OPINION: New Union, with a proud tradition

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On 1 December, the Mining and Energy Union was formally established as a new union. This was a great achievement that provides for an independent future – but our day-to-day work of fighting for better wages, safety, rights and jobs continues unchanged.

Trade unionism emerged in the Hunter Valley coalfields in the 1850s, as workers understood that organising and acting collectively was the only way to stand up to profit-hungry mining bosses and improve the extremely harsh and dangerous working conditions they faced.

Since then, the coal miners’ union has existed in various forms – perhaps most recognisably as the Miners Federation. During the 1990s there were a wave of amalgamations and we were among them – joining with construction and forestry workers to form the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), with the later addition of the Maritime Union of Australia to become the CFMMEU.

We have continued to operate autonomously as the CFMEU’s Mining and Energy Division, until our members made it clear a few years ago they didn’t believe the CFMEU was the right home for us anymore.

At our National Convention in March 2021, delegates unanimously voted to pursue withdrawal from the CFMMEU and form an independent Mining and Energy Union. Workers in our industries face considerable challenges and members want a union that is not distracted by issues or pressure from outside.

It has been a long, arduous legal process since then. But members have not backed down on their desire for independence, with 98% voting in support of withdrawal in a ballot ordered by the Fair Work Commission earlier this year.

It is fantastic to come to the end of this process, formally withdraw and register as an independent organisation.

This process has been an immense administrative and legal effort, however it doesn’t change the day-to-day work of our union on the ground. All membership and union structures have simply transferred to the new Mining and Energy Union and our work representing members continues.

Our Union’s structure – based around mine site ‘Lodges’ – emerged out of those early days in the coalfields where workers came together to protect themselves at the site level. In a dangerous industry like ours, it’s important for workers to have a direct say over their working conditions. It was true then and it’s true now.

Despite all the changes we’ve been through, I’m extremely proud that we have maintained the traditions established over the past 150 years including high rates of democratic participation, an active role in safety, a willingness to take on employers when needed, and strong support for the communities that sustain our families and our industry.

You don’t need to know about history to receive all the benefits of being a MEU member, including first-class workplace support and advice. But our deep experience over generations in the NSW coal industry makes us who we are. Our next chapter as the Mining and Energy Union will bring new challenges and forge new traditions to serve future generations of mining and energy workers.

I encourage everyone in our industry who hasn’t yet joined the Union to consider joining in 2024. What better New Years’ Resolution could there be than investing in your own rights, safety and protection at work? If you work in a coal mine – permanent or contractor – the Mining and Energy Union is here to support you.

I have appreciated the opportunity to contribute to @ The Coalface magazine this year on behalf of the Mining and Energy Union.

To all readers, we wish you a Merry Christmas and happy and safe New Year with family and loved ones.

Robin Williams

District President MEU Northern Mining and NSW Energy

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