Coal workers, public ownership and a just transition

>Graham Brown is a retired coalminer and climate change activist. He's also a member of the Upper Hunter Greens in NSW, and is helping build a union and community alliance aimed at creating a "just transition" to a carbon-neutral economy. Such a transition would ensure workers in the coal industry move into alternative employment. Green Left Weekly's Zane Alcorn spoke to Brown, and this is the first of three parts of the interview.

How important is public ownership of electricity generation in a transition to a carbon-neutral economy?

It is definitely of the first importance. A private company is out to make a profit: when that profit starts to drop, it'll move away. There's no commitment to the community.

Public ownership is the reverse of that. It will enable the transition to carry through from start to finish. But it's not going to finish, it's going to be ongoing. Retrofitting power stations is a first step, but down the track, the best thing about renewable energy is it's decentralised, and it will be owned by the public. Each community will have its own power generators.

There is a movie called Five Factories, about Venezuela. In one of the factories, the government provided a loan to set up the factory. The idea was the loan would then be paid off so the workers owned the factory. Can you see a similar model working for funding renewable energy in Australia — a "green stimulus package"?

Yes, a transition from government-owned to community-owned is the way to go.
It provides a ready pool of money to kick it off, because a lot of small towns don't have the money to spend on a big turbine, or a solar thermal setup, or photovoltaics.

Then as the payback progresses, the system provides energy-efficient appliances through the excess capital that's being generated by paying it back
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So [at a community level] we not only start to generate electricity, we also start to make better use of it.

So all those efficient products could also be part of a transition plan?

For sure. All of the energy-efficient stuff is part of the transition phase. There's no reason it can't be done as part of a recondition process. If we're serious about cutting our carbon footprint, recycling is a big part of that. We shouldn't be scrapping perfectly good fridges and televisions if they can be retrofitted. Lighting is a different matter, but even there, the silicon [from LED lights] can be recycled.

Do you think workers in coal-fired power and associated mine workers would support a transition plan? What are the main concerns that workers in these industries would want addressed?

Mainly it's on the coal side of it. The power stations already have an example of a prototype retrofit at Liddell [a power station in the Hunter Valley]. They know the benefits of it. They know that they're not going to lose their jobs.

The big one of course is the coal industry. They say to me "you give me a job [in renewables], with the same amount of money, and I'll take it tomorrow". Well, that's probably not going to happen. One of the reasons is that they work a lot longer hours than the power station workers do. Their [good] money comes from longer hours, not higher pay.

Where a power station worker does a 35-hour week, a typical mine worker works 52.5 hours a week. Fifty percent of his pay is topped up with a shift allowance.
That will have to be addressed, and it's a culture change that will cause that, not necessarily something the transition can do.

When I started in the industry, everyone had a 35-hour week, and was quite happy with it. Now we've been forced into a 12-hour shift, and people have forgotten what it was like to have a life. It won't take long for them to pick that back up.

So there are other miners who know the environmental impacts of the industry and are interested in a just transition?

The people I speak to are by no means "green thinkers", but they know there is a problem, and they wonder how they fit into it. However, as the transition progresses they would move from mine to mine as the old mines close and old miners retire.

Also the amount of remediation work on the mine sites will go on for many years after the last mine stops working. Wage rates may fluctuate in this time and will need to be kept at least the average for similar construction awards. And miners may well retire in this phase of the transition.