By Steve Painter
SYDNEY — Ten mineworkers are sitting in underground at the NSW central coast colliery of Newvale in protest against plans by the state-run Pacific Power/Elcom to close the mine on January 31, with the loss of 114 jobs.
The Newvale closure is the latest of many, which have slashed around 1500 coal mining jobs over the past year in the Hunter Valley/Central Coast region and the already depressed Illawarra.
The sit-in follows a November 17 protest in which several hundred mineworkers marched on the NSW parliament demanding job security. Following the protest, a group from Newvale was ejected from the parliament's public gallery after they heckled Premier John Fahey, whose government they hold responsible for many of the job losses in the coal industry.
The miners' union, the United Mine Workers, blames the recent rash of mine closures largely on international buyers, particularly from Japan, manipulating the market by encouraging the development of new mines and thus driving down prices by creating a situation of over- supply.
This leads to a continual process of closure of the older pits, which become more expensive to run as they must work deeper deposits. The mineworkers point out that all pits necessarily go through phases of productivity. While they are new and working easily accessible deposits, they are most profitable. Later, as work moves to deeper deposits or into areas with geological problems, they become less profitable.
Left to their own devices, mining companies prefer to abandon the least profitable pits, regardless of the amount of coal left in them. If this pattern is not checked, vast amounts of Australia's coal reserves could end up "sterilised" — inaccessible due to the deterioration of abandoned mines.
UMW Northern District vice-president Peter Murray told the rally that Coal and Allied, one of the largest coal companies in NSW, had abandoned nine NSW mines with large deposits still in them. The mineworkers are still seething with anger against Coal and Allied over the recent closure of the Wallarah-Moonee complex of two mines, a coal washery and a jetty.
The company cynically used the impending closure of the operation to try to pit workers from the two mines against each other in an attempt to create a scramble for the few jobs that would be left. This manoeuvre failed when the workers voted overwhelmingly to support established seniority arrangements.
Another source of anger among the mineworkers is the process of corporatisation of the former NSW electricity commission, now renamed
Previously, the commission supplied its coal-fired power stations from its own mines. Now, these mines have been separated from Pacific Power into two linked companies, Elcom and Newcom, and forced to tender against private pits for the domestic power market.
Attempts to sell the eight Elcom/Newcom mines to private owners have flopped disastrously, leaving the government with an acceptable bid for only one mine and a $2 million bill for consultants hired to oversee the sale.
"There must be a full parliamentary inquiry into the future of the mining industry", UMW Northern District president Mick Watson told the rally at parliament house. "We want a moratorium on the closure of Newvale and on retrenchments from the Elcom mines to allow a review of the future of those mines.
"We want an Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiry into the whole disgraceful process of the attempted sale and closure of the Elcom mines", he added.
These mines are not the property of the government, he said, "they are the property of the people of NSW".
At the end of the rally, UMW national president John Maitland read out a resolution demanding:
- an investigation into the management of Pacific Power to determine why the Central Coast mines were deliberately placed in jeopardy;
- an investigation of the failed attempt to sell off the Elcom/Newcom pits;
- an investigation into the recently announced mine closures;
- an investigation to develop a viable strategy for the Elcom/Newcom group. This strategy would also have to ensure that coal reserves are not sterilised, that the state's power generators are not subjected to "a privately controlled monopoly of suppliers and consequent dramatic price rises and/or coal shortages", that there are no massive job losses, and that the state has an "effective and efficient publicly owned reliable supplier of coal to the publicly owned electricity generators".
Labor Party leader Bob Carr addressed the November 17 rally, along with fellow Labor MPs Pat Rogan and Col Markham, himself a former coal miner.