Union Songs

Working for Coal

An article by Mark Gregory (Dec 2002)

Coal mining in Australia has a fascinating history, a history told by mineworkers themselves on this new CD. Originally produced for Hindsight on ABC radio it was broadcast in May 2002. Miners talk about their lives their work and their communities. Narrated by former miner Craig Hamilton with poems by Jock Graham "The Miners Poet" and with harmonica by Fred Moore, also a miner, "Working for Coal" provides a unique documentary of mining in Australia.

I have extracted a few minutes from the CD so just click on the links in this article to listen.

Like may professions mining tended to be a family trade and before unions became powerful boys would leave school and go down the mine. Veteran miner and organiser Fred Kirkwood talks about his own experience of working underground at age 14.

Mining communities had their own culture and many of them produced poets whose work was treasured by their fellow workers. A good example was Lithgow miner Jock Graham whose fame as a poet was spread by the miners weekly newspaper Common Cause. Listen to Blood On The Coal one of Jock's poems read by Lewis Fitzgerald.

Blood on the Coal
by Jock Graham

You've learned to know the miner - the "black" man, the "slack" man,
But come with me below ground amid the sweat and stress,
And watch him at his hard work, his drill work, his skilled work,
See for yourself his true life before you read your press.

Come down and breathe the dank air, the foul air, the rank air,
Fill up your lungs with coal dust, disease dust, for proof;
Come down and see the slave man, the cave man, the brave man
Risk life to save his mate's life beneath a falling roof

Learn of the grim disasters, the churned up, the burned up:
Go seek the mining churchyards and count the growing roll;
Weigh justice then, so feted, so treated and meted
Against the dark stain spreading, the blood upon the coal.

You'll see conditions slipping, through tricking, pin-pricking;
The guilt with which he's burdened you'll place where it belongs;
And you will be a just man, a fair man, a rare man,
If you'll raise coal production by righting miners' wrongs.

Another aspect of their community that is highlighted on this CD is miners' humour. You'll hear elements of that in The Pay Packet and the Horse.

The struggles of generations of miners led to the formation of a powerful national union, the Miners Federation, dedicated to improving pay and conditions and to making this dangerous job as safe as possible. The Men Will Decide.

The women of the mining communities became organised too. They fought along side the men for better pay and safer conditions, and for the general needs of the mining communities. They formed Women's Auxiliaries, greatly increasing the effectiveness of the union. This is detailed in The backbone of industrial strife.

Mining communities were pioneers of welfare, education and health facilities. The communities built their own businesses or cooperatives. The union fought for pensions, for hospitals and for holiday and sick pay. Hear more in the track Community.

When the depression hit at the end of the 1920s miners everywhere were in trouble. In February 1929 the coalowners of the Hunter Valley NSW demanded a 12.5% wage cut. When the workers refused, the bosses, supported by a conservative State Government, locked them out of the mines for 15 months. Towards the end of 1929 the coalowners tried to open some pits with scab labour. Miners decided to take them on. Around 4000 of them made there way to Rothbury on December 16th and the police opened fire killing the young miner Norman Brown and wounding many others. Jim Comerford was at Rothbury and just 16 years old. Listen to his recollections.

"Working for Coal" is really a great resource and shows how important the recording of oral history is for workers. It is a wonderful companion to "At the Coalface", the book that inspired it. It was produced by Fred Moore, Paul True, Paddy Gorman annd Jane Connors. Both the CD ($20 inc. post) and book ($50 inc. post) are obtainable from

CFMEU Mining and Energy Division
PO Box Q1641
Sydney NSW 1230


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