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Developments in the Hunter Valley
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
Correspondence between the solicitors will continue
during this period.
Mr T K Tobin QC has been briefed to represent the
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.
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.
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
[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
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
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
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
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
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
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.