Stop Russell Vale Mine: Tactics and Strategy in Recent Historical Context

Introduction

The climate movement in the Illawarra, like many places in the world, was gaining significant momentum and building in militancy over 2018-2019. From the earliest Global Climate Strikes of 2019, the Illawarra climate movement integrated pickets of fossil capital at the offices of mine operators, and later directly at the mine gates. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic forced much of the climate movement’s organising into other areas of focus. But the close of 2021 saw a return of community pickets to oppose coal mine expansions in the Illawarra region, in particular at the Russell Vale Colliery. Rebuilding the momentum of 2019 is an important task, and the Stop Russell Vale Mine (SRVM) campaign is an important struggle in the Illawarra context and beyond. This piece looks at the SRVM campaign in light of the recent history of direct-action struggles in the Illawarra, focusing specifically on community pickets, blockades, and office occupations. It argues that participatory, mass militancy that directly targets fossil capital needs to be a key organisational orientation of the climate movement.

Stop Russell Vale Mine Campaign

SRVM formed out of the Protect Our Water Alliance (POWA), a group doing excellent work to stop all mining in the Sydney-Illawarra water catchment via a range of organisational methods. POWA continues to do important organising that involves movement building, critical research and street protest (another group formed out of POWA to focus specifically on two legal interventions). SRVM was inspired by these efforts to form a separate group, with a specific focus on direct action at Russell Vale Mine.

Nic Beuret has argued that “Direct action isn’t a stunt, but sustained disruption. It works not (primarily) because of its impact on public opinion, but because the disruption causes the mine, logging, roadbuilding or construction project to stop.” This is a useful framework to think about SRVM and the broader climate movement in the Illawarra, to reflect on what has happened in the region, and what it will take to achieve the desired ends.

 

The campaign to Stop Russell Vale Mine has seen a number of direct actions in recent months, involving mass pickets, a lock on, and during covid restrictions a range of small-scale actions at the mine gates. Most recently, on March 25th, 2022, Russell Vale Colliery was again picketed by the Illawarra climate movement. As part of the Global Climate Strike, 50-80 community members, including residents from Russell Vale, ex-coal workers, and many others from the Illawarra and elsewhere picketed the entrances to the mine. For around 3 hours in pouring rain, the main mine entrance was blocked, along with the secondary mine entrance after it had been opened as an alternative entry route. As the climate movement tries to rebuild the momentum of 2019 in the 2022 Covid context, the struggle around Russell Vale Mine and the tactics and strategy developing within SRVM are important to discuss, debate, grow and circulate elsewhere.

Actions within the SRVM campaign have raised a number of important political questions, about the organisation of a campaign, the character and role of direct action, the organisation of pickets, and the means to block the operations of the mine. The recent March 25th picket allowed questions like how the pickets should be organised, when and how to stop workers entering the mine, what to do in relation to police, and making decisions on the pickets, to be considered through practice again.

The picket on March 25th was largely successful, evident in the fact that the pickets held for a number of hours in the pouring rain. Initially picketing only one entrance, when it became apparent that a second entrance to the mine had been opened, the picket organised itself to split in two groups and block both entrances. The pickets discussed and decided on how to block the entrances, when the question of whether workers could enter the site while still blocking trucks, it was decided to block entry and exit from the mine. When the police approached one of the picket lines, discussion and decisions were held as to how to respond, to what extent to hold the picket, and who was arrestable. As the campaign continues to develop, possibly with growing militancy, there will be opportunities to see where these questions play out practically again, for the participants to reflect and develop the political composition of the struggle further. For now, it is worthwhile to revisit how some of these issues have been faced by earlier struggles in the Illawarra.

The Illawarra: Community Pickets, Blockades, and Office Occupations

The Illawarra has been shaped by millennia of Aboriginal care and custodianship, and hundreds of years of struggle for land rights, sovereignty, and self-determination. Other radical movements and histories in the region include the militant labour movement, which while historically bound to fossil industries, has from within these industries refused the abuses of these companies, and is not reducible to the struggles of fossil workers. Environmental movements, among many other struggles, have also characterised the region, with fossil industry workers often playing an important part in them. These are important histories of the region we can learn from, especially insofar as solidarity, contradiction, and difference have been organised, negotiated, and sometimes overcome within the movements themselves. The following examples aim to demonstrate how this has played out in earlier struggles, and to help us think about the current struggle and the challenges it faces.

M1 Carnival Against Capital: Community Picket of Port Kembla Copper (2000)

The oldest industry of Port Kembla was the Electrolytic Refining and Smelting Company of Australia Ltd. (ER&S), which formed the foundation for the local economy in the 20th Century and was influential in terms of the composition of the Illawarra’s working class. By the 1980s and 90s the significance of Port Kembla as an industrial employer had reduced significantly. The copper smelter had been through changes of ownership from ER&S, to ConZinc Rio Tinto Australia, becoming Southern Copper in 1990. As a result of profitability pressures, problems with environmental laws and pollution, and community opposition, by 1995 it had shut down. It had been linked to cancer clusters in Port Kembla neighbourhoods and high lead levels in local school children, dangerous work conditions, and other environmental hazards. However, in 1996, Port Kembla Copper (PKC) took over the smelter and it was eventually reopened in 2000. The reopening was met with widespread community opposition. The campaign to shut down PKC deployed a range of measures to challenge its reopening – including campaigning, legal proceedings, and protests. One action within the campaign was the M1 picket in the year 2000.

The M1 community picket of PKC was part of a string of global actions against capitalism. M1 2000 was a Global Day of Action billed as a Carnival Against Capital (see enRAged issues 1 and 2 here). This was the period of the alter-globalisation movement, which saw widespread global struggles linked together in various ways, which tended to target major meetings of global capital. The M1 picket brought Illawarra struggle against PKC into relation with the global revolt against capitalist rule.

The PKC picket took place on May Day, organised through a subcommittee of the Wollongong May Day Committee. While the carnival against capital at PKC was organised through the M1 subcommittee, importantly the picket involved a range of groups, organisations and members of the Port Kembla and Wollongong community. Around 100 people participated in the picket, initially shutting down 2 of the 3 entrances to the site, before a group of people moved to shut down the third and final entrance. The last move effectively shut all entry and exit to the site, which in turn generated the condition that provoked arrests on the day.

At its strongest, the picket was decentralised and non-hierarchical, evidenced by the meetings held on the picket lines themselves about tactics, responses to police and so on. Militant pickets were formed to block truck access to the site and 9 arrests were made on the day.

 

Issues that arose during the M1 picket that resonate with the contemporary struggle, relate to the relationship between community pickets and workers in these industries, how the context of a social or climate strike relates to the sectional interest of the workers as employees of fossil capital, and the democratic organisation of the pickets themselves.

At the picket of Russell Vale on the 25th, trucks were blocked as were workers trying to enter. This is a similar situation to the PKC picket. Even though the PKC picket was a community picket and not a trade union picket, at PKC the Transport Workers Union was consulted and informed of the picket beforehand. One positive upshot of this was a degree of cooperation between some truck drivers and the pickets. In a publicly organised picket, such as the SRVM one, engaging with sympathetic elements of the workers and/or union beforehand might also be something to consider.

Joy Mining: Pickets and Site Occupations (2000)  

The Joy Mining dispute has similarities and key differences with the PKC picket and with SRVM. In a similar example to the PKC struggle, the Joy Mining Machinery dispute illustrates the relationship between seemingly local struggles, and the operations of global capital. Unlike the PKC struggle, however, this campaign was based around immediate work conditions for a specific section of the class, and in support of workers employed in fossil industries. In this sense, the Joy dispute and community support is an interesting example of contradiction and solidarity in the planetary factory.

 

Through a process of downsizing, casualisation and erosion of pay and conditions, Joy Mining sought to scrap the enterprise agreement and introduce 4 separate agreements. This was rejected by the union and workers, and Joy Mining threatened to close the site, issuing lockout notices, which lead to the pickets. The Joy Mining dispute lasted for 205 days of the year 2000, beginning in March, and ending in October. During that time there was a 24-hour picket at the Moss Vale Joy plant, the initial site of the conflict, and pickets were established in Coniston and Unanderra, as the struggle broadened. The campaign also received international attention, and international solidarity actions.

The company’s production was moved off site beginning in late March and in response the picket formed. On April 14, 2000, the Joy workers were issued with the first of two lockout notices. The lockout was for three months, but the workers remained on the picket. As the picket continued, Joy Mining issued a Supreme Court injunction against the unions, “preventing them from blockading the site.” In this situation the unions could not legally prevent the movement of jobs and machinery off site. However, despite the fact that the unions were unable legally to confront Joy Mining directly, due to the injunction, the participation of community members helped keep the struggle going, and to increase its militancy, through community pickets. Community pickets have been a tactic utilised by unions in order to defy laws prohibiting the organisation of pickets and were powerfully and successfully used in the MUA dispute in 1998. In the Joy dispute, ‘concerned citizen committees’ were formed to participate in the pickets.

Numerous people participated through the ‘committees’, including students and other community members. Due to the lack of legal restrictions on the ‘committees’, these participants were able to act in a more direct manner at the site of the struggle. Once again, this involved direct action and blockading the site to prevent its operations. As the conflict continued, and after Joy Mining moved some of its operations off site to Coniston, actions were held at these other sites in Coniston and Unanderra.

This was a different situation to the straight up community picket of M1 and SRVM. Joy Mining was ostensibly a trade union picket, but due to legal injunctions unions were prevented from running the pickets. This led to an interesting situation where the formal union campaign and leadership was only one part of the story, as the pickets were essentially run by those who were on the picket lines (see enRAged: the journal of Revolutionary Action issue 2 for analysis and discussion of this). These were community pickets in support of the workers struggle, but practically organised and run by the picketers themselves, not the union leadership. This was an interesting political space facilitating an experimentation with participatory organisation on the pickets themselves for the picketers. In total, pickets were held in Moss Vale, Coniston (where scab labour was operating), and at the site in Unanderra.

Looking at PKC and Joy together, there were participants that were at both pickets: at PKC to shut down the environmentally hazardous copper smelter, and at Joy Mining to support fossil workers in their employment, health, and safety struggles. There is an apparent contradiction here, that is perhaps more pronounced in the current moment and which today’s movement could reflect on.

The Illawarra Climate Justice Alliance has been working on this contradiction through its Just Transitions group, seeking to close coal mines in the region, to engage with the rapidly deteriorating conditions of mine workers, to acknowledge the impact of mine closure on these workers, but most crucially, to reject the idea that the central concern of the current climate movement and just transition is reducible to that of employment. Looking instead to practices of care and First Nations’ leadership.

These issues will continue to be important within the SRVM campaign.

Sandon Point Aboriginal Tent Embassy (SPATE)-Kuradji, Sandon Point Community Picket and Blockades  

In 2000 Stockland Constructors Pty Ltd (Stockland), “submitted development applications to Wollongong Council for stages 1-6” of its 20-stage, 1200 house, residential plan for the Sandon Point area. Sandon Point is located between Bulli and Thirroul. Aboriginal connection to the area goes back to time immemorial, and the Stocklands development plan sat atop a known sacred Aboriginal Burial site. In 1998, remains of a 6000-year-old Kuradji were exposed in the beach at Sandon Point. Remains had also been located in the area in the 1950s and 1970s, and in the era of the colony the area has been known as an Aboriginal burial ground since at least 1887 (Organ; Salter). The area was also one of the last green corridors connecting the escarpment to the ocean and was a significant wetland ecology inhabited by unique and endangered species.

In December 2000, a Sacred Fire was brought to the Kuradji site from the long-established Tent Embassy in Canberra, which marked the establishment of The Sandon Point Aboriginal Tent Embassy (SPATE) and the beginning of a long-term campaign and struggle to prevent the Stocklands development. SPATE was a permanently occupied place that was the centre of the struggle against the development. In early 2000, a “senior lore man of the Yuin Nation, declared “no houses” be built at Sandon Point and renamed the area Kuradji (McInerny 2001).” And “in early 2001 the Illawarra Aboriginal Land Council declared the area a site of state significance.” SPATE had widespread support, but it also faced harsh opposition, vandalism and arson attacks on multiple occasions.

Up the hill from SPATE, on another section of the development site, a 24-hour community picket was established. The community picket was formed a few months after SPATE, on March 3rd 2001. As Salter notes, “following a direct request, SPATE presented a letter to the NIRAG (Northern Illawarra Residents Action Group) detailing the granting of permission ‘to come onto country to establish and staff a 24 hour-a-day Peaceful Protest Camp’. The Community Picket, as it became known, remained onsite until the evening of 23 February 2006, when the structure was destroyed by arson.”

A wide range of interests and issues were at play in the opposition to the development. And a wide array of tactics and strategies were used. During 2002 there were two major direct actions at the Sandon Point development site. The first became known as the ‘Valentines Day Blockade’. The Valentine’s Day Blockade was a three-day blockade of the site, as Stockland attempted to move heavy earth moving machinery onto the site, between the 11th and 14th of February 2002. After the development proposal was granted, Stockland attempted to bring in the first of its machinery for the construction. The blockade involved over 200 picketers, physically using their bodies to prevent the entry of the machinery. On the 14th the police began a “massive operation” to get through the blockade. Seventy people were arrested on the day, as Stockland began moving machinery on to the site. However, the company then had to stop work as a court injunction won by SPATE prevented the commencement of development.

The second major direct action at Sandon Point occurred just three months later, in May 2002. As earth works began, a broad based and militant action occurred over two days. As Southall (enRAged: the journal of Revolutionary Action issue 5) reported at the time, ‘on Monday May 20 about 150 people broke through the fence at Sandon Point. The contractors and their equipment withdrew to a fenced inner compound.’ The fence of the inner compound was then pulled down, and then the entire perimeter fence was pulled down. 2 days later, another mobilisation occurred, which pulled down the fences around the site, sabotaged the building surveyance plans, and involved a ‘lock-on’ to machinery. Sixteen people were arrested over those two days.

The campaign against the Stockland development, and the Valentine’s Day Blockade and the May actions, within this campaign were significant in demonstrating how the practical experience of struggle and militancy helped to forge common experiences, solidarity, and commitment across different interests, and in solidarity with SPATE.

 

2009 Helensburgh Climate Camp

 

Climate Camp, gatherings for discussion, debate, and climate action, have been a widespread organisational form across parts of the world in the past two decades. A climate camp was held in Helensburgh at Metropolitan mine from October 9-11 in 2009. With around 300 attendees, there were days of workshops, discussions, protests and a picket at the gates of the mine. This was the first time a camp of this nature had been attempted in the Illawarra, and it is important to remember that at this point in history denial of climate change was still quite common.

The Helensburgh Climate camp provoked debates about how to approach the opposition to fossil industries in fossil industry towns. It was clear that the camp drew support from a number of Helensburgh residents. There were also reports at the time of cooperation between some workers in the mine and those of the climate camp, such as sharing info of when and where to protest or access the mine site. At the same time, the camp also provoked a counter protest from other Helensburgh residents and workers in the mine. The picket, protest and counter protest did not turn violent, but it was heated. Mine workers and mine defenders threw eggs at the protest and climate campers.

 

The tension that was manifest at the climate camp reverberated as debate among the political left at the time. Some argued that the site of the camp was poorly chosen, and that the direct confrontation with the mine and mine workers was a mistake. Those of this position held that the poor choice was especially clear, as the local union movement was arguing that the mining of metallurgical coal as essential for the region. However, it is problematic to suggest that the climate movement should not directly confront fossil capital. Others defended the choice of the site as a necessary confrontation with the fossil industry and that the camp had been successful.

One thing is very clear, this tension and debate around how to approach fossil fuel workers has not gone away in the last 13 years, and it is something that will be encountered again, with the tension potentially heightened. Navigating this tension should not lead to a retreat from a direct confrontation with fossil capital, in either its fixed or variable forms. But it is also important to remember, that work is the blackmail of capitalism, and the climate movement should not mistake fossil workers for capitalists. In the Illawarra, fossil workers have been involved in movements to end fossil industries, and the climate movement would make an error to miss how many workers hate the jobs they sometimes defend (Gabriel Winant, The Next Shift), and who often recognise the compromised and short-sighted nature of the industry they find themselves in.

In recent years in the Illawarra, the climate movement has had some success in building a politics and movement to shut down the fossil industries against both the bosses of fossil capital, and those that have placed sectional interests around employment above all else. The politics against mining in the water catchment and the direct picketing of the mining companies, protests, and office occupations of contractors operating mines in the region have played an important role in forcing changes in the public positions of the South Coast Labour Council and others on this issue.

 

Port Kembla Coal Blockade as Part of Action to Coincide with the 2015 Paris Summit

 

In 2015 there was a coordinated action to shut coal ports on the eastern seaboard of Australia, coinciding with the Paris Climate talks. Front Line Action on Coal blockaded three (of the five) coal ports on the eastern seaboard simultaneously. In Wollongong there were about 20 people stopping coal trucks on the road into the port, and two climbers suspended from the coal loading machinery at the port. While not organised as an open picket or blockade for broader participation, it is an example of an approach to action that is somewhat widespread at the moment, seen in the actions of Frontline Action on Coal and Blockade Australia in recent months.

A question that is worth considering here is: how can actions built around mass militancy and participation, and those built out of actions of smaller groups of people come to reinforce each other more directly?

 

Stop Adani: GHD Occupation in Wollongong

The Stop Adani campaign has been one of the most significant and well known anti-mining campaigns in Australia in recent years. While the mine is far from the Illawarra, one element of the campaign has involved targeting companies that have contracts with Adani. One such company has been GHD, a resources and logistics company formerly contracting with Adani. GHD have offices and operations in Wollongong and the Stop Adani campaign was supported in the Gong through targeting this organisation. A number of actions were held to pressure them to drop the contract. One action was an occupation of the offices in 2019. About a dozen people occupied the offices of GHD for a couple of hours, closing the operation of the headquarters for that time, before being removed by police. There were mixed responses from the workers in the office. Many were surprised they had been targeted at all. Some said they were sympathetic to the campaign and were engaged with climate change science. The management were hostile to the occupation, as were the security.

Shutdown Coal 2020: Annual Coal Operators Conference at University of Wollongong

At what turned out to be the tail end of the upswing in militant protest of 2019, in Wollongong the Illawarra Climate Justice Alliance prepared to blockade the annual Coal Operators Conference, held every year since 1998 at the University of Wollongong (UOW). Successful climate strikes and protests characterised 2019. In 2019 the climate strikes in Wollongong picketed the offices of South32 mine operators, housed on the Innovation Campus of UOW. The Shut Down Coal 2020 plans were shaping up to be a new experience for the movement. The process of organising was becoming an opportunity to discuss and try out new tactics, strategies and organising. Due to the clarity of the declaration of militancy to shut the coal conference down, the conference was cancelled by UOW management after police said they could not guarantee arrests would not be made at the blockade. A victory of the struggle, it was the first time the conference had ever been cancelled.

 

SRVM, Mass Militancy and the Illawarra Climate Movement

The SRVM campaign is an iteration of the types of action and disruption outlined in the examples above. The campaign and the pickets held by SRVM are a space for the development and accumulation of political experience as well as being an important site of direct confrontation with fossil capital. At the time of writing, the NSW Government is passing laws to further criminalise political activity and increase the harshness of sentences faced by those charged under the new laws. At least two prison sentences have been handed down by the courts against climate activists in the past few months. Considering the best ways to defy the law, to disrupt and shut down fossil capital, and how to build a militant movement, is therefore important. SRVM offers a useful way into the consideration of these issues.

 

Two key dimensions to the SRVM campaign are worth highlighting. First, the campaign has focused on directly organising to shut down operations at the mine as a direct disruption to fossil capital and the movement of coal. Second, a significant component of the actions has been built as a form of mass militancy, with as many people as possible organising and cooperating to hold the pickets and shut the mine. These are important contributions to the broader politics of the climate movement.

Building a movement based on mass, participatory militancy that directly disrupts fossil capital is going to be crucial to the success of the struggle. Continuing to build the community pickets and blockades as a form of mass militancy does not mean that everybody must be doing the same thing, must have the same approach to engagement with police, or want to do the same actions on the picket. There will always be a range of ideas, viewpoints, experiences, and things that people are ‘up for’ in a picket or blockade. Similarly, mass militancy doesn’t mean that one form of action is more important than another. For mass militancy to be successful, it will need to be based on a variety of activities and contributions. The organisational question is primarily one of how to be as disruptive as possible, to have as many people participate as possible in ways they see fit, for organisation before, during and after to be as democratic and participatory as possible, and for debates, discussions and disagreements about tactics and strategy to be had honestly and openly within the movement.