Hidden beneath the remote Nymboida Valley in Northern New South Wales, 30 men laboured in the dark and dangerous tunnels of Australia’s most primitive coal mine. The work was brutal and back breaking, and disaster always lurked in the darkness. For these tough local men, who had followed their fathers and uncles into the pit, it was the only living they had ever known.
Then, in February 1975, the Nymboida miners suddenly found themselves on the industrial scrap heap. Their hard work had been rewarded with the sack. With just a week’s notice, the Queensland based company had issued the men with dismissal notices. They were not just out of a job, they were also going to lose their entitlements.
Angry and prepared for a fight, the men would refuse to take the sack. They would make a desperate last stand. They would break the law, go back to work and run the mine themselves. It was the beginning of an unprecedented worker rebellion – a battle that pitted 30 local men against a faceless company, with the law on its side. Few expected the rebellion to last, but these men were not going to walk away – not with the support of their union, their families and the local community.
Good humoured, vocal and unified in solidarity, the Nymboida miners soon found themselves in the international spot light. And on March 11, 1975, under the glare of public scrutiny, the company finally caved in. In an extraordinary admission of defeat, the company handed over the mine to the men and their union, the Miners Federation. Against overwhelming odds, the miners had won. It was a remarkable victory. Never before, anywhere in the world, had a worker take-over succeeded in the mining industry. The miners had demonstrated to the world that workers can refuse to take the sack.
As the first skips of coal emerged from the world’s only worker controlled colliery, it soon dawned on the men that this was only the beginning of their struggle. With no mine management experience, and a clapped out and unprofitable mine, no one expected the miners and their union to last more than a few weeks. But the men liked working without a boss. Their enthusiasm and hard work lead to a miraculous transformation – and against all expectations the mine was soon turning a profit!
Nymboida was now an international symbol of worker control. But it was not long before the men faced their greatest challenge. On January 12th, 1976, a violent gas explosion ripped through the colliery’s tunnels. What follows is one of the most harrowing tales of underground disaster, bravery and escape, ever recounted on film - told by those that survived.
Despite the tragic loss of life in 1976, the Nymboida miners continued to run the mine for another 3 and a half years. It had become an undisputable success story. They not only kept their jobs, the mine was profitable enough to pay their lost entitlements.
But in 1979, Nymboida’s luck finally ran out. The mine’s sole market, the local Koolkhan power station, was shutting down. Too remote to reach other customers, Nymboida had no choice but to cease operations. Although it was the end of the Nymboida mine, it would not be the end of the Nymboida story.
As a mine owner, under state law, the union could apply for a replacement lease – much to the displeasure of the coal owners. Impressed with the successful operation at Nymboida, the NSW Government controversially granted the new lease, this time in the coal rich Hunter Valley. In another remarkable twist, the new mine would become a joint venture between a trade union and global mining business. Today, United Collieries is a multi-million dollar operation – with a levy on every tonne of coal produced channelling millions of dollars into local communities via the Mineworkers Trust.
Faced with insurmountable odds and little prospect of winning, Last Stand At Nymboida is a tale of defiance and mateship. A remarkable Australian story - told by those that lived it.