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Developments in the Hunter Valley

Wayne Dyer

Although this address is primarily directed at current developments in the Hunter Valley, I would also like to share with you some of my experiences during the Mount Thorley dispute which led to the employment of the 'Thorley 25' and right up to the present day.

Mr Peter Murray has asked me to read to you the letter which he sent to Ray Evans which outlines current developments in the Hunter Valley.

    'Dear Mr Evans

    Unfortunately I shall not be able to attend the Annual General Meeting of the H R Nicholls Society on 15th September 1990. I had hoped to respond to your invitation and bring the meeting up to date with the affairs of the Federated Engine Drivers' and Firemen's Association. The victims of that Association as related at your conference last March, as well as myself, have been very grateful to your Society for its support. The current position is as follows.

    Claim for Damages

    Geoff Potts, Jeff Hanlon and others continue to pursue their claim in the Supreme Court for damages because of the distress, harassment and financial loss occasioned to them through the Mining Division of the F.E.D.F.A. located at Muswellbrook and the officials and members of the Association at Mount Thorley mine.

    Writs have been served on the defendants and the New South Wales State Council of the F.E.D.F.A. and some of its officials and members at Muswellbrook and Mount Thorley. The matter was mentioned in Court and had to be transferred from the Equity Division to the Common Law Division requiring that the submissions be rewritten. They have now been lodged and the defendants' solicitors have now to prepare a defence for lodgement in the Court.

    Correspondence between the solicitors will continue during this period.

    Mr T K Tobin QC has been briefed to represent the plaintiffs.


    Our solicitors have also been instructed to have Mr Tobin prepare a defamation case against the F.E.D.F.A. because of articles that appeared in the Association's journal Unity in that it was alleged that the Mount Thorley 25 are 'scabs' and should be subject to at least censure.

    Restraining Order

    At a meeting at the Mount Thorley mine there were cries that concrete boots and bullets could be used against the Mount Thorley 25. A complaint was made through the management and the police were called. Subsequently an application was made on behalf of Jeff Hanlon to the Maitland magistrate for a restraining order. An interim order was made against P. Brodbeck who has been vigorous in harassment of Jeff Hanlon. The order carries a fine of $2000 or six months imprisonment for breach. The interim order will come before the Magistrate again on 15th October 1990. It was stood over until then on Brodbeck's application as he has arranged for representation by Counsel. Accordingly Mr Tobin has also been briefed on Mr Hanlon's behalf.

    Investigation of Funds

    Complaints made by the writer through Mr John Jobling MLC who resides at Muswellbrook, have led to the Minister for Police, Mr Ted Pickering MLC, asking that police investigate funds of the F.E.D.F.A. at Muswellbrook. (I do believe at this stage the NSW Fraud Squad raided the Muswellbrook office of the F.E.D.F.A. last Tuesday.) Through the instigation of Geoff Potts, State Council Executives of the F.E.D.F.A. have been involved and investigation to the best of our knowledge is proceeding.

    In addition, a complaint has been made to the Royal Commission into the building industry now being conducted in New South Wales. It is hoped that there will be a response from the Commission and some attention paid to the F.E.D.F.A.

    In accordance with the Association rules Jeff Hanlon has made an application to the Union to inspect the books of accounts of the Loan & Savings Fund. A response has now been received in writing giving him permission to view them. Arrangements are being made for an accountant to accompany him. Inquiries of the Cooke Inquiry in Queensland and of members of the F.E.D.F.A. in the Hunter Valley, have revealed suspicions that funds were improperly used.

    Industrial Situation

    Mount Thorley mine has been on strike for periods of ten days and over a week during the last month. One member of the F.E.D.F.A. was dismissed for gross absenteeism, having attended for work on 27 days in 1990.

    [If I may digress for a moment, I was involved with this gentleman's dismissal on 9 occasions from 1982 till the time I left. Naturally he was reinstated because of his value to the organisation.]

    The matter is still not resolved before the Local Coal Authority.

    A second strike was occasioned by the dismissal of Mr Ron Holstein, one of the defendants in the damages case mentioned above. Mr Holstein has been sacked for refusal of duty. He is in fact refusing to perform a task for which he has the time but which attracts a lower rate of pay than his own normal rate as a dragline operator. The job in question was the supply of water to the dragline for drinking and ablution purposes. As of today the miners are returning to work presumably to confer on the issue. These disputes are typical of the industrial action that the F.E.D.F.A. has undertaken over the last decade.

    Jack Cambourne, the General Secretary of the F.E.D.F.A., has recently attended meetings in the Hunter Valley to do with Mount Thorley and other mines. At an aggregate meeting last week he was reported to observe that the writer is an anti-union activist of the New Right as they are embodied in the National Civic Council and the H R Nicholls Society. He has warned that unions have suffered grievously in such cases as Mudginberri and Dollar Sweets.

    Despite this he has failed to have the Muswellbrook branch of his Association act in accordance with an agreement he made with the United Mine Workers Federation for the operation of the new Rixs Creek Coal Mine without demarcation.

    A new coal mine under construction by Camberwell Coal Pty Limited of which the writer is a director near Singleton, has last week entered into an agreement with United Mine Workers Federation of Australia that there will be single union coverage of all mine operating personnel. Supervisory personnel will be covered by the Australian Collieries Staff Association. This arrangement will exclude the F.E.D.F.A. from the mine although it is to be an entirely open-cut operation. (That is a fairly major break-through.)

    Overall disenchantment grows. It is hoped that the oppressive and repressive regime of the Mining Division of the F.E.D.F.A. at Muswellbrook will soon be ended.

    Several members of its ruling committee have in recent weeks resigned including L. Kelman, one of the defendants in the case. Another defendant, J. Thorley, previously the organiser advocate at Muswellbrook, is barred from that position by arrangement with the State Council of F.E.D.F.A. Both, however, continue to have substantial influence.

    Yours faithfully

    signed: P J Murray'

So there are developments in the Valley. Even the last one, where people were barred, is another major breakthrough. Admittedly they may be calling the shots from behind the scenes, but at least they are not out in front of the troops like they were for the last ten years.

Jeff Hanlon and Geoff Potts ring me once or twice a week. They can see things moving now. I remember some six or eight months ago they were getting fairly downhearted and wondering what the hell was going on. I tried to motivate them again and keep them together and I think I was successful. They are at the stage where they say, 'We are almost there.' They and the others there are probably more united now than they were in the bad old days.

Peter Murray approached me in April when his company was expanding its operations, and said, 'I would like you to do a little job for me. I would like you to interview some people for us. I'm going to put an ad in the paper for plant operators.' I was pleased that at last somebody was going to have a go and take the union on, because in the period 1982 to 1985 I had been continually hamstrung. One of my responsibilities was to employ all the plant operators. If I needed a number of plant operators I had to go through the Muswellbrook F.E.D.F.A. employment register. They would send me down a number of people who I would interview. The majority obviously hadn't seen a piece of earth moving equipment let alone operated it. When I rejected any of them the register would be closed until I relented. That was the way they held my organisation and many of the smaller organisations to ransom.

At long last, I've found somebody who I think is going to be prepared to come forward and say that they had to pay a commission to get onto the register. This register involved secret commissions, selling jobs for say $2000. The money changed hands quite openly, and must have amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars going informally into the branch.

When I arrived at the mine site on 6th April 1985 at 7am the carpark was like something that resembled a supermarket carpark on pension day. That day I interviewed 542 people between 7am and 6.30pm, in blocks of sixteen, around the board meeting table.

The first question I asked was 'Are you a member of the F.E.D.F.A?' If they were not, that was the end of that. Union membership was essential, then equipment experience and then character type etc. At the end of the day we had over 50 people who filled the bill from my point of view.

It was my job to interview those people further to organise staff requirements, medicals etc. This had never been done before, nobody was ever prepared to do it. So some applicants got cold feet. They knew, or thought they knew, what they were getting themselves into. It was a motivational exercise from my point of view.

The next question was 'how to test these people'. I couldn't take them onto the mine site because there would be picket lines. I told a friend at the Hunter Valley Plant Operator Training School about the situation and he let us use his equipment for the weekend. I rang the 50 people and teed up appointments for the next weekend, knowing full well the F.E.D.F.A. would know my every move. I enlisted the help of three line supervisors who were very wary at this stage and didn't want to be involved because they knew what the F.E.D.F.A. Muswellbrook were like, and they knew the repercussions that could come. I conned three mining foremen to come and help me and we went up to Raymond Terrace the Plant Operators' School at 6.30am Saturday not knowing what to expect. I was expecting picket lines and all sorts of interesting things. But it was a real picnic atmosphere when I arrived. There were all these people, these 50 union members who couldn't get a look into the industry, couldn't get onto the Muswellbrook employment register. Here they were with their families, wives and children. They wanted to work, to do a job, get paid and go home. That's all. Not a lot to ask.

After a fairly long testing process, on three different items of equipment, we were down to 46. When I got home I got home I rang them all and told them to be at Mount Thorley mine at 9am Monday. I said Peter Murray would talk to them, fill them in on all the implications and on how we were going to start. I got to work fairly early on Monday morning knowing full well what I would see---and there it was, a picket line. Some of the 46 used initiative and ingenuity and got through the picket line saying they were plumbers, contractors, and so on. They are the people I like. Some got through, others were turned around. I bolted out the back gate and drove up the road out of view of the picket line and stopped the 46 and sent them to another location.

Then I had my first real run-in with one of the main union organisers. He came barrelling up the hill, leapt out of his vehicle, called me names I hadn't been called before and grabbed me by the shirt and threatened me, I thought 'Come on hit me', but he didn't quite resort to that. He disappeared with smoke coming out of his ears. Peter Murray and I went into town and spoke with the people there. We lost a couple of them at that stage. They decided it was 'too heavy for me, goodbye'.

The next two days we organised medicals and those that passed brought us down to 25. I was hoping and praying that we weren't going to lose any more of them in the next few days. We didn't, and to this day, we still haven't lost any.

We then organised a start date. Instead of starting at the normal time of 7am we decided to start them at 6am. We beat the F.E.D.F.A. to the gun at that stage as there was no-one there. In the coal industry, any new starter attends a five-day induction training program. We continued that normal process once again---squeaky clean---we didn't do anything wrong, just the normal practice on employment. We took them to the training ground, sat them down, gave them a talk.

It wasn't all that long before people tried to get in the door. They stormed the door and broke it in. They came in and tried to get the men to leave; but they held fast and wouldn't move. At morning tea time one of the biggest guys in the bunch said 'Well, my morning tea is in my car'. Everybody looked at him. He said 'Bugger them, I'm going out', and all 25 trooped out behind him. The nickname of this guy is 'Smasher'. That is not the reason I employed him, but at times since he has been very valuable to us.

That afternoon, not a lot happened. The union organisers of Muswellbrook asked to address the 25. They said a number of things to try to get them to leave, things about 'brothers' jobs etc but to no avail. When I was driving home to Newcastle I stopped at the local shop to get a newspaper. I didn't realise the F.E.D.F.A. propaganda machine operated so quickly. On the shop front there was a poster with four photographs, four of the 25, with the caption, 'These scabs are taking your jobs'. I don't know how they got those photographs so quickly. Every shop front, every white pole, telegraph pole or anywhere else had this poster, between Newcastle and Muswellbrook.

From 6th April to the actual start date, 3rd June, a number of activities happened. The harassment started, my phone rang every twenty minutes for four months. I changed my phone number three times and had silent numbers and the phone still rang every twenty minutes. I was threatened, my family was threatened, everyone I knew was threatened. My motorcar was defaced, all the normal thuggery tactics these people employ. Eventually on the 16th September they finally agreed to accept the 25 into the union. They had tried everything, every legal or illegal tactic possible to get rid of these people and to get rid of me as well.

They tried the lot and realised they just couldn't win. As an example, two months prior to these people starting work we employed ten others. They only finished half of their induction process because of strikes and when they resumed work the Local Coal Authority made a unique decision. The Authority actually reinstated these people after we got rid of them. These ten F.E.D.F.A. members were directed by the hierarchy of the Muswellbrook office to put a little red spot (this is a true story) on the front of their safety helmet, which then identified these ten as the good guys, not the bad 25. All the other brothers could talk to those 10 but not to the 25. That is the childish mentality of these people.

The harassment was horrific for them. On the phone we tried to keep them together and they did stay together. After their 16th September acceptance into the union, the union still wouldn't have anything to do with them, and they were still harassed. Various people were brought before the management on a number of occasions but it had no effect.

Over the years and right up until the time I left in August 1988, it was a stiff time. The good part about it was that we won, and these people realised we won. We had broken a corrupt system of employment at last. Unfortunately a lot of the companies in the area were too small to take on the union. They couldn't afford a long strike, so they had to go along with the union's demands. We employed people who were union members and who wanted to work but weren't able to, and we kept them together.