Coal has its big moments. One was in a park at Branxton on Thursday October 6, 1988. I stood watching from afar, astonished, and cold, as a chilly afternoon wind carried dark clouds across the coal miners' union meeting. Speaker after speaker stood on the tray of a truck and said their piece. Loud speakers blasted obscenity and anger in a three-hour battle over work rosters. The final vote was close, the motion to accept a coal industry tribunal ruling that would permit companies to roster workers across all seven days of the week rejected by 1366 to 1230.
The geography of the Branxton meeting was intriguing. Miners from the old coalfields towns were opposed to the new rosters. The rosters threatened the rhythm of their lives. The idea of a weekend would be lost, sporting clubs ruined, family life disrupted, the working conditions won over decades of struggle turned asunder. But miners from the upper Hunter were supportive of the move. Wages would be higher while new flexible working hours suited the many farmers among them who needed off-farm income to survive, and the wannabe hobby farmers happy to pour good wages into big sheds, quad bikes and expensive SUVs. The valley was divided, longstanding mining communities versus rural newcomers.
The next few years are going to be tough ones as workers seek to fend off increasingly powerful, increasingly monopolised coal employers.
The combined national vote was revealed 48 hours later. The stance of the old coalfields workers had been defeated. Queensland miners - many also from rural backgrounds - voted overwhelmingly to accept the new rosters, and so began the relentless drive of the industry to transform Australia into the world's biggest and most efficient supplier of sea-borne coal. Busting the power of the coal unions was one in a two-pronged strategy. The other was the roll-out of vast open cut mines across the thick, shallow coal seams of the upper Hunter.
The scale and impact of this roll-out was never appreciated by approval authorities or the general public. Individual impact assessments never revealed the total story. Cumulative impacts on the valley were never considered. One by one approvals were given to new mines, extensions to mines and to join neighbouring mines into super pits.
In the growth phase, economic benefits flowed. Construction companies joined coal companies in paying handsome wages, supply chains were thick and profitable, new coal loaders were built along the harbour. Builders, plumbers, electricians, engineers, surveyors, earth movers, the rewards were spread.
A further bonus came in the early 2000s from a surge in coal prices. The Newcastle economy shrugged off the steelworks closure on the back of the coal boom. The tough days were over.
But now they're back. Coal's like that, big ups, big downs. Prices are down and seem likely to stay down. And as they've always done to protect profits, the mining companies seek lower labour costs and higher productivity. Attacks on the working conditions of the permanent, unionised mining workforce are on the rise. At the same time, the use of casuals, contractors and labour higher companies eats away at the industrial power of the coal unions.
As a consequence, the level of unionism in coal mining has fallen to around 40 per cent of the workforce, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Moreover, many of those workers in the sector from rural backgrounds are reluctant participants in hard-nosed industrial action. The next few years are going to be tough ones as workers seek to fend off increasingly powerful, increasingly monopolised coal employers. And then what, will a boom follow the struggles, like it always does, as the old timers say?
This time round, it needs saying, coal workers also confront the growing demand for climate change action. Every new coal mining lease is now contested aggressively. National carbon emissions targets squeeze coal and coal-powered electricity generation harder than any other sector. Banks and savings funds are increasingly reluctant to invest in the sector. You know the story.
Yes, people know this story. So what is the future of the 13,000 directly employed in mining in the Hunter? As yet there is no answer. Belligerence, ego, perhaps stupidity, stand in the way of our politicians properly addressing the future of these workers. Our politicians need to stop being a big part of the problem.
- Phillip O'Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University.