Earthworker: Workers create climate solutions

Earthworker will begin their fundraising campaign on January 31.

Earthworker is a new manufacturing cooperative that aims to build renewable energy products in Australia. It is worker-owned and controlled, and committed to supporting local jobs at the same time as providing a way to reduce carbon emissions.

Beginning with solar hot water systems, the aim is to eventually expand to include a full range of green technologies.

The founder of Earthworker, Dave Kerin, spoke to Green Left Weekly's Mel Barnes about the launch of their fundraising campaign to obtain a manufacturing licence and plans to build the first factory this year.

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What is the aim of Earthworker cooperative?

We are currently crowd-funding for a licence. Once we have the licence we will be able to begin the process of producing solar hot water systems. The aim then is through Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs) negotiated between unions and employers, workers can negotiate for solar hot water systems as part of their wage outcome in the EBA.

This facilitates the collective purchase of goods by workers, enabling them to start bringing their cost of living down by the use of solar power, cutting carbon emissions and supporting Australian manufacturing jobs.

There are a number of key unions, and Victorian Trades Hall council, that have come in behind the project. We see 2013 as the year to open the first factory, which will be established in Morwell, Victoria, the heart of the coal region in Victoria.

As employers and governments begin to close the coal industry down, then it is a real issue to where the new jobs will come from. What Earthworker has always argued is that new jobs need to be in manufacturing. Employers and governments are saying that they can’t manufacture any longer in Australia and make a profit, so we are saying that by using a cooperative model we can in fact manufacture in this country.

The cooperative model speaks for itself. A recent publication showed the resilience of the cooperative sector globally in the face of the global financial crisis. Cooperatives are risk averse, they don’t take risks with their worker-owner’s money and their labour.

The fact that in Australia today, the workers movement is engaged in a discussion around worker-ownership within the economy, around production in order to meet need, rather than the minority needs of a small group of shareholders, is a very exciting prospect. The fact that the discussion is being had with a view to creating a means for us to better deal with the climate emergency, makes it even more exciting.

How much impact has the issue of climate change had on Earthworker?

The history of the Earthworker cooperative goes back to the green bans [when building workers refused to work on environmentally destructive jobs]. As a younger man, myself and many others were involved in green bans in Victoria and Sydney.

As a result we saw work stopped because the ramifications of carrying out that work, according to the way the developers wanted it, would have disadvantaged people, it would have stripped them of their parkland or low-income housing. The other consequence of the green bans was a more localised and organic economics where many thousands of jobs were created and many of those jobs remain there today.

We actually have a social weight as workers, well beyond the weight that we use to fight the boss for wages, conditions and safety. We actually have a social weight to direct the economy.

When we looked at the issue of climate, we knew that climate is an environmental crisis but its cause lies in the economy. An economy that is not based on the vested interest of the vast majority but based on the interests of a minority. We’re seeing the narrow interests of investors in the corporations put ahead of the rights of citizens.

We have a massive vested interest in eliminating climate change but how do we do that when the economic levers are in the hands of a minority who are actually causing that climate emergency?

Earthworker is looking to establish the means to allow people to establish the alternative now, not off in the future.

We also have to take up the question of superannuation. When you look at the workers part of the economy then you have to look at superannuation because that is socialised capital, it’s the workers wage in a collective fund. It gets treated as though it’s private capital and often being used in the interests of private people. We need to democratise that.

What is the fundraising campaign?

The fundraising campaign kicks off on January 31. We’re fundraising to pay towards the licence and, once we’ve got it, we can start to produce. The campaign runs for 60 days, and the first two days are absolutely crucial. We have a target of $10 000 and anything over that will go towards the factory equipment in Moreland.

[To donate to the campaign or for more information, please visit Earthworker.]