By Meredith Burgmann, Ray Jureidini, Verity Burgmann
During the 1970s a series of Australian workplace occupations and ‘work-ins’ challenged employers’ right to hire and fire and demonstrated how workers themselves could set the conditions and results of their labour. A number of these are detailed by Verity Burgmann, Ray Jureidini, and Meredith Burgmann in ‘Doing without the Boss: Workers’ Control Experiments in Australia in the 1970s’, a chapter which originally appeared in Immanuel Ness and Satuaghton Lynd’s edited collection New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class Struggle Unionism.
The following excerpt chronicles how workers at the Nymboida coal mine resisted mass sackings by taking over and running the mine themselves in 1975, firstly through an occupation and then via union ownership. When it came time to shut the mine four years later, due to the closure of a council power station, it was phased out in a just way by the workers’ themselves thereby serving as an example of how transitions could be undertaken today.
Pete Thomas maintains that the work-ins and takeover of the Nymboida mine were “a resounding example of workers’ capacity for self-reliant effectiveness”; they showed how well they could do without a boss. On February 7, 1975, Nymboida Collieries Pty Ltd announced the closure of its small mine in northern coastal New South Wales because it was insufficiently profitable, and issued dismissal notices to the thirty workers, whose years of service ranged from ten to twenty-six years. All twenty-five miners were Miners’ Federation members. The company also intimated it would not pay the workers some $70,000 they were owed in severance pay, annual leave, and other entitlements. At a meeting on February 16, the workers decided to go to work, as usual, the following Monday and operate the mine themselves, in defiance of the closedown decree. Miners’ Federation Northern District president Bill Chapman said the miners had launched their work-in “to show that the mine can be worked and should not be closed.”
“REFUSE TO TAKE SACK; NYMBOIDA MEN WORK-IN” was the headline in the journal of the Miners’ Federation, Common Cause, on February 17, 1975. An Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary on Nymboida described the militant mood of that first day of the work-in:
As work began on that first morning, the atmosphere was bright. The men had taken their decision; they had nothing to lose except their jobs! On that first morning, the company in Brisbane lost control of its mine. By threatening dismissal, it had made the men bitter; now they were defying the orders from Queensland. Legally the men were trespassing. These were not their skips, this was not their railway but, with money owing and livelihood threatened, there was no way the police or the owners were going to get in.
With the company responding by withdrawing the dismissal notices, Miners’ Federation general president Evan Phillips described the work-in as “an inspiration to all of us.” The Miners’ Federation Central Council passed a unanimous resolution that voiced its “warmest congratulations” to the members of the Miners’ Federation and other unions at Nymboida colliery “on their historic work-in action,” which had brought credit to all concerned: “It is new and compelling evidence of the right of the workers to have a decisive say in the industry’s affairs.” The Miners’ Federation position was as follows: “We are determined not to allow the mine to be closed.” Plaudits from labor movement organizations poured in, congratulating the workers at Nymboida on their successful resistance to dismissal notices. The militant tenor of Miners’ Federation statements continued as the work-in proceeded successfully. “The Nymboida actions have been a demonstration that the working class has rights and intends to enforce them,” stated Miners’ Federation general secretary Bill Smale, adding, “This is a cardinal principle and we have to battle it through.”
After a few weeks of the work-ins, on March 11 the company agreed to hand over ownership of the mine to the Miners’ Federation; in return, the workers did not demand that the company pay the workers for lost wages—which the workers had regarded as lost, anyway. Nymboida was operated by the workers and the Miners’ Federation for more than four years, until the end of August 1979, when the local council power station it supplied was closed. It was known this would eventually happen, for reasons both economic and thermodynamic, but the extra years enabled the workforce to plan for it and, when the time came, there were sufficient funds to pay the workers what was due them. Under workers’ control, the workers received at least the standard rate of pay in the mining industry, the “mechanical-unit rate,” an objective not attained in the industry generally. Merv McIntosh, the first miner to retire under workers’ control, claimed his departure with full benefits proved the men could work the mine “better than the company could have done.”
Others at the face of the coal mine agreed. On his retirement as a union permit manager at the mine in 1978, Jack Tapp told Common Cause that the Miners’ Federation had provided “the opportunity to prove that the workers can take over an enterprise that a company has given away as not being worthwhile.” Even the inspector of collieries in the State Mineral Resources and Development Department, Elwyn Jones, described as “tremendous: use any superlative you like” the job that the Nymboida workers did in taking over a pit considered “completely non-viable” and making it a viable proposition for four and a half years. Miners’ Federation Northern District president Jim Hayes said, at the farewell party for Nymboida mineworkers and their families on August 24, 1979, “You have proved that workers, banded together, can succeed where others, such as the old company, had failed in maintaining the mine.”
Productivity had improved immediately under workers’ control. By October 1975, Nymboida’s production was six hundred to seven hundred tons of saleable coal a week, compared with about five hundred in the latter part of the Nymboida company ownership, despite machinery being “almost of vintage age.” Permit manager Jack Tapp told Common Cause that the men “proved to be as good pillar-coal men as any I have met in the industry,” and they achieved “maximum production.” Common Cause offered the obvious explanation that “production has been enhanced by the fact that the workers are imbued with a new spirit of working for themselves, with a free rein to their capacities and initiatives.” Miners’ lodge secretary Cliff Bultitude said they knew it would be difficult because of the old equipment, but “Everyone is keen to get the results and to show what can be done.” Not just pride, but necessity also increased output. Mineworker Pat Huxley, interviewed on ABC-TV, made the revealing comment that, at Nymboida, everyone had to work to make it pay; and, to laughter, added that it wasn’t like a private mine, “where you can carry a lot of dead labor.” Predictably, there was reduced absenteeism. When a reckoning was made in June 1979 on the amount due for days of sick leave entitlements not taken, it was over $12,000.
Observers confirmed these reasons for improved output. The Australian reporter for a London magazine visited Nymboida under workers’ control and explained the enhanced productivity:
When men work freely, profit comes as a natural by-product to benefit everyone, while property, regarded as their own, will be responsibly cared for to keep it in first-class condition and maintenance. This applies to every piece of mining equipment and accessories.
Likewise, collieries inspector Elwyn Jones connected the improved production figures to the “total difference—cheese and chalk” in the attitudes of the men before and after the Miners’ Federation took control. After the takeover, the workers had a sense of personal involvement, of doing things for their own benefit instead of for the benefit of some remote and aloof company.
Those on the ground also argued that cooperation intrinsically aided productivity. In February 1978, the first permit manager after the workers’ takeover, Jack Tapp, described the differences between working for the boss and the Nymboida experience:
While there is a permit manager, he is a Federation man and decisions have to be made in full consultation with the workers, benefitting from their experience of the mine and their ideas. Normally at mines, managers’ talk at the men; at Nymboida, on the other hand, it is a matter of talking with them. Working with them helped me to learn more.
Another permit manager, Dennis Clarke, stated in August 1979:
There has been complete teamwork, and it’s this which has made Nymboida a successful operation. Everybody knew what was going on, in organisation and production, and this helped them to contribute in the best way and with a feeling of self-satisfaction. It’s been an example of how a mine can be run. Nymboida has shown that this sort of thing can work, and work well.
Pete Thomas was convinced that absence of authoritarian workplace relations aided productivity:
Those at Nymboida proved what workers can do, by their own skills and resources, by their own initiative and resolve, working for themselves and depending on themselves, free from the frustrations that come from exploitation by employers.
The miners reveled in the absence of exploitation. “I woke up this morning,” one Nymboida miner told a reporter, “thinking how I own a share in this myself. I enjoyed thinking that.” In the first week of workers’ control, Bill Chapman told Common Cause that, on Thursday, March 6, the miners “came out of the mine beaming again.” Jack Tapp reported on March 17 that the feeling among the men was “good, really good,” that they were saying, “It’s fine to be working for themselves instead of a boss.” In mid-April, Miners’ Federation official Rex McGrath commented on the enthusiasm among the men at Nymboida. Under the headline, “NYMBOIDA: they’re working for themselves and enjoying it,” Common Cause quoted Jack Tapp:
The mine has settled down to normal working conditions—except that there is no owner, other than the Federation—production is steadily rising, and safety is paramount in the minds of all workers…. Nymboida is workers’ control at its best, where the men are working for themselves and enjoying the experienced.
Les Ohlsen, who worked as a deputy in these early stages of the Miners’ Federation takeover, described the men’s spirits as “way up.”
Six months after the takeover, Common Cause journalists visited Nymboida and found the workers’ morale still high. Pat Huxley said, “Take a few pictures of us working here with a happy look on our faces; then send the pictures to the old Nymboida company, and ask them if they’ve got any other mines which the Miners’ Federation can take over.” Cliff Bultitude stated, “The blokes are pretty happy with the set-up.” Pike Johnstone, about to retire, reckoned the months of the work-ins “were great.” Vane Ross remarked on the “fun and humour among the boys.” In June 1976, Common Cause conducted follow-up interviews. Lodge president Vic West stressed the “big difference” felt by the workers: “There isn’t a boss breathing down your neck. There is more contentment.” Frank Smidt, who had worked there since 1951, agreed the work was now more rewarding, because “You know now what’s going on, and you have your say in it.” Louis Szabo referred to the “bad old days” and insisted, “It’s good now; better than it was under the company.”
Interviews in the final months before the closure in 1979 confirm the positive nature of the experience. Earle Fernance related the rewarding aspect of greater responsibility
There has been a good feeling here. When there is any trouble with the equipment, we know what has to be done and we do it. We’ve all learnt to do a whole lot of things—just about anything.
For John Austen, increased camaraderie came with the absence of oppressive relations of production:
It’s been better all round as a Miners’ Federation mine than it was under Nymboida Collieries. Before, we were just cogs in someone else’s mine; now we’ve been all together, making up the whole thing between us…. If you work for a boss, then you’re always wrong. It’s been different here in the last few years. And in the lodge itself there has been a stronger feeling of being together, of mateship.
The full chapter from which this is excerpted can be read in New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class Struggle Unionism.
Watch documentary – Last Stand at Nymboida
- Coal miners - New South Wales - Nymboida - 1975 - 79
- Coal mining - New South Wales - Nymboida - 1975-79
- Direct action - Non violent NVDA
- History - Australia
- History - Australia - New South Wales
- Management - Employee participation - New South Wales - Nymboida
- Miners Federation (Australia)
- Movements_Campaigns - Labour_Worker's rights
- Unions - Coal miners - Australia - History