other interests had been able to make enormous profits.

The timely announcement of a record profit of £1,183,171 by the BHP, owner of a quarter of the coal mines in the State, was the final blow which shattered the whole case of the colliery proprietors based upon the hoary plea of complete “inability to pay.”

Despite this defeat, however, and the verdict of the aggregate miners’ meetings, with their practically unanimous acceptance of the idea of strike action, the coal owners were surprisingly slow in awakening to a realisation that the mineworkers were really in earnest. They were apparently still suffering from the “lock-out” psychology!

Arrogance of bosses

The early approaches of the Federation for a consideration of the log of claims were met with a characteristic display of arrogance and the rank and file gave further spectacular and inspiring evidence of their determination, solidarity and resentment at the employers’ attitude.

For over a week the public of New South Wales, nay, Australia, were held spellbound by the exploits of the miners in their sustained job activity. Streamer headlines in the press reported the latest stoppages in “the fields.” All were on tenterhooks – what would the next move be?

The spotlight of publicity was centred particularly on the “stay-in” strikes at Burwood and John Darling, and the mass demonstrations of employees of all the BHP collieries in support of the men underground. Here was this dangerous new technique which had rocked the capitalist system of America come to our very door! Where would it all end?

The government intervenes

An immediate result was the intervention of the State government, through the Industrial Commissioner, Mr Justice Cantor, and the assembling of conferences at which the coal bosses adopted a more reasonable attitude.

The campaign was complicated by the conflicts within the employers’ ranks owing to the underlying struggle for markets, and the ultimately different interests represented. The BHP was more concerned with coal as a raw material rather than as a product for sale in the open market, and sought throughout to pursue an independent line to place other producers at a disadvantage. Others were working definitely for government action to stabilise price levels.

While there were many colliery proprietors in a position to show that they were earning small profits or none at all, it was conclusively established by the Federation that this policy paid them, particularly the BHP, because it enabled them to win enhanced profits from their other enterprises.

On the other hand, it was revealed that there were people producing coal and selling it at the pit top for 8/- – to 10/- per ton and making profits. These are the same interests which told a Royal Commission in 1929 that they could not make a profit at 25/- per ton!

The crocodile tears being wept for the consumers by the colliery proprietors were exposed in all their hypocrisy by the Federation pointing out that while the wages cost per ton of coal amounted to 5/- it was being sold to members of the working class, who accounted for 0.3 per cent of the total coal consumed, for 50/- or 60/- per ton.

Mass pressure!

While the negotiations were proceeding the Federation was making its plans for struggle. Credits to the extent of £100,000 were arranged, mainly through the Cooperative Wholesale Society. A levy of 71 per cent on working members of the Federation was imposed in the event of a stoppage.

Machinery was instituted for supplying relief to members. Special committees were set up throughout the coalfields for the organising of relief distribution, propaganda campaigns, entertainment, and other activities.

As the conferences proceeded under the chairmanship of Cantor, with the coal owners indulging in desperate “stalling,” ludicrous bluffing and barefaced manoeuvring, the rank and file provided an object lesson to the whole trade union movement in the tactic of exerting mass pressure. The further the conferences went, with no decisive result accruing, the more pits were thrown idle through protest demonstrations. Hardly a day passed without thousands leaving the mines. Excellent discipline was preserved, and the demonstrations were organised so as not to force a disproportionate amount of sacrifice upon any one section.

The result of these demonstrations and the state of preparedness for struggle revealed a determination to wage it if necessary forced the coal owners to capitulate and from a refusal even to consider the Federation’s claims they were forced to concede very substantial improvements in conditions.

Substantial gains

These provided for an increase in contract rates of ten per cent and five per cent for off-hand labour. This gave the off-hand men, constituting the overwhelming majority of workers in the industry, the highest wages ever known in the NSW coal mines. How important was this gain will be recognised when it is pointed out that on the South Coast, for instance, not one worker in this category averaged as much as £200 gross income for any of the years from 1931 to 1936.

Youths also received a five per cent increase in addition to altered bases of progressive increases in the southern and western district, which actually meant a much greater improvement. Other important advances made were the payment of 1/6 water money to all employees, the establishment of higher guaranteed wages in cases of deficiency, and better overtime rates.

So, for the first time in 20 years the Federation has been able to wage a campaign for uniform rates and conditions on a State-wide basis, forcing all proprietors to meet its representatives as one body and agree to conditions representing a substantial advance on previous conditions. Thorough preparatory work under a militant leadership had brought inevitable results.

The way was now clear for further consolidation and organising to gain the major claims of the original log not yet conceded. The agreement arrived at was the first round of the miners’ new series of struggles. Far-reaching results will follow.

Lessons for labour

The campaign of the coal miners of New South Wales has lessons for the whole labour movement. It has demonstrated how the masses can be mobilised for militant action under a conscientious revolutionary leadership. It has revealed the vital link between propaganda and organisation.

It has once more been demonstrated that powerful capitalist groups can be forced to negotiate against their will by demonstrative mass action. It has shown how better conditions can be won in the teeth of opposition from the employing class as a whole. It has provided a classic example of the winning of public opinion by careful explanation and patient educational work.

The superiority of direct negotiations backed by mass pressure over the method of placing the fate of workers in the hands of an Arbitration Court judge has been clearly revealed. The miners’ campaign has opened up a new period of working-class history in Australia. Who will be next?