Described as a hole in the ground at the end of a valley, the Nymboida underground mine on the outskirts of Grafton in northern NSW was a remote and primitive back-breaking operation destined to go nowhere.
In February 1975, owner Nymboida Collieries told its 30 mineworkers the mine was closing, plus there was no money for their severance pay, annual leave and other entitlements.
What followed makes the current industrial relations standoff at Tahmoor look tame.
Instead of struggling to find a job in the area, the workers started an illegal work-in at the mine.
They were not only trespassing, but using the company’s equipment to dig up its coal.
One of the miners stood guard at the only road into the mine with a shotgun in his hands.
The dispute was settled when the union stepped in to broker a deal to clear the company’s debts in exchange for transferring the ownership of Nymboida to the Miner’s Federation.
The Federation set up the company Union Coal Mining and ran the show profitably for four and a half years, generating over $1.25 million in gross wages alone.
The pick and hand shovel operation even overcame an explosion within the first year, which claimed the life of 23-year-old shotfirer Graham Cook and badly injured four others.
In August 1979, when the mine’s only customer, the local Koolkhan power station, closed down, Nymboida had to cease operation.
Having cut its teeth in the mine-operating game, the union successfully applied for a replacement lease in the Hunter Valley from the state government.
This new mine in the coal-rich Hunter Valley became the site of the United Colliery which opened in 1989, with Xstrata Coal taking over operation of the mine ten years later.
While the union’s United Collieries company, formed in 1980, only owns 5% of the joint venture, it still owns the lease and receives royalties on every tonne mined.
The funds flow into the Mineworkers Trust, which has put more than $10 million into a variety of community projects and organisations.
Unsurprisingly, the trust funded the documentary on the unique story of Nymboida, with producer Diane Michael arranging footage underground at United in late 2009, about three months before the longwall operation shut down.
She was impressed with the “terrific” footage of the longwall and the continuous miners in action and had no issues getting the video camera through the safety inspection.
The filmmakers also interviewed Professor Thomas Kochan, who is a presidential advisor on labour relations to Barack Obama.
He said the success of the Nymboida miners and the union’s role in United Collieries was unmatched anywhere else in the world.
The film catches up with some of the workers from Nymboida, which is probably one of the most archaic mines in living memory.
“People who see this film will be astounded at the conditions under which the men worked in the 70s, because really they were more akin to the 30s and 40s,” she said.
“They had no idea what was going on in the other mines around the state.”
After Nymboida closed down, some of the miners found work in the Hunter Valley, Newcastle and the southern coalfields of the state.
Michael said they had a big awakening.
“They saw continuous miners, they saw seams which were two metres high and were staggered that they didn’t have to get down on their hands and knees and shovel coal.”
While the documentary makes use of still photos, some re-enactment scenes were shot at Wonthaggi mining museum in Victoria.
This site shares its own union history as one of the mines participating in the 1949 National Coal Strike, which ended after Prime Minister Ben Chifley sent in the army.
The Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union and the Mineworkers Trust will host the official screening of Last Stand at Nymboida on November 15 at Dendy Opera Quays in Sydney.
Michael and her producing partner Kerry Herman are in discussions with distributors and hope to get the film broadcast on television, while DVDs will be available for sale from the film’s website in the coming months.
In the meantime, with the high quality of Hunter Valley coal in great demand, Xstrata is conducting a feasibility study to determine a possible new phase of mining at United.
There is potential for underground and open cut mining, but any mine development will be at least two years away if it goes ahead.