May 12, 2021
Unionised miners and their families have fought hard over decades to win decent housing and living conditions in central Queensland coal fields. Here’s the inspiring story of one woman who took on a mining giant in in 1963 armed with a bottle of water.
In the late 1950s, the world economy was booming and Japanese steel mills desperately needed coking coal – that drove major development in Queensland’s Bowen Basin coal.
Coal mining in Moura was kicked off by a multinational joint venture between Australians Thiess, Americans Peabody and Japanese Mitsui.
Former General Secretary Andrew Vickers explains that the American companies driving the coal rush were staunchly anti-union, but unfortunately for them, Queensland’s coal industry was strongly unionised.
“They were ticked off about that, the Japanese weren’t much better and Thiess, the Australian entity, were a ruthless right-wing hard-nosed bunch of employers who’d been mining coal at Callide prior to them entering the joint venture at Moura.”
Thiess refused to provide accommodation – even though Moura was a tiny town with no accommodation or facilities. They even sold the miners tents at an exorbitant price.
Conditions were horrendous. Families lived in tents that were set up outside the front gates of the mine – or for the lucky few, corrugated iron sheds. There was no running water, power or refrigeration. They used pit toilets that overflowed and became a quagmire when it rained.
At the time, five-months pregnant Judith Martin was making a home for her six daughters in a lined tin shed while her husband worked at the mine.
The boss at the Joint Venture was a Peabody man. When he was approached by the Unions about providing housing for workers his response was clear – he said “we are here to mine coal, not build houses.”
Says Judith: “that was his attitude, and that was his attitude when I went down to Court, too. They weren’t worried about their employees because that’s how they lived in America – that got up our noses – to think that’s how they wanted us to live, they didn’t care about families.”
Unions, local, state and national, looked for the opportunity to do something to put pressure on the company. At the end of 1962, the Union sprung their trap.
Miners walk off, but not the dragline
The first walking dragline to be used in Australia was due to walk off its construction pad in Moura, with a whole host of Government and other dignitaries there to see it. The miners went on strike, and that stopped the dragline walking.
The Minister for Mines declared it was a communist plot. When the miners refused to go back to work the Coal Industry Tribunal intervened to make an inspection. That led to the 1963 arbitration.
Judith’s trump card
Judith appeared as a witness at the Arbitration Court hearing in Brisbane, bearing a trump card.
It was one thing to talk about how cloudy and dirty the water was, but the Judge needed to see what they were actually drinking, so Judith took a bottle of the local water with her and presented it to Judge Gallagher.
The Judge responded that if he had to drink that water he would make sure he had a bottle of whisky handy.
The Americans were about to learn that they had indeed come to Australia to build houses. After some dragging of heels, construction of housing for mineworkers at Moura began.
Judith went on to have a happy life in what became a thriving town. Nearly all her daughters, and some of her granddaughters, continue to live and work in the town or in other Queensland mining towns.
She has not forgotten the camaraderie of the town, nor the support they were given by Union leaders such as John Currie and Cyril Vickers.
Cyril’s son, Andrew, says that the 1963 strike changed worker’s conditions in the Bowen Basin forever, in Moura and beyond, in places like Blackwater and then in the early 1970s to brand new mining communities in Moranbah, Dysart, Middlemount, Tieri and so on.
“Moura was the start of it. There are a number of thriving communities literally hacked out of the bush all because of the miners’ victory at Moura.”
Judith’s parting advice for young miners is clear: Join the union – you wouldn’t have anything without the union. Fight for the people!