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The Snowy Mountain Hydro Scheme is truly nation building

November 7, 2020

There can be few more deserving projects deemed to be truly nation building than the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme.

Construction began in October 1949 and spanned for a quarter of a century involving the building of some seven power stations, 16 dams, a pumping station and 225km of tunnels, pipelines and aqueducts. Incredibly it was completed on time and on budget.

Truly a visionary project that helped rebuild Australia’s post-war economy and most importantly of all was highly unionised and well paid.

Parallels the AWU says must be adhered to in the next chapter of the Snowy Hydro project.

Why was it built?

The Snowy was build to direct water inland for irrigation to help with droughts and to harness power for a growing population.

The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Power Act was passed on 7 July 1949 with construction starting on October 17 1949.

Governor-General of Australia, Sir William McKell, was there to mark the occasion and pressed a button to fire the first blast.

Like today, there was considerable doubt about the project and especially if it could deliver power and water on time.

But it quickly met its deadlines through technological breakthroughs and its dedicated workforce.

Construction

Construction contracts were given to both overseas and Australian companies but it was not until 1958 that an Aussie company won its first contract.

Thiess Brothers ended up building a quarter of the entire scheme and in 1963 drilled 165 metres in just six days in the Snowy-Geehi tunnel.

There were also great leaps in technology, including the refining of a technique called rockbolting where tension bolts are used to compress broken or jointed rock into a self-supporting arch structure. It was considered a landmark achievement in civil engineering.

The scheme also pioneered the compulsory use of seat belts in vehicles.

The first power from the Snowy flowed from Guthega power station on 21 February 1955.

AWU – Keeping Workers Safe and Wages High

Back in 1949 Australia’s population was just eight million people. The project relied on workers who migrated to Australia to become engineers, technicians and tradesmen.

In all around 100,000 people worked on the project with workers from over 30 nations making up around two thirds of the workforce.

These ‘New Australians’ included workers like Romolo Fubelli, who was just 19 when he arrived in Australia from Rome in August 1952. He left behind his parents and 10 siblings.

Romolo worked on the Snowy Scheme as a tunnel pump attendant engaged with drilling prior to blasting with Thiess Brothers – the first Australian company to be awarded a contract. This included driving a 14km tunnel between the Tooma River and the Tumut Pond reservoir.

His workmates elected him as an Australian Workers‚Äô Union representative and in a newspaper article from the time Romolo is described as ‘He watches mens’ interests on the job and speaks for them in negotiations with Thiess staff officials.”

It was a role his son Anthony Fubelli, also an AWU member at InfraBuild Steel Mill NSW, was immensely proud of.

Anthony said: “My Dad came her from war torn Europe and worked on a project that helped drive Australia’s prosperity. He helped tame the mountains to harness power for millions of people.

“It was hard and often dangerous work but Dad was always on the lookout for his fellow workers and did everything he could to improve safety and make sure they were paid a good wage.”

The AWU became heavily involved in the project in the early 1950s under the reign of Charlie Oliver, President of the NSW branch of the AWU.

The first big battle involved taking on the American giant Kaiser which was planning to reduce wages by three quarters to seven shillings and six pence an hour. A strike ensued and the AWU went to the NSW Arbitration Committee where it sought to also negotiate better working and living conditions.

Behind its back the Snowy Authority, which wanted to determine pay rates and keep them low, was trying to sabotage negotiations and get them taken over by the Federal Arbitration Court.

The AWU fought off the challenge and got a new agreement with Kaiser which says Mr Oliver, “laid the foundations for the working conditions throughout the rest of construction.

Putting is simply workers got more money, and better food and accomodation.

As Mr Oliver recalled: “Kaiser woke up; you worked with the union.”

The AWU was also dogged in improving worker safety and representing its members in compensation claims.

It secured such generous payouts – with one worker receiving $49500 that it was accused of making the Snowy project uneconomic.

The official death toll during construction was 121.

What’s next?

Snowy Hydro 2.0 has a lot to live up to, but it has the potential to deliver thousands of jobs and help power Australia’s economy post COVID-19.

The AWU is currently working on securing enterprise bargaining agreements to ensure the best working conditions and pay are put in place before work on the vast tunnels begins and that union members get these jobs ahead of using any labour hire contractors.

Daniel Walton, National Secretary the AWU, said: “Australia was a very different country in 1949. Back then we lacked the technical know how and we needed workers like Romolo to get the first Snowy built. But we now have the very finest tunnellers here in Australia, who we must engage on Snowy 2 to ensure this really does become a truly nation building project.”

Work is already underway building roads and camps where engineers and tunnellers will spend weeks, months and years in.

Boring equipment is also on site for the main tunnelling to start potentially later this year.

Snowy 2.0 is expected to employ around 3-4000 workers during an estimated seven to eight year construction period.

As well as constructing two tunnels 30km long, a pre-cast concrete factory is also being built in Cooma providing a further 100 jobs.

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