The Men Behind The Boom

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Jobs, jobs, jobs — it’s all we ever hear about. But what’s it really like to be a miner, childcare worker or scientist? Our occasional series sends Troy Henderson down the tunnel and into the lab to find out. Behind the rhetoric and beyond the boom — Matilda Snapshots is a warts and all picture of working life in Australia.

John Reynolds is a bear of a man with close-cropped silver hair and an impressive moustache. He grew up in Huntly, a coal mining town south of Auckland, where his father introduced him to the mines as a teenager. He trained as an electrician but went back to mining in 1989, spending 11 years in the Queensland coalfields before relocating to the Illawarra in NSW. New Matilda joined the 49 year-old miner for his regular 6am to 6pm Saturday shift at NRE No. 1 Colliery in Russell Vale.

The colliery has been mined for over 120 years. In 2004 Gujarat NRE, India’s largest producer of metallurgical coke, acquired the mine and invested $270 million in upgrades and expanding production. In 2008 NRE announced a further $500 million in planned investment to bring annual production up to 6 million tonnes by 2015.

The company’s executive chairman, Arun Kumar Jagatramka, has worked overtime to build links with the local community, leading to his being named Illawarra Person of the Year 2009. But concerns over the impact of the carbon tax saw the company’s share price slump in 2011 — perhaps explaining Jagatramka’s extravagant claims that the tax could lead to $60 schooners and $20 loaves of bread.

The 40-odd men on the morning shift change into their overalls and gumboots, collect their hardhats, headlamps, Kevlar gloves and oxygen flasks and head over to the muster area for the daily briefing at 6.15am. John knocks off a can of Mother while he waits. "Right guys shut up," says the shift manager, before giving a quick update on the state of play, and then announcing that Col would be in charge of the barbecue to mark the start of mining the economically vital long-wall. "Col!", says John. "Fuck! Hope he washes his hands, the c—."

Around 6.30am we pile into the drift runner, a sort-of troop carrier, that sends us flying in through the mine mouth and down into the tunnels. The walls and roof are covered in steel mesh, ducts, pipes and cables that hang down like tree-roots from the ceiling. We arrive at the crib room, an underground mess hall with tables and benches, mine maps, and a board where the miners hang their ID tags. The Deputy, Steve Preen, shows me the compressed air breathing devices and the lifeline that leads you back to surface in an emergency.

John is part of an eight-member team comprising six operators, a "lecky" (electrician), and a fitter. John operates the Sandvik MB670 Continuous Miner and works back-to-back 12-hour shifts on the weekend and a six-hour shift on Monday that starts at 5.15am. His team is doing "development" on the deep Wongawilli coal seam — opening up new sections of the mine in order to create a "network of rooms" that will allow for more rapid extraction.

John’s regular breakfast is a meat pie, which he finds gives him the energy to see him through to lunch. After breakfast the crew takes the short walk to the coalface, but the Continuous Miner has a busted hydraulic hose. John is clearly unimpressed at the delay. An all-too-regular occurrence, he says, as we trudge back to the crib room.

The technical hiccup gives us a chance to chat while John eats a bowl of cereal. He tells me he enjoys the hands-on nature of mining, the variety of tasks, and the fact that a shift goes quickly when you’re cutting coal. He earns around $125,000 a year before tax, but could make a lot more in QLD. The main attraction of working at the Russell Vale mine is improved lifestyle; John lives with his wife Michelle and four kids — three from his wife’s first marriage and one of their own — rather than being stuck in an isolated miners’ camp.

We’re interrupted by good news: Ra, the energetic fitter, has fixed the hose! We head back to the coalface, wade through the mud, and climb up onto the Miner. The coal bands alternate between matt black and diamond glitter and the smell — a hint of phosphorous — is strong without being overpowering. John rips off the yellow "Broken" tag, fires up the MB670 and we’re ready to mine some coal! Or so we thought. "Just when you think you’re right you’re fuckin’ not", says John. He can hear something — an oil leak in the apron. "Get Ra here", he says. The leak seems serious: looks like we’re out for the shift.

Back in the crib room John is even more disgruntled. We were well set up to make good metres. Our talk turns to politics. John is vice-president of the local branch of the CFMEU and speaks highly of district vice-president Bob Timbs, but he wouldn’t describe himself as a very political man. He’s not impressed by Julia Gillard ("couldn’t hold a candle to Helen Clarke") or Tony Abbott ("complete idiot") and despite his labour roots, would probably vote National if he had Australian citizenship. Like many, he can’t understand why Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd in the first place. John is less concerned about the carbon tax than he is about ongoing issues with equipment and maintenance and whether the company can make a return on its large investment.

Steve Preen, the Deputy, doesn’t think much of our national leaders either but prefers Malcolm Turnbull to Abbott. On climate change, Steve’s a believer, and says "I guess that makes me a hypocrite being a coalminer". But, at the same time, mining has given him a 33-year career and allowed him to stay in the region he grew up in and still loves. He’d like the young guys at the mine to have the same opportunities.

Mr Fix-it Ra has done it again. We head back to the coalface and the Continuous Miner lives up to its name. John moves the Miner forward, sets the parameters for the coal cutter and puts the MB670 to work.

The cutter looks like a giant, spiked rolling pin as it crunches through the coal which crashes onto the floor. The coal is scooped up, transferred to the back of the Miner and poured into the waiting shuttle which transports each 10-tonne load to a crusher before being carried by conveyor belt up to the surface. Then it’s stockpiled and trucked to Port Kembla. As the MB670 moves forward the operators work quickly to stabilise the newly exposed roof and ribbing with steel mesh and 6 foot long steel rods that are bolted into place.

I notice just one operator wears a face mask while he works and, while an exhaust fan sucks out most of the dust and gas, it’s hard not think about how much dust the men breathe in as I look at each blackened page of my notebook and wipe the clogged up tip of my pen. An operator tells me it’s not a very physical job, but it’s no office job either. The steel rods are heavy, conditions are cramped on the Miner, and wading through knee-deep mud in a dark tunnel isn’t for everyone. Teamwork and personal responsibility are also clearly important. If one person stuffs up it can have serious consequences for themselves and others. And then there is the danger, the rare cases where a gas outburst or a collapsed roof claims a life.

The men continue to work quietly and efficiently. The cutting, loading, drilling and bolting fall into a rhythm and within a few hours they’ve cut six metres of coal — about 120 tonnes — and the shift is over.

We pile back into the drift runner and speed up to the surface, trading one darkness for another. The miners return their equipment, wash their boots, and head for the showers to scrub off another day’s grime.

Outside the full moon lights up the Pacific where at least a dozen coal ships wait patiently for the cargo that they’ll carry from the southern coalfields of NSW to the coke ovens of China and India. John Reynolds will drive home to his family, have dinner and try to get to bed by 9pm.

New Matilda

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