It was the first day back after a two week Christmas break for the couple of dozen men who worked the Nymboida coal mine in northern NSW.

A Nymboida miner circa the 1970s digs for an elusive seam of King Gee

The shift was coming to an end when an underground gas explosion ripped through the mine at 3pm on 12 January, 1976. Slowly, the men staggered out of the mine, some seriously injured and being helped by others.

A head count was done. One man was missing. It would take hours for the mine rescue service to arrive, and by then it might be too late.

With barely a moment’s hesitation, four men kitted up and ventured back into the still burning mine in search of their lost colleague. They were putting their lives at risk, but they couldn’t leave him there.

Sadly, by the time they found Graham Cook, he had died. He was due to be married the following weekend.

For almost four decades, this act of sheer bravery by those four men – Neil McLennan, Trevor McLennan, Ian Carter and Jack Tapp – has gone unrecognised.

But last Thursday, they were finally acknowledged with the presentation of a Group Bravery Citation by Governor-General Quentin Bryce at Government House in Sydney.

This award would never have come about but for a remarkable documentary film about a long forgotten chapter of Australia’s industrial history.

If you haven’t seen Last Stand at Nymboida, I highly recommend you do. It’s screening on Foxtel’s History Channel at the moment, but if you miss that, there are DVDs available.

Directed by Jeff Bird, and co-written by Bird and Paddy Gorman, the film tells an incredible story. Nymboida is a speck on the map about 40 kilometres south-west of Grafton. There is a pub, but not much else. For a number of decades until 1979, there was also a coal mine.

It was Australia’s most primitive coal mine. Men worked on their hands and knees in the dark, breathing in black dust, manually hacking coal out of the seam with pick axes and shovels, and bringing it to the surface on heavy trolleys.

It was dangerous and unpleasant work, but for these tough men who were often following in their father’s and uncle’s footsteps, it was the only living they had ever known.

The 30 workers at the Nymboida mine worked closely alongside each other in cramped and dangerous conditions every day. Deep underground, they forged a sense of camaraderie and unity because they all relied on one another.

But in February 1975, the Nymboida miners suddenly found themselves on the industrial scrap heap. With just a week’s notice, the Queensland-based company that owned the mine announced it would be shutting it down and issued the men with dismissal notices.

When their livelihood at the mine came under threat, the men stood shoulder to shoulder in defiance of the company’s plan to shut it down.

They cut the locks and took over the mine themselves. Backed by their union, the Miners Federation, the illegal workers’ rebellion captured national and international attention at the time. And on March 11, 1975, the company caved in and handed over the mine to the men and their union, the Miners Federation.

Now the hard work began. The men had to manage a primitive and unprofitable mine but again, backed by their union, they succeeded and Nymboida continued profitably churning out coal until its one and only customer, a nearby electricity plant, shut down.

But the story doesn’t end there. The Miners Federation was granted a new lease in the Hunter Valley, and in a joint venture with a global resources company, continued digging up coal for many years, generating millions of dollars for the Mineworkers Trust that has been ploughed back into the Northern District mining community.

What Last Stand at Nymboida is ultimately about is mateship, camaraderie and collective solidarity. The qualities that come from working side by side, day in-day out, looking out for your mates and them looking out for you.

About making a stand and never backing down when your rights have been attacked.

It is about unionism.

I had the great privilege of meeting the three remaining survivors of the attempted Nymboida mine rescue at a special function at Cessnock a little over a week ago.

I was guest speaker at the Annual Mineworkers Memorial Day, which commemorates more than 1800 men and boys who have lost their lives since coal mining began in the Northern District in the early 1800s.

Shamefully, the names on the memorial wall include an 11-year-old boy, who was killed in 1883.

Safety in the coalmining industry is vastly improved from the days when young boys were sent down the pit to their deaths.

But the fight for safety in the coal industry did not come without a struggle. The bosses resisted improvements, and used every industrial tool at their disposal to avoid change.

But collectively, shoulder-to-shoulder, workers stood together to demand safety. That is what a union is for. And that is why today, the New South Wales coal industry is one of the safest in the world.

We must keep telling stories like Nymboida because current and future generations of Australians need to know our history to understand the role of unions today.

The rights and entitlements that all Australian workers enjoy today came about through a history of struggle, determination and solidarity.

We stand on the shoulders of the workers, unionists and activists who came before us and fought for those things not always for themselves, but for future generations.

Those of us who dedicate themselves to improving the lives of working people today are keepers of the flame and proud upholders of that tradition.

Comments on this post close at 8pm AEST

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    • Super D says:

      05:42am | 17/09/12

      Sounds like this great tale of an employee buyout is more about capitalism than unionism, unless you’re suggesting that it was unionized work practices that led to an uneconomic mine being forfeited to workers who were suddenly able to adapt their work practices then that would be another story altogether.

      The tale Of heroism could never be repeated in today’s OHS regime.

    • TChong says:

      07:14am | 17/09/12

      A bit of a problem here for the modern miner who rejects unionism.
      The big miners -Ms R, and fellow magnates like to promote the idea that resources workforce dont require union representation, - plenty of money for all ( legendary wages), the best of working conditions ( mum can drop the kids off at school, then drive the trucks! )
      And now, billionaire Gina reckons these same people should be able to survive on $2 a day, just like in Africa .
      I reckon all those who oppose unionism should be given every opportunity to show their contempt for union won work conditions, by going and working for Gina, at what she thinks is a fair rate.

    • Bill says:

      08:31am | 17/09/12

      TChong. did you even watch the Gina video, she at no stage suggested Australian workers lower thier wages., you a making a dishonest represenation of what she said. She made a sin accourding teh ALP Swannie etc of pointing out that there is a world outside our shores and we need to be competative.. I am no fan of hers I just hate to see lies repeated for political points

    • acotrel says:

      09:13am | 17/09/12

      ‘TChong. did you even watch the Gina video, she at no stage suggested Australian workers lower thier wages., you a making a dishonest represenation of what she said.’

      You don’t have to be Einstein to work out her objective!

    • Tom says:

      09:19am | 17/09/12

      Bill, ... TChong dishonest?  .... Lies from a Labor / union person ...

      But we know that the Labor / union mantra is “whatever it takes”. Think NSW. The lies worked for so long on the stupid voter, but Labor was vaporised because of their lies.

      As we talk, unions are being vaporised in our mining sector. These union dinasaurs have no-one but themselves to blame.

    • Tom says:

      09:56am | 17/09/12

      acotrel, and you don’t have to be Einstein to work out YOUR objectives.

    • Borderer says:

      10:00am | 17/09/12

      I still remember the unionists complaining about the safety record of the BHP Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) mine in central Queensland and referred to an appalling safety record. The incidents they were critical of happened in 1994, 18 years prior…..
      The workers went on strike, the mine has now ceased operation and they lost their jobs, smart….
      Now I’m certainly not saying that dangerous work practices should be implimented to make a mine profitable, far from it. What I am saying is the union movement keeps referring to hard won conditions etc from years ago, an incident from near 40 years ago in the article above and nearly 20 years in the article I linked, how is this relevant today? The world has moved forward, can’t they? Haven’t they done anything relevant for the last two decades?

    • Jamin says:

      10:00am | 17/09/12

      So their union, the Miners Federation, was more than happy for them to work in the dangerous conditions you described above and only stepped in when they saw the opportunity to make money out the now (well 1975) employee owned mine.  Yep a great union story this is.

      I see it more a story of a group of men who acted with bravery when faced with a shit situation, a situation which came about due to a lack of action by both the employer and the union.

    • Mayday says:

      10:34am | 17/09/12

      OMG Ged this piece sounds like a church sermon!
      The church has for centuries taken hard earned money from its followers in order to keep running the show, sound familiar?

      Are you suggesting Unionism becoming a Religion, it could qualify considering many union tenets are based on outmoded thinking and a sheep like mentality.

      And I am so happy to hear the Miners Federation “generated millions of dollars for the Mineworkers Trust” was that anything like Michael Williamson’s company United Edge?

      Give us a break and forget the lectures obviously Craig Thompson wasn’t in class for this lesson!

    • I hate pies says:

      12:05pm | 17/09/12

      ....and now the unions are about extracting as much money as they can. How things change. Were the miners given the mine? It’s easy to make a profit with no capital cost.

    • Bob says:

      01:03pm | 17/09/12

      According to Ged,  it looks like the term “working people” only applies to highly paid,  unionised manual labourers.  Owners and bosses don’t ‘work’ of course neither do the legions of people with degrees who just sit on their bums unless of course they are heavily unionised Nurses or Teachers. Old romantic Labor Party rhetoric justifying the existence of Unions which of course are groups of self interested individuals who hold the public to ransom to get higher wages.

    • year of the dragon says:

      01:23pm | 17/09/12

      “they succeeded and Nymboida continued profitably churning out coal until its one and only customer, a nearby electricity plant, shut down.”

      And shut it down?

      It’s one thing to run an enterprise profitably when it is given to you. It is more difficult when you have invested capital and have to get a return on that capital.

    • Alfie says:

      02:20pm | 17/09/12

      “We stand on the shoulders of the workers, unionists and activists who came before.”

      Yeah right…standing on their sholders with your hand in their back-pocket. I am proud to say I have never contibuted one cent to the corrupt union movement.

    • Babylon says:

      02:35pm | 17/09/12

      Listened to the ABC this morning playing down the role of the Mining boom, that gave us the economy that was the ‘envy of the World’ a ‘Once in a Generation ’ phenomenon.

      Looks like the Left are getting ready to announce once again that they have killed the Boom with their Carbon tax and MRRT. Except this time they will not immediately contradict their assertion.

      Many forecasters are predicting recession for Australia late 2013.

      .... and Gillard has risen in the Polls?

    • Gordon says:

      02:55pm | 17/09/12

      Recognition of the bravery of the rescue attempt is long overdue but the rest of the analysis is iffy. Nymboida was a marginal operation at the best of times. With bigger better & safer mines in the Hunter Valley & Bowen Basins coming into production it was doomed. This was an unpopular message so the miners persisted until the inevitable happened and the money ran out. I have been inside the Nymboida workings and believe me there is no chance that mine could be operated properly to modern standards no matter who was doing it. The Company did the right thing in closing a mine that could not be operated safely and with enough income to re-invest in new equipment etc. The fatal accident, occurred after the workers took over. Private or collective management is not the issue, the issue is that the return on the activity has to cover the cost of doing it properly or it is a waste of everyone’s time, and in the sad case of Mr Cook, life. In hindsight the union would have done better by their members by buying them tickets to Maitland or Moura.

    • year of the dragon says:

      03:35pm | 17/09/12

      “The fatal accident, occurred after the workers took over.”

      I can’t believe that is true.

      I am generally pretty cynical of union officials. However if that is true it is fundamental to the theme of the article and Ged would not have left it out.

    • Gordon says:

      05:14pm | 17/09/12

      @ yotd. The dates are clear enough.

      I don’t think the accident was anyone’s particular fault. My point was that the mine was obsolete, dangerous and non-viable no matter who was running it.  Keeping it open was what the workers wanted but it was a shortlived and futile act appealling to the romance of labour and not much else. It is spun into a great victory of worker solidarity. The participants can be proud they had the courage to have a go but it just proves that “economic viability” aren’t weasel words dreamed up by bosses to screw the workers, it’s fact of life.

      From Ged Kearney’s article:

      “ underground gas explosion ripped through the mine at 3pm on 12 January, 1976.”

      lower down

      “on March 11, 1975, the company caved in and handed over the mine to the men and their union,”

    • St. Michael says:

      04:04pm | 17/09/12

      If you’re going to hail the dead and the living, Ged, at least get your dates straight.  Your article says the accident was on 12 January 1976, and the workers got notice of their sacking in February 1975.  Guess the company must’ve had a DeLorean in the back office.

    • I hate pies says:

      04:35pm | 17/09/12

      Refer above - the accident happened when the miners were in control; but it doesn’t paint the right picture so Ged took some poetic licence. I mean, surely it’s the greedy bosses fault that someone got hurt; “safety” is very important to the unions.

    • year of the dragon says:

      06:05pm | 17/09/12

      It seems that the union also had reservations about investing more capital into the mine.

      At least the original owners had the integrity to shut the thing down rather than risk lives in pursuit of profit.

    • Jim Dwyer says:

      04:43pm | 17/09/12

      On miner death/union input history what about nursing an article on the dearth of the Boulder WA miners death benefit fund circa 1992.

    • Swamp Thing says:

      06:32pm | 17/09/12

      No real miners anymore mate. Go have a look round the pilbara, lots of fat FIFO workers with plucked eyebrows & spray on tans. No miners in sight, not even on the mines.


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