Interview: True Matilda
Politics: State of Play
Industrial: Capital Dilemmas
Unions: Rhodes Scholars
National Focus: Rennovating the Lodge
International: People Power
Economics: A Bit Rich
History: Mine Shafts
Safety: Sick Of Fighting
Organising: Building a Wave
Poetry: Anger In The Bush(es)
Review: The Battle Of Algiers
Culture: The Word On The Street
The Locker Room
Co-operating At All Costs
All Good Except You
August 2004 marks the 25th anniversary of the closing of Nymboida, a small underground coal mine 28 miles from Grafton in NSW. To many it may be of little significance but to the mineworkers of Northern NSW and to the mineworkers union nationally, it marked the end of a unique historical event.
It began in 1975 when the mine's owners notified the workers that Nymboida was to close owing them some $73,000 in entitlements. The workers, members of the Mineworkers Federation, refused to accept that and commenced a work-in to keep the mine open.
Negotiations finally achieved an agreement for the Mineworkers Federation to take over the mining lease in return for discharging the bankrupt owners of their financial obligations to the Nymboida mineworkers.
The Union ran the mine successfully for four-and-a-half years until its reserves were exhausted. In this period they produced some 100,000 tonnes of coal earning over $1.25 million in wages and accumulating enough funds to ensure that all workers received their full entitlements during the course of the operation and when the mine closed.
What occurred from the Nymboida experience is another historical event for the United Mineworkers Union. Because the Union was the holder of a mining lease that had exhausted its reserves the Miners Federation was entitled to apply to the NSW Government for a replacement coal mining lease.
An area of significant potential in the Upper Hunter Valley was identified and the Union, through the then Northern District President, Bill Chapman and Vice-President the late Jim Hayes, negotiated what was to become the United Colliery Coal Mine Lease.
On 2 October 1979 the then NSW Premier, Neville Wran announced at a Cabinet Meeting in Newcastle that the Miners Federation had been granted the lease. The Premier said - "The Government believes the determination and enterprise shown by the Federation must be rewarded."
However, it was to be another decade before the United Colliery officially opened on 13 May 1989.
From the very beginning, the Union had a vision and a clear direction of what it wanted. Its intention was not to accumulate funds for itself but rather to create jobs and benefits for its members and their communities.
The Union did not have the multi-million dollar financial capacity to develop a new coal mine so they entered into a Joint Venture arrangement, firstly with AGIP Coal. Eventually an agreement provided for the Miners Federation, as the owners of the lease, to receive a royalty payment for each tonne of coal produced while maintaining a small equity in the mine. Today the mine's major Joint Venture partner is Xstrata Coal.
As the owner of the United lease, the Union has always played an important role on the Board of Directors. Northern District President Peter Murray is Chairman of the Joint Venture Board and John Maitland is a Union appointment Director.
From the beginning, the Union determined that any financial returns from United go into a Trust Fund to be used for the benefit of workers, their families, retired mineworkers and the community at large. The Fund's Trustees are senior Union Officials and a Government appointee. Since 2000 the Mineworkers Trust has provided close to $2 million back to the community, something the Union is very proud of but gets very little public acknowledgement for.
Since commencing operations in 1989, the United Colliery has had, like a lot of mines, its ups and downs. However, it has been the provider of stable employment for 135 of the local community and generates $14.1 million in annual wages (last financial year).
Several contracting companies have long term supply and maintenance contracts and along with other supply and contract companies an additional 50 people would be totally reliant on United for income. The company spends $20 million per annum.
The last two years of operations has seen the pit exceed all expectations setting records for development driveage and coal produced. The existing lease provides for a life of mine until 2008/9, depending on output. Negotiations are ongoing for potential lease extensions.
What has been evident from the Nymboida experience is that workers are not just numbers, they know the workplace and their capabilities. It also shows that the Union is not made up of people who have the commitment and willingness to enter into unknown territory if they judge the direction is right.
What has also come out of the United experience is a clear example of the commitment the mineworkers and their Union have for members and their communities. It also shows that workers representatives have the ability and expertise to sit on the Boards of multi-million dollar enterprises and represent the interest of the worker and the Union without compromising the principles of the Union movement.
If the Nymboida and United projects were not linked to the Union there would be no doubt that they would be recognised by the business community and governments as great success stories. The lack of such recognition is nothing unusual for the Union and to be frank we do not need their applause. The membership and the communities we have helped over the years give us the satisfaction and drive to continue forward and deliver the benefits derived from "The Nymboida Experience".
Peter Murray is Northern District President and Chairman of the United Board.
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