I had the good fortune to take in the recent Rothbury Riot display at Cessnock Library a few weeks ago. As much as recognising a significant local event, the occasion also got me to pondering a possible modern response to a similar problem.
Almost 90 years ago, the world demand for coal fell massively, as an early sign of the coming Great Depression. This decline in demand created the opportunity for the coal mine owners and NSW conservative Government to severely cut mineworkers' wages, remove their workplace rights and introduce non-unionised labour to divide and conquer the bargaining power of workers in this, the most dangerous of all occupations.
Coal miners were locked out from their work across the state as 40 collieries locked the gates, but it was felt hardest by our local "coalfields" around Branxton, Greta, Cessnock and Kurri Kurri. What followed was widespread poverty, because not only were the mineworkers not being paid, but they also had no money to spend in any of the local businesses.
The State Government planned to re-open the Rothbury Colliery on December 18, 1929 using non-unionised "scab" labour being brought in from Sydney, due to arrive on December 16. Local coal miners rallied and decided to confront the arrival of any such workforce. The State Government sent in additional police to ensure their plan. The fuse was lit.
Thousands of men descended on Rothbury during the evening of December 15 and early morning of December 16. Quite literally they walked from Cessnock and Kurri Kurri and Weston and other villages, to be a part of the resistance. The clash of angry poverty-stricken men fighting for their very survival and police was a tragic conclusion.
I can't help but wonder a number of things. For instance, is it still the wish of mine owners to cut wages, reduce workers' rights and get rid of unions? Is there a chance that the world might decide that they no longer want our Hunter Valley coal and hence leave us in a terrible strife? Would a current workforce (any occupation) be willing to fight for an issue such as wages and workplace rights to the point that it left their family poor and unable to feed themselves? Would a united group of people be willing to walk 15-20 kilometres, in the middle of the night, to defend a principle?
The lockout of our coal miners during this period has in many ways shaped us as a community. Many of the incredibly hard-fought and deeply damaging battles almost 90 years ago laid a foundation for the much better wages and workers' rights of today and by one simple measure, as a result, far fewer coal miners die at work.
The "lockouts" and the confrontation at Rothbury will be recognised at a special 90th anniversary event at Rothbury on Sunday, December 15 at 3pm. Most will be able to drive there on the day.
- Clayton Barr is the State Member for Cessnock. His office can be contacted on (02) 4991 1466 or firstname.lastname@example.org.