Avoid the mistake of not planning the transition from coal

February 27, 2020
A climate action protest in Sydney on February 22.
A climate action protest in Sydney on February 22. Photo: Peter Boyle

I want to speak about my experience of working in an industry with no future — my 11 years at the Newcastle steelworks.

I left well before the works closed as I listened to some good advice from an older work mate: he told me that, as the steelworks was on its way out, and I was a young bloke, I should get out and retrain while I could.

I eventually took his advice and was fortunate enough to be able to transition out of blue collar work. I was lucky. Thousands, however, believed the fairy stories about the steel industry in Newcastle having a future.

When I started, BHP employed more than 11,000 people. When it closed in 1999 there were about 3000 workers left. Productivity had nearly quadrupled, but they still closed the place.

The closure was 22 years ago. Today, Newcastle still has a big empty paddock where thousands of people once worked.

The tragedy, however, is that while BHP made clear it was closing the steelworks and started layoffs in 1982, Newcastle did not start to meaningfully plan for the transition and neither did BHP.

BHP continued to take the subsidies and import protections that helped it reap huge profits. A compliant workforce also made this easier. But, in the end, it was cheaper to make steel elsewhere and the steelworks were closed in 1999.

As with the Broken Hill mine closures, where I grew up, the closure of BHP was history repeating itself.

This is exactly what we have to avoid.

Of course, coal companies will make all sorts of promises to miners and the communities who depend on them. We saw the same promises being made in Newcastle as the steelworks were being prepared to be closed.

When it suits them, coal companies will close up and the communities will be left with the clean-up.

That is why we need to talk about a just transition and the diversification of the local economy. Coal workers and their communities are allies in the fight to save the planet.

If we had a publicly-owned coal industry, for example, we could do what the oil-producing countries do, which is restrict coal production.

The working week for coal workers could be reduced to 35 hours a week, with no lose in pay, as output in the industry is reduced. Reduced output would drive prices up and the additional revenue could be diverted into the transition we urgently need.

The technologies are there for a transition. What is lacking is the political will.

We can rebuild local manufacturing so that the former BHP site — that big empty paddock – can again be a work site. We could be manufacturing renewables components that we will need in the post-coal future.

Wind turbines, solar components, public transport systems, education, sustainable housing. Many unions would support this.

We do not have to agree on everything, but workers, unions and communities can find enough common ground to plan a workable transition.

At a minimum, we need to put the funds currently going to subsidise coal companies to a manufacturing hub for wind turbines that could be freighted by ship and rail to construction sites across the east coast.

The presence today of our comrades from the Construction Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union indicates their support for this kind of shift. I am sure they would be willing to be building the shortfall in housing and the new wind farms and solar plants we need.

We can and have to avoid the mistakes of the past. We need to ensure that our region and its coal-mining communities are a part of a future which is based on renewable energy and a just transition.

[Former steel worker and active unionist Steve O’Brien gave this speech to the Newcastle Climate Justice rally on February 22.]

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