Public Interest or Vested Interest
The Story of the 'Thorley 25'
At the H R Nicholls Society conference at Bronte in
NSW in March 1990, Jeff Hanlon and Geoffrey Potts,
two members of the Federated Engine Drivers & Firemen's
Association attended and, led by Mr Ray Evans, told
their story to the conference. The following paper
has been assembled by Peter Murray and recounts the
conversation at the conference. It also updates the
events to January 1992.
Coal production in Australia steadily increased over
the last 35 years. 19.6 million tonnes of coal were
produced in Australia in 1955. This total had risen
to 139 million in 1984 and to about 170 million in
1989. In the same period coal production in NSW increased
from 15 million tonnes to 68 million tonnes.
In the decade 1974 to 1984 while underground mining
increased its raw coal production from 35 million tonnes
to 49 million tonnes open-cut production increased
from 35 million tonnes, to 90 million tonnes. In NSW
underground production went from 33 million tonnes
to 42 million tonnes and open-cut production from 9.3
million tonnes to 28 million tonnes.
The very rapid increase in open-cut production has
continued. In 1960 underground mining in Australia
accounted for 90% of the raw coal production. By 1985
it accounted for only 34%.
During the 1970s as a consequence of the two oil shocks
of 1973 and 1979 and the increasing political pressure
on nuclear power development, the coal industry was
optimistic and there were large investments in coal
mines. Mount Thorley mine which, now produces in excess
of 6 million tonnes a year, commenced in 1981 after
a decision to proceed with the investment in 1979.
The Federated Engine Drivers & Firemen's Association
of Australia (F.E.D.F.A.) had always been a small player
in the mining industry. In underground coal mines its
members were engine drivers operating the haulage engines
in shafts and drifts, and pumpers and greasers. While
in some cases they wielded a lot of power because of
these key positions, they were small in number. The
development of the open-cuts brought about a very significant
change, as the plant operators driving bulldozers,
scrapers, graders and the like came from the contracting
industry and were members of the F.E.D.F.A. The F.E.D.F.A.
then grew at a rate that was faster than the industry
as a whole, and particularly in the Hunter Valley it
became very powerful.
The F.E.D.F.A. has not had the same mining traditions
as the other unions, notably, the Australian Coal &
Shale Employees Federation (Miners Federation) and
the Federated Mining Mechanics Association (Mechanics).
Not having their history, its policies were at odds
with many of those of the other unions. A typical example
was policy on seven-day-a-week working. The F.E.D.F.A.
had always accepted continuous work while the mining
unions had opposed it for very many years. It was not
until 1988 that all mining unions came into line and
work is now permitted in coal mines on 363 days of
In the Hunter Valley the F.E.D.F.A. became the key
union that could control the output in an open-cut
mine, drive hard bargains for conditions and control
a growing and very well paid workforce. Its members
operate equipment of very high capital values and wages
are consequently high.
For an aggressive and ambitious union organiser, the
F.E.D.F.A. in the Hunter Valley has been and is a great
prize. The struggle to maintain control of it and further
its ambitions is very much the story of the 'Thorley
Because of its importance and strength in the Hunter
Valley the Muswellbrook sub-branch is effectively the
mining division of the F.E.D.F.A. The key personality
there in recent times has been Mr John Thorley whose
forebears gave Mount Thorley its name and who has been
a union organiser until recently. The Muswellbrook
sub-branch has been run by a mining committee. At one
time the NSW President of the F.E.D.F.A., Mr Peter
Hobbs, was also its chairman. Representatives from
the various mines in the Hunter Valley make up its
This committee, conscious of its power at the Mount
Thorley mine, exerted it from the very beginning of
The F.E.D.F.A. had over a long period over many industries
sought to establish a system that protected its unemployed
members. An 'employment book' was established and the
association sought that employers would only take new
employees from this list where possible. The custom
grew arising from this in the Hunter Valley that when
new F.E.D.F.A. members were to be employed at open-cuts,
applicants would be sent by the union office to be
tested and interviewed at the mine. An employee would
be selected from them. With the demand for employees
at that time, administration of the employment book
at Muswellbrook was a busy task. It not only provided
for unemployed members obtaining jobs in the mining
industry but also for the transfer of F.E.D.F.A. members
from one mine to another where it was argued it might
better suit their travelling arrangements.
After Mount Thorley mine had been held up for four
months, because of demand by all the unions for an
out-of award travelling allowance, recruitment commenced.
The first ten employees at Mount Thorley were selected
by the union. They have proved to be a key group in
the association's system.
It is noteworthy that the other mining unions including
the United Mine Workers of Australia have award provisions
that protect out-of-work employees, based on seniority.
Once employed at a mine, the mine worker in seniority
always has a right to a position at that mine provided
membership and registration is maintained. In addition
it has a long established custom that across the industry
unemployed mine workers are employed prior to outsiders.
With those unions this system has worked for the protection
of their members.
For the development of Mount Thorley the F.E.D.F.A.
continued in a very aggressive mode. In the first five
years of the mine's life the Miners Federation did
not lose any time due to a dispute at the mine. In
the same time the F.E.D.F.A. lost nearly 200 days with
a continuing list of demands.
In 1984 the company decided to purchase a large front
end loader of 20.6 cubic metres bucket capacity. While
the F.E.D.F.A. members at the mine were quite happy
with this progress Peter Hobbs upon hearing of it informed
them that the machine would not work unless it had
two operators. There is only one seat on the machine.
It had been long established from the days of steam
shovels that two men operated a shovel. This position
has been taken to absurd lengths by the F.E.D.F.A.
and on shovels with smaller buckets than this new front
end loader, two men were employed. Several hydraulic
machines of this nature were at a neighbouring Hunter
Valley colliery. The membership of the F.E.D.F.A. was
told that the introduction of the Hough loader would
threaten the jobs of people in other mines.
The consequence was a long strike or series of strikes
and arbitration hearings in the Local Coal Authority
& Coal Industry Tribunal which did not conclude
until June 1985. Enter the 'Thorley 25'.
The 'Thorley 25'
Despite the intervention of the State Government,
the Joint Coal Board, the Coal Industry Tribunal and
the NSW Coal Association, in May 1985 it had still
proved impossible to obtain a resolution of the Hough
'580' dispute and there was no prospect of a solution.
The company then wrote to all the F.E.D.F.A. members
who were on strike giving them notice of termination
of their employment unless they agreed to a set of
conditions that would resolve the past conflicts. They
were given the opportunity to do this individually
but none did. When their employment terminated the
company then advertised for plant operators.
In the first week about 900 applications were received.
25 operators, being a convenient number to train, were
immediately selected and introduced to the mine. All
other unions on site readily accepted these new employees.
Their entry was made under harassment from picketing
members of the F.E.D.F.A. They had been on strike for
months, supported by contributions through the so-called
Loan & Savings Account from their fellow association
members in the Hunter Valley. They received $300 a
week. (At one time during the dispute they threatened
to go back to work at Mount Thorley if they didn't
get more money and their wages on strike were then
raised to $300.)
When this employment of new mine workers commenced
it was obviously of great concern to all the unions
in the industry. The Mining Liaison Committee met and
made an application to the Local Coal Authority, the
arbitration authority under the Coal Industry Act,
for the reinstatement of the 73 F.E.D.F.A. members
who had been dismissed. On 5th June, 1985 the Local
Coal Authority said that the issue had been resolved
with the F.E.D.F.A. undertaking that the 580 Hough
front end loader would be manned in accordance with
the employer's operating requirements. He ordered the
reinstatement of the dismissed plant operators and
obtained a commitment for on-going negotiations for
other matters that were still in contention.
The Local Coal Authority said in relation to the other
'In arriving at this decision I have been influenced
by the association's undertaking that with the reinstatement
of the retrenched employees, no action will be taken
to interfere with the continued employment of those
persons engaged by the employer on and subsequent to
23rd May, 1985.'
Thus commences the saga of the 'Thorley 25'.
The company made a deliberate choice to employ only
financial members of the association as it did not
want to have another potential source of conflict with
other unions. Among the job applicants many unions
When the mine went back to work after the Local Coal
Authority's decision of 5th June, 1985 with the 'Thorley
25' on the job, another 10 plant operators were also
employed. They had been offered positions prior to
the dispute over the loader after being recruited under
the traditional F.E.D.F.A. system.
Prior to the settlement of the dispute, while the
'25' were in training, union officials had been permitted
to address them and advise them of the benefits of
F.E.D.F.A. membership. They were asked by the officials
to leave their jobs at Mount Thorley and seek employment
through the union system. None did so.
The request to leave went far beyond the simple verbal
request. Each of the '25' were served with letters
and telegrams from the F.E.D.F.A. by the State Secretary,
requiring them to attend meetings of the Muswellbrook
sub-branch. It was proposed by the union at their aggregate
meetings that they would then put it to the '25' that
they had broken the union rules and policies, they
should stand down from their jobs and seek employment
through the traditional F.E.D.F.A. system. The '25'
replied to these written demands using the services
of a solicitor. They requested that complete information
of the complaints against them and the rules and policies
of the union be given to them before they would attend.
The union was conscious at the same time of action
being taken in the Supreme Court against the Miners
Federation for the harassment and expulsion of some
of its members.
The '25' stood their ground and were still employed
when the decision was eventually made to return to
In order to make peace on the job, the '25' agreed
that the 10 employees who had been recruited later
than them, should be put on the seniority list prior
to them. They considered this a 'trade' for a quiet
life at work. The seniority was important as it determined
the rate of promotion to higher paid classifications
and the order in which people would be retrenched if
the mine was shedding labour. A sign of what was to
come was the unions' arranging that those 10 would
have red spots on their safety helmets so that everybody
else at the mine could identify them as friendly new
starters. Then the harassment really started.
Members of the '25' were subject not only to abusive
and obscene name calling but were constantly labelled
as 'scabs'. In the union context this term is of great
import as it is a very strong tradition especially
in the mining industry of not working with 'scabs'.
The 'Thorley 25' of course were not scabs in the classical
sense; they obtained jobs when members of the appropriate
The '25' were not permitted to attend union meetings,
they were kept in isolation, anybody who spoke to them
was criticised; they were harassed over the two-way
radio system, they were excluded from over-time, and
some of them finally had seniority further down-graded
for alleged offences against the union particularly
in relation to working over-time. Efforts were made
to frighten them with operations of very large equipment
and it is alleged that at least in one case, an attempt
was made to feign an accident which could have led
to serious injury. The harassment continued off the
job at some of their homes and in the community.
It became so severe that some of them left to seek
other employment. In this some were successful, some
were not. Some have had intermittent employment and
one has not been able to work at all. Because of the
stress, he was unable to return to his job after taking
ill and has since been dismissed after an extended
time beyond that normally afforded to employees of
By about 1988, one of the '25', Jeffrey Hanlon, while
still working at the mine, was so despairing of the
harassment ceasing that he approached a solicitor to
see what action could be taken. While it was indicated
to him that action could be taken, having the means
to do so was a major problem. In early 1989 he sought
advice from others, including the H R Nicholls Society.
Friends were able to assist and advice was received
from Peter Costello after he had interviewed some of
the '25'. A claim for damages was put before the Supreme
Court of New South Wales.
Update of Hanlon case (January 1992):
The action was considered at the Supreme Court
on several occasions. At the end of 1990, answers to
questions raised by the solicitors for the defendants
had been answered but it was argued before the court
in 1991 that further particulars should be provided.
By mid 1991, the case was left to be relisted with
7 days notice by either party while the plaintiffs
with their barristers and solicitors assembled a case
in more detail. Detailed statements and summaries have
been assembled. In January 1992, those details were
in the hands of the barristers, and the plaintiffs
await advice on the commencement of the case.
A separate action has been mounted in the Industrial
Commission of New South Wales on the same matter. It
relates particularly to the unilateral action taken
by the union in penalising members of the '25' through
the change of their seniority.
At the beginning of 1991, two other matters were
heard by the magistrate at Maitland within whose jurisdiction
the Mount Thorley mine lies. One of the defendants
of the Supreme Court action had in late 1990 again
called Jeff Hanlon a scab at a union meeting, and it
was also suggested a bullet or concrete boots would
be cheaper than court action. Hanlon sought assistance
from the mine management who had the police investigate
the matter. It went before the magistrate at Maitland
and Hanlon was awarded $8,000 in damages and costs.
The defendant was forbidden under bond to approach
Hanlon, his wife or family (a paper on this action
and its legal construction was given by Mr T K Tobin,
QC, at the H R Nicholls Society conference in Melbourne
A second action was taken before the same magistrate
against another member of the F.E.D.F.A who threatened
Hanlon with physical violence. It was settled by his
entering a bond not to approach Hanlon.
During 1991, the management of the Mount Thorley
mine also dismissed a F.E.D.F.A. operator, Ron Holstein,
who is one of the defendants in the Supreme Court action
being mounted by the '25'. The dismissal was on the
occasion of his refusing to carry out a task associated
with his duties as a drag-line operator but was substantiated
before the Local Coal Authority by his long history
of similar disputes. An appeal to the Coal Industry
Tribunal on his behalf by the F.E.D.F.A. failed. He
was supported financially for many weeks while these
actions were taking place. The union did not go on
strike as the Tribunal threatened them with the loss
of some of their award privileges if they struck over
Since these actions harassment over the remaining
members of the 'Thorley 25' has virtually ceased. However,
the scars remain and those who were forced out of employment
at the mine still suffer.
Harassment and pressure suffered by the 'Thorley 25'
has had a substantial cost to them. Some of them lost
opportunities for advancement to more highly paid classifications
through loss of seniority. It cost Geoff Potts two
years work because his health deteriorated to the state
where he is unable to work because of the harassment
he would face.
Update of Potts Case (January 1992):
Potts has still not found work and was dismissed
from the mine in 1991 because of his long continued
absence. Attempts to obtain's employment as a member
of the F.E.D.F.A. in which he is still in good financial
standing have not been successful as prospective employers
do not want to take on his situation and the disputation
that may occur. While spending a good deal of time
on the Supreme Court case itself, he is attempting
to retrain for an entirely different career.
Jan Sorensen, the only woman among the 'Thorley
25', and who is one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme
Court action, now lives in another state and has worked
intermittently at mines and in transport.
The F.E.D.F.A. at Muswellbrook sub-branch were upset
by the employment of the 'Thorley 25', not only because
it put in jeopardy the result of their long-running
manning dispute but that it also struck at the core
of their means of control of their membership.
For some 15 years, the F.E.D.F.A. at Muswellbrook
had operated an employment system which allowed them
to control the placement of people at mines. There
was a register kept at the union office to which aspiring
applicants for work at the mines had to have their
names added. There was a requirement to regularly report
to the union, and of course, to be a member of the
union. Some members of the Mount 'Thorley 25' had tried
to enter the mining industry through this system but
were not able to obtain a 'start'. The system controlled
entry to the union and the industry, controlled who
might get jobs at particular mines, and was used to
transfer members from one mine to another ostensibly
closer to home. It allowed the union to assert to its
members that it was the union who granted jobs, not
employers. Strong union loyalty and discipline were
The 'Thorley 25' by-passed this system, and thus threatened
the strong hold that the Muswellbrook sub-branch had
over its members. The event weakened the positions
of officials and delegates. There were also substantial
funds involved. Delegates who collect dues get a commission
of 7%. Apart from the union dues of $50 a quarter,
the Muswellbrook sub-branch mining division collects
$12 a week which is taken from accounts members hold
at the National Mine Workers Credit Union. They make
contributions to it through the mines' payroll system.
After the union dues are paid, approximately $8 a week
goes into the Muswellbrook sub-branch's Loan and Savings
Account. From this account, money is drawn to fight
industrial campaigns and pay members who are on strike.
It is very difficult to find out what goes on with
this account because it appears its accounting is very
poor, but its income is about $624,000 a year. It is
not used for the payment of organisers and other staff
because those funds are provided by the State Council
of the F.E.D.F.A.
At the Mount Thorley mine, in addition, once a quarter
$12 is collected, totalling about $10,000 a year, allegedly
going towards delegates' costs of phone calls and the
like. Delegates collected another $15 a quarter and
it was believed that this was going towards paying
a dismissed organiser of the union while he was out
of work. Some of the 'Thorley 25' refused to pay as
no receipt would be given. But no action was taken
which is unusual.
It has also been alleged that a fee was collected
by aspiring applicants for employment. Some allege
that $1,500 or $2,000 has been collected from people
who have joined the industry, the fee being demanded
when applicants are put on the Muswellbrook register.
These allegations have been vigorously denied by the
F.E.D.F.A. at all levels. No action has been taken
to date before any tribunal where the allegations might
All is not well at the Muswellbrook sub-branch. The
principal organiser, John Thorley, has resigned. He
has been a very capable advocate who has maintained
strong discipline in the union and has confronted employers
very successfully with demands over some years. He
resigned last year because apparently he wanted an
increase in salary. The State Council of the F.E.D.F.A.
refused, and refused to reinstate him, even though
the local members in the Muswellbrook sub-branch were
willing to pay him more from their own funds.
Some mines have stopped sending their contributions
to the Muswellbrook sub-branch and are sending them
to the State branch in Sydney directly.
The 'Thorley 25' will continue to seek justice for
their suffering for themselves and their families in
the action that has been commenced. They will fight
on so that they can be recompensed and the matter can
be put right under Civil Law where there will be some
chance of stopping this type of harassment and oppression.
The F.E.D.F.A. took the matter of their employment
system to the Local Coal Authority, which ruled that
the employment register was a matter of custom and
practice and had to stay in force. However, it placed
conditions on it so that it could not be used as it
was when the 'Thorley 25' were seeking work in the
mines. The new rules meant that at least four people
had to be offered from the register for each position
on offer. The NSW Coal Association representing the
proprietors of coal mines appealed against this decision
to the Coal Industry Tribunal who upheld the Local
Coal Authority's decision. An appeal to the High Court
was not successful. The '25' hope that when their case
is fully revealed, the employment system might be changed
and 'this country can become free again so that you
can get a job where you want to, and you have the right
to work every day'. Jeff Hanlon said, 'I am still abused
at meetings called by the F.E.D.F.A. delegate nearly
every day. I just hope I can get into court soon.'
Update January (1992):
Major changes have taken place in the F.E.D.F.A.
The Muswellbrook management committee have all been
replaced, the Loan and Savings Account has been abandoned
and its funds distributed to the members. The employment
system is run much less vigorously, all those on the
register being available to employers at any time.
The union is preparing for amalgamation with the United
Mine Workers Federation of Australia.
It is expected that in 1992, the F.E.D.F.A. organisation
will disappear. The Mount Thorley mine is operating
without the continual industrial disputes that were
the hallmark of the decade-long reign of the F.E.D.F.A.'s