I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today and pay my respects to elders past and present.
It is a privilege to be invited to deliver this address today, back in the heartland of our great union movement.
I would like to acknowledge my hosts here today: Peter Jordan, the District President of the United Mineworkers’ Federation, and Grahame Kelly, the District Secretary.
Tony Maher, the National President of CFMEU Mining and Andrew Vickers, the General Secretary.
And members of Parliament both federal and state: Joel Fitzgibbon, Jill Hall and Clayton Barr.
But most importantly, union members, their families and their friends who attend this memorial service every year. This service is for you, and the memory of your lost ones or those whose lives were sacrificed in early generations. We owe it to them to make sure that the workplace is safer for those who came after them.
In addressing this annual commemorative service, I am conscious that I am following in very illustrious footsteps.
The Memorial Wall was opened by none other than Paul Keating, then the Prime Minister of Australia, in 1996. Alongside him was Jim Comerford, who would be celebrating his 99th birthday this very day if he was still alive.
And last year, the current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard gave the address.
To my great regret, I never had the opportunity to meet Jim Comerford, but I feel like I know him through the legend.
This is a man who as a teenage underground pit boy witnessed the Battle of Rothbury of 1929, where police fired on protesting out-of-work coalminers, killing one.
That event left such an impression on Jim that 77 years later, he published a book about the lockout the year he died.
Jim wanted to be a journalist, but at his father’s insistence began working in the mines at the age of 16. It was an era when boys routinely left school in their early teens for dangerous and difficult jobs. We can be thankful that today child labour is not still used in mining in Australia, another win by the union movement.
He dedicated his life to his workmates, his union and his industry, holding the position of Northern District President of the Miners Federation for several decades.
Sadly, Jim is no longer with us but his legacy lives on with the Jim Comerford Memorial Wall.
We are here today to honour the fallen.
The more than 1800 men and boys who have lost their lives in the northern district coal mines over more than 200 years.
Every small Australian town has a war memorial, a monument to the young men who went away overseas in the two great wars of last century and did not return.
Those war memorials and the services held at them are often the focal point for a community, particularly in rural areas.
They carry three words laden with meaning: Lest We Forget.
But it is important we also do not forget those those who have been killed at work. And redouble our efforts to prevent future deaths.
The Hunter Valley plays an important role in the history of the Australian trade union movement.
In so many ways, the story of trade unions and working class struggle can be told through the story of the Hunter.
It was in Newcastle that the first 8 hour day committee was formed.
Because of the nature of the work, coal mining has always been associated with unionism, and Newcastle was Australia’s first coal port in the early 1800s.
And it is still Australia’s, and the world’s biggest coal port.
The first coal mining operations began here as early as 1801, and unionism has been part of the landscape almost the entire time since.
From the earliest Lodges, a sense of mateship, camaraderie and collective unity has existed and continues today with union density of almost 90% across the mines of northern NSW.
It just so happens that on Thursday afternoon I had the pleasure to host a special screening of the movie Last Stand at Nymboida in Melbourne on Thursday afternoon.
And I was once again struck by the determination and kinship that makes this area so proudly union.
When faced with the closure of their mine in 1975, the 30 miners at Nymboida refused to take it lying down, eventually taking over the mine and keeping it open.
As a result of the miners’ stand, the CFMEU’s Mineworkers Trust has put millions of dollars into local communities to support vital services and organisations including schools, hospitals, bush fire brigades, surf clubs and hundreds of scholarships for kids.
Unfortunately, since the Jim Comerford Memorial Wall was inaugurated, the number of names on it has grown.
There were four men killed in the Gretley disaster in 1996. Last year, we added the name of Peter Jones, killed at Lake Macquarie in the middle of 2011.
But we can be grateful that there has been no addition in the past 12 months.
Still, the dangers remain. Recently, Xstrata’s Blakefield South mine resumed full production after it had been out of operation for more than a year.
I am told that about 50 men were underground when the fire ignited, and it was only thanks to the safety systems in place that there were no serious injuries or fatalities.
I would not suggest that open cut mining does not present its own hazards, but it remains that almost half the mines in the Hunter Valley region are underground operations, the most dangerous scenario for mining.
It is easy to overlook the role of unions in providing safe workplaces when newspaper headlines constantly seek to demonise what we do.
The coal mining industry has historically been one of the deadliest. It was also one of the first to be unionised.
The two are not unrelated.
Any industry that sends young boys hundreds of metres underground, where men work doubled over for hours on end, where ventilation is poor and they are breathing in black dust, where an explosion can occur at any time, is dangerous.
For centuries, mine owners regarded the men they were prepared to send into these potentially deadly workplaces as expendable. Deaths and crippling injuries were all too commonplace.
Until 2001, at least one fatality had occurred every year since coal mining began in the Hunter in 1801.
Twenty-one men were killed in the Bellbird Colliery explosion in 1923, which remains the worst single disaster in the history of coal mining in the district’s history.
This explosion led to the passage of the NSW Mines Rescue Act in 1925, which explicitly put health and safety into the legislation.
But still the deaths continued.
It is shameful that the names on the memorial wall include those of an 11-year-old boy, Robert Irving, who was killed at Plattsburgh in 1883.
How many of those deaths were preventable?
The fight for safety in the coal industry did not come without a struggle. The bosses resisted improvements, and used every industrial tool at their disposal to avoid change.
But collectively, shoulder-to-shoulder, workers stood together to demand safety. That is what a union is for.
And that is why today, the New South Wales coal industry is one of the safest in the world.
District check inspectors have long played a proactive role in stopping work before incidents happen.
About 1000 people die in the United States each year from black lung.
But we haven’t had a recorded death in Australia for 40 years because of regular dust sampling and health checks by Coal Services and your union.
The mine rescue services in the northern district are among the best in the world.
None of this has come about by accident.
It remains the case that the safest workplaces are those where employees are empowered to speak up, to take action and even to stop work if they feel endangered.
With the threat of the sack wielded by employers, workers will individually often be afraid or unable to exercise their rights to a healthy and safe workplace. But collectively, they can do so.
The link to empowering workers to act for workplace safety is a union, which brings expertise and collective organisation to bond workers together and demand improvements from employers.
Yet, it seems incredible that even today, in 2012, we still have to fight to keep our workplaces safe.
Across the border in Queensland, the Miner’s Union is warning that moves by the Newman Government to deregulate the role of safety inspectors will put more lives at risk.
As the CFMEU District President Stephen Smyth said:
“Taking away the powers of safety inspectors at the coalface in favour of entrusting them to company executives in an office is dangerously naïve.”
Twenty-nine miners, including two Australians, died at Pike River in New Zealand, where safety laws have been diminished.
The creeping rise of insecure work is also a threat to mine safety. I am talking about labour hire, casualisation and contracting out, along with fly-in/fly-out or drive-in/drive-out.
A lasting safety culture cannot be created with a mobile, temporary workforce. And it is well known that a lack of job security makes it more difficult for people to speak up for their rights, particularly about occupational health and safety. Industry studies point to a link between a lack of safety in mines and the growth of contract employment in the industry.
Contractors are increasingly favoured by some mining companies over permanent employees because they are cheaper and many contractors are not union-oriented and are less likely to raise safety concerns.
Safety standards for some contractors have been found to be lower than other workers, as they received less training and induction.
At the core of the CFMEU’s dispute with BHP Billiton-Mitsubishi Alliance in the Bowen Basin is management’s insistence on appointing health and safety officers who do not represent a workforce that is increasingly contract driven.
The law needs to keep pace with these changes, and through the ACTU’s Secure Jobs. Better Future campaign, we intend to ensure that contract and labour hire workers have the same health and safety protections as other workers.
Because one of the fundamentals of a secure job is a healthy and safe working environment.
It has been an honour for me to address this gathering today, but also a burden.
Because we should not need to have a memorial to dead workers. Husbands and wives, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters should not have to dread that knock at the door when their loved ones do not return from work.
Workers should not have to bury their mates.
I dream that one day, there will be no more memorial walls.
But until that day, let us all work together to improve safety in all industries, for all workers.