Vale Fred Moore, 1922-2022

Fred Moore with Elida Garin at the Jobs for Women book and film launch in 2015. Photo: Women of Steel/Facebook

Fred Moore was born in Cobar in New South Wales, lived in Lithgow and came to the Illawarra many times to support different struggles before he moved to Dapto to work in Nebo Colliery and later Australian Iron & Steel mine (a subsidiary of BHP at the time).

He was active in the NSW Miners Federation for more than 30 years.

Aged 14, Fred started work in the mines in Western NSW, coming to Dapto in 1952 from Cobar with his wife, May, and three children. He saw many mine deaths, had many close calls and lost a finger. He recalled how safety was the cardinal principle and the Miners Federation’s key focus. Where he worked “There was a mirror: it had a sign — you are looking at the person who is responsible for your safety.”

In an interview for the film Women of Steel, he recounted: “We’d been in struggle all our lives. I was a kid in the depression, barefoot. They set up the soup kitchens in the school. We would have starved otherwise. We came through all that, and then the Socialist parties, I’ve never missed a May Day since the War. In Sydney one time they cancelled one, [but I] never missed one here in Wollongong.”

Fred recounted life in the 1950s and '60s in an interview five years ago for the Dapto Oral History Project. “Bread was delivered in a basket by the baker in a horse and cart, as was the milk and other deliveries came on a bike with a side car from Jack Fairleys cooperative.

“Fairleys was well known for giving credit to workers when they were on strike. When the mine whistle blew, there would have been an accident. The saying went: ‘A miner never knew if he’d walk out, get carried out, or get blown out.’ The Miners Women’s Auxiliary would gather to support the families of affected workers.”

The Illawarra region and beyond are still and mourning and coming to terms with Fred’s passing on January 21 at the age of 99.

The and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union said: “The working class, social justice and International solidarity movements have lost a giant but gained so much from his leadership, comradeship, courage and principle”.

There were 27 coal mines in the Illawarra: Avondale, Wongawilli, Dombarton, South Kembla, Nebo, Corrimal and Helensburgh, to name a few. Australian Iron & Steel (BHP) owned 16 of them.

In the early days, Wollongong miners lived close to where they worked; villages were established at Bulli and Mt Kembla.

Fred told the story of winning a fight with the company at Wongawilli. “In those earlier days, Wongawilli miners had to walk up to the top of escarpment — right up the hill. And their working day only started after the long trek up, when they reached the actual mine face.

“The Miners Federation [now the CFMEU] formed in 1915 and fought for not only the right for transport, but to have their working day starting at the bottom of the hill, when they were ready to go to work. Miners would come home filthy; another hard won fight was for bathhouses.”

“The government tried to break the unions, trying to use cheap labour [and] do away with penalty rates. The wealthy people in the coal-mining industry were massively wealthy; they were getting the coal out for nothing.”

Fred always had a focus on women, those who suffered so much when their families were impacted by accidents in the mine.

The Miners Women’s Auxiliary played a critical role, not only in supporting their striking miners but in organising community support. “The women were the strength of the miners. They never knew whether he was going to come home. [There was always] a great strain on the women, hearing the whistle blow.”

True to his reputation of fighting for the underprivileged, Fred was proud that unions played an important role in pushing for equality and rights for First Nations peoples.

He was at the big Sydney Town Hall meeting on April 29, 1957, where a petition was launched to put the Aboriginal people in the federal Constitution. He brought the petition down the Illawarra mines and gathered thousands of signatures.

Fred was a driving force, in 1961, together with emerging First Nations leaders, in setting up the South Coast Aboriginal Advancement League. It predated the 1967 referendum and Wave Hill walk off and is regarded as an iconic and formidable action-based movement.

Fred was an integral supporter of both, and one of very few non-Indigenous people to have been made an honorary elder of the Aboriginal Community in the region. He was initiated as an Aboriginal tribal elder in the Illawarra, as well as a blood-brother to the Jerrinja people. He was known by local Kooris and other activists as Uncle Fred, “Dad” or “Pop”.

Fred reflected on the important role of Aboriginal women. “But the great strength lay with the women; they had a lot to lose. The child stealers — the welfare — would come and take their children, they were terrified.”

In the 1980s, Fred didn’t hesitate to step forward to support the Jobs for Women campaign; he attended their tent embassy and bought coal to keep the women warm.

“The strength of the women, their determination was the thing. We’d never seen women in a struggle like that. There’d been miner’s women’s auxiliaries, mainly supporting the men, but here was a group of women that went straight to the front line and made the company give ground.

“We were proud of that and still to this day. Good things came out of that. That was the role model that set things going to enter into other things [work]. Down the road, they are working in open-cut mines, in the maritime [industry], it had never been heard of before.”

Fred had time for everyone. Over a cup of tea, he’d listen to whatever you might be involved in, give advice and encouragement. He’d yarn about his own life, the struggles and the lessons. He supported left organisations in a non-factional way.

Fred was active in anti-Apartheid groups, the Free Nelson Mandela group, the Cuban Friendship Society, the Chile Solidarity Committee and the Committee in Solidarity with Central America and the Caribbean. At various times he was president of these groups, showing his internationalism.

Fred was at every May Day march — 88 of them! Most of them he led.

He recalled how proud he was of the Wobblies (IWW) and the miners, marching with their banners and the beautiful tassels. Some of his favourite slogans included: “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day”; and “United we stand, divided we fall”.

The esteem Fred was held in was shown in 2020. When May Day activities were cancelled due to COVID-19, the community brought May Day to Fred’s Dapto home, planting flags in his front lawn.

At his 90th surprise birthday, Fred said with a wry smile: “And as old as I’m getting, there are more fights to be had and I’m always looking to get into another one.” 

Everyone who knew Fred described him as a gentle man, with enormous love for humanity. “The tougher people have it, the harder Dad will fight for them,” Fred’s daughter Sue said.

“Fred leaves us a legacy of struggle, solidarity and working class leadership that will drive and inspire workers, activists and champions for justice for many generations to come … Fred will always be in our hearts,” said South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris.

I am reminded of a quote from Argentinean revolutionary Che Guevara who said: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, a true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love”.

Fred lived these great feelings of love all his life and leaves us with inspiration to live the same.

Vale dear comrade Fred, may your power remain with us.

Hasta siempre!

[Fred Moore’s funeral will be held at Kembla Grange Racecourse on February 3 at 11am.]