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 the year.

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 25'.

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 membership.

This committee, conscious of its power at the Mount Thorley mine, exerted it from the very beginning of its development.

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.

Mount Thorley

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 employees:

    '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 were represented.

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 work.

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 union.

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 the company.

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 in 1991).

    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 this issue.

    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 generated.

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 be proved.

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 Muswellbrook sub-branch.