In 1929 the Commonwealth and NSW state governments appointed a Royal Commission headed by Sir Colin Davidson, supported by Sir Herbert Gepp and Mr. Leonard Ward (Chief Geologist of South Australia), to enquire and report on everything connected to the coal industry that affected its peace, good management, profit and national utility.  The Commission went about its task with commendable calmness and thoroughness and left behind a remarkable view of the industry at that time, with recommendations that addressed the state of the coal industry, its industrial climate, management and profitability. 

NSW Coal and Mineral Resources as seen in 1929
Source: 1929 Mines Dept Annual Report

At that time, the attempts made to achieve industrial peace with the mining unions and their members, to produce coal in the quantities required to meet the needs of the country had failed, time and time again.  In the period under review, the Royal Commission stated that in the opinion of the miners’ union leaders and the members of the union, the introduction of  mechanised mining would lead to loss of employment. This attitude was further hampered by those who could see no remedy to the ongoing industrial and management issues, other than to nationalise the industry. 

The attitude of the unions prevailed, and in the 1941/2 years of World War 2, the coal industry was racked by strikes, resulting in shortages of the coal required, to support the war effort.  In 1942 Prime Minister Ben Chifley assembled a committee comprised of mine owners and the mining unions to discuss and deal with this problem. The role of this committee, (the “Canberra Code” as it became known) comprised of representatives of colliery management and mine Union Lodge members, was to reach a speedy resolution of industrial disputes related to the mine, at the mine. The Canberra Code was not accepted by the union leaders or members at every mine and resulted in the Mine Committee concept being abandoned after a very short time. 

A View of Coal Industrial Relations in 1937(Extract) Smiths Weekly, 28 August 1937

In 1945 yet another attempt to solve this problem led to the establishment of a Board of Enquiry, chaired by Mr. Justice Davidson, who had been the Chairman of the 1929-30 Royal Commission.  The central issue of this enquiry was to make recommendations related to the adoption of mechanised mining. Justice Davidson’s report included along with his major recommendations, the following edited comment: 

’Nothing more is needed than this brief outline, to establish that the coal industry is not only inefficient, but it is afflicted with a form of creeping paralysis.  Whilst on all sides, the mechanisation of the industry is admittedly indispensable, its introduction is attacked by arguments that it will reduce employment, render miners’ work unsafe and cost so much, that the money required will not be forthcoming from the industry.  Confronted by the prospect of competition from other fuels and sources of power, and an increasing output by the more alert producers of coal, mine workers will not learn, and understand the lessons that are so prominent, and make a joint effort to rectify the position. On the contrary, the only activity is to be found is helpless industrial wrangling, that is inherently political, whilst a fetish is being made of nationalising the coal industry.” 

Following the presentation of Justice Davidson’s report, the Commonwealth and the New South Wales governments passed an Act to replace the Coal Production (Wartime Act) of 1944, that had included the appointment of a Coal Commissioner with powers to control coal production, and the distribution and pricing of coal in Australia.  As that legislation ceased to be relevant when WW2 ended, in March 1947 the two governments agreed to the establishment of a Joint Coal Board (JCB) and legislation was drafted to support that decision. This Legislation provided the JCB with sweeping powers over every aspect of a coal industry that was in a parlous state at the end of WW2.

The vulnerability of this joint arrangement to political interference was recognised, and the legislation was deliberately framed to ensure that decisions made by the JCB Board of Management, composed of three men with mining industry knowledge and experience, could only be overruled jointly and in writing by the Prime Minister and the Premier of NSW. 

The aim of establishing a Joint Coal Board (JCB) with wide and sweeping powers was to introduce mechanised mining and rebuild an industry that was inefficient and out of date.  The functions and duties of the Joint Coal Board included actions designed to ensure that:

  1. coal was produced in the State in such quantities and with such regularity, as to meet the requirements throughout Australia, and in trade with other countries.
  2. the coal resources of the State were conserved, developed, worked and used to the best advantage, in the public interest.
  3. the coal produced in the State was distributed and used in such manner, quantities, classes and grades, and at such prices, as were calculated to best serve the public interest, secure the economical use of coal, and the maintenance of essential services and industrial activities, and 

(d) the welfare of workers engaged in the coal industry in New South Wales was promoted.

The JCB commenced operating in March 1947 with Messrs Cameron, Jack, and Warburton as the Board of management.  These men initially worked in parallel with the Commonwealth Coal Commissioner, and the Central Industrial Authority, appointed under the wartime legislation of 1944, pending the proclamation of the Coal Production (War-time) Repeal Act 1948.  The Central Coal Reference Board of the Coal Industry Tribunal that had been established earlier, and included Mr. A.C. Willis, the former General Secretary of the Miners Federation, continued to operate until 1947 when Mr. Justice Gallagher of the NSW Industrial Commission was appointed as the Coal Industry Tribunal. 

The first Annual Report of the JCB published in June 1948 included a summary of the more important problems it faced, as set out in the following:

  1. The productive capacity of the industry was inadequate in relation to Australia’s coal requirements, and this conclusion stood altogether apart from the question of industrial disputes.
  2. The industry was fundamentally inefficient and out- of- date.  While there were some properly equipped and efficiently operated mines, many needed drastic technical modernisation, whilst others should be closed.  In many cases working and living conditions were primitive, and coal quality was often poor.
  3. The industry by and large was shot through with bitterness and antagonism between owners and men, which derives from its ruthless history, that was not paralleled in any other Australian industry.  This had led to a cynicism and pessimism, on the part of both parties in the industry, which poisoned day to day industrial relations, and undermined confidence in the future. The Board’s task of rehabilitating and stabilising the industry could not be regarded as complete until that attitude of mind had been eliminated, as much from the owners as from the workers and the unions.

The industry needed many more highly trained men.  Reorganisation and stability could not be achieved, until the general standard of the efficiency and status of technical and executive personnel in the industry was raised substantially and at least to the level of that of other important Australian industries.”  

Departments established within the Board included Mining engineering, Geology, Coal Evaluation, Statistics, Economic and Market Research, Coal Trade Development and Utilisation, Finance and Accounting, a Medical Bureau, and the management of a Workers Compensation Insurance Scheme. 

The funding provided to support the operations of the JCB by the State and Commonwealth Governments was employed to construct sporting fields, swimming pools, playgrounds, kindergartens, health centres and libraries.  A Miners’ Cooperative Building Society was established to offer loan money to mine workers at attractive rates, to build family homes. The JCB spent widely in developing goodwill.

JCB community support was widespread
Source:  NLA Trove, var.

The Board carried out ongoing geological investigations and drilling to identify and define the extent of the coal resources in  NSW. These investigations revealed sites considered suitable for open cut operations, that had real advantages when shortages of coal occurred.  High production capacity underground mines that included the Huntley Colliery on the South Coast and the Newstan Colliery in the Newcastle area were opened and developed by the Board to increase the production capacity of the industry.  These mines were passed on to others to operate in 1955, when the Board decided to move away from being a mine owner and concentrate on the wellbeing of the coal industry. 

The Board’s task to stabilise and rehabilitate the coal industry, could only be achieved by a drastic change in the attitude of mine management, the Miners Federation union leaders, the miners, and in the adoption of mechanised mining. The latter was fiercely opposed by the Union, who held fears of a loss of employment by its members and led to frequent strike action. These attitudes and fears resulted in the mine owners being reluctant to invest the large capital expenditure required to adopt mechanised mining.  The JCB addressed these concerns by funding the purchase of mechanised mining equipment, to create a pool of equipment that could be sold or leased to mine owners. 

The JCB had found that whilst a small number of existing mines were properly equipped and efficiently operated, the majority were not (and some warranted immediate closure), and that there was an urgent need to introduce highly trained personnel into the coal industry to implement changes in technical and management practices.  In 1948 the Board commenced a programme offering four-year scholarships in mining engineering, with the students attending University and working underground to gather practical experience.

The Medical Bureau of the JCB conducted medical reviews of all employees in the industry initially and annually, identifying miners who were “dusted” (i.e. suffering pneumoconiosis a disease of the lungs) and supporting the work of the JCB Standing Dust Committee.

On entering the coal industry in 1947 the JCB found itself confronted with a rising demand (13 million tons of coal per annum), with the coal trade bogged down in chaos, and partly under the influence of mass of disturbers of the peace, who had moved into the legally declared “protected coal industry’’, to shelter from the military demands of WW2.

In 1945 the loss of production from industrial disputes was 2,350,000 tons.  In 1946 and in 1947 annual output increased to 11,000,000 tons, primarily through the support of output from recently opened and existing open cut mines supported by the JCB.  

In 1947/8 strike action resulted in a loss of production of 1,463,000 tons.  This loss was incurred, despite increases in Award daily payments, to Contract Wheelers, Shift-men, contract miners’ rates for machine cut coal, and adjustments to annual leave entitlements.  A strike following these changes was settled subject to an undertaking being given by the Miners Union to improve the discipline of its members. This requirement was later found to be unenforceable, and industrial peace did not follow these Award concessions.  

In 1948 a major dispute arose from a demand by the Miners Union to enforce, by strike action, the use of mine union members, in preference to members of the Australian Workers Union (AWU), being employed by a contracting company engaged by AIS/ Mt Keira Colliery.  (The work involved the driving of a cross measures drift roadway over a long distance, into the mountainside.) This demand was rejected by AIS, and widespread strike action followed that required support from the police as a result of a number of nasty physical incidents between members of both the above unions and the local community.  The industry wide strike action taken on this dispute resulted in a loss of production of 1,880,000 tons and led to the shutdown of heavy industry and Government Railway services in NSW and other states. An Arbitrator, appointed by the Commonwealth and State Governments to settle the dispute found in favour of AIS, and the AWU members went on to complete this work.

At this point in time whilst the output of coal in NSW was falling, the leaders of the Miners Union were calling for higher rates of pay for their members.  While other services and responsibilities assigned to the Board were being progressed with some success, its most immediate task remained, to increase the production of coal.  The Board contributed to this task by opening its own new mines and providing financial assistance to owners of mines to adopt mechanised mining. The Board contributed to improvements in industrial relations, and the financing of mining community recreational facilities and housing, and health and safety.

The National Coal Strike

In June 1949, a nationwide coal strike commenced with members of the Miners Union seeking improved working conditions.  Immediately following the commencement of this strike, the National Emergency (Coal Strike Act) 1949 was passed by the Commonwealth Government.  The statutes of the Act were implemented, and included the freezing of the funds of mining unions, and any other body or person assisting the strike.  The state government supplemented the above Act by passing the Emergency Powers Act, having statutes based on the danger of war, emergency or invasion.  Both governments regarded this strike as very serious indeed, and believed that behind it lay threats to paralyse the country. The public were advised in the nationwide press that the governments considered this strike to be ‘’…a Communist conspiracy, to destroy the arbitration system.’’

Whilst the strike created a critical shortage of coal, it was short lived.  The Chifley Labor government directed members of the armed forces to work the open cut mines, and the Miners Union leaders were goaled.  The strike ended and a return to work followed soon after, along with a change in the leadership of the Miners’ Federation. As one author was to comment, ‘’The power of the disrupters was broken.’’

In 1950 Mr K.A. Cameron the first Chairman of the JCB resigned and Mr. S. F. Cochran, previously Chairman of the Queensland Electricity Commission, was appointed to fill the vacancy.  This change provided the opportunity to review the Board’s progress. That showed that whilst progress had been made, the industry remained inefficient and out of date. Despite the financial support provided by the JCB, the adoption of mechanised mining was very slow, and only 6 of the 128 mines in the State, could be regarded as efficiently mechanised. 

The reasons for the slow progress made in adopting mechanisation, could be found in issues related to the mine owners, the unions and the mines.  The owners were in most cases private companies linked to steel, cement and shipping industries, with a poor history of company profits, and were understandably cautious in outlaying the funding required to mechanise their mine/s, or to open new mines.  Other issues included, a desperate need to change the attitude of the mine workers, their families and the community, to the coal mining industry.

Source:  AusIMM

Improved working conditions it was concluded would follow the introduction of mechanisation, by reducing the health hazards of underground mining, improving the working and living conditions of the mine worker and his family, and create a sense of pride and confidence in the industry, by all concerned, including the general community. 

Each of the above issues were addressed by the JCB and in the year 1959 some forty (40) mines were recorded as having adopted mechanised mining.  This result was achieved with the combined support of the mine owners, the mine workers and the union leadership. Some mine owners chose to fund themselves the installation of the mechanised mining system and the opening of new mines, with the AIS Collieries being, well advanced in both those areas in 1948.

Medical examinations of all mineworkers were conducted as a first step by the JCB Medical Bureau and revealed many of the older coal miners to be ‘’dusted’’ (having coal dust in the lungs).  The employment of mineworkers found to be ‘’dusted’’ was terminated and compensation payments followed. It is interesting to note that in 1947 the incidence of dust related disease in the coal industry was found in seven to eight per cent of the workforce.  As a result of the work carried out by the JCB’s Medical Bureau, this health issue had fallen to less than one per cent of the workforce in the 1990s.  

A JCB Standing Committee on Dust directed its attention to monitoring the dust concentration levels created in the mining of coal using high powered mining machines and issues related to the effectiveness of coal face ventilation systems.
As the mechanisation of mines increased, the reduction in mine workers feared by the union and the mineworkers did not eventuate and was in most cases confined to those men who were found to have issues from long term exposure to dust as contract miners, or who had reached the retiring age of 60 years.

Safety InitiativesSource: JCB Report 1971-2

In the early 1960s the export of coal to Japan commenced to satisfy the needs of the expanding steel industry in that country.  In 1970/71, an increase in demand for coal arose from the Australian steelworks , as a result of a decline in steel production overseas.  These events resulted in a sharp increase in the production of coal in Australia, and the export of coal to the Japan rose to 43% of the total export market, with 66% of that market being coking coal. The Japanese steel industry became very closely involved in the fabric of the Australian coal mining industry.

Whilst the statutory powers of the JCB relating to the production and pricing of coal did not go beyond the boundaries of the state of New South Wales, the Board was concerned with the locations and nature of the markets,  the extent of competition from other sources including Queensland, and the overseas ownership of mines in Australia. This concern related in particular to the trading arrangements adopted by some coal mining companies, conducting one on one negotiations with their export customers.  This was seen by the Board as providing the parties to that form of negotiation with the opportunity to fragment the market in respect to the selling price and the conditions of sale.  This led to the Board maintaining close consultation with the state and federal governments, colliery owners, major consumers and the leaders of the mining unions. 

The 1973 Federal Election resulted in Mr. Gough Whitlam becoming the Prime Minister, and Mr. Rex Connor appointed as the Minister of a Department of and Minerals and Energy, having the supervision and control of all mineral exports, including coal.  In an address to the Australian Mineral Council in March 1973, Prime Minister Whitlam made it very clear that he would not accept unrestricted mining of the country’s mineral reserves, and unbridled competition affecting the stability of the minerals export trade. 

As Japan was Australia’s major coal export market, the Prime Minister’s comments were considered by the Board to already being met by their work in cultivating a cooperative spirit between competing mine owners, and the customers, to achieve a fair market price for coal, sold on the export market. 

The 1971 – 1972 Annual Report of the Joint Coal Board noted, “…the industry of 25 years ago has been transformed.  Today it is highly efficient and fully mechanised with high productive capacity.  It is a good employer, and the men engaged, work in dignity.”  The charts below illustrate some of the changes that had taken place in the above period. 

Changes in the Coal Industry in the period 1948 – 1972
Source:  JCB 1971-2 Annual Report

That report also noted that the Board’s primary concern was to increase the annual production and overcome the persistent inability of the industry to meet the needs of its market.  In pursuit of this aim the Board opened new open cut and underground mines and maintained a heavy involvement in promoting and funding the introduction of mechanisation, and improving the industrial relations climate in the coal industry. 

Growth in Coal Production 1948 – 1973
Source:  JCB 1971-2 Annual Report

In 1983 a decision was made by the NSW and Commonwealth Governments to restructure the membership of the JCB Board of management, by adding an additional member to that Board.  The Board had from its origin been composed of a chairman, and three other persons with managerial experience in the coal industry, and it was agreed that the additional member should be chosen from a coal mining trade union.  Mr William (Bill) Chapman, the Northern District President of the Miners’ Federation was chosen for the position, and his appointment coincided with the termination of the seven-year term of office of the chairman at that point in time, Mr. George Tredinnick. 

In October 1984 Mr. Jack Wilcox AM was appointed as Chairman of the Board.  At that time some 250 people were in its employ, and significant sums of money were held in investments, land and buildings, fixed term securities and the money markets. 

In 1987 Bill Chapman resigned from the Board for personal reasons, and was replaced by Barry Swan, General Secretary of the Miners’ Federation.  Both these men are recognised as having made valuable contributions to the work of the JCB during their membership of the Board. 

In 1990 the Chairman Mr. Jack Wilcox A.M., was advised that a full review of the work and role of the JCB had been approved by both the Commonwealth and state Governments, and an enquiry would be conducted, under the Chairmanship of Mr. Bryan Kelman.  The review was carried out by the Trowbridge group, who presented a favourable report on the role, and the management, of the JCB. This review raised some concerns in the NSW Department of Mines and was passed on to the Kelman enquiry for a final decision.  In January 2002 the Coal Industry Act of 2001 was amended and the JCB was abolished. This decision to abolish the JCB arose from the Commonwealth Government announcing that it no longer had, or wished to have, a role in the administration of the NSW coal industry.  This led to amending legislation being prepared, with the agreement of the NSW State Government, to repeal Part2 of the 1946 Coal Industry Act. 

Coal Mines in the Illawarra and Southern Highlands areas –
Source:  JCB 1971-2 Annual Report

The JCB ceased operations in December 2001, and in January 2002 the Coal Industry Act of 2001 was enacted.  This legislation included provisions for the Coal Services Pty. Ltd. company, owned by the NSW Minerals Council and the CFMEU trade union, to be created, and have the management of NSW, Mines Rescue and the Mine Workers Compensation and Occupational Health Services, formerly managed by the JCB. The head office of this company is located in the Newcastle area and it established a regional office at Woonona on the South Coast   In addition to those listed above, its functions include oversight and support of the Mines Rescue service and the training associated with that.

RAC 07112018

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