The first coalmine in the Illawarra opened at Mount Keira in August 1849. By 1857, the Illawarra Mercury was able to announce that the region was, “in possession of an article of domestic use and export not second in importance to the richest goldfield in the colony — our black diamonds will promote commerce and add to our social industry.”
This ignored the Aboriginal people on whose land the coal was. In the 1820s it was estimated that 3000 Aboriginal people were living in the area. Gratuitous violence, dispossession and disease had reduced this number to less than 100 in 1846.
The story of the oldest struggle in the Illawarra, the struggle for Aboriginal rights, is told in this film through the experiences of Sharralyn Robinson, Mark Bloxsome and Lyle Davis.
As soon as the industry started, Wollongong coalminers fought for improved wages and conditions, against wage cuts, and most importantly, for safe places of work in an industry notorious for the premium it placed on production and profit at the expense of workers’ health and wellbeing.
In March 1887, a four-month strike against wage cuts and the victimisation of union leaders at Bulli and other mines had just ended. On March 23, an explosion at the Bulli mine killed 81 miners, for which the mine deputy and manager were later found negligent.
Despite the Bulli disaster, mine safety was never the priority it should have been for the region’s mine owners. On July 31, 1902, as a conference was being held in Wollongong on safety and other issues, an explosion at the Mount Kembla mine killed 96 miners. It was the worst industrial disaster in Australia’s history.
By this time miners’ organisations had been well established in New South Wales and in mining communities in other states. In 1915 they came together to form the Australasian Coal and Shale Employees Federation — more commonly referred to as “the feds”.
The union preamble was adopted from the militant, anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World — the Wobblies.
It said: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common … Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the workers of the world organise as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production and abolish the wages system.”
Wobbly ideas were particularly influential with miners and in the NSW railways and tramways. In the NSW general strike that erupted from the imposition of “speed-up” at the Randwick railway workshops in 1917, miners were among the 70,000 workers who walked off the job.
Scabs provided labour to keep some of the trains running, which the feds presumably could not let go without a response. Late at night on August 25, as the Sydney to Nowra train was slowing at the bend in Coledale, the scab fireman shovelling coal was shot and injured. Two Wobbly members of the Coledale miners’ lodge, Fred Lowden and James McEnaney, were arrested and charged with shooting with intent to murder.
It was a trumped-up charge but bail was set at £1500 each, an extraordinary sum at the time. The striking miners raised the cash to bail out Lowden on the same day, and McEnaney the following morning. The case was dropped a month later.
Article by John Rainford, published in Green Left Weekly. [Next week, read about the Unemployed Workers Movement in Wollongong that organised 3000 members in 14 branches in just a few months during the Great Depression in 1930]