Back to Basics

The Coal Industry: (A) A Review (B) The Saxonvale Affair

(A) H C O Larratt; (B) A Kuru

Apart from agriculture, coal mining is our oldest major Australian industry; its history is almost as old as that of European settlement of this country.

Authenticity with respect to historical events throughout this presentation relies upon the record of events contained in the book by Mr M H Ellis entitled A Saga of Coal, published in 1959, which was commissioned by the Newcastle Wallsend Coal Company to celebrate its centenary in 1958.

In March 1791, a convict named William Bryant stole a small fishing boat, and with his wife, Mary, two children, and seven other convicts, escaped from Port Jackson, hoping to reach the East Indies, three thousand miles away.

Four days later, the voyagers went ashore in the vicinity of the Hunter River. At any rate, Bryant's ragged crew may be regarded as the pioneers of the Newcastle coalfields. Mary Bryant was the first white woman to set foot on the soil of the district and to cook with Newcastle coal.

In the early 1800s, Governor King had regarded the Hunter River region as a suitably remote place of exile for obstreperous Irish convicts and patriots, and decided to establish a permanent settlement to hold desperate convicts suffering secondary punishments.

The Governor resolved to ensure that potential rebellion in the colony was averted by sending a number of the most active of the insurgents to the 'coal works' by the Hunter River.

The convict system was abolished in New South Wales in 1840. The advent of free labour saw the beginning of a struggle for higher wages and enforced amenities, and this has continued ever since. The discovery of gold in Australia in the early 1850s caused a short-lived scarcity of labour and soon penniless gold miners from western fields were returning to the coastal environment, ready to take any job for any pay.

On 5 November---Guy Fawkes' Day---1858, resolutions were carried to found the Newcastle Wallsend Coal Company.

The decade that followed saw the development of competition on the Australian coalfields, and also the beginnings of the age of the trade unions.

During the 1850s the strike had become a potent weapon on the British coalfields and in the Lancashire industrial areas. A large proportion of the tradesmen and miners entering Australia had had experience of these disturbances. A number of these migrants were prominent in the movement to form trade unions in Sydney and Newcastle in 1861-2.

It was unfortunate for the coal industry that when inquiries for Australian coal were beginning to be made by overseas purchasers, differences about working conditions caused two disastrous stoppages in 1861 and 1862---the first serious ones the Australian industry had suffered.

The industry continued to falter until 1870, and in the six trying years of reconstruction from 1864 onwards the average miner was glad to have a job at any price and to work ten or twelve hours a day to keep it.

The miners, from 1870 onwards, were led by men with skill in trade union organising techniques, acquired In their homeland, who resurrected the union movement.

This unity of miners placed them in a much stronger position than the owners, even before the proclamation of the Trade Union Act in 1880, and was further strengthened by a strike in 1873 which wielded them into a united body, ready to accept union control and discipline.

On the other hand, as a consultant to the major employer in the industry put it, 'the combination of owners, if there be any, is a mere rope of sand'. That has not changed.

Continued growing industrial unrest by employees culminated in a major coal strike in 1888. It was important in history as the event that sealed off the old era of seeking unity of policy between colliery proprietor and union from the new one in which the employer was treated as the workers' mortal enemy. This new policy had the greater impact because it ran with the old-age traditions of miners as a separate class.

In this new era the consumer achieved a new status in the eyes of the union theorist. He had become like the miner, it was said, the victim of the vices and rapacity of the coal owner.

In 1890 the NSW Government appointed a Royal Commission to inquire into the best method of preventing strikes.

Its members seemed to be quite oblivious to the failure of the existing system of arbitration which it characterised as 'uniformly successful' when applied, and recommended no more than a variation to provide a board of conciliation and arbitration.

This tribunal, when it failed to conciliate as a whole, would shed its non-permanent part like a lizard's tail, leaving the permanent members to sit in awful state and 'discharge the duty of adjudication and pronounce a decision'.

An outcome of the 1890 Commission was the Arbitration Act of 1892.

A further State Act of 1901 provided for a Conciliation Committee or Tribunal with a Chairman and two other members. Another strike in 1907 saw the creation of Conciliation Boards to assist with the Resolution of Dispute in line with the majority, but these were complicated by the Federal Act of 1904---so now some unions had a varied choice: either Federal law or State law, but always, in the end, union law.

During World War I there was the Proclamation of another law---the War Precautions Act and National Security Regulations---designed to bypass the Federal Arbitration Court and appoint a special Commissioner who granted every claim of the Miners' Federation and gave the green light to the Federation to enlarge its demands.

In 1929 a Royal Commission was appointed which later held that the proprietors should have approached the Arbitration Court; but it must have seemed to the harassed companies, long before this juncture, that the whole principle of balancing interests had broken down.

From the beginning, the union acted on the premise that all tribunals were 'anti-working class', and the servile instruments of the employers. Only when they gave decisions in favour of the men were they prepared to abide by their rulings.

Between 1930 and 1939 all attempts to stabilise coal production and attain industrial peace were hampered by propagandists who could see no remedy for the coal industry's trouble, save nationalisation.

In 1939, when trade showed its first signs of real improvement, there was an insistent clamour for increased pay, shorter hours, two pound per week pensions for miners reaching the retiring age of sixty, and underground transport for miners.

All the matters of wages and conditions were sent to Judge Drake-Brockman in the Federal Arbitration Court. He reduced hours per week to 44, gave annual leave of 10 days on full pay, with increases of penalty rates for difficult places.

A few months later in 1939 came a claim for a 30-hour week, which was rejected, though 40 hours with no Saturday work was granted to those winning and handling coal.

As to the majority of the decisions by members of Industrial Courts and Tribunals, which sympathised with the employer, condemned the employees' actions and invariably awarded the substantive portion of the Union's claims Judge Drake-Brockman wrote,

    'The success and prosperity of a particular colliery are the concern of all employed in and about it. The employees' earnings and security of employment are directly involved. These things ought to be obvious, but unfortunately they are often disregarded.'

Of the conditions of affairs in 1939, Mr Justice Drake-Brockman reported that 'employees had usurped the functions of management'. He declared that managers and superintendents seem to lack the courage to impose discipline, and so the 'last on, first off' rule had been established, meaning that no matter what a reasonably long-employed mine worker did, or how lazy or insubordinate or mischievous he might be, he was firmly entrenched in his job. 'Nothing', declared the Judge, 'short of the closing down of the mine, death or compensable illness could prise him out of it'.

    '[He could] stay away from time to time as he feels inclined, but when he returns to the mines his job must be waiting for him. 'Silly' strikes and sectional stoppages for insufficient reasons, or often for no apparent reason at all, are all too common. These practices are quite unjustified. They are harmful to the industry and to all people associated with it'.

The state of the industry at the time was captioned as:

    'The wagon of the coal industry was bolting rapidly downhill, its drivers---governments, coal owners, and unions---each trying to force the vehicle in a different direction, each trying to wrest the reins from the others, and each slashing about indiscriminately with the whip.'

In January 1945 still another board to inquire into the coal industry was appointed. Commissioner Davidson issued his report in 1946. In outspoken words, he found that 'the coal industry in its major fields is a tottering industry, undisciplined, losing its production and markets. . . a prey to evil and revolutionary influences, inefficient, dangerously over-governed to the point of strangulation'.

The Commissioner's report on mechanisation was forthright:

    'Nothing more is needed than this brief outline to establish that the coal industry is not only inefficient but is afflicted with a form of creeping paralysis. On all sides mechanization is admittedly indispensable. Yet its introduction is attacked by arguments that it will reduce employment, will render the miner's work unsafe and will cost so much that the money will not be forthcoming from the industry.'

The report recommended to the Governments concerned that they 'constitute a Federal authority with powers and duties covering almost every phase of coal mining and disposal, usage and economy, including the level of fair profit, and of safety measures and employment. The Governments were advised to grant a bounty to mine owners willing to come under the jurisdiction of the new body.

The whole scheme, the Commissioner thought, should be on a voluntary basis. The bounty was the governing factor and the incentive to the coal owners to come under it.

Immediately after the presentation of Commissioner Davidson's report, the Commonwealth and NSW Governments each passed an Act to replace the Coal Production (War-time) Act 1944.

These two new statutes were identical. It was agreed by each Government that there should be no repeal or amendment save by joint consent of the Governments involved. Each measure was called the Coal Industry Act 1946. They owed much of their contents to the findings of Commissioner Davidson, but the principle of voluntary association proposed by the Commissioner was not acceptable to Labor Governments.

The objective of the 1946 legislation was to 'provide means for securing and maintaining adequate supplies of coal throughout Australia and for providing for the regulation and improvement of the coal industry' in New South Wales and 'for purposes connected therewith'.

These Acts established a Joint Coal Board to administer the industry and a Coal Industry Tribunal with local coal authorities to determine industrial regulation. The Tribunal was to consist of only one man whose decision would not be subject to appeal other than in the High Court of Australia.



Part B. The Saxonvale Affair

The evolution, over the years, of attitudes and regulations in our coal mining industry, as traced by Herb Larratt and taken up by him later, presents us today with a system which is most restricted by its cohesiveness and (it would seem to some), impregnable to change in the current political situation.

The net in which coal mining companies find themselves is both strong and flexible. Its various components the Government, unions, Joint Coal Board and the Coal Industry Tribunal combine and complement each other to dissipate effectively any efforts towards progressive change that may threaten 'custom and practice', and those so-called hard-won conditions squeezed from companies by militant unions over the years. The stated reasons for the continued existence of the Joint Coal Board and the Coal Industry Tribunal are, in the main, as they were in 1946, to ensure that coal is produced in the State and 'in such quantities and with such regularity as will meet the requirements', and also 'to promote the welfare of workers engaged in the coal industry in New South Wales'. It is a great pity that, in the execution of this task the short-term solution is at the expense of a mining operation, or, indeed, of the entire industry. The need to remain economically viable to stay in business seems to have little or no bearing on the decisions imposed.

At last year's Conference at Mooloolaba, Charles Copeman gave a paper on the Robe River Affair. The success story subsequent to that 'Affair' has been clearly evidenced, and the action taken justified by the substantial contribution which Robe River iron ore now makes to the Peko Group and to the other shareholders. Our efforts to acquire, last year, the ailing Saxonvale coal mine in the Hunter Valley were described at the time by a prominent unionist as 'Robe River all over again'. Unfortunately, I cannot present the Saxonvale Affair today as a story of success similar to Robe. Our 'Affair' nevertheless did a lot to expose the nature of some of the forces an employer in the coal industry has to contend with in 1988. Our action perhaps also helped to trigger this recognition, and also to promote recent pressures by economically-squeezed employers for changes to archaic customs and wasteful work practices. These actions and pressures attracted aggressive resistance by mining unions, and resulted in timid agreement with the principle of change, but ended with support for the status quo.

Saxonvale open-cut mine had been conceived by BHP during the late 1970s as a three stage development to ultimately produce some 7m tonnes of thermal coal per year for the export market. The subsequent world oversupply of coal and downward pressure on prices caused mine development to be held at stage one, with revenue apparently not covering the cash cost of production, which commenced in 1981. The 'think big' approach to the planning of the mine from more prosperous times had allowed the establishment of operating methods and labour conditions and practices difficult to support from a smaller operation in leaner times. Consequently BHP had advised their mine staff of their intention to either sell the mine or, failing that, to make drastic reductions to level of operations, and to the number of people employed.

Newcastle Wallsend Coal Company, the Coal Division of the Peko Group, holds an Authority to Prospect at Bulga, a coal resource immediately to the north of the Saxonvale mine. The company recognised cost savings obtainable as the result of a different mining approach possible on a combined Saxonvale-Bulga holding, and improvements to the rate of return which could be achieved by optimising Saxonvale's production as a component of Newcastle Wallsend's successful coal-blending operations. Significant cost savings were also seen to be available by changing manning and work practices established at the mine.

Our plans for the mine were based on an initial 'survival period' of heavy losses for at least one year. During this time changes to the coal washery would be made as well as work carried out to allow mining to move in 18 months into the financially more attractive Whybrow seam operation in the combined Saxonvale-Bulga holding. Capital expenditure of some $20m was considered necessary during this development stage.

Employment, set at 236 for the 'survival' period, would increase to 285 and ultimately reach 600 as the full potential of the Saxonvale Bulga holding was developed in about 5 years.

Agreement with BHP in regard to terms of the sale was reached in January 1987, and support for the transfer was sought and obtained from the NSW Government. It was agreed that BHP would reduce the then manning of about 320 to 236 nominated by Newcastle Wallsend by the time the transfer took place, a reduction of 84 employees. BHP proposed to achieve the reduction by natural attrition and by use of a voluntary retirement package already established within the company, if that were necessary.

Unions were advised of the proposed sale at a meeting convened by the Joint Coal Board early in February. As the sale could be seen as a rescue operation offering to the majority of Saxonvale employees a more secure future, it was anticipated that negotiations, in which work practices were traded for additional jobs, would follow. This was not to be the case.

Numerous necessary work practice changes were identified and, in the period February to June 1987, a series of meetings was held with the seven unions which had members employed at the mine. Several meetings with representatives of all unions were chaired by the Joint Coal Board. These meetings had an attendance of 30 or more people.

It became clear that no meaningful agreements in the way of achieving more cost-effective work practices and manning could be reached. The unions insisted firstly that waste and overmanning did not exist, and secondly, that if we wished to negotiate changes they would discuss some of the issues only after the transfer of the mine, and of the employees, had taken place. This approach was not acceptable to the company. As the agreed transfer date approached, the company issued written offers of employment to the then Saxonvale employees on the basis that the employment would be in accordance with the provisions of the relevant Award, 'applicable Orders of the Coal Industry Tribunal and any specific agreements made with the Newcastle Wallsend Coal Company Pty Ltd'. Prospective employees were asked to signify acceptance of the offer by returning a signed copy of the offer letter to the company. Unions instructed their members not to respond individually but accepted, or more correctly, made a counter-offer collectively, on behalf of their members, to the effect that 'the employment be in accordance with current Award provisions and agreements' (the emphasis is mine). In other words, all the wasteful manning and work practices in place were to be continued with the new employer. Further, on 1 June the National Liaison Committee of the mining unions advised that the unions would not respond to any approach to review work practices other than through the coal industry's employer organisation---the New South Wales Coal Association.

Contracts of sale of the mine were signed by the parties on 17 June 1987 and submitted to the NSW Minister for Mineral Resources for the necessary transfer of the mining lease approval. It was proposed that the operational transfer take place over the following weekend.

On Thursday, 18 June, the Joint Coal Board convened a conference between the company and the unions and then directed the Coal Industry Tribunal, to consider and determine, 'in the public interest': '

    1.What are the terms and conditions of employment of the mine workers currently employed at the Saxonvale mine and what will be the status of those mineworkers following the transfer of ownership of the mine; and

    2. The terms and conditions of employment which shall apply to mineworkers employed or to be employed at the said mine.'

On the following day the Minister for Mineral Resources advised the Tribunal that he did not propose to approve the transfer of the lease 'until I am in a position to examine the relevance of the matter before the Tribunal to the exercise of my functions under the Coal Mining Act, particularly those functions that bear on the employment of specified numbers of persons in mining lease areas. Equally, I would not wish to affect the Tribunal's deliberations by a premature consideration of the application.'

The Coal Industry Tribunal on 19 June heard the matter and in an interim decision of the same day stated that he had given no consideration to the 'second matter, or the second part of the first matter' of the Board's referral, but found 'in answer to the first part of the question put by the Joint Coal Board that the mineworkers in receipt of NWCC offer at Saxonvale are currently employees of BHP and I so determine.' This was the first step by the Tribunal in dodging the issue.

It was clear that the actions of the Joint Coal Board and the Minister followed the wishes and pressure from the unions. The unions, as one organiser was quoted in the press, had asked the State Government not to approve the transfer of the mine's lease without the company having agreed to take over all existing conditions and work practices and also sought the Joint Coal Board to issue orders declaring the dispute an industrial matter to be dealt with by the Coal Industry Tribunal 'in the public interest'. Newcastle Wallsend thus found itself a party to an industrial dispute of 'public interest', this without ownership of the mine and involving another company's employees. The transfer of the mine proposed for the 20 June could not proceed.

An offer of employment on the basis of the law of the land was seen as 'rogue attitude' by my company, which 'may have a harmful effect on the State's well being'. On the following Tuesday, 23 June, the Coal Industry Tribunal ordered that for a period of three months, or until further order of the Tribunal, the terms and conditions of employment at Saxonvale shall be 'the same in every aspect, except total numbers employed, as those obtaining under the management of BHP as on the 15 June'. Our submissions in writing made to the Tribunal and subsequently in evidence during hearings in an application for rescission of the order that a new employer-employee relationship could not be based, even on a short-term basis, on vague and undefined terms as ordered, that is the same as BHP's on 15 June, fell on deaf ears---the order, to the considerable satisfaction of the union hierarchy, remained in place. I should note here that in submissions to the Tribunal, the Joint Coal Board and the NSW Government supported the stand of the unions: the existing conditions, warts and all, were not to be challenged or disturbed---all this in the interest of 'responsible' industrial relations. Whilst the hearings in front of the Tribunal were effectively perpetuating the very conditions which made it impossible for the then owner of Saxonvale to continue, the Minister for Mineral Resources set about making his contribution to the cause. We were advised that a condition to the transfer of the lease would be that a minimum of 236 people were to be employed on the mine more than double the minimum of 104 required of BHP as a condition of their lease.

We were thus faced with having to accept and condone all the wasteful work practices in place at the mine, as well as be tied, as a minimum, and regardless of over-award working conditions forced upon us, to the number of employees we had volunteered to employ, or the lease would not be transferred to us. At the same time, we were aware that BHP intended, if the sale of the mine did not proceed, to reduce operations to about 120 employees for economic reasons. We found that the unions, the Government, the Joint Coal Board and the Coal Industry Tribunal had effectively and neatly (the last two using powers invested in them by the Coal Industry Act of 1946, aided and abetted by industrial threats) prepared conditions which we found irresponsible, and impossible to accept.

We did not.

Some of you may recall our subsequent newspaper advertisements 'No, Minister, and Yes, Minister'---public protestations which, because of the proximity of the 11 July Federal election, required us subsequently to explain and account for our 'election expenditure'.

The Saxonvale Affair, or 'Robe River all over again', did not have a happy ending. We and BHP had expended considerable effort and incurred substantial costs in arriving at the stage when contracts had been exchanged and the transfer of the mine was imminent. Subsequent to the frustration of the sale by those charged with the responsibility for the coal mining industry and for those employed within it, over 100 more jobs were lost as BHP reduced the operation to 130 employees. The positive way forward, with a substantial future increase in employment offered to Saxonvale and its employees by the company, was destroyed by those who place industrial expediency before security. The establishment of practices and systems which allegedly have been evolved to protect employment in the mining industry have become the tools of destruction of that same employment.

In conclusion, I would like to illustrate some of the attitudes by what was said at the time. Mick Watson, Miners Federation organiser in the Common Cause, the journal of the Federation, wrote this on 18 March 1987:

    'If Peko wants to expand its operations in the coal industry it should be bound to honour the present practices and conditions that exist in our industry. Nobody should be under any illusions, if Peko breaks through at Saxonvale it will spill over to other operations throughout the industry. If the New Right wants to pull us on then we will all have to stand united and beat off that attack.'

John Maitland, General President of the Miners' Federation, was quoted by the 'Newcastle Morning Herald', (10 June 1987) as saying:

    'On the Saxonvale mine, the governments were being asked to take action against Peko-Wallsend if it refused to employ the mine's workers under existing conditions';

and in the 'Sunday Telegraph' on 28 June 1987:

    'We would rather see the Saxonvale operation close than go to Peko.'

The Minister for Mineral Resources, Mr Ken Gabb, included the following in his press release of 2 July 1987

    'Peko-Wallsend deliberately and provocatively inflamed the situation by demanding that mineworkers sign open-ended letters of employment knowing this to be contrary to accepted industry practices . . .

    'Peko-Wallsend have deliberately tried to obscure the issue by talking about work practices in conjunction with the granting of the lease . . .

    'My main concern is for the effective future working of the mine and given the attitude of Peko-Wallsend, I have no option but to decline the transfer.

    'By their attitude Peko-Wallsend have demonstrated that the future harmony which would allow the effective operation of the mine would be placed in jeopardy.

    'Given the current climate in the industry, the rogue attitude adopted by Peko-Wallsend may have a harmful effect on the State's well-being.

    'Peko-Wallsend have demonstrated that they are isolated in their attitude towards the Saxonvale Mine.

    'It would appear that they can seek no comfort from their colleagues in the industry and from the Opposition. In fact the Opposition has been deathly silent on the matter.

    'This is probably explained by their embarrassment at the Federal Opposition's call for the abolition of the Joint Coal Board and the Coal Industry Tribunal.

    ''In the current climate, it is highly irresponsible to suggest the abolition of the Joint Coal Board, given its specific and specialised abilities regarding the marketing of coal and coal technology to the world . . .

    'Also the Coal Industry Tribunal during the past week has demonstrated the responsible attitude and knowledgeable role in the New South Wales coal industry.'

The following week's headlines wrote the epilogue:

    'BHP to cut 136 jobs at Saxonvale';

    'Saxonvale saga is a lesson to remember', and

    'Miners left with only the dole and bitterness'.



Part A. A Review (contd)

There are those among us who may complain about the determinations of the Federal and various State Commissions of conciliation and arbitration and who may not be familiar with the workings and determinations of the Coal Industry Tribunal.

The Coal Industry Tribunal, when set up in 1946, was developed for a domestically-oriented industry in New South Wales, with its sole obligation to secure and maintain adequate supplies of coal. At that time, 90 per cent of the coal was produced from underground mines with minimum quantities exported.

The coal industry is now dominantly an export industry, which is as strong in Queensland as in New South Wales, and provides a greater contribution to Australia's export earnings than any other industry. The tonnage of coal mined by open-cut methods has increased, whilst the output of underground mines has remained, over the last few years, relatively constant. In fact, the majority of coal is produced from workings that can be described as somewhere between a quarry and a civil engineering project.

The Tribunal, as a one-man ruler of the coal industry, has placed it in economic chaos.

The Tribunal is impotent to resist union pressure for increased wages and improved conditions, regardless of miners' wages, conditions and benefits already being well in excess of State and Federal standards (more than double the average wage for all males in industry). Miners' wages are $800 per week in New South Wales---a 35-hour week was granted in 1970. Accident Pay may extend to 39 weeks, including bonus, compared to 26 weeks at ordinary earnings in industry generally.

The Tribunal is incompetent in its determinations, and results in the continuing high level of cost, and the severe incidence of lost time due to industrial disputes. In the 1986 Industry Productivity Decision, the Tribunal stated:

    'As I understand the statutory duties imposed on me by the Coal Industry Acts I do not have the liberty to adopt a course which I believe would result in further industrial instability and loss of production.'

Such statements completely ignore economic arguments about market, price, exchange rate and capacity to pay. They are concerned narrowly with the statutory requirements placed upon the Tribunal to ensure production of coal.

The Tribunal ignored the submissions to the 1986 Industry Productivity proceedings of the Employers' Associations and Newcastle Wallsend, and sought to place credence only upon selected extracts of the submissions of the interveners on behalf of the ACTU, the Federal Minister and the Joint Coal Board, to the detriment of the coal industry employers and employees, as the number of retrenchments and mine closures have subsequently clearly demonstrated.

The policy of appeasement, allegedly inherent in the terms of reference of the Tribunal, is the main cause of industrial action in the coal industry today. The industry has the compulsion of a Board and a Tribunal but not the bounties denied to it by the Labor Ministries, a circumstance of double jeopardy.

The coal industry exports almost 100 million tonnes annually. This represents more than two-thirds of total production. Export receipts are well in excess of $5 billion.

The NSW coal mining industry has now, as an industry, experienced seven years of losses. Over the last three years the industry lost a total of $200m.

The industry is, in fact, caught in a squeeze action between rising costs and falling prices. Appeasement by expediency and bribery has not succeeded throughout history. It encourages a blackmailer in his ransom and ensures his claims for further appeasement at frequent intervals. The visible policy of 'Peace at any price' in the coal industry should never have to be tolerated, and the first step towards remedying this situation is to repeal the Coal Industry Acts 1946.

The disputation between employer and employees continues unabated despite the Coal Industry Tribunal, notwithstanding the plight of the industry as the following example at one of our Company's collieries shows:

From October 1985, the manning level on a continuous miner had been discussed with employees for a year prior to the machine being commissioned. It only went into operation when our company agreed to 7 men/shift for a trial period. This trial period remained for 14 months and a 6 men/shift trial period then commenced---and is continuing at the present time---but not without strikes, go slows, appearances before the Tribunal, etc.

This type of machine at other collieries is manned with 6 men/shift.

Therefore a period of over two years has already elapsed in pursuance of the current industrial system, furthering the creation of waste, cost and loss---all such aspects detrimental to the best interests of the industry.

Late last year our company sought to stagger crib break times to maintain production at such times during the shift and to eliminate the penalty payment for the taking of late cribs. Despite numerous conferences and hearings before the Tribunal, and the Local Coal Authority, involving some 160 man days of time, a four-day strike and a decision partly in the company's favour, the employees have continued to frustrate the staggering of crib times.

Any relief to an employer in this industry is just not available unless the employer compromises sufficiently so that the Tribunal or the Authority may appear to function in its role.

The determinations of the Coal Industry Tribunal have:

  • not been successful in reducing the incidence and severity of industrial disruption;
  • granted wage rates, benefits and conditions, improvements superior to and inconsistent with Federal and State Awards;
  • effectively enshrined work practices, restrictions and rorts on the basis that 'custom and practice prevails'.

In this State, a colliery employer is hamstrung, even when requiring to close a mine, which requires approval from the Joint Coal Board. Our company made such an application in November last year to the Joint Coal Board, and a decision is still awaited. Although several conferences and investigations have taken place there is still no decision---another example of paralysis by analysis. The Joint Coal Board initially sought to make a contribution to the industry with the introduction of mechanisation, but had divested itself of the task in the 1950s when the industry changed from manual to mechanised operation.

The 'Back to Basics' solution for the future long-term interests of all concerned in the coal industry is to repeal the 1946 Coal Industry Acts, thereby abolishing the Joint Coal Board and the Coal Industry Tribunal.

The question of industrial regulation would then be either under the Federal or State jurisdiction, as is already applicable to every other major private enterprise activity throughout Australia.

Why HR Nicholls?

More...