When mining was about mateship, heroes and danger
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.
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.
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