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Bill "Taffy" Smale
Created Tue 14/02/2017, Last Updated Tue 14/02/2017

Union loses another giant with the passing of Bill ‘Taffy’ Smale, former Miners Federation General Secretary

Our Union has lost another giant with the passing of former Miners Federation General Secretary Bill (Taffy) Smale yesterday (13 Feb) aged 93.

Taffy, as he was known to all his friends and Comrades, rose through the ranks as a Lodge and District President to be elected as General Secretary of the Miners Federation in 1973, a position he held until his retirement at the end of 1982. Throughout those years he was involved in some of the most pivotal struggles and campaigns that won many of the conditions and benefits we enjoy today.

Taffy was born in South Wales in 1924. His politics as a young man were shaped by the sharp anti-fascist struggles of the 1930s. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Taffy joined the RAF and served with distinction flying dozens of missions, many as a navigator.

In search of a better life for his wife Mary and young daughter Dianne, Taffy migrated to Australia in 1952. On arrival in Sydney he heard that the coal mines in the Illawarra were looking for good workers and so he made his way down south and got a job at the Nebo Colliery. There he met the man who was to remain his best friend and Comrade for the rest of his life – a determined young militant named Fred Moore.

Fred lived in a modest home in Dapto with his wife May and three young daughters and Taffy was taken in to help him find his feet. Months later, Mary, Dianne and Mary’s Mum followed Taffy to Australia and they lived with the Moore family while they set about building their own home close by. Fred Moore recalls that in the spirit of the times, “half the Nebo pit got stuck in and helped Taffy build his house”.

Taffy, like Fred, was a natural born leader, a great orator who backed it with the commitment and determination to organise and fight. Nebo was a tough underground mine owned and operated by BHP subsidiary Australian Iron and Steel (AIS). Its management came through the company ranks. They were ruthless and gave the workers no quarter in the pursuit of company profits.

Fortunately, the Miners Federation members were even more determined and never took a backward step, which meant a lot of time out the gate in industry disputes, many of them related to mine safety. Unity and Solidarity were the cornerstones of the Nebo Lodge, in the mine and out in the community too.Nebo became one of the most respected and militant pits in the Miners Federation with a strong presence of Communist Party members, including Taffy and Fred.

Schooled in this environment, Taffy rose through the rank and file to become Lodge President, a member of the NSW Southern District’s Board of Management and in 1965 he was elected to the Miners Federation’s Central Council. The respect he won saw him elected District President in 1969.
Taffy continued to provide astute leadership for a strong and determined rank and file that faced many challenges, including the decades long drawn out fight for a 35-hour week that the Union won in 1970 and was finally introduced in 1971.

In 1972, Taffy led the Union in supporting the world’s first underground coal mine work-in at the South Clifton Colliery in the Southern District. Against all odds, the work-in resulted in a much fairer deal for the mineworkers facing retrenchments and provided the platform for improved benefits for many other workers in years to come.

The 1970s were testing years for the Miners Federation not only in the industrial arena but in the community too. Although proud of his service in the War, Taffy had seen the devastation it inflicted on tens of millions of victims and became a leading activist in support of World Peace. He was a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War and with the Federation played a very active role in fighting the conservative Federal Government’s involvement in it.

Indeed, the Union was to play an important role in mobilising support for the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972 on a platform that included many industrial and socially progressive polices.

In 1973 Taffy moved to the national stage when he was elected General Secretary of the Miners Federation to succeed the retiring Bob Cram.

In those days, the Miners Federation had only two full-time national officials – the General President and General Secretary. When Taffy took office he joined another Welsh-born Communist Evan Phillips who was General President and had previously been a NSW Northern District President.

Under their leadership, the Federation continued to go from strength to strength. The OPEC Oil Crisis of 1973-1974, saw a surge in the price of oil internationally and a rush by the big multinationals into Australian coal. While this presented the Union with new opportunities through increased industrial and economic clout, the advantages that could be won depended on strong and united leadership.

For Taffy that meant real vision backed by militancy. Along with Evan Phillips and Northern District President Bill Chapman that challenge was thrown down in January 1975 when workers at the Nymboida Colliery were dismissed with no pay and benefits when the owners decided to close the mine.

The rest, as they say, is history. After taking over and working-in at the mine, Taffy was among those chief negotiators who arranged the transfer of Nymboida’s ownership to the Miners Federation. He was there every step along the four-and-a-half year journey in which the Nymboida miners successfully ran the pit and in the process secured the United Collieries replacement lease in 1979. Since then, thousands of mineworkers and many more throughout our mining regions in Australia have benefited directly from the wonderful Nymboida legacy.

When Evan Phillips retired in 1978, Taffy was joined in the national office by his old friend and fellow Communist Bob Kelly as General President. Bob had been NSW Southern District Secretary of the Miners Federation when Taffy was District President.

In July 1979, they were both particularly hit when the Southern District’s Appin coal mine exploded taking the lives of 14 miners. Taffy and Bob knew many of those killed and their families too. When the Wran Government commissioned Judge Alf Goran to conduct an Inquiry into the disaster, Taffy Smale was appointed as one of the two Assessors to conduct the Inquiry with Judge Goran. It is no exaggeration to say that Taffy’s knowledge contributed enormously to the Inquiry’s recommendations that led to a much safer laws and standards in NSW coal mines. It is a legacy that has seen no more major disasters in NSW near the scale of Appin.

When the Wran Labor Government gave the Miners Federation its replacement coal lease in the NSW Hunter Valley, Taffy joined Northern District President Bill Chapman as the first two Union Directors on the United Collieries Board. In pursuit of joint venture partners to develop the mine, both Taffy and Bill showed great knowledge and an understanding of the detail involved in the mining industry that left many government and business leaders stunned. But neither Taffy or Bill ever lost sight of where they came from and what they were there for – to serve the rights and interests of coal mineworkers and their communities.

Taffy played a key role in the Miners Pension, which had been established in 1941 as the first of its kind for blue collar workers in Australia. Since then, all coal mineworkers had to retire when they reached the age of 60. Taffy and the Union fought to have earlier optional retirement introduced and they won it in two stages, first optional retirement at 58-years of age and then at 55.

Towards the end of 1982 when he was 58-years old, Taffy retired to spend time with his beloved wife Mary and grown up daughters Dianne and Karen. Mary Smale was an outstanding activist in her own right. She had been a leader of the Miners Women’s Auxiliary, a champion of women’s rights and a key activist in many of the socially progressive movements in the Southern District.

When she came to Sydney with Taffy in 1973, Mary became a leader in the Union of Australian Women (UAW) where she played a particularly strong role in the fight for women’s equality and in the Peace Movement. Mary worked full-time in the NSW office of the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU – now part of the CFMEU Construction Division).

Taffy was followed as General Secretary by another Southern District rank and file leader Barry Swan, who added to the rich contribution of his predecessors both in this vital national position and then as the coal industry employees representative on the Joint Coal Board.

Taffy  and Mary retired to the Central Coast where they entertained family and friends until Mary’s sad passing in September 1987.

It took a long time for Taffy to pick up the pieces and get his life back together. He remained interested in the development of the Union. He never interfered but gave sound advice whenever it was sought. He spent more time playing bowls and in typical Taffy fashion he excelled at it.

His life took a happier turn when he met and then married his second wife, who was also named Mary. She too had lost her own life partner. They happily travelled to many places and although approaching their 90s, they both remained remarkably active.

For this writer, Taffy Smale was a very special person. He was the General Secretary who gave me a go as a pretty raw 27-year old journalist who had been in Australia less than 4-years. When the late great Pete Thomas retired in 1979 as Editor of Common Cause and there was a pretty intense scramble for the vacancy, Taffy Smale and Bob Kelly had enough faith in me to take over the weekly Common Cause and for every day since then I have done my very best never to let them down.

In his final years Taffy was fortunate to have the unqualified love and support of his eldest daughter Dianne and her husband Trevor Catt, a retired coal miner who had worked with Taffy at Nebo. To Dianne, Trevor, Mary and all their wonderful families, the CFMEU expresses our deepest condolences on your sad loss.

We take comfort from the great life that Taffy Smale led and will be forever grateful for the rich legacy he has left us with.

Vale Comrade Taffy.

- Paddy Gorman

neboTaffy, front right, shoulders the Nebo Lodge banner