Share the Story:

Mining and Energy Union

On the 1st of May, working people around the world come together to mark International Workers Day with marches and community events. We use this opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of those who came before us, as well as to continue their legacy by advocating for positive change in and out of the workplace.

May Day has its origins in the industrial revolution when many workers laboured long hours in dire conditions for very little pay. Workers globally united in the struggle for the eight-hour day, resolving to hold an international demonstration to forward their demands. The 1st of May became a symbolic day for workers in commemoration of an 1886 strike in Chicago for the 8-hour day which was brutally suppressed by police.

Fuelling the industrial revolution, and the ensuing social transformation, was coal. The advent of the steam engine saw the demand for coal grow exponentially, forcing production to shift from surface extraction to underground mining. These early underground mines were wretched places – dark, hot, gassy and caked in dust. Children were relied on throughout the production process and the mortality rate for miners was extraordinary.

Coal began to be mined in the Hunter Valley as early as 1800. The bountiful resources of the region alongside the ‘free labour’ provided by convicts created the perfect conditions for exploitation. Convicts remained underground for six days at a time, spending almost every waking moment mining against the constant threat of violence.

Eventually, these first convict coal miners would lay down their tools and leave the mine demanding better conditions. Acting out of self-preservation it is unlikely they recognised the significance of their actions, but these convict miners had just launched the first strike in Australia.

The bonds of solidarity between these early coal miners continued to develop throughout the 19th century, even as the original generations of transported convicts were phased out in favour of a free, if economically dependent, workforce. The Hunter Valley miners would eventually coalesce into small unions, each based around an individual pit, that were the earliest forms of a coal miners’ union anywhere in the country.

From the earliest unionists to today, we have all been participants in an ongoing project to improve conditions and make the system fairer for working people. This has not been a simple and straightforward process – each generation’s gain must be defended tooth and nail by those that would like to see workers’ rights and conditions rolled back. 

However, when we compare today’s Hunter Valley coal miners with those of the early days of the industry, we can see how over a century of collective action and organising through the union has improved the position of workers, their families and communities. 

Despite constant challenges and tough employers, it’s encouraging to see organised coal miners continue to achieve victories and improvements big and small. That includes negotiating strong enterprise agreements that guarantee conditions and fair pay; through to winning legislative change to address industry-wide challenges. These include Same Job Same Pay for labour hire workers and the Net Zero Economy Authority Bill currently before Parliament to provide certainty and job pathways to workers in coal-fired power stations facing closure.

This May Day, as we reflect on the trailblazers in the Hunter Valley coal industry that got us to where we are today, we also celebrate the continued contribution of all unionised workers who contribute to the collective effort to secure a better future for all working people. 

Robin Williams

District President MEU Northern Mining and NSW Energy

Share the Story: