It’s almost twenty three years since we first gathered here for the inaugural Annual Memorial Day Service.
It says so much about the Union, its leadership and our community that we are here again today in such large numbers, to remember the losses of the local coal mining family.
But while the size of our gathering remains impressive, it offers no surprise. It is what we’ve come to expect from a community built by the strength, determination and camaraderie of the coal mining communities of days gone by.
When Paul Keating accepted the invitation to join us in 1996, he did so because he fully appreciated two things:
1. The largely needless tragedy so graphically depicted right here on the Jim Comerford Wall; and
2. The decades-long efforts of the trade union movement to ensure people come before profits always.
By making room for this Service in the Prime Ministerial diary at the pointy-end of an election campaign, Paul Keating established a precedent for future Labor leaders to follow and they have; Beazley, Crean, Rudd, Gillard and Shorten.
It’s an honour for me to follow them and the many senior Labor and trade union activists who have addressed this solemn gathering today.
Each of the people who have preceded me brought their own personal experiences and perspectives to this lectern. I do too.
My own however is a little different. I’m a child of the Northern Coalfields. I’ve lived here all of my life. In the main my school mates were sons of coal miners.
My early playgrounds were abandoned open-cuts and redundant railway lines. I fondly and vividly recall travelling to “the lake” for annual Miners’ picnic days.
My early footy coaches were coal miners as were many of those who I later played alongside in the more senior ranks.
Cessnock always had the big Rugby League forward packs claimed the commentators; it was the coal miners they said.
When I worked in my trade I spent much of my time repairing the mining industry’s flame-proof generators, colourfully delivered and retrieved by local legend Ray “Pancho” Muir.
I was taught to drink black beer by some of the Industry’s toughest and most opinionated. I had a picture in my mind of what a pillar, a drift, a conveyor belt and shuttle car looked like long before I ever ventured underground.
“Cutting coal” remains a popular pastime in our local pubs.
As a local I’ve been a student of the industrial battles of the sector’s early years, so well recorded by Jim Comerford and others. And I’ve been an observer - and indeed a combatant - in more recent conflicts.
But most importantly, more than a few of those on the Jim Comerford Wall were personally known to me and I’ve witnessed firsthand the pain felt by their family and friends.
So it’s a great honour, as a member of this community, to be standing with it in a collective determination to ensure that those who we’ve lost will not be forgotten, and to stand with all those determined that workplace safety should always be a priority for the workers’ representatives, the industry and for government.
And it’s reassuring that our current trade union leaders are as committed to that cause as those who served before them.
Of course our work doesn’t end with workplace safety. The coal mining industry has brought wealth to our communities which we could only have otherwise dreamed of.
But of course, it wasn’t always so.
For most of its history the industry’s employees were over-worked and under-paid. In the earliest years they worked in the most appalling and dangerous environments. That changed as a result of the courage and determination of our early trade unionists.
And we should never forget, courage it did indeed take.
In the seminal book Mines, Wines and People, Jim Comerford notes that to avoid victimisation for their activism, on payday the East Greta Colliery’s union men would walk a distance into the bush to secretly pay their union dues.
There they would find the Lodge Secretary and Treasurer using a tree stump as a desk. This, he says, is how union dues became known as their “stump”.
It took many decades, many disputes, and many painful lock-outs for our miners to secure a fair share of the bounty provided by the exploitation of our coal resources.
Thankfully, despite the best efforts of the mining companies, our mining workforce still enjoys those benefits today.
But the battle lingers on, and new and innovative ways are being found to chip away at those hard-won conditions: casualisation and the growing use of contractors are but a couple of examples.
I congratulate the Union on its recent victory in the Courts on the question of the use of “permanent casuals”.
These issues go not only to wages and conditions they have serious implications for workplace safety.
Which brings me back to the main purpose of our gathering this morning.
Additions to the Jim Comerford Wall in recent years have been few and we give thanks for that. But every fatality is one too many.
We must be forever vigilant, and each of us has a role to play.
Adverse change can only come if we drop our collective guard.
If we cease to speak courageously with one voice as we have always done.
In this world of rapid political change, there is and won’t be any shortage of those preaching the gospel of labour market deregulation and trickle-down economics as a means of bolstering company profits.
Company profits which by the way, are currently outpacing wages growth five-fold.
But for all the change, I know the community I live in now is not unlike the one I grew up in, full of people determined for a fair go, keen to help one another in times of need, and fully alert to the need to send one united message - that we stand together in our determination that our work places must always be safe places.