BY DOUG COOPER
SYDNEY, Australia - Mark Kaiser, 30, John Hunter, 36, Damon Murray, 19, and Edward Batterham, 48, never made the 4- mile drive back to the surface November 14 at Oakbridge Pty Ltd's Gretley Colliery at Wallsend, two hours north of here, near Newcastle. The four United Mineworkers members drowned as hundreds of tons of water hit them when a wall adjoining an 80-year-old abandoned mine caved in. Company officials say their maps indicate the disused shaft was 150 yards away.
Oakbridge is a subsidiary of Cyprus, a U.S. mining company.
Four other miners, who had just left the coalface for a nearby lunchroom as the end of the night shift neared, reported hearing a huge roar. They said the four miners had been installing steel frames with roof bolts. Two rockfalls were also reported just before the cave-in.
It was the worst single disaster in New South Wales (NSW)
since 1966, when five miners were killed at the Wyee State
mine. The deaths bring to 112 the number of miners killed in
this state since 1979. It follows the Moura explosion, in
central Queensland, which killed 11 in 1994. The disaster was
front-page news throughout the country. Coal mining, centered
in New South Wales and Queensland, is the largest export
industry in Australia. All coal miners are members of the
United Mineworkers Federation, a division of the Construction,
Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.
The New South Wales cabinet approved a general inquiry into mine safety in the state the week before the disaster at Gretley. Robert Martin, the minister for mineral resources in the Labor Party state government, said the inquiry was to be held because "a creeping ambivalence, a worrying attitude of laxity, had developed in some NSW mining operations." Six NSW miners were killed in the 20 months prior to Gretley. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the general inquiry "will be conducted by three mine safety experts."
A separate inquiry into the Gretley disaster was announced November 15 by Garry Lowder, the director-general of the NSW Department of Mineral Resources. "The law is very specific about what mine management must do" in relation to underground operations near abandoned mines, he said. "Whether that was done we don't know, and that will be investigated." Martin noted, "The department has prosecuted in the past and will if appropriate in this case."
The Northern District of the UMW has organized a memorial
service for the four men for November 27.
Union slams federal gov't moves
In a related development, John Maitland, president of the CFMEU mining division, dismissed a November 12 federal cabinet decision establishing a Productivity Commission to investigate "restrictive" work practices in mining as a front for the coal bosses' desire to break the union. He warned of national strikes in response.
Union-busting company CRA-RTZ, the Australian subsidiary of the world's largest mining conglomerate, has been largely successful in deunionizing its non-coal operations throughout the country recently, but has faced some resistance to its drive for individual contracts in that sector of its work force. It has not even begun to attempt to break the unions in coal. A historic 51-week strike against forced 12+-hour shifts by 30 miners at CRA Novacoal's open-cut Vickery mine, near Gunnedah, which ended in August 1996, was an example of the capacity of union members to fight.
Maitland said, "Federal Cabinet's approval of the Productivity Commission inquiry into so-called restrictive work practices is just a code for an all-out attack on mineworkers' hard-won wages and conditions and it has nothing to do with boosting productivity in the industry."
The big-business media welcomed the establishment of the productivity inquiry. The Sydney Morning Herald editorialized against Maitland's view while crying crocodile tears about the loss of workers' lives. "Mr Maitland is wrong. Many of these work practices have nothing to do with mine safety but are substantial impediments to productivity improvements which are necessary if Australian coal exports are to be competitive," the editors wrote November 18.
Doug Cooper is a member of the Australasian Meat Industry
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