Writing history from the ground up

Issue 

At the Coalface: The human face of coalminers and their communities: An oral history of the early days
Edited by Fred Moore, Ray Harrison and Paddy Gorman
Published by the mining and energy division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU)
1998, 185pp., $24.95
Available from the CFMEU or Resistance Bookshops.

Review by Bernie Brian and Marg Perrott

Imagine a workplace that can be so hot that you work naked or near naked, that is so dusty that you cannot see your fellow workers several feet away and where the roof is so low that the only way to fully stretch your body is to lie flat on your back. Such images are not the only ones presented in this important collection of oral histories, but they were the experiences of many coalminers in the first half of this century. It was a time of no holiday pay, long-service leave or pensions, and when it was not unusual for miners to work into their 80s.

Other images presented in At the Coalface include miners walking up to five kilometres to work and back in all types of weather, and not being able to have a bath until they returned home.

There are also stories of tragedy — mining disasters such as the 1902 Mt Kembla explosion, which killed 96 miners. Very few families were untouched by such tragedies, and the memories of these disasters were passed from generation to generation as sons followed their fathers into the mines.

Families lost fathers and sons to explosions, cave-ins and dusted lungs. In the first decades of this century, ambulance services were non-existent, and miners would have to carry their injured workmates kilometres to the nearest medical treatment.

The memories of past tragedies and poor working conditions nurtured a working-class identity among miners which became the backbone of one of Australia's strongest and most militant unions, the Miners' Federation (now part of the CFMEU).

The CFMEU should be congratulated for being conscious of its own history and supporting the Miners' Oral History Project, which produced this book. It is one of the most important contributions to labour history in recent years.

For more than 10 years, retired miners Fred Moore and Ray Harrison have trekked through the mining fields of NSW with their tape recorder, getting miners and their families to tell their own stories. This is in itself an amazing story because Moore and Harrison's own health is scarred as a result of working in the mines.

Many of the dozen or so people whose stories are included in this collection have since died; it would have been a tragedy if their histories had not been recorded.

Like life itself, the stories recorded range from ordinary to exciting to tragic — from the rush home to be first into the tub of fire-heated water which must be shared by five miners, to militant industrial campaigns for better working conditions, to governments' violent responses to such campaigns.

The former general secretary of the Miners' Federation, Jim Comerford, also a noted historian, uses his tremendous storytelling skills to provide a vivid account of the 1929 "Battle of Rothbury", when miners and police clashed over the employment of scabs in the collieries north of Newcastle. A 29-year-old miner, Norman Brown, was killed when police opened fire on the miners.

"You could hear them, batons going ... hear screams and the men being trampled", says Comerford. It is a story that should be told for generations to come to make workers aware of how difficult it was to win many of the conditions that we now take for granted.

Moore told Green Left Weekly, "We felt a lot of history was being lost with people dying, and we thought we could capture it so young people can see how grim it was and the hard struggle that went on to improve conditions ... If we lose it, we're gone. We have to retain what has been won and improve on it."

The people interviewed for the book are mostly men from the coast south of Sydney. In his excellent introduction, Paddy Gorman, who also edits the CFMEU newspaper Common Cause, acknowledges the gender imbalance, but points out that until 1989, all miners were men. Nevertheless, women's roles — as wives and widows, daughters and orphans, and fellow activists — are covered in the book.

Most of the miners interviewed were active in the union at a local or national level. Many were radicalised by their experiences and became members of the Communist Party of Australia.

Particular reference is made to the 1949 coal strike, which is considered by many historians to be an example of Communist ultra-leftism. However, an alternative assessment of the strike is presented by some of those interviewed.

"Pincher" Smart, a former union general president and one of those who launched the campaign against dust levels in the mines in the 1940s, says the 1949 strike was a "terrific exercise". He points out that the workers won long-service leave, an important victory in an industry which does so much damage to workers' health.

Labour histories like At the Coalface have sometimes been criticised for their "exaggerated" heroic representation of workers and their unions. The miners' campaigns deserve praise, but in this volume, the reader is also shown the other side of the industry.

The union's efforts to establish a safe working environment were sometimes thwarted by the actions of individual miners bent on getting higher wages. There are numerous references to contract miners who were paid according to the amount of coal recovered, sacrificing safety for extra production.

In the early days, some miners would even work unpaid on Sundays to get a head start on the week's production. Yet there was no permanent work: the miners would know if they had work the next day only when the owners sounded the pit whistle in the morning.

This sort of undermining of the union's efforts reappeared in the 1950s, when production bonuses were introduced into the newly mechanised mines. At the time, the union leadership's opposition to bonuses was ignored by the members.

While most of the stories cover the first half of this century, there is reference to the mechanisation of the mines in the 1950s. The new machines should have lightened the miners' burden, but the mines were not large enough to incorporate many of the new machines and many miners were injured.

Mechanisation also resulted in sackings and the devastation of mining communities. Some resisted, such as the 200 miners at the Aberdare colliery near Cessnock who organised a stay-in strike against retrenchments.

If there is any weakness with this book, it is merely that the layout of the paperback edition is difficult to read and the industry-specific language is at times hard to follow. But with a little persistence and recourse to the book's glossary, the reader can develop a clear understanding of the nature of this unique industrial community.

Moore told Green Left Weekly that those involved in the oral history project hope there will be four more volumes. "Most of the transcriptions are complete, and we are working on the next one, which should be out by the end of this year."

We are often told that in the "new" world in which we live, the past has no relevance. It is refreshing to read about a trade union that was built from the ground up, that was led by workers, not university-trained careerists, and that was willing to put itself on the line for its members. Everyone involved with At the Coalface must be commended for this book's important contribution to working-class history.