Interview: Out of the Bedroom
Industrial: Cloak and Dagger
Legal: The Fantasy of Choice
Politics: Labor Pains
Economics: Economics and the Public Purpose
Corporate: House of Horrors
History: Clash Of Cultures
International: Childs Play
Culture: Folk You Mate!
Review: Last Holeproof Hero
The Locker Room
Contract With Australia
By Alan Murray
For 92-year old Jim Comerford - miner, union leader, and author of several other volumes of mining history - the story of The Great Lockout of 1929 has been a lifetime labour.
As a 16-year-old pit boy Jim was an eyewitness to events that saw one miner shot dead by police and scores more seriously wounded on December 16, 1929. In the months before and after the shootings, he also saw innocent men battered senseless by police basher gangs sent to the Northern coalfields of New South Wales by a conservative government happy to do the bidding of a clique of renegade coal owners.
Two years ago, talking about his epic story as his handwritten manuscript neared completion, Jim confided that every day since 1929 his thoughts had strayed back to The Great Lockout and the heroes and villains it had produced.
The heroes were the miners, their families, and leaders of the Labour Movement - men like Bill McBlane, Jock Garden, Jack Kavanagh, Dai Davies, Bondy Hoare and scores more.
The ranks of the villains include pit owners' representative Charlie McDonald, "Baron" John Brown, conservative New South Wales Premier Thomas Bavin and conservative Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce.
Some Australian Labor Party leaders are also exposed for their betrayal of the coal miners leaving wounds that served only to strengthen the miners' conviction that union solidarity was their only real defence against attacks by employers and governments, regardless of their political colour or stated policies.
The Great Lockout began on March1, 1929, when a group of renegade colliery owners on the Northern New South Wales coalfields illegally locked-out 10,000 miners. The miners had broken no laws. They had breached no contracts or promises. Their "crime", in the eyes of the proprietors, was their refusal to accept wage cuts. The pitmen also baulked at employer attempts to bring an end to Miners' Federation involvement in pit safety and job preference for unionists.
Diminished wages and conditions aside, the proprietors also wanted nothing short of the destruction of the Miners Federation. They saw miners as the front-line of a rising international worker militancy that, they believed, threatened the place of capital as the pinnacle of industrialised society.
This view of skilled workers as liabilities rather than assets was shared by the then conservative State and Commonwealth Governments. It suited these politicians to turn a blind eye to the illegality of the employers' action in locking out the miners.
They cared nothing for the hardships, indignities, intimidation, and violence that would be heaped on miners and their families between March 1929 and the end of The Great Lockout in June 1930.
Indeed, they actively conspired to break the spirit of the miners and the strength of their Federation.
In telling his story of The Great Lockout, Jim Comerford writes with detachment and attention to detail. His understanding of the dynamics and imperatives of the domestic and international coal trades is impressive. His insights into relationships between politics and money are similarly impressive.
Party political power, he suggests, will always eventually bend to the will of the highest bidder. His accounts of the repeated betrayals of the miners and their families by the highest levels of Parliamentary Labor in New South Wales and Canberra are breathtaking in their directness. His description of Labor leader "Red" Ted Theodore turning his back on mining communities struggling against officially-sanctioned brutality and attempts to starve miners and their families into submission makes a lasting impression on any reader.
Of course, Theodore's betrayals were not entirely unexpected by the more perceptive of the locked-out miners. They remembered him as a former AWU organiser who had made a career out of placing the welfare of himself and his cronies ahead of the welfare of the workers who paid his wages. Nor could they overlook Theodore's fall from political grace in Queensland where he was associated with the Mungana Mines scandal and its associated questionable share dealings.
Yet despite Jim Comerford's attempts to maintain an air of scholarly detachment in this story of struggle and the maintenance of human dignity against all the odds, it is to his great credit that he never entirely succeeds. The events of the months between March 1929 and June 1930 left personal wounds that cannot be concealed. Nor should they be concealed.
His descriptions of life in Northern district mining towns in the late 1920s are reminiscent of the works of that other great chronicler of the lives of ordinary people, A.J. Cronin.
Jim Comerford brings to life the Friday night outings to the ice cream parlour and the local picture theatres. He captures the comradeship of the early morning walk to work, the pithead banter, and the physical hardships and dangers of the coal miner's life. He crafts a picture of family life, of stepping out in "Sunday best" clothes, of visits to the local co-operative store.
His description of the mass meetings as The Great Lockout bit deeply into thousands of miners and their wives and children is riveting. And to read those descriptions is to be there on the platform with Bill McBlane, Bondy Hoare and dozens like them.
Jim Comerford is probably at his story-telling best when he recounts the events of that day in December 1929 when police at Rothbury bashed and belted and shot miners where they stood. His description of police baton charges and the fury of miners who were fighting for their lives is electrifying. His later description of the journey home after the police rampage at Rothbury is sad beyond belief. Images of miners asleep, exhausted or speechless by the open air kitchens set up by wives after the news of Rothbury spread to towns across the northern coalfields will never be forgotten by those who read Jim Comerford's story.
Importantly, Jim Comerford's latest book has a relevance that transcends time. His work well and truly nails a popular misconception that history is only about yesterday. At its very best, history explains today and offers a road map for tomorrow.
Current events in Australia in many respects mirror events in the Australia of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Contemporary assaults on legitimate unionism mirror employer actions in 1929. Arguments of employers today are the same as arguments of employers in 1929 - increased productivity will always deliver more employment opportunities. Individual contracts will deliver thicker pay packets. Unions are "a throwback to the past." More is always better.
The employer arguments of today are as flawed as they were in 1929. They represent the shameless philosophies of those who would divide in order to rule. They represent the way back rather than the way forwards.
In telling his story of The Great Lockout, Jim Comerford is making a significant contribution to today's debate on industrial relations. His message is as clear as it is persuasive. It warns: "United we bargain. Divided we beg."
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