A victory for mateship – and also for unions

Miners Freed
Where were you when the news came through that the miners had finally been freed? It’s a wonderful day for all of us who’ve followed the story so closely over the last few weeks. I’ll never forget what I was doing when Australia learned that not only were the two men out, but in astonishingly good shape. I was asleep.

The plight of Brant Webb and Todd Russell has made headlines all over the worlds, even filtering through to the ears of Dave Grohl, who’s promised them a beer. It’s been a long time since we had such an unambiguously “good news” story as this one. And I am sure I speak for many cynics when I say that I was so delighted by the news, that I wasn’t even irritated by John Howard banging on about mateship.

What’s been particularly striking about these two guys is their sheer Aussieness. The media has lapped it up, and really, Paul Hogan couldn’t have imagined two more perfect “good blokes”. They’ve joked every step of the way through a harrowing ordeal. They’ve dreamed of meat pies and footy, and they’ve now told their bosses to shove it in spectacular fashion. They should change the oath at citizenship ceremonies so that new Aussies don’t swear allegiance to some abstract set of values, but instead promise faithfully to take the piss even when staring death in the face.

They’re also about to become filthy rich. The networks are squabbling over them – Eddie McGuire is apparently hoping to use his Collingwood links to nab them for Nine, but they seem to prefer Kochie. Big-buck deals from women’s magazines can’t be far away either – and how much more deserving they are than Bec and Lleyton.

I’ll bet Russell Crowe’s already trying to buy the film rights to star in an inspirational movie about their story, because these two are the genuine ocker article he longs to be. I hope they make millions.

But we must do more than just celebrate their spectacularly good fortune, and congratulate the hardworking, innovative rescuers who have pulled off an unprecedented feat. Now we must start asking the unpleasant questions. Was there really a known safety problem? Should more precautions have been taken? Were corners cut and lives endangered because the mine’s management wanted to keep the profits flowing?

There are few starker illustrations of the cold-hearted logic of business than goldmining. In a South African mine, the SMH reported today, the equation is that for each tonne of gold extracted, one miner dies. Last year, mining company AngloGold Ashanti lost 17 men because as well as gold, the mines contains exploding rocks. As does Beaconsfield.

If a company has calculated that it can afford to kill one man per tonne of gold, and views that as an affordable risk, should it be allowed to continue operating on that basis? It’s the role of governments to step in and protect workers from being cynically sacrificed for profits.

But it’s also the role of unions. Beaconsfield has also been a victory for the trade union movement, because it’s shown the value of collective action. While Howard likes to talk about mateship, it’s actually the unions that function on the principle that mates should pull together to stick up for themselves against employers who can sometimes become antagonists.

This is why the government’s push for individual bargaining is dangerous for workers – especially in industries like this, which can literally involve life or death situations. How is an individual supposed to work out whether a lucrative mining contract is too dangerous to accept? And if a miner who needs to feed their family is offered big bucks to take unacceptably high risks, and told that if he doesn’t sign there’s others who will, how can they say no? It’s only by the threat of collective action that workers can actually bargain with bosses when the chips are down. It’s only when the mine faces having no workers – or not being allowed to operate, if the government gets involved – that it will amend conditions.

There were big profits to be made at Beaconsfield – after all, Macquarie Bank was involved. So if it turns out that a man has died, and two others placed in mortal danger, because the mining company didn’t monitor safety properly, then it should be made to pay extremely heavily.

Now I don’t want to sound like Kim Beazley. That would be disastrous. And I’ve previously criticised his comments while the two men were still stuck a kilometre underground. But I do think Beaconsfield illustrates the value of having trade unions, and there’s been precious little evidence of that lately. So – to the barricades, comrades! Preferably ones without Bill Shorten and his ubiquitous camera crews.

Webb and Russell refuse to go down the mine again. The question now is whether they should have been asked to go down in the first place. If not, it only goes to show how much we need strict regulation and strong unions to ensure that other workers aren’t involuntarily made into heroes because a mining company got greedy and cut corners on safety.

Photo: Getty Images

UPDATE: Here’s a great story from The Age about the mine’s safety record.

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